Professional Writing from A to Z

Today’s post comes to us from Nikolas Baron, part of the Grammarly marketing team. Find more about him on Facebook or Twitter or Check out Grammarly (billed as “an automated proofreader and your personal grammar coach”)

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There are some practices that not all professionals share. Some writers have the luxury of working at home. If so, they might spend the day in pajamas. Why get dressed if no one is going to see? What about the days that they have a conference call with an editor? They might keep on the pajama bottoms, simply putting on a nice shirt for the camera. Anyone who would criticize this practice is probably jealous. Professional attire is not as important for telecommuters as it is for other professionals. Nonetheless, there are some things telecommuters can learn from their colleagues in other industries. Let us examine a few to see what we can apply to the writing field.

  • Astronauts

Years before a mission, astronauts begin preparations. They learn special procedures to perform important tasks in space.  Because of the lack of gravity, they learn to swallow special toothpaste instead of spitting it out. They practice what to do in case of an emergency. They rehearse hundreds of times before a launch. To produce a high-quality product, writers also prepare. They take writing classes to learn procedures that will aid them in the writing process. They learn to use computers. They might perform hundreds of writing exercises before they ever begin a novel, but this time is not lost. Practice does make perfect.

  • Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs)

EMTs have one of the most challenging professions of all because life and death depends on whether they perform well under pressure. Timing is essential. Writers often have deadlines, but focusing on them can cause writer’s block. Rather than panic, writers can draw from emergency response advice: Decide what needs to be done, and then do it! Try not to obsess over deadlines. Grab a drink, find a comfortable place, and write. Once you relax, the words will begin to flow.

  •  Jockeys

Jockeys are great at staying on a moving horse. You, too, can ride your work to victory again and again. Many writers do not realize that they can resell their articles. Imagine you wrote a short story and sold it to the imaginary Amazing Tales magazine. You could develop the same characters and themes into a novel. Or vice versa; you could use one of your novels as the basis for a series of short stories. What happened to your characters before or after the novel? Think of these stories as deleted scenes from a movie. Many of your fans would love to read something like that. It is also a great idea for a blog! Other journals, such as Reader’s Digest, welcome reprints. Remember, though, that you must own the rights to any article that you sell.

  • Zoo Keepers

Zoo keepers have fun, dangerous work. These professional caretakers must learn the habits of the animals that they keep; otherwise, they could get hurt. Writers hurt themselves if they fail to use the tools of the trade. If they do not take advantage of free proofreading online, they could lose time and money. If they do not attend writer’s groups, they miss out on encouraging association and valuable feedback. There’s no need to spend a fortune on education. Local colleges often offer writing and computer classes to the community. Learn what is out there and take advantage of it.

Lemonade stand workers set a great example. Their business may consist of only a sign, a table, and a pitcher of lemonade. The venture may be small, but the young entrepreneurs create a great product. They offer it to the community in attractive packaging. Simple though their business may be, they know the importance of creating a great product and treating customers well. Whether you identify with jockeys, jewelers, or janitors, you will be successful if you take a look at other professionals. No matter what kind of professional you look at, there is always a lesson to be learned.

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NikolasNikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.

Does Length Matter?

As December and the holidays firmly take hold, the authors who did NaNoWriMo tend to either wander off to nurse their wounds and take some well-deserved time off or dive right back into trying to finish their novels (if 50k words wasn’t the end of their story) and/or edit some sense into the words they managed to churn out over the month.

I, personally, am doing my best to finish up the tail end of my NaNoWriMo project and it’s seeming the novel will likely be topping off around 75k words–a little shorter than I was hoping, but respectable all the same.

For you see, though it is called National Novel Writing Month, the 50k word goal of NaNoWriMo often leaves authors in the odd nether-space when it comes to the work they end up with (if authors stop at the 50k word mark). While 50k words is long for a novella, it’s not really considered a novel by many publishers.

Looking at the Wiki article on word count, it is listed there:

Classification Word count
Novel over 40,000 words
Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
Short story under 7,500 words

 

 

So what am I on about? 50k is certainly over 40k words. That makes a 50k word book a novel! When you start looking around at submission guidelines however you start finding things like:

“Preferred word counts are between 75,000 and 120,000.”

or

“We rarely publish anything under 80,000 words.”

And so, with a 50k word novel, many authors find themselves too short by a third to have many traditional print publisher take their works seriously. And that can feel like a bit of a kick in the teeth.

So what should you do? Try to whittle the story down into a novella? Beef it up into a novel? Well, there are a few things to consider.

1. EDIT.

This should be a no-brainer, but it is undoubtedly a bad idea to take any first draft you have written (especially one written in a month), pop together a query letter, and start sending it out to agents/publishers. It’s a bad idea to even think that your first draft will be exactly what you’ll have once you’ve gone through and edited. Perhaps there are useless scenes you’ve thrown in just to keep writing that you’ll chop lowering the word count over all. Perhaps you’ll realize there was an entire subplot you never fleshed out and add several thousand more words to your novel working that out. Don’t assume 50k is the office length your manuscript will be when you start shopping around. (And please, please, please don’t throw your new NaNo out into the world without edits. Publishers and agents will thank you)

2. Look into standards for your genre.

Yes, many publisher don’t really like to look at things that are under 70k words or so, but there are some genres where 50k is exactly in line with what publishers want (for example, mid-grade fiction and Romance novels). Don’t read this blog post and automatically start beefing up your story because you think you need to. You might have written something in a genre that doesn’t want long stories.

3. Consider your publishing goals.

So you’re writing in a genre that does want something longer than 50k (Fantasy, for example, is notorious for wanting longer manuscripts). Consider if those are the presses you want to go after. Want to go after big-name publishers/agents and fight for that big advance and first run? Conforming to industry standards will definitely make it a little easier for you along a undoubtedly hard trail. Planning on self-publishing, or even going after small/e-presses? You might not have to. Many e-presses quite like shorter books (even some big presses are doing e-imprints now) and small presses aren’t under the same pressure to look for things that only fit with what is out there already. If you’re happy with your manuscript as it is, look for places that won’t punt it because of word count.

4. Consider subplot

So you want to beef up a story but it really seems like your story tapped itself out at 50k. Consider if there are any subplots you want to add. When I first started writing short stories (after starting off as a novelist) I was told the main thing to keep in mind is that short stories tend to follow one or two characters from A to B and that is the end. Novels, on the other hand, have a full range of characters, and don’t have to only tell A to B. A to B can be the most important part of the story, but other things can be happening at the same time. Often there is a romantic subplot in stories (characters are going from A to B, but Male Main Character [MMC] and Female Main Character [FMC] are also falling in love) but there is no reason a subplot couldn’t be something entirely different. The characters are going from A to B, but MMC is also dealing with a severe illness. They’re going from A to B, but FMC is also doing her best to get into a good college. Think about the world around your characters and see if there is something that can be added that builds the story up.

5. Add descriptions/dialogue.

If you’re like me and tend to write large amounts of dialogue, go through your novel and look for places where you can add more description. What does the room they’re sitting in look like? What are your characters seeing? Don’t overdo it, but there should be plenty of places to build up your world while also increasing word count.

