An American Editor

September 3, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What is literature, anyway?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:28 pm

© Carolyn Haley

Early this year, I wrote about the challenges that contemporary-novel-writing authors will face in adapting to the “new normal” (https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2021/01/11/thinking-fiction-whats-next-for-novelists/).

Things haven’t settled down much in the months since then, but enough time has passed that new novels are coming out, through both traditional and indie publishing, in which authors who write contemporary fiction have adapted to the times in different ways.

Some of these works were in process when the combined pandemic and political upheavals started; others have been written since it became clear that daily life and culture were going to change permanently. Enough novels have crossed my desk for purposes of editing, reviewing, and recreational reading that I’m beginning to see patterns.

Even though these books qualify as commercial fiction, I’m interested in them collectively as a facet of literature. I read mainly American fiction but also samplings from western Europe and Canada; this essay is limited to personal observations about contemporary fiction written in or about those parts of the world.

Definition

To better understand what “literature” means today, and how it reflects our era vis-a-vis any other time, I turned to my trusty dictionary as a starting point.

Merriam-Webster Online Unabridged lists several definitions of “literature.” The one I was looking for is this:

3b: the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age

This definition embraces fiction, my central concern. But the literal definition does not expand to include purpose, so I went internet trolling to find a more nuanced meaning.

The first search results (I stopped after 20) agreed in principle, albeit with different wording, that the purpose of literature is to explore and express human nature. I refine that to mean creative writing that reveals truth and possibility through story. Doesn’t matter if it’s a simple genre romance or multi-generational saga or anything in between. Storytelling is as old as human civilization, and capturing it in writing is what constitutes literature.

In fiction publishing, there’s a distinction between literature as a written art and “literary” as a writing style and marketing category. My interest is in the former, and in seeing how authors across genres — the body of literature — are adapting to a global pandemic concurrent with intense sociopolitical changes.

Multiple adaptations

The trends I see so far among fiction authors are clustering in four approaches.

(1) Some novelists have simply incorporated societal changes into their stories, including peoples of all colors, cultures, and genders in their character sets as part of the norm of their characters’ worlds.

In physical descriptions, when characters are described at all, references to their racial or ethnic heritages are as generic as possible, country of origin omitted unless directly relevant to the story, and nonbinary sexuality alluded to by casual mentions, such as a man having a husband or a woman having a wife. All human varieties are assumed to be normal. No commentary about it in the narrative; the story just moves on.

(2) Other novelists have gone the apologia route, inserting front matter into their books to define their positions to readers before they launch into the story. Some literally apologize for even mentioning difficult subjects. Those subjects can be the pandemic or socially sensitive topics such as race, sexuality, politics, or violence.

(3) Another group has failed to separate their personal positions from their characters’ positions. I’ve seen this several times in prolific, popular series authors who are confident about their readerships. I usually read those books in pre-press for review, and recently they’ve been keeping me awake at night wondering how to honestly and fairly evaluate those works. Subtle, intermittent shifts in the narrative change the voice so reader attention is broken by what I call “author intrusion.” While the story is doing its job of expressing the position, the author seemingly can’t resist elbowing in (and the publisher’s editor[s] doesn’t elbow them back out), resulting in a distracting mixed message that undercuts the book’s own merits.

(4) Then there are authors who put their positions solidly into their characters’ mouths and actions, leaving themselves invisible but making their points loud and clear.

Art vs. propaganda

Just about every author writes from a political, emotional, and personal perspective, and has done so since the beginning of publishing time. Same is true for almost every creator who expresses through an artistic medium. People flock to the arts to find resonance for their thoughts and feelings. Nothing abnormal there; in fact, that’s the nature of the beast.

The trick is how well they do it — or not. Authors who draw readers into their worlds and involve them in the trials and tribulations of the characters/setting/time succeed in conveying their messages. They make readers think and feel, and indirectly advance their own thoughts and feelings while remaining offstage. The work is its own self.

But when authors step outside the story world to manipulate reader impressions, things slide onto the slippery slope between fiction and propaganda. In my opinion, if authors feel so strongly about something that they can’t keep themselves out of their story, they should switch to a nonfiction vehicle. Or write op-eds (opinion-editorial pieces).

My personal opinion is meaningless in the larger scope. As a professional editor, I strive to put aside my biases and be as neutral and analytical as possible when I edit or review a fictional work. (But I’m totally subjective when I read for recreation!) If a story is historical fiction, I expect the author to adhere to the mores of the time for plausibility. Unfortunately, this has become a flashpoint in some circles, where people judge historical scenarios by contemporary mores.

I think this is unfair. In most cases, the purpose of the story is to show how things were in comparison to today’s sensibilities. Condemning authors for being accurate — and in some cases, calling to ban a book because it’s offensive to contemporary tastes — is unreasonable. Let literature, let art, inform us about the past to help us analyze the present and advance toward the future!

