An American Editor

May 21, 2016

Congratulations to Carolyn Haley

Congratulations to our Thinking Fiction essayist, Carolyn Haley, for winning the Grand Prize in the 2015 Chanticleer Book Reviews awards for Paranormal/Supernatural Fiction with her title The Aurora Affair. Carolyn’s other novel, Into the Sunrise, was a finalist in the same competition in the Vintage Romance category. For those interested, the books are available from the following sources:

Well done, Carolyn!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

 

November 4, 2015

Worth Celebrating: Carolyn Haley

Congratulations to our Thinking Fiction essayist, Carolyn Haley, for winning second place in the Contemporary Novel category in the International Digital Awards (IDA) contest sponsored by Oklahoma Romance Writers of America for her novel Into the Sunrise. For those interested, the book is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 20, 2020

Thinking Fiction: The Three Bottom-line Facts of Writing and Publishing Novels

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:44 am
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By Carolyn Haley

Over the years, my editing enterprise has evolved so that most of my clients are now indie authors. A high percentage of them are first-time novelists. Some have done their homework and understand what to expect from editing and publishing; for others, it falls on me to help them align their expectations with reality as part of the job.

To date, I haven’t worked with an author who doesn’t desire to publish. The biggest idea that most new authors aren’t prepared for is the psychological transition from the personal art experience of writing to the impersonal business of publishing.

In other words, once their book is out of their hands, it becomes an object.

This is why I routinely convey these three facts that novelists must understand and accept if they want to publish:

  1. It’s your story, your voice, your work.
  2. Writing is a craft as well as an art.
  3. Once your book leaves your hands, it becomes a consumer product.

Owning one’s work

If I had a dime for every time I’ve tried to convince a new author that their voice and efforts are legitimate, I’d be a wealthy woman!

So many new authors apologize for themselves, comparing their stories, their years (or not) of writing, their personalities, to people who are prominently successful. They do not believe their voices or ideas can compete on that level, or even have merit. They put too much importance on what other people — including me as an editor — think of their efforts, considering each step of the writing process to be an exercise of judgment, usually against them.

Some do go the other way and think that every syllable that comes out of their pen or keyboard is a priceless pearl, but I rarely get those folks as clients. Usually they fall into the insecure camp.

That’s when I emphasize that the story is their own: their idea, their voice, their art/craft work. Not mine. My job is to help them tell the story so it’s coherent and accessible to the largest number of readers, particularly the desired audience.

The author’s job is to believe in their story, and believe that somebody out there wants to read it and will understand it. Whether that’s a single person or a million people depends on what the book is and through what channel it is made public. The bottom line never changes: You must get the right book into the right person’s hands on the right day. I, the editor, might not be that right person, but I believe every client’s book is the right book for someone.

The book has to be as smooth and tight as it can be before it’s passed around — and therein lies part of the problem. It’s hard for new authors to grasp that every story can be written dozens, sometimes hundreds, of different ways. Just ask anyone who has recast their novel over and over again in response to personal drive, beta reader feedback, or editorial direction. Sometimes the biggest problem is knowing when to stop!

Ultimately, what makes a story uniquely the author’s is how it’s expressed. Just like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two authors’ voices are the same. Even if someone is retelling a classic fairy tale and the story itself is unoriginal, the way an author writes it is what counts. (This is the basis of copyright protection.)

Aside from that legal aspect (a work is protected by copyright from the moment it comes into existence), it’s the author’s responsibility to establish and hold boundaries for their work. Some boundaries are intangible, like accepting or rejecting influence, while others are concrete, like contract terms. Authors need to know themselves well, believe in their work, and be clear about their goals if they want to survive the transition between writing a novel and publishing it.

Writing is a craft as well as an art

The first thing most new authors need to understand is that only the tiniest percentage of writers get their novels shipshape in one draft; in fact, I would be surprised if anyone publishes a first version unless, perhaps, they’re self-publishing and think their work doesn’t need at least a critique if not editing (and proofreading). The rest of us need help somewhere along the line. The old saying “can’t see the forest for the trees” applies here, in that it’s nigh impossible to perceive both overview and detail at the same time: A writer is usually so intimately involved in creating their story world that they can’t detach enough to perceive the package in the same way as an outsider would. That’s why writers need beta readers and editors. Those other eyes see what the author can’t. Ideally, the multiple perspectives of beta readers, an editor, and a proofreader (again, at the least) combine to make a novel the best it can be.

Having the flaws in one’s work pointed out is a hurtful experience. Some writers can’t take this and either skip the help phase or get so defensive about it that they draw their boundaries too tightly and reject every suggestion. Others writers swing the opposite way and revise to accommodate every person’s preferences. That rapidly becomes a merry-go-round they can’t get off, and might result in the book getting worse instead of better. Savvy writers manage their emotional reactions and take what they need from the feedback, reject the rest, and move on toward their writing and publishing goals.

Savvy writers also recognize that every reader will have a different reaction to every story, whether it’s their mother, an agent, an editor, a paying customer, or a reviewer. Pleasing all of them can’t be done, so it’s not worth trying.

Authors must bother, instead, to get their vision translated into clean, coherent prose and structure so the most readers possible will be able to understand and embrace it. Authors must figure out who they want to connect with and aim their fine-tuning efforts at that audience.

Books are consumer products

Authors who seek traditional publishing will likely have to compromise somewhere, and face the prospect that they could lose control over their work if they don’t read the fine print in a contract. Once they’ve signed with an agent or publishing house, they can’t change their mind without consequences.

Their personal boundaries, then, must be solidly understood internally before they reach out to others. I advise authors to look at their boundaries in light of their goals, and be prepared to think hard about what they want so they can respond appropriately when faced with hard choices. They have to be prepared to accept the consequences any time they stick to their guns, and not play the blame game. It’s their book, and they are ultimately responsible for its fate through saying yes or no at decision points.

The upside of hard choices is the gain that can come from pain. Commonly, the character, plot, or plausibility point causing the strongest reader or editor objection (and the most distress in the author at the thought of changing or cutting it) came from the author’s heart and feels vital to the story. They need to own this problem and solve it by one of two means: (1) Dig deep into their creativity and figure out how to make the problem point work to mutual satisfaction, or (2) just delete the problem (an action known as “killing your darlings”) and then use it in another work. Sometimes problem parts truly are extraneous — something the author loves that just doesn’t serve the story. It also might be that they only need to solve a craft issue, and doing so will set the art free.

Subjectivity

Just because a person writes something with all their heart and soul doesn’t mean it’s any good. “Good” is a subjective judgment, of course, based on other people’s tastes, but it’s also a technical judgment, based on coherence and convention. A small percentage of the reading public is open to experimental material or has a high tolerance for sloppy presentation if something else grips their attention — characters, story line, relevance. The rest expect novels to follow certain standards of story structure, language use, and genre tropes, and they don’t want to see typos or poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling, or boring info dumps, or unbelievable characters and situations. It’s an insult to readers to foist immature work upon them. They want the best a writer can do.

