amwriting, anthologies, books, craft, creative writing, criticism, crowdfunding, ediotrs, editing, feedback, Fifteen Minutes, publishing, Rattle Tales, short stories, short story collections, The Brighton Prize, writing
I am currently co-editing an anthology of short fiction. I also supplement my paltry writers’ income with freelance editing projects. I’m not a proof reader; the edits I offer are structural, though I will pick up on any punctuation that has gone awry. Editing is something I enjoy. The idea of helping a writer to perfect their work makes me happy but I also find that editing other people’s work makes me a better writer. Editing not only raises my awareness of common writing pitfalls, it also reminds me to put away the resistance to criticism that all writers experience.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been on the receiving end of dedicated and improving edits for both my books. Uppermost in my mind is my collection of short stories, Fifteen Minutes, which has recently undergone several in-depth edits with Unbound Publishing. This was an amazing learning curve and the book is vastly improved as a result. When the first edit arrived I opened a manuscript which was literally covered in red marks and comments. My editor had forewarned me that this was normal in her email but even so it was quite a shock. I have had short stories edited professionally before, for publication in journals like Rip Tide and The Manchester Review. The editors of those journals did brilliant job and, yes, each manuscript was covered in crossings out, with sentences shifted and lengthy comments inserted. Again, I was a bit shocked by the extent of the mark-ups. For a moment I wondered if the writing was any good after all.
This seems to be a common experience for most writers. When faced with a manuscript covered in mark-ups and comments we tend to take it personally. The self-doubt nags, we mutter things under our breath like, ‘obviously they haven’t read it properly,’ and, ‘they wouldn’t know a joke if it got up and bit them.’ What we forget is that as writers we can become too immersed in a piece to see the flaws and the gaps. The writing is obviously great or it wouldn’t have been selected for publication. However, the editor has read it more closely than anyone else ever will. Their mark-ups don’t mean that the writing isn’t good, just that as the writer we have become too used to what we have written. We think that because we can picture it in our head our readers will be able to too. This is not always the case. If an editor points something out as not being clear, and you have to use a paragraph to explain to them why it is clear, the editor is right and you are not.
Obviously editors are not infallible. This is why they often work in pairs. The first edit of Fifteen Minutes suggested alterations that the second editor then suggested should be changed back. At this point it was up to me to decide which worked best. Often it was the original – but not always – sometimes it was something completely different. You can always negotiate. If you truly believe that your piece is better without the changes, that the reader you have in mind will know exactly what you mean, then go ahead, argue your case. What is interesting is that as you progress in your career you will get comments such as ‘still not clear’ from a professional editor a third or fourth time no matter how much you plead. If this happens you have no choice but to adhere to their suggestion. If you are arguing about the placement of commas and the cutting of single words you are being too precious. Go with what the editor suggests; it’s what they do for a living. They know what they are talking about. The real shock will come when you get your proofs back and realize you know nothing about punctuation!
For further information on my freelance editing services please email email@example.com I specialize in shaping up short stories for publication or competition but I have edited full-length manuscripts from children’s books to spy thrillers.
Feedback. I can hear you groan from here. Feedback is that terrible entity writers both crave and loathe. It makes us better writers but it also makes us uncomfortably aware of our shortcomings. It’s a familiar scenario; you send off your story/poem/extract full of hope and good humour. You wait for weeks, months even, convinced that the recipient will be so blown away by your submission they will drop everything in deference to its brilliance and phone you immediately offering untold fame and fortune. Time passes and you forget, a little, but then one day, comes the ping on your inbox or the thud on your doormat and somehow you instinctively know what it is. It is the beginning of that terrible exchange that tells every writer at some point in their career that they are not as good as they think they are.
I’m always amazed how I know without looking that I’ve received a rejection. I suppose most good news is delivered by telephone but even so more often than not I’ll know a rejection before I open it. I wonder if this is because deep down there’s a bit of doubt there already, maybe I know what I submitted wasn’t as good as it could have been.
