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On ensuring subsequent story sales

Yesterday as I was driving out to a local writers' minicon where I was selling Twelfth Planet Press books, I was thinking about how for me, I am so much more concerned with the production side of writing. I was thinking about how this con would (and did) spend a lot of time talking about the writing process and all aspects of speculative fiction writing and how a lot of writers might talk about what they are currently working on. And how as a publisher, I'm not really all that interested in that aspect - I mean I am, and I love hearing writers tell me what they're working on and what's interesting them and what they're exploring or researching. But most of the time, when I'm working at Twelfth Planet Press, what I'm interested in is the final product. I'm much less concerned about the process and far more about the product: Is it good? Do I want to buy it? Do I think I can sell it? And in copious copies?

And that led me to thinking about how many writers concentrate on making the sale. But that this is not the final stage in the writing and publishing process. A story is very rarely ready for layout on submission. I've had the chance to work with some outstanding names and none of them have ever not needed at least a minor copy edit of their work. A few names spring to mind where I've edited their work to add one comma in the whole piece but that is so very rare. Those writers are considered to be at the top of the local scene. Generally, the bigger the name writer I've worked with, the cleaner their work. But even then, they still need at least a copy edit, sometimes more. And every single time I work with a writer like this, I get a chance to watch (and learn) true professionalism. These writers never complain or whinge or write long winded paragraphs on why you are wrong. Sometimes, they do not want to accept one particular change or other, and they simply will say, "I don't want to change this." And as an editor, it's not my job to rewrite the work or change the style. As long as it's not related to house style or a spelling, grammatical or punctuational error, I tend to let that edit go.

Sometimes a work will have intrigued me and pulled me in but it might not work in one place or might lack a punch or the pacing might be off. And I enjoy the back and forth of the rewriting process, especially with pro writers. More often than not, they will agree with you that they know it's not quite working and they appreciate the new set of eyes. The better the writer, the less feedback you need to give and it always amazes me how I will give one or two lines of direction and the story will come back completely rewritten, sometimes with a completely new plot or maybe I can't even tell what the writer has changed and yet suddenly it works. But again, this process is fun because it's constructive.

However, this is not always how the editing process goes with writers. And what I think some, especially new, writers are not aware of is, that the way they behave during the editing process absolutely determines whether they will ever make another sale to that editor. Editors are very busy and the one piece of writing they are working on with one writer is not the only thing they're working on. There are usually many things coming in and going out daily for work and decisions and so on. The editor is working on a timeline that might not remotely seem obvious to anyone else - maybe the layout person is going on holidays or the printer has given a specific deadline for a specific turnaround, or the uncorrected proofs need to go out to review by a certain date. Essentially, the one writer in an anthology or magazine issue is not the centre of it all. And the more difficult that writer makes the editing process of their story, particularly when every other writer in the anthology is promptly and systematically taking their edits/reworks, working on them, handing them back, accepting their proofs, sending in their contacts etc and this one writer is still arguing over whether a particular paragraph is slowing down the pacing or not, the less fun that writer is making it. In fact, that writer is becoming what we like to call a Pain in the Arse. And the next time their name comes up in the submission pile, the very first thing the editor is going to recall is the pain associated with editing them. And then the editor is going to weigh up how good the submission needs to be in order to make the pain of dealing with that writer worthwhile. Now, maybe the next submissions is AWESOME! And if it is, the editor will probably take it. But chances are, unless it *is* AWESOME and requires the most minor of edits, the editor is highly unlikely to take a chance on this writer and their work again. That is, if the editor thinks, "hey this could be a really great story if..." they will be more likely to find a new writer whose work could be really great if ... and edit the unknown than to choose to go into a process that will take 2 weeks longer than everyone else to deliver a story which was not AWESOME! and which hurt a lot more than it should.

