Under the new direction of Common Core architect David Coleman, the College Board has dumbed down the SAT by making it easier for students of the Common Core system to score higher. For example, they will abolish the writing section and the hard vocabulary words.
As a publisher, I question whether public education is a viable alternative any longer, if this is their idea quality higher learning. I’ve seen test results where misspelled words were marked correct because “they were close enough.” I’ve seen teachers who marked words as being spelled incorrectly, or questioned word usage – and they were in the wrong (never try to outwit an editor, teachers) – because their standards of education were sub-par.
I have tough words for those who believe in lowering the bar to include the less capable; the real world of publishing doesn’t believe in “close enough.” We believe in excellence and will accept nothing less.
On more than one occasion, I’ve rejected queries based solely on the abysmal spelling attempts. And yes, I do comment on this being the reason for the rejection. And on those occasions, I’ve had authors write back to inform me that I’m a dinosaur (this is probably true, since I’m staring down the gun barrel of 60) and that excellence isn’t about the ability to spell, but the content.
This devastates me on a personal and professional basis because effective writing is all about effective communication – and anyone answering the call to the literary world should already have this stamped on their forehead. If I have to train my eye to recognize that the spelling of “enough” has made the magical transformation to “enuf,” then my visual cortex will quickly reach for the smelling salts. If some Einstein decides the spelling should be “enuph,” then where does my brain go for an ocular enema?
My editorial self is unsettled because we’re in the process of breeding a generation of “gud enuf.” Instead of demanding distinction, the educational system, for some incoherent reason, is tossing up its hands and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Naturally, the logic of this escapes me. But more importantly, how is lowering standards good for future writers? Shouldn’t everyone be taught to transcend the mediocre? I hold Behler authors to an extremely high model of fabulosity, which is why I adore each and every one of them. Not only have their lives encompassed experiences that humble me, but they can write like the wind. I’d like to think readers appreciate this.
As I continue to scratch my head in search of sanity, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Just so you know, I don’t see this as a political football, but a quality issue that affects the future of our writing community, so please don’t post anything about politics here. I will let The Rescue Beagles eat those.
It should be a no-brainer that anyone looking to pitch their story would do so in a mindful manner that would ensure they’re dealing with people who would be interested in their story. For instance, romance publishers will hardly be fascinated with a fantasy (unless said fantasy included some heavy breathing and talk of penetration). Likewise, horror publishers will give memoir a huge pass.
Okay, these are the “duh, Pricey” examples; others are a bit more subtle. For example, we publish memoir/biography/self help, but that doesn’t mean all types of memoir/biography/self help books will scratch our itch. If you have a sweeping Forrest Gump type memoir that encompasses someone’s life and all the happenings that take place over a twenty-five year span, it isn’t for us. We don’t do that.
Sure, I talk about what we’re looking for in our guidelines, but many authors see “Memoir” and stop thinking, and begin sending. Once I get it, I’ll immediately send them a rejection letter – which sucks stale Twinkie cream. It’s a rejection letter that didn’t have to happen if the author had simply done one thing…looked at our list of books. It’s called narrowing the field.
Agents have a much broader gauge of genre with what they represent. They’ll take all memoir/biography, or all fantasy and romance. They don’t narrow the field because they sell to a wide range of editors. Publishers, on the other hand, specialize. At least the smaller independent houses do, because that’s their expertise. They become known for it. If you’re looking for personal journeys, I’m your gal. If you have a saga, then someone else can better fit the bill.
If you’re ever in a quandry about whether a publisher is right for your work, simply go over to see what they’ve pubbed. Read the synopses. That way, you’ll get a better feel for who they are. Take a look at the description of what they’re looking for. Yes, this all takes time, but isn’t it better to query those who publish the exact kinds of books like the one you’ve written?
Work smart and hit a home run!