Alternatively, if you are primarily a narration writer, look at where you can add dialogue. More than once while editing I have come across something along the lines of “He told them about X” in a narration-heavy piece of writing. If the reader already knows about X, there’s no reason to rehash it, but if it’s the first time it has been mentioned, why not expand it into actual dialogue? Not only will you expand word count, you’ll also move from telling your reader about what’s happening to showing them.

6. DON’T add in meaningless filler.

Adding a subplot does not mean adding “filler” There shouldn’t be scenes that don’t have some purpose (slowing down the main story to show two characters grocery shopping just to add words is not a good idea). Likewise, adding description/dialogue does not mean throwing in walls of text/meaningless dialogue just to make a piece longer. Tolkien may have been able to get away with it, but taking three pages to wax poetic about a tree is a good way to have readers stop reading. And there is only so long readers will read seemingly meaningless dialogue before they put the book down. If your story is tight and flows well as it is, don’t sink it just for word count. Quality is still more important than quantity.

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Adjectives and Adverbs

Keeping on my “parts of speech” kick, today’s post will cover another part of speech that is commonly misused–adverbs. Unlike pronouns which replace nouns, adverbs are modifying words more akin to adjectives. As both adjectives and adverbs modify words, however, their largest problem is being confused with one another.

As a refresher:

Adjectives are words that modify nouns. The short boy with brown hair, for example. Short and brown are both adjectives, modifying the nouns “boy” and “hair” respectively.

Adverbs are words that modify verbs. The short boy bounced the ball forcefully. Forcefully is an adverb, not an adjective, since it is modifying the verb “bounced” not either of the nouns (“boy” or “ball”).

As a helpful tidbit, adverbs often end in -ly making it a little simpler to differentiate them and adjectives.

Luckily, for the most part, people have some natural idea whether to use an adjective or an adverb, especially since adverbs should be used relatively sparsely (double adverbs there!) in prose as it is. (More often than not, it is possible to use a stronger verb rather than an adverb in writing: said softly=whispered; ran quickly=sprinted). The largest problem I tend to find in writing, however, is quicker vs. more quickly.

Part of this comes from the lexicon. When speaking, people–more often than not–tend to use as few syllables as possible. That’s why not using contractions seems odd. Few people say, “That is why I am not going to go…” when they could just say “That’s why I’m not going to…” With “quicker” being, well, quicker to say than “more quickly” people speaking tend to use it as a catch-all (“If he doesn’t do his homework quicker he’s going to be late”).

So what’s the problem? “Quicker”, when used properly, is an adjective. Okay, okay, you can get into an argument about English evolving with usage and using “quicker” as an adverb not being the end of the world (it really isn’t), but the fact is “more quickly” is the proper phrasing to make “quick” an adverb.

Most tips I have seen suggest using “quickly” over “quicker” in formal works with “quicker” being all right informally (again, not the end of the world), but I, personally, tend to use this as a narrative vs. dialogue tip in my own writing. If it sounds too formal for your character who says “ain’t” and “gotta” to turn around and say “more quickly” don’t try to force it. The voice of your character comes first in dialogue. In narrative, however, proper grammar seems a little more important (works written as missives notwithstanding).

Will this rule change in the future? Possibly. Someone once railed against splitting infinitives, after all. But for the time being, it is always my suggestion to use “more quickly” over “quicker” when it comes to adverbs unless it is a conscious choice about voice.

The Problem with Pronouns

As far as parts of speech go, pronouns are not too hard to understand. Where a noun is a person, place, or thing (as School House Rock taught us all) a pronoun is a word which is used as a general substitute for a noun (for example Tommy and the dog would be nouns, he and it would be pronouns).

Since we tend to use pronouns so much in speech, people very rarely (I’ve found) have problems using proper pronouns when writing fiction (outside of cases where there is a genderless character, which is a different problem with if it’s proper to use “it”, singular “they”, or some gender-neutral pronoun like “xe”). People know they don’t have to write “Tommy” over and over again in a paragraph. “He” can take over and make things seem a little less cluttered.

No, the most common problem writers come up against with pronouns is using them vaguely. For example:

Tommy looked between himself and John. He was dressed in orange…”

In this case, “he” is used correctly as a pronoun. It is replacing a noun. The problem becomes, which noun is it replacing?

Perhaps it becomes a little clearer as the sentence continues (“He was dressed in orange while Tommy was dressed in…“) but that doesn’t really fix the problem. With that first “he” the reader is now left trying to figure out which “he” is being talked about, and then go back and fit things together at the end of the sentence (“Oh, okay, Tommy’s in green, that means that “he” was John”). Not only can that be annoying, but it starts killing the flow of the story. You want a reader keep moving forward and–hopefully–get sucked into the action. You don’t want them reading a sentence, jumping back to the beginning, figuring it out, and only then continuing forward. It might not take a reader too long, but it still breaks tension and can quickly grow annoying (and that’s assuming the reader can figure it out. Sometimes, especially in dialogue, you just have to guess in general and go with it).

So, while pronouns are a good thing in writing (it would feel clunky and unnatural to not refer to anything in your story as he, she, it, they, or so on) writers have to be careful to watch for when one pronoun can refer to two different people/objects. This can happen in just about any scene you’re writing, but here are a few examples:

1. One person; or Two people, two different genders.

In a scene where you have one character acting, or two characters written as different genders for any reason (a man and a woman; a man and a character that identifies as female; etc.) you for the most part are in the clear. “He” and/or “She” should only be referring to one person at a time. If using the above example:

One person: “Tommy looked at himself. He was dressed in orange.” He is obviously “Tommy” so there is no pronoun confusion.

Two people, different genders: “Tommy looked between himself and Sally. She was dressed in orange…” Assuming normal gender assignments, Tommy is not going to be referred to as “she” and thus it’s simpler to assume “she” is Sally.

Dialogue between two people of different genders also becomes simpler this way as it is possible to go back and forth using simply “he said”s and “she said”s without the reader getting lost.

2. Two people, same gender.

As the first example shows, having two people in a scene who would share a pronoun (two “he”s, “she”s, or “it”s) leaves you more open to having pronoun confusion. The trick to watch out for here is not inserting another noun in between a noun and its intended pronoun. Should you change the above example to “Tommy looked at John. He was dressed in orange. Tommy didn’t like orange, that was why he was wearing green.” The first sentence is directed at John and there is no other noun between “John” and the first “he” thus you don’t have Tommy (“himself”) and John fighting for the next pronoun. As John is not in the third sentence entirely, there is no confusion that Tommy is the “he” wearing green.

This set up can lead you into situations where all of a sudden it becomes awkward to use pronouns in general (you want to refer to two different “he”s in a sentence but end up with:

a) “Tommy looked at John. He didn’t like how he was looking at him.”

b) “Tommy looked at John. Tommy didn’t like how he was looking at Tommy” (since “he” and “him” would go together)

or c) “Tommy looked at John. He didn’t like how John was looking at him.”

In this case, none are the ideal (as there is room for confusion with all of them) but sometimes a situation like this comes down to the lesser of two (or three) evils. “C” would be the best choice, as you can keep one person as pronouns “Tommy” becomes “he” and “him” while you aren’t stuck only using names. (When you come up against this issue, see which is the least confusing while being the least awkward sounding).

