Archive

Archive for the ‘submissions’ Category

Saying no

April 17th, 2013 Comments off

I’ve been trying my damndest to clear off my desk so I can devote my attention to a novel I’ve been aching to write for months—nay years. The problem is that I keep getting sucked back into all these little projects that keep me from turning my attention to the book. This relates back to a post I made here over four years ago, called Of course I will.

One problem is that it’s such an honor to be asked to do things sometimes that it’s almost impossible to say no. Other times, cool opportunities come along and I actually volunteer to write something. Over the course of the past couple of months, both of these things have happened. Plus I had to do revisions for a new edition of a forthcoming book and proof the new pages. Then I got sent to Japan for a business trip for a week. And I had a new book come out, which meant that I had to pay attention to reviews, do interviews and watch sales ranks and all the other things that happen when a book is published.

Mind you, these are all good problems to have. I’m not complaining. And, yet, I really want to work on that novel. I went on a research trip with my wife several weeks ago and came back with an hour of video to use as a reference as I write. I have one full chapter already written that dates back at least two years. The chapter has been extensively critiqued, but it’s going to get a major overhaul because I discovered finally what the book is going to be about. I think. I won’t really know that until I start working on it again.

I was going to start on March 1. Then it was going to be April 1. Now it’s looking more like May 1 is the big day. May Day. Maybe that’s appropriate. Between now and the end of April, I’m going to write one more essay (beyond this one), finish up one more short story (well, okay, maybe two), get all the fallow stories I have back into circulation, and review three books (okay, maybe four). That’s it. If an interesting set of story guidelines come my way, I’m going to close my eyes and pretend I didn’t see them. If someone invites me to submit to an anthology, I’ll dig around in my archives to see if I have anything that might fit. Otherwise, I’m going to say sorry. At least, I think I will. I hope I will.

It really is hard to say no.

Come to think of it, I have another invitation to write an essay outstanding. Did I say yes already? I’m not quite sure—I didn’t exactly say no, though.

How many days are left in April? Maybe I can squeeze it in…

If only there were more hours in the day. More days in the week. More weeks in the month…

Once upon a time, but not happily ever after

October 17th, 2012 Comments off

In genre fiction, many stories don’t end happily ever after.

Some stories don’t end at all.

A couple of weeks ago, while cleaning up the mess of papers on the pull-out shelf on my desk, I discovered the submission guidelines for an anthology that had slipped my mind. The deadline was only a week hence, so I tossed the sheet of paper into the recycle bin and shrugged.

The next morning, while I was mowing the lawn—one of those activities that sets the mind free to ruminate on this, that and the other—a scenario began to develop in my head. I saw someone fleeing a city to escape a scourge. His flight wasn’t random: he was drawn ineluctably toward the rural region where he had grown up. I could see that much clearly.

After I finished my chores, I went inside, snatched the guidelines from the bin, put them on the sideboard, opened Word and started to write. I managed about 1500 words that afternoon, which is a decent achievement for any day. The words came easily as I measured out the man’s progress through the near-desolate countryside. However, in the back of my mind, I knew that, while I was putting this guy through the hoops of forward motion, there wasn’t much energy in the story. There was a little suspense and conflict from time to time, tense moments, but I had no idea what was going to happen when he reached his destination. It’s not a great place to break off when working on a story: at a point with little real momentum.

The next day, a mere five days before the deadline for submissions, I went to work with a sense of dread. I still didn’t know what was going to happen when he got “home,” so I spent the session rewriting what I’d put down the day before. That’s one of my favorite stalling tactics. I’m getting work done, I can tell myself; however, especially with a deadline looming, this wasn’t the kind of work I should be doing. The story felt leaden.

In the wee small hours before the alarm went off the following morning, my mind went to work. What it developed didn’t exactly push the story forward. Instead it gave me a different take on the tale. One that I liked a lot. It was going to be a challenge to pull it off (it was one of those situations where you have to hide a key piece of information from the reader without making it seem like you’re cheating), but I felt up to it. I scrapped everything I’d already written (and, let me tell you, that isn’t an easy thing to do) and started afresh.

It was harder work, because I had to pick my words especially carefully, but I got nearly 1000 words down that morning, and another 5-600 words the following day.

If you’ve been keeping track, then you can see how quickly the deadline was zooming at me. Panic set in.

And the story died.

Despite my enthusiasm for the new approach, the story still felt leaden and aimless. I even had an idea of how it would end, but I didn’t think I could do it justice in the small amount of time remaining. So I threw the guidelines back in the recycle bin and surrendered.