Therefore, authors who desire good sales and reviews must study writing and story craft as well as find someone who knows what they’re doing to review the manuscript and help polish it. Rare is the writer who has all the skills needed to conceive and execute a story for hundreds of pages so other people can get lost in reading it. The greater a writer’s experience, the less they have to learn and compromise; but until that experience has been attained, the writer must expect to work long and hard, and receive some negative results along the way to success.

 

In all the arts (writing, painting, dance, music, sculpture, drama), a common wisdom is, “You have to know the rules to break them.” Knowing the rules is craft. Knowing when to break them is art. Writers who don’t know the rules — who think art alone will carry their work to acclaim — generally don’t succeed to their satisfaction. To avoid that, they must do their homework, and allow people who are farther along the path to help. That’s how the successful folks become successful. Learning to write is a continuum, and a given author is at their own point along it, always seeking to advance along the line. There is no ultimate point of achievement, only process and evolution.

The impersonality of being an object

Many people liken writing a book to having a baby, and revising it to raising a child. Publishing a book is like pushing a fledgling out of the nest to fly or fall. The author might retain a connection to the creature they’ve created, but at some point, it becomes an independent entity that will leave them behind.

That phase begins the moment they let another person read the manuscript. What lived privately in their head becomes an object vulnerable to other people’s perceptions. The only way to prevent this is to keep the manuscript in a drawer. It’s shocking to learn how differently other people will interpret what seems to clear to the writer, or that they will react opposite to what the author intended. Depending on what they wrote, how they wrote it, who reads it, the author’s relationship to them, and how adept the responder is at couching critique in technical rather than personal terms will determine how well the book (and author) weathers exposure.

Editors, unlike most beta readers, are trained to view a book in craft and marketplace terms, and their job is to analyze the forest while an author is focused on the trees (and vice versa). For self-publishing authors, editors are the test readers before a novel hits the public. They help finesse an author’s work and advance it toward the publishing goals. The keyword here is help. Editorial feedback helps authors make the technical and psychic transitions to understanding their book as a product — the result of art and craft honed for reception in the wider world. Once money enters the equation, either going out or coming in, an author’s art becomes a consumer product.

When consumers read an author’s acknowledgments in a published book, they usually see a list of folks who contributed to the project. “It takes a village” is a common theme. Authors who seek help, love help, accept help, reach their goals. Authors who spurn it usually don’t. That’s why it’s important to understand the reality rules of writing and publishing. Authors who own their work, ask for and accept help with it, and recognize that it will become something beyond them, for better or worse, usually get where they want to go.

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 her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

January 6, 2020

Thinking Fiction: Name-dropping in Fiction

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 1:40 pm

By Carolyn Haley

Novelists are often counseled to be specific with details, choosing one or two arresting ones to give a strong sense of a person, place, or thing. These focused items, often dubbed “salient details,” can convey information powerfully and succinctly, as well as better than the dreaded “info dump,” which tells too much and invites readers to skim.

This is good advice, but I frequently see it interpreted in a way that detracts from the story and leaves the reader confused. By that I mean an author uses brand names or jargon — any term, usually a proper noun, representing specialized knowledge — without offering a hint about what it represents.

For example, in a manuscript I edited a few years ago, the protagonist was a fan of Biedermeier furniture. This style of furniture played a brief but important role in an ill-fated love affair between characters — but in the narrative, the author didn’t tell the reader what Biedermeier furniture is. Similarly, the author at one point clothed the hero in a Tom Ford suit; another time, the heroine stopped at a Bi-Lo at the end of a long trip.

Hands up, please: How many of you know what these things are?

If you do, then I assume you are up to date on vintage European furniture, modern U.S. fashion, and store chains in the American South. If not, you’re probably doing what I did when I encountered the terms: scratching your head and muttering, “Huh?”

Editing for the few vs. the many

As an editor, I look for those “Huh?” moments in all manuscripts and query the author when they occur. These tend to be carefully chosen “salient details” that are exactly right for the situation, but that lose the effect if the reader doesn’t get it.

Now, if solely the target audience reads the finished book, then such salient details will draw a knowing and appreciative nod because they will be familiar to readers and achieve exactly what the author desires: an incisive way of characterizing a person, place, or thing. If, however, the book is read by people outside the target audience, then it’s guaranteed that some readers will not recognize the references, and go, “Huh?”

Also guaranteed is that every published book will be read by somebody outside the target audience. If the book sells really well, then lots of those people will read it.

The goal, then, is to minimize the number of “Huh?” moments for the full potential audience. To do that, authors must provide a little something extra any time they drop a name into the story.

Here’s how it played out with the above examples. In response to my queries, the author replied:

(1) On the furniture — “I could mention Biedermeier is a style of art and design that flourished after the Napoleonic Wars until the mid-eighteenth century. It heralded the rise of the middle class in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. You are correct that urban folks and people in the arts are more likely to know what a Biedermeier piece of furniture is, or a Bergère chair, with padded wooden arms, seat, and back and a curvy delicate silhouette. But damn, that gets clunky.”

Yep. The full info gets clunky, even if it’s crucial to the story. So the author’s challenge is to decide how much (little) has to be included so readers who are not versed in the subject understand what it is and why it’s important to the character, without disrupting story flow. Often, a single line will serve.

The author solved it just that way. Because the character was well-versed in the subject, it made sense in context for her to remark, “I love Biedermeier, a sleekly streamlined furniture style catering to the tastes of a budding European middle class during the mid-nineteenth century.” Then she cantered along with the story.

(2) On the suit: “I probably spent an hour looking at men’s suits online to find the right one. Comme des Garçons? Boss? Versace? Ralph Lauren? I chose Tom Ford since his clothes can only be worn by men in their absolute prime because of how close to the body he cuts.”

That last line nails it. Now I understand; but, unexplained, it still leaves unfashionable readers in the dark. How to convey to them why a Tom Ford suit matters?

In the novel, a conversation discusses the suit, during which we learn the heroine is something of an expert on formalwear because of her job, and the hero lets his mother choose his suit because she has superlative taste and Ford is her favored designer.

What actually matters in the story, however, is that the heroine thinks men in eveningwear are ultra-sexy, and this particular man looks fantastic in the Tom Ford suit because that designer’s clothes fit him so perfectly. In other words, the author told me what matters, but failed to tell readers. In the narrative, we learn only that this suit is eveningwear and the heroine notices. The salient detail isn’t quite doing its job.

The author solved the problem by resequencing the dialogue, so this bit of explanatory narrative tucked neatly between the characters’ lines: “Not a lot of men can wear Tom Ford because he cuts so close to the body. You have to be in really good shape and even so, his styling favors trim, long-muscled men. Which happen to be my favorite kind.”

