Sunday, February 03, 2008

Editing, Part One

I had occasion, a year or so ago, to travel 30 miles north of Ashcroft and spend the day at David Stoddart Secondary School in Clinton, B.C., where I spent time with four different classes, talking to the students (grades eight through twelve) on various aspects of writing, publishing, and editing, with one class devoted to the discussion of ghost stories in general and 'The Monkey's Paw' in particular.

It was a fascinating day, and in some ways the most interesting class was the one spent with the students who edit the school's newsletter. I took along, by way of exercise, a page from a story that I had accepted for All Hallows and had edited prior to its publication in the journal (for the purposes of the exercise I did not identify the author). I had had to do some work on the tale, so I took along the first page as it was originally submitted, added a few errors of my own, and handed a copy to each student, asking the class to edit as they saw fit; then I went through the page a line at a time, asking what, if anything, anyone had changed on that line and then explaining the reasons behind my own changes.

The teacher told me afterwards that the students had found it very illuminating and helpful. During the class itself I heard from the students that they found editing quite difficult: not so much the actual editing itself, as trying to explain to people who were, after all, their friends and classmates why they had edited their work. They felt a certain amount of embarrassment at having to do this, explaining that the author often felt hurt. I explained, in turn, that an editor's job is to make an author look good, and that their friends, far from being hurt, should be grateful.

There is, of course, more to editing than going through a story and making suggestions as to what an author might do differently, or pointing out errors; there is also the job of getting the stories together in the first place, so that there's something to go through and edit. I currently do this for All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society, and for Ash-Tree Press, usually when Christopher and I decide, in a moment of reckless abandon, that we're going to do another anthology. In this post I'll confine myself to All Hallows, and leave Ash-Tree editing for another time.

All Hallows is an open submissions market, which means that we'll accept stories from anyone who cares to send one in; you don't have to be a member of the GSS to submit. These days most submissions arrive by e-mail, as attachments in Word, which method of submitting is encouraged: partly because I get eight to ten submissions a week, which is not so many that I can't read them on screen, and partly because if I do accept a story it's much easier when I have an electronic file, and don't have to typeset it. As to formatting: as long as it's legible (no strange fonts or graphic embellishments, please) then it's fine.

Most people who submit a story, whether electronically or by mail, attach some kind of cover letter, which I rarely read except in a very cursory manner. If a writer has a few credits in the field, then that's good to know; but I don't need to know what he or she does for a living, or the synopsis of the story (it's amazing how many people feel a need to summarise the story in their cover letter); and if your previous writing credits include non-genre publications then I'm not really interested. The story is what matters.

Here I should say that every story that comes in to All Hallows gets a chance, by which I mean I start to read it with an objective eye and clear mind. However, it soon becomes obvious who hasn't read the guidelines (which are faithfully spelled out on the Ghost Story Society's website). If a story isn't supernatural, or contains a lot of sex or graphic violence, or is about vampires, then I'm not interested, and won't bother finishing it, as there's not much point (and the author was warned).

I reject far more stories than I accept: I'd say that the ratio is about seven or eight rejects to every one accepted, if that. The vast majority of the stories which get rejected aren't necessarily actively bad—although I have seen my share of stories that wouldn't have passed muster for a high school writing assignment—they're simply . . . instantly forgettable. The writing may be—usually is—competent, but the story leaves no lasting impression; there's nothing there that I haven't read a hundred times before. The worst of these are the stories that take a cliché of the genre—the building that the protagonist takes refuge in, but which has disappeared the next day when he or she returns, and turns out to have burned down a hundred years ago—and then does nothing new with it. These stories are usually written by people who are not members of the GSS, whose names I don't recognise from my reading in the genre, and who clearly have very little knowledge of the ghost story.

Occasionally I'll get a story submitted which is fairly predictable, but which I accept, usually because the story is told exceedingly well, contains interesting characters, and is short enough that the predictability doesn't weigh against it. In most cases, though, predictable stories get a polite 'Thanks, but no thanks' letter. I also occasionally get a story which is very good, but which simply isn't suitable (for whatever reason) for All Hallows. In those cases, I'll say this in my reply to the author, and encourage them to try the story with another publication, and will offer suggestions as to where he or she might send it.