I had already given up on the anthology once, I told myself, so no big deal. And yet it felt like a kind of failure. The story’s still there, waiting to be told, and maybe I’ll go back to it some day, but for the time being this particular once upon a time had no happily (or unhappily) ever ending.

Categories: advice, Fiction, ideas, story, submissions, Writers, Writing Tags:

Where did that story come from?

June 17th, 2012 Comments off

The perennial question writers get is (altogether now): Where do you get your ideas? Everyone has addressed this question at one time or another, I’m sure.

Of course, there’s no one answer that covers everything. However, if you limit the question to “Where did you get the idea for this story?” then it’s a different ball game. In many cases, the question is easily answered. Sometimes the answer might be convoluted and make sense only to the author, but there is usually an answer.

This month, I thought I’d give you a glimpse into how I came up with a short story that I finished a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been working on a non-fiction project for most of 2012 so once I shipped it off to my editor, I decided to switch gears and write a short story. I didn’t have any concrete ideas burning to get out, just a vague desire to write something.

When I’m in that situation, I either pull up a document that has a bunch of random story ideas or observations that I’ve gathered over the years, or I leaf through the anthology guidelines that have come to my attention lately. In this case, I did the latter. The anthology had a vague theme: the weird west. Western stories with something weird happening. There’s a lot to play around with there. What I generally do given a theme is to first consider the question: what are most of the stories people write going to be about? If I can see that, I can then possibly come up with something sufficiently different to catch the editor’s attention.

In this case, instead of going with zombies or vampires or other monsters, I decided to go with aliens. I know it’s not an original idea, especially with that recent movie, but it’s where my mind went, so I decided to follow. I did a little bit of Internet research and found a couple of things from that past that I could make use of. One is a fairly famous incident where a space ship supposedly crashed in this Judge’s backyard. I took the gist of this incident and relocated it elsewhere, because I had a plan. A plan is good.

What I didn’t have, though, was a character to tell the story. Until that happens, all I have is an idea and a plan. And not a lot of time, because the submission deadline was in about two weeks. I let things rattle around and percolate in my head for a while. Then I woke up one morning with the opening scene in my head. I knew who was telling the story and what he saw. I made a few false starts, though. I started in first person, but I found that limiting after a page or two, because my protagonist is young. I wanted to be able to use words he wouldn’t necessarily know in my narrative, so I rewrote everything in third person limited.

After writing that scene, though, I stalled. I had a general idea of what would transpire as a result of the incident in the first scene, but none of it really seemed to matter. There was nothing at stake. Then I came up with the notion that this small Western town was dying. More people were leaving than were coming because the rail line ended up being built 25 miles to the south instead of through town. It had suffered a couple of other injuries, too. So that upped the ante a little. Still, I was having trouble. Then I realized that not only was the town dying, the family of my protagonist was, in a way, too. They had suffered a terrible loss and it was destroying them a day at a time.

Now I had my stake. This incident would rouse both the town and the family out of its doldrums. And, of course, since this was a Western, there had to be a stranger in town. Or, at least, I felt like there needed to be one. He had to come in response to what had happened, but he had to get there a lot faster than he should have been able to do in that era. He would take the bull by the horns, start handing out orders, and seem to have everything under control.

But the story wasn’t about him, so I realized that the stranger had to fail—or be on the verge of failing. The fractured family couldn’t sit passively by while this dude fixed things. As the ideas flooded in, I kept going back to the beginning to revise and rewrite to lay the foundation for what came later. By the end, I was very pleased with how it all became internally consistent—that something mentioned in the opening paragraphs came into play symbolically at the end.

The story came in at something like 6200 words, which was well within the guidelines’ limit, but only half the work was done. Though I had done some revision along the way, it was time to look at the story as a whole and every single word and sentence and paragraph individually. I can get quite ruthless at this stage. One of the most important things to me is flow. From one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next. I move sentences and paragraphs around to find the best order so that one idea flows logically into the next. This is where reading out loud helps a lot. Awkward transitions really stick out that way. I can feel them in my bones.

When I started editing, I only had two or three days to get the story polished because it was a postal submission. During that weekend, I probably created a dozen drafts of the story, though none of them survive. I save the first draft as a separate document, but each incremental revision overwrites the duplicate document. At least three of my editing passes were done on hardcopy—I tend to alternate back and forth because I do different kinds of editing on-screen and on paper. I can feel the story converging, so that there are fewer changes on each subsequent pass, but then all of a sudden I’ll upend the whole thing and make some radical change on the next pass. The honing process can reveal problems if you can mentally sit back and look at the bigger picture while concentrating on the individual words.