Who owns the viewpoint?

Some contemporary novelists have become scared to write what they want to say because they expect rejection or pushback, even shaming, from a polarized, judgmental audience. I see reports about this on social media, writing/editing/publishing forums, and articles in publishing newsletters. I also hear about it directly from clients and associates.

This anxiety differs from the common one among authors about their work being accepted by a publisher or an audience. Their anxiety has broadened to social and political spheres, which has undercut their confidence.

Some of them question whether to hire sensitivity readers in cases where they wrote outside their everyday reality. Which is worth thinking about, because storytellers have been walking in “other” shoes for as long as people have been writing stories. What’s different now to make that a problem?

I don’t see a problem, because it’s standard practice for conscientious authors to research what they don’t know and round up more-knowledgeable people to vet their work where it touches unfamiliar areas. Acknowledgment and dedication sections in books are full of credits to people who have helped authors with verisimilitude and factual accuracy.

A sensitivity reader is nothing more than an individual offering insight into a different culture or norm. Just like any technical professional, a sensitivity reader is only one person representing a great body of information. Their insight may be valuable, but it must be taken with the same grain of salt as any other resource. How the author handles that information is ultimately what counts.

Context is the bottom line

What’s often forgotten in the world of literary criticism is the world itself. We all belong to an immense, diverse population spread across the planet. Something that’s meaningful or controversial in the United States of America might be irrelevant, inflammatory, or incomprehensible somewhere else — even at a regional level. For instance, rural Alabama in a bayou environment has little to do with the Minnesota boundary waters, or downtown Los Angeles or New York.

A novel’s content has to be framed by not only its subject but also its context. Authors with commercial ambitions must direct their work toward a specific desired audience. By definition, that eliminates others.

“Otherness” has long been a concern of science fiction and fantasy authors. They have the advantage of being able to make it up. Who can speak for aliens from other planets?

Extrapolating from there, nobody on Earth can truly speak for anybody else, so the purpose of a novel is to present what’s happening to a unique character(s), expressed by a unique author, in hopes of finding commonality among unique readers.

The benefit of this is a constant stream of education and enlightenment about different people through their adventures and misadventures. The only thing that matters is story. Story expresses our shared humanity, and the infinite number of stories expresses our individuality. How wonderful is that?

The word that encompasses it all is “literature.”

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.

May 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients

Carolyn Haley

If you edit enough novels by independent authors, you’ll notice patterns in author types and ambitions. By this I mean broad patterns — which always contain exceptions — that can help guide editors in determining how to guide individual authors on their publishing journeys.

The three broad types of indie authors are those who (1) write to market (in my shorthand, the pragmatists); (2) write to express themselves then figure out how to find their audience (the dreamers); and (3) write for either/both reasons and believe that everyone is their audience (the in-betweeners).

In this context, writing styles and genres are irrelevant. It’s all about expectations and approach. Every indie editing job has its unique parameters and focal points, driven by author desire, budget, and publishing goal. How these weave together is where the distinctions come into play.

(1) The pragmatists

Authors who write to market tend to do their homework before presenting their books for editing. They have clear story ideas (usually lots of), intend to make money, and have invested time in researching the rules of the game. The economically efficient ones go for cheaper services than I can offer, unless they have well-lined pockets, although it happens occasionally that they regret their first choice(s) of editor and come to me for re-editing, either before publication or in reaction to embarrassing feedback from readers after they’ve released their books independently.

In the main, this group wants copyediting or proofreading. They are confident about their writing technique and storytelling, and often have worked with beta readers to iron out the wrinkles in their content. Then they just want somebody editorially competent to do the nitpicky housekeeping.

Almost always, these authors self-publish. Many of them are DIYers who have already formatted and illustrated their manuscripts when they submit them for editing. They know exactly which publishing service they will use to release the book, and how to promote their work.

Rarely do these authors care about the minutiae of punctuation and style. That’s the editor’s job, in their minds, and all they want is to have their text made clean and consistent. From the editor’s viewpoint, these are easy jobs, and what matters is to have straightforward conversations with the author to understand their particulars, then gallop on through the project.

(2) The dreamers

This group of authors is inclined in the opposite direction. They’ve had a story burbling inside them for years, and finally their life situation has given them a chance to pour it out. Many have retired from an unrelated career and are indulging at last in their dreams.

Unlike the pragmatists who write to market, the dreamers are usually under-informed about the realities of publishing, either traditional or independent. And they’ve done little or no study about composition, grammar, narrative structure, etc., since their school days.

They seek an editor who will be their partner and guide them through the wilderness. They lean hard on the editor’s knowledge and expertise. Viewed cynically, they can be considered artistes or hobbyists, and it’s sometimes painful to work with them, knowing their passionate effort has little chance of acceptance or sales in the real world. At the same time, they can be the most satisfying to work with, because of their enthusiasm, openness, unfettered creativity, and sometimes astonishing growth.

