Tag Archives: Editors

Reality is Unrealistic

23 Sep

TV Tropes has an extensive selection of examples of the ways in which reality is unrealistic. That is, things that are true but which tend to strike readers or viewers as false. The same thing also afflicts editors, as I experienced twice recently.

My first experience was a passing reference, in a steampunk story set during the Prussian siege of Paris, to the loss of water pressure and the character’s need to wash at the sink. This struck the editor as liable to break a reader’s suspension of disbelief as “this is how everyone washed then.” Of course, this was in a story featuring electric artillery, massive land-battleships and a pneumatic postal system (not to mention the undead). Yet, while a reader could be expected to swallow such scientific advances, piped water was a step too far. Piped mail, but not piped water.

In real life, the French army introduced showers in barracks in the 1870s and the water supply of Paris was being overhauled, while gas was being piped into homes. So, the presence of a shower in an apartment in this alternate Paris was hardly a significant departure from the reality of the time, and one far less than the other elements in the story. Yet, it was one thing that stood out as something of a deal-breaker!

The second highlighted an apparent difference between the UK and the USA. The colours yellow and purple were relevant to a story I wrote, so I had an apparent Christmas present wrapped in yellow-and-lavender paper. In itself, it wasn’t a major plot point, but it did allow one character to observe those colours are associated with Easter rather Christmas, which served as a lead-in to a thematic element later in the story. All pretty inconsequential and throw-away, you might think.

Not at all! It seems that, unlike in Britain, where the story is set, the colours are indelibly linked with Easter, with stores being decorated in them (here, you’re likely to see greens and yellows). Thus, the American editor felt as if the story had blundered into some bizarro world, wondering why the fact was presented as if it were a piece of obscure Christian-only knowledge. Ironically, in the UK, I don’t know if you could even find Christians who are aware of the colour association (my limited researches have yet to show where the colour scheme actually derives from). Certainly, nobody I’ve canvassed knew the link. (I do have to wonder how many Americans would necessarily make the association at Christmastime.)

But, despite being entirely accurate to the British milieu in which it was set, the story lost credibility over what was essentially a minor element for the simple fact that the associations were different in the US.

So, if you need some entertainment, visit the TV Tropes pages and chuckle at the examples, but if you’re a writer, remember that, no matter how accurate you are, you will find someone who thinks you’ve made a mistake. And, if you are a reader, maybe double-check before leaping to criticise a writer for an error – they might actually be right, after all…

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Discriminating Editors

30 Sep

Editors should be discriminating, but rather than discriminating taste in literature, some seem just to discriminate. Now, while I support the right of editors to run their little fiefs as they wish, I believe, as I’ve stated before, that the only legitimate reason to refuse to publish work should be the quality of the writing (with the exception of the behaviour of the writer as it impinges upon their relationship with the editor – abusive or fraudulent writers deserve to be banned). Of course, I have sympathy with editors who worry that association with someone with extreme views may taint them, but I think most people are sensible enough not confuse the publication of fiction with an endorsement of views held by their author (and, where the writing expresses uncomfortable ideas, the editor is, of course, free to reject it on those grounds).

But, even allowing that an editor may choose to ban a writer for their personal sins, there is absolutely no justification for barring writers from publication for any other reason. Indeed, I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with anthologies and competitions that are only open to certain groups – I’ve declined to submit to such where I was eligible for that reason – but, they are, at least, intended to promote less-represented groups rather than hold back others.

(I must stress that there is a difference between these and anthologies and magazines, such as Black Girl Magic, that focus upon minority characters: while people from the represented group are likely to predominate as writers – after all, who else is better placed to write about a group than members of the group? – anybody can submit to them and they seek to encourage inclusivity rather than ghettoise writers.)

Given my feelings, you can imagine my disgust at discovering an editor openly declaring they had banned Israeli writers from submitting until ‘Israel gives the Palestinians a state.’ I found it almost laughable as the editor is an American and the USA is one of those countries that refuse to recognise the Palestinian state, while its meddling in the region is a major reason why moves towards a solution are stalled. Further, USA has failed to give the native Americans or Hawaiians their own states. By his reasoning, the editor ought to ban American writers. (And, why are no other nations’ writers banned, such as Chinese writers over the occupation of Tibet?)