(3) On the store: “Bi-Lo is a Southern chain. Its mention adds verisimilitude to the story. Anyone who has been to the South will recognize it. And if you don’t, Google it. Have you not seen Piggly Wiggly mentioned in Southern stories? Or Publix? I read books set in the South often because I’m interested in the area and find these mentions all the time. I concede that adding more description could be a good compromise. So I could definitely say, ‘Bi-Lo grocery store’ and even mention she is taken with the difference in the names of the markets down there compared to home.”

Here again, the full explanation is too much information. Where Bi-Lo occurs in the story, the setup gives the impression it’s a gas station/convenience store, when in actuality, it’s a grocery store chain where the heroine can buy stuff she wants and needs. The fact in itself is not important, but the store name broke my attention while reading because I had no idea what it was. I was intent on the heroine’s journey and expected from the specificity of the name that her reason for stopping there meant something. Instead, it was local color. (And, as a lookup showed, it’s spelled in all caps.)

The author solved the problem with: “At a BI-LO grocery store, a chain we don’t have in New England, I picked up a few provisions for snacks and breakfast.”

Simple and unobtrusive; no need for reader to pause and scratch head.

Unsafe assumptions

This author and I have worked together over many years, so we both felt free to discuss these topics in depth (and yes, she gave permission to quote her in this essay). In our discussions, certain broader but related points came to the surface.

In one message she pointed out: “If anyone is confused … they can figure it out or not. Plus, if you read on a Nook or Kindle, you can highlight the word and look it up there and then, or, as I often do, use your smartphone.”

Ah — there’s some of the problem’s origin: What an author assumes about readers may not be true. Part of the transition between writing a story and selling it is making the psychic shift between author intent and reader reception. This nexus is the twitchy space that editors occupy.

Both editors and authors have to remember that, even in today’s tech-smart world, many readers still read print books, and have no interest in getting up from their comfortable chairs, moving to their computers (if they have one — not everybody does), and going online to look up a confusing detail. What a great way to break their focus on a story! That isn’t something a savvy author (or editor) wants to do to a reader.

Some readers keep a notepad beside their reading spot and jot a list of new terms to look up afterward. That’s a good way to learn from novels, but not everybody does this. Other readers are happy to pause while reading to check something, while others let unknowns roll by. It all depends on the individual, as well as the number of times they’re left in the dark.

An author has to decide which and how many of these occasions matter. My client made her personal position plain: “How did I ever learn much of anything? By finding words or objects I didn’t recognize in text and then looking them up. Thus, I feel perfectly comfortable with these mentions. … We either skip over what we don’t know — nouns and verbs as well as others — or look them up. How did I learn what defenestration was? I looked it up. Fin de siècle? I looked it up, although I had to ask a French speaker for the correct pronunciation. That term is so much more descriptive than to say ‘the end of the nineteenth century’ … because it describes a glittering lost world, totally defining a time and place. … These descriptions, if you know them, are iconic. It’s the difference between someone having an iPhone and someone having an Android. A very big gap culturally and philosophically. I think it is okay for that stuff to go over some people’s heads and not others. Some people will see the word iPhone and think, mobile phone, and some people will see it and conjure the person (in their mind) who carries it — hip and pretty culturally savvy. Whether that is true or not, as a writer I’m using it.”

The last line exemplifies the author–editor relationship. Ultimately, the story belongs to the author and the editor can only query. There’s no right or wrong. But that’s what editors are here for: to check whether an element is a technical problem or part of the author’s creative voice. It’s all about confirming that authors are truly saying what they want to say.

Whose job is whose

The takeaway is: Authors, let it rip during the draft. When you review your work, pause and consider each proper noun or specialized term. Your editor is professionally obliged to look them up, if only to confirm the spelling; your readers, however, need to grasp the point you’re seeking to make. They want to learn new things and to learn about your characters, but they generally don’t want to stop reading or work hard to do so. If you are using technical, regional, cultural, or other special words, make sure that somewhere close to first mention, you drop in a phrase or sentence — paragraph, if necessary — that will put the detail in context. Your job is to keep readers in the story.

Editors, pause and consider each proper noun and unfamiliar term — not only to confirm the spelling, but to evaluate its universality. Does it support the story and enrich character or place, or does it come from the author writing too narrowly within their frame of reference? When in doubt, query. All that has to be achieved is for you to think about the term and make an an informed decision. Your job is to stand in for future readers and help them stay engrossed in your story — to keep those “Huh?” moments to a minimum.

(A different version of this article appeared at a client’s website. Copyright remains with the author.)

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 her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

November 18, 2019

Are Authors and Editors “Imposters”?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:25 am

By Carolyn Haley

The term “imposter syndrome” came to my attention when it began popping up in editorial and writing forums I follow. Since I didn’t understand what people were talking about, I looked up the definition. What I learned made me really wonder what people were talking about, because the “syndrome” struck me as much ado about nothing. Definitions of imposter syndrome range from simplistic to scientific, but all seem to amount to this: You feel like a fraud when you’ve accomplished something. It’s an emotional paradox that boils down to one word: insecurity.

This is nothing new in the arts. Insecurity, self-doubt, underconfidence, disconnect between inner and outer life, between expectations and results . . . who in the creative world has not experienced those feelings? They’ve simply acquired a new name — imposter syndrome — because today, so many more people than in decades past are trying to make a living, or achieve a goal, in realms that have no concrete definition of validity and success.

Doctors and lawyers and plumbers and pilots, along with many other professionals in diverse fields, must get certified or licensed before they can practice those trades, and they go through long, intense, and expensive training to earn their qualifications. As well, if they don’t maintain prescribed qualifications for their entire career, they can be barred from practice by an official body.

Artists, however — writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, and the people who support them (such as editors on the literary side) — have no such criteria to meet. They may improve their opportunities through educational degrees and training, but such credentials are not required for them to be employed or successful in their fields. Compared to the licensed folks, artists just hurl themselves out into the world and strive for the best outcome, meanwhile being judged subjectively from every direction.

It’s enough to make anyone’s knees knock together. The artistic pathway is not mapped, or else has so many trails off into uncertainty that it’s nigh impossible to choose the right path to follow. There’s no official definition of capability or success. The rules of engagement with other parties are amorphous. Awards and honors come from other unlicensed people. The arts in general, and publishing in particular, lack an identifiable, reliable lodestar.

It’s enough to make anyone feel insecure!

How circumstances contribute

Insecurity tends to be worse if the circumstances of one’s life failed to lay a solid ego foundation. This can occur because of family, school, or workplace, or some combination of these. Children, then adults, with creative urges and vision, who mean well and try hard, might suffer negative consequences no matter what they do, getting pulled down regardless of their brains or talents or performance. When they persevere, or get lucky, and achieve recognition or monetary success, it’s hard for them to believe they did all the right things to deserve it. Instead of basking in the glow of achievement, they might sit around waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling like an imposter.

I’ve never suffered this, because to me things are simple and obvious. If you write, you are a writer. If you edit, you are an editor. If you perform any kind of art or craft sincerely, you are an artist or a craftsperson. That’s all the validation required to be the real deal. No need to explain or apologize to anyone.