For these authors, editors need to provide a lot of information, starting with careful definition of services and costs for each level of service. Scope of work may include education in storycraft and the publishing process, including advice about composing query letters, synopses, and jacket blurbs and taglines. Often, these authors’ dream is for traditional publishing success, which may or may not be appropriate for their work. It helps a lot if the editor has publishing experience in addition to language and writing skills.

Emotionally, this group of authors is “needy” in comparison to the pragmatists, so editors should be conscious of their own willingness to be drawn into ego support and where to draw the line. In contrast to the pragmatists “driving the bus,” the dreamers need to be chauffeured, or at least given an explicit road map.

(3) The in-betweeners

The third group, not surprisingly, is an assortment falling between the two extremes. They throw in the most variables for the editor to manage. The main challenge with such authors is defining what they’ve written and toward whom to target it, because they frequently believe that publishing is a single-step process that leads to anyone and everyone having access to their novel and wanting to read it.

For these folks, editors need to take extra time up front to figure out what the author specifically wants and/or needs. Pitching services to them might run the gamut from manuscript evaluation to a deep developmental edit, with copyediting or line editing as options. Like the dreamers, the in-betweeners usually require dialogue and sample edits to pave the way for a successful arrangement. They understand some of the logistics and value-added aspects of editing, but might have to be educated or convinced.

(4) Others

There’s a fourth group of authors that indie editors are wise to steer clear of, although editors don’t have to work hard to avoid this group because its members don’t really want to be edited — although they often have strong opinions about it.

Such authors fall into two camps. One disdains editors completely, while the other thinks editors overcharge. It’s rare to receive inquiries from either faction, but occasionally an author who recognizes that editing helps goes searching for someone to provide that help — at the cheapest possible price. An editor’s best practice when that happens is to steer them to one of the low-dollar bidding sites and wish them well.

Patterns and particulars

In simplistic terms, indie authors cluster into black, white, and gray areas, each seeking different levels of editorial involvement. Understanding these clusters helps editors form a strategy for approaching and accommodating their differences.

In all cases, frank and polite communication before committing to the job is imperative. So is a contract that spells out scope of work, and payment and delivery terms. The goal — always — is to avoid either or both parties receiving something different from what they expect and desire. Considering authors in broad types can also help editors evaluate their personal limits and design their service offerings for maximum mutual benefit.

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 three 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.net or through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences

March 17, 2021

Thinking Fiction: The Book as an Object

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:40 pm

Carolyn Haley

Writing a novel has often been likened to having a baby. The analogy is apt, in terms of gestation, obsession, pain, thrill, frustration, and all that goes with the long-term development of a new life.

Less often discussed is what happens later in the process, when it’s time to push the fledgling out of the nest.

In literary terms, this translates to finishing a book and letting it go to flop or fly. Some writers can’t do that, for any of three reasons:

1) Insecurity. They fear they will fail, or be laughed at, or put down.

2) Perfectionism. They can’t stop fine-tuning, because they believe a state of perfection can be achieved.

3) Brainwashing. They’ve been drilled by gurus to make their work “the best it can be” and believe that anything less is undeserving to be published, so their book is never ready.

The reverse also happens — some writers rush their books out the door in eagerness for publication, and don’t give their work the time and attention it deserves (including not budgeting money or time for editing and proofreading).

Either way, there’s a mental transition that has to occur between writing and publishing. A novel’s natural lifecycle is to transform from a private idea to a publicly exposed product. Along the way, it takes on a life of its own and the author is progressively edged aside.

Transformation phase 1

During draft composition, a story belongs exclusively to its author. Once the manuscript is completed and somebody else reads it, however, the transformation from idea to object begins.

Many authors test their ideas through beta readers to get their first sense of how their material can be perceived outside their own head. The more beta readers, the more different ideas and opinions push against the author’s sensibilities and imagination. What the author initially conceived starts to change in their own minds as well as on the page.

When the book reaches an editor, the real transition begins. Professional editors have no personal connection to the author. Their relationship is a business one, and their concern is only the material the author has created. This is not to suggest that the author-editor relationship is or should ever be indifferent or adversarial; rather, most editors get fully engaged in the material and devote themselves to helping the author cultivate it into a product that will draw readers.

But to the editor, the book is a “thing” — a narrative to be analyzed and polished and, if necessary, reformulated, until it is solid enough to go out the door and connect with its readers. For editors, working on a manuscript is a job as well as a calling, and the manuscript is weighed and measured against standards including, but also extending beyond, the author’s own criteria.

