An American Editor

April 20, 2020

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

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By Carolyn Haley

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

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

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

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

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

Owning one’s work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing is a craft as well as an art

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

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

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

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

Books are consumer products

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

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

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

Subjectivity

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

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

 

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

The impersonality of being an object

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

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

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

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

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

March 4, 2019

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

By Carolyn Haley

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

Extra padding

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

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

Loose ends

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

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

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

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

The subjectivity factor

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

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

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

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

The editor’s role

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

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

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

Appreciating the lazy …

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

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

April 12, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Three — Themes and Variations

Carolyn Haley

Dialogue is a big area of editorial focus in fiction. It presents multiple technical issues — making sure all open quotes are paired with close quotes; punctuation is inside or outside the quote marks as appropriate; terminal punctuation is there at all; quote marks are right-side-up and/or have no spaces around them, and are “curly” (typographer style) versus straight.

It also presents issues regarding who said what and how, and whether that information is needed. The primary content elements are identifier tags (the who part) and writing style (the how part). Two simple examples: “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he said quietly, versus, “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he whispered; and “Ready, aim, fire,” he shouted loudly, versus just, “Ready, aim — fire!

My house style regarding dialogue is to emulate what I see in the hundreds of traditionally published books I read and review annually. The accepted wisdom is to minimize tag use (e.g., he said), use an appropriate tag when needed (e.g., he whispered), and/or bracket the words with an action so the reader can follow the exchange (e.g., The general stood behind the troops and counted down with his arm. “Ready, aim — fire!”).

Dashes and Ellipses

Em dashes (—) and ellipses (…)occur often in novels to signify broken or interrupted speech or thoughts (em dash), or hesitant or trailing-off speech or thoughts (ellipses). Regardless of purpose, they have to be handled consistently in a manuscript. They are handled differently in manuscripts destined for electronic versus print production, which adds a formatting element to the editor’s equation.

My default practice is to edit for print production. More and more, though, my clients intend from the get-go to self-publish in e-book and/or print. I now need to negotiate up front how I will format the edited material I deliver. Some authors prepare e-books themselves; others send out their edited manuscripts for formatting, or publish through a service that does the e-book prep work for them; while some want me to do that prep as part of the edit.

In manuscripts intended for submission to traditional publishers or for self-publishing in print, the em dash without spaces on either side (closed up) is the preferred style. At production time, a typesetter will finesse line length and word spacing so line breaks occur correctly. MS Word files containing em dashes transfer well to page-layout programs; in submitted-for-consideration manuscripts, an author using em dashes (vs. double hyphens or en dashes) sends a subliminal signal to the acquiring editor that they either know what they’re doing or have worked with an editor and the manuscript is in respectable shape.

In manuscripts intended for self-publishing for e-readers, however, the em dash without spaces can be a hindrance. It adheres to the words on either side, and in text that will be enlarged or shrunken at will by the reader, the clumped-together words plus em dash can cause some funky spacing on the reader’s screen because of word wrap on variable scales. The dashes, therefore, have to have spacing around them, and ideally be attached to the preceding word with a nonbreaking space so word and dash will wrap together. In some cases, the e-book producer prefers an en dash ( – ) with spaces around it. For .epub files in particular, the ideal is for any dash to be a Unicode character.

Whatever the situation, somebody has to take care of dash detail. I offer value-added to my clients, where viable, by taking care of it myself.

The same is true for ellipses. In conventional print production, ellipses comprise nine elements: word+space+point+space+point+space+point+space+word. Typesetters insert hard spaces in this sequence to avoid line breaks between the points. I can do that in Word as part of grooming the text during an edit, and often do. Manuscripts slated for e-book production, though, work best if the ellipses are coded as a single character — a three-point unit without spaces between the points, with or without spaces before and after. Spacing around the three-point character allows for better wraps during enlargement or shrinking.

Again, this is a formatting detail I can provide or ignore, depending on the client’s desires. Where it applies to house style is establishing with the author what route to take, then performing the task and recording the choice in the style sheet.