When I was done, the story came in at about 5400 words. That’s pretty typical—I usually lose about 10% of the length of the first draft upon revision. But it’s more than simply taking away words. Probably half the sentences didn’t bear much resemblance to the original version.

Then away it went in the mail and I had a chance to think about where my mind had taken me during those two weeks. A few snapshots turned into a movie in my mind and when I consider the story now, I feel like I was there watching everything unfold, even though I had to micromanage every bit of movement along the way.

The process for the next short story will probably be completely different.

Desperation and Impatience

May 17th, 2012 Comments off

Several years ago, I wrote an essay for the HWA handbook On Writing Horror titled “For Love or Money: Six Marketing Myths.” While I called them “marketing” myths, in fact they were really publishing myths.

Recent events which you may already have heard about via the blogosphere inspired me to write this entry. The moral of that story is the thesis of the above-mentioned essay.

The concept isn’t new, and I’ve written about it in various ways over the years, but it bears discussing again. Novice writers (and all of us were novices sometime) share a burning compulsion. Perhaps more than one, but one applies here: the need to see our name and our work in print. (These days the definition of “in print” is a little different than the classical definition, but there are analogies to be made: some e-zines aren’t so different from the typed, mimeographed zines of a few decades ago.) We’re willing to do almost anything to see that happen (deals with the devil aren’t out of the question), and this desperation can lead us to make bad publishing decisions.

Neil Gaiman writes about Yog’s Law on his blog, inspired by the same event. The law is simple: money flows toward the writer. In one form, this is a warning against paying to get published: paying for representation, paying the publisher for editing services, etc. From another perspective, though, it is an admonition to insist that you be paid for your work, regardless of the venue in which it is published.  Among the six myths I wrote about, two are particularly applicable: 1) Payment in exposure and 2) Royalty-only markets.

Novice writers believe the myth that simply having something “published,” and the concomitant exposure they will receive, has some intrinsic value. They will no longer have to write cover letters where the paragraphs listing previous publications are blank. Now they can write, “My story, Title of Story Here, was published in Slapdash eZine.” This will guarantee that editors will give submissions extraspecial consideration because, after all, they’re reading something submitted by published authors. Editors might even remember those previous publications and the new submissions will get gold stars and go to the top of the stack. Woo-hoo!

Chances are: 1) The editor didn’t see that publication because it’s nothing more than a post on a blog in a dark and rarely frequented corner of the internet, or 2) Even if the editor is aware of that publication, it won’t have any impact whatsoever at best and, perhaps, a negative impact at worst. Being poorly published isn’t better than not being published at all. If your resume is a list of non-paying markets that have come and gone like the spring rains, it will make you look unprofessional.

Here’s the second sad truth: Royalty-only markets are non-paying markets 99% of the time. These books (usually anthologies) sell so poorly that they never recoup their publishing costs, let alone generate any income down the line. If they do bring in a few dollars, that will be split 10 or 20 ways, usually with half of the profits going to the editor off the top. Expect pennies at best.

Desperation—a force as strong and nearly as irresistible as gravity—allows us to delude ourselves. The only exposure that is worthwhile is appearance in a market that people 1) see and 2) respect. With the exception of literary magazines, these are almost always paying markets. Almost always pro-paying markets. Why? Because these are the markets that have major distribution channels and (generally) good reputations. With so much material out there, who do you think reads Slapdash eZine? The contributors and a few of their friends, that’s who. And that royalty only anthology that contains work by previously unpublished authors? Who will pay $18 for the trade paperback (did you ever notice how pricey those books tend to be?) or $9.99 for the e-book? Your friends and relatives might be counted on the first time or two, but even they may stop ponying up after a while.

Another issue with exposure/royalty markets is that they won’t teach you anything about your writing. In the best case scenario, your story will be published exactly as you submitted it. If you’re lucky, someone may catch your typos, grammatical errors and continuity flaws. In the worst case scenario (see above), the editor may decide to do something abysmal to your story, and you’ll have no recourse. Those of us who’ve been around a while probably would have smelled something bad about the market discussed above. One look at the web site, replete with typos, bad grammar and questionable layout, would have been enough to tell us that we wouldn’t be dealing with a pro.