Transformation phase 2

Once a manuscript has been polished, it’s presented to one of three types of people: agents and acquiring editors (traditional publishing), or directly to readers (self-publishing). For the first two, the agent/editor evaluates the book as something they love and can commit to, or don’t love and reject for taste, or love but reject because it can’t be sold in enough quantities to justify the cost of producing it. In other words, the book has become a commodity and is subject to an accounting sheet. The author may still be in the equation, because with agents and publishers, contracts are involved, but at that point, author control and preference start sliding to the back seat, and what has been lovingly carried by their own hands is transferred to someone else’s.

When an author self-publishes their book and promotes it directly to readers, the disassociation happens more slowly but still becomes real. To self-publish, an author must turn a manuscript into a product people can buy. That process involves making all kinds of decisions about style, format, category, distribution, cover design, tagline, blurb, and so forth. These decisions force authors to look at their work as a thing that has to appeal to readers outside their own sphere.

Often, especially with first-time authors, submitting a book to the wider world is fraught with angst, discouragement, and confusion. It’s particularly galling for those who go the traditional-publishing route and submit, get rejected, submit, get rejected, for what could be dozens of times over many years. It’s hard for authors to realize that it’s not themselves being rejected, when what they conceived in passion, and invested a big chunk of their lives into expressing and molding, brings no positive result.

Even when the big day comes and the book is finally accepted, the process becomes more depersonalizing when contracts come into play. Suddenly the “baby” morphs into intellectual property involving rights and licensing, then gets kicked around like a soccer ball during further stages of editing and all the choices and compromises involved in turning it into a purchasable product.

Sooner or later, authors have to detach emotionally from their work and share the publisher’s perspective, whether they are working with a traditional house or producing the book themselves. The book must become an object to get into readers’ hands, by whatever tools and techniques work.

Transformation phase 3

After all the transitional tasks are accomplished, and the book is published, then come sales and reviews — and a new wave of learning just how many different ways the product can be perceived. By then, it’s difficult for an author to remember the once-upon-a-time when the challenge of the day was wringing words out of the soul and getting them into the right order to capture the author’s vision and feelings. The book has flown from the nest, destined for a fate that depends on myriad factors mainly beyond the author’s control.

The weirdest experience some authors have is meeting their readers, through signings or conferences or interviews (online or in person), when their personal self who created the book faces the results of what the book turned into. Depending on their personality type, this can be the most fulfilling part of the process, or the most alienating.

Regardless, the path to publication involves transformation inside the author as well as within the work itself. That’s why it’s important for authors to decide early what they want from publishing.

The best practice is to ignore the question during drafting the book, so the intense, private creation experience can proceed uninhibited. Then, when revising, but before showing the work to any beta readers or editors, authors can dream about what they want for success, and consider what they’re willing to settle for and what they don’t want at all. Understanding their goals and boundaries helps them direct their feedback readers on the best way to revise the book without wasting time, energy, and emotion on dead ends and sidetracks.

It comes down to authors owning their work. Ownership becomes literal once the book has turned into a thing, but while getting there, it’s a psychological state that reduces emotional distress and eases the transition between art and object.

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.

February 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Does Spelling Really Matter?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:18 pm
Tags: , , ,

Carolyn Haley, Columnist

When it comes to creating books, there are three answers to the question of whether spelling really matters: yes, no, and “it depends.” Usually all three come into play over the course of a book’s life.

At the draft and revision stages of composing a book, spelling doesn’t matter. That’s when authors focus on content — organizing ideas, devising plots, developing characters, turning sentences, building worlds. Prose changes constantly during composition, and only the author (and perhaps a personal support team) sees the work in progress.

By the time a manuscript is submitted for professional consideration, however, or released to public readership, spelling has come to matter a lot.

In between composing and publication lie the variables and decisions that fall under “it depends.”

It depends on the author, the editor, the publisher, the country in which all or any of them live, and the countries in which the book will be distributed. It also depends on which resources the various parties use for reference and guidance. In English alone, alternatives abound.

Most authors expect editors to be expert spellers, grammarians, and evaluators. Most editors are, which is why authors and editors have long formed a yin/yang balance that results in great books. Editors are expected to recognize not only a true misspelling (typo), but also a word that is legitimately spelled in different ways.

What authors may not know is how editors determine which variant is correct. Fanning through any few dictionaries shows that not every authority agrees on how to spell a particular word. It often happens that an author refers to Dictionary A, which spells something like non-disclosure or e-mail with a hyphen, while Dictionary B, used by an editor, spells both words solid (nondisclosure, email).

Even within an individual dictionary, one or more variations may be allowed, such as ax and axe. Nowadays, with online dictionaries available, there might also be differences between a print edition and an online edition of the same one, owing to the online version’s ability to update faster. Thus, for example, the initial cap in Internet, shown in the latest print edition, may appear in lowercase in the online edition. Common usage drives changes in caps and spellings as well as meanings, and even coins new terms (e.g., some dictionaries now allow Google the company name to be used as a verb, to google). Changes are likely to appear in the next edition of a print dictionary, but that might not be published for several years and so will always be a step behind its rapid-response online version.

