Editors, where are you? – A Rant

I’ve got steam coming out of my ears. No, not from eating Bertie Botts beans, from a build-up of frustration. I’m going to have a rant.

First I wrote that as: ‘I’m sorry about this, but I’m going to have a rant.’ But I’m not in the mood to be sorry, so I’m not apologising. And I may regret this… no, I swear, I’m not going to regret it, this is going to feel too good.

Where to start?

Corporations. Big corporations. You know what they’re like: everything’s about the bottom line, chasing the big wins, the immediate gains. Who matters to the corporations? The clients, anyone who will buy the product. What about the workers, the people who produce the goods? Well, you’d better hope you’re the lucky one who catches the boss’s eye, who makes a quick splash and gets a name for being a money-spinner, because otherwise they don’t give a damn.

Right now, in the major economies of the world, we are facing a crisis of youth unemployment. Maybe this is partly to do with contracting economies, but that’s not the whole story, is it? The guys in their forties and fifties are holding all the jobs, because they’re the one who know what they’re doing, who provide immediate value to the company. In the corporate mindset, school leavers and new graduates are worthless, because they don’t have a clue – yet.

Before you think I’m disparaging the younger generation, let me tell you my gripe: companies don’t train people any more. Okay, massive over-generalisation, but, you know, I’m not in the mood to be all PC about this. I believe that, in general, short-term-ism rules. Nowadays, if you want to get training, you have to do it yourself – pay for courses, seek out mentors, and basically work your butt off, all while trying to hold down your day job if you’re lucky enough to have one.

You may be wondering why this bothers me on a personal level, since I’m one of those lucky forty-somethings.

It’s because I write. And I’ve been writing just long enough now to have realised that its not easy, producing a novel of a decent quality, or even half-decent quality. Like any other skill, it takes training and practice and hard grind. But just as any number of training courses won’t necessarily make someone an instant success story in industry, working at writing alone doesn’t get you anywhere. It requires mentoring, someone in the industry, more knowledgable than yourself, to take the time to look at your work, gently identify the flaws, and point you in the right direction.

People say publishing is facing a crisis. Well, of course it is, and you can’t place all the blame on a generation that supposedly doesn’t read. No, the problem is that it’s an industry dominated by a few big corporations. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Who is taking the time to mentor new authors? Who is looking, not for books that will sell, but for authors who are willing to develop themselves? Who is training the authors of tomorrow?

I’m sick and tired of arrogant publishers who use agents as their gatekeepers and hang around waiting for a brilliant book to land in their lap with no effort on their part. I’m fed up with Literary Agents who expect an author’s manuscript to be so perfect when it arrives on their desk that all they need do is mail it to a publisher. And I’m gutted to see the closure of bookshop after bookshop, not only because of competition from on-line retailers, but because the quality and scope of books on offer from said big publishers is plummeting.

You’ve received something like this, haven’t you: “We regret that, owing to the enormous volume of manuscripts that we consider, we are unable to provide individual comment…”

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. If you provide no feedback, that same author is going to send you another flawed manuscript, and another, and another, all the time wondering what it is they’re doing wrong.

As I write this, I’m struggling through the third major edit of the first book in my Transhumanity series. So you can see where I’m coming from. I don’t think it’s blowing my own trumpet to say that, if I can get this series finished, structurally edited, line-edited and polished, there are people who are going to enjoy reading it. Possibly, they might even be willing to pay a few dollars for the privilege. But how am I supposed to get to that point? No one in the industry has helped, or ever will help.

Individuals have helped. Other struggling wannabe authors have taken the precious time to read my work and comment, bless their hearts. I wanted to name them here, but this rant is going on a bit, so I’ll have to save that for another blog. The local council and library has helped, by bringing writing workshops to our little corner of Australia, bless them, too. But is that enough?

I’m now seriously thinking about self-publishing. Maybe it will condemn my books to unread obscurity, who knows, but it’s becoming a matter of principle. Why should I go through all the hard grind of training myself as a writer, only to give away a hefty chunk of my earnings to some faceless corporation that offers no author development whatsoever? No wonder publishing is in crisis.

Is it corporate realities and bean-counters stopping Editors from taking risks on new authors? I suspect so. And we desperately need good Editors – not the type who just proof-read and pick up the odd grammar mistake or missing comma, I mean the ones who have a stake in your product, and are actively trying to develop your book to be the best it can possibly be.