3. More than two people.

When you get into a group situation in a scene (where there are multiple people running around) do your best to only use pronouns to refrain from saying a name over and over in the same sentence (“Sally looked up, eyes narrowed. Sally said…” vs. Sally looked up, eyes narrowed. She said). Since the reader will have to keep track of multiple “he”s and “she”s in the scene, it’s better not to make it any harder than it already is and just use names.

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I. Us. Them.

Recently I started contract work with a small press taking on any extra editing work with which they found themselves (don’t worry, people who have contacted me previously about editing work, I am still taking private projects as well with the same rates as always). What once again working with a press has made me think about, however, is the difference between working with a private editor (whether you intend to self-publish or then move on to submissions) and working with an editor your publisher assigns.

After introducing myself to one of the authors I’m working with for the press, I found myself a little taken aback by the email I received back. Now, nothing about it was rude or combative (I haven’t even started on the manuscript, so I wouldn’t imagine there’s much to argue about at this point–and for the most part authors I know are pretty congenial with their editors) but I didn’t contain a lot of “I” language (“I’d like you to…” “I want help on…” “I think you should…”) which was a little jarring.

Now, before I continue, when you as an author contract me (or any other private editor for that matter), “I” language is the norm. I, as a private editor, am here to help you make your manuscript everything you want it to be. If you want me to focus on X and X alone, that is all I will touch. If you want suggestions on how to substantially alter the manuscript/story, I can do that as well. I am working for you, the author. I am completely honest with my suggestions/changes I believe should be made, but if you just want one thing (or even don’t want to follow a single suggestion I give you) that is up to you. It’s your novel/short story/memoir. You can do absolutely anything you wish to do with it (just try to stay away from things that might get you sued if you’re planning on publishing).

When you have an editor through your publisher, however, the entire dynamic changes. If I am your editor through a press, I am now working for your publisher, not you (just look at who’s paying the bill). While I have never met a press that wishes to entirely railroad an author by unilaterally making changes, by signing that contract, you generally give final editing approval to the press. If you refuse to make those changes, they can either choose to drop your book entirely, or send it to print as they want it, depending on your contract (I know even from reading my own published books I have found one or two instances where a sentence was entirely reworked after I saw the “final” edit. None of them have really mattered all that much as far as the “integrity” of the story, though, so I’ve never really cared. Just something I’ve noted). As your editor in this instance, I am here to make your story the best it can be–but also to make it into what your publisher wants it to be.

For this reason, I’m not used to the “I”s quite so much in this kind of editing. Especially when it comes to big things. You might actually “want suggestions as to adding X subplot” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get them. Not without the okay of your publisher. The reason you should do any substantive edits before you submit to a publisher is, once you’re contracted, you’re not really supposed to change your story that much. If you talked with your publisher ahead of time/have discussed changing X, Y, and Z, I’m more than happy to help you with that. If you have just suddenly decided you don’t like your ending anymore–you better believe I’m not touching that without an okay from the editor-in-chief. A publisher has contracted your book as they have read it. Acquisitions has read both a synopsis (probably) and the full manuscript (I would hope, if it’s any sort of good press), and decided this is something they have wanted to put into print. Your manuscript as you have currently presented it to them. They didn’t, however, agree to publish this general story with other major changes you have now decided you’ve wanted to make. Perhaps they don’t like the idea of the new subplot, maybe they think the current ending will sell better, maybe they don’t want the story to be any longer purely for space reasons. Whatever they think, it is their decision to make (and my job to help execute) not the author’s.

And so, some tips if you are going through editing with your publisher (after you celebrate that you’ve found a publisher, of course):

1. Acknowledge there will be edits. You’ve (hopefully) already edited your novel within an inch of its life by the time you’ve started submitting to agents/publishers, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t go into more edits once it’s contracted. If your publisher “doesn’t do” edits or suggests you hire an editor yourself, consider finding another publisher. It’s your publisher’s job to make sure your book is the best it can be before it hits the shelves, and while that might be subjective, it means more edits before it hits the presses. Even the best-written, magnificent, certain-next-best-seller out there is going to come back to you with red lines in it. Whether it’s just them tweaking things to fit their house style guides or wanting massive changes, there will be edits. Embrace it. There is always room for improvement when it comes to writing.

2. Acknowledge your publisher has different goals than you. You are the author. Your job up until this point has been to tell an interesting story that you love the best way you know how. You are the creative brain behind the project. Your publisher is the business side of things. It is your publisher’s job to print and market your book in a way that will make both of you money. Publishers don’t stay in business by slapping a cover on something and sending it out to bookstores. They do their best to keep an eye on what is selling, figure out why, and then try to make your book do that. If they think they can make your book do that more easily by deciding on some changes, they are going to do that. That is their job/what enables them to sign those paychecks.

3. Make all the changes you want before starting to submit. I’m well aware at some point you just sort of have to set your pen down/close your laptop/sign off Google Drive and say DONE when it comes to edits. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a book that I felt there weren’t other possible edits if I just looked at it again. Perhaps this line would sound a little better if I X. Perhaps I shouldn’t have included that other love interest. Perhaps I should have thought to tweak…If you’re anything like me, you’re never 100 percent satisfied when you go back and look at (even published) works a year later. The trick is bringing it up to a point where you are satisfied with it, when it is the best it can possibly be at that exact second, and then casting it off into the world. Otherwise everything would remain a perpetual work in progress. Once you have made that choice (to send it off) accept that it is done. Sure you can make tweaks here and there, but if you think you might want to entirely rewrite the ending you aren’t done. Self-motivated major changes should have no place in your manuscript once you have an agent/publisher interested in it.

4. Listen to what major changes a publisher/agent might want before signing anything. In interest of not getting into fights with authors/ending up having to pull a book after they’ve put a ton of work/money/effort into getting it ready for publication, most publisher will let you know any major changes they’ll want before contracting you (“major” meaning completely writing out a character, changing the ending, or chopping an entire subplot. That sort of thing). If you say “okay” mean it. If it’s something you can’t deal with, turn the contract down. As hard as that might be some times.

5. Don’t try to go behind your publisher’s back. Especially not with your assigned editor. As I stated above, when working for a press, we editors have to primarily be concerned with keeping the publisher happy. If you want a major change, we are most likely going to go to the publisher anyway to get an “okay” it’s not going to happen, have us pass it up and go “Oh well, that’s what the author wants. Too late to change it.” That’s a pretty good way for us to end up not getting paid until we put it back. If you happen to decide at the last minute you need something changed, discuss it with the higher ups. If they say go for it, your editor will likely be more than willing to help you make them.

6. Remember your editor is not the enemy. All that said, your editor does (or at least should) want to work with you and help make your book the best it can be. We didn’t get into the business by hating good books, after all. Yes, we will tell you “no” about your own book if our bosses say “no” to us and sometimes suggest changes you don’t like that lo and behold the publisher decides to go with, but we aren’t doing it because we’re out to get you. We make suggestions we truly believe will make your book better and/or are required by the publisher’s style guide. Please try to be understanding (or at the very least not send us angry emails).