Meanwhile, different countries favor different spellings. Sticking with English, there are American, British, Canadian, and Australian variants, as well as local and regional versions within each country.

Editors understand this, and recognize that it’s not so much “correctness” that matters but consistency and context. For instance, American editors working on American authors’ novels will draw upon American-English dictionaries and style guides, whereas Canadian (etc.) editors will refer to dictionaries and style guides preferred in their country. In crossover situations, such as an American editor working on a British writer’s book, the editor normally consults with the author or the author’s publisher to determine which standard to apply.

That’s why we see American books with favorite and color and British books with favourite and colour, along with differences like gray and grey, check and cheque, while and whilst, toward and towards, plus prefixes and suffixes added to root words with and without a hyphen.

None of these are wrong unless they switch around in an individual manuscript, or appear in an inappropriate context, such as an American novel released in the United States using British spellings, or vice versa. Most books are reedited (or re-edited) before being published in other countries, and often retitled (or re-titled). Conversely, self-published books that are globally available online (or on-line or on line) the moment they come out tend to be edited in the author’s native English, and stay that way.

Editors on staff at a publishing house generally use the preferred house spelling and style guides for editing manuscripts. Likewise, independent editors working in a narrow niche use the guides that dominate in their arm of the industry. Independent editors working with independent authors have free rein in their choices, but most educate themselves in the guides that are predominant in their channels, and stock their reference libraries accordingly. Editors by nature are inclined to load our libraries with all the reference works we can get their hands on, so we can almost always accommodate whatever language issues come our way.

Consistency is the aspect that really counts in spelling. When there are multiple variations for a word, the editor’s task is to decide which one to use and stick with it. This level of detail grooming usually occurs during copyediting (or copy-editing or copy editing). Many copyeditors (or copy editors) prepare a style sheet for each project in which they specify the reference works guiding their decisions, and use the style sheet to note any variations used in the manuscript. This shows the author what was done and why, without the editor having to load the manuscript with explanations or extra markups.

Authors who have preferences that they care about deeply — regarding either the reference resources they want used or specific personal preferences like that e in axe or grey — need to let their editors know before work begins so misunderstandings don’t occur, and work doesn’t have to be undone or redone. In the absence of author direction, most editors will follow the dictionaries and style guides they’ve determined are suitable for the project.

The purpose of consistency and correctness in any aspect of a book is to present a clean and professional product to the people destined to read it. Typos and irregularities distract readers from content, and in some cases cause negative reactions. Manuscripts being considered for publication might be rejected if the material is sloppy and inconsistent, because those issues give the impression the author hasn’t done their homework and the work isn’t ready to be published. Sometimes sloppiness means rejection simply because the extra work required to bring the material up to the publisher’s standard will cost too much time and money to warrant accepting the book. Other times, manuscripts are winnowed out of contention without even being read, solely because of errors and irregularities that are visible in a quick scan — and spelling errors are very easy to spot. An agent or acquiring editor whose desk is piled high with submissions might reduce that pile to manageable proportions by automatically rejecting any manuscript that looks messy or amateurish, as much due to spelling issues as to presentation (but that’s a topic for another time).

Readers on the consumer end judge books by their interior presentation as well as by their covers. Many a book has been skipped over by potential readers in response to reviews dissing it for sloppiness. Even Amazon, which opened doors to so many self-publishing writers, has responded to reader complaints by instituting quality standards that may result in a book being removed from Amazon’s site until the problems are fixed. The most brilliant, creative, informative content can be unappreciated or unread if it’s riddled with misspellings or other issues. Readers want and deserve the respect that’s signaled by material as well written and well edited as the parties involved can make it.

So, yes, spelling matters in the end.

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 11, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What’s Next for Novelists?

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

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.

December 4, 2020

Thinking Fiction: The Indie Editor/Author Equation, Part 2

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:50 am
Tags: ,

Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this essay, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/11/27/thinking-fiction-the-indie-editor-author-equation-part-1/.

Almost every time an indie editor and indie author first connect, they are likely to have different understandings of what “editing” means, so the editor’s first and most-important task is to decide what services to offer, by name and itemized description, with a value assigned to each, and to provide that information to the author.

Since editorial vocabulary varies, the same service might have different task specifics or names among individuals and groups. Editors must make sure they and their prospects are talking about the same thing, or else a world of misunderstanding can ensue.

Both parties need to ask and answer questions until mutually satisfied. Authors need to know what they’re getting, for how much, and when; editors need to know what an author has written — genre/type of novel, state of its development, plans (or dreams) for it, and any writing/publishing experience they already have. This information gives the editor an idea of the service to propose and what to charge.

Regardless, an agreement should be done in writing. As most adults know, verbal deals have a way of drifting off course despite both parties’ best intentions, so it’s valuable to have a document that defines the deal, especially since some editing jobs can extend for months, and memories can get hazy.