The important distinction — and this is what makes people feel wobbly — occurs at the next level. What makes a professional or successful artist or craftsperson instead of a hobbyist?

That, too, is simple: Somebody pays you for something you created, and/or is happy to have experienced your work. You meet their subjective standard successfully.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. To be an acknowledged professional over the long term, you have to attain a level of competence that’s recognized in your industry. This is a more-objective, but still nebulous, technical standard. In publishing, writers must achieve a certain writerly competence — on top of their great ideas — that makes their stories or premises compelling and coherent enough for other people to want to buy them, read them, and appreciate them. Editors have to attain a certain level of editorial competence so they can help the writers they work with move forward, rather than alienating them by demolishing their work or leaving them flapping in the breeze.

In either case, who decides what “competence” means?

Answer: a disparate group of people who do not have to be certified or licensed, either.

Succeeding through the paradoxes

This does not mean uncertified or unlicensed people don’t have skill and wisdom. In actuality, the more-experienced and more-knowledgeable people in publishing are well equipped to judge the competence of other authors and editors operating in the arena, and do a great job of cultivating them. The point is, editors, agents, publishers, and readers are no more required to have uniform, formal, technical qualifications for their roles than writers are. And now that we have the self-publishing option, some of these folks may get removed from the equation, making qualification as a writer or editor even fuzzier.

I’ve lived through these paradoxes and still managed to succeed as both a writer and an editor. My writings have been lauded and debased, through books published by three different tiers of publisher as well as self-published; and my articles and reviews have been placed anywhere from no-pay blogs to top-dollar national magazines. As an editor, I’ve worked with people at the bottom of the “slush pile,” authors cranking out popular novel after popular novel for Big 5 traditional publishers, and everything in between. My credentials for both channels fit different molds, and people evaluating them disagree on their merit. Yet I don’t consider myself an imposter; I’m a real editor, a real writer, getting stronger and better every day.

My self-image results from the fact my profession does not have licensure requirements. That frees me to measure by my own or others’ individual yardsticks, and opens the door to unlimited possibilities. I am constrained only by intangibles — luck, timing, effort, savviness, people’s tastes and educated (or not) opinions, marketplace demand, and the like. Although all these influence me, they do not define me as a person or limit my potential. Same is true for every indie editor and author today. We are only fakes if we try to fake-out others.

A pathway to confidence

The way out of feeling like an imposter is to find and believe in the pathway followed by successful authors and editors. The three steps are general, but I daresay they are followed by successful people in all unregulated occupations.

1) Action. The people who get anywhere go beyond the motions and don’t give up.

2) Belief in oneself. The people who succeed know that they have what it takes to eventually get where they want to go, and recognize that the outer world is not necessarily receptive to that fact. They assume they must overcome obstacles and set about doing so, perceiving obstacles as impersonal things and owning the responsibility for tackling them. They consider failure to be part of a process, not an absolute condition that reflects back on their worth.

3) Intellectual evaluation. The people who get where they want to go spend a lot of time thinking about it and informing themselves, looking for and asking for help, rather than wallowing in self-pity or pointing fingers. They also define what success means to them, not others, and keep perspective about where they are versus where they desire to be.

Nothing imposter-ish about that approach. Rather, it makes them human and authentic. “Real” writers and editors (or whatever occupation) can never be imposters as long as they pursue what they want, keep seeking education and mentoring, and focus on the most-realistic avenue for their personal growth. They are artists or craftspeople at different points on a long journey, where sometimes they get lucky, and sometimes their most excruciating effort gains nothing. Most of their experience falls between those extremes, and they go forward, sideways, backward, and forward again. Fall down, get back up, and carry on.

That’s life. That’s especially the arts, and double-especially the professional areas where licensure and certification don’t exist.

In sum, just because you don’t feel you deserve success doesn’t mean you’re an imposter. It only means that you haven’t found your way through a gnarly jungle of blurry definitions and subjective responses, and haven’t quite grasped what you’re doing in a relative realm.

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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 197, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

May 24, 2019

Thinking Fiction: Protecting an Editor’s Rights — If Any

By Carolyn Haley

A subject that comes up from time to time in publishing circles is whether an editor has any copyright interest in an author’s manuscript — that is, the edited version of the manuscript. Some editors believe the edited version is unique to them and forms a new and different work, which can give them leverage in demanding payment from a recalcitrant party.

I first saw this tactic suggested as a last-ditch measure against publishers that don’t play fair — those that pay late or try not to pay at all. I’ve since seen editors adding language to the same effect in their contracts with independent authors, to protect themselves from clients who change their tune after the job is done and refuse to pay, or take way longer to pay than was agreed. As part of the language, the editor’s claim to having a copyright in the edited version becomes null and void upon receipt of full payment.

In my opinion, attempting to conflate copyright with payment is irrational and unprofessional, regardless of whether a given case is winnable in a court of law. My opinion comes from my combined position as an author, an editor, and a self-employed business entity.

How Copyright Works

Consider first that copyright applies to intellectual property. Per the U.S. Copyright Office, it pertains to “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

“Original” and “tangible” are the key terms, because ideas themselves are common and fluid, and expressed in myriad ways by myriad people, and have been so over centuries, if not millennia. Copyright law only protects an individual’s unique presentation of an idea, not an idea itself. (Nor are titles protected by copyright.) In addition (italics mine), “copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

A work qualifies as derivative “if the changes are substantial and creative, something more than just editorial changes or minor changes. . . . For instance, simply making spelling corrections throughout a work does not warrant a new registration, but adding an additional chapter would.”

With those criteria in mind, how much does an editor have to change in a manuscript before it becomes a different enough “tangible medium of expression” to acquire uniqueness, and thus give the editor a copyright?

How Editing Works

Adjustments in punctuation, spelling, subtleties of phrasing, consistency — the tools of line editing and copy editing — all serve to clarify an author’s unique expression of their ideas, not change them. Perhaps developmental editing can get deep and gnarly enough to significantly change an author’s presentation, but does it change the book’s concept, audience, characters, or plot, or the author’s essential language and style?

If so, then the contract between author and editor should be about co-authorship, not editing.

The main thing to understand is that in an editing job, the author has the right to accept or reject the editor’s changes and suggestions. That gives the author ownership of the content by default. In some draconian contracts out there, an author may have signed away that right and must accept whatever a publisher’s editor or an independent editor does to the work — but in that situation, the author has made a regrettable mistake. In the absence of such contract terms, the agreement between author and editor generally is based on the editor helping improve the author’s work, not alter it.

Understanding Editing vs. Revising

Another argument against claiming copyright of the edited version of a work is the nebulous relationship between editing and revising. A manuscript is a work in progress until it’s locked into its published form and released. Until that point, starting with the first draft, most authors revise their work numerous times, and may have other parties, such as friends, family, colleagues, beta readers, editors, proofreaders, agents, and pre-publication reviewers — paid or unpaid — participate in the process. These helpers, individually and collectively, contribute to a version of the manuscript different from the one before, which is different from the one before, as often as needed to complete and polish the work.