So you’ve signed the contract, the ink is dry, and now your book is in editing. Yay! Welllll…maybe. There are times when authors will have differences of opinion with their editor, and this can either go well or make you want to mainline Drano. Let’s face it, there are few authors who agree with every suggestion their editors bring up. Ten years in the biz has afforded me all kinds of experiences in the editor chair, so I thought I’d offer some perspective that may help you when your manuscript is under the bright lights.
Is It OK to Disagree?
YES. There have been many times where I felt something wasn’t working, and recommended it be edited out, and the author didn’t agree with the suggestion…and there’s nothing wrong with that. On more than one occasion, I’ve had authors write back to say they were very married to a section I wanted to cut. We talk about it and reach some resolution. Sometime it turns out that the scene is a key piece, but simply needs further development.
I’m good with this because I can’t appreciate the importance of a scene if it isn’t fully developed. But if you disagree with me, we can talk further to where I may see that cutting a scene would be the wrong thing to do. If you’re too nervous to say anything, then your book may suffer for it. You know your book and its intent better than anyone, so you are its best advocate during the editing phase.
How to disagree
But this isn’t to say that disagreement should take on all sorts of ugly. The editing process is a very personal, emotional experience, and authors don’t always appreciate their words being futzed with. I’ve had times when it would have been easier to invert my belly button than continue editing a manuscript.
You don’t need to shout and stamp your feet to be heard. Every editor has her process, so learn what it is and how to use it to ensure the lines of communication remain open and professional. I’m a big fan of using the Comments/Balloons in the Track Changes feature in Word. I highlight a section that I want to edit out, delete it (the Track Changes feature will show up with that section crossed out and underlined). Then I’ll highlight part of that section and add a Comment in the margin, where I say something like, “Suggest editing this section out. The scene is way too long and doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t enhance the chapter.”
If the author wants to comment on that, she can highlight part of that section and add her comment below mine – where I’ll see it when the edits come back to me. “I really love this scene because it’s pivotal to the plot.” We can further discuss our options.
What I love about adding comments in the margin is that it keeps things clean and clear. You’re not likely to cuss out your editor in a comment balloon. Instead, you’ll stick to the facts. What I don’t appreciate is a hysterical phone call or email about editing a scene.
How vociferously to disagree
Many years ago, I wanted to make some editorial changes to an author’s manuscript (who is no longer with us), and he fired back a very heated email, insisting that I didn’t like him. Another author refused to perform any edits because she didn’t own Word, and insisted that we edit via hard copy. Oh hell no. She’s no longer with us, either. Such toolbaggery isn’t helpful to your relationship with your editor, or the entire publishing process.
Some of my editor buds tell me horror stories of screaming matches and threats…nightmare makin’ stuff. And people wonder why we have margarita-mixing beagles…
We realize this is a nervous time for you. You’ve worked hard on your stories and don’t want them futzed with. But that shouldn’t equate to tearing out your editor’s blackened heart and nailing it to a dartboard. Whether you’re a brand new writer or one who has many books out, you need editing. Everyone does. I’m sure that Mrs. Cosmic Muffin edits the Cosmic Muffin all the time, and you just can’t go to any higher authority than that.
Keep it simple, keep it professional. Editing isn’t a personal attack on you, but merely editorial suggestions by an experienced editor who sells books for a living. It’s about trust. The more you trust your editor, the easier it is to keep it professional. If you find yourself blowing a hole in the ozone layer, ask yourself if you’re frightened to be edited and whether you trust your editor.
Trust Your Editor
A loaded bullet, to be sure. Most of the time you don’t even know your editor, so how do you know if she’s any good? Simple. You have faith in your publisher. You’ve read their books (or you darn well should have), so you have a solid idea of their quality. It’s vital that you trust your editor because theirs is the final word. The better you work together, the better the product.
I had an odd experience a few years back. I wanted to sign an author, and she wanted me to sign her, so we met for lunch. Her book was very good, but it definitely needed a strong editorial hand. When I discussed this with her, she became very protective because she was terrified that editing meant completely changing her work into something unrecognizable. I assured her that this would not only be a huge waste of our time, but there would be no point to sign her. Her agent reinforced my claims.