An agreement can be as informal as an email exchange stating terms, conditions, schedule of payments, and delivery or a formal contract to be signed. Either way, best practice is to lock the agreement into both electronic and printed pages for file and storage in a safe backup location.

I prefer a contract for a first job with a new client, and will accept an email agreement for later jobs with the same person if our initial experience is successful. My contract is a combination of templates made available by colleagues that I tweaked to make relevant to my business, and update as times change.

Learning from other editors’ advice and some bruising experience, my basic agreement is now a 50% deposit to reserve calendar time, and payment of the balance upon completion of the work but before I deliver the files. I take a check or PayPal, and don’t start work until the deposit payment has cleared and I’ve received the signature page of the contract for my files.

This combo has worked well, but there are other ways to do any step of it. What matters is to define a basic deal package that works for you, but is not so rigid that you can’t tailor it to individual circumstances.

You can be certain that those individual circumstances will be a big factor in editing indie fiction. Storytellers’ imaginations are limitless, and their business, publishing, and financial knowledge fall across the board.

Defining services

An indie editor’s service definition includes the categories of novel you are willing and able to edit. You don’t have to be an expert in any genre; the craft of storytelling is universal, and it’s only when trying to hone a manuscript toward a specific audience that genre expertise becomes important. Focusing on a particular genre(s), though, can help in marketing your business.

Knowing your genres not only helps every project but also helps avoid getting work you don’t want. I turn down horror, erotica, and children’s fiction. Many novels cross genres, so it’s smart to ask the author to provide a short synopsis of the story and a sample from it before taking time and energy to explore the job further. For example, I love mystery and adventure, but can’t handle extreme violence or cruelty in gory details. A sample and summary usually give enough clue to whether a manuscript will be something I can handle — or not.

How much of a sample is required to make a judgment? Some editors want to see the entire manuscript. I’m unwilling to give away that time on spec, so I ask for opening pages or perhaps first chapter, just like agents and acquisition editors do. How an author launches a novel can give a good feel for their skill level and the story’s promise, and whether you want to spend weeks/months with it.

When in doubt, an alternative approach is to offer a non-editing manuscript evaluation. That way, the author gets helpful feedback and you get a paycheck for reading the book, without either of you having to invest more than might work out well in an editorial partnership.

About those sample edits

When you’re still in the wooing stage, you need to decide whether to offer a sample edit. I go on and off with that, depending on circumstance. Some prospects require it so they can compare editors’ approaches — a wise thing to do from the author’s point of view; not every author-editor combo is a good team, even if you feel compatible. That’s why the more you discuss up front, the better the chances you’ll make the right choices on your own and each other’s behalf.

Once the project is under way, you have to decide what style guides to apply to it and include this information on your style sheet (creating a style sheet is an invaluable aid in ensuring consistency and accuracy throughout a manuscript). Most novelists don’t care, but some care a lot and will give explicit instructions. Pre-contract conversations and sample edits help suss that out.

Before quoting for an editing job, determine whether it will include the extra time and labor of a style sheet. I always create one for myself, to keep track of details throughout the manuscript, but presenting it organized and useful for the client’s (and future editor’s or proofreader’s) use adds value that should be covered. Some levels of edit — such as copyediting — need this clarified more than others — such as developmental editing.

Occasionally, when I really want a line editing or copyediting project but the client’s budget won’t stretch far enough to cover my full rate, I’ll offer the edit sans style sheet and give them a discount. But I’d rather not.

Tools and techniques

Well before accepting client jobs, you need to commit to your hardware and software tools. It used to be that Microsoft Word was the universal program for writing and editing, PC or Mac, but as times change, more clients are writing in off-brand applications that might not work gracefully with Word’s track changes feature, nor some macros designed to make editing faster and more accurate. Examples are Pages for Mac, OpenOffice or LibreOffice, Scrivener, and GoogleDocs.

I’ve had trouble with all of these and reached the point where I won’t take them anymore, even if they are “compatible” with Word and come in .doc or .docx file formats. I’ve added a clause to my contract that incoming files must be native Word only (at which point, I learned how often clients don’t read every line in a contract!).

If you have the tools, skills, and knowledge to handle mixed packages, use that as an added value in your business marketing. It will become more important in the future, as will having the ability to help clients turn their manuscripts into ebooks and other forms of reading media. If going that direction doesn’t suit you, then start building a referral list of reliable and reputable colleagues who specialize in your areas of weakness.

Editor and writer?

To be an effective indie fiction editor, it’s a great asset to be a fiction writer, too. Better yet, a published one. That gives you insight into what your clients are experiencing or need to prepare for down the road, and sharpens your understanding of craft. It’s hard to transfer from nonfiction to fiction editing without a solid base in storytelling and story structure, with “story” being the key word. The bottom-line difference between nonfiction and fiction is: Nonfiction provides information, and fiction tells a story.

