Refreshment is Served

Unless you’re one of those people who collapses in a heap and writhes uncontrollably on the floor because someone moved the television remote, a little change is a good thing. Sometimes you just need to reboot.

We all struggle with change, of course. It interrupts the comfortable flow of our day. Last month, it even interrupted the flow of my semi-regular, sort of habitual blog posts. Six weeks is a long time to go between postings, but I have some very good reasons. March was a terrible month in many ways. In spite of that, I did manage to see a few bright spots:

  1. I finished a mammoth editing job on another writer’s excellent stab at an epic historical romance.
  2. I finished editing and paring down the utterly absurd and gross short piece I mentioned in my last post.
  3. I completely reinvented this blog on a new platform.

If your brain isn’t reeling and your eyes aren’t bleeding yet, you might notice that the look of the blog itself has changed dramatically. There’s a new menu system, a new design, and new functionality that comes as a result of having ported the blog from a CMS platform that is designed to be a CMS platform to a CMS/blog platform that is designed to be a blog platform. I won’t go into all the nuts and bolts of the new features here. I’m sure you’ll discover them if you need them. However, I would like to point out a couple of things. Because change is overwhelming, I’ll step through it slowly for you.

If you hover over the Plugins menu, you’ll see that I’ve added information about a brand new WordPress plugin: GoodReviews. It’s not available for download yet, but should be soon. It’s intended to allow authors and booksellers to use the Goodreads.com API to showcase book information on their own WordPress sites.

Still conscious? Good.

If you hover over the Publishing menu, you’ll see that I’ve highlighted some of my previous writing and editing work. I also plan to add an information technology section to this site as time goes on, because IT is so much a part of me.

More posts are on the way soon. I’ll also be guest-blogging on another site next week. Links to that post will appear here when it’s live.

Changes complete. Now, breathe.

Onward.

Since You Didn’t Ask…

No one wants advice–only corroboration. –John Steinbeck

One of the biggest problems with the business of writing and submitting short fiction for publication is the fact that there are few editors who are able to provide useful feedback on a rejected manuscript. They don’t have time. Who would, given the dozens of manuscripts writers tend to submit? Additionally, those editors don’t want to be bothered with writers who take constructive criticism as a personal attack, or as permission to submit a rewrite. Therefore, most editors simply say "this is not for me" and let it go while writers proceed through many a trial and error and beta audience before they ultimately give up or figure out on their own the answer to the burning question: "What’s wrong with my story?"

Recently, I spent a week furiously writing and polishing a horror story that I thought was pretty good, perhaps even the best I’ve written in a long time. Without giving myself a couple of days to let the finished work cool in my mind, I rushed it off in an e-mail to a bestselling author who is compiling stories of such types for a new anthology. Turns out that was a mistake. Well, sort of.

It was a mistake for me to not review the story with my own critical eye before submitting it. However, it was not a mistake to submit it, because the feedback I received on it was perhaps the most valuable I’ve ever received from an editor.

The verdict was that the story was ok but way over-written, meaning that in the process of developing the piece I’d pretty much thrown in the kitchen sink, showing and telling and describing to the reader every little piece of information that popped into my head. The result was a 9,100-word work of short fiction about a murder in a fast food restaurant’s men’s room that could have easily been told in a fraction of that space.

Did I feel the sting of rejection when I received that editor’s e-mail reply? You bet. I think any writer who receives genuine constructive feedback upon rejection would and should feel that sting. It’s the prick of the needle of truth. You only feel it when you know the reader is without a doubt correct in his or her assessment. Besides, if every manuscript you’ve ever cranked out receives nothing but positive feedback, you’re really only reading it to yourself in the mirror.

That sting is important. It doesn’t need to be nasty or unfriendly. It just needs to be honest. As for me, I spent a day licking my wounds and reconsidering my life. Then I went back to the manuscript and started cutting. Upon reviewing my first couple of paragraphs, I knew immediately that the editor had been right. A scene in the beginning of that story was originally four pages long. It is now approximately one page. 

In her [email protected] talk last week, bestselling author Anne Rice discussed how she gets through writer’s block. She does it in the exact same way I wrote the restroom murder story. She sits and she writes and she writes until something appears. The big difference between what she does and what I do is that she knows how to throw away the unnecessary stuff. Until now, I was apparently just leaving it in.

Looks Count

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. –Steve Jobs

Would you want to read a book that is typeset in 18-point cyan bolded Comic Sans with all the "important" words (and sentences…and paragraphs) in all capital letters, underlined, and italicized? 

