Showing posts with label editors. Show all posts
Showing posts with label editors. Show all posts

02 November 2021

Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time, the Sequel


Michael Bracken, Dream Killer
In my April 6, 2021, SleuthSayers post “Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time,” I wrote about my experience reading 160 submissions for Black Cat Mystery Magazine’s forthcoming cozy issue. Let me tell you, the days when I could kick back and relax with a mere 160 submissions is but a fond memory.

BCMM’s most recent submission window ran September 1 through September 30. Over the course of the month I received 264 submissions, and I responded in one way or another—rejection, hold for second read, and/or acceptance—September 5–October 26.

Of the 264 submissions, three were withdrawn before I could read them, and I accepted eight stories upon first reading. Of those eight, two were stories I had previously read when they were submitted to, but were not appropriate for, an anthology I edited.

From the balance, I held 59 for a second read and, of those, ultimately accepted 32, for a total of 40 acceptances. That’s a 15% overall acceptance rate.

But that also means I rejected 221 submissions. If you’re gnashing your teeth right now, I can safely presume yours was one of those stories.

SPACE CONSTRAINTS

Despite my best intentions, I did not read every word of every submission. Before I explain some of the reasons for rejection, let me note that all of the stories I held for a second reading, and many that I did not, were publishable as is or with minimal editorial work.

So, why did so many stories fail to make the cut? The most obvious is limited space. My goal was to fill two and a half issues, which, depending on story lengths, requires approximately 25 stories. By accepting 40, I filled approximately four issues. I won’t know exactly how many issues I filled until I have time to organize everything and schedule the stories for specific issues.

REASONS FOR REJECTION

Other editors have suggested that once submission volume reaches a certain point, they no longer look for reasons to accept stories, but instead look for reasons to reject. I found myself doing the same.

Because this was an open submission period, I read stories representing all sub-genres of crime fiction. So, I didn’t see any clear subject-matter trends, such as an abundance of stories with theatrical settings, the way I did when reading submissions for the cozy issue. What I did find were three things that weighed heavily against writers:

1. Not starting the story in the right place. Several stories began too soon or provided too much back story before anything of significance happened.

2. Bad dialog. Several stories began well enough, but the first patch of dialog kicked me out of the story.

3. Weird formatting. As I mentioned in my April 6, 2021, post, previous experience has proven that a writer unfamiliar with the fundamentals of Microsoft Word is going to be difficult to work with. In the past, I’ve been willing to suffer the pain of working with such an author, but this time I was not. Bad formatting led to rejection, even for otherwise fine stories.

RANDOM NOTES

The most stories submitted by a single author: Six.

The most stories accepted from a single author: Two—a pair of stories by a female author and another pair by a male author.

Accepted stories written by two authors in collaboration: One.

Accepted stories translated from another language into English: One.

Five accepted stories came from authors with addresses in Canada, two came from authors with addresses in the Netherlands, and the rest came from authors with US mailing addresses.

Twelve stories were written or co-written by female authors. The rest were written by male authors or authors whose bylines were not gender-specific.

I wish I had time to delve deeper into the data to determine, for example, how the ratio of male/female acceptances correlates to the ratio of male/female submissions and how the ratio of accepted stories from non-US residents correlates to the number of submissions from non-U.S. residents.

Alas, I don’t.

SUMMARY

With a 15% acceptance rate, the odds are clearly stacked against any one particular submission, so your goal as a writer is to improve your odds. If you’re submitting to Black Cat Mystery Magazine or to any project I edit, you can improve your odds considerably by doing the following:

1. Read, understand, and follow the guidelines. Though I have seen many submissions from writers who didn’t follow guidelines, this, thankfully, was not a significant issue during this submission window.

2. Learn how to properly use Microsoft Word. Seriously. A writer not knowing how to use Microsoft Word is like a carpenter not knowing how to use a hammer.

3. Don’t dawdle. Get your reader into the story as quickly as possible.

4. Master dialog. Bad dialog is a story killer.

And then let me see your stories the next time Black Cat Mystery Magazine has an open submission window. I look forward to reading them.


31 October 2021

The Women in my Writing World


Kathleen Jordan

Thinking to give AHMM one more try back in the year 2000, I went to their website to see what type of story they wanted. Kathleen Jordan was the editor at the  time and the website said she wanted stories set in exotic locations. I just happened to have finished a story ("Once, Twice, Dead") set in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia. I figured you couldn't get much more exotic than that, so I sent it in. She bought the story and it was published in AHMM's Sept 2001 issue.

The high of being published in a major mystery magazine quickly ran into the speed bump of reality. What next? Or, was I merely a flash in the pan, a one-trick pony?  I had no story ready to submit next. And, any story I did come up with needed to be of high quality in order to obtain a second sale. It also needed to be different from other stories already out there. So, I looked around and decided to borrow from the best.