Should each party in that revision cycle get a copyright interest in the work? Should the parties involved in the next cycle supersede them because a new, copyrightable version has been created?

What if the author desires to register their copyright after the first draft? Registration is not required for an author’s copyright to be valid, because copyright is automatically granted the moment a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Registration is recommended to protect the author’s interests in the event of a legal challenge, but is not conditional for protection. Nonetheless, many authors register their copyrights because doing so makes them feel more secure. Imagine, then, what the paperwork and costs would be if they had to register every updated version of a work in progress, each one involving different people!

The whole idea is silly, because all editing occurs before a work is deemed complete. As such, it is subsumed into the overall development and revision process. Without a legal structure to define and support the many layers of building a publishable work, and the many people who might be involved, there is no basis for giving anyone but the author a copyright in the work.

The Alternative to Claiming Copyright

Having copyright-related language in editing contracts might be effective with publishing companies that employ accounting departments and lawyers, who fear legal action and can’t or won’t take the time to research the efficacy of defending copyright claims. Such language also might discourage individual authors from playing head games with independent editors.

More likely, the language would chase away independent authors of good will who are paying out of their own pockets for professional editing services, and who desire a personal, supportive, and honest relationship with their editors. Many writers have been coached by other writers or online gurus to fear that editors will steal, or drastically change, their work. Adding the threat of somebody claiming a copyright on their work will just reinforce their anxiety and give them a reason to look elsewhere — or go without editing at all.

In which case, an editor won’t have to worry about getting paid.

Getting paid does remain the bottom line. It can best be assured through transparency and a straightforward contract. My contract states: “Unless a co-authorship arrangement is made in writing, all royalties and monies gained from the sale of the book will be the sole property of the book’s copyright owner. Editor acknowledges no rights to the manuscript beyond the right to withhold delivery of the edited manuscript until final payment for work is received.”

In other words, the politically incorrect expression “no tickee, no shirtee” applies. I consider this a reasonable business position (i.e., I do the work, you pay me for it), and that claiming a copyright for something that isn’t mine is needlessly aggressive. It is also not trustworthy, owing to the copyright claim’s dubious enforceability and the specious element of “oh, that claim disappears as soon as you pay me.”

From an author’s standpoint, I wouldn’t hire an editor who would hang that kind of threat over me. My book is my book, and somebody who thinks they have the right to hijack it is somebody I wouldn’t deal with.

A Balanced Approach

Editing is — or should be — a cooperative profession, not an adversarial one. Editors stating plainly that they expect to be paid are declaring themselves professional businesspeople. Editors stating plainly that they are prepared to co-opt an author’s copyright are inviting trouble. Most publishers and indie authors will pay for services rendered. The minority who won’t pay are the reason that editors consider using the copyright-claiming ploy.

One way to avoid needing such a ploy is to require a deposit before commencing work. This usually isn’t an option for independent editors dealing with publishing companies, which state the terms that editors must take or leave. In such cases, editors need to weigh the pluses and minuses, negotiate the best they can, and be prepared to accommodate a loss should the project go awry.

When making deals with indie authors or amenable companies, however, editors should state their terms and stick to them. I have found that a signed agreement delivered with a 50 percent deposit demonstrates a client’s intention to pay. They go into the deal knowing that I will sit on the finished edit until they pay the balance, and if they don’t pay, they lose the work and have to start all over again.

In the event they don’t pay, I may have wasted time but not suffered a total loss. The less-than-expected final compensation might end up being a painful learning experience, but still, learning can’t be discounted. Meanwhile, I still have something in my pocket to show for the effort.

Nine times out of 10 (more accurately, 9.999 times out of 10), I end up with full payment on time, a happy client, an open relationship, and future work from the client or someone they refer. These benefits come from respecting authors’ work and position, and not messing with their heads. Better yet, their work goes to publication; and with luck and a good story, cleanly edited, they enjoy publishing success. I doubt I would have this track record if I made it a policy to step on their writerly toes.

How many of our readers have invoked copyright claims on edited work with authors who have not paid as promised and planned? Has it worked for you? What other techniques have you used to ensure being paid?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two 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.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

April 8, 2019

Storycraft for Novelists and Their Editors: Resources to Help Authors Get It Right

By Carolyn Haley

Most of the clients in my editing business are indie authors. The majority of them are “newbies” who have completed their first novels and are not sure what to do next.

Without exception, these authors have terrific story ideas. Almost without exception, their stories are weakly executed, and have a low chance for the commercial success the authors desire. My challenge is to figure out what editorial service to offer these writers so I can support both their goals and my business in a win-win arrangement.

Developmental editing is the obvious choice for weak manuscripts. However, it isn’t always the correct editorial service to propose. This might be because of author preference — they don’t want that service or can’t afford it — or because of mine: I’m not a great developmental editor and don’t enjoy that work. Because I am more of a mechanic than a concept person, my best skill is helping writers polish their completed novels through line or copy editing. When a developmental edit is appropriate but not a viable option, I propose a manuscript evaluation. That gives authors the constructive, broad-view feedback they want without my having to edit a manuscript that will probably be rewritten.

A manuscript evaluation is also significantly less expensive than a developmental edit, and therefore more accessible to more prospective clients. If all goes well, I usually get their revised — and much improved — novels back for line or copy editing.

With manuscript evaluations, I always include three book suggestions for authors to study while they’re awaiting my delivery. The combination of service plus resources helps guide their revisions and results in better works.

The big three

There are so many how-to-write guides out there, in print and electronic form, that reading any of them can help authors hone their skills in composition and storycraft. Rather than just tell a prospect “go do your homework,” though, I specify the books that have impressed me the most and that give, in my opinion, the best bang for the buck:

1) Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain

2) On Writing by Stephen King

3) Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Each book is worth reading on its own. As a set, they are mutually supportive and profoundly educational, especially for authors early in their novel-writing endeavors.

1) Techniques of the Selling Writer

This is a master class in a paperback. More so than any other how-to guide I’ve ever seen, Techniques breaks down storywriting into its most basic nuts and bolts, then shows how to assemble them into a compelling tale. Although first published in 1960s, when many novelists were learning their craft through writing short stories and selling them to a thriving magazine market, the techniques remain applicable to writing novels in today’s very different world. The skills are universal and timeless, and Swain makes them comprehensible.

Reading the entire book in one gulp can be overwhelming, though. This book is best considered a textbook, as it covers material on par with a college course. Indeed, Swain was a teacher, and he comes across as an enthusiastic and savvy professor who inspires his class. It’s definitely a volume to acquire for a home library. My own copy is defaced by highlighted passages, dog-eared pages, and embedded paper clips. I reread it every few years to keep the knowledge fresh in my mind.

Swain’s foundation concept is the motivation-reaction unit. It’s a creative interpretation of physics, in that something happens, then something happens in response to it, in a progressive chain (and then … and then … and then …).

