Monday, January 03, 2011

Editing Made Ridiculously Simple (Part One)

I wrote the following post for Simon Marshall-Jones's Ramblings of a Tattooed Head blog, to try to explain the editing process to those who might not be entirely clear as to what goes on and why. Part Two of the post will follow in the next week.

When Simon suggested that I write a guest blog entry, I wasn’t sure quite what he wanted. I could, I said, write from a writer’s perspective; but I’d be equally at home writing as an editor. Simon immediately said that he thought something from an editor’s perspective would be just the ticket: 'I think a piece from someone on the other side of the table, so to speak, would be a great idea. I've concentrated so far on writers, but editors need their say as well.' So there you have it. If you enjoy what follows, then I’ll happily take the credit; if you don’t, it’s all Simon’s fault.

To tell you the truth, I’m rather pleased not to have to whitter on about writing. It’s a very personal and internal thing, writing, immensely interesting to the person doing it, but considerably less so to almost everyone else. You know how much blood you’ve shed getting those 739 perfect words down on paper in a given day, but anyone watching would merely have seen someone staring at a computer screen, furious bursts of tapping alternating with the dull click of the backspace key being deployed, heartfelt sighs, cursing, long periods of inactivity, the consumption of innumerable cups of coffee/tea/beer/whisky/water (delete where applicable), and the single sharp tap which indicates that a whole block of text has been deleted.

Editing, though: well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish (in some respects; the staring at a computer screen, occasional furious bursts of tapping, sighs, cursing, and consumption of liquids is about the same). First of all, the words editor (noun) and edit (verb) are often used very broadly, when in fact not all editors do the same thing, and there are different types of editing. Today I’m going to talk about the editor whose name is on the cover of the book; for the purposes of this piece I’m going to go with an anthology called The Colossal Book of Fantastic Vampire Cat Stories, edited by Ellen Hartwell-Jones, although a lot of comments will apply to magazines and their editors as well. The person whose name on the cover is preceded by the words 'Edited by' is the person whose vision shaped the anthology: she developed the guidelines (possibly with some input from the publisher); decided whether the anthology was open to general submissions or was by invitation only; invited those authors she wanted contributions from (in the latter case); read every submitted story; and, finally, decided which stories will make it into the finished anthology. Her work goes beyond all this—in some cases far beyond—but for today I’m going to limit myself to what I’ve detailed above.

The guidelines are—or should be—fairly straightforward, with the editor explaining exactly what type of story she’s looking for, and often what she’s not ('No zombies'). If the editor doesn’t want explicit sex or violence, this is where she’ll say so. Word count will be mentioned ('2,000 to 6,000 words' or 'up to 10,000 words'), as will payment details, the reading period or final deadline for submissions, what format the manuscript should be in, whether electronic submissions are okay or she’d prefer paper manuscripts sent by snail-mail, and sometimes what the response time is expected to be. If this is a sequel or follow-on to a previously published anthology—perhaps this is The Second Colossal Book of Fantastic Vampire Cat Stories—the editor might suggest you read the first volume, to get a good idea of just what sort of stories she’s looking for.

Now, the following piece of advice might sound as if it should be filed under 'B' for Bleeding Obvious, but here goes. Read the guidelines carefully and in full. Then read them again, and a third time for good measure. This ensures that you might well find the answer to a question you had after the first read-through, and that you know exactly what the editor is looking for, how it’s to be presented, and by what date (of course, if you still have a question, or need clarification about something, then by all means ask: better to do so at the beginning of the process than at the end). Unless you’ve received permission from the editor to, say, exceed the word limit, or get an extension to the deadline, or send your manuscript electronically when she specified snail-mail, then it’s simple: follow the guidelines.

Think of the process of getting your story accepted as a hurdles race. From the outset, there are a few hurdles in your way: how good is your story? how much competition do you have? how closely does your story fit with the guidelines? Every time you deviate from the guidelines, you’re needlessly putting another hurdle in your path, and potentially decreasing your chances. Submissions open on June the 1st? Don’t send your story on May 20th. Guidelines specify Times New Roman? Don’t use Arial. Words that are to be italicised in the final text should be underlined? Wean yourself away from Ctrl+I. Don’t know what Standard Manuscript Format is? Look it up.

I’m not saying that an editor will reject your story unread because it’s in the wrong font, or you’ve used italics when she’s specified underlining instead; but she wouldn’t be human if she didn’t think 'What a maroon', or some variant thereof, and wonder just how closely you read the guidelines, or how well you grasped them, and these thoughts won’t reflect well on you. And in the case of sending the story before the submission window opens, the editor won’t think 'Wow, he’s really eager, bet it’s a great story, I have to read it'; she’ll be thinking 'The idiot couldn’t even pay attention to a simple thing like when to send in the story' at the same time that she reaches for the Delete key.