But, I have to wonder if there’s more to it than Palestine. While Israel is home to Arabs and Druze who identify as Israelis, to most people the country is synonymous with Jews and has become an acceptable means for anti-Semites to express their racism. It would certainly explain the apparent hypocrisy in failing to ban any other nationalities if the editor is actually a racist.

I don’t think anyone should be excluded from publication for their nationality, nor due to racism.

Still, regardless of his reasons, I refuse to patronise a publication that discriminates, even if it’s a paying market, and I hope other decent writers would do likewise.

However, I wouldn’t ban the editor from submitting to an Atlantean publication; everyone is welcome to submit and I won’t be asking for their race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics or any other details that might exclude them. I will consider their work on its merit alone. Which is how it should be.

A Plea For Sanity (In Editing)

29 Apr

Even with very simple guidelines, there seem to be a set of people who will ignore them and submit unsuitable work in unsuitable formats, so you can’t really blame editors for creating a comprehensive list of guidelines in the hopes of steering people in the right direction. However, a small number go rather over the top.

One recently actually had a lengthy document, promising rejection to anyone who failed to adhere to every last point (I suspect I managed to miss at least one, despite my best intentions and repeated readings of the list). The solemnity of the document was somewhat marred by its statement that it had been laid out as per their guidelines, only for the guidelines to demand paragraphs be indented, while the guidelines themselves weren’t…

Even though they don’t entirely match the format I’m used to, the ‘standard’ layout advocated by William Shunn is a good place for editors to stop and, in my opinion, any variation shouldn’t be too significant.

Editors who insist upon substantially different formats for submissions not only make writers expend unnecessary additional time which for anyone who is short on time is an inconvenience, but actively discriminate against some writers. I have a condition that affects my short-term memory and, when I have to check off a list of changes to the usual format I use, it is very easy for me to lose track of what changes I’m making. I would suspect that writers with dyslexia or any form of learning disability, whilst capable, with the right preparation of producing an acceptable submission, will also have problems following complicated changes to layout.

As an editor, I also find it annoying when editors cite making their lives easier as the reason for their onerous variations from the established norm. For a start, it is easier for someone who has settled upon a layout to change all submissions received to that format through short cuts and templates than it is for others to make a variety changes (potentially to the same submission). But, when any deviation is used as an excuse for a rejection, I find it ridiculous that the editor can neither be bothered to ask for the work to be resubmitted correctly-formatted nor to read it ‘as is’ and, if they want to use it, ask for a reformatted version to be submitted. Seriously, if you would reject the best story you ever read because someone used the wrong font or forgot to indent a paragraph, you probably shouldn’t be an editor. And, if you wouldn’t, you’re a hypocrite using formatting as a figleaf for your laziness.

Yes, ask for submissions to be in a format you can access, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting them to laid out in a readable manner, but if you feel the need to slather on a long list of specific instructions, I would respectfully suggest that there’s something wrong with your approach and that cleaving closer to the norm of ‘standard’ formatting would be more productive for everyone involved.

It’s hard being an editor…

31 Jul

When the fate of your submission is in the the hands of an editor, it’s easy to imagine them atop some lofty ivory tower in a well-cushioned throne quaffing nectar as they sit in judgement upon your work, but being an editor is actually hard work. I had that rammed home to me while deciding what to accept for the booklet due out in August to celebrate the 15th birthday of author HP Lovecraft. Due to the popularity of the theme and a space of just two weeks or so between the deadline for submissions and the planned release date, I found myself having to read and decide upon a lot of very good submissions in a very short period of time. I originally envisoned the booklet as a fairly-slim one, but had to up the page count just to fit those I really wanted to include. In fact, almost all the contents ended up being those that made my initial ‘Yes’ list, with only a couple of those on the ‘Maybe’ list joining them. Unfortunately, there were many more on that ‘Maybe’ list that could easily have gone in, but I was already worried enough about meeting the planned release date without adding even more pages!

