Wednesday, 16 September 2009

How Much Can Writers Get Away With?

We know that writers have to get their work as close to perfect as possible to get it published: but the fact that publishers insist on paying editors to then edit those books before they are published implies to some that books don't have to be quite as perfect as is commonly thought before they are submitted. And if that's the case, what mistakes can writers get away with when they submit their work and what can't they afford to get wrong?

  1. The basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation must be there. If the odd error has sneaked into your work then you're not facing an automatic rejection; if you show a persistent-but-consistent error which is relatively easy to correct, like using a hyphen where you should use a dash, then again you're not doing yourself too much harm. But if you misspell several words on every page, you don't seem to understand the correct use of the comma, and you pepper your whole manuscript with extended ellipses then that is going to signal to an editor that your book will need a substantial amount of work to get right—and will probably lead to rejection.
  2. It's always possible to strengthen something: if a character isn't quite believable a good writer can work them more deeply into their scenes; new scenes can plug holes in gappy plots; structures can be consolidated or broken down; and a swingeing edit can work wonders on a flagging story-line, increasing the pace and tightening the story. The problem comes when all of these things need a lot of attention: the book will be very time-consuming to edit and with so much in need of revision it's difficult to be sure that the book will end up publishable. Rejection is the probable result.
  3. The story has to be good. There is absolutely no point at all in constructing the perfect plot around a story which no one is interested in, or a story which people find repellent. Your story has to be really good, not just good enough.
  4. If you have a good story and have perfected the structure, plot and characterisation, you still cannot guarantee that you have written a publishable book. What you also really have to have is a good voice—a unique, engaging and enticing voice. And this is the one thing that you have to get completely right if you want to be published because it's the one thing a good editor cannot help you with. It infuses every page of your manuscript and informs everything that you write. The stronger your voice, the more leeway you will be allowed with the rest of the book, and the more likely you are to get published regardless of what errors might lurk in your texts.

18 comments:

Sally Zigmond said...

Umm. Is it just me or is all this blank bar the numbers? Am I missing something very clever here, Ms Smith?

j purdie said...

Weeyurd. It looks fine in Google Reader but I come here and there's only a squiggle. However, click on 'show the original post' and there it is! The wonders of modern technology.

'but the fact that publishers insist on paying editors to then edit those books before they are published implies to some that books don't have to be quite as perfect as is commonly thought before they are submitted.' I'd like to focus on that for a bit. Jane, did you see the following:

http://mickrooney.blogspot.com/2009/09/man-booker-2009-submissions-guilty-of.html

(http://mickrooney.blogspot.com/
2009/09/man-booker-2009-
submissions-guilty-of.html)

Sloppy editing from publishers? I saw this story in one of the national papers on the day but they didn't mention sloppy editing, which I think would have warranted comment or note.

Lexi said...

A very helpful post, Jane - but I had to read it in the comments section.

Jane Smith said...

As if by magic, a post appeared....

It seems that Blogger, in its wisdom, decided to publish this particular post in a teeny-weeny font-size, which made it nearly disappear. It is working now, but for how long, I have no idea. Blogger's done this before to my posts and might well do it again. Thank you all for the alert!

I shall now go and read Mick's blog post. Thanks for the link, J.

Philip S said...

People often think point 4 is the hardest part because it can't easily be taught. But actually, for most writers, it's something that comes with practice, naturally. You just have to keep writing (and reading) and it will come.
I was given some advice years ago, which I think worth repeating: read your work aloud, just as you would in front of an audience. If necessary record yourself doing so. It's remarkable how a real voice can expose the shortcomings of a literary one.

Nicola Morgan said...

Nice one, Jane. I think an author has to aim for perfection, and not submit until he/she *believes* it is as close to perfect as possible; but that if the voice and story shine brightly enough, the editor will accept some imperfections as part of the job. The imperfections can even be substantial, if the voice and story are strong enough and the talent is clear. If it's solid silver underneath, a bit of polishing will make it perfect: if it's clay, no amount of polishing will make it shine.

btw, did you know that your link to my blog is still the old one??

Anonymous said...

I'm doomed.

BFL.

BubbleCow said...

I would add that a story has to be different. I don't mean ground break genre different, just different enough for publishers to get excited and marketing people find a hook.

Dan Holloway said...

Jane, you're back on my blogroll! Yay!

Voice is what we always come back to, isn't it? As anonymous said...

One serious point, in response to Nicola. I had, er, a "debate" on Bookends about getting the ms perfect. It is, of course, advice that 90% of people subbing need to hear. But they're unlikely to be the ones who read posts like this. Many authors suffer from a perfectionism that borders on the clinical, and if you tell them to make a manuscript as perfect as they can before submitting, they'll never submit. I'd certainly never submit anything. Not ever. Because I know my work can always be improved.

What authors need to learn is that moment when rewrites stop making aqualittaive and start making only a quantitative difference. For me that's after twenty-something drafts, but it will obviously vary.

miss pitch said...

Lovely lovely post. I am going to be tweeting this one for a while. Perfect.

Lydia Sharp said...

I think a lot of new writers have issues with number four. It takes quite a bit of trial and error before you find your true voice. And you're absolutely right. That's the one thing an editor can't help you with.

L.A. DeVaul said...

What about marketable? Sometimes ms are rejected because there is no demographic. A Wrinkle in Time was rejected because it was too scientific for the kids it was written for. Now it is a classic, but you get my point. Marketers don't like taking chances on something that hasn't been proven to sell.

Donna Hosie said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the comment made by Philip S: read that mss aloud.

Peter said...

Sound advice, I think much of this will come through in a persons writing with a great deal of time and effort.

If anyone is interested there is a good site by Holly Lisle (http://hollylisle.com/) which has some excellent resources for writers of any genre.

I like it..



write it... http://rockvillas.blogspot.com/
blog it... http://blockvillas.blogspot.com/

catdownunder said...

So Jane, no loose cat hairs on the page? Sigh. I am just not good at housework. I find it very difficult to see my own loose cat hairs on the page.

notenoughwords said...

Good advice as always. But I agree, the people who need to read this, won't.

Victoria Mixon said...

Hi,

Thanks for this post on polishing your manuscript! More and more, as publishers lay off staff, their editors are NOT editing much anymore, if at all, which means writers (and even agents, if they can find the time) more and more carry the burden of getting those manuscripts into publishable condition.

However I want to say, on the up side, that it's not entirely true a good editor can't help you with your voice. They certainly can.

I just finished copy and line editing a very beautiful, profound novel for a talented author/poet striving for a particular distinctive voice. Because I've worked with so many different author voices over the years, I do know how to bring out the best in an author's voice, whatever it might be.

It's also not at all necessary to HAVE a distinctive voice. Good, clean, clear writing can be written by anyone, can be achieved by any good editor (with the author's cooperation!), and is always a pleasure to read.

best,
Victoria

Simon Kewin said...

Many thanks - a very refreshing post.

As it happens I've just written a post along similar lines on my blog so I've linked to yours.