And then there are the stories which are good, but which for some reason don't quite work. If I can put my finger on why I think it doesn't work I'll say this to the author, and offer what suggestions I can as to how he or she might make it work. I usually feel a bit awkward making comments of this sort, and qualify them by saying that I do not set myself up as some sort of guru of the ghost story. However, what I do bring to the table is an objective eye, and one that has read a lot of ghost stories over the years. Sometimes an author is too close to a story to be able to see it objectively: she or he knows precisely what was meant, but what's clear in an author's head doesn't always make it onto the printed page, and occasionally an editor can spot an awkward transition or a missing piece of the puzzle, and point this out. When I do this—when I see a story that has promise, but which I feel needs something more—I always make it clear that I'd be happy to see the story again, should the author choose to rework it; and on a gratifyingly large number of occasions I've had stories re-submitted with my suggested changes taken on board, and have accepted the stories. I should also mention that, my reservations about offering suggestions notwithstanding, a large number of authors have expressed their gratitude for my suggestions; so I expect I'm doing something right.

Once I've accepted a story for All Hallows the unspoken agreement is that it doesn't need any rewriting or changes, so when it comes time to edit the story for publication I'm looking to correct mistakes of spelling and grammar, and make the story conform to house style (which means, amongst other things, Canadian spelling and punctuation). Authors whose stories appear in All Hallows always see a proof copy before publication, although by the time I send out a proof I expect the author to do little more than note any errors and perhaps make a tweak here and there. Of the authors who seem to think that the proof stage is a chance to rewrite the tale—and this has happened more than once—I will say nothing, except to note that by the time the story is in proof form I've already spent anywhere up to an hour editing and formatting it, which is why I'm not very happy when you decide to change the main character's name, or rewrite the ending, or add a long section in the middle detailing exactly why the heroine is travelling to York.

My main peeves? Besides plots whose outcome is obvious from the second paragraph, these would be people who obviously have no idea what sort of stories All Hallows publishes; people who clearly haven't done their research (I remember one story in which a character travelled by train from London to Manchester—in 1789; and another in which a character living in Birmingham, England talked of visiting the seaside 'only a few miles away'); and people who clearly have very little idea of basic grammar, or spelling, or word usage. I sometimes read a story which would be a disgrace to a grade ten student and wonder what kind of writer could possibly think that this story was ready to send to an editor for possible publication.

All Hallows is not a paying market; but that doesn't mean it's not a professional one. Stories that have appeared in All Hallows have been chosen for inclusion in 'Year's Best' anthologies; they consistently receive Honourable Mentions in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror; the journal is seen by major editors in the field, and is sent to awards bodies for consideration for genre awards; at least one author has received a book deal because an editor saw a story of his in the journal and liked what he saw; and the magazine itself has won a special Stoker Award, an International Horror Guild Award, and been nominated for a World Fantasy Award. So as markets for ghost stories go, an author could do much worse.

The bottom line, with stories for All Hallows, is that I'm looking for well-written stories that will appeal to some 400 people who have, between them, read thousands upon thousands of ghost stories. I want engaging characters; an interesting plot; clean prose which shows the author is familiar with basic concepts of grammar, spelling, and usage; and that indefinable something which makes the story linger in the memory after the last page has been turned. I can't always put my finger on it; but I know it when I see it, which is why I approach each story submitted for All Hallows with an open mind. Long may those submissions continue; but please—read the guidelines first.


nomis said...

I'd just like to point out my story, "Something New", that appeared in All Hallows #42, was about a vampire piano.

HA HA! I slipped that one by you, didn't I?

Barbara Roden said...

Let's just say that it wasn't your typical vampire, so that's fine.

My feeling, with ALL HALLOWS, is that we're typically about ghosts and the supernatural. Yes, supernatural does include vampires, so I'm willing to stretch a point now and then (as in the case of Simon's story, which I didn't, I confess, think of as a vampire story); but your typical blood-sucking vampire is well served by other publications, so I'd rather leave ALL HALLOWS as a place for stories that AREN'T as well served elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful post, Barbara.

I'm a big fan of All Hallows, and I'm very proud to have not just one but two stories appearing in upcoming issues.

I think part of my appreciation has to do with the fact that AH is a Canadian publication, and there just aren't enough of them that publish quality genre work.

Todd T said...

Very interesting. I appreciate the glimpse of the editrix at her desk, and how the fiction portion of AH goes from author to print.

My guess is that at least some of the folks who submit stories rife with elementary errors of English are like those tone-deaf singers who are convinced they are terrific. They just cannot see it, and no one will ever be able to point it out to them in a way that will get through.