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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

There May Be A Reason Your Editor Is Crabby

With five books and somewhere around fifty shorter works published by a variety of small, medium, and large publishers, I have some experience with the editing process. I’ve had editors who have given my work no comments at all and I’ve had editors who have asked for substantial overhauls altering the plot and major characters. And, like any writer, I have a few horror stories about editors, like the one who asked me to revise my submission to de-emphasize certain characters and highlight another only to ask me (not that politely) why the hell I did that in the next draft I submitted to him. I even had an editor once who had apparently had such a traumatic experience in real life with a certain kind of punch (the liquid refreshment, not the pugilistic kind) that she admitted she refused to have any reference to that type of punch in anything her authors wrote. Overall, though, my experience with editors has been pretty good. That’s probably because I do my best to comply with the submission guidelines of the publisher and because I take the time to proofread my material carefully before submitting it. I’ve also had some experience with editing the material of others, whether that be by providing mark-ups to fellow writers in a writers’ group, being a beta reader for stories or novels by friends, or marking up documents for my pre-retirement day job. (If you want a darkly humorous take on the workshopping process, check out Frame Shop: Critiquing Another Writer Can Be Murder, my mystery-thriller set in a suburban writers’ group.) Last year, I took the next step in my editing career, agreeing to edit and publish Familiar Spirits, an anthology of ghost stories promoted by magician William Pack. Since both Bill and I knew a number of writers from local writers’ groups or our own connections, and I wanted to avoid slogging through hundreds of submissions from amateur writers, we issued a limited call for submissions to people or groups we knew. While brief, the call covered the essentials for a proper submission, seeking “original ghost stories between 2,500 and 5,000 words,” indicating where and how such submissions should be made, and specifying “submissions must be Word documents in standard format; double-spaced 12 pt. Times Roman font. ... No multiple submissions. No simultaneous submissions.” If you don’t know what all of that means, you should really spend some time on some writing websites and learn the terminology of the business before you submit anything anywhere. Of course, some people thought these very limited and straightforward rules did not apply to them. It’s one thing to ask an editor if they are willing to make an exception (long or short) on length, but quite another to submit stories that are significantly longer or shorter than requested without bothering to ask. By the way, always use word count, not the number of pages, when communicating with industry professionals; pages are variable depending on formatting, while word count is precise. Easy, too, as your computer counts the words for you. While we're on the subject of counting things, the very first rule is to learn how to count to one and stop. Only obnoxious amateurs make multiple submissions when that is specifically disallowed. Keep in mind at all times that writing and editing are professions and your communications need to be professional. You not only want to follow the rules because the editor created those rules for a reason, but because it demonstrates to the editor that you are someone with whom he or she can have a productive and aggravation-free working relationship. Avoid doing things that brand you as an amateur. Like what, you say? Well, one person submitted a tale at the very beginning of the submission period via email in which she asked if she could still submit her story that night to one of the local writers’ groups because she had “doubts about the story” and wanted a “groupthink” on it. Then, she went on to say that it had been submitted elsewhere and rejected. Here’s a thought. Workshop your story, fix it, then submit it later during the submissions period. Look, your job as a writer is to persuade. Your story needs to persuade the reader to care about what is happening so they continue reading. Your cover letter needs to persuade the agent, editor, or publisher that they should read the story because it is what they are looking for and is ready to print. Yes, I still read the story referenced in the prior paragraph—because I am a compulsive kind of guy—but I admit freely that if it had been on the borderline of acceptance or rejection, the cover email would have tipped it to the rejection pile. If you have doubts about a story, fix them, then submit; don’t burden the editor with your insecurities or your unfinished stories. And, since we are speaking about open calls and guidelines, actually submitting a story that is on the subject of the call for submissions is a must. Oddly, despite having made a call specifically for ghost stories, I received plenty of stories that had not a single ghost in them. Look, I’m not saying you can’t play around at the margins of the subject-matter for a call for submissions. After all, you want to make sure that your story is different from all the other stories submitted for the call. I’ve done that plenty of times. But, there’s a distinction between a unique take on the topic and being completely off-topic. Off-topic stories waste everyone’s time. Continuing on the theme of wasting time, let’s talk about format issues. Follow the guidelines on format. If no guidelines are specified, follow general industry guidelines or Google “Shunn format” and read all the way through its guidance. Remember that everything you do which does not already conform with what the editor is doing will require him or her to fix it, whether they go to print or to an e-reader file. You may think that’s the editor’s job, but it is not. It is your job. It may take only fifteen minutes to properly format your story, but when an editor has to do that