She was still nervous, and I decided not to sign her. If she’s this nervous now, before we even begin editing, what is she going to be like once we begin the process? It boiled down to the fact that she didn’t trust me. Then again, she wouldn’t trust anyone – and that’s a dangerous position to be in. If you have designs on being well-published, you’re going to need to place your trust in your editor. Talk to her, discuss the kind of edits she has in mind for your book. There is nothing worse than working with an author who doesn’t trust you.
Another author refused to discuss working on the ending of the book. The story was wonderful, but the ending needed tweaking. He refused. He believed his way was better than ours. We let him go. Trust. Have it, or go home.
If you find yourself in the throes of editing, and things aren’t going smoothly, then here is some additional advice.
Effective Communication/Effective Listening
Effective Communication and Listening are key during every step of production, but none more so than during editing. When I was but a wee bairn, my dad used to quote this saying around the dinner table: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Took me years to figure out what he was saying, but once the light bulb turned on, it has never failed to crack me up because it’s so true.
Email can screw that up faster than just about any other medium. If there is a sticking point during editing, for the love of Helvetica, schedule a Skype meeting or phone call. I adore Skype because we can go page by page and discuss questions or points. And it’s free!
Conversely, listening is an art. We get so caught up in getting our point across that we forget to listen to the other guy – and they may have very good ideas. Say your piece, then actively listen to the other guy.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
There may come a time when you see your edits and consider throwing yourself under a Waste Management truck rather than face a very big task. It’s hard to look at a sea of red and not feel that your book has landed into an editorial mosh pit. “Do I really suck that much?” No…not at all! But you don’t see it that way. You think you’ve been ripped from stem to stern, so you dig your heels in and decide to fight every single edit as a way of proving that you don’t suck. The fight really ain’t worth it because if you sucked, you wouldn’t have gotten the publishing deal in the first place.
Editing isn’t about give and take, or winning and losing; it’s about making your book fabulous. There are some edits that can be negotiated and others where there is zero wiggle room. I had an author plead with me to leave a very long scene in because it was meaningful to him. Problem is, it wasn’t meaningful to anyone else, and I insisted that it had to go. I know it hurt, but the author later told me that he never even missed the scene after reading the final edit. Yay…score one for Pricey.
The takeaway from this is to recognize the really big battles, the scenes that are hugely important. Deleting the overwritten bio of a throwaway character isn’t worth blowing a ventricle over.
Whenever I edit a scene out, I justify it in the margin comment, so the author understands my reasoning. If you want to fight for a scene or character, or backstory, then you need to justify it to your editor. “Because I really love it,” won’t fly. Won’t even float. You need to provide a solid foundation as to why you’re fighting for something to stay in. If your editor tells you it slows down the pace and doesn’t move the chapter along, then you have to justify why that isn’t the case.
That doesn’t mean she’ll buy it. Her word is final, so if you have a compelling reason for keeping something in, you gotta make sense. If you can’t, then your editor will probably rule against you and toss it. If so, let it go.
The Point of No Return
The one thing you want to avoid at all costs is arguing to the point where there’s no returning to the happy happy joy joy relationship. I guarantee that if you verbally abuse your editor (been there, done that), then you’re dead to her. Sure, she’ll edit your book to the very best of her abilities, but she will groan every time she sees your email address pop into her inbox. She won’t lift a finger to go above and beyond her regular duties…and you DON’T want that.
If you and your editor are at an impasse, then you both need to back away and cool off. Allowing things to escalate isn’t good for anyone, most of all your book. Don’t be afraid to apologize if you’ve stepped over the line. An apology is the great equalizer, and if you let your emotions run away with you, then you need to grow up, accept responsibility, and make things right. If your editor is the toolbag, then you’re going to have to grit your teeth and make the best of things. It’s very rare that the editing process is ever that contentious, but it does happen. Keep your head and emotions in check.