With a pro market, if your story has a few flaws it will either be rejected (with or without comment) or—best case—the editor will accept the work and offer some suggestions to make it even better. Experienced writers learn the value of a good editor, one who encourages a writer to improve (not one who arbitrarily rewrites a story in his own image).

There are many codas that attach themselves to this message. For example, if, in your desperation to be published at all, you aim low and submit to a non-paying market, you’ll never know if you might have done better by sending it to a pro-market.

I know it’s hard to have the level of patience required to develop to the point where you can be professionally published. I was in my late thirties when I scored my first pro sales. I made a few mistakes in the beginning. Not many people are totally immune to the temptation to settle for something less in order to satisfy that gravitational pull, that vanity appeaser. My message is this: resist with all your might. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will be different for you. Listen to and learn from the experiences of others.

Are you ready? Well, then, let’s begin.

June 17th, 2011 Comments off

No one can tell you when to start a short story.

People can give you all kinds of advice about how to write one, but only you can decide when you are prepared to start.

This is something I deal with all the time. I’ll have a window of opportunity where I can work on a short story, and I’ll have a market in mind, and all I do is spin my wheels when I try to think about the story itself.

Case in point: I want to submit a story to an anthology that has a submission deadline fast approaching. When I first heard about the theme back in 2010, I did some relevant research, created a file, scribbled some notes and put it aside to gestate. Now that several months have passed, I’m only a little bit closer to having a story than I did back then.

That’s not entirely true. Last weekend, I started doing some location research. I have a scenario of sorts in mind. In fact, I plan to resurrect a couple of characters from another story, and I know why they are where they are and how the story opens, more or less. I stumbled around looking for a setting and I found one that is absolutely perfect. So, for the past couple of days I’ve been learning everything I can about this place. I wandered its streets on Google Earth (and isn’t that an impressive tool). I found news stories and a few videos that give me an even better sense of the location and the scenario that forms that background for the location and the story.

But I still don’t really know what is going to happen to the characters after they make a significant discovery.

Sometimes, a story happens like this: anthology theme, “clever” take on the theme, figure out who the main characters are and what they want, start writing.

Right now, I have the anthology theme, my twist on the theme and the characters, but I still don’t feel ready to start writing because I haven’t come up with the consequences of the twist.

It is possible, on occasion, to start with these elements and let the words flow from that mystical source from which they come. The characters do things and the story develops. I don’t know where the story is going, but it goes.

And yet, when I get to the computer these past few days, I can’t bring myself to create that new Word document and write the first words. That tells me the story isn’t quite ready. I’ve plowed ahead and hit brick walls often enough to believe that this sort-of block (something akin to Mike Noonan’s block in Bag of Bones, though not nearly so severe) is telling me I’ll be wasting my time if I go that route. I just need to think about the story a little more. I can see over the first hill or two, but there’s at least one more hill I need to crest before I begin. I don’t need to see all the way to the end—I rarely do with short stories, but I need to see far enough to build up that momentum that will help me get there.

That being said, though, there’s nothing like a looming deadline for motivation. At some point, if I really want to submit to this market, I need to stop dithering and start writing. And hoping the story comes…from that mystical source from which they all come.

Rejection, rejection, rejection…acceptance! Rejection, rejection…

April 17th, 2011 Comments off

Though my field of expertise is in chemistry, I hold a minor in math. I’m not sure that there has ever been a study to confirm or refute this, but I maintain a strange calculus: one acceptance letter is equal to any number of rejections. That is to say, an acceptance wipes the slate clean. I feel good about my writing again and I even feel armored against the next few inevitable rejection letters that will follow.

Another way to say this is: you have to develop a thick skin in this business and be persistent. I saw a beginning writer comment somewhere about a phenomenon described as “submission terror.” The condition was so disabling that the writer couldn’t convince himself to send anything out. In other words, he’s taken to writing his own rejection letters.

There is much to be said for persistence. I had a short story published recently by a pro-paying market that was originally written for a themed anthology in 2007. It didn’t make the cut (the editor told me he might have considered it if he’d received it less close to the deadline, and there’s another lesson to be learned there, assuming he wasn’t just sparing my feelings), so I de-themed it and started it on its rounds. Until the day it was accepted (I repeat, by a pro-paying market), the story had accumulated nine rejections, not including the original one. Each time I got it back, I updated my submission log, found a new market, and sent it right back out again.

That’s by no means a personal record. A fairly recent story found a home on lucky submission number thirteen. I published another that had been written eight years previously and accumulated 15 rejections, in a glossy magazine with national distribution.