Isaac Azimov in his Black Widower series had a character who solved mysteries just by hearing someone relate the circumstances. Nero Wolfe had Archie bring him the clues he needed. And, on the darker side, Lawrence Block had his Ehrengraf series with a crooked attorney who always got his guilty clients off by shady means without going to trial. Plus, in a biography of Dashiell Hammett, it seems that Hammett was acquainted with a pair of brothers in San Francisco who operated as bail bondsmen and used their criminal clients to commit robberies and burglaries. All of this being perfect fodder for a new story.

What to name it if it became a series? Well, let's see, back in the early 1970s, Kansas City had a gang of bank robbers, dope dealers and killers known as the Black Mafia. Two of its members were known on the street as Twin and Twin Brother. Through several incidents on some of the darker streets of the city, Twin and I got to know each other quite well before he joined Twin Brother in prison. So, for a story series, let's have an intelligent but crooked proprietor of a bail bond firm solve mysteries from the clues brought to him by his minion, a not so bright bail agent who is afraid of his boss. And, perhaps all of their clients are guilty criminals who accidently fall from high places, go deep-water swimming without the proper breathing equipment, get hit by an errant taxi cab (but hey, they weren't exactly within the marked crosswalk at the time) or somehow managed to take up temporary residence in the morgue, while the bail firm always makes a profit on the transaction. Thus, the Twin Brothers Bail Bond series was born and Kathleen Jordan bought the first two stories.

Linda Landrigan

Kathleen passed and Linda took over as the editor for AHMM. Suddenly, I was an orphan, I'd lost my rabbi. My first introduction to Linda was when she asked for some changes to the second story in the series, a story already bought and paid for. Maybe this wasn't going to be a series after all.  I made the requested changes and submitted the third story. She bought it and seven more with the same characters. I had a foot in the new door.

At the Las Vegas Bouchercon bar, Linda bought the drinks and I got bold enough to inquire what she would like to see in my future writing. She suggested a Moriarty type character to go up against the proprietor of the bail bond firm. Therefore, in "The Other Bondsman" I created Herr Morden (Mr. Murder), the German phonetic of ermorden: to murder.

Years later at breakfast in Manhattan, I asked the same question again. Linda replied that in my Armenian series set in 1850s Chechnya, she would like a story told from the little Nogai boy's point of view. This was a character who in several preceding stories never had more than three lines of narrative and zero lines of dialogue. She got her story ("The Little Nogai Boy") which then got me a sale and a Derringer nomination. Goes to show that networking and personal relationships can help keep those acceptances coming. To date, I'm at a 66% acceptance rate with AHMM and have four submissions waiting in their e-slush pile.

Pat Dennis

When I went to the Las Vegas Bouchercon, I arrived a couple of days early in order to attend Jerry Healy's all-day novel writing seminar. As I'm sitting in the front row waiting for the session to begin, a lady dragging an oxygen tank on a two-wheel cart, walks up behind me. "You're my screen saver," she says. I had never met this woman before and at the time, I wasn't totally sure how I could be a screen saver. But, I was flattered to be recognized. Turned out she was the editor of the anthology Who Died in Here?. All of the anthology stories submitted had to be set in a bathroom of some type. Payment was $25 and an air freshener. She (Pat Dennis) had accepted my story, "Flying Without a Parachute," based on a real incident where a heroin deal had gone bad and the protagonist/defendant temporarily escaped arrest by leaping from a third story window. Defendants really should know that cement driveways make for a hard landing when you are three floors up. I had a lot of fun promoting that anthology. (acceptance rate 100%, one story.)

Johnene Granger

The Short Mystery Fiction Society had a posting several years ago about Woman's World magazine buying (at that time) 900-word mini-mysteries for the grand payment of $500. I sent them one and the column editor, Johnene Granger, subsequently bought nine more. Since I had a steep learning curve as to what topics were acceptable and what wasn't, my acceptance rate with this publication hovered around 33%. Sometimes, the column editor wanted the story, but for some reason the magazine's chief editor rejected the story. However, when Johnene moved on and a new column editor took over, I could not sell a single mini-mystery to them. So, I took my five thousand dollars and faded away, leaving  that market to our own John Floyd who has now sold over a hundred of his stories to them. You just can't beat success. Good on ya, John.

Kerry Carter

I kept reading posts about authors selling stories to Mystery Weekly Magazine, so I finally sent them a humorous story ("The Job Interview") about three individuals trying to rob the same bank at the same time. The editor, Kerry Carter, bought it.

In that time period, the magazine paid one cent a word through PayPal. I will admit to some confusion when PayPal then took a small fee. Through a small amount of research, I discovered that the magazine is a Canadian company in which case PayPal charges a conversion fee when converting Canadian Loonies to U. S. Dollars.

