Thursday, February 08, 2007

How not to be the Writer From Hell

Karen Traviss is a scribe for whom I've got a lot of time. Our backgrounds are not dissimilar, having both trained and worked as journalists before the urge to write fiction got too strong. Karen pursued her new career with a single-mindedness worthy of a heat-seeking missile. Targeting the US market, she crossed the Atlantic to seek training for her chosen field, stepping outside her comfort zone. She got herself an American agent and a contract to write original science fiction novels. These got her noticed by LucasArts and she was invited to write Star Wars novels. Some authors look down their nose as tie-in fiction, as if it were a turd they'd stepping in by mistake. Karen embraced the opportunity, and turned herself into a New York Times bestselling author. That helped generate more interest in her original, non-licensed fiction.

On Karen's website she offers lots of useful advice for would-be scribes. My favourite has to be an eight-point plan in the FAQ section, all about how writers should deal with editors. While the content is focused on the relationship between authors and book publishering editors, frankly almost everything Karen has to say on the subject applies just as well to writers working on radio plays, audio dramas, comics, film and TV projects. Having been both an editor and a scribe, I can heartily endorse everything Karen says in her eight-point plan. So I emailed her and she kindly gave me permission to reprint the relevant text in full - so here it is:
[Hint: number 4 really is the big one]

1. Get their name right.

This is just good manners. It doesn't take much effort to find out who you ought to be submitting your work to, and how they spell their name, but people still don't do it. Everyone likes their name spelled right. And if you're not capable of finding out basic information, it says bad things about your competence and commitment at a subconscious level.

From an editor: "I don't bat an eye when I reject something addressed to Dear Editor, or To Whom It May Concern. If they can't figure out who I am - my name and title is on the web site - then they're not smart enough to survive."

Ouch. That editor rejects 99 out of every 100 manuscripts. It's not an unusual rate.

2. Learn to use your tools.

I don't want to put copyeditors out of a job, but let's try to meet them halfway - learn to spell and punctuate to a reasonable standard, or use a spellchecker (virtual or human) that can. Personally, this one infuriates me: only five year olds can get away with being charmingly creative and badly-spelled. If you've come through the education system and you don't have genuine literacy problems - and some authors have been best-sellers despite those - then you don't have an excuse.

There will always be small detail and debates over whether this word or that is acceptable in the Chicago Manual of Style or Webster's Collegiate. But general gross sloppiness is never a gray area. You tie up editing time and you're sending out a signal that you're unprofessional.

3. Turn in a mansucript that's easy to read.

Editors see a lot of manuscripts. They also do most of their MS reading in their spare time, bless them, and they're not paid a lot in the first place. If you had to tackle a pile of MSS that were high enough to be a table, what would you want them to look like? Nice and clean and legible, in the standard style, or in 8pt ornate font, single spaced, and generally a pain to read?

Make the editor's life easier and turn in clean-looking, physically readable copy. Put an editor in the right frame of mind before they start reading what you've written. It's just good manners. You might think your work is so good that editors will overlook font and clarity, but why risk it? The vast majority of MSS end up rejected, so remove as many reasons to dump your work as you can.

4. Deadlines matter. And this carries 50% of the marks - maybe 75% - so if you only follow one piece of advice, make it this one.

Fiction editors might not rip your head off if you miss deadlines (unlike news editors) but whatever your excuse or genuine reason, you're a pain in the arse if your work is late. Other people are waiting on your work to show up so they can get on with the production process, and that might also impact other writers, and it might even cost serious money.

It's basic courtesy and professionalism to turn in work on time. If you want to write for money, then accept the disciplines and don't commit to deadlines you can't meet. Nobody held a gun to your head and made you submit a novel (or short, or feature, or whatever): so it's up to you to behave like a pro.

Okay, stuff happens that conspires against you. That's unfortunate, but it's your problem. Journalists who miss deadlines end up unemployed, so we tend to treat them as sacred, and - as one editor chum put it - if our house was on fire, we'd meet a deadline before we put that fire out. So don't get a reputation as a flakey, disorganised writer: it might cost you dearly one day.

Missing deadlines without warning is even worse, because it's rude and unforgivably sloppy. If you have a crisis you simply can't work around, then let your editor know as soon as you have the first inkling that the schedule might slip.