If you say "yes, I would indeed enjoy reading a book formatted that way," then I shall label you a spiteful teller of tall tales. Take that!

If you really want to tick off an editor or an agent and have them immediately toss your hard work into the recycle bin, submit an improperly formatted manuscript. What’s an improperly formatted manuscript? Anything that doesn’t fit the submission guidelines of the publication or agency to which you’re submitting. Always read the submission guidelines before you send a manuscript.

Barring that, an improperly formatted manuscript is anything that doesn’t fit within the generally accepted standards of manuscript format. Generically, a standard manuscript should have the following characteristics:

  1. one-inch margins all around
  2. an easy-to-read typeface, such as 12-point Times New Roman or 12-point Courier New
  3. left justification, not full and not center; the words on the right side of the page should form a ragged pattern as you scan down the page
  4. a half-inch indent on the first line of each paragraph
  5. double-spaced paragraphs, which means that the lines of text on your page are separated by a full blank line that is generated by your word processor’s paragraph formatting function (not the Enter key); it also does not mean that you should manually include a blank line between paragraphs
  6. your name, the shortened title of the story, and a page number in the upper right corner of every page except the first/title page
  7. your name, address, email address, and telephone number in the upper left corner of the first page of the manuscript
  8. the approximate number of words in your manuscript (your word processor’s word count rounded to the nearest 100) in the upper right corner of the first page of the manuscript

Admittedly, the above guidelines were created before we regularly communicated our thoughts as bits over global network media, so they probably seem dated. Editors stick with them because not everyone’s standard of "looks good and is easy to read" is the same. The guidelines ensure that writers do not try to become graphic designers and that the quality of the written work takes center stage in the mind of the agent or editor.

You’re a writer, after all. You should be painting pictures with the meanings of your words, not with fonts, italics, bolds, colors, justification, and other word processor magic.

Headline TK

I suppose some editors are failed writers; but so are most writers. –T.S. Elliot

An acquaintance of mine recently lamented that we now live in a "first draft society." To protect the bottom line, newspapers have slashed editorial roles the same way that the folks who formerly filled those roles slashed unnecessary commas and participial phrases. As a result of these cutbacks, my friend is noticing more mistakes in his daily fish wrap.
 
Writers–especially beginning writers–can be a sensitive lot. Often we display an aversion to constructive crticism that causes us to dismiss it out-of-hand. Why have an editor when you have a non-judgemental word processor that has built-in spell-check and built-in grammar-check? Why pay someone to catch a misplaced comma that only the most pucker-mouthed of English PhDs would ever notice?
 
The answer is simple: editors are the writer’s conscience and voice of reason. They’re not there to simply bleed red ink (or Track Changes comments), cutting up our work in a fashion similar to the way Sweeney Todd gives a shave. They see our mistakes in logic. They point out paths we started and never followed. They see the obvious forest in our work that we often cannot because we are so entrenched among the trees.
 
When you’re trying to get a newspaper out the door to the printer, it’s important to have someone examining that forest. Otherwise, that scandalous front-page story about a well-respected politician could be received by readers in a way different from the way you intended because beneath the most shocking of the story’s accompanying photographs will be these two words: cutline TK.
 
For those who don’t know, cutline is another word for a photo caption. TK is an editorial abbreviation that means "to come." If you see cutline TK anywhere in a newspaper, the subtext of what you’re reading is this: "I don’t have enough information to finish this cutline right now and there are other things on my plate that have to get done before we can send the paper out the door. I’ll just type cutline TK here and move on to my other duties. Hopefully, someone will notice it before we go to press and call me after I’ve forgotten about it and headed down the street to pound a few beers."
 
Sure, editors won’t catch everything. And many, many times writers will disagree and argue with them over trivial things. But they’re an important bridge between the information the writer is attempting to communicate and the audience for whom that information is intended. Without an editor, a writer’s best work is perpetually TK.

The Waiting

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time and technological progress sure do change things. Twenty years ago, I had to wait until I received a paper statement from my bank to balance my checkbook. Now I can just download transactions any old time I want. Back then, I had to wait until a television show that I missed showed in a rerun unless I had the foresight to record it on my VCR. These days, I might just be able to stream an episode of my favorite show any old time I want.

I also remember submitting short story manuscripts to magazines back in the late 80s and early 90s. Very few publications accepted electronic submissions at that time. And even if they did, you couldn’t email them. You had to copy them to a–gasp!–floppy disk and drop them at the post office [cue a toddler asking "Mommy? What’s a floppy disk?"]. Worst case, you typed or printed the manuscript and paid the postage to mail it along with a self-addressed stamped envelope to ensure its safe return when the publication rejected it. (Did I say when? I meant if.)