No sweat, I subbed them a second humorous story ("The Clean Car Company") in which a criminal can obtain a "clean car" the same way he can get a "clean gun" in order to commit a crime. The magazine subsequently raised their payment rate to two cents a word. I sent another submission ("The Story Game"), also accepted. Then they put out a submission call for humorous stories for an anthology (Die Laughing), so I sent them "Blue Light Special" My acceptance rate currently stands at 57% (4 out of 7).

And, as mentioned in a previous post, Kiti is my First Reader, part-time publicist, part-time social media person, all-around mental support and wife of 41 years. Guess my acceptance rate here must be okay to make it all those years.


ADDENDUM:

I can now happily add Barb Goffman to this list. She recently asked if she could reprint "Black Friday" (10th in my Holiday Burglars series) in an upcoming issue of Black Cat Weekly: Barb Goffman Presents. The manuscript has been submitted, the edits have been made and the contract has been signed. Now, I'm just waiting to see it in print. And, I may or may not be working with Barb again, depending upon whether it is Barb or Michael Bracken who edits my submission to our SleuthSayer anthology.


It's a good life.

22 June 2020

A Matter of Trust


A few weeks ago, a novice writer reached me through my web site. He said he went to the high school where I taught, but I never knew him. He told me had done "lots of research" on a crime or crimes in our city and wanted me to help him turn it into a real book.

The email had lots of problems. First, he attached a word doc instead of simply writing the message. I suspected he was recycling the letter, but most of it was specifically aimed at me. He said his MS was 100K words long, but I couldn't tell if he had a non-fiction book or a novel, and it makes a difference because my comfort zone is fiction.

I asked a few questions for clarification and told him to send me a five-page synopsis of his entire MS, then a one-page synopsis of each of the three shorter sections he identified in his first message. I warned him that was very difficult, but I needed a clearer overview of what he had. He also mentioned podcasts, and I said if that was his choice, it might be a good idea, but he needed a scriptwriter or someone with more experience in radio. I quoted an estimate and told him that could change when I knew more, and that I wouldn't commit yet.

The next day, he replied and made my decision easy. He said his lawyer wanted me to sign a one-year non--disclosure agreement for our work together. I told him he had just closed the negotiations.

Everything in the creative arts, especially writing, is about trust, and the non-professionals don't get that. If you send a query or manuscript to an editor or agent, don't put the copyright symbol on it. They aren't going to steal it for several reasons, lawsuits and a ruined reputation topping the list. They have to keep working with other people, remember? Besides, if they can't do better than something they find in the slush pile, they're in the wrong business anyway.

Do session musicians sign an ADA before performing on someone else's recording? Do museum curators sign one before displaying someone's painting or sculpture? Do actors sign one while rehearsing the first production of a play, when the playwright may still be revising the script as they go along?

Nope, nope and nope.

The same is true of writers to agents, editors, and readers. Writers ask people to read their work, so they have to create something worth a reader's time and effort. A reader doesn't pick up a book to be bored by stale plots, cliched characters, or mountains of description. That's why editors and agents reject such submissions. The publishers trust them to bring quality (salable) products to the table, and if they betray that trust, it goes away.

Agents and editors read enough so they remember something good when they see it, especially when they see it again. Yes, we hear stories about plagiarism, but they're rare, especially with a well-known writer as either the victim or the perpetrator. There's too much at stake to take such a stupid risk.

I used to teach senior English classes with students who read four to six years below grade level. I always thought it was an oxymoron and that we should have helped those kids much sooner, but go figure. Those kids, who didn't know better, frequently handed in rap lyrics as their own poetry. They were always amazed when I caught them. They didn't understand that people who need a rubber stamp to spell their own name on the paper (Make sure it's right-side-up!) probably won't use a beautiful extended metaphor (Which they thought was a sports injury, anyway).

Those kids were trying to fool me, but it was how they tried to survive in a world where they'd been set up to fail. I never told them I found "their " poems by Googling the first line because I wanted to perpetuate the myth of the omniscient teacher. I made them rewrite the stuff into something more their own. These kids weren't aiming at Harvard or Oxford, they just wanted to get out of a really ugly building and find a full-time job. OK, no harm, no foul.

But it's different in the writing world, which is sort of like golf, where you call a penalty on yourself if you accidentally drag your club in the sand trap. There's a lot of money out there, but most of us aren't getting any of it, so it's all about the handshake and who buys the beer.

And, except on really bad days, not about the lawyers.

18 September 2019

All the World's a Con, Dublin Style



by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago I wrote about my recent trip to Ireland.  We finished up at the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin.  Imagine 5,000 plus dedicated fans spending five days discussing books, movies, writing, science, and related issues.  Bouchercon on steroids.  So here are some highlights, and a few, uh, sidelights.

As it happened the first panel I attended was "A Portable Sort of Magic: Why We Love Books About Books."  Oddly enough, it turned out to NOT be about books.  It was mostly psalms in favor of libraries; not that I complained about that.  Genevieve Cogman writes a series of books called the Invisible Library, which (as I understood it) features people collecting books from around the universe.  A.J. Hackwith has written The Library of the Unwritten, about the place that books go if their authors never get around to writing them.  Tasha Suri, who is also a librarian, made useful distinctions between a library and an archive (briefly: an archive stores the only or original copy of something).