If you don’t write stories, then read-read-read-read-read them. Study the many “how-to” books available. I have a list of preferred guides I hand out to almost every prospect and client. These help a lot during long lead times between scheduling a job and doing it, because the author has a chance to learn more and recast their manuscript into a stronger story, which makes the editing go more smoothly.

Another important area indie editors have to understand about themselves is mental and emotional flexibility. How much can you stand when dealing with different or difficult personality types? There’s no project manager as a buffer between you and the author, who might be pouring their guts out in their novels to a point that makes you embarrassed or ill. As well, an author might be unreliable in answering emails or making payments. They might have sexist or other “-ist” characters or viewpoints in themselves or their work that offend your values. They might be dreadful writers who are only paying you for a copyedit or a proofread when what they really need is a ruthless developmental edit. You know they’re going to get bad reviews, or have their dreams shattered by trying to interest an agent or traditional publisher in a novel with maybe one chance in ten million to sell. (Lotto-type wins do happen, though, so you can never assume there’s no chance.)

In sum, know your tolerance levels and have prevention practices in place and escape clauses in your contract.

Establishing transparency

The simplest way to tame the Wild West factor of indie editing with indie authors is to be transparent. Talk as much as you can before committing to a job. Get a feel for the author and the story. Tell them directly what services you provide for what costs. Answer all of their questions. Don’t let anyone snooker you.

Most of all, take authors seriously about their art and craft. Even the most masterful and successful novelists started somewhere, and as an indie dealing with indies, you’ll find that a lot of authors are going to start with you, and rely on you to direct them. You can have a meaningful influence on their confidence and careers.

Remember, too, that many creative writers have tendencies often considered clichéd but remain generally true despite that slur. Novelists are mainly artists, not technicians or businesspeople. An editor’s job is to help the author channel their vision into a product for other people to read and enjoy.

Without the resources and support system built into a traditional publishing house, indie editors working from home offices are mainly online with invisible clients and must figure out how to manage people of hugely diverse types who consider them experts in publishing — without fully understanding how many stages and people and skills and dollars are involved. That disconnect introduces a big “bumble fumble” factor, and it’s on the editor’s head to direct discordance into partnership and manage it throughout a project.

Resources

Because indie editors work alone, they gather in online groups to help each other. Here are some resources I have drawn on or know about that colleagues might find helpful.

Copyediting-L (email discussion list)

Facebook: Fiction Editors of Earth, Editors Association of Earth, EAE Backroom

Organizations: Editorial Freelancers Association, www.the-efa.org; National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, www.naiwe.com

AbsoluteWrite

SheWrites

An American Editor: https://americaneditor.wordpress.com (my essays on AAE: https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/tag/carolyn-haley/

Blogs with helpful newsletters for both editors and authors:

The Book Designer, www.thebookdesigner.com

Alliance of Independent Authors, www.allianceindependentauthors.org

The Passive Voice, www.thepassivevoice.com

Jane Friedman, www.janeFriedman.com

Writer Beware, www.victoriastrauss.com/writer-beware/

Funds for Writers

Ivan Hoffman (legal), https://ivanhoffman.com/

Janet Reid, https://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/

Kristine Kathryn Rush, Business Musings

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 three 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.netor through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences.

November 27, 2020

Thinking Fiction — The Indie Editor/Author Equation, Part 1

Carolyn Haley

In the business combination of independent editor and independent author, especially in the realm of fiction, both parties quickly learn that there are no rules to the game.

Yes, there are best practices we should all consider; and yes, editors and authors must adhere to the legalities and tax responsibilities required by their locations; and yes, there are generally accepted ethical guidelines in conducting financial transactions for services.

Aside from those, indie fiction writing-editing-publishing is the new Wild West!

That’s because anyone can open shop as an editor, just as anyone can write a novel. There are no educational or technical qualifications to be either; no licensure mandated, no expertise needed beyond functional literacy. No official entity is watching or managing; no sanctioned organization or employer is mentoring, evaluating, or penalizing. Individual editors and authors must decide on their own how to operate together, and make personal judgments on what constitutes “good enough.”

This combination almost guarantees messy relationships and novels. The negative results are well-represented in the marketplace, and well-covered in other articles and blogs. This essay focuses on how to avoid those messes and succeed as an indie editor working with indie novelists.

First steps — understanding each other

It starts with understanding what “indie” means. On the surface, “indie” is merely shorthand for “independent.”

For editors, that means “self-employed” (aka “freelance”) versus being on the payroll of a publishing house.

For authors, it means essentially the same thing — they are not writing on behalf of a company, only for themselves. They might plan to self-publish their novel from the start or decide to do so after failing to interest traditional publishers in their work, or they might seek to publish traditionally and persevere toward that end. Any of these authors might seek indie editors to help them advance toward their goals. That’s why we can’t consider “indie publishing” to be synonymous with “self-publishing.”