Until the contract is signed and payment made, an editor is not obliged to take your story. If agreement cannot be reached on edits, an editor has the right to pull the story from the project. I have done this myself, and never regretted it. Usually in this case, it's because I bought a story that I thought needed work and made the sale on this provision. The writer might have thought, "Well, I'll say yes but then I won't change anything" or they might think that the work needed was less than the editor is suggesting. In the times this has happened to me, the writer in question has tended to refuse any and all editorial feedback, which as far as I was concerned was a breach of the agreement for the sale in the first place, and at this kind of a stand off, I'd rather pull the story than print something that I don't believe I can honestly sell to my readers.

I personally have a list of writers I won't work with again. And editors talk to each other and they swap names on their lists. As my workload gets bigger and deadlines get tighter, I just have less time to give to writers who are too precious to work with. No work is perfect on submission. No work would not benefit from the input of an editor. And very very few writers will ever make it in the business if they think that they are the brilliant exception to the rule. And those writers who do despite how they behave, do so BECAUSE they ARE brilliant. And when brilliant sells thousands of copies, no editor/publisher is going to mind the Pain in the Arse that much. But until then, I just don't really have the time for pain that doesn't deliver.

I have a second list too - a list of writers of extreme professionalism and consistent quality who take deadlines seriously. These writers can be trusted to help pull me out of a jam if say I suddenly have a space to fill in a project. They are also the writers who when they come to me and suddenly need an extension on something, and have a valid reason, I know that I will see the work on the new agreed deadline date. And these are the writers who I am more likely to save spots for in projects or allow extensions to submission deadlines. These are reliable writers who turn in polished pieces of great work. They work to brief, to deadline and with the editor. They make working with them fun and a desirable repeat performance. And some of them have become very close friends of mine through the experience. These are the writers who keep me enthused and motivated and who remind me why I do this on a daily basis. And these are the writers whom I proudly believe in and make it a joy to promote their work.


Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
benpayne
May. 3rd, 2010 05:16 am (UTC)
Hell yes.
twelfthplanet
May. 3rd, 2010 05:20 am (UTC)
Cause you were *there*!
keris45
May. 3rd, 2010 05:56 am (UTC)
All that applies to longer MSS too.

I find that editors of all kinds are pretty spot on when they point out weaknesses. They are not always so good at suggesting details of HOW to change something, and in fact I don't really think that's their job. The details are the author's job. On the rare occasion when an editor has suggested details, I don't always agree, but I always make changes to correct the problem. They've never objected to that, and I've had a lot of editors from different countries and publishers over the years!

The one time I disagreed (with a British editor) was over the ending of my first book. She wanted it all neatly tidied up, all explained. I had left the post-climax details to the imagination of the reader, and I still think I was right... However, I changed it and the very first reader mail I ever got in my life was from someone who loved the book but was so mad about the neat ending that she had to write and ask me why the hell I did that!

In retrospect, with the experience I now have, I think I should have taken less notice of the "how to" change it advice, and just made adjustments that pleased me more. I reckon I could still have satisfied everyone that way.

The lesson? I don't think an author should go against their gut feeling when it comes to working out the details of changes. But if an editor says something doesn't work, then it doesn't. To me, that's a given, and I'm relieved I have a skilled editor.

Glenda

twelfthplanet
May. 3rd, 2010 06:01 am (UTC)
Thanks Glenda - I really agree with you too on the "how to" change something. I try to edit as a reader and then guide that feedback as an editor. And so often the way authors have changed a text based on just "I don't think this bit works", for example, has blown me away that I'd really rather not interfere in that end of the process because that limits how a writer will change it. It's not my job to get in the way of writing nor to change the style of the writing.
mmerriam
May. 3rd, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
I promised myself when I started in this business that I would be the kind of writer who was easy to work with. I've always worked under the assumption that the editor is there to help me polish and publish a story we can both be happy with and proud to hand to an audience.

I should take this moment to say that working with you (and I think Tehani Wessely) on the story I sold to Shiny in '08 was a joy. The edits I received where clear and made the story stronger.
twelfthplanet
May. 5th, 2010 05:53 am (UTC)
I think realising that you are one person in a process towards both publication and your own career progress is really important in succeeding. It is, as you say, a business. And like any business, there is work to be done.

Thanks for your lovely words - we loved working with you too.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )