Thursday, March 19, 2009

Working With An Editor

Whether you write articles or books, screenplays or news reports, if you are lucky, you will one day work with an editor. If you never work with editors, it means that nobody is buying your work. Failure to sell is a bad thing. Working with an editor is a good thing. No matter how frustrated you feel about the editor’s attitude toward your masterpiece, if the editor is talking, you are wise to listen, because the editor is the gateway through which your work transitions from your heart to the eyes of the public.
If you want the chance to work with an editor, you must get out of the slush pile and onto the desk. This means that your book manuscript or your proposal for a book or an article must at a minimum comply with the editor’s submission guidelines. Always read the submission guidelines before you submit. After you complete your first draft, read those guidelines again, and tweak anything that must change in order to comply. Refer to the guidelines as often as necessary to assure that every document in your submission package complies with the submission guidelines for the publisher. It is easy to feel annoyed that publishers are not all alike, but varieties of publishers and editors provide broad opportunities for many different kinds of writers.
The easiest way to irritate an editor who does select your work is to refuse every suggestion for revision or (dare I whisper it?) improvement. Any honest writer knows that we all have room for improvement. An editor may see opportunity for improvement in any number of directions, and the wise writer will thank her lucky stars if she gets a chance to make those improvements. When an editor sees promise in both the writer and the concept of a piece, there is hope that editor and writer can work together to produce a book or an article that will attract readers and delightfully surprise them with something even better than they expected.
A good way to prepare for working with an editor is to participate in a critique with other writers. There are several online sites where you can do this in forums. You might explore http://christianwriters.com/ and http://www.writing.com/ . There are also many online groups for writers where there is informal or formal opportunity to help each other by means of constructive critique. Of course, the time-honored method of joining a face-to-face group that regularly engages in critique is hard to beat. In such venues, you will mature as a writer and develop specific techniques for dealing with pesky problems such as spelling and grammar as well as more subtle areas like syntax and diction. You may even get insight into content problems such as point of view, logical argument, or plot development. You will learn to value the professional growth that emerges when two (or more) creative minds tackle a problem.
Of course, the big payoff is the letter that says, “We want to buy your work,” or something like that. In the elation of receiving an acceptance letter, it is easy to miss details. However, a second reading may reveal that the editor wants some changes. Perhaps, instead of the 1000-word article you proposed, full of tips and tricks for job search in a depressed economy, the editor would like for you to reduce the count below 800 words. It is tempting to rail against the poor taste and ignorance of someone who fails to show proper respect for your compliance with the word count published in the guidelines. However, if you insist on your standards, you will need to make your case to someone else. No matter what the guidelines say, this publisher at this time needs 800 words. (Do remember the difference between guidelines and requirements.) The first time an editor made such a request of me, I was irritated. However, after I found 200 words I could do without, I discovered that the piece had a tighter, more coherent feel. I was more pleased with my work, and my bank account was happy, too.
In general, magazines prefer a query that contains a proposal to a completed article. The same is true for non-fiction books. You may propose one article or a series, or you may propose a book series. If your proposal is intriguing and your style is captivating, you may actually hear from the acquisitions editor. When you open the letter, you shout “Yes!” and do the happy dance. Then you read the letter again.
If any author has ever had a manuscript or a proposal accepted without any revisions, I have not had the pleasure of hearing about it. Writers want to receive acceptance letters, but most of them discover in the letter that some changes are required. How dare they! Your proposal is a solid concept. Your manuscript is crafted like a Rembrandt painting. What change could possibly improve it?
Perhaps you have proposed a series of articles and the editor wants you to compress your wonderful series into a single comprehensive piece. Maybe you proposed book on camping vacations, but the editor needs one focused tightly on camping in the Northwest. Alternatively, the editor loves your coverage of camping, but reader surveys indicate a growing interest in hiking venues. When your editor asks for change, be prepared to respond with a “can do” attitude. I once wrote an article about navigating a sailboat in the fog in which I focused on our personal development and growing self-confidence. The editor who expressed interest in the article asked if I could concentrate on the sailing skills and safety strategies required due to our lack of radar. This change in focus was a better fit for the magazine. Imagine that you have written a masterful article about negotiating, built around your experience helping your fifteen-year-old daughter live within a budget. Your editor may recognize a real bonanza in your tips and tricks for creating a fashion statement from items in discount stores and thrift shops, and that may be the article you actually sell. If you demonstrate that you are writing to serve the needs of the publisher and its readership rather than your own ego, you can build a relationship that may serve you well in your writing career.
Never forget that the editor is just as committed to your success as you are. Both of you have a lot to lose if your book or your article bombs. Your interaction with the editor of a magazine may be brief and intermittent, but very important nonetheless. If you sell a book project, then you will work with an editor for several months. In the books I read, authors often compliment their editors for their help in making the book better and making the author look good. They probably did not feel that way in the middle of the project.
One afternoon I boarded an airplane. When I found my seat, I noticed that my neighbor had a thick pile of papers on her lap and a cell phone to her ear. As she talked, she rummaged through the papers and scribbled notes. I could hear everything she was saying, of course. I heard some anxiety in her voice as she held up one page and said, “Take out the argument? Last week you told me I needed an argument to build the scene!” She was silent. “Then how will I get her to slam the door? She needs to slam the door to clinch the drama.” More silence. “I like the sound of a door slamming. I don’t want to invent some other device.” Papers rustled as she rummaged through them. “Well, thank goodness. I’m glad you liked that.” Suddenly she looked agitated. She moved her finger across the page as if she needed help reading. Suddenly she stabbed at a word. “I can’t believe I missed that! I know I checked the spelling, but there it is. Aaaggghhh!” She drew a large, black circle on the page. More silence. “Yes, but if I spend too much time describing that cave, the reader will forget why we are there. I thought it was more important to get him through the bottleneck.” A pause. “Hmm. Cold, wet, dark. Thank you for your confidence, but I can’t imagine how to increase the imagery while keeping the verbiage lean.” Eventually the conversation ended. I brazenly introduced myself and learned what I had suspected. This writer was working on her novel with her editor, streaking toward a deadline to run the galley proofs.
If you pay attention to this interchange (or at least the half I could hear), you will see that the dialogue shows two creative minds at work. The writer and the editor both want this book to succeed, and they have somewhat different ideas about what it will take. The writer who feels that this work is a finely polished jewel may not want to chip at it anywhere. The editor, with years of experience identifying books that sell, wants to chip anywhere and everywhere that will make that jewel shine more brightly. Every time I read a book that completely engulfs me, I know that it is the result of exactly this kind of creative friction, a dialectic from which emerges something better than either person could have done alone.
If you know that you were created to be a writer, know also that some people were created to be editors. Readers are deeply indebted to both. Your books and articles will connect with readers and build your relationship with readers only if you learn how to work successfully with editors.
© 2009 Katherine Harms

