An American Editor

January 15, 2021

On the Basics: Who’s the bravest of the brave in publishing?

      

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

We don’t usually think of writers as brave (unless they’re investigative reporters or pioneering authors whose work puts them at risk of reprisal from dangerous people), but I was reminded of the Wicked Witch in “Snow White” asking the mirror, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” when a social media post made me realize that independent authors are among “the bravest of them all” in the publishing world.

What makes indie authors brave? Just the fact of trying to get published.

Indie authors often have solid experience in an area of business or a profession that is worth sharing. Some have gone through challenges in life that taught them lessons that are also worth sharing — memoir is a popular genre these days. Many have fascinating ideas — they can create entire worlds! — or skill in translating real life into fictional versions of what they’ve experienced or seen happen to people around them.

But indie authors are frequently, maybe even usually, not trained in writing. They haven’t worked in publishing, or in a job in some other field that included the kind of writing they aim to publish. They haven’t taken classes in writing. They don’t have mentors. They might have written blogs, but those are often disorganized and only semi-coherent. (Not all, mind you; there are aspiring authors whose blogs are well-written, readable and interesting.)

Many indie authors are operating without a net. They’re trying to get published without solid skills or professional help in the basics of spelling, punctuation, grammar or usage, much less plot and character development, consistent style, structure or organization, coherent voice, and more. They don’t belong to writers’ or critique groups. They don’t have beta readers (many don’t know what those are). They have something to say — and it’s often something worth reading — but no experience to guide them in how to get it said and, once said, into the hands or before the eyes of readers.

Please be aware that these authors are not stupid, although some might be less than skilled as writers. They’re simply new to the process.

From what I see in various internet groups of writers and editors, some indie authors don’t seem to read enough of other people’s work to have a good sense of what makes a “good” book in a given genre. They ask for help with one aspect of a sentence or paragraph, but it’s the aspect of that sentence or paragraph that is the least important or least problematic; they don’t see the actual problem.

I have a lot of respect for anyone with the discipline and focus to do long-form writing, whether a book, essay, journalistic investigation, blog post; fiction or nonfiction; fact or opinion — whatever the work might be. I’ve done plenty of long-form writing, although not quite at book length, so I know what it takes, even though most of my training is in journalism, where shorter is often better. Long-form writing is involving, fulfilling, and enthralling, even when it doesn’t go smoothly.

Next steps toward publication

Once the writing is — or the author thinks it is — done, the idea of taking the next steps into publishing can be daunting, and requires another kind of courage. I admire the bravery of any not-yet-published author who asks for advice from colleagues (both writers and editors). Admitting ignorance of the process and opening themselves up to possible rejection or criticism of the work is scary. It takes courage to put time and effort into creating a book, especially one that reveals difficult or painful events in the author’s life, and try to navigate the world of publishing with no experience, contacts or knowledge of what to do.

An unpublished writer might think it’s easier to seek traditional publishing than to self-publish, because the traditional path means having an agent who does the work of finding the ideal publisher for a book, and someone at the publishing house who shepherds the book through revision (agents sometimes help with that process before trying to find a publisher), editing, design, production and distribution. Essentially, all the writer has to do is … write.

However, entering the world of traditional publishing means learning how the business works, starting with the value of having an agent. Then there’s finding an agent, and developing the patience of waiting for the book to be accepted by a publisher and make its way through the next steps before publication. That can take a year or longer, and by then, some books are no longer timely or get bumped by a new star in the author’s genre.

In today’s world, even traditional publishing also means that an author has to take an active part in promoting a book. Speaking of bravery, that’s a new role, and one that not only takes an author away from writing their next book, but also makes some authors quite uncomfortable.

The bravery factor is more noticeable for indie authors — those who opt for self-publishing — than for those who opt for traditional publishing. Beyond the challenge of writing with little or no experience and training, an indie author often finds out that they need more money than they realized might be involved in bringing their baby — book — to life. As an independent, the author is responsible for costs such as editing, proofreading, cover and interior design, printing (if they want “hard copies” on hand), and marketing or promotions. They have to learn — sometimes by bitter experience — to distinguish between the skilled professionals and the hacks in editing or proofreading, and in design. They also have to learn, again sometimes from experience, the difference between legitimate publishing services and vanity presses. Just finding ways to learn about these aspects of the process can be challenging as well.