I’m unusually lucky. I have the most wonderful authors in the world. They are bright and talented, ask terrific questions, and make me think. But through the years, I’ve had some challenges – as any editor does – and I’ve had to swallow my tongue a few times just to keep from biting it (and the author’s head) off.
Rest assured, there will be editing differences, but it’s the author who knows how to play well with others in the sandbox who has a great time.
A murderous look was spreading across my friends’ face…or I imagined it was, since we were talking on the phone. She has the propensity to develop a tick in her her right eye when she’s pissed off, and her latest rejection letter offered plenty fodder for an entire body twitch.
They freaking loved my story,” she spat out. “The story is well written, characters are well formed, terrific pace, great voice…and they still rejected me? Argh! And here’s the worst part; they say they can’t do it proper justice. What does it takes to get a bite? How can I keep hearing how much agents love my book, but won’t take it on? What am I doing wrong?”
Boyo, she has my sympathies because it’s possible she’s not doing anything wrong. And what’s worse, is that I’ve written those very same rejection letters over the years. I realize how frustrating it is because, believe it or not, I’m equally frustrated. The author has all the right ingredients of talent and story, but I don’t feel confident that I can sell it to a wide enough audience.
Sales are our proving grounds…if we can’t sell enough books, then we’re gonna lose money. So I tried to give her my thoughts from my own experiences in hopes that she wouldn’t toss herself under a garbage truck filled with dead Christmas trees.
I want the author to know how much I loved their work, but sadly, I don’t think it has a big enough audience. You can write like the wind, but I’m dubious of there being a huge demand for books on whistling belly button tricks.
Or perhaps, you’ve written something that has been written about to ad nauseum…like Dystopian YA, or vamp/romance, or addiction, death and bereavement. I could go on for days. My point is that your writing may be brilliant, but the marketplace simply can’t handle another space odyssey, or a book about midlife crisis – especially if the author has zero platform.
I know it’s little consolation to the author, but I think it’s important they know there’s nothing wrong with their writing…but the subject matter.
And just because I don’t believe I can do it justice doesn’t mean another editor won’t feel differently. The time to sit up and listen is if you keep hearing the same thing in your rejection letters.
Recognizing market trends:
In between beating your head against a wall, you might be wondering how to recognize market trends, and whether that would increase your success for a publishing deal. Here’s the thing; you can’t. If authors paid strict adherence to trends, then it would mean that while you’re busy defining the trends that exist, someone else bucked the system altogether and decided to write something new and different. Look at the Twilight series. Stephanie Meyers bucked the trend by breaking the entire mold.
Then there’s the concern as to how long that trend will remain viable. I remember when Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code came out. This was back when we published fiction, and nearly every query I saw was some sort of DaVinci Code knockoff. Drove me and every other editor nuts. Thankfully, the trend burned itself out. Nowadays, I hear my editor buds groaning over the vamp/romance genre.
Dystopian YA has been really hot, but even now, I see that trend slowing a bit. So how long before it gives way to something else? My point is that once you’ve recognized it, it may be on its way out by the time you find an agent, they sell it, a year or two before it’s published…
Exploiting opportunities to create audience demand:
Okay, so it’s near impossible to recognize and depend on market trends, so the next thing you may think about is creating demand for your book, and how do you go about it. For nonfiction, which is my domain, this is more easily defined. Either you have a ready audience for say, Early Onset Alzheimer’s, or you don’t. There are a million Alzheimer’s books out there, but very few on Early Onset, so we saw a huge opportunity for Barry Petersen’s book, Jan’s Story. The Alzheimer Association got on board almost immediately, and the book just exploded from there. Exploitation to the extreme. Cha-ching.
Fiction is harder. Stephanie Meyers already knew there were huge audiences for romance and vampires, so she ended up blending the two and creating a whole new sub-genre. Fiction takes an editor who believes in your story and feels there is a large enough audience (or crossover, like Twilight) to create a marketing and promotion plan around your book.