She also pointed out that those beloved "little libraries" that pop up on so many street corners are not libraries either.  They are book swaps.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.  And I learned that almost every bus in Hamburg, Germany, has a book swap shelf.  What a great idea!

For some reason I wound up seeing a lot of panels featuring editors, and they were full of startling moments.  For example, one important book editor was not familiar with the phrase "Kill your darlings," which astonished me.

At one panel someone mentioned elevator pitches and editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden quoted what seemed to be a standard joke pitch for (I assume) a TV series:  "He's a chimp.  She's the Pope.  They're cops."  I'd watch that!

There was a panel of anthology editors and I asked: when they solicit stories from authors, what do they tell them about payment?  The editors seemed astonished.  "Nothing!" they declared.  Apparently science fiction authors are much less tied to petty materialistic things than mystery writers...

But the highlight for me was when I attended a panel featuring Wataru Ishigame, who edits science fiction for Tokyo Sogen.  Afterwards I went up to introduce myself and explain our connection but I never got the chance.  As soon as he saw my name tag he said "We publish your books!"  So we had a lovely chat.

I attended interesting science panels on "The Future of Food" and on DNA testing.  I won't attempt to summarize that stuff.

But honestly I didn't attend as many panels as I hoped because the Convention Centre Dublin was overwhelmed.  If you wanted to attend a session at noon you had to forgo any 11 AM session and get in line by 11:30.  It was that kind of crowding.  And the security staff was pretty unbearable, especially on the first day.  (The week before had been Comicon and I wonder if they were, in effect, fighting the last war?)

My favorite example of the problem.  My wife had been waiting in line for half an hour when a security guard came up and told her she was facing the wrong way.  Not that she was in the wrong place.  Not that she was in the wrong line.  But that she had to turn around and face the same direction as everyone else.  Daring rebel that she is, my wife said "No," and the guard backed down.  But, sheesh.

One more story.  I volunteered to work at the Registration Desk on Wednesday and Thursday morning.  During my four hour shift on Thursday my daypack vanished.  I didn't think any member of the public would have been able to steal it so I figured one of the other registration mavens had relocated it.  But no one could find it.

The good news is, it turned up on Saturday, literally minutes before I was going to leave to try to purchase a replacement.  I am very grateful to everyone who hunted for it and made an effort to get it back to me.

But, as they say in management school, it is possible to distinguish between process and product.  While the product was great (got my daypack!) the process had a few bumpy patches.  To illustrate, let me imagine a discussion that must have occurred.  I will try to refrain from sarcasm.

"Hey! Here is the daypack that charming and devilishly handsome volunteer was looking for.  I will take it across the foyer to the Lost and Found desk."  
"No, don't do that."
"Ah, I understand.  Because it is the end of the day you think I should take it directly three flights up to the Ops Office where lost objects are locked safely away for the night."
"No, don't do that either.  I happen to know that that volunteer's wife was working in the Finance Office, so take it up there."
"Are you sure she will volunteer there again?"
"No, but it stands to reason if she did one shift she will do another, doesn't it?"
"I suppose so.  Very well.  I will carry the daypack up the five flights and leave a note for her so she  knows it's there."
"Don't be silly!  No need to waste trees with paper notes. Just tell whoever is in the Finance Office about it and if/when she returns I'm sure one of the people you mention it to will happen to be there at the same time, will recognize her, remember what you mentioned, and be able to find the pack in the office, which, of course, is not set up to store missing items."
"Yes, that makes perfect sense.  But first I will stroll over to the Lost and Found Desk and tell them so they can stop looking for the pack and delete it from their database of missing objects."
"Again, why this obsession with direct communication?  I'm sure if we simply float happy thoughts in their direction they will grasp that the object has been found and make the corrections to their files."
"Thanks.  Now I understand.  I will  carry the daypack up five flights on the overcrowded escalators the nice security guards asked us not to overuse, rather than simply walking across the foyer to the Lost and Found Desk where any sensible person would expect a missing object to be returned."

Possibly a smidge of sarcasm slipped in there.  I hope you didn't notice.

To be fair, a Worldcon attendee whose opinion I greatly respect told me she would have also decided to bring the bag up to the Finance Office.  I replied: would you have told the Lost and Found folks that it had been recovered?  No, she said, but it would have been a good idea.

I think so too.

Those of you have seen my reports on other events can guess that I am about to include some quotes from panels.  There aren't so many this time because of the issues described above, but here you go...