The cause-effect relationship escalates through a story, driving character and plot, creating tension, and leading to resolution. Many writers, upon seeing a story parsed in motivation-reaction terms, have slapped themselves upside the head for failing to miss what suddenly becomes obvious. When they review their novels in this context, they find it easier to identify areas that aren’t working and understand how to fix them.

2) On Writing

Stephen King is one of the elite contemporary novelists who has become a household name. His advice, one would expect, is worth paying attention to for novelists with commercial ambitions. You don’t have to a horror writer like King to benefit from his insights.

I agree. On Writing is part memoir and part writing guide. To emphasize that point, it is subtitled A Memoir of the Craft. I recommend it as a counterbalance to Techniques of the Selling Writer. While Swain’s book is almost ruthlessly mechanical, King’s book is intensely personal. (Technical, nonetheless: He would zap me for using so many adverbs!)

It’s relaxing to read On Writing after Techniques, but at the same time, the former allows the lessons of the latter to sink in. The two combined illustrate how novel-writing is both an art and a craft, and underscore a crucial concept that artists in any medium need to learn: You must know the rules before you can break them.

King expands on this idea, saying, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

This is important to understand if you are writing a novel (or advising the author of one). What I value most about King’s book is how he takes the tools itemized by Swain and puts them into a context most writers can relate to. He also subdues any intimidation that Swain’s how-to book might trigger and supports an author’s right — and need — to experiment, explore, tell the truth, be themself.

He doesn’t do this by dissing technical skills or commercial intentions. Rather, he helps writers understand and organize their toolkits as a means of telling their stories honestly and with passion, for optimal reader response.

King is exceptionally good at helping people distinguish between good advice and B.S. As part of this, he provides guidelines on whom to listen to, and when, which is critical for authors when they emerge from writing a draft to expose their work to readers, then honing their work for publication. Novel-writing is both an intellectual and emotional process, and King understands and describes this dual aspect beautifully. Newbie authors who feel insecure about themselves as artists can gain confidence about their chosen path while absorbing and using the skills they need to move forward as craftspeople and businesspeople.

The first time I read On Writing, I almost inhaled the whole book in one gasp. In later revisits, I skip King’s personal story and focus on his clinical advice. I strongly recommend that other writers do the same.

3) Characters & Viewpoint

Orson Scott Card, an icon in science fiction and fantasy, discusses stories as a whole in this book — even though the title suggests the content is limited to characters and viewpoints. The essence of his presentation is that all characters and viewpoints (along with plots, dialogues, settings, styles — everything about writing a novel) need a framework to define them, both for writing and for audience expectation.

“Forget about publishing genres for a moment,” he instructs, turning attention to “four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. It is the balance among these factors that determines what sort of characterization a story must have, should have, or can have.”

He calls these factors the “M.I.C.E. quotient,” which stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. This element is the book’s key takeaway, beyond its excellent analysis and advice about the title subjects.

A Milieu novel is about the world a story is set in, most commonly involving the protagonist leaving a familiar environment, entering a strange new one, then returning home after life-changing adventures. An Idea story covers a big concept, usually opening with a question and closing when the question is answered. A Character story is about what somebody goes through that transforms their life. An Event story covers something major that happens and how the character(s) deals with it.

Any novel can combine these elements, and most do. Defining the dominant M.I.C.E. characteristic helps authors set up and deliver upon what story promise readers expect them to fulfill. The broad strokes of M.I.C.E. lead to the fine points of genre categorization — a common area of confusion when authors try to market their books.

(Side note: Card covers the M.I.C.E. quotient in another book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Both were written as contributor volumes to different Writer’s Digest fiction-writing series.)

Same points, different angles

All three of these reference books address the same points from different angles. The authors agree that successful novels engross readers in story while giving them truths they can understand and identify with. Specific techniques build suspense, draw character, and evoke time and place. Artistry isn’t magic; it needs skill to connect people and ideas. Put it all together right, and both writer and reader enjoy a mutual, yet individual, great experience.

For these reasons, I recommend that editors of fiction read the same books. Editors who themselves write novels can benefit from their author and editor perspectives; editors who don’t write fiction can gain a better idea of what their author clients go through, and how they are slanting, or might slant, their work.

Many other books address the myriad aspects of writing fiction, not to mention writing in general. Each one I’ve read has added to my knowledge and understanding, as both an editor and a writer. The trio recommended here packs a lot of helpful information into easy-to-read and easy-to-understand packages.

Most important on the business side, all of my clients who have studied these books have enjoyed huge leaps forward in their progress toward publication.

Let us know what books have been helpful to you in either guiding aspiring authors or enhancing your own writing craft.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

March 4, 2019

Lazy Writing, Part 2 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this article, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/thinking-fiction-lazy-writing-part-1-something-to-combat-but-sometimes-appreciate/

Extra padding

Sometimes lazy writing involves using more words than needed. Characters give a sigh or give a wink instead of just sighing or winking. They make their way somewhere instead of walking, driving, climbing, wending, etc. They have a feeling of dread about something instead of dreading it, or haven’t seen someone for a while instead of for hours, days, weeks, months, or years. Readers soon get tired of such lazy usage and yearn for some brevity and specificity.

The same effect occurs with over-creativity, by which I mean referring to a character in too many ways. Joe might be a short guy with black hair who is also a police officer in Chicago. As paragraphs about his action go by, he’s referred to as Joe, the short man, the black-haired fighter, the cop, and the Chicagoan. In trying to avoid repetition, the author ends up confusing the reader by introducing too many variables. This tends to happen in action novels, where a character is lightly sketched at first appearance and never developed to the point of being easily recognizable later. Such variability again makes the reader have to work hard to keep track of who’s who.

Loose ends

The most common lazy writing I encounter is false suspense, although this is a result less of laziness than ignorance. It usually occurs in a first novel, when the author doesn’t yet understand the difference between suspense that generates the “What happens next?” question and suspense that generates the “What’s going on?” question.

I recently challenged a client about why he kept starting new chapters in new places and times without telling us who was talking or where/when they were. That information came several paragraphs or even pages into the chapter. He said he liked dropping readers straight into the action. That’s fine if readers can follow the logic leap. If not, it’s a head-scratcher that is certain to leave readers impatient and confused.

Lazy writing occurs also in matters of verisimilitude. When writers get carried away with the excitement of their story and don’t later verify facts and logistics, it falls on the editor to burst their balloon by pointing out that a scene can’t happen the way it’s described.

Most such bloopers are easy fixes, such as adjusting the scene to account for moonlight (or lack of), or whether it’s possible to maneuver with bodies lying around underfoot, or how a specified gun type might behave, or accounting for vehicles left crashed in the middle of the road when the hero then zooms down said road unimpeded. Sometimes a technical blooper might require a major recast of scene or even storyline; but, thankfully for both writers and editors, bloopers usually are of the “duh” type, such as cigarettes lit but never put out (or smoked in 30 seconds or 30 minutes), or the consequences of a major wound (people who don’t bleed, or continue running around when they’ve had a lung shot out), and the like. Fixing those items doesn’t require revising the whole book.