When do I give up? Rarely. I have one story that I really like that has been rejected 20 times. I’ve rewritten it a few times over the years and, though I’ve yet to find the right home for it, I think it’s out there. It’s just a matter of keeping at it and researching the marketplace. I’ve never truly trunked a story, though some are in submission hiatus because I can’t think of any viable place to send them at the moment. I will occasionally consider a semi-pro market if it has a reputation that appeals to me, and I often give literary magazines a shot even though they rarely pay more than a pittance. I favor print over electronic publication, too, though I have published a number of stories in electronic media.

I still hesitate a moment before opening an e-mail that I know is a response to a submission. I feel myself cringe. I know the odds are against me, still, despite having published over sixty stories. I haven’t done the math, but I suspect that rejections lead acceptances by at least 3:1. Maybe higher overall, but in recent years that feels like the right number. But every one of those acceptances carries with it enough weight to overpower a number of rejections. I celebrate every one of them.

Rejections are rubber bullets. They may bruise but they damage no internal organs.

Apparently I Write Like a Girl

July 17th, 2009 86 comments

The author as a young man– by Bev Vincent

I’m including my picture in this month’s essay. It’s somewhat important to the piece, especially if you don’t know me other than as a name on the screen or on a piece of paper. If you don’t know me from Adam (or Eve), in other words.

In 2007, I was invited to submit to an anthology by an editor with whom I’d worked in the past. The general theme was near and dear to my heart and he was offering pro payment so I was willing to participate. I had a story that I thought would be a match. We spent a few weeks going back and forth, with me performing significant rewrites to satisfy his requests, and ultimately we arrived at a version that both of us were happy with. (Note this fact—it’s also important.) The editor sent me a contract, which we both executed. End of the story, right?

Wrong.

The editor turned the manuscript in to his publisher (you’ve never heard of them, so don’t worry about who it is), and it languished on someone’s desk for months. Finally they got around to it and did something unexpected. They sent the manuscript out to another editor for review.

Now, if I was the original editor, I’d be somewhat miffed by this, having turned in a finished manuscript that I was happy with. A few weeks ago he received a set of editorial comments back from the publisher, which he then had to distribute to his stable of contributors. This is six weeks before the book is supposed to go to the printer, mind you, and over eighteen months after the last time any of the writers have looked at their stories.

If you think all this is unusual, I haven’t gotten to the best part yet. The notes on my story consisted of two full single-spaced pages of text. It was savage. Among the first comments this editor (and I do not know who he or she is) offered: “It’s quite a challenge for a writer of one sex to explore writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. Bev Vincent has not done a convincing job.”

The protagonist in my story is a man.

I’ll sit here for a few seconds while that sinks in.

Me, the guy who’s pictured above, failed to do a convincing job of writing from the perspective of a man.

I’ve heard female writers talk about gender bias in the industry before, but it’s always been an abstract concept to me. Not something I’ve ever experienced. Oh, sure, people often think I’m female based on my name—it’s a common enough mistake, which I’ve had to deal with all my life. I like to tell the story about how I was almost assigned to the women’s dorm at university. However, I’ve never before had an editor criticize my writing based on a false assumption concerning my gender. Or make blatantly biased statements about the male perspective. Read on.

The editor says: “The story seems far too personal, introspective and emotional for a man . . . It is hard to imagine a fellow from a place like [the setting] uttering the following line.” The editor then provides three sentences from my story as examples. He or she continues, “And I can’t think of many guys from [setting] who call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to their family” [Emphasis his or hers]. Another brilliant insight: “Most men don’t think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature.” The ultimate conclusion: “She [sic] needs to write more convincing [sic] from a man’s perspective.”

I pause here to note that this was the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written, and all the things that the editor complained about were my real observations and my real thoughts cast into the mind of a fictional character participating in fictional events. I did, in fact, call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to my parents, while they were still alive.

To compound his or her arrogance, the editor claims that my prose is “overly elegant,” which is presumably his or her way of saying that a man would never write or think in elegant terms. Guess that means I write like a girl.

He or she goes on about other matters, but by this point I’ve lost all faith in anything this editor has to say. Some of the other criticisms—the ones not based on assumption about my gender—might have been perceptive, insightful and accurate—but it was impossible for me to credit any of it given his or her obvious wrongheadedness concerning a man’s perspective. My perspective.