"We can't put stuff back in Pandora's box but we can slip a warning label on the side." - Aimee Ogden

"A library is essentially a place of possibility." - A.J. Hackwith

"He's the sort of person you have to go into business with or you have to have him killed." - Patrick Nielsen Hayden

"When I originally wrote that novel I had a main character who I fired.  We had a labor dispute." - Benjamin Rosenbaum

"If your voice goes up at the end that doesn't necessarily make it a question." - Ginjer Buchanan

"I love that book.  It should not work.  It annoys me that he's that brilliant." - Laura Anne Gilman

"I am a science fiction writer and that is why I'm not having my DNA tested." -Aimee Ogden

"You have to blame something and it can't be me." - John R. Douglas

17 July 2018

Find Your Perfect Editor


Introducing Mary Feliz…
When I invited Mary Feliz to blog at SleuthSayers today I gave her wide latitude. I didn't ask her to focus on why she chose to write a cozy mystery series involving a professional organizer in Silicon Valley. I didn't want her to feel obligated to talk about why she made a golden retriever her main character's sidekick or how a wildfire factors into her newest book, Disorderly Conduct, which was published last week. All I asked was she blog about something related to writing. Anything. Little did I know she'd send me a column about how to find a great editor. Let me assure you that Mary is not my client, and this is not a subtle push to sell my services. But Mary does give some good advice here, so get ready to take notes. And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present Mary Feliz!

— Barb Goffman

Find your perfect editor

by Mary Feliz


To start a rumble among writers, try asking “Would you pay an editor?”

Personally, I think great editors are priceless gems. Lousy editors are a waste of time and money. But how do you tell the difference, especially when the perfect editor for your best pal could be the worst one for you?

Make sure you’re ready

Writing advice abounds in low-cost classes, seminars, critique groups and manuscript swaps. Exhaust these options and hone your skills before considering an editor. Jumping the gun means shooting yourself in the foot.

But how do you know you’re ready? Have you polished and submitted at least one manuscript to agents and small publishers, received several requests for full manuscripts, but weren’t offered a contract? An editor might help boost you over the last barrier. Have critique partners given you conflicting advice, but you can’t think of a third solution that will take your baby to the next level? Objective professional editorial advice could help.

If the price tag seems like a good use of your money, you’re either ready or stinking rich. Great editors are pricey ($1,000-$2,000). If you’re prepared to take a second job to pay for the extra help, go for it.

Ask for the right thing

Editorial services have a specialized vocabulary. Make sure you’re asking for (and paying for) only what you need.

  • Developmental editing is what most writers need when they consider hiring an editor. Are your characters strong and individualized? Is your dialogue crisp? Is your plot tedious or full of holes? Developmental editors won’t touch grammar, spelling, or punctuation, but can point to places your submission lags. They won’t make changes for you. Developmental editors are teachers, coaches, and guides. Working with one can be like taking a master class in literature with your own work as the topic. My favorite editor typically nails me on elements of the manuscript I knew were problematic, but that I somehow thought I could get away with. She frequently has to remind me that I'm writing a mystery, not a dog book.

  • Line editors and copy editors scour text for typos and other problems. Line editing may include fact-checking and searching for problems like echo words, clichés, and expressions you use too often or don’t need. I think of them as employing a fine mesh filter to weed out small problems I might not notice on my own, but that are easy to fix. For example, in my latest book, (Disorderly Conduct, which released from Kensington Lyrical on July 10th), a copy editor suggested that I take another look at a segment in which Maggie, who is fiercely protective of her teenaged boys, calmly allows them to climb on a helicopter with a guy who, up to that point, she has suspected was a drug lord. It was a quick fix to have someone point out to her that the boys were well protected, it was an emergency, and well, the dogs weren't afraid of the guy, so maybe there was more to his story. That story is laid out as soon as Maggie has a chance to learn more about the mysterious stranger.

  • Proofreaders come on the scene after all the editing is done to make sure you didn’t install new errors while taking out the old ones. They’ll look at formatting, too. I think of them as quality-control technicians. In Disorderly Conduct, a final proofing after several rounds of edits revealed the presence of a "rattle snack." A quick change of a few letters changed something that sounds like a cat treat back into the dangerous creature the tense scene required.
The 4th book in the
Maggie McDonald series.
Book 1, Address to Die For,
was named a Best Book of
2017 by Kirkus Reviews.

Define your search

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to know when you’ve found it. I outlined my parameters by saying I wanted an experienced developmental editor, preferably one with publishing experience who had worked in my genre with authors I enjoyed reading and respected.

Shop carefully

I asked every writer I knew to suggest editors. Some of them asked agents or publishers. I measured each suggestion against my pre-established criteria, starting with the editors’ websites. If I a website seemed unkept, out-of-date, or sported spelling or punctuation errors, I put a line through their names. I also nixed anyone whose website just didn’t sit right with me, even if I couldn’t put my finger on why. Editing is as personal a professional relationship as you’ll ever have. Trust your gut.