The subjectivity factor

The laziest of lazy writing, in my passionate opinion, is the cliffhanger, be it the ending of a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. I acknowledge that this can be a matter of taste, and I struggle with determining whether that’s truly the case or if the story is hurting itself by using that device. How to respond to cliffhangers is, perhaps, the most difficult decision I must make as an editor. Do I let it go, or flag it as a criticism or item for discussion? As a recreational reader on my own time, cliffhangers inspire me to simply toss a book over my shoulder, but as a professional editor, I can’t do that.

Cliffhangers strike me as a cheap shot, as manipulative, as author intrusion into a story. They occur most often in series novels, used as an attempt to bribe readers into reading the next book. I consider cliffhanging a lazy technique because, as a reader, I want resolution. I am willing to keep turning pages if the author keeps the suspense and interest mounting, but I don’t need to be compelled to continue by force. I want closure of the individual volume’s story with promise of more to come, not major components left dangling to provoke me into reading the next book.

As with almost everything relating to writing and editing novels, subjectivity is a big factor. My job as an editor is to inform an author about any spot where other readers might bark their shins. It’s up to the author to decide whether those places are things they want to think about and change.

If the author chooses to let an issue stand, I’m fine with that. I care only that they make an informed choice. The marketplace will decide whether it’s the right choice. Most of us know that you can’t please everyone, and the author’s goal is to connect with the audience who wants to read their stuff. My job as an editor is to help them achieve that end.

The editor’s role

It’s a rare editor who doesn’t encounter lazy writing during their career. Those who work with indie authors, especially new ones, encounter it often. Tolerance for editing lazy writing should be considered when deciding what kind of editorial work to do for a living. That tolerance level also an important component of structuring contracts — defining exactly what the editor is going to do to the client’s manuscript is essential to a good working relationship.

If you have the heart and soul of a developmental editor, and you find clients willing to pay the cost, then you can dive into someone’s early work and help them avoid symptoms of lazy writing. This not only gives you job satisfaction, but also helps line and copy editors down the road, who might not be developmentally inclined and have a harder time sorting out the material, defining the boundaries of their work, and helping their clients.

Line and copy editors do sometimes have to deal with un-developmentally-edited texts, because their clients are unwilling or unable to pay for the higher level of edit that would catch and help the author fix instances of lazy writing. In all cases, no matter what level of editing is involved, editors have to define terms and expectations carefully in the work they propose to provide. Copy editors are generally limited to making comments and queries instead of rephrasing, and both editor and author might end up tearing their hair out if the “edited” manuscript is overloaded with changes and queries attacking the text when that’s not part of the agreed-upon scope of work. A client expecting the mechanical focus of copyediting might not be open to the heavy hits on their prose by an editor who recognizes lazy writing and tries to improve it, while a client expecting deep involvement in their prose might feel cheated if all they get are mechanical edits.

Appreciating the lazy …

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate lazy writing. It forces me to concentrate on a story and think hard about the details, get engrossed in the characters, take the author seriously. Addressing the questions that lazy writing triggers and talking with the author about them brings out the best of our relationship, letting us blend the artistic and analytical elements that bring out the best of the work. Ultimately, we all — author, editor, and the story itself — end up more muscular and vibrant. How can that not result in a better book?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

February 15, 2019

Thinking Fiction: Lazy Writing, Part 1 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

Many of us write lazily when composing our letters, reports, and books. It’s easier to turn ideas into words when we’re relaxed and nothing inhibits the flow. Creative writing, especially, benefits from the author “letting ’er rip.” That liquid, unstriving state of mind best releases the emotions and imagery needed for a story, but to bring that story to fulfillment through publishing requires being balanced by a disciplined state of mind to finish the job.

Laziness in writing, therefore, has both a positive and negative aspect.

The positive aspect of laziness is a glowing, happy state, such as what accompanies a Sunday afternoon with no obligations, when one can kick back and enjoy a rare opportunity to read, walk, talk, travel, party, eat — whatever brings satisfaction, allowing one to be at ease. In positive laziness, thoughts can flow in an absence of tension. As it pertains to writing, a certain amount of psychic laziness brings inspiration, productivity, and joy.

The negative aspect of laziness is unwillingness to do what has to be done. There might be good reasons for it in someone’s personal situation, but laziness and the oft-resultant procrastination rarely combine into a happy outcome when writing a book that the author desires to publish.

Negative laziness in writing translates into “not enough thought or revision,” resulting in a work that’s put out into the world unpolished. In most cases, a lazily written book will not be acquired by an agent or editor (in traditional publishing). If a lazy novel is self-published, readers won’t buy it or finish it or recommend it to their friends. Worse, they will give it bad reviews.

It’s normal for an author to be unable to self-revise and eliminate the symptoms of negative lazy writing. Revising and polishing one’s work can be like looking in a mirror: You know what you’re going to see, and that image of yourself is imprinted in your mind, making it hard to see anything else. A similar self-blindness occurs in reading one’s own writing. It’s tremendously hard to view it through someone else’s eyes — which is why authors use beta readers and hire editors.

This essay, then, is aimed more at editors than writers, although both can benefit from knowing what symptoms to watch for.

Distinctions in laziness

In the novels I edit, positive laziness shows itself in zesty, imaginative plots and colorful characters, while negative laziness shows itself in flat characters and dull, redundant, and/or unclear prose.

This negative quality I dub “lazy prose” because it gives the impression of incompleteness, as if the sentences were written without planning or examination. That usually occurs in the first or second draft, when the author is still mapping out the story and perhaps struggling to flesh it out. At that point, there’s no negative laziness involved. But if no effort follows to refine the text, then I mentally flag the book as lazy.

There’s also a version of lazy prose that reflects egotism. Sometimes authors believe that all they have to do is type out their thoughts, and every reader will share their vision and understand all their characters’ motivations, actions, and emotions. Unfortunately, more often than not, the information a reader needs to enjoy this sharing and understanding isn’t in the manuscript.

Here are some examples of how lazy prose leaves a book unpolished.

Vague adjectives

The most common lazy word I see is large. I’m tempted to call that word the universal adjective because it crops up so often!

For instance: A large man enters a large building through a large door into a large room with a large fireplace. Or, a large army is led by a large man on a large horse wielding a large sword.

Okay, I exaggerate: I’ve never seen large used more than twice in one sentence, but I have seen it used 10 times in one chapter and several dozen times in one novel. It’s a perfectly good adjective, but when it becomes the author’s pet descriptor throughout a story, and I’m trying to form mental images as I follow the characters through their adventures, then the word’s inadequacy becomes apparent.

In the author’s mind, a large man might be a tall one, a fat one, or a big hairy one. In the reader’s mind, without any other information, it’s hard to visualize the person if all we’re given is large. Let’s say the author introduces a character as a menace to the protagonist, such as when a sleuth is confronted by an enforcer for the criminal he’s tracking down. Just saying the enforcer is large draws no picture, and the threat intended by this person’s appearance fails to impress.