7. If you don’t want anyone touching anything without you having the final say, consider self-publishing. Now, I really don’t intend this tip to sound flippant, but it’s the truth. As soon as your signature is down on a publishing contract you are generally signing away the right to final say over just about anything (check your contract, final say on cover art/edits are generally explicitly given to the publisher). At that point your recourse to keep something you’ll put your foot down over from happening to your story is to try to pull the project all together. As I’ve said before a publisher is more than likely not going to railroad you and turn your heartbreaking tale of two lesbian lovers into a feel-good novel about two best friends out on the prowl for guys. If your publisher were interested in a story completely different from the one you wrote, they would have said no to you and looked for that story instead. Many publishers get hundreds or thousands of submissions a day/week/month. There’s no reason to try to rewrite an entire novel to be something you might find elsewhere. You do, however, have to accept that you might not get the exact cover you want or have that one sentence back the way you think is perfect. If you are worried about those things, you do have a way of publishing while maintaining complete control over your work. Self publishing. Self publishing of course has its own ups and downs, but working with an editor answering to someone other than you is not one of them.

Eh, It’s Not My Style

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One of my favorite things a high school writing teacher ever told me was that English classes in school are to teach you all the rules of the language so you’ll know which ones to break when you start writing creatively. Now, there are some “rules” you can’t get around using without sounding like you don’t speak English very well, but starting sentences with conjunctions, ending with prepositions, and split infinitives are all “rules” English classes teach that become less than important when writing a poem, short story, or a novel. As an editor, I know the correct use of who and whom, but if an author is writing dialogue for a character who doesn’t, I’m hardly going to force a “whom” into their mouths. In such cases, the overall style of the writing is more important than each and every (sometimes arbitrary) writing rule.

Now, this fact should not be taken as carte blanche to write however you want with the argument that it’s your style and therefore good writing. Style is about making conscious choices about how a character would speak (for example, it might be appropriate to have malapropisms for a character who’s trying to sound smarter than they are) not about excusing poor writing (if you have made an unintended malapropism, it’s probably for the best someone catches that before you start sending your manuscript out).

Note: It is also important to state that even if you have made an intentional style choice, it doesn’t necessarily make that style “good” writing. A stylistic choice is more subjective as to if it’s good or bad, but you can still have “bad” writing when you’ve made a conscious choice.

So, you’ve made it through your manuscript and consciously chosen which writing rules you want to use for each character and which ones you don’t.  Sarah’s character is exceedingly proper and uses every arbitrary grammar rule on the books. Her best friend, Jane, is much more colloquial. Awesome. You have some great characterization starting with just that jumping off point. But what about all those little writing rules you have never quite gotten an answer about? Will adding an extra ‘s’ in James’s look out of place with all of Sarah’s ‘whom’s and ‘am I not’s? Does James’ mean there’s more than one James? Has anyone actually given us an answer on that?

In fact, not really. Unlike being able to mark “he am” as an improper conjugation, all of the following “problems” don’t have one correct answer. So what should you do when it comes to some object belonging to a James? The trick is to simply be consistent. If you use James’ five times, don’t use James’s on the sixth.

Since consistency is the real issue here, groups that deal with a number of different writers/authors (such as newspapers or publishers) tend to follow one of a number of “style guides”. Instead of keeping a record of what is correct and incorrect grammatically, these style guides help writers remain consistent from one person to the next. So while there isn’t really a “right” answer when it comes to any of the following problems, there are some style guides writers can choose to follow in the hope of remaining consistent within their industry. While academic papers often use APA or MLA style guides, and journalists tend to use AP Style, most publishers I’ve come across use Chicago Manual Style (CMS) when combating all of these “style” issues. So, if you’re a creative writer and wish to follow a style guide, CMS is your best bet.

And so, here are some tips on what to do about some of the most common “I’ve heard it both ways” writing issues out there:

1. Serial Comma. Also called the Oxford or Harvard comma, serial commas come into play when you’re listing multiple items.

For example: I went to the store to get apples, oranges, peaches, and grapes. Now, if you can’t tell, that last comma in the list is bolded. Why? Because people can’t agree if that comma needs to be there or not. Personally, I use the serial comma (which is what CMS suggests, so most novels use them as well) but, grammatically, you don’t have to have a comma there. “I went to the store to get apples, oranges, peaches and grapes” is still just as grammatically correct.

Of course, serial commas can save you some trouble, as this internet meme shows us. For those not wanting to click off the site, it’s the classic: “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” example. With the comma, you have a list, without the comma, it possibly sounds like the strippers are JFK and Stalin. Just a little difference. Of course, it would be possible to clear that up with changing the sentence slightly rather than using a serial comma (We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers), but personally I, and CMS, prefer not getting into that mess to start with.

What CMS Says: Use serial commas.

2. Periods in Abbreviations. Most recently, my friends and I got into a debate as to whether Los Angeles should be abbreviated “LA” or “L.A.” As with everything else on this list, both are “correct” (nobody is going to see LA or L.A. and immediately shake their head at what a poor editor your book must have had.

What CMS Says: Put a period after every abbreviated word (abbrev., Rev.) unless it is a technical abbreviation (cm for centimeters, etc.) and a period between each letter in an abbreviation that is comprised of multiple words (U.S.A. rather than USA and L.A. instead of LA)

3. Possessives ending with ‘s’. Always the quintessential “What should we do…?” question, the ‘s being singular and s’ being plural doesn’t quite work when you have a name that already ends with ‘s’. Most people tend to go with whichever they find less confusing/sounds better to them. In this case, it’s more important that you’re consistent between words rather than as a whole (you could have James’s and then Atlantis’ if you like, just don’t have James’s and then James’).

What CMS Says: Use ‘s if monosyllabic (James’s, Burns’s) but only an apostrophe if more than one syllable (Artemis’, Jesus’)
[UPDATE (9/13/14): CMS now says all singular possessives should have ‘s, so it would now be James’s and Artemis’s]

4. Writing out numbers. Numbers like making things so difficult. They come in English words (one, two, three…) and Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…), and that’s not even mentioning other systems such as Roman numerals (I, II, III…). So are we supposed to write them out, use the Arabic numbers, or do something else entirely. It’s up to you and your style guide. Personally I tend to write numbers out when writing, but I see plenty of people use the Arabic numbers. (I haven’t seen anyone use Roman numerals in their writing [other than chapter headings] but that might just be a difficulty thing).

What CMS Says: Write out numbers 1 – 99 (one through ninety-nine) and then use Arabic numbers for anything larger than two digits (100, 4500, 5,430,458,302). Note: There are special rules for percentages and other special uses of numbers. Refer to your style guide if you aren’t sure one way or the other.

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smbc-comics.com

5. British vs. American Spellings. When it comes to picking British or American spellings of words (colour vs color; programme vs. program) it’s generally best to stick to what you’re used to. Did you grow up in a country that taught “British English”? Then stick to that. Are you more comfortable with American spellings? Use those. The more you try to force yourself to use spellings that you aren’t used to, the more likely you are to start flopping between the two. And it’s correct to use either, even if your characters are British when you’re American, or American when you’re British. The main thing  to take away here, as always, is to be consistent. People worked to standardize spellings for a reason. It makes things easier/less distracting to read.