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dealing With Rejection

by Katherine Harms (c) 2009

Every runner knows that in a race, there is only one winner. There is a lot of competition. Runners who train very hard and do their best in the race will, nonetheless, lose, because only one can win. Many runners compete for years and win only a few races. They persist in preparing and running. They don’t give up.
Every writer faces the same kind of challenge. Years of experience teach editors to be extremely selective when reading the manuscripts that cross their desks. They know that the risk of a failure is less with established writers whose customers are already waiting eagerly for more books. A good editor will give an unknown writer only a few pages to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Like runners in a footrace, many more writers lose than win in any editor’s slush pile.
Rejection is quite painful. I had an unrealistic introduction to the world of publishing, because my first submission, a magazine article, was purchased two days after I submitted it. I thought I was going to set records. I was wrong. I immediately sent out more articles, and I immediately started learning about rejection. I have submitted book manuscripts, and I have submitted magazine articles. I have been rejected over and over. I have even been ignored. When I submit my article or book manuscript, I feel a lot like the mother of Moses who set her baby adrift in the Nile in a basket. I know there are crocodiles out there.
There are several kinds of rejection. I have received some rejections that include kind comments about my writing. I treasure those, and I go back to them when I get the ones that suggest a two-year-old could write better than I do. Most editors simply respond, “Unfortunately, it does not fit with our publishing goals.” Some never respond at all.
I try to remember that editors have good days and bad days. My manuscript is part of a pile that never stops growing. They dare not buy a poor manuscript, and they dare not miss a good one. I wouldn’t change jobs with an acquisitions editor for any amount of money. I can handle rejection of my manuscript with more grace than I could ever handle the consequences of buying a manuscript that bombed in the bookstore.
I am learning to make peace with rejection, just as a runner who loses a race makes peace with the loss. Whether it is an article or a book manuscript, I am finally learning that there is a difference between the creative experience of writing and the business of getting published. I love the creative part. I tolerate the business part. I thank God for the gift of writing. Writing is the way I think, the way I learn, and the way I grow in understanding. When I begin writing on any subject, the process is like a deep conversation. As I write and rewrite in the attempt to speak clearly, I discover that I must do more research, or I need to learn a new word, or maybe I just need a new viewpoint on the subject. When I have finished a piece, I am a different person than when I started. This is a reward that nobody can take away from me. Editors can refuse to print my work, but they can never steal the personal growth and the excitement about life that is the result of my writing. At first, I thought that a writer with no readers was a failure. Now I understand that my calling is to write. That is my work, and that is my blessing.
The business side is a burden I bear. Rejection is part of that burden. The publishers who reject my work may or may not tell me anything about their reasons, but underlying every rejection is a determination that for some reason, my work will not contribute to their bottom line. There are a lot of reasons that might put my work in the rejected pile.
My article may have arrived the week after the annual issue on my subject. My timing is bad. If they publish a calendar of topics, I should use that information and time my submissions accordingly.
My article may have been among two dozen on the same subject. The “winning” article may have offered a fresh perspective, or the writer may have organized the material in a more reader-friendly form. Maybe after reading the first dozen, the editor concluded there was nothing to be gained by reading more.
My article may not have been my best work. If I added a paragraph at the last minute and hurriedly hit “send,” I may have missed a spelling or grammar error that convinces the editor I should not be taken seriously.
Or maybe my article simply did not grab and hold the editor’s attention.
The first time I was told that my submission did not meet the editor’s “goals” I was pretty sure that she needed new goals. After all, this piece was phenomenal. I had edited out clich├ęs and checked my spelling. I rewrote it twice to eliminate unnecessary adverbs. I checked my facts. My logic was coherent. My grammar was correct, and my diction was precise. In my professional judgment it was a good article on a timely subject.
My dear writer friend Signe says that when she receives a rejection, she picks up her manuscript and says, “I appear to have mailed this manuscript to the wrong address. Now where exactly is the editor who loves this piece?” She finds another market, and she submits the piece again. I decided that this strategy was better than eating spaghetti until I fell into a stupor.
I have sold some articles. I am still looking for the address of the editor who loves my wonderful first novel. Rejection is just business. I refuse to take refusal personally.