Saturday, 3 January 2009

Do Your Research!

If you want to be published well, you have to start off by doing plenty of research.

Do your research before you start writing, so you know if your book has commercial potential and if you really know what you think you know, or if it's actually all assumption and myth.

Do your research before you start editing, so you can distinguish between things like ellipses, dashes and hyphens, and know when and how to use them: otherwise your work will be sloppy and unpolished, and it won't impress anyone.

Do your research before you start submitting, so you only send out to reputable agents and editors and avoid the ill-intentioned and ill-informed who will mislead you, and cost you time, money and tears. Remember that nice isn't the same as good, and that in publishing, experience counts.

Do more research before you start submitting so you only submit to agents and editors who work in your genre and are accepting submissions.

Do your research before you agree to anything, to make sure you're not restricting yourself uneccessarily: I particularly dislike unlimited exclusives.

Do your research before you sign anything, so you don't end up committed to an inappropriate agent, or tied to a poor publishing contract.

Do your research before you take anyone's word for anything, especially on the internet, where new self-appointed experts (like me!) pop up every ten minutes.

And finally, although it's wise to be cautious and research is invaluable, not everything is black and white and just like writing, publishing isn't a one-size-fits-all, yes-or-no endeavour. There will always be exceptions to every rule: just make sure that you learn to separate the new-and-exciting from the old-and-scammy, and the creative-risk-taking from the foolhardy-and-dangerous.


Unknown said...

A welcome reminder. thanks :-)

Anonymous said...

I think things like grammar and punctuation are a bit overrated (unless the writing is just grotesque). I think too often it is used as an arbitrary judge of when to decline a submission when a more careful reading and a little coaching of the writer could produce something fine.

I'm not sure just what genre my story is in. That's probably going to be a problem when I reach the submission state.

Jane Smith said...

Paul, editors rarely have the time to finish all their work during office hours. All of the editors I know already take mss home with them, to read in the evenings and during weekends: when are they meant to find the time to do this coaching that you suggest?

Bear in mind, too, that they're faced with hundreds of submissions each week: of course they're going to select the ones which are the best; but that includes the best-edited, as well as the best-written. Why should they choose writing which needs a lot of work when they have plenty in front of them which doesn't? What's in it for them, apart from a lot more work in an already-overloaded schedule?

Anonymous said...

One thing I find from doing editorial reports - where, unlike an editor dealing with the slushpile, I'm actually being paid to read the thing - is that punctuation and even more grammar don't have to be badly awry before they really start to get in the way of my perception of the story/characters/plot, etc.. In which case, it needn't just that an editor being captious/snobbish/lazy, in rejecting an MS on the grounds of bad grammar etc. It can be that they actually can't really get what the book is like. Add to that a general feeling that a writer is either ignorant of basic stuff, or knows they're getting it wrong can't be bothered to get these things right (and no editor wants to work with a writer who's either of those things), and it's back in the SAE for that one.

What's often left out of the debate about correct grammar etc. is that the most important thing isn't that it marks you as a nice eddicated person just like Teacher (as it were), but that there's an excellent reason for the rules: they are how we articulate (in the true senses of jointing and joining and moving) what we want to say. If you put words and sentences together wrongly or use punctuation incorrectly, it's like being an actor with terrible diction: you're hamstringing yourself from the very first word. Faced at an audition with an actor like that, and ten who won't need voice coaching (at your expense, in the case of a publisher) which would you choose?

Jan Jones said...

Emma - that's a terrific analogy!

Good post, Jane.

A. said...

Hi Jane, I'm not sure how you found my blog, but thanks for the kudos on the 'Victor Who' post :) It's nice to get positive feedback.

I've been enjoying your blogs, and reading your wonderful advice, and your own entertaining and well written work--wow--after reading some of your posts, the feedback from you means even more! Thanks!

This post is full of excellent advice, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

I am not an editor, and won't pretend to be one. Yet, I have read poorly constructed work from a writer with an innate ability to tell a gripping story and I felt I could 'spot' the diamond under all the rough.

Other times I've read highly polished work that was as boring and unmemorable as a textbook. But, there again, what is boring to one, isn't to another.

Isn't it true, that there are times when an editor just 'falls in love' with a piece, and defends it all the way to the publishing contract?

Don't take me wrong. I understand that in this day and age, a writer cannot expect that all of the 'polishing' be done by an editor. However, the final polishing, CAN be done by another. The genius, in writing, in my thought, still lies simply being able to create something, i.e. in 'telling a great story.' And that is where I feel, in my own craft, I need to keep dedicating the most time, at least, for now. Perhaps in time I will feel different?

Jane Smith said...

Emma, thanks for that fabulous analysis: I've often thought that the best bit of this blog is everyone else's comments, and I think you've just proved me right!

Andrea, I think I found you via my Sitemeter information: I spy on everyone who comes here. I'm glad I did visit your blog: I loved the "Victor Who?" post, and the one below it about sweeping under the rugs. You do write well.

You're right, of course: sometimes an edtior will persist with a work that needs more polish because there's something rare there that they think they can bring out. But that only happens very, very rarely and most of us aren't good enough writers to swing it. Far better to just do the work, and get our writing clean and gorgeous before we send it off: there's no point in making things more difficult for ourselves than they have to be.