What CMS Says: Being an American-made guide (the “Chicago” in the name isn’t there by random chance) CMS suggests the American spelling of words (behavior, jeweled, etc.) however most publishers have an “in-house” style guide that will take precedence in this case. If they have no problem with whatever spelling you have used, they’ll leave it alone. If they do, their editors will change it. As long as you are consistent one way or the other, it won’t affect your submission chances.

6. Italicizing vs. Underlining. When it comes to emphasizing a word, people tend to either italicize it or underline it. Both obviously are ways of setting one word apart from the others in a sentence. Most style guides (including CMS) prefer italics to underlines when it comes to added emphasis (as they are less intrusive on a page while still adding emphasis when read) but I have met more than one publisher that prefers underlines, at least in manuscripts. Feel free to use whichever you prefer (I personally default to italics per CMS), just be careful if a publisher specifically asks for one over the other in a submission.

What CMS Says: Italicize when going for emphasis, but do so sparingly.

7. Double Spaces After Periods. Oh the flame wars about whether or not you need double spaces after periods. There have been a number of articles about whether or not people should keep doing so. Many older typists had the necessity of hitting the space bar twice after the end of each sentence drilled into them with no mercy. Some teachers still teach this. The fact is, while hitting space twice on a typewriter might have been useful, most word processing systems have an algorithm that makes for a little extra space after an end of a sentence anyway. Hitting the space bar twice only serves to make too large of a gap at the end of each sentence. Is it incorrect to add double spaces at the end of a sentence? Technically no. Is it unnecessary (or possibly hazardous) when typing on anything but a typewriter? It can be.

What CMS Says:  Their official line is, “There is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work.” They further go on to state their reasons as to saying “no” to double spaces: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically [watch for] an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents; and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.

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Why You Need to Pay Your Ghostwriter

Nearly happy fourth of July to all my readers out there who celebrate it (I’ll do my best to get a post up tomorrow as well as I have the day off).

Now, as most of the people who read this (I believe) are writers themselves, this might not be relevant. I’ll do my best to write something more interesting for you very soon. For those who have ideas, but don’t necessarily feel like they’ve got what it takes to write a story, this might be a little more enlightening.

As it will say at the end of this post, my top suggestion is just to try. Your first novel might suck, it very likely will suck. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, my first novel was awful. Writing is a skill. Some people are naturally better at it right off the bat than others, but you will get better when you actually sit down and force yourself to practice. You can always edit that novel within an inch of its life once you’ve finished. You can join writing groups, hire and editor, completely rewrite, it’s just important to actually start putting words down on paper.

That said, if you are still convinced that you have a story that needs to be written, but you aren’t the one to write it, it’s always possible to hire a ghostwriter.

Right off the bat, I’m a little conflicted about ghostwriting. On one side, it pays well, being a ghostwriter. I’ve done some work as one (generally for non-fiction) and I can’t say I don’t like getting a paycheck. Hiring a ghost writer for a work of fiction, however, doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps your idea might turn into a best seller, but between paying a ghostwriter and getting the book edited, finding an agent, finding a publisher, and getting your book out there, it will be a while before you make your money back. If you ever do.

Of course, some people think they can get around that little problem by offering their ghostwriter a percentage of their sales. Often I come across these sorts of ads on Craigslist. Earlier, I touched on the idea of why you definitely shouldn’t look for an agent on Craigslist, today I’m going to answer this ad (edited [some] for punctuation/grammar):

“I have writers block, and I believe that the reason is because I am not a writer, but i have a good, actually a few good ideas (stories) and I believe they are good, and the people that I have shared the stories with believe so too. My problem is that I can tell you the whole story with details, but when it comes down to writing it I just don’t know where or how to begin. So here is the catch, I don’t have much money. How about if we in fill some paperwork before I share my stories, then I relate them to you… If you want to venture with me on this, then you will have 50% of whatever the book makes of it… If you are looking to get paid along the way while we write the manuscript then don’t reply to this ad .

Some points to start:

1) “My friends think my story/story idea is good” is always a bad way of judging your writing/ideas. Non-writers/people not in publishing don’t generally know what sells/how original/good something is. My friends loved my first novel. Actual writers would rip it completely to shreds.
2) I’m not sure writer’s block describes not starting a story. I’ve always heard it meaning you’ve hit a point where you can’t continue writing a story. Anyone who has thoughts about how we should use that term, I’m happy to hear it.

Anyway, my response:

Hi,

I don’t generally email people looking for a ghostwriter on commission, but as a writer/editor, I wanted to take the chance to explain a couple of things about the publishing world before you get started. You can feel free to ignore them or use them, it is up to you.

1) Ideas don’t sell books. Ideas are easy, and there are few original ideas out there. Tell someone who reads a lot/sees a lot of movies your idea, and they will most likely have something that sounds similar (It’s so common I wrote a blog post about it. You can also see many new writers complaining about this fact if you go to a writer’s board such as the NaNoWriMo forums [nanowrimo.org]).

2) As ideas don’t sell books, it’s the writing’s that important. Writing the book  is the actual work. If someone weren’t paying me as a ghostwriter, I would maybe give them 5% for an idea. More than likely, they would just end up in the acknowledgements. I’m a writer, I can come up with my own ideas. Most of us have more than a few bouncing around in our own heads. Those who don’t can go look at writing prompts and figure something out without help. There are even entire story plots up for grabs places such as this for free. There is very little reason to fork over 50% of your profits to someone just to ghostwrite for them.

3) As that it’s the writing that’s important, you’re more than likely not going to make any money if you don’t get a good writer. More so, you more than likely aren’t going to find a good writer if you don’t pay them. Professionals don’t work on commission because we know that novels are hard to sell. Just because you have a book doesn’t mean that publishers are ever going to look at it. Having a good writer means you’re more likely to make it through the first cut, but part of getting published is really luck. A publisher has to be A) looking to fill a spot in their publishing line up B) Like the idea C) Like the writing D) Think they can make money off of it. They will also take a large cut. You will likely make 10-30% royalties off the book (depending on the publisher, that’s an estimate). So if your book is selling for $7.99, you are getting probably at most a couple of dollars each copy sold, if you’re then sharing that 50-50, each of you is getting about $1 a book sold. You likely won’t sell enough to make any sort of money off them unless you’re lucky again there/have a publisher who is willing to market the heck out of your book.

4) The only sure way of getting published is self-publishing or a vanity press. Of course, those royalties are based on actually getting published. You may never find a publisher, even with a great idea. In that case, to get the book even available for sale, you’re going to have to self publish or go through a vanity publisher. Self-publishing is a hard road, you probably won’t make a lot unless you have a lot of time to spend promoting it, especially because a lot of places you generally can rely on for some free publicity (like many book reviewers) won’t look at self-published books (as a reviewer, I understand that on some level. You can get really burned by self-published people who think their books are much better than they really are). If you go through a vanity publisher, you’re going to spend thousands out of pocket to get your book published and are truly not likely to make that money back.