The editor who invited me to contribute to the anthology tells me that this is a “very well respected editor,” without disclosing his or her identity. He apologized for the “gender confusion” as if it was simply a matter of the editor mistakenly referring to me as “she.” He didn’t seem to get the point that a major part of the critique was based on a faulty and biased impression about the way men think.

I’ve gone back and forth between laughing about this and being outraged. As you might suspect from the tone of this essay, indignation is winning. The original editor asked me to make the changes this unidentified editor requested. All of a sudden, my story had serious flaws that needed to be addressed—even though the acquiring editor had accepted it after revisions in 2007. I could have two weeks to completely rewrite the story.

Usually I’m pretty agreeable when editors request changes, but this time I balked. I reread the story for the first time in over a year and a half and I liked most of what I saw. I told the acquiring editor that I would fix a few clunky sentences if he wanted, but I wasn’t going to re-imagine the story at this other editor’s behest. That wasn’t the story I’d wanted to write . . . and it wasn’t the story he had accepted and contracted. It was the proverbial line in the sand, and neither of us would cross. End result: a 4000-word hole in their manuscript six weeks before publication for them and a pittance of a kill fee for me.

However, this essay isn’t about a contract issue that led me to withdraw a story from publication. For me it was a real eye-opener that a supposedly “well-respected editor” could make such an utter fool of him or herself and still be taken seriously. What I wouldn’t give to know who it is so I could present myself to him or her face-to-face and wait for realization to sink in.

I checked. Undid the zipper and looked, just to be sure. I think I am reasonably qualified to write from a man’s perspective.

The Work of the Copy Editor

April 17th, 2009 Comments off

– by Bev Vincent

The acquiring editor is the person most writers—and, perhaps, readers—are familiar with, at least in general. We submit stories to them, they accept (or reject) our work, and changes to the overall flow, structure, and content of the material originates with them. I think of them as conceptual or big-picture editors. A while back I wrote about what a good editor can do for a writer.

This month I would like to introduce you to copy editors, the unsung heroes of the publishing process. After the editor and the author have ironed out the major issues with a project, the manuscript then goes before the sharp eyes of the copy editor.

The first thing she does is to build a style sheet for the project to guarantee continuity from the first page to the last. The publishing house probably has a style manual that it uses as its Bible, but there will inevitably be things that aren’t addressed by the style manual, so the copy editor makes a decision about how such things will be handled, adds rules to the style sheet, and sweeps through the manuscript to make sure the rules are obeyed. How will times be represented: a.m. or AM? What numbers will use digits and which ones will be spelled out? Will essay titles in the text be italicized or put in quotes. Will certain words be hyphenated or represented as compound words? Will the serial comma be used? These are just some of the decisions the copy editor makes and enforces.

The copy editor also flags grammatical errors and catches errors in fact. She looks for overused terms or duplication of words in close proximity. In a work of fiction, a good copy editor will make sure that Jane, who has blue eyes on page 17, doesn’t turn into Jean with green eyes on page 317. In a non-fiction work, she will notice that an author has referred to a publisher as Everett House throughout when, in fact, the company is Everest House. The copy editor makes sure that trademarked names are correctly spelled. She catches vague references and ambiguities.

When I was working on The Road to the Dark Tower with Penguin several years ago, once the hardcopy manuscript went to the copy editor, it was “locked.” All subsequent changes were made on that printed version of the manuscript. The copy editor sent the manuscript back to the author with her notes in the margins and the author addressed the comments and suggestions in the margins using a different color of ink. For complicated or lengthy changes, the author could insert pages into the manuscript, but that version was sacrosanct. I often wondered what would happen if it were lost in transit. To be honest, I was surprised that a major publisher still did all that work in pen on paper—it meant that someone had to sort out the stets from the deles, interpret the handwritten insertions, and key them into the electronic master. It all worked out in the long run, but it seemed like an unnecessary step in the electronic era.

For my current project, the copyediting phase was done electronically. I received a version of my Word manuscript by e-mail with changes tracked and notes inserted where clarification was required. The style sheet came as a separate attachment. I went through the manuscript, again with changes tracked, and responded to comments and questions with my own comments and responses, accepted certain changes, rejected others—providing my reasons for doing so—and reworded passages that required clarification.

Copyeditors, in my experience, seem to be deferential people. They know that it isn’t their job to rewrite what the author has created, only to improve it. Often, alterations that were made to my manuscript were accompanied by queries that asked, “Change okay?”