Options and efforts

It frequently falls on indie editors to help indie authors distinguish between their options and guide their efforts. The main distinction between traditional and indie publishing is in which direction the money goes, combined with author involvement and control.

In the traditional publishing model, the author never parts with a dime. The publishing house bears all of the editing, proofing, production, marketing/promotion, and distribution costs, and eventually the author gets royalties on sales (after earning out any advance), at a modest percentage.

Actually, it isn’t quite true that no money ever comes out of the author’s pocket in traditional publishing (trad-pub). To gain access to the best houses, and often any house at all, novelists need to sign with an agent. Agents offer many valuable benefits to an author, but in exchange they take a commission of 10–20% of the author’s earnings. That indirect tap is often overlooked in the trad-pub vs. indie-pub decision.

Because trad-pub has become extremely competitive, with more authors struggling for fewer slots, many authors hire indie editors before submitting their work to agents and acquisition editors to help get their novels onto the playing field. They also might purchase help to navigate the bewildering maze of queries and synopses. Sometimes that pre-submission investment pays off — big time! — but most authors never recover their investments.

When their novels do get picked up by a trad-pub house, they’ll likely have to pay for their own marketing and promotion to keep their books available over the long term. Although this happens a lot with small publishing houses, it’s becoming increasingly true with big houses, too, so the original economic advantage of traditional publishing is slowly being eroded by changing market forces and consumer practices.

On the control and involvement side: In traditional publishing, authors (or their agents) must negotiate what rights are granted to the publisher for what terms. Assuming they reach a satisfactory contract, the book goes into production and out of the author’s control. They might have some say in the cover design or marketing campaign, and/or acceptance/rejection input over editorial changes, but in many publishing deals, authors are left out altogether between signing the contract and seeing the finished book.

Indie publishing is the reverse. The author pays for everything up front, but gets the full return of any income after expenses, and retains full control of rights, and full or semi-control during production.

For example, if the author is publishing through an author-services company, such as BookBaby, then that entity might perform tasks the author isn’t involved in (e.g., editing, design, production) as part of a purchased package. But most times, authors get authorization control.

Danger comes if an unsavvy author hooks up with an unscrupulous company, which might confuse authors into signing away rights out of ignorance and deliver a sloppy, unprofessional product as well.

Authors who pursue true self-publishing are their own business: a micro-size company with full decision-making authority and retention of all rights. These author-publishers are wholly responsible for hiring editors, proofreaders, cover and interior designers, typesetters and formatters, audiobook narrators and producers, publicists, promoters, schedulers, accountant, attorney. Not to mention ensuring that all tasks are performed, and managing the outgo and income of the enterprise.

Real costs

Many new authors have no idea how much money publishing requires (thousands!), because for generations, those costs were buried in publishing house salaries and administration overhead — information not publicly available. When indie authors move outside that model to get indie help, they are often rocked back on their heels by “sticker shock.” This is a regular problem for indie editors seeking clients, because appalled authors who haven’t done their homework aren’t prepared to pay professional rates.

Originally, all book editors worked in-house for publishing houses. Over decades of economic, cultural, and media changes, editorial staff began getting pushed off payrolls and forced to go freelance or change occupation. Meanwhile, computers and the Internet made it easier to work remotely, drawing more editors into the field from myriad directions.

This change was accelerated by the entry of Amazon into the arena along with other author-service providers and aggregators/distributors, which transformed indie publishing from a pure vanity exercise to an intentional option for authors. In turn, it has increased demand for editorial support outside traditional publishing houses.

Today’s indie editors are predominantly sole-proprietor businesses who might contract with a publishing house, or an author-services provider, or directly with an individual author — maybe all of the above — to perform specific editorial services at self-established rates.

Editing roles

When working for a traditional publisher or author-services provider, indie editors deal with an intermediary, who might be called any combination of production or project manager/editor/coordinator. The indie editor has no contact with an author beyond the back-and-forth of files (sometimes not even that — indie editor provides edited files to the coordinator and never sees or hears about them again). The institution pays the editor, under terms that may or may not be negotiable. Editors must adhere to house rules of process and style (sometimes flexible; most times not), and usually wait weeks or months for their paychecks.

In contrast, when an indie editor works directly for an indie author, nobody else is involved. It’s a one-on-one private arrangement with lots of room to go smoothly — or horribly. Both parties are responsible for communicating what they want and need and expect; for establishing and agreeing to rules of engagement, and adhering to them; and being willing to discuss changes in a grown-up and flexible way.

In other words, they must make their own rules.

Time and experience among indie editors and authors are establishing successful approaches. Still, choices must constantly be made, be they for basic operation or how to organize an individual project. See Part 2 of this column for insights into what those choices could be and how to navigate them.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Friday, December 4.

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 three 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.netor through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for theNew York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences.

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
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

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.

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