On to who gets to submit. Open submissions are much loved by writers, for obvious reasons—everyone who wants to submit can give it their best shot, and has a chance—and not so greatly loved by editors, also for obvious reasons (everyone who wants to submit, can). Depending on any number of factors, an open submission policy can result in hundreds of stories flooding across an editor’s desk; and while it does mean that an unknown, or little-known, writer has a chance of cracking the Table of Contents of a major anthology, it also means that the editor will inevitably have to wade through dozens upon dozens of stories which are poorly written, or unsuitable, or both. It’s little wonder, then, that many editors opt to go the invite only route, limiting potential contributors to writers the editor knows, or whose work she knows, or who come highly recommended. It means that the editor can be more or less assured that the submissions she gets will be of a fairly high calibre, and also that she has an idea of who she’s going to be dealing with.

This does pop the lid open on a can of worms, the one that goes something like 'It’s a closed shop, it’s not what you know it’s who you know, it’s always the same people who get invited, how’s a newbie writer to get a foot in the door?' It’s true that an invite-only anthology is something of a closed shop, and that established writers whom the editor knows, whose work she likes, and with whom she’s worked well in the past, are likely going to be invited to submit. However, no editor can, or wants to, depend on the same small group of people time after time, and is usually keeping her eyes and ears open, looking for good new talent, or listening to word of mouth from people she trusts. If your writing is good, and you’re getting yourself published and your name known, then it’s safe to say that you will eventually get your foot in the door.

This is where magazines—whether physical or on-line—come into play. Magazines need to fill pages, and need to do this over and over again, which is why they encourage submissions from anyone who cares to send a story. As a stepping-stone to book publication, they’re almost always an essential first step, a way of getting your name out there in the first place. However, many magazines are looking for a very specific type of fiction, and it’s important to ensure that you know what they want. A magazine looking specifically for horror, for example—look, it says horror, there in the guidelines!—could be looking for horror as exemplified by James Herbert in Rats; in which case your delicate Victorian-set tale of psychological horror written as an homage to James (Henry, not M.R.) is likely to be rejected. I mentioned earlier the occasional request, by an anthology editor, that prospective authors look back at previous anthologies in the series (where applicable) to see what she’s looking for. This goes double in spades for magazines. When the guidelines suggest that authors not familiar with the magazine buy a copy or two, it’s not just because someone wants to shift a few back issues taking up space in the warehouse; they really are trying to do you a favour, so that you don’t waste their time (or yours). Hands up, everyone who thinks they know what sort of story Weird Tales is looking for; and keep your hands up if you’ve read an issue of the magazine since the current fiction editor, Ann VanderMeer, took over early in 2007.

So now the deadline for submissions has come and gone, and Ellen Hartwell-Jones is sitting with a pile of stories to consider. She’s probably been reading submissions as they come in, and has already informed some authors that their story isn’t suitable. Whether the work in question is an anthology or a magazine, the editor doesn’t have to go into detailed explanations as to why your story isn’t being accepted, and she certainly doesn’t have to critique your work; if you want a thorough critiquing of a story you’ve written, join a writers’ group (guaranteed way to annoy an editor: upon receiving a rejection notice, immediately contact her and ask if she has any suggestions as to how your story could be made better/more suitable/more saleable. If the editor thinks there’s something salvageable there, at least for the project she’s working on, she’ll say that upfront). There are any number of reasons why a story doesn’t get accepted, even leaving aside those works that simply aren’t very good, or aren’t at all what the editor is looking for. In the case of Ellen, looking for fantastic vampire cat stories, it could be that you’ve written a story in the classic vein of M. R. James, set in England between the Wars, and she’s inclining more towards contemporary tales, slightly edgier or more modern in terms of attitude or setting (or that’s the way the anthology is turning out), and your story will be out of place. You could have tipped more into fey whimsy than she’d like; if all the other tales selected are fairly hard-hitting, yours won’t fit. Maybe you wrote an absolutely kick-ass fantastic vampire cat story featuring time travel, but unfortunately for you someone else wrote a slightly more kick-ass fantastic vampire cat story featuring time travel. Space is at a premium in anthologies, and most editors are wary of taking two stories that are too similar. The space issue also means that the longer your submission is, the better it’s going to have to be. If an editor has 10,000 words left to fill, and it’s a choice between your 10,000 word tale and two 5,000 word tales of the same calibre, your story is going to be a tougher sell.

And now, sadly, we must take our leave of Ellen Hartwell-Jones, as she sits and considers the stories she has assembled for The Colossal Book of Fantastic Vampire Cat Stories. Her work is not yet over, not by a long chalk; there’s a heap of editing still to be done. But that will feature in another post; for now we’ll bid her farewell, as she raises a glass of the tipple of her choice, and perhaps sighs, just a little, as she thinks about what lies ahead.

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