Expanding the description to draw a more-precise picture requires adding words (e.g., built like a bull with no neck), which might be problematic in action stories or scenes where spareness keeps the pace moving. In such cases, a single adjective must serve. Just upticking large to beefy improves the image. A thesaurus adds options: stout, heavy, thickset, stocky, chunky, brawny, husky, burly, strapping, hulking, elephantine, herculean, humongous — at least 10 others.

Usually a brief elaboration, such as an enforcer built like a bull, or a door twice as tall as a man, will do the job. It can be argued that twice as tall as a man is just as vague as large, because man isn’t defined; however, most people have an idea of the general size of adult male humans, so describing something as twice that size has more meaning than just large.

One of my clients, in response to my requests to be more specific when he repeatedly used large, said he wanted to leave the reader free to visualize the person/place/thing in their own way. That’s a fair position, and in many genres an appropriate style. I share this author’s (and many others’) dislike of too much description and will always encourage lean prose over verbose prose. At the same time, I believe it’s possible to omit too much information and leave readers struggling to follow the story or understand the characters.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

I’ll second that, and add that one precise adjective can draw a sharper, more-evocative picture than a vague one like large.

Editor’s note: Part 2 will be posted on March 15.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

November 19, 2018

Literary Theft — Fact or Fiction?

Filed under: Contributor Article,Editorial Matters,Thinking Fiction — Rich Adin @ 1:14 pm

Carolyn Haley

A common concern among new authors is that someone will steal their work. I encounter this worry in different arenas, from early contact with individuals about editing their manuscripts to collective expression in writers’ forums about the greed and untrustworthiness of the publishing industry as a whole.

The central concerns seem to be about copyright and piracy. These reflect, on one hand, a valid worry about vulnerability in the electronic age. It’s so easy now for anyone to copy and distribute anything!

On the other hand, the worry is needless, because creative works are protected better than most people think, and theft is usually driven by mercenary interest. Where’s the dollar value in an unknown, unpublished author’s first novel?

Thieves want something that will make them easy money. A good idea might have potential profit, but ideas themselves are not copyrightable, and passing off material as one’s own when it’s not can be tracked, and consequences imposed. Smart thieves don’t want to risk that, and stupid ones are easily caught.

Copyright basics

According to the United States government, for American authors, “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”

In simpler terms, this means that the minute you write a story, it is protected by copyright. The key phrase is “fixed in a tangible form.” Ideas, as mentioned above, cannot be copyrighted. Same is true for titles. Copyright applies to individual expression of ideas, which means your book versus anyone else’s.

Everything you need to know about copyright law is covered on the U.S. copyright website. The concise version appears on their Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page:

https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what

As that site specifies, you do not have to register your copyright to have it. The extra step of registration is for security; or, as explained by literary agent Janet Reid, “Copyright does not prevent theft, any more than car insurance prevents accidents. Copyright registration allows you to sue if someone does plagiarize your work.”

She elaborates on why registering copyright before acquiring an agent can be problematic. Details are in the full blog article at:

http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2018/10/so-why-you-do-not-register-copyright.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FLZQZA+%28Janet+Reid%2C+Literary+Agent%29

Indie authors who self-publish just need to declare their copyright in the front matter of their book (e.g., Copyright © 2018 by Carolyn Haley. All rights reserved.).

That’s all you need.

More can be added, about rights and publishing information. See here for an explanation, by Joel Friendlander at the Book Designer:

https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/01/copyright-page-samples-you-can-copy-and-paste-into-your-book/

Paying for copyright registration is a formality to embrace if you are acting as a publishing business, as well as to cover yourself for unknown problems that could occur in the future, but it isn’t required.

Who cares?

The person least likely to plagiarize an author’s work is their editor. There’s nothing for an editor to gain from stealing a client’s material. Sure, some editors are also writers, but as I once told a prospective client, “I’m a lot more interested in writing my book than yours.” A bit harsh, perhaps, but that relieved the author’s fears — and I received his deposit the next day.

Stealing a client’s material — and being caught at it — is about the worst thing that could happen to an editor’s career. Given the traceability of passing materials around electronically, I can’t imagine how I would hide the fact that I’d come into possession of an author’s work. Nor do I want to waste the time trying. I (and my peers) have better things to do.

Perhaps if I were indiscreet and shared some content from a client manuscript with a friend, or posted it undisguised in an editors’ forum, that text might get further passed around, and grabbed and used by an unknown party, creating a situation of plagiarism or piracy. That would be an error of stupid carelessness, not evil intent, but it would still have negative consequences.

Neither I nor all other publishing professionals I know would dream of shooting ourselves in the foot that way. This applies to both independent editors and staff editors at publishing houses, along with literary agents. That means an author can be reasonably assured that sending a manuscript to a publishing professional isn’t going to harm them.

Piracy

The greater risk of having your work stolen comes through sharing it on social media, or at online group feedback sites. In the “cloud,” anyone can copy material and do what they want with it. Some authors who don’t have the support of beta readers or writers’ groups use online sites for needed feedback. If they’re seriously worried about piracy and plagiarism, however, they are better off finding beta readers in their direct, physical world, or even just going it solo, which limits access to their work and thus reduces or eliminates the risk of having it swiped.

Stolen work is not necessarily a catastrophe. While yes, it’s offensive and infuriating, it also can be transformed into opportunity. Some authors recognize that having their material pirated gives them an advantage akin to self-promoting through giveaways.

Best-selling author Neil Gaiman discusses this in an interview. He acknowledges that pirated material was actually helping his sales! Many sales, he realized, are generated by word of mouth, or by people lending copies of a book to friends. During such exchanges, no sale is actually lost. Rather, sales are gained because greater exposure motivates readers to acquire more of an author’s work.

See Neil’s rationale and experience at:

https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/neil-gaiman-radio-drama-online-piracy-social-media

Nevertheless, finding your text on somebody else’s site is a disturbing, angering experience that you have to respond to. Author Joanna Penn addresses this and offers practical solutions in her blog article “3 Reasons Why Author’s Shouldn’t Worry About Piracy But How to Protect Yourself Anyway” at:

https://jerryjenkins.com/3-reasons-authors-shouldnt-worry-piracy-protect-anyway/

The simple response to concern about having your material stolen is, Don’t sweat it. The chances of it happening are slim; if it does occur, you have recourse. Very few authors have to go to court to challenge their ownership of their creative work. Those who do are usually best-sellers. If you’re not there yet, you needn’t lose sleep over the possibility. Just write your book and follow established paths toward getting it to your audience. The publishing industry is on your side, and is no more interested in fielding a lawsuit than you are.

Approaching publishing with your eyes open, acting prudently, and trusting professionals to help both avoid and respond to any piracy or plagiarism are the most reliable acts authors can perform to securely control their rights to their work.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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