In my TIPS book, I talk about how, in the end, what matters are the opinions of your editors/agent/publisher. Beta readers can’t exactly tell you what’ll make your article or story saleable, they will.
But until I actually had some critters read one of my short stories, I lived by this assumption. Sometimes if my manuscript got rejected without so much as an explanation why, I only thought it was because it wasn’t right for them. Not once did I think that there was something wrong with it. But a critter would’ve told me that. Someone critting the piece may have even saved it from the rejection.
Critters have a knack for pointing out exactly what is wrong with a piece, and oftentimes these errors are ones the writers failed to see the first time around. In the heat of the writing moment, we’re not thinking about word choice or loopholes; we’re just writing what’s in our heads. Then a critter sends a piece back to the writer with something like “I thought Hal was allergic to seafood?” and it gives the writer a moment to slap his forehead and then change the dialogue in the scene where Hal orders the shrimp bisque two pages later.
This is what happened to me. I decided to ask some of my online writing buddies to give a short story of mine a crit, mainly because I had the sneaking suspicion there was something wrong with it. I had this suspicion because, on the surface, I thought the story was perfect. And you just know that your manuscript ain’t right if you think that it’s perfect. Seriously, I don’t feel 100% good about almost everything I submit, yet I get an acceptance with the editor saying something like “this’ll work” or “great job!”
But that’s not the case with this story. I was all ready to submit it to a magazine, deluded into thinking a crit wasn’t necessary.
Boy, was I wrong!
I’ve only received one response back from the critters, but it was enough to make my jaw drop. Everything this person typed in red, from “why haven’t they tried this yet?” to “how does a 9-year-old ghost know how babies are made?” had me thinking. Seriously thinking. Of course I was ready to dismiss it all with “ah, readers will figure it out for themselves,” but as I read then reread her comments, I kept thinking that maybe the story would be better if I still put stuff like that in. After all, readers aren’t psychic. They don’t know what I know, or even what the characters know. She also pointed out some very good ways for me to fix some of the sloppy writing that seeped into this story (I’d only sent her the second draft) as well as some very helpful POV pointers.
And, you know, I honestly don’t think I could’ve gotten this kind of helpful feedback from an editor. Or as detailed, for that matter.
I didn’t exactly agree with all of her suggestions. For example, she suggested an alternative ending, which is one of those “formula endings.” One that I’m not particularly fond of, but I’m going to see what the other critters have to say about it and weigh all their suggestions. I don’t know yet if I’ll use that ending but, if the vote is unanimous, I suppose I could give it a try. It might even work. It might even be just the ending that story needs.
All of this makes me remember one time I asked some family members to comment on another short story I wrote. They responded with the same kind of feedback I got from an editor rejecting the story (this same editor even liked the same scene my critters liked). So something tells me that maybe, just maybe, having someone crit your work isn’t such a bad idea. Who knows? Maybe if I’d submitted the story without any critting, I would’ve gotten the same kind of feedback sandwiched in the rejection slip.
Writers hate form rejection letters for one reason in particular: We’re not told what was wrong. (In Shaunna Privratsky’s book, PUMP UP YOUR PROSE: For Publication, Prestige and Profits, there’s a quote in there I was ready to insert into my signature line: “Form rejection letters suck.”) The rejecting editor acts in the same capacity as just another critter; we’re holding our breath to see if he/she thinks it’s good. And, if not, we want to know why. Of course this isn’t part of an editor’s job description; they won’t request changes unless they’re planning to run the piece or if they’re willing to give the writer a second chance. For this reason, having someone (preferably a lot of someones) crit your piece would be a good idea. At least then you can give your writing a fighting chance. And at least you won’t be “caught with your pants down.” (I still can’t believe I missed one particular POV mistake!!)
Your critters don’t have to be writers. (I usually try to get a mix of writers and nonwriters alike, because writers cannot read a story the way nonwriters do). It definitely helps, but if you can’t find any WHO YOU TRUST WITH YOUR WORK, then by all means, ask your best friend or your pal at the office to give your story a read.
At least this critting experience has worked out positively for me. I now see the wisdom in having someone crit your work and I feel more confident about sending them the next article or story that I think is “perfect.” And maybe even ones that I don't think are perfect. And at least this critting experience, in particular, will ensure that this particular story (and maybe even some other ones, if I ever get them typed!!) will have a better chance of making it.
Editors ain't perfect.
Where would writers be without editors? Probably billed as illiterate fools. But you know what? Where would editors be without writers banging on their doors, askin’ why their precious articles or stories have been riddled with typos, mistakes and words not their own? Where, indeed. Writers need editors but editors need writers, too. If only to remember that, despite the powers of their red pens, they are still human. And they make mistakes.