Some indie authors just blast through writing their books and do their best to self-publish without professional editing, proofreading or other assistance. Those are usually the books that get called out in social media and reviews for errors in everything from the basics of grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage to consistency and accuracy in character names or event places, as well as sloppy writing in general. The author has demonstrated bravery in getting that book out there, but bravery doesn’t always guarantee success.

The editing aspect

Submitting work to be edited takes another type of courage, especially for a first-time author. It can be scary to ask for editing help. The average indie author has never worked with an editor who helped them organize ideas and fine-tune drafts, so they often don’t understand the editing process. They also are — understandably  — protective of their work. They might worry that an editor will be critical and tell them to make changes that they will not want to make. They might have worked on their books for years and be deeply reluctant to change a single word. They might even be afraid that an editor will steal their work.

A colleague who is both a novelist and an editor of fiction tells me that she frequently sees evidence of indie author courage: She works on “books [by] first novelists with terrific story ideas that were badly executed.” She finds that “[t]heir courage to put these out to somebody’s critique is significant, and the challenge to me to do them justice — encouraging them emotionally while advising them of what they need to deal with — has been high level and difficult at the same time.”

Editors who work with indie authors must be prepared to use more tact than they might need when serving professional writers. An indie author who has not been trained in writing and never tried to be published before might not understand the reasons for some of an editor’s changes. A good editor will be sensitive to the author’s feelings and handle the editing process with respect.

It should be noted that even experienced, well-published writers can be nervous about being edited. I’m always a little worried about what will happen to my words once I’ve submitted them to an editor or client, because I’ve seen my work changed in ways I dislike. Some of those changes have been outright wrong — a misspelled word, a grammar error introduced by the client — and some have been different perspectives or minor annoyances. Just this past month, a publisher changed my headline to use the wife’s nickname in it for a profile I had written of a couple whom I’ve known all my life — I only included the nickname because the husband used it in several of his comments; none of their friends would be likely to use it. As authors/writers, we can sometimes ask to see what will be published under our names, but not always.

Once in publication

When an indie author’s book is done and published, more bravery is called for. For many indie authors, this is the hardest part of the process, because indie publishing means the author has to handle promotions, marketing, fulfillment and related tasks. If their book is available through Amazon or other major online sources, they don’t have to do all of the fulfillment, but they still are responsible for letting the world know about their book.

That might mean creating a website, which would be another challenge. It could mean trying to arrange for book signings and tours — also a demanding process, and that doesn’t even include actually showing up for those events. It probably means blogging on their own, and getting guest posts on other people’s blogs. Oh, and trying to find reviewers who will say good things about their book.

All of these tasks require interacting with people — mostly strangers — and that is scary for the classic introvert writer. Facing up to handling those tasks takes courage. It goes against that ingrained personality and requires braving not only a demanding environment of communicating and interacting with other people, but the possibility of criticism and rejection.

Guts, glory and publishing success

Any way you look at any part of the process, writing and publishing take courage, and the indie author needs extra buckets of bravery. Consider this a tribute to their guts and a helping hand to their glory.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial (writing, editing, proofreading, etc.) and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

January 13, 2021

On the Basics: The long and the short of it

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Contrary to the classic Mark Twain quote (“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one”), long-form writing doesn’t necessarily mean rambling, disorganized or even easy. To be effective and worth reading (even simply readable), long-form works need structure and revision, and as much attention to clarity, meaning and other aspects of good writing as short works. Lots of people can — and do — write at length without much effort, and many publish nowadays without taking the next step of self- or professional editing, but no one writes a well-reasoned, coherent work of fiction or nonfiction without investing time and effort in making it flow smoothly, have a distinctive voice, retain a consistent style, complete every thought and reflect some effort in the process. Long doesn’t automatically equal good.