Putting It All Together

I communicate my house style through the style sheet I produce for each manuscript. I start by listing my core references.

References used for general style

  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, online unabridged, first variant used unless indicated
  • Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.
  • Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed.
  • Multiple online sources

Some manuscripts are clean and simple, so I stop there. Others require lookups from throughout my library and the Internet, which I don’t list unless a particular project requires heavy, repeat consultation.

For example, one militaristic science fiction novel included many biblical quotations. In checking the quotes for accuracy, I discovered there are multiple versions of the Bible, and quote checks among them showed variables in phrasing. The differences could be just a word or two, or complete sentences. In this client’s book, a few checks against his phrasing showed that the King James Bible matched his work most closely, so I made sure that all the quotes in the novel aligned with the phrasing of the King James version, which I listed on the style sheet as a resource.

In the same manuscript, I had to check a lot of firearms, too, so I listed my primary resource: the annual edition of the Gun Digest catalogue. Another author switched back and forth between metric units and other measurement systems. After checking which the author wanted, I converted those numbers in the text. Years ago, I found a website I like to use for that purpose (www.convert-me.com); when I use it a lot, I list it to show the author where I got my numbers.

This information is all I provide on the style sheet for references. I don’t think a client needs to know every single book or website I use to check something. I list the top three or four resources to make the point that I employ the tools of my trade and have indeed checked items that needed verification. This signals the same point to other publishing professionals who might follow me in the chain, such as a proofreader or an agent, an acquiring editor, or a publisher’s in-house editor. My resource list tells them the manuscript has been professionally edited and which frame of reference the editor used.

Next on the style sheet, I provide a bullet list of applicable generalities. While these mainly concur with the core references, they accommodate any dominant deviations and reflect things done globally to the manuscript. Here’s an example from a contemporary time-travel fantasy.

Conventions followed in this manuscript

  • add ’s in singular possessives ending in s (Dr. Jones’s, Professor Albates’s, his boss’s)
  • cap first word of full sentence after colon
  • cap honorifics and titles in direct address or referral (Father vs. my father; King Ageis vs. the king)
  • cap university class and division names (Modern Physics, Thermodynamics, Psychology, Biochem; but: the medical school, the business school)
  • cap software or keyboard commands (Run, Stop, Send) and lever positions (Drive, Park)
  • comma after long introductory phrases (4+ words) and to separate long compound sentences
  • comma before last item in series (friends, students, and professors)
  • comma before terminal too, anyway, though, either [untracked]
  • distinction made between each other (two) and one another (several), except in dialogue
  • ellipses = traditional print version ( . . . ) with hard spaces between points to prevent breaking at line ends
  • italics for book and media titles; foreign languages; ship names; emphasis; sounds (pop); telepathy; thoughts/inner speech/remembered speech; unspoken language (she mouths, Everything is always okay); words as words (To her, okay is the male equivalent of the female favorite, fine.), letters as letters; dreams; text messages
  • no comma between easy-flow coordinate adjectives where meaning is clear (hot clammy darkness, large green leaves, low sweet sound)
  • no comma in common informal expressions (“Oh my,” “Oh yes”; but: “Yes, sir”)
  • no s in –ward words (backward, upward, toward) [untracked]
  • no single quotes used except for quotes-within-quotes
  • numbers spelled out zero through one hundred, plus round hundreds, thousands, fractions, and any in dialogue (except years and other special items, e.g., firearms and ammo [.50, 9 mm])
  • numerals for dates, decimals, huge numbers (1043), alphanumeric combinations (3-D, Fortune 500, room 603, I-82, serial number 34321-KT-14133, section 9B5, DL99 maintenance drone)
  • title caps in quotes for signs (“No Trespassing”), including tattoos

After this summary, I provide an alphabetical list of terms. These cover anything I look up to confirm that the dictionary or style guide differs from what the author uses, along with proper nouns that aren’t addressed elsewhere in the style sheet, words unique to the manuscript, foreign-language terms or phrases, any word including a diacritical mark, technical terminology, and whatever else might be relevant. Here are a few examples from a contemporary fantasy novel:

amid (vs. amidst)

among (vs. amongst)

ax (vs. axe)

back seat (vs. backseat)

blond (masc. & generic); blonde (fem. n.)