for ten or twenty stories, it really adds up. So, no tabs for indentation; use the indentation feature of your word-processing system (Word or RTF files are the most common file formats requested). Don’t add random spaces at the end of a paragraph; end the paragraph with the period of the last sentence in it. Those erroneous spaces affect line and page breaks. (As for the debate over two spaces vs. one space at the end of a non-paragraph-ending sentence, follow guidelines, but keep in mind it is easy to do a “change-all” to switch two spaces to one. Harder to change one space to two in a few seconds.) Also, keep in mind that your editor is dealing with lots of stories, lots of bios, and lots of author photos. Use file names useful to him or her in keeping track by actually using the story name in the file name (rather than story.doc or submission.doc or somesuch), your name in your bio file (rather than bio.doc), and your name in your photo file (rather than smallphoto.jpg or whatever). Your editor may never thank you for that favor, but he won’t be cursing you while trying to hit deadline. Similarly, unless the call specifies that submissions be blind (i.e., not have identifying information on them), please put your name on your story so the editor doesn’t have to look it up when he or she is thinking about sending you an acceptance. If your story is accepted, please pay attention to the contract. If it says you must have a PayPal account to get paid, open a PayPal account. If it has an exclusivity period, pay attention to it. If it tells you what the discount is for extra copies for authors, don’t bother the editor/publisher with questions about how much extra copies cost. Finally, we get to the editing itself. First of all, remember that the call for submissions was made and your story was selected because the editor/publisher wants to put out a quality publication containing great stories on that topic. Accordingly, assume, even if the editor is heavy-handed or even occasionally misguided in making comments, suggestions, and changes, the goal is to make your story better for the reader. Approach comments with an open mind. It’s easy to get defensive or protective of your work or to take comments personally—I sometimes still have to stifle that urge, even with my long years in the business—but, it’s all just part of the process of being a professional writer. That’s not to say you have to roll over for every comment made. Just pick your battles carefully, especially if the manuscript is marked-up heavily. Do you really care that much about a punctuation or word change? Or do you care more that the editor misunderstood a character’s motivation or suggested a change which upsets the timeline? If you tend to write long and/or submit at the upper end of the word count range for submissions, don’t be surprised if the editor trims for space and pace. If you don’t like an editorial suggestion or don’t want to make the change, don’t just say “no.” Either suggest an alternative way to solve the problem or explain why leaving the text as written is important in the context of the story. This may be because the seeming error is not, in fact, an error (e.g., an uneducated person may use poor grammar in dialogue) or because the editor has missed some earlier reference, clue, or explanation. Remember, though, to think through the situation dispassionately and objectively. Keep in mind that some comments may have been made because of a lack of clarity at some point earlier in the story. Sure, editors can be confused or mistaken (they work on multiple stories and projects in a limited time frame), but sometimes an author knows what he or she meant to convey so well, they forget they didn’t actually convey everything they meant to the editor/reader. While you might be able to explain why a particular comment is incorrect to the editor, you won’t be sitting at the shoulder of every reader to give that explanation, so it may make sense to suggest a clarifying change elsewhere when rejecting a specific edit. Editing is a tedious and time-consuming process. Remember, you, as the author, are only dealing with one story. An editor may be dealing with ten or twenty or thirty stories in an anthology project or magazine issue and may have multiple such projects going on at any one time. So, if the editor wants your changes via the word-processor’s “Mark Changes” feature, do it that way. It they want you to send an email discussing comments by page, paragraph, and line number, do it that way. Make their life easier and they will remember for future projects; make their life harder and they may reject your future submissions unread. Lastly, once the project is complete and the product is out, carry your share of the burden of marketing the book. Write about it in your blog (with imbedded links to where to purchase), post about it on social media (with imbedded links to where to purchase), do a reading at a local store or genre convention (with copies available for sale), and tell your friends, your fellow writers, and your alumni association. Anthologies are not generally big money makers and one of the things that makes them work at all is that the marketing muscle of ten or twenty or thirty authors is greater than the marketing muscle of just one author, editor, or publisher. It’s fine to get a copy to show off—maybe one for your mom, too—but if the book doesn’t sell well and make money, it is less likely the editor or publisher will do more anthologies, which makes it harder for all of us to sell our stories. You may think you are too cool to bother with marketing, but think about how cool you will be if people actually read your work and you get fan mail or get a new opportunity to write another story or book or win an award or become a best-selling author. Heck, maybe someday somebody will ask you to edit an anthology so you can write a blog like this, too. In the meantime, take a look at Familiar Spirits and let me know whether you think I did a good job, in spite of all of my crabbiness and complaining about the process. Aloha,

Donald J. Bingle Writer on Demand TM

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