Of course, a writer doesn’t always have a choice when it comes to the length of their piece of string. Newspaper and newsletter journalists almost always have to make their work fit a certain limited amount of space, even when a topic cries out for greater detail and length. Magazine writers usually have more scope for writing long, but even they have word limits to meet. Editors are not happy when they assign an article of 1,000 words and receive one that’s 2,000 or more!

Sometimes we can convince an editor to let us go over an assigned word length (but that still means doing some careful self-editing before submitting the work). And the ask has to be made before that deadline; again, editors don’t like surprises — in either direction, especially at the last minute: fewer words than assigned, which leaves a hole in the layout, or more words than assigned, which means extra work for the editor in either cutting down the submitted version or finding more space for it than originally planned.

Reducing an article that’s too long can be fairly easy: Get rid of the adjectives. Then the adverbs. Leave the bare, but clear and coherent, bones to stand on their own without any padding. The problem is that can result in a piece that’s abrupt and choppy, with none of the descriptive elements that give it life and emotion. Not a problem with a breaking news article or some kind of alert, perhaps, but a concern in other contexts.

Expanding a piece that’s too short can be harder, but it’s usually possible to do some research on the topic and find material to quote or paraphrase for greater depth and detail. Sometimes all it takes is finding one more person to interview and include. It doesn’t mean adding fluff just to meet an assigned word count, though. If greater length is needed, it should be substantive and meaningful.

There are times when reaching the assigned word count for a long-form piece of writing is torture, and times when cutting down a piece that’s too long is just as hard. Sometimes I’ll have a lot of great material after interviewing someone and doing the appropriate background research, including colorful quotes and essential facts, and it’s easier to just write it all up (or out) without worrying about a restrictive assigned word count. Then I’ll edit myself down to the required word count — but I’ll save the longer version in case I can repurpose it later. That might mean it gets posted to the client’s website while their print version uses the shorter version, or I resell the long version to another outlet.

It’s also often possible to break up a long article into a series if the client or publication is willing to go that route.

The advent of the internet and the wild proliferation of blogs and other online outlets has made it easier for longer pieces of writing to get published, but long doesn’t necessarily mean good. Long can mean rambling, confusing, disorganized, even incoherent.

As I mentioned, I often write long and then edit myself down when I have more material than fits an allotted word count. And sometimes I write short and struggle to bump up a piece to say more, whether to meet a higher assigned word count, perhaps to impress readers or simply to satisfy my sense of providing a complete picture of the topic.

That always brings back a high school moment when my favorite English teacher assigned an in-class analysis of the poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” (Yeats, 1917). She provided several questions to be answered in essay format, and I usually wrote several pages worth in response to such assignments. For that one, though, I got stuck after two or three paragraphs and simply couldn’t think of anything else to say. I finally gave up and took my seemingly inadequate offering up to the teacher’s desk, admitting that I couldn’t come up with anything else. She looked it over and said, “You’re fine. You’ve said everything it needs. Sometimes shorter is better.” I don’t remember a word of that poem, but I remember that lesson.

The long and the short of this is that some topics cry out for more depth and length than others, and some assignments can only be handled with a short piece of writing even if they could be written longer. The trick is to know when to go long and when to write tight. Both have their place in literature and journalism; both have their own limits and demands — and rewards. Those who do either format well deserve our readership and our praise. And, speaking as a freelancer, our clients’ respect by way of decent pay for our work!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

January 11, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What’s Next for Novelists?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:58 pm
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Carolyn Haley

Thanks to our collective and often-divisive experiences over the past year, I’ll wager we all agree that 2020 was one heckuva rough ride with long-term consequences yet to be known.

The events have introduced new concerns specific to fiction writers, editors, agents, and publishers. For instance, should authors of contemporary fiction include the current pandemic in their stories? The question arises from the shock that what was contemporary and normal a year ago has changed dramatically. Nobody wants to be seen as trivializing or attempting to profit from the pandemic, but it happened, and it has affected the world in many ways, some of which are likely to last. How to factor this into modern novels?