5. When an editor asks you for a response, do it now.

Now that the majority of editor-writer interaction can take place by e-mail, there's no reason why you can't answer right away. Okay, some editors spring things on you, but there's no harm at the outset in asking them when they anticipate getting revisions/ comments/ copyedits back to you and letting them know about constraints on your schedule.

But there's no excuse for sitting on approvals or questions for a few days, and certainly not a few weeks. You're not the only person in this process. You're holding things up. Turn round stuff fast, and editors (and everyone else in the production process) will love you for it.

Oh, and be easy to contact. Nothing is more annoying than someone who contacts you and then you can't get back to them because they've set up or defaulted their spam filter or whatever to bounce you. I know of at least one would-be author who now won't be one any time soon because an editor couldn't contact him.

6. Don't hassle them - especially about things they don't have control over.

Editors aren't sitting around filing their nails or perfecting their golf swing. They're busy. A polite enquiry is one thing, but getting on their case won't help you - even if you're in the right and they really have held on to something a lot longer than they said they would. Of course, if you're someone who makes sure you get stuff done on time, then you at least have some moral high ground, even though it would be churlish to exploit that.

Now, this next bit really grips my editor chum something chronic. By all means suggest - once - what might be a great image for the cover, but then shut up about it: and don't get into fights about titles. The purpose of both cover and title is packaging - to sell the book. And don't ask for a lot of PR support and book tours, because you won't get it. Have realistic expectations: your editor can't change the economic reality of publishing, and bleating to them about it just puts pressure on someone who can't yield. None of us enjoys being put in that position.

7. Be courteous.

Please and thank you go a long way. Publishing is always a buyers' market, so don't cut your own throat by being an ill-mannered jerk. A couple of tips from the world of public relations: they might not remember what you said, but they'll always remember how you made them feel - and never demand as a right what you can ask for as a favour. (The latter was a wonderful insight from Maggie Burton, an excellent production assistant who I worked with in my TV days.)

A herogram to the editor's boss - via you or your agent - when you're particularly happy is nice. They have career aspirations too, remember. But don't overdo the chummy bit: bombarding your editor with non-work mail is more than they have time for. If you develop a social friendship with them in time, all well and good, but they're your editor, not your best mate.

8. Listen to an editor's advice.

No writer knows it all, even though some really do believe they need no editor. Wood and trees, folks: you can be too close to a book. (And if you're writing for the hard old non-fiction world of newspapers and magazines, the editor isn't even going to ask you - they'll edit, full stop. Get over it.) If you care about writing exactly what you want more than selling books - and I admit there's a valid case for this - then commercial fiction might not be the best outlet for your writing.

Fiction editors know their field and they see your book cold. If something strikes them as being worth a comment, listen to it, because the chances are that they'll spot what readers will spot. You can always decline the suggestion, but they're not saying it to keep themselves busy: they have a point, and their motive is to get the best possible book on the shelves and sell it by the shitload. They're not trying to crimp your literary genius or dumb you down.


TonyB said...

"But general gross sloppiness is never a gray area" ...

Agreed, but here in the UK it's never a grey area ;)

Useful rule:
gray is a color;
grey is a colour.

Sorry to be pedantic! ‘Gray’ is normally taken as a US variant of the UK ‘grey’. You are not from the UK so perhaps you were unaware of the distinction in this case. The US/UK spelling variations can be a bitch. In NZ do you go for UK or US spelling?

David Bishop said...

'You are not from the UK so perhaps you were unaware of the distinction.'

The fact that I am not from the UK is utterly irrelevant.

As clearly stated in the preamble to the posting, the text you refer to is written by another scribe, Karen Traviss - who is British.

If you followed the link to her site, you'd soon discover she chooses to write in US spellings because her work is for US publishers and most visitors to her website are also American.

TonyB said...

Apologies. I skimmed your article quickly using Bloglines and didn't properly take on board the fact that you were quoting in full, rather than paraphrasing.

That'll teach me not to be a smart alec before the requisite amount of black coffee :(

David Bishop said...

No worries, as they say in NZ. ;-)

Gordon said...

An observation:

In a civilised society, anyone that uses the word 'scribe' for 'writer' would be taken out and shot. ;->

David Bishop said...

Thank grud we're not in a civilised society, then!

Paul Scoones said...

I've read a lot of Star Wars novels, and the ones written by Karen Traviss are head and shoulders above most of the rest of the range. I really feel for the characters and get immersed in the situation when I'm reading a Traviss SW novel; the same unfortunately can't be said for many other books in the range.