co- (hyphenated; co-anchor, co-worker [contrary to MW, save for co-opt])

decor (vs. décor)

facade (vs. façade)

naive (vs. naïve, but: naïveté)

And so on. In complex novels, the terms list can run for pages. Likewise the sections for characters and places, which I subdivide as needed for clusters — families, companies, opposing forces, human and alien societies, flora and fauna, spacecraft; whatever is appropriate for the book.

I also include chronology for stories with complicated timeframes and changing viewpoints. In simpler stories, which might take place in a few hours or a few days, in an obvious progression, I take care of any hiccups by querying in the manuscript rather than map out the complete timeline.

Balancing Act

Most of the time, dealing with variables is just a balancing act between upholding professional editing standards without interfering with a client’s voice and vision, and it occurs without client involvement. If something is especially sticky, or requires a global change throughout the manuscript, I contact the client and we work it out while the job is in process, rather than after I deliver the manuscript, so the client isn’t surprised.

As noted above, there are times when author preference prevails over house style. If the author keenly prefers something I object to, they can have their way. It’s not my book, and English is a complicated and fluid language. Authorities agree that they disagree on the fine points, so my house policy is to not slavishly adhere to something that isn’t critical. If I get too carried away with enforcing my preferences, I might exceed the scope of work and create deadline or payment problems with an alienated author. Who needs that?

Another factor to consider is that many fiction writers are passionately protective of their work. Indeed, some of my clients have come to me after bad experiences with other editors who got overzealous about “the rules.” The authors don’t necessarily know what the rules are; they only know that corrections were applied arbitrarily and heavily to change their prose for no apparent reason. I find being the replacement editor an uncomfortable position to be in. I work just as hard as other editors to learn my craft and might be inclined to heavily change the author’s prose, too. This is why I’m careful about defining the scope of my work with my clients.

Even with well-defined boundaries, though, occasions arise when an author wants to keep something that I know to be technically wrong according to acknowledged authorities, or silly/stupid/counterproductive/embarrassing according to my own common sense. In those cases, editorial rules have to be trumped by human ones, such as the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the copyeditor’s mantra (“It’s not my book, it’s not my book . . .”).

The bottom line is customer satisfaction and paid bills. If I can see a problem client coming, I’ll decline the work opportunity, but if something conflicting develops during an otherwise going-well job, I will concede that “the customer is always right” and give them what makes them happy. (To guard against that policy getting out of hand, I’ve inserted a clause in my contract that holds the client responsible for the ultimate content of the book.)

Absent passionate client feeling about a particular point, I focus on choosing between correctness and appropriateness. As long as the text is clear, consistent, and using variations allowed by reference works honored by the publishing industry, I find no need to interfere with an author’s writing style and overload a manuscript with markups. After all, a writer’s choice of spelling or punctuation may be perfectly correct according to one authority but not another, such as one or more of the core references underpinning my house style.

Why a House Style Works

Having a house style, I’ve found, allows greater efficiency when editing a novel because I spend less time looking up rules and spellings, and weighing alternatives against each other. The act of establishing and fine-tuning a house style forces me to make both macro and micro choices about my editorial approach, and following a house style makes me consistent within a single project as well as across all projects. The combination gives me the editorial equivalent of what novelists seek for themselves: an individual voice.

We may never discuss the nitty-gritty of my editorial choices, but on the rare occasions when clients do question a choice, I have a basis upon which to answer and discuss. This increases their confidence in my ability and helps us communicate better. The result is a mutually satisfying editing job that often brings a client back with their next novel, and encourages referrals. That achieves my ultimate goal: a win-win relationship between author and editor, resulting in a better novel with its best chance for success in the author’s chosen market.