With the exception of extremely prolific writers, most authors take at least a year to compose and polish a novel. Many take several years. Now, stories they recently conceived have had their foundations upheaved and are no longer valid if set in reality. Simple example: an office romance. Doesn’t work when people can’t go to their jobs in offices anymore, or have to wear masks and comply with social distancing requirements that can’t be fulfilled until their office space has been reconfigured. A stolen kiss in the supply room might kill one or more people instead of being an intriguing plot point.

Many contemporary-fiction authors are wondering whether they should finish their works in process (WIPs) and pretend nothing happened, trusting readers to understand and accept; revamp their works to accommodate the “new normal,” which nobody can foresee and is likely to be shifting rapidly for months or years; stop writing their book(s) altogether and wait to see what’s real when the dust settles; or put their WIPs on hold and start new stories set either solidly in pre-coronavirus times or far in the future, when it might be remembered history, like the flu pandemic of 1919.

Some commenters in publishing-related forums, along with people in private conversations, have declared that the last thing they want to read in the present or near future are stories about the 2020 nightmare. They want escape. Others are already diving into published fiction written by prescient — whether by accident or design — authors who take characters through a comparable scenario.

Category changes

These opposite tastes have long driven genre marketplace distinctions. What has abruptly changed is the timeline separating the genres.

Conventionally, a “contemporary” novel can be set anytime from, say, World War II to the present. This line of demarcation was already in flux in the publishing community, in that stories set in the 1950s through 1990s have such different mores and technology from either end — the 1930–’40s and the 2000s — that they already feel historical, especially to younger readers.

Marketing departments in publishing houses and book retailers have been rethinking where to draw the line between historical and contemporary eras. Some publishers are testing a “vintage” category to split the difference until somebody decides where to draw a new line and the majority of participants buy in.

I’ve seen suggestions that the Kennedy assassination in the United States was a turning point between As Things Were and When Things Changed. Other folks mark the moon landing as that turning point. Both occurred in the 1960s. Other folks think the attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001 were a defining moment between the old and new eras.

Personally, I think the biggest change in common culture occurred in the late 1970s/early ’80s, when the desktop computer and internet entered millions of people’s lives. The next big shift came with the advent of widely available and affordable cellphones and GPS in the early 2000s. I focus on these as a copyeditor because they are recurrent trouble points in client manuscripts: Younger authors often take for granted that smartphones and texting have always existed, while older authors sometimes forget that modern people use them as a normal part of their lives.

Now we have a new distinction: pre-corona and post-corona, in the space of 12 months. Material that was speculative fiction or science fiction for many authors in 2019 became contemporary or dystopian fiction in 2020–’21.

Two examples

One of my clients got caught squarely in this dilemma. Only 25 years old, she conceived her story nine years ago in high school, worked on it intermittently through formative years of college and career — and suddenly found she’d created a situation so close to what’s happening today that her story took on a whole new twist and readers would interpret its title and situation differently than they would have a year ago. I got this manuscript for evaluation and was stumped for weeks about how to respond to it. She desires to publish traditionally rather than self-publish, and neither of us at this point knows how to present her work to the industry via an agent or to readers.

Something similar happened to me, too, as an author instead of an editor. I am a slow-motion novelist, taking years to work an idea into a coherent manuscript. I tend to cross genres, making my books even harder to structure and sell. Back in 2015, I came up with a new idea, and took three years to complete a working draft. I set the book in the spring of 2015, with no worries that the world might change enough to compromise the date.

In 2018, I finished it; another year passed as I circulated it through my beta readers and incorporated their suggestions; then I put it aside to marinate, finally taking it out a few months ago for a proofread, intending to self-publish this past summer. However, reading it with cold eyes revealed a huge technical honker I’d missed and had to deal with, so it’s back in revision until I can figure out a solution. My current publishing target is March 2021 — the five-year anniversary of typing the first words.

That’s fine except for one thing: It’s the first volume of a planned series. In 2016, the United States began an enormous cultural and political change with the shift of government leadership. Aspects of this would directly influence my character if she were living in that time. I do not want to go there. That means I must compress my series into eight months instead of the vague several years I had imagined.

Fortunately, I’ve only written one of the novels in the planned series, and it’s OK as-is in its time. But I have to totally rethink the rest. This problem has surprised many a novelist with more change-sensitive timelines.