Ask questions

You need be sure that you and the editor are literally on the same page, so you’ll need to ask questions. So will they. Ask how long the process will take, how fees are calculated, when the editor can start, and how they like to communicate. I recommend working with someone who includes follow-up questions in their fees, and who will provide an editorial letter along with any line edits they may also do.

Some editors became prickly when I asked for client names. I crossed them off my list. I needed to feel free to ask any question of my editor, without worrying that it would offend them or make them think less of me.

Samples

Most good editors will ask for a sample of your work. This step is their way of evaluating your writing. If an editor suggests you take more classes before trying again, soothe your hurt feelings with the knowledge that she’s saved you money, time, and frustration. Even the priciest class is less expensive than editorial services.

The perfect match

Ultimately, I found a great editor who fit my genre, writing style, and me. Her suggestions helped catapult my work forward. Her experience as an acquisitions editor for a top New York publisher meant she had contacts among agents to whom she willingly referred me. (Not all editors will offer this surface to all writers.) With her help, I nabbed my initial three-book deal with Kensington. It has expanded into a six-book series with audiobooks.

The not-so-perfect

Why do some writers curse editors? Maybe they had a bad experience. Or maybe they hold the outdated belief that publishers nurture newbie writers, taking a spark of imperfect creativity and fanning it into a conflagration of book tours, movie deals, and celebrity status. It’s a nice fantasy, but if it ever existed, it no longer does. Possibly, these writers believe their non-fiction expertise is sufficient for them to professionally publish their novel without help. I’ll bet my breakfast that they’re wrong. Self-publishing is a misnomer. No one succeeds alone.

Golden retrievers give unconditional
love. Editors, not so much.


Whether you’re hoping to nab a traditional publishing contract or produce a polished project under your own imprint, development editors can help. But only if you do your homework. A bad developmental editor, or one that you chose badly, is worse than no editor at all.

Under what circumstances would you pay an editor? What criteria would you look for?

25 June 2018

Editors, Teachers and Writers (a restrained rant)


A few days ago, I took umbrage at the following post on the SMFS site:

Content editors--book doctors, developmental editors, or whatever else practitioners of this trade call themselves nowadays--are an unjustified expenditure for most aspiring writers. They commonly charge well into four figures and won't guarantee to make your book any better at all. They claim to be able to help with ethereal things like plot development, imagery, pace, and other nonquantifiable elements, but they won't guarantee those things will be any better whatsoever once they're done because they can't. The only thing a freelance story editor or a like contractor working with a tiny indie press can guarantee to authors is to separate them from a lot of their money with no provable advantage for them.

Bull.

Before I continue, let me say that the only published work I find for this writer on Amazon is a grammar, punctuation and STYLE guide that looks too expensive for its length. I didn't read it, but whether it's good or bad, the mention of style in the title makes the entire statement above eat its tail.

Many agents and publishers now encourage an "aspiring writer" to get a professional edit before submitting their work. They seem to think that an expert can someone's plot development, character arc, or pace, all of which are both quantifiable and qualifiable elements of writing. They're in a position to know, aren't they?

There's a law in physics that says conditions equalize because something (heat, cold, pressure, etc.) flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration. Education is based on a similar idea: that people with more knowledge or expertise can pass it on to students who have less of those things. That's why schools and colleges exist. We require American students to study English (including writing or composition) for their entire career. Centuries of experience prove the subject matter can be taught and learned. Those are different sides of the coin and there are good and poor teachers, just as there are good or poor students, mechanics, doctors, painters, plumbers, mechanics, cooks, photographers, drivers, critics or anything else you can name.

Since I started teaching and switched over to writing, I have read at least a thousand books about writing or teaching writing. A depressingly high percentage of them are poor, but even those usually taught me something.
 If you don't think you can improve your craft or help others improve theirs, you shouldn't sit at the table. When Stephen King accepted the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he said, "I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack."

I quote King because, like anyone who stays around, he's a much better writer than he was when he wrote Carrie, and that was a heck of a book. Now he does character backstory and depth as well as anyone out there and he writes much better female characters than he used to. He uses throwaways and irony, too. In other words, he's learned to throw more than a fast ball. I'm about 3/4 of the way through his newest book, The Outsider, probably the best book I have read so far this year.

Writers use critique groups and beta readers, both cheap forms of editing. Some groups and readers are great and some are not, but you can learn a lot from people who do something better than you do, and maybe as much from people who love the work even if they don't do it (Writers need readers, if nobody ever mentioned that before). Feedback is a form of learning and teaching. Schools and colleges offer creative writing classes. Those enterprises are aimed at making writers better at the qualifiable and quantifiable elements mentioned above. Of course those teachers and institutions ask for money. Living isn't free, and nobody who is very good at something should have to do it for free, either. If you don't believe that, try comparison shopping for knee replacements.