Oh, how I found myself agonising over just what to include! The trouble was that most of the submissions been stories (had most been scifaiku, there would have been even more contributors!) and, other than a few that didn’t really fit in with those I definitely wanted to included, there was a lack of clear reasons for rejecting any. When you only have room for, say, one more story and there are a dozen of equal merit, how do you choose? With great difficulty!

So, the next time you’re waiting to hear back about a submission, spare a thought for the poor editor who is struggling to choose which pieces make the grade…

Critiquing the Critiques

22 May

Writers can expect to see their work critiqued by editors, both when rejected and sometimes with an acceptance. Of course, not all editors do supply such feedback – many are busy people who just don’t have the time to respond to every submission, while others perhaps have no concrete advice to offer – but many do. Unfortunately, while some supply very good advice, others… don’t.

Feedback almost uniformly divides into helpful and unhelpful feedback – there’s not really such a thing as indifferent feedback, unless the writer has submitted something that doesn’t fit their guidelines and is told so, and even that is helpful in its way.

Unhelpful feedback can be divided into three types. The first sort is the factually inaccurate. This is where the editor identifies a flaw that doesn’t actually exist and is the most unhelpful sort as a lot of effort may be wasted attempting to locate a non-existent plot hole or trying to work out what they’re actually on about. Of course, given that it probably results from them skimming the submission, it may indicate they found it boring, but the most you may glean from this supposition is what stories not to send them. A subset of this category I’ve encountered recently is the editor saying the exact opposite of the point they apparently intended to make, which, again, tends to waste time as you attempt to decipher their meaning.

The second sort of unhelpful feedback you might encounter is one with no context. As an example, one reader once offered the comment of ‘Boring’ beneath one of my gaming reviews. The problem with this (besides the lack of any further detail) was that it didn’t define what exactly they found boring? Was it the review? Was it the game I was reviewing? Was it gaming in general? Who knows!

The third kind of unhelpful feedback occurs when the editor effectively wants to tell their own story in place of yours. Instead of actual feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the story, they supply an outline for one completely different to it and suggest you write it. Which is all very well if you want to take on the commission, but not much good if you just wanted feedback on your work; and, as the editors that tend to do this don’t pay, you probably don’t want to take on the challenge, anyway…

Although not a specific class of unhelpful feedback, a special mention must go to those editors who insist on giving detailed feedback whilst demanding you never resubmit rejected work to them. Thank you, I now know exactly how to craft the story to your specific needs, but you’ll never see it. Unfortunately, other editors probably don’t share your exact same requirements! So, not terribly helpful.

Balancing the equation, there are three types of useful feedback. The first sort is technical and only really applies where a writer has significant failings with their spelling and/or grammar. All writers will make mistakes and possess idiosyncrasies, and there will always be a question of ‘house style’ and spelling convention (primarily British versus American), but these are minimal concern from a feedback point of view, mainly being covered during the proofing stage. But, if a writer makes a lot of errors, putting the editor off their work before they’ve made much progress reading it, they can expect to be informed in order to improve their writing.

The second sort of useful feedback tells the writer more about the editor than it does about their story. Some editors may believe their opinions reflect an objective reality and some may even be giving advice that applies to a significant portion of publications, but on the whole, editorial opinion is subjective. What one editor believes constitutes a good story is not necessarily an opinion shared by other editors. I’ve had stories rejected by one editor with a savage critique only for the next editor I submit it to accept it and rave over how good it is. Neither editor is wrong; they just have different tastes and different aims for their publications. But, while you may not wish to follow an editor’s advice and rewrite a story that, in your opinion, has achieved what you wanted it to, you can learn what they do or do not want. If an editor tells you your story is slow, you won’t send them another slow-moving masterpiece. If an editor complains that your story is full of sex or swearing, you’ll know not to send that type to them again. And, so on. You could even try rewriting the story to match the style they do want and resubmit it to them, while sending the original one elsewhere in the hope of finding an editor who will appreciate it. Many editors can supply this sort of feedback, but it can be drowned out if they are obsessed with providing details that aren’t terribly helpful. Simply stating that a story is slow or tends towards telling than showing is more useful than an attempt to analyse its flaws at length, in my opinion.