So, you open your email/letter and discover the bad news – you didn’t win that publishing deal/writer’s retreat/£15,000, you didn’t even get published in that online journal with a readership of around 50 people! And here’s the rub, your whole being screams that you want to know why and, at the same time, your whole being just wants to crawl under a duvet and wallow in self-pity. Knowing why is the last thing you want. In fact, whoever has judged you doesn’t know what they are talking about. They are in the wrong, not you, short-sighted imbeciles, wouldn’t know good writing if it bit them on the arse. That’s right isn’t it? Thinking like this means you can stay comfortable in your little cocoon of ignorance. You like your little cocoon of ignorance don’t you? I know I used to.
Over the years this has changed for me. When someone rejects my work I am no longer content with just NO. No won’t do. These days I want to know WHY? And if people haven’t told me why I invariably get back to them and ask. Am I mad? Maybe, but let me tell you about my last two rejections (possibly too strong a word) and the feedback I got.
The first came just before Christmas. It was only a flash piece, so it hadn’t taken long to do, but it was a great idea and it had been edited and refined over several drafts. I got a standard rejection about a week later, just ‘no thanks try again later’. That morning I had a workshop with two people I trust implicitly and as luck would have it I had sent them my story in advance of the meeting. They were so positive about it (and believe me, if they didn’t like it they would say so) that it made me wonder what the reason for the rejection was. So, rather than feeling sorry for myself I got back to my rejector and asked for feedback. This is what I was sent:
I’m happy to give some feedback.
In all honesty, it was a close call! The piece is beautifully written and has some startling images. We particularly liked this: “Planes fell from the skies, their impacted carcasses landing softly on downy runways, like so many bulging toothpaste tubes,” and the thought of the earth as a snowball was striking.
However we thought the first paragraph was problematic. In the second, everything gets going – but the first seems too long. Would you consider cutting it?
There were also a few details that niggled – if everyone is dead, who is reporting on sky news (or is the idea that Sky News is the devil’s work)?
Whilst the idea that this is being narrated by one of the devil’s minions is a good one, it took a couple of readings to register the full implications of the last paragraph. I wonder if there is a way to make the information here more immediate – or to plant the idea of the battle between heaven and hell earlier?
If you felt like reworking the story we’d be keen to take another look. As I said, it was a close run thing.
And do you know what? – they’re right! The first paragraph is too long and there should be a hint as to the narrator earlier. I’d actually taken out the bit about toothpaste tubes because in my opinion it doesn’t fit, but I don’t agree with them about Sky News – everyone knows who their boss is! But isn’t this better than no thanks try again later? See how much more productive a little bit of feedback is?Even if the feedback isn’t as positive as this is wouldn’t you rather know the truth than fear the worst, or even labour under the misconception that it’s good when it isn’t?
I had more feedback on another submission last week, I didn’t ask for it and was surprised to get it, but it was very welcome and, again, totally on the button. What I thought was a wonderfully clever allusion was actually ineffective corniness and needed to go, but I would never have known this had it not been pointed out to me. There was also the usual pep talk about not giving up, about it being a very close thing and please re-submit. Far from being negative it was enlightening and confidence boosting.
As a member of Rattle Tales I give a lot of feedback. Our selection process is very stringent, we all read everything and make notes on each piece then we discuss each one in detail before we make our selections. We don’t give feedback as standard but we offer it in our notification emails. If writers want to take us up on the offer the notes on the discussion are there ready to use. We probably get a 50/50 request rate. I hope what we say helps. The thing is to give good feedback you have to have read the submission in detail and you have to know what good writing is if you don’t you shouldn’t be giving feedback in the first place. Also bear in mind that work is often rejected out of personal preference. At Rattle Tales we reject work which we don’t think will work in a live performance, the piece could be beautifully written, ground-breaking even, but if it doesn’t read aloud well we can’t take it. If you don’t ask for feedback you’ll not know why, you’ll assume it’s either rubbish or that we are philistines.
Some writers take it personally. We once had an email from someone, whose work we had rejected because it wasn’t a story, saying that if we ever felt brave enough to try something different we should get in touch with them. You could almost taste the bile on those words but, hopefully, if they really thought about what we’d said they would realise that we were right. If you receive feedback that really riles you put it aside for a couple of days then go back to it, read your writing with it in your mind and see if it’s right. If you still don’t agree fine, forget it and try somewhere else, it’s their loss.
These days I always ask for feedback, at the very least it ensures that the person rejecting my work has read it well enough to tell me why they didn’t want it.
The next Rattle Tales show is on Feb 20th at The Brunswick Hove tickets available here.