But the responsibility also lies with you, the author. You need to be well read in your genre so you can figure out if your plot is a Been There, Done That, or if it’s unique. Think about the kind of reader who would read your book and why they’d read it.
We all know publishing a book is a crapshoot, and we know that our investment may pay off big time, or circle the toilet bowl…no matter how much money we toss at the book.
I often hear authors complain that the reason their work is rejected is because publishers have their eyes on the bottom line. Well, sure, that totally exists. We put tens of thousands into each title, whether it sells or not, so we’d be insane not to worry about our bottom line.
Money has dried up, so large publishers are afraid to take chances on the fringe book – like Twilight was. But that doesn’t mean a really good book isn’t going to see the light of day. It’s a matter of finding that one editor who sees the brilliance in the work and feels it’ll sell well.
Sadly enough, there are no easy answers when it comes down to who gets the publishing deal and those who don’t. We’ve all read books and wondered what the editor was smoking when they signed that book. There’s no formula for an editor having faith that a book is en fuego. We look at the sales of books that fit within that genre, and analyze whether we can adopt a viable promotion plan that will sustain the book.
In the end, I told my friend to pick herself up, dust off her jeans, and keep on keepin’ on because , frankly, the alternative sucks stale Twinkie cream. It does no good to give in to bitterness or paranoia. The system isn’t against you; it’s just trying very hard to give readers what they want to read and make a few bucks to keep the beagle in tequila.
If someone took a tour through my cerebral cortex, they’d find open cabinets with my Vickie Secrets flung far and wide, some errant wisps of paper that need filing, and endless manuscripts awaiting my attention. In short, the inside of my brain is a disaster…but it’s a far sight better than the beagle’s, whose cabinets are filled with empty tequila bottles. But as disorganized as my cerebral files are, I somehow manage to paint a sentient thought or two when it comes to writing. But that doesn’t necessarily extend to everyone.
There are times during the editing process when I see a shortcut between what’s in the author’s head and what actually made it to cyber paper. This takes the form of an incomplete scene that’s crying out for more explanation. For example, you can’t have a scene about being arrested and not tell the reader what the infraction is, or having a surgery without explaining what kind of surgery and why it’s needed.
The result of these shortcuts is that the reader will begin asking questions…which takes them out of your story. If you shortcut too much, they’ll toss your book (or manuscript) across the room.
Your scenes need to be developed enough in order to satisfy your reader and keep them from asking basic questions. Of course, many stories are meant to confound and confuse because it’s the nature of the plot. But you can’t leave basics out. If your character is crossing the room, and in the next breath is pulling weeds in the garden, then your readers won’t be very happy. Neither will your editor.
The problem is that authors know their stories so well, that they don’t realize they haven’t connected all the dots. So think about cleaning up your cerebral file cabinets so you can arrange your thoughts in a logical, organized manner that won’t leave your readers scratching their heads, wondering where the lady with three belly buttons fits into your story.
Characters are the vehicles in which a story moves along, right? So it’s not a stretch of our quasi-firing synapses that in order for readers to care about the story, they have to care about the characters. It’s called Character Investment, and I subscribe heavily to this because it’s what helps make a story bankable.
Plots are great; after all, it’s what drives us to turn the pages. But it’s the characters that make the plot come to life. I just rejected a manuscript I really wanted because the subject matter was wonderful, and the perspective was unique and marketable. The problem was that I couldn’t invest in the character because the author never let me know his character’s depth and breadth.
A fabulous plot is a wasted effort if I can’t get a feel for the characters. Who are they? What drives them? How do they react to confrontation or conflict? What thought processes do they encounter when trying to resolve a crisis? Are they hot heads or easy going? Do they tend to be punctual or late? What kind of books would they read? What foods do they like? Are they wine or beer drinkers? Do they have friends? What does their house look like? Their closets?
Obviously not all of these elements will be infused in the story, but I think this is a good writing exercise when developing a character. If they’re real to you, the author, then it’s easier to make them real in your story. And you definitely need to make them real in your query letter. The only flat thing in your manuscript should be the pages.