Try as I might, I can’t humble myself with this idea. Because every time I see a mistake my Dear Editor has made with my work, it consumes me. It feels me with rage and contempt. No, my Dear Editors, I do not loathe you. I do not scream your name every time a mistake is seen. But in those first few moments, hours or days that I see the lack of editing prowess exercised with my work, I get angry. I am enraged, and I think I’m entitled to be. You know why? Because it’s got my name right there in the byline. It’s got me listed as the author of this poorly executed diatribe that somehow slipped through the cracks. Yes, I am bitter, Dear Editor. Very, very bitter.
And to add insult to injury, that mistake is mine to carry with me as I show the world exactly what kind of writer I am. And from what I’ve gathered in my clip file of articles littered with typos or names omitted, it looks like I’m the kind of writer with the same level of skills as a drunk, blind monkey smoking crack. Any other editor worth their skill would laughingly toss my work aside, mumbling how I wouldn’t know a verb from an adjective. Or how I must’ve written this piece while under the influence of some psychotic drug because LORD KNOWS a 4-year-old could write better than me.
Newspapers have that “Corrections” section. So do the magazines. But who really pays attention to those? Who really reads ‘em? Everything readers needed to know has already been culled from some poorly written piece; they don’t REALLY need to be told that John Paul Doe spells his name as “Johnpaul.” Do they? They don’t really care. But I do. You know why? Because it was my job to get the facts right. And thanks to my Dear Editor, I got those facts wrong.
Now I’m not going to name any names. I’m not going to point out every single mistake in a certain recent article of mine. But what I am going to do right here is complain. I can’t complain to my Dear Editor – I have, after all, an obligation to act in a PROFESSIONAL manner at all times – but I am going to complain here. Call me a “whiner,” if you will. I need to speak out. Because those mistakes are not mine.
Yes, we all make mistakes. Yes, we are ALL human beings capable of screwing up. But how hard is it for an editor to differentiate between “it’s” and “its”? And, let me ask you: What in the WORLD are “id tags”? Huh? Can someone please explain that one to me? Because my Dear Editor certainly didn’t.
In the end, though, after I’m done screaming, pounding my fists, pulling my hair out, sobbing into my hands and having a heart-to-heart chat with some friends online, I find it in myself to forgive them. I know that editors ain’t perfect. I know that, amid all the chaos of meeting deadlines and getting the galleys to the printer, things tend to get overlooked. I mean, I’ve even seen typos in books by famous authors. It happens. People make mistakes. And next time around, if we’re lucky enough, we’ll get to come clean via “the editors regret the error.” Well, it isn’t just the editors regretting the errors, folks. It’s us, the writers, the people responsible for getting our stories straight.
And, believe me, we try.
With all the projects, articles and book reviewing I’ve got going on, it’s hard for me to keep updated on current events. (Admittedly, I try to watch the news, but the entire program isn’t closed-captioned so I only get bites and pieces of what’s going on.) I used to be a devoted newspaper-reader but with limited time to write every day, that gets put on the back-burner, too. I’m subscribed to a lot of magazines – the giant stack of unread issues in my bedroom is testament to this! And as for reading news online? Well, anything that Yahoo! News and MSN News has headlined are scanned before I log in to check my E-mail. (As it stands, I didn’t even know about the September 11, 2001 tragedy until a girl I was chatting with on that day told me “go turn on your news.”)
For this reason, I didn’t hear about the untimely passing of singer, Laura Branigan, until I happened to open a week-old column written by Frank Baron and read his comments about it. I was shocked to learn of her death and it touched me on a more personal level for one very important reason: Her song, Gloria, played a role in my thinking up an idea for a story I’ve since been struggling with. (It was actually two things that gave me the idea for my story: This song and some guy who kept calling the house my sister and I lived in at the time, demanding to speak with someone who no longer lived there.) At first I named my protagonist Shelby, but after some thought, since it was Branigan’s song that helped create this story, I changed my character’s name to Laura, as a way of honoring her.
And now it seems that, with Branigan passing on, I will be honoring her in a whole new way. I never thought of how much influence her song had over this story (and it is a big influence in my character’s life). But I certainly won’t be seeing this story the same way anymore. Especially since I recently learned Branigan had red hair, just like my character (though my character’s hair is a little more brighter red than hers). In a way, this is kind of scary, because if her family finds out and they read the book (in the MIRACULOUS event that it gets published), what if they sue me over something? Like how my character had an abusive father and they say something like, “I’m going to sue this horrible author because Laura NEVER had any trouble with her father and now people will think she did!” Of course, this book won’t bill itself as some kind of “unauthorized biography of Laura Branigan.” I don’t even know if Ms. Branigan had friends named Karen and Jeff!! This story is FICTION but I’m getting worried they won’t see it this way. Especially since my character happens to have red hair (and I swear right here and now that I NEVER KNEW Ms. Branigan had red hair!!). My character’s life developed on its own; that is just MY CHARACTER. It’s not meant to represent the late Ms. Branigan in any shape or form, though as it stands now, the only similarities are the hair color and first name. (I’m too nervous to even look up her middle name or date of birth.)