The third type of useful feedback is the sort that makes you think. Not many editors can do this, but there are some who possess the ability to dissect a story and explain exactly what they think in a clear manner. Because they do so in such a concise manner, it is easy to discern where they are offering good advice that is worth taking. In addition, I find that when I disagree with their assessment I’m forced to clarify why I disagree, helping me to better understand my story, which is incredibly useful when deciding whether or not to make changes as, sometimes, you may discover that while you disagree, it’s not a good enough reason to resist a change that might make the story work better for a wider readership. Such feedback is the rarest, but most valuable of all.

Hopefully, this will help you to discern the advice worth paying heed to from that best ignored. Perhaps, too, any editors reading this will consider the feedback they give and just how helpful it really is.

Preserving Your Voice

9 May

In an earlier post, I described how there is no such thing – in an objective sense – as ‘bad writing’. In other words, as long as you make a conscious choice to write a certain way for a specific reason, nobody can say it is wrong (although they may well say they don’t enjoy it!). The reason I wrote that article was the current cult of the ultra-short sentence shorn of adjectives and adverbs, which new writers are being told is the only ‘right’ way to write – despite the fact that such bland, staccato writing is utterly unsuitable to whole swathes of literature. (Such writing is, however, entirely suitable for action scenes.)

Unfortunately, even if you are not blindly following such advice and are confident in your writing style, there is an impediment to preserving your voice (unless you are self-publishing) – the editor. Now, I will hasten to add, this is not an attack on all editors, as there are many highly-skilled editors out there who know exactly what they are doing and will only suggest changes that are likely to improve your writing. (I will also add, based on one editors lament, that they sometimes have to cope with a similar problem when copy editors and proofreaders suddenly take it into their heads that they know best and step beyond the bounds of their position to suggest wholesale rewrites rather than just checking for typos!)

The problem, and it should come as no surprise given that somebody has to be propagating such notions, is that there are plenty of editors who are in thrall to the staccato sentence or have their own quirks.  Suddenly, despite having agonised over your writing as you put it on paper (or screen) and then edited and re-edited it to make sure it is just how it should be, you have someone suggesting that your deliberately laid-out manuscript and carefully chosen words  are flawed, sometimes for the most bizarre of reasons. Suddenly, you are attempting to balance being published with preserving your voice, rather like a politician being told to keep to the party line if he wishes to retain his seat.

Often, an editor’s demands are not too damaging to your manuscript (such as cutting longer sentences in half) or they make so many ‘suggestions’ that you can implement a number of essentially unimportant ones (perhaps even correcting genuine errors or making improvements) to satisfy their need to edit without compromising your writing. It’s when they effectively want to rewrite your piece into something entirely different that you have to decide whether to just walk away or not. (A good editor will give you a heads up before accepting your work that they want to make drastic changes – “I would like to accept it but…” or “I’m going to reject it but…” Bad editors accept your work then start making onerous demands.)

Perhaps the most irritating of bad editors are those who frame their opinion with “All/Most editors would agree…” Would they? Do most editors actually edit anything worthwhile? Do you not have any thoughts and opinions of your own? Perhaps not…

The most important thing to remember is that there is nothing objectively superior about being an editor. Editors make mistakes and have subjective tastes just like everyone else. One editor may look at your work and hate it, the next may love it. All you can do is produce the writing that you want to produce in the way that you wish to produce it and keep sending it out into the world until it finds a home in which it will be appreciated.