Long story short, you aren’t likely to get a good ghostwriter on commission, meaning it’s unlikely your book will sell well, meaning neither of you are going to make money more than likely, if someone is willing to give you a cut for just the idea (I won’t say it’s completely impossible, just unlikely, as anything is possible, but it would be a 1 in 100 [if that] chance in my opinion). Either try writing yourself, then go to a writing group and work on it until it’s polished, offer to pay a ghostwriter, or write it and then hire an editor to polish it for you (again, not on commission, professionals who know what they’re doing won’t work on it for the same reasons listed above making any editing help much less helpful). That’s my advice at least. 

As I said above, you can take that advice or leave it. Just wanted to share.

Good luck,
Jessica


Related Articles: “Craigslist Agents” , Self, Vanity, Traditional Publishing , How to Get Published

Crises of Confidence

Summer is coming up, and that means the release for my novel this summer (The Bleeding Crowd) is coming up fast. It also means that right now I have a giant file of edits from my editor sitting in my inbox to go over that I may or may not be avoiding at the moment…

Now, I’m certainly not saying that I am not appreciative for the edits. Even as an editor myself, I am very aware that there are things in my own writing that slip past me that I would catch on the other side of things (the danger of being too close to your own writing). I am in fact very grateful to have someone going over my stories before they’re out there for the whole world to see.

However, that doesn’t make it much easier to open that file and look at your baby all marked up. I’ve talked before about how to best take a critique, and I’ve been through enough to do pretty well on the not taking edits personally front, but that doesn’t always stop another relatively common writer experience, the crisis of confidence.

Now, getting edits/critiques back are a prime time for them to happen, but crises of confidence can come up at any point in the writing process. Perhaps you’re reading your first edit from an editor, perhaps you’re looking over your first draft, perhaps you’re even still in the middle of writing, I think most writers are at least acquainted with that lingering feeling you get as you’re going along and suddenly think, “Man, I’m really not good at this whole writing thing, am I?”

We all go through it, and in the worst cases, it sometimes stops us from writing a story we otherwise were really excited to tell. Afterall, just look at what you wrote. It sucks. Obviously the entire story would suck if you kept writing. What’s the point? Or if you already finished it, look how awful it is in general. Wouldn’t it just be better to forget it somewhere in your room/on your desk/in your computer’s hard drive forever?

Of course there are going to be some stories you give up on/forget about. I have a good share of half-completed story ideas (ranging anywhere from just started to half a book) that I may never get back to. I have at least two earlier novels that I finished but just don’t find it worth the time to actually do anything with them since the seem so bad to me. It’s ok if you run out of steam every once in a while, or just wrote something for the hell of it and now want to forget about it completely. It only becomes a problem if these crises keep you from writing all together.

In many ways, this is the problem NaNoWriMo was created to battle. By forcing a hard deadline (that includes writing nearly 2,000 words a day) participants are forced to “ignore their inner editors” and get the words down on paper, for better or worse. People tend to have their own opinions on the quantity vs. quality debate there, but it’s not a bad solution, in my opinion, when it comes to trying to fight a crisis of confidence. If it’s possible for you to simply ignore that little voice in your head that’s telling you your book sucks and keep writing one way or another, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done sometimes. And so, some tips for getting past the “I’m an awful writer” blues, at all stages of writing:

First things first, you’re your own toughest critic. When you’re having a crisis of confidence, 99 times out of 100, you’re likely going to be harder on yourself than any one else reading your writing. Where you wouldn’t be so hard on someone else you were critiquing (“There’s some telling here, can you try to show?”) you’re probably going to tear into yourself (“what is with all this telling. Your writing is awful. Why do you even try?”) Ignore the urge to give into self-flagellation, and, no matter where you are in the writing/editing process, leave yourself a note and keep working.

While Still Writing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while in the middle of a work-in-progress)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck. Ok, maybe suck is a little harsh, and I’m sure there are some Mozart writers out there (the ones who have stories that come out nearly perfectly first go around) but having problems in your first draft doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer. Maybe the dialogue between your two characters sounds awful right now, but that’s all right, it’s a first draft. As long as you have the basic Point A leads to Point B leads to Point C stuff down, it’s fine. No one is going to be judging your writing skills off of an un-edited first draft. You shouldn’t either.

2. You can always edit later. Here’s the “locking up your inner editor” thing you see so often on the NaNoWriMo forums. The important part when in the writing stages of your Work in Progress (WIP) is to actually write. Maybe you aren’t a quantity over quality person, that’s ok. You don’t have to word vomit (write everything that passes through your head in one go just to get it on the page) as some WriMos are famous for, you just have to give yourself permission to not be perfect. Write as quickly or as slowly as you want, just don’t obsess about one sentence that is giving you problems. Get is good enough for a first draft, and then leave yourself a note to come back to it when you’ve moved on to editing. Don’t rush yourself if you’re not that type of writer, but don’t throw your entire story off the rails just because you’re beating yourself up about one line that just sounds wrong.

3. Jump to a different scene. All right, disclaimer, this one doesn’t always work for everyone. Some people (myself included) write best chronologically. If I don’t write A to B to C, I have a hard time getting everything to line up at the end with the missing scenes. If you have a strong outline, however, or are just fine with writing scenes in varying orders, jumping to some place later in the book can be a good way to get you out of our funk. So what if the entire beginning seems to be a boring info dump? Look at how exciting the climax is. You can always fix things up when you’re feeling better about your writing as a whole.

4. Take a short break. Emphasis on the word short. You don’t want to lose your momentum, but don’t force yourself if you’re in the grandmother of all slumps. Stop trying to force the writing, and perhaps do something more productive than staring at a blank page/computer screen. Do a character drawing, try to plot out how the Main Character’s house looks, or read another book that might inspire you. Just don’t let “not today” turn into “not this week” turn into “not this month” turn into “I once tried writing a novel…”

While self-editing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while attempting to edit/rewrite a draft)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck, second drafts can too. Again, you don’t have to aim for perfection straight out of the gate. If you aren’t a Mozart writer, and don’t have divinely inspired words on the page, expect for there to be multiple rounds of edits before you have something you’ll even remotely think of showing to other people. Just because something seems badnow doesn’t mean you won’t make it great once you’ve finished edits.

2. You don’t have to keep all of it. Is it really just that first scene that isn’t working for you? You can always rework it, rewrite it, or cut it all together. Just because it ended up on the page in your rough draft doesn’t mean that it has to stay in the story for all eternity. Speaking as someone who can word vomit during NaNoWriMo, an entire character from 2010’s novel found themselves cut before the book was even shown to someone else. She just wasn’t working, and wasn’t important enough to save, sadly.

3. See if someone else can give you some pointers. If you get the general feeling that your story is awful, but have no idea how to fix it (and you’re brave enough to let someone else take a look) it can be very helpful to have someone give you some suggestions to help fix things (that will likely be less harsh than your inner critics suggestions of “you suck” and “why do you even try”). One caveat, however: Try to find someone who is also a writer, and editor, or at least a very avid reader. Writers and editors will probably be better at telling you the exact points you can focus on perfecting where casual readers (friends/family/etc.) are more likely to give you less helpful comments such as “I liked it” or “It was ok”.

#3 Tip: If you’re shy about sharing a rough draft that’s probably in pretty, well, rough shape, try finding an online critique forum (such as the NaNoWriMo one here) rather than talking to someone in person. It’s sometimes easier to send a story (or even just a scene from a story) off to another faceless writer than to go up to someone you know in person.