And, you know, given this recent information, I’m not going to change my character’s hair color. This character is FICTION. She WAS given a new name, to honor the woman whose song inspired me to create her in the first place, and that name will now stand. Because, I think, in a way, I will still be honoring her. If this book never gets published, there will still be one writer in this world who was so inspired by one of Ms. Branigan’s songs that she wrote a story with it. (The song appears twice n this story.)
But part of me is still saddened over her passing. I’m not taking it too hard, really. I didn’t know her (though in a way I guess you could say I did). But I am still grieved over her death. I’m grieving because now she will never know how much her song inspired one unknown writer in this world. She will never get to read the story her song inspired and see her first name in there. She will never know. But ... I’d like to think that ... in some way, she now will. Being on The Other Side allows her to know all, see all and be all. And perhaps now she knows there’s an unpublished story out there, written thanks to her song.
Still, I could’ve done her a favor and got that book published. Problem is, I am SO FREAKING PARTICULAR with my writing. I don’t even WANT to mention how many drafts this story has gone through. You wanna know why I have more nonfiction titles than fiction published? Because my fiction has to be perfect. It has to be right. One beta reader told me she couldn’t get past the second chapter, I took the story through another revision cycle. Another told me he thought it was a romance and down it went on the operating table once again.
But you know something? I just can’t be like that anymore. Not now, anyway, and certainly not with this book. Because when I pull out my most recent draft to start work on it ONE LAST TIME, I’ll be doing it with more purpose and definition. I’ll be doing it because, now, I NEED to. I need to finish this book and try to get it published. And I think that, maybe, somewhere along the way, Laura might be right there behind me to keep coaching me on. To tell me not to worry over word choice, tone or mood. Because now, this time, the book will be perfect, because it will be for her.
One of my current nonfiction books-in-progress is a collection of articles I’m writing for The Shadowlands newsletter. Now before anyone starts saying a publisher won’t be interested since the book will have been previously published (and likely available to read, for free, on the Internet), I counter this response with two points: One, the book’s contents will differ from the articles in that they’ll be longer and there will also be photos; and, two, you won’t be able to read these articles online for free, unless you happen to have a copy of every single newsletter that was E-mailed to you, since it’s an E-mail only kind of deal. Also, I’m going to ask the Web site’s creator/EIC, Dave Juliano, to write the Introduction or Foreword for the book.
But, anyway, because I was merrily writing these articles the same way I’ve been writing the majority of my Shadowlands articles, I didn’t really look at it as so much of a “book project” but as an “article series.” And I know that, right now, it IS an article series, but since it will ultimately be turned into a book later on, I need to SEE it as a book, and not so much as a bunch of articles I had to write.
And I thought I’d already done this simply by writing up the book’s outline, deciding on an audience, scoping out some publishers and organizing how I plan to write each article. Unfortunately, I neglected one very crucial aspect of nonfiction book-writing, something EVERY nonfiction author should do: RESEARCH. This is especially true if you’re writing a book you have NO expertise with (I do have experience with this subject, but that doesn’t necessarily make me an expert on it).
I had to learn this lesson the hard way this week, when Dave E-mailed me a response to my second article saying, “I’m afraid I have to pass on this one.” His reason was that he disagreed with something one of my experts said. (Am I EVER going to write an article for them that we BOTH agree on?? Sheesh.) In retrospect, I understood his counter-argument on this topic, and then and there I decided I would be more analytical of exactly WHAT was going into my articles. And the best way for me to watch out for something that conflicts with the Shadowlands’ mission statement and what Dave has taught on this subject was to research it like crazy. To spend some time, energy (and, gulp, money) to learn everything I need to know in order to write a smashing, one-of-a-kind book. And I know that doing this research will better prepare me for weighing all of the information I’m told during the course of my interviews.
To say the least, this is what I’ve been spending most of my week on. I know I’ve got a zillion other book projects to work on, the E-zine, SIGNews articles, books to promote (mine) and books to review (not mine), but my next deadline is right around the corner and I’ve got a lot of researching, interviewing and fact-checking ahead of me. Thankfully, Dave gave me the chance to revise the article and send it back to him (I only pray my source won’t want to know whatever happened to that quote I’m going to have to cut) and so I’ve got this research to do to make the article even better. And I’m glad I’ve started researching the book, because not only do I now have a list of 28 books to read (oh, yay), but I found out about THE expert on this subject who I should definitely interview. I’ve been trying to find his contact info but, so far, no luck. (I’m hoping one of my contacts will have it.)
And, you know, I may not be an expert on this subject, but doing all of this research on it will get me pretty darn close to becoming one.