After the author addresses the changes,the first pass of the book’s layout can be created. This is the point where proofreaders come into play—and the author is to be counted among this group. That’s the point I’m at with my current project. The first pass is on its way to me as I write, and I will have a week to go through it. In general, all I would need to do is proofread, but since this is a profusely illustrated book, I’ll also be seeing proposed design elements for the first time, and I’ll have to write captions. It’s been a fascinating project to work on, let me tell you.

I have the utmost respect and undying gratitude for the copy editor who caught all my silly mistakes and will make the finished product (and me) look better.

Book packagers

February 17th, 2009 Comments off

– Bev Vincent

 

packageRecently, a representative of a book packager contacted me with a proposal for a project they wanted me to consider. 

Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. That’s the sound of my brakes squealing across the pavement. Book packagers? What’s that? Sounds kind of dodgy. Some sort of scam, mayhaps? 

Before committing to anything—or indeed, even responding to the unsolicited e-mail—I had to educate myself on what this book-packaging thing was all about. Book packagers are exactly like publishers. They produce books. They have researchers and editors and marketers and foreign rights departments, and all the other things that you might expect a publisher to have. They have artists and illustrators, book designers, the whole nine yards. They even have their own organization: The American Book Producers Association. 

What they do is bring together all these creative people to assemble a “package,” which is just another word for a book. This book idea either originates with another publisher—perhaps even one of the big, famous, New York publishers—or the proposal is shopped around. That’s right—the book packager also acts as a literary agent for the project. 

Why do they exist? Because publishers don’t always have all the resources necessary to produce labor-intensive books—ones that have a lot of photographs or illustrations, require a lot of research or involve the acquisition of rights and licensing. That’s the stock-in-trade for a book packager. The volumes they produce would look right at home on your coffee table. Big, lavish volumes with photographs. Every page illustrated and intricately designed. Book packagers (also known as independent book producers) make complicated books easy for a publisher to publish. 

As was the case with the project I was offered, another publisher often comes up with a concept, perhaps prepares an outline or some guidelines, and then hires the book packager to produce the finished volume. 

So, what’s the deal? As with any other publishing relationship, the sky is the limit. It’s difficult to generalize. The conventional wisdom is that the writer’s end of the deal with a book packager is much like “work for hire.” That means, you get a flat fee for your words—which, after all, are just part of the package—no royalties. And, sometimes, not even name credit on the book or a transfer of copyright to the book packager. It’s like being a ghostwriter. Those terms may be deal breakers for some people. 

However, everything is negotiable, and not all deals are the same. The book packager in this instance offered both royalties and name credit. Though the boilerplate contract stipulated a transfer of copyright, my agent successfully negotiated copyright in my name. During negotiations, he told me he enjoyed working on this deal because it was a different type of contract from the usual ones he was used to seeing. Different kinds of clauses and concerns. 

There was something else to consider—though I will get a royalty on every copy sold, the royalty is based on the sale price to the publisher who initiated the project, not on the cover price. That’s not the way things normally work—it’s more like the terms of a normal contract for “deeply discounted” copies, except in this case, every copy is deeply discounted. 

On the other side of the equation, though, the books are sold to the publisher on a no-return basis. I will get a royalty for every copy printed. None of that nasty “reserve against returns” that appears on typical royalty statements—money held back by the publisher in anticipation of a certain percentage of returned books from stores. 

There’s another dimension to this project: I’m essentially a servant to two masters. I have an editor I’m working with at the book packagers, and another editor downstream with the publisher who solicited the project whose name I don’t even know. It is possible that I will “finalize” the manuscript with one editor only to find out that more work will be required at the behest of the second editor. So far, the second editor has been agreeable with everything we’ve done, but it’s something to keep in mind should you find yourself considering a deal with a book packager. 

Things tend to move very fast in the world of packaging. The editor first contacted me at the end of November 2008. After a few rounds of discussion, both by e-mail and phone, I was intrigued enough to get my agent involved. He went off and did his thing with them while I prepared a detailed outline for the project, which I submitted in early January. 

After the outline was approved, I got straight to work. Because of the accelerated timeframe, I had 1/3 and 2/3 point deliverable deadlines—both to keep me on track and to provide the photo researchers with material to work from. 

The editor has been a delight to work with, as enthusiastic about the project as I am and very supportive of the work I’ve done to date. Exactly the kind of environment every writer hopes to have while working on a book. 

Now, less than three months after the initial contact, I have an executed contract and a completed manuscript. Because these books are so lavishly illustrated, the word count tends to be fairly low. In this case, 20-30,000 words was the contracted text. 