After a critique/edit (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while reading over someone elses edits to your work)

1. Nobody’s perfect. Even if you’ve edited your story thirty times yourself, there are still going to be problems you’ve missed (see the whole being too close to your work comment above). Expect for a sea of red (or at least a lot of comments) to come back on any story. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer, it means the editor/critic had different thoughts about some scenes. In fact, if your critic/editor is any good, you’ll actually hope for a lot of comments/suggestions. Creative writing, like any art, is subjective. The comments are just ways you’ll be able to see what people with other writing styles prefer, and you can decide if they help make your writing better or if they’re just something to think about. A good editor will market everything they think so you can decide what you think is best, not because they’re telling you you’re a bad writer.

2. It’s just one more chance to make your writing even better. Until the second your book is on the shelves and you can’t get them back, you constantly have chances to make your writing better. Perhaps you’re still beating yourself up about how awful one scene is, especially now that your critic/editor has agreed how awful it is. But you have the story back, you can make it better. And now you have someone to work with to make it better. I promise, not all is lost.

And, for my final general tip: Cut yourself some slack. Some people might naturally seem to be better authors than others, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll never live up to that. Even the best author out there didn’t pop out into the world as a brilliant writer (they at least would have to learn to write first after all), and even then, they had editors, and publishers, and a whole team of people behind them to make their writing sparkle just that much more. You will grow as an author, you will get better with edits, it isn’t fair to yourself to try to measure your WIP against someone else. Give yourself a break, and just write. Enjoy.

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“Craigslist Agents”

Note: Another short story of mine has been published, for those interested in reading it. You can find it online at http://20minutetales.com/ , or, if you happen to live in the DC Metro area, you can look for a paper copy of the new, local lit paper.

Note 2: Thank you Thomas Halvë (Writing with Water blogger) for the link on your site as a favorite blog (and thank you to all my new followers as a whole).

Now, on to the actual blog!

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Every once in a while I come across ads on Craigslist similar to this one today:

I’m looking for a reputable book/literary agent. I have two book manuscripts that I believe are gold (but I’m also the writer). I need an agent who has experience working with the top publishing companies in the country and knows how to pitch and markert it well.”

Now, the first thing I always want to say to these posters is, “A reputable agent isn’t going to be looking for clients on Craigslist” let alone one who has experience working with top publishing companies (especially the big six: Hachette, HaperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster). In all honesty, any agent worth their salt more than likely isn’t going to be looking/advertising for clients at all.

Having worked as both an author and a publisher (or at least as an employee at a publishers) I can speak first hand as to what a disadvantage authors are at when it comes to getting published traditionally. Part of this comes down to the relatively common complaint I hear from people who work on the editing/publishing side of creative writing, “Everyone thinks they’re a writer.” Now, I talked earlier about my problem with people trying to separate novelists into writers and “real” writers, but I can understand the general sentiment for “Everyone thinks they’re a writer.” It takes a lot of work, but as a whole, it isn’t that hard to write a novel. Most people who have gone through grade school are capable of writing a generally understandable sentence in their native language (and perhaps non-native languages if they took those sorts of classes), so it’s just a matter of coming up with some idea for a plot and writing a bunch of those sentences over and over again, and sticking with it until you have a novel. The trick isn’t being able to write a novel, it’s about being able to write a good novel.

And one big problem in the writing community is the inability for authors to objectively judge their own novels. You put so much work into writing one, it’s your baby. Of course it’s amazing. You can see this in the Craigslist ad: “I have two book manuscripts that I believe are gold (but I’m also the writer).” I don’t blame the author at all for thinking that (lord knows I have some early manuscripts that are awful by my standards now that I thought were brilliant when I wrote them at sixteen), and hey, it’s even possible that they are amazing, even as a first novel (My former editing client, Allyson Marrs [@allymarrs] just recently got her first request for a full manuscript from an agent on her first novel, that’s further than my first novel ever got). It’s just really, really hard to judge your own work.

And so, there is a surplus of novels out there. Even taking out novels that I believe slush pile readers have every right to stop reading after a paragraph (my first novel, cough) authors still put out far more novels a year than even all the big and indie publishers combined could ever print. And thus, as authors, we are on the bum end of a supply vs. demand equation. Working in submissions, you can reject novels for a plot you aren’t interested in, typos, a writing style you don’t like, or even just because the author sounds like a diva in their cover letter. You don’t need more of a reason than any one of those. For every novel you reject there are three more that just landed in your inbox.

Now, that certainly doesn’t mean that you should just not try or bend over backwards for the first publisher or agent that sounds interested in your book. It does, however, mean that it’s important to understand where, as an author, you fall into the publishing hierarchy. You are the one who is going to be shopping your manuscript around. You are the one who is going to have to prove that your novel is better than the other hundred novels the agent/publisher got at the same time as yours. And that’s why you aren’t going to be able to advertise for an agent or publisher–at least not for one that’s any good. Sadly, authors are the ones applying for a job, not the ones hiring.

And so, for anyone just starting to look into trying to find an agent and/or publisher, here are some quick tips.

1. Don’t advertise for an agent/publisher. It might be tempting to save some time and have someone contact you rather than having to go around querying, but as I’ve stated above, reputable publishers and agents can have hundreds (if not thousands) of submissions each month from writers looking to be published/represented. There is no need for one of them to be browsing Craigslist or similar sites looking for clients. Advertising like that simply opens you up to getting contacted by people running vanity presses, people who are running scams, and “agents” with no experience/contacts in publishing.

1b. Not all agents are created equal. Simply having someone representing you isn’t a work around for a good lit agent. Working in submissions, every once in a while I would see a submission made by the author’s friend “working as their lit agent” who obviously had no more idea what they were doing than the author. “Agent” isn’t a magic word to get your submission ranked higher than other author-submitted manuscripts. If you aren’t working with an agent that is at least somewhat established, known to the press, or at least obviously is a professional with some experience in publishing, your submission is going into the slush pile with all the other submissions “agent” or not.

2. Be wary of “top agents” who are looking for clients on sites such as Craigslist. Now, there are some reputable agents/publishers who will let authors know they have an open submission period or are “actively growing their client base” (or something along those line). You don’t have to write someone off just because they have a post up saying they are accepting queries. What you should be wary of is agents who are looking for clients on general classified sites, especially ones that seem willing to accept any client (double points for any client without any sort of querying process).

3. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. If someone’s promising you something that seems too good to be true, be careful. No agent should promise they can get you published. Even top agents who do have a working relationship with the big six publishers can’t promise that those publishers will want your book. Sad fact is, even if you get an agent, it doesn’t necessarily mean your book is going to get published. It just means you have a much better chance than some other people in the slush pile. Pie in the sky promises should be a big red flag.

4. Always do your research. Big, well-established lit agencies are a good place to start when looking for a reputable agent. Also, agents which have a posted client list (especially one that lists books that have sold) are generally better than ones that have no track record of client sales. If something seems fishy about an agent’s website, be cautious. When in doubt, you can always look at sites such as Preditors and Editors which will list if the agent has any verified sales to publishers, if they are a member of a respected organization, and if other authors have not recommended them with a list of reasons (poor contract, unrealistic promises, etc.)