At the first writing conference I attended, I signed up for a critique and sent 25 pages of my MS in advance. Kate Flora, an excellent writer and teacher, spent about twenty minutes with me, and I learned more in that conversation than in the last year of struggling through several how-to books. I didn't follow every suggestion Kate offered, but I considered them. Years later, when I sold my first novel (a different one), Kate blurbed it. She also edited my first few short stories. All of those stories were measurably better because of her work on them.

I am a freelance editor now, and I taught English in an urban high school and a community college for thirty-three years. I know or have worked with several other fiction editors--many of whom I met through MWA, SinC, or both, and they include Barb Goffman (also here on Sleuthsayers), Jill Fletcher, Chris Roerden, Lynne Heitman, Leslie Wainger and Ramona DeFelice Long.

Every one of them will make a manuscript better. They can all explain how and why it's better, too. But only a fool would guarantee that editing will result in a sale. Taste is a personal thing; connecting it to quality is like juxtaposing apples and snow tires.

As I write this, I'm also reading reports that Koko, a 46-year-old gorilla, has passed away. Koko revealed aspects of primates we'd never suspected before, showing maternal love for kittens and other small animals, and telling her handlers she wanted to be a mother. She told her handlers through the more than one thousand words she learned in sign language. People taught a gorilla a larger vocabulary than the average politician.

Think what she could have done with a word processor and a good agent...to go along with those teachers.

20 June 2018

The Mysterious Women of Dell Magazines: Jackie Sherbow



Jackie Sherbow
photo by Ché Ryback

Leigh Lundin had the wonderful idea of inviting some of our favorite editors to sit for interviews. As the guiding hands at the mystery side of Dell Magazines (EQMM and AHMM) they have a huge influence on our field by bringing new readers and writers into it. Tomorrow we will feature Janet Hutchings, and Friday will star Linda Landrigan. But today we have the delightful Jackie Sherbow.
— Robert Lopresti

Jackie Sherbow is the Associate Editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She is also the editor of Newtown Literary Journal and her poetry has appeared in places like Day One, Moonchild Magazine, and Luna Luna Magazine. She lives in Queens, New York.



What is one thing you wish everyone would know about your publications?

First and foremost, that they (still) exist. This of course seems like child’s play to anyone reading SleuthSayers, but you don’t know how many people come up to us at events and say the words “I didn’t know you were still around,” or otherwise think we’re publishing reprints of older issues. It’s wonderful to speak with readers who have a long-time, nostalgic connection to the magazines (and/or have unearthed their parents’ or grandparents’ collections, which they remember from childhood), but I think there’s no reason why short mystery fiction shouldn’t have a wide and growing audience—especially since so many different modes of contemporary and traditional fiction fall under that umbrella and can be found in the magazines.


What are you reading right now?

I’m reading the short-story collection Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti, and Eye Level, poems by Jenny Xie. I am usually reading two or three books concurrently, and trying to catch up on magazine or journal subscriptions too—I try to balance my reading between short stories, novels, poetry, and nonfiction at all times. Looks like I need to pick up some nonfiction.


What other hobbies or jobs do you have?

I’m the editor of a community-based literary journal in Queens called Newtown Literary, and I’m involved with the nonprofit organization that publishes it. I am also a writer (of poetry) and a runner (albeit a very slow one).


Dottie
Do you have any pets?

I’ve somewhat recently adopted a small asthmatic cat named Dottie (after Miss Fisher’s companion in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). And now I’m the kind of person who has attached a photo of the cat to this e-mail.


What great short story or collection have you read recently?

I loved Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which came out last year from Graywolf Press and has received a handful of awards and nominations since then. A story that really unnerved me recently was “The Midnight Zone” by Lauren Groff, originally published in the New Yorker and reprinted in The Best American Short Stories of 2017. I had to put it down and give it a break before finishing it. I read a lot of short horror as well as—naturally—crime and thriller, but I can’t remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to a story. Very uncomfortable, but very memorable.


What do you love about short stories?

As a poet, I’m always impressed by fiction in general: what an author can pull off in terms of plot while also concentrating on theme and form—and as we know this is accentuated in a short story, where there’s less wordly “real estate.” As an editor and reader of short fiction, I particularly find intriguing the plot and character arcs in a short story (especially when there’s a mystery—which there almost always is!). I find that in a short story, imaginative leaps, experimental form, and other playful or innovative methods can be pulled off more successfully. And I really love how reading a short story on its own and then among others (whether in a single-author collection or a periodical or anthology) can bring out something new in the work. In terms of practicality, I’m a fairly slow reader, so short stories tend to strike me more in this way than a series of novels do.


Who is your favorite author?

Gabriel García Marquéz.


If you knew you’d be deserted on an island, what book would you bring?

One Hundred Years of Solitude.


What is your personal editorial philosophy?

In general I edit for clarity, consistency, and then refinement in service of the author’s voice and the entirety of the piece. I think that everything in a piece of writing matters, down to the smallest element of punctuation, but that it’s important as an editor to examine the power structures underlying the use of different types of language. I think it’s irresponsible not to do this. In everyday life, I think it can be pernicious to promote unsolicited, moralized adherence to traditional correctness without thinking about it. Language is a gift and powerful tool, and I think the words, style, and usages we choose to employ (or choose not to) have a cumulative effect on our communities.