In parallel, the photo researcher and documents experts have been gathering material for the book. I don’t have any involvement in that, though I have been able to facilitate access to certain materials. The book will be published this fall—about a year after initial contact. It’s hard to match that in “mainstream” publishing. 

So, that’s what I’ve been up to during 2009 to date. I had the first draft finished at the end of January and I spent the first couple of weeks of February revising and polishing the manuscript and I turned it in last week—two weeks early. 

The advance is probably more than I would get for a first novel from a paperback house and for much less work—and there’s the possibility of further revenue if the book is popular, or if side deals are executed for subsidiary rights. All in all, a very pleasant process. Especially in this economic climate, and with the fairly dire state of affairs in publishing, it was a welcome surprise to have something like this drop into my lap.

And, at the end of the year, I’m going to have copies of this beautiful book in stores across the country. Guess what all my friends and family are getting for Christmas this year?

 

 

Too Many Words

January 17th, 2009 1 comment

– Bev Vincent

There’s a scene in Amadeus where Mozart has just finished playing one of his new compositions for Emperor Joseph II. After a few generalities (“ingenious,” “quality work”), the Emperor concludes (at the prompting of Mozart’s nemesis Salieri), “There are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

The movie version of Mozart, who has the benefit of a good script to feed him a comeback, retorts, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

Several years ago I wrote a short story for a themed anthology. Although the editor expressed an early inclination toward accepting my story, the anthology (it may surprise you to hear) failed to materialize. I submitted the story to a few markets in the aftermath of that implosion, but never reread it or paid much attention to it. One editor, bless his soul, took the time to write a lengthy critique, almost two full pages. He saw a lot of good in the story, but felt that it needed major work. I filed the story and the critique away without taking further action.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to a broadly themed anthology. For some reason, that story came to mind. However, when I perused the invitation and brought up the story document, I saw a problem. The guidelines specified “no more than 4000 words” and the story’s word count was 6200. Ah, well, I thought. I’ll just have to write something new.

A day or so later, I was struck out of the blue by a question. Why was the story so long? That’s a pretty beefy tale and the plot, as I remembered it, wasn’t all that complex or involved. The entire story takes place over the span of an hour or so. I brought up the document again, wondering if I might be able to trim it back a little. That seemed a tad optimistic—after all, 2200 words represented 35% of the story’s total length. If I could just get it back to 5000 words or so, I rationalized, maybe the editor would consider it despite its length. (We all know that guidelines are meant for everyone else, never for us!)

I didn’t get very far into the text before realizing that there was a lot of extraneous material. The tale barely got started before I was sidetracked by a lengthy “essay” about the nature of the protagonist. All very valuable insight for me as the writer, but overkill in terms of the story. It was so bad that at the end of that diversion I had a space break to remind me it was time to get back to the plot.

Instead of a scalpel, I wielded a machete. The floor around my computer became littered with excised text. Adjectives, sentences, paragraphs, huge swaths of pages all went. Some of the writing was very precious. I remember writing those gleaming passages, but with several years of distance I found I was able to trim them with only slight twinges of regret.

By the end of my first pass, I was down to 4600 words. Well, then, I thought. Close, but no cigar. I told myself, “Self, it’s going to be very difficult to trim much more than that.”

Two days later, I took another whack at it, after rereading the critique from the helpful editor who had had enough faith in the core concept of the story to send me such detailed notes. As of this writing, I’m only halfway through the second revision, and the word count is at 3600. I’m sure that more will be cut before I tackle the next phase, which will be a procedure akin to plastic surgery to repair the grievous wounds I’ve inflicted on the prose. My machete left gashes and gaping holes. Coarse sutures are holding paragraphs together. My scalpel will come into play to trim, shape and mold, to remove the scars and join the text back together seamlessly, I hope.

Okay, I think I’ve stretched the medical metaphor as far as it will go. When I’m finished with the story, it will probably have crept back up a little, perhaps verging on 4000 words again, but whatever I add (post-op, so to speak) will be subtleties and nuance that give the story depth and—I hope—impact. No more blather.

Is there a take-home message? So often I’m not sure when I start writing one of these essays. It’s a vignette from my writing life. Take from it what you will. I had this lumbering story occupying my hard drive that was so bloated (too many words) that I couldn’t find many places to send it. With a little distance, I saw the skinnier, zippier, edgier story hiding inside and I hope that I’m managing to tease it out.