5. NEVER PAY SOMEONE TO REPRESENT/PUBLISH YOU. And, of course, the big one. Remember the general rule in publishing is money flows to the author, not from. Yes, authors are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding an agent/publisher, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have to start shelling out big money to get one. No reputable agent will ask for money. They make their money by selling your story (generally around 15% of the final amount they get you from the publisher [e.g. $150 of a $1000 advance, etc.]) Likewise, reputable agents and publishers won’t ask for a “reading fee” (money to cover their time considering your query).

As author Holly Lisle puts it:

Here is the unspoken translation to the agent’s reason for requiring a reading fee. ‘I absolutely suck as an agent. I cannot make as much money off of my sales of books for my clients as I can by ripping off naive writers who don’t know that my job as an agent should be to sell books and make money for my clients, and that my search for new clients should be part of my cost for doing business, just as the writer’s investment of time, talent, office supplies and postage is part of his. Furthermore, I have the ethics of the scum you scrape off the underside of a dead tree, and I’ve found that P.T. Barnum was right: There is a sucker born every minute. I’m out to milk my share of them’.”

How to Take a Critique

Anyone who’s had a look around at some of my other blogs probably knows that I am in the process of having a couple of books come out this summer (one under my name, one under a pseudonym). Anyone who follows my Twitter account (or Facebook Fan Page) also probably knows I just sold a short story to a magazine that will be printed in the near future.  All of that, combined with the fact that I edit projects freelance means most of my time lately has been editing/reading edits/reworking edits… and the list goes on and on.

Now, I fully believe being a writer helps you be a good editor. The two don’t necessarily go together (I’ve met some editors who are awful writers and some writers who are awful editors) but part of both jobs is to have a good ear (eye?) for what sounds right on the page.

The other way around, though, I don’t think there’s quite as strong a connection. Great editors can be great writers, of course, but all the other little things that make for a good editor don’t necessary flip straight over to being a good writer. What being an editor does do for writing, however, is help you take critiques.

Luckily for my editor side, every author I have recently worked with has been great (thank you all if you’re reading) but I know very well how bad things can get when you’re editing something for someone who really just wanted a pat on the head to say how good their work is and for you to catch typos.

Now, the writer in me fully understands how hard it can be sometimes to have someone ripping apart your work. As much as I might not like something I’ve written, it seems to fall into a “no one can beat up my brother (erm, writing) but me!” situation when someone else starts pointing out flaws.

But, having been on both sides of the editing process, I also know how helpful editors can be (and not just for the typos). Looking at the most recent round of edits I got on one manuscript, I see my editor pointing out things here and there that I’ve pointed out as problems in manuscripts I’ve read. Obviously I agree that those things need to be changed, but I didn’t catch those problems when it was just me reading my own writing. It’s possible to be too close to your writing to see problems that are obvious for someone else, and thus I always suggest having other people look your writing over before moving on with plans (be it submitting to agents, publishers, or self publishing). It doesn’t have to be a professional editor if you don’t want to pay for one, but at least have a writing group or go through a novel swap with someone else.

To get the most out of editing/critiques though, you have to fight down that urge to automatically defend yourself, so, some important things you can do to make editing most helpful and least painful:

1. Listen silently. This is perhaps most important if you’re speaking with your critiquer/editor in person, but the same holds true any time you are reading a comment. Don’t start defending yourself before they’re done speaking. It’s hard–believe me, I know–but sit silently, listen to/read what they have to say, and then take a deep breath before going forward. It’s possible your reviewer/editor/critiquer has no idea what they’re talking about, but cutting them off to tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about (or not reading a comment because you disagree) won’t help you at all. Listen, absorb, then speak.

2. Just because the edit is “wrong” doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Ok, this of course doesn’t go for edits that make a sentence grammatically wrong, or that introduce typos (sometimes, especially with MS Word Track Changes, typos can appear based on where the program thinks you want something deleted. If you suddenly have “I hadd a boat” feel free to take off the extra ‘d’). This goes for an edit that reworks a sentence into something you didn’t mean. For example, in my recently edited manuscript, the editor changed this sentence:

“The girl stood outside, half-hidden under the overhang.”

to

“The girl stood, half-hiding on the overhang outside.”

Um, no. I didn’t mean the girl was hiding on top of the overhang, I meant the overhang was hiding her. (Someone on the second story can only see part of her past the overhang). Those sentences mean two very separate things, and I definitely didn’t mean the second one. Still, that doesn’t mean I automatically reject the change and move on. It is more helpful to go back, explain that’s not what you meant, and ask if there’s something that would make the sentence clearer. It’s possible the editor was reading too quickly, but it’s also possible that “under the overhang” was confusing the image in her head (sadly readers don’t automatically see exactly what us writers do).

3. Critiques/Reviews/Edits aren’t personal. All right, if the review is “Your writing sucks, your parents should be ashamed of having you as a child” or something along those lines, you’re more than welcome to think the reviewer is a jerk and ignore them. Most of the time, however, edits aren’t personal attacks on you, or even your writing style. A comment that says “This part is dragging, I’d be tempted to stop reading” or the like isn’t an attack. It’s an honest opinion that says that some of your readers might be getting bored and skip ahead (or worse, set the book down all together). Don’t be hurt by it, take it as a chance to rework the section so people love reading it.

4. It’s OK to disagree with your editor/reviewer/critiquer. Going along with not throwing out an idea just because it’s not what you mean, it’s also all right to completely disagree with your editor on some points. Editors aren’t perfect, it’s possible they’ve changed something that you know you had right (and have the grammar guide to back you up on). It’s possible they just aren’t familiar with a word and thus changed it to something that doesn’t quite mean what you meant. If they’re connected to your publisher, yes, you’ll have to work it out with them (often publishers have final say), but if it’s a friend or someone you’ve hired for an edit/critique it’s all just suggestions as to what they think would be best. You can take or leave any of the changes.

5. Figure out if you actually want a critique. While I fully believe all writing can only be completely at its best after some outside edits (be them from a friend, professional or publisher) some people really just don’t want them (see my point about people who want a pat on the head and typos taken out). If you don’t want to work on your story/don’t want anything changed, ask someone to go through and look for typos, and then move on. As a professional editor, I’ve had one or two cases of people who–while they are willing to pay a few hundred dollars for me to go over their work–don’t actually want me to tell them I’d suggest changes. For the most part, it just ends in several emails about how all my edits are wrong, and then me giving up and only pointing out typos and things that are blatantly wrong/confusing to keep them happy. If you want to pay me content edit prices for copy edit work, fine, I won’t stop you, but it would save money and headaches to just say you want a copy edit/proofreading*.

Edits (good ones at least) help make a story the best it can be, and as hard as it might be, not trying to defend yourself is going to be the best way to learn from them. Nobody is perfect, nobody’s writing is perfect. If you’re willing to hear that, even an imperfect editor can help make your writing that much better.

*Before hiring anyone to edit your work, it’s always good to get an editing sample–even if they’ve come very highly recommended–so you can see if how they edit is what you’re looking for. Offering a 5 page sample edit isn’t just how I prove myself, it’s how I make sure my clients would be happy with my in-depth edits. Edits should be helpful, not a headache.

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