Colette McCormick said...

Maybe it's my age or something but I think that good grammar is just the right way to do it. I won't pretend that I get it right all the time but I try to.

Anonymous said...

I can see that I didn't make my point well at all. I wasn't suggesting that someone submit a half-finished, unpolished work and expect the editor to clean it up. Rather, I was saying that good grammar isn't necessarily equivalent to good writing. Writing with punch and insight and emotional effect can be done without the constraints of grammar. Look at Faulkner. Look at Murdoch. One of the most eloquent speeches of all time was by Chief Joseph, and American Indian who barely knew English. He concluded his surrender speech by saying "I will fight no more forever." Hardly good grammar, but very good persuasion. My point is that if an editor judges a submission on the basis of proper grammar alone, a good many powerful, eloquent works can get rejected.

I realize that "proper" writing has a tendency to communicate better (or more exactly), but it helps not at all if I know the proper use of a semicolon and use it in my writing yet nine-tenths of my readers don't and thus miss the nuance of my meaning.

A. said...

I like Paul's thoughts above; very well said.

Jane, thanks so much for the encouragement, again.

Given what Paul just brought up, i.e. at times bad grammar can be what enhances a terms of dialogue, within a piece, I now am wondering what turns an editor off, and on the flip side, also tunes them IN, to a work within which the writer purposesly uses 'bad grammar' and phonetics, etc. within the dialogue to either build the character, set the tone, or placement (either geographical or time-line).

I've always thought that within dialogue, the use of 'bad grammar', langauge, even at times miss-spellings so one gets a feel of the phonetics of a region, is acceptable, and even encouraged. Am I wrong in that thought?

I would be interested in seeing a discussion/tips (perhaps in a separate post!)from others on how to do bad grammar 'well' (within dialogue, etc. or to actually set the tone of the piece, with geographical placement, etc.)

Just food for thought :) if you have time, of course, best, Andrea

Sally Zigmond said...

I think that perhaps Paul and Andrea are missing the point of Jane's original post. There's a huge different between bad grammar being used because the writer is from another culture or a writer wants to make a point by deliberately choosing to write in a fresh, new way and bad grammar because the writer doesn't know the basics.

(Emma Darwin used the analogy of an actor. I am thinking about Picasso. Picasso knew all the basic 'rules' about art. Look at his early works and you will see what a perfect draughtsman he was. When he pushed the boundaries of art, it was because he knew the rules and knew how to break them to create something fresh.

'I will fight no more forever' is acceptable and forceful,because it comes from someone whose first language isn't English. It is, however, clear and emphatic. It makes sense.

The bad grammar I assume Jane is talking about and that which I have seen all too often comes from people whose chances of publication are hampered because they don't know how to construct a sentence in a meaningful way.

I'm not talking about the odd slip--we all make them--but if someone wants to be published, it seems arrogant in the extreme to expect someone else to unravel the mess. Good grammar is an aid to clarity. The rules are there for a reason. A writer needs to be able to express him or herself well. Grammar is the framework on which all good writing depends.

When I was an editor I never used grammar errors as an excuse to reject a piece of writing, Paul, but I found in 99% of cases, the submissions where the grammar was poor, were just that; poor.

Anonymous said...

I think Sally's nailed it: you can only vary from standard practice fruitfully when you understand why it is standard, and what will be the effect if you depart from it. Of course, one of the ways creative writing varies from the other kind is that we give ourselves the freedom to vary from the rules in the cause of expressiveness. But that's the point - the non-standard things must be contributing to an effect, not just be mistakes. Even then you have to be careful with just how variant you are, as anyone fighting their way through a thicket of variant spellings which are meant to represent a foreign or regional accent but just make it incomprehensible, will tell you.

A. said...

Sally, I did understand what Jane brought up in this original post and found it very helpful. My apologies, since obviously by my tangent comments, it seems that I wasn't 'getting' her original post.

I meant to simply expound a bit in my second comment, with the hopes of starting an addititonal discussion about 'how to do bad grammar well.'

I live in rural America, and when I write about my surroundings, often I purposely make the dialogue rife with grammatical errors, to help set the tone and for characterization purposes... and I've oftened wondered if I'm doing that part of it 'right'. For that reason, I would welcome seeing such a topic discussed, for personal reasons-- to help with my own craft :) not to be a 'contrarian'.

(Although, I am quite good at being one! HA!)

Seriously, I spend as much time polishing, to the best of my abilities, as I do creating. I do so because I want the message to be as unhampered as possible for the reader; not necessarily because I am dying to have the piece published.

So, we are agreed on this topic; really :)

Hope that made better sense! Andrea B

Sally Zigmond said...

Thanks, Andrea. I understand what you're saying and perhaps I was a bit hasty in bracketing you with Paul. In fact, my previous post makes it clear that so-called 'bad' grammar for effect--such as conveying idiosyncratic idiom--is what makes reading fiction so magical. For example, I love to read writers such as Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers who use language to conjure up the sense of the American South. Their writing is so perfect because they know the 'correct' rules and have a finely-tuned ear to make non-standard English or American usage not only perfectly understandable, but a joy to read.

Jane Smith said...

Apologies for the comment-spam which appeared here just now: I've deleted it, and have switched on the comment moderation feature in an attempt to stop it happening again.