Professional Editors, where the bloody hell are you, when we need you the most?

 

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The One Rule to Write them all

Let’s assume we know the nuts and bolts. We can spell, we can put our nouns and verbs in the right order, we know our active from our passive. Okay, so maybe we occasionally misplace an apostrophe or a comma, but who doesn’t?

We attempt to write a novel and what happens? Suddenly there’s a whole new set of writing rules. We’re told to avoid the passive voice like the plague, and adverbs like the pox. Not to mention clichés. Never open the novel with the weather and prologues are a definite turn-off. Above all, be sure to show and not tell.

Don’t listen.

Seriously, these are not writing rules. Guidelines, perhaps, but not rules. Some of the best authors break them. You don’t believe me? Okay, here are examples that I came up with in less than an hour’s research (i.e. trawling of my bookshelves):

Too Much Passive Voice:

From the first few pages of the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“I was removed from my brigade… There I was struck on the shoulder… I was removed… when I was struck down… my life was despaired of… I was despatched…” etc.

Why does it work? Because the reader is interested in what was done to Doctor Watson, not the agent who caused it to be done. The use of the passive serves to emphasise that this is a man who has no power over his life but has had things done to him by some nameless, faceless bureaucracy.

Too Many Adverbs (especially after ‘said’):

From the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J K Rowling:

“…said Aunt Petunia fondly… said Harry coldly…said Harry firmly… he said tonelessly… said Uncle Vernon forcefully… said Dudley breathlessly… quietly… frantically…” etc.

Why does it work? Because the reader does not want to have to follow clues to guess at a character’s emotional state, they are too busy following other clues to unravel the magical plot. The shorthand of using adverbs provides speed and clarity.

Clichés:

Hmm… I couldn’t find many examples of clichés. Perhaps this is the exception which proves the rule (that there are no rules).

Opening with the weather:

The opening sentence of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson:

“Ash fell from the sky.”

Okay, I’m cheating a little here, but it demonstrates the point. Weather can set the scene, give a hint of the opening mood of the story and sometimes it’s actually interesting. I admit I’m biased on this point, I have little patience for people who think the weather is boring. As I write this I’m feeling tempted to change all my opening sentences to include some weather.

Having a Prologue:

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch:

A 28-page prologue in 9 parts.

Why does it work? It works as all good prologues work – it provides background to former happenings and it tells a riveting story. It’s a story within a story. Maybe the bias against prologues is because they’re easy to do badly, as an info-dump, not what you want at the start of your novel. That doesn’t apply to us, though, because we’re going to do ours right. Right?

Show Don’t Tell:

Chapter 0005 of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline:

Basically a massive, 8-page info-dump.

Why does it work? Because in the preceding four chapters the author has managed to hook the reader so firmly that we are primed, in fact we are dying to know this background information. It is all, of course, absolutely central to the plot, and the reader knows that.

Short Sentences for Action:

I couldn’t resist adding in this one (and hoping no one makes a fuss about copyright). You know they say to use short, declarative sentences to keep up the pace during action scenes? This is from The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall:

“It happens. It happens sometimes: the director in the field sets up a model deployment of his shadow executive and his support group and his contacts and couriers and whatever he needs for a given mission, spinning his small and delicate network of resources and testing it out for strength and making changes where potential danger threatens, sitting back in his inner sanctum plugged into his communications system with its portable scrambler and its bug monitor and taking signals from the shadow out there and relaying them through the mast at Cheltenham to the signals board in Whitehall, the whole thing running like silk through a loom, and then one man and one man alone can suddenly send the web shaking because he’s made a mistake, talked to the wrong people, exposed a password, missed the half-seen face in a doorway or the figure humped at the wheel of a parked car or the broken hair across a drawer in the hotel room, and the network becomes an alarm system and all we can do is shut down signals to prevent interception and get out of the safe house before it’s blown, run for cover, go to ground, hole up somewhere as the smell of the smoke starts drifting through the field where the fuses have blown and someone reaches for the chalk in the signals room in London and writes it up on the board: Mission compromised, clear all channels and stand by. It was happening now.”

If you’re going to break the ‘rules’, you might as well do it with confidence and flair.

The One Rule:

So, do you want to know the magic rule, the One Rule to Write Them All?

Sh… don’t tell everybody… here it is:

Choose which rules to break – this will become your ‘style’ – and know the impact of that choice on the reader.

How exactly do we do this?

Er, no, I have no idea.