The 10 Commandments For Editors

15 May

If you are an editor or planning to edit an anthology or magazine, you may find it useful to bear the following points in mind…

 

  1. Thou Shalt Clarify Exactly What You Desire – Contributors should be able to tell what is suitable to send at, if not a glance, certainly a very brief perusal of your guidelines. If you are unclear on what you want – unless the brief is deliberately intended to be broad – you are wasting both their time and your own. If you are using any terms, such as for types of genre, it does help to define what you mean by it as even the most seemingly-obvious terms often have multiple interpretations or grey areas. Make sure to mention whether you allow reprints, simultaneous submissions or multiple submissions.
  2. Thou Shalt Use Clear Language – Enigmatic phrasing should be avoided at all costs. Some editors write guidelines that are very difficult to decipher and I have even had to query whether work has been accepted or rejected because the editor somehow managed to talk around the pertinent issue in a reply. If you have any special rules (such as only submitting one piece at a time) make this crystal clear.
  3. Thou Shalt Specify Word Counts and Closing Dates – It may sound obvious that you should include these, but I have encountered a number of editors who seem to think that writers have psychic powers in this regard. If you do not have a specific word limit or you are editing a magazine that is open to submissions all year round, please note these facts to prevent confusion.
  4. Thou Shalt Indicate Your Layout Requirements – If you don’t want the regular format of 12 pt Times New Roman double spaced, please clearly indicate what you do want. In fact, even if you do want the regular, it doesn’t hurt to indicate this – but, please, don’t put ‘Standard Manuscript Format’ as there are plenty of variations on the theme. If borders and indents are important to you, please explain what you want as clearly as you can rather than relying on writers to attempt to decipher your demands.
  5. Thou Shalt Make It Possible To Contact You – If you fail to provide contact details you may just find you won’t be getting many submissions! Please do not hide them away so that we have to go searching for them and if you are using a different contact address to your usual one for a specific project or have separate contact addresses for submissions, queries and orders, it really does save everyone a lot of time and hassle to make these abundantly clear.
  6. Thou Shalt Not Conceal Any Element of Your Guidelines – Some editors forget to mention key rules in their guidelines and then respond huffily when you ‘break’ their rules. Whether it is a bar on reprints or restrictions on certain topics or themes, make sure they are covered in your guidelines – and, if it’s a complete ban, don’t phrase it as a ban on extreme examples! Suddenly announcing that an unmentioned rule has been violated or suddenly broadening a rule beyond that indicated is sloppy and unprofessional.
  7. Thou Shalt Not Move The Goalposts – Yes, there will be rare cases where events beyond your control force you make unexpected changes, but in normal circumstances you should not change anything in your guidelines once they have gone public. Contributors may only pay one visit to your site before locking themselves away to beaver at producing a submission and it is extremely annoying to discover that it is no longer eligible. If something may be subject to change please make this clear from the outset so that writers know they may need to check back. Likewise, if you plan to close when you have accepted a set number of pieces makes this clear rather than stating a hard deadline.
  8. Thou Shalt Make Your Guidelines Accessible – Even the most perfect of guidelines are useless if nobody can actually find them! Check that your site is coming up in searches for your anthology or magazine and that sites advertising it have links to your site. And, finally, make sure that the guidelines can be easily located on your site.
  9. Thou Shalt Remember That Thou Art Not The Entirety Of Existence – Some editors seem to take the approach that they are the only outlet around and act as if writers have nothing better to do than visit their site ten times a day in case of updates, spend hours searching for guidelines and even longer formatting submissions to match their peculiar layout demands. But, they aren’t. Writers often have multiple projects on the go at once, as well as such pesky distractions as families and jobs. They cannot always prioritise your eccentric demands, so don’t expect them to. Behaving this way doesn’t make you an elite, it makes you appear like a pathetic amateur. Avoid such behaviour at all costs!
  10. Thou Shalt Remember That Thou Are Being Judged Too – Yes, you will be judging the writers’ submissions, but they will be judging you, too! From the moment a writer looks at your guidelines through the way in which you deal with them and respond to their submissions, they will deciding whether they want to do business with you. Whether you are a non-paying small press or a top-flight publisher potentially offering huge advances, the way you present yourself reflects upon your future success. Not only can sloppy submission guidelines cause writers to decide not to submit to you and poor responses cause them to boycott you in future, but they can also affect whether they will purchase you product – and most people will not keep their disappointment to themselves, but will tell their friends or post on blogs and in forums. Professional guidelines and a professional attitude and approach are likely to ensure that you receive plenty of good-quality submissions and will gain readers. A sloppy and unprofessional approach will lose you support. So, make yourself the best editor that you can be!