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

January 15, 2010

The eBook Wars: Adding “Extras” to Shore Up Price

Publishers are thinking about different ways to encourage consumers to equate ebooks with value and value with a higher (relatively speaking) price. The questions ideas like the Vook (a blend of a book with a video) raise are numerous, but in the end all boil down to this: Are consumers willing to pay a premium price for an ebook with “extras”?

Publishers look at DVDs as a model but fail to look further than the initial DVD release. (What are they thinking now that DVD sales are tumbling?) Perhaps the lesson to be taken from DVDs is not the value of “extras” but the constantly declining price. DVDs often start at a suggested price of $21 but a real-world selling price of $14, rise temporarily to $18, then begin a steady, dramatic decline to prices as low as $5, and sometimes lower.

The one thing not answered in the DVD example is the question: Do the “extras” influence consumers buying of the DVD at any point in the sales cycle? How many consumer sales are made because of the presence (or absence) of the extras? I wonder because I own several hundred DVDs and not once was my decision to buy influenced by the presence or absence of extras. In addition, I checked out the extras on fewer than 5 DVDs. What influenced my decision to buy was, first, my interest in the film, and second, the price: The lower the price, the more likely I was to buy; however, I admit to having stopped buying DVDs when the format wars started and haven’t resumed buying.

Am I willing to pay a premium for ebooks with “extras”? I have given that a lot of thought, and my honest answer is very rarely — never in the case of fiction and occasionally in the case of nonfiction ebooks. If I were buying a book that had complex directions on how to repair something, I might be glad for a companion video; however, I’d probably be a lot happier with better and more detailed instructions and illustrations. I certainly wouldn’t be willing to pay even a nickel more for an interview with the book’s author. If the book’s author can’t convey his or her message within the book’s text, then the author has failed and an interview to clarify the text means I shouldn’t have bought the book to begin with. Similarly, I wouldn’t be willing to pay a premium for a travelogue showing the locales of the novel, or for a movie trailer, or for someone’s literary analysis.

The fundamental problem with “extras” is that they are afterthoughts. They should not be necessary to the book, certainly in the case of fiction. If they are necessary to the novel, then the novel itself isn’t worth buying. When extras are needed to explain the book, it signals poor authorship. (Extras can, however, add value to select nonfiction.) I have tried to think of what extra that would accompany a novel that would be so compelling that I would pay a premium for it. I haven’t yet come up with one.

If a novelist knows how to tell a story and is good at it, then the novelist will paint with words everything I need to see to understand the book. A good novelist doesn’t need a video to convey the bright lights and dark alleys of Broadway at midnight; a good novelist describes a character’s appearance so well that the reader knows what the character looks like. Isn’t that what distinguishes the written word from the picture (moving or static) —  the ability to self-imagine. Of what value is a novel that thwarts the reader’s imagination?

Is there any reader of the Lord of the Rings who doesn’t “see” Gandalf based on Tolkien’s description? Do readers need to see Peter Jackson’s vision of Gandalf to know what Gandalf looks like? I suspect that every young reader knew what Rowling’s Harry Potter looked like long before the first movie came out. Are publishers really saying that the novels they publish are so badly authored and edited that the only way to justify a their price for the ebook is to provide extras?

I can see a travel book using extras to help the traveler find a restaurant or know precisely which bolt in the Eiffel Tower Emile Zola touched. I suppose that in a fiction book there could be added information about the time or the locale of the story, but how many readers either care or would make use of the extra? More importantly, how many readers would view the extras as sufficiently valuable that they would willingly pay a premium for them? Yes, there will be some readers, but I suspect the vast majority are unwilling to pay a nickel more for extras, which means publishers are adding to their production costs but still not surmounting price issue.

So, how do publishers add value to an ebook that might warrant charging the type of prices that consumers are currently rebelling against? I guess I’m back to my original suggestion: improve quality. A poorly edited ebook, an ebook rife with typographical errors, an ebook with unreadable illustrations — basically a poor quality ebook — cannot command the kind of pricing that publishers are trying to push, with or without extras.

Readers buy a book to read and enjoy for the written words. That’s probably why they are called readers.

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