Once your manuscript was loaded onto the postal truck and en route to its destination, you could wait anywhere from six weeks to six months to a full year for a response–if you received a response at all.

The best you could do to mitigate such delays was to cull through the most recent edition of the Novel & Short Story Writers’ Market, hoping against hope that you’d find a market that accepted your genre, accepted your word length, accepted stories from your region, happened to be open to submissions at that particular time of year, and promised a reply in less than six weeks.

Thank heavens for progress! These days you can often submit a manuscript to a magazine in a few seconds (any old time you want), just by clicking your email client’s Send button, or by filling out a form and uploading the document through a Web browser. After much anticipation, you can expect to receive your response… in six weeks to six months to maybe even a year! If you receive a response at all.

Oh.

I guess some things don’t change after all.

What’s more, that process of submission and acknowledgement probably won’t change much. The slushpiles on the desktops (real or virtual) of agents and editors might decrease a bit as a result of the new popularity of self publishing. Still, they’re called "slushpiles" for a reason. They’re massive. They’re hard to drive through. And they sit there forever, not melting away.

So, here’s one writer that you won’t typically find complaining about the length of time it takes to get a response on a manuscript submission, even if it’s a rejection (and most of them will be). Honestly, I’m happy if someone at a publication I submit to actually takes the time to pick up my submission and read through the whole thing.

Besides, our new culture of immediate gratification wears on me.

It’s kind of nice to wait for something for a change.

New Television Show Creator: ‘Publishing is a lot like sitcoms’

Love the quote from Gail Lerner:

CBS has landed a highly sought multicamera comedy script by "Will & Grace" alumna Gail Lerner.

The project, tentatively titled "Open Books," has received a pilot commitment from the network. It revolves around book editor June and her circle of friends.

"I like the frustrations, the collaborative process," Lerner said of publishing. "Publishing is a lot like sitcoms. Although both are supposedly dying, that only makes people more passionate about creating the next great novel or show."

Complete details at Yahoo! News.

Feeding Time

One of the most important steps in publishing is feedback, whether it’s from an editor or another trusted “expert” type source, which means it’s also important for an author to be able to graciously accept constructive criticism.

Sometimes that’s really difficult.

It’s natural for a writer to develop an emotional attachment to a creative work, and it’s hard to listen to anyone criticize your baby.

Still, in the end, the result is a better story. And that’s why I’m happy I have an honest person reading my own projects.

Seeing our work through the eyes of others is how we grow.

Even Flow

There’s a certain amount of rhythm a writer tries to maintain while composing his latest masterpiece. Much creative writing starts out as a kind of stream of consciousness setting down of thoughts on paper, and then, eventually, those thoughts become a single coherent stream. And from that stream rolls in the creative tide.

The frustrating part is when that flow is difficult to achieve. Whether one calls it writer’s block or simple tiredness from long hours at a day job, knowing what you want to say but not being able to set it down the way you want—not being able to achieve a “rhythm”—is aggravating.

Nevertheless, the rhythm eventually comes, and the flow follows, and the tide rolls in.

Roll with it.

Good Storytelling or Rut?

Stephen King once said that he is not so much a “good writer” as a “good re-writer.” And I think that would have to be said of anyone who tells a tale of any significant length in type.

Perhaps there are some writers who just “get it right” the first time through. I have had a little experience with getting it right the first time, but most of the time I write, then I revisit and write some more. Then I revisit and edit some choppiness. Then I revisit and write some more. Then I rewrite.

It occurs to me that there are several good reasons writers need to revisit and rewrite portions of a work in progress:

  1. A story evolves in the writer’s mind, and there may be elements that need to be added in earlier places to reflect later evolutions of the plot.
  2. The writer may have the basic skeleton of the plot written out in a basic narrative form, but the characters and settings haven’t been fleshed out well enough for the reader to actually enjoy the story or “get it.”
  3. There may be choppy sections of text where the writer originally struggled with conveying his story  or message to the reader that need to be smoothed out or rewritten completely later.

Like any other job, the ease of writing, the “getting it right the first time,” depends mainly on the frame of mind of the author at the particular time on the particular day he is writing.

Sometimes the words just come, and flow, and the writer rides a comfortable stream of consciousness that pools into keystrokes unobstructed.

And then there are the days when all he can do is pound his head against the desk.