The social factor

Cultural changes have introduced their own complexities. Several of my indie-author clients have asked:

•         Should they hire a sensitivity reader?

•         Is it “safe” to include mentions of certain subjects in their story, or write about a person of a gender, race, or religion that is different from the author?

•         Are they now required to include “trigger warnings” in their front matter, subtitle, or cover?

•         Should they write under a pseudonym?

•         Should they promote their books through social media or stay away because of vulnerability to “trolls” and harassment?

•         Will certain words in their title or elements of a cover image be rejected by Amazon?

Similar questions are a normal part of writing and publishing decisions. The past year’s dramas, however, have pushed some of these questions into high relief. Many more minds are pondering them, in a broader social and financial network.

It grieves me to have no answers. The best that I and my clients can do is continue evaluating and discussing each book on its own merits with the author’s individual goals in mind.

In 2021, we are living in a state of flux with questions and challenges greater than most of us have encountered in our lifetimes, all swirling together. But one thing hasn’t changed: the creativity — flexibility — subjectivity of literature. Authors always have to think about the times they write in. It happens that today, they must contemplate a new set of issues as they both compose their stories and present them to readership. It will be mighty interesting to see what future novels come out of this era!

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

January 1, 2021

On the Basics: Preparing for the new year

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

It’s the first day of the new year (thank goodness!), and that means it’s time to put together a plan for the new year if you haven’t already done so. With New Year’s Day falling on a Friday, we have a whole weekend to use for launching the new year on a positive note. Here are a few suggestions for projects to consider.

Review, refresh and expand your website (or create one!). Look for ways to make the text more active and interesting; add information about recent achievements, such as new clients/projects, awards, etc.; replace long-used images with new ones; add new pages if appropriate, etc. Consider asking a colleague to assess the site to make sure it’s helping your visibility through accurate language and effective search engine optimization (SEO) and keywords; it might be worth paying a professional for an SEO assessment.

• Review and update your résumé. You might not always need it, but it’s worth having a current version on hand in case you do. You don’t want to throw something together in a rush to respond to a request; that’s a guarantee of making embarrassing mistakes. Again, this is where swapping services with a colleague might be a good idea. For the aspiring and current freelancers among us, it also might be worth consulting the new (2020) edition of the Editorial Freelancers Association booklet, “Resumés for Freelancers: Make Your Resumé an Effective Marketing Tool … and More!” (Disclaimer: I’m the co-author — but I don’t profit from sales.)

Set goals for the new year. These can be basic: Earn more money, find new clients, join new organizations or take on new roles in ones you already belong to, create new promotional/marketing material, expand visibility in social media, be more organized, stay ahead of filing and record-keeping, etc. (Once you’ve thought about them, these goals can be the basis of a formal business plan; especially useful for those thinking about launching a freelance business.)

Review what you’ve gained from and contributed to professional memberships. There might be organizations that are a better fit for where you are in your current job or freelance business, and ones you belong to that haven’t been as useful as you had hoped. Be patient, because some memberships take awhile to generate income, but make sure that your investment in professional associations is paying off. Ask colleagues which associations have been the most-useful and -profitable for them, and why or how.

Think about ways to be more visible. Consider writing a book or booklet, especially if you do speaking engagements (even online ones; having a publication to sell or promote at such events can be very profitable); look for ways to become a presenter or trainer (again, even in virtual environments); find new places to contribute comments and guest posts; update your LinkedIn profile; start your own blog; use visual media such as podcasting and videos; partner with a colleague to swap referrals or work on bigger (or new types of) projects together than either of you can handle alone; be more active in associations of colleagues — and potential clients. The more you show up, the stronger your professional image and credibility, and the easier it will be for prospective employers or clients to find, and hire, you.

• If you’re freelancing, increase your rates! Let current clients know that will happen in January and stick to it. If a valued client objects, you can always “grandfather in” existing ones at their current rates — as long as you feel they’re worth it.

Whatever you choose to do in this important new year, here’s to success and fulfillment for all of us. Feel free to share your plans, goals and questions for the year. 

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publisher their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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