Aside from short mystery fiction, what other parts of the genre do you enjoy?

I am a fan of mystery novels, television shows, and movies, and I am fascinated by true crime, but I would have to say the community of writers, readers, and fans. I think mysteries bring people together. Speaking of which, thank you, SleuthSayers, for inviting me, Janet, and Linda to participate.

Thank you, Jackie. Tomorrow, Janet Hutchings.

26 May 2018

Top Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers


Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one.

I'm definitely on the kind side of the equation.  The last thing I want to be is a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated.  So when a colleague suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a writing teacher:

THE OBVIOUS

1.  "I don't need no stinkin' genre" - aka Students who turn their noses up at the genres.

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my Crafting a Novel course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, western, literary...) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those famous words:  "Your first page sells this book.  Your last page sells the next."

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres.  Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work.  They feel it is 'selling out' to do so.  (Yes, I've heard this frequently.)  They don't want to conform or be associated with a genre that has a formula.  (One day, I hope to discover that formula.  I'll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction,  even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they've actually read.  *pass the scotch*

2.  The memoir disguised as fiction.

These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is the story of their life.  (Ironically, many of these students are only twenty years old...sigh.)  But they know that memoirs of unknown people don't sell well, so they're going to write it as a novel.  Because then it will be a bestseller.

Here's what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life - no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you - usually doesn't make a good novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.

If you want to write your life story, go for it.  Take a memoir writing class.

3.  "My editor will fix this" - Students who think grammar and punctuation are not important.

Someone else will fix that.  They even expect me - the teacher - to copy edit their work.  Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking.  *hits head against desk*

I should really put this under the 'baffling' category.  If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words;  our most important tools are grammar, punctuation and diction.  How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?

4.  The Hunger Games clone.

I can't tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I'm picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I'm really talking about here is  the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can't come up with a new way to say things.  Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven't seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For me, it's the 'harvesting organs' plot.  Almost every class I've taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs.  It's been done, I tell them.  I can't think of a new angle that hasn't been done and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please, leave the poor organs where they are.

THE BAFFLING

5.  The Preachers:  Students who really want to teach other people lessons.

And that's all they want to do.  Akin to the memoir, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycle.  Or the evils of eating meat.

Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better.  She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and they being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself) it would get her message across.

All noble.  But the problem is:  people read fiction to be entertained.  They don't want to be lectured.  If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Maybe a PR one.  Or here's a novel <sic> idea: become a teacher.

6.  Literary Snowflakes - Students who ignore publisher guidelines.

"A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words?  Well my book is 150,000, and I don't need to worry about that because they will love it.  Too bad if it doesn't fit their print run and genre guidelines.  They'll make an exception for me."

I don't want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes - maybe I should come clean.  I come from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.  'Special' wasn't a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.

Thing is, these students don't believe me.  They simply don't believe that they can't write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I'm breaking their hearts when I tell them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.

7.  Students who set out to deliberately break the rules in order to become famous.

There are many ways to tell a story.  We have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don't want to break them.  The we discuss why you might WANT to break them.  Apparently this isn't enough.  *sobs into sleeve*

I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  "To hell with the readers.  I'll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen!  No one will have seen anything like it before.  They will think I'm brilliant."

Never mind that the prose is unreadable.  Or that we don't have a clear protagonist, and thus don't know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can't they?

8.  Students who come to class every week but don't write anything.

They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term.  Not only that, this isn't the first fiction writing class they've taken. They specialize in writers' workshops and retreats.

It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers.  They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work - hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be fun.  Especially when done in a social environment with other people.

THE 'I COULDN'T MAKE THIS UP'

9.  Other writing teachers who take our classes to steal material for their own classes and workshops. *removes gun from stocking*

Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean about this.  By class seven, he hadn't done any of the assignments and admitted he was collecting material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

10.  Students who don't read.

This is the one that gets me the most.  Last term I did a survey.  I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn't have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here's the tally of number of books read:

Highest number by one person:  26

Lowest number by one person:  0-1

Average:  7

Yup, I'm still shaking my head over that low.  He couldn't remember if he'd actually read a book or not.  (How can you not KNOW?)

And these people want to be writers.  *collective groan*

To be clear here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before bed and have done so for years.  That's seven hours a week, assuming I don't sneak other time to read.  Two books a week.  And that doesn't include the hours I spend reading student manuscripts over three terms.


If reading isn't your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to??


FINAL THOUGHTS

Here's what I've learned:  Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college credit course.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.

There is no greater high.

Melodie Campbell writes capers in between marking assignments.  Or maybe to avoid marking.
The B-Team is her latest.  You can get it at all the usual suspects.

on AMAZON