Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Beware of Bad Editorial Advice on the Web!

When I say beware of bad editorial advice on the web I'm not talking about all advice. There are more than a few places where writers can go to get excellent advice. There are also excellent editing/writing web sites where writers can go to get varying opinions. And that's what you want: varying opinions so you can decide what's right for you.

What I'm talking about when I say beware of bad editorial advice usually pertains to loud unpublished amateurs who think they know it all. And they don't. They will trick you into thinking they know it all. But I've never seen one who got it right. In some cases they remind me of used car salesmen from the old days.

They set bad detailed rules about what's considered good editing/writing and what's considered wrong editing/writing. They never list publishing credits, they never talk about their own publishing experiences, and yet they lead you to believe they know more than anyone else in publishing.

Here's an example of the difference between good and bad advice. There's been an age old debate about whether or not prologues work...or for that matter whether or not they should even be written. The best advice would be there's no set answer to this. Prologues work well for some books and some authors, they don't for others. Most readers don't seem to care one way or the other. Now, bad advice about prologues is when you see someone slam them and tell you never to do them. Frankly, I'm not a prologue fan and I hardly ever write them. But I've read books with prologues that worked and I would never tell anyone not to write a prologue. I might tell them to be cautious about prologues because I don't like them. But I'd never say never.

Another age old debate has to do with showing verses telling. A literary agent recently posted some great examples of how "telling" can actually work out well sometimes. I not only agree with her, I trust her advice because she has good credits that back her up, and authors who have been on all the bestseller lists. In other words, she knows what she's doing, at least in this respect. And in her post she gave good solid examples of how "telling" works sometimes. Once again, bad advice is when someone without any publishing credentials states "telling" is always bad and you should never, ever do it.

I always find it interesting when beta reader advice is given to writers. I've been working in publishing and getting published for twenty years and I've never had a beta reader. My publishers are my beta readers. The editors and copy editors who work for my publishers are my beta readers. The two times I've self-published the copy editors I've hired are my beta readers. But when I'm writing I work alone and I don't want anyone else's influence in my work. And yet once again, this works for me and I would never tell anyone else they shouldn't have a beta reader. It's all about what works for you and what makes you comfortable. I'd rather eat dirt that have a beta reader. I know other authors who depend on their beta readers and crit groups. And there's nothing wrong with either way.

Aside from all this, I think the biggest piece of bad advice I've seen of all time from amateur unpublished editors on the web is that you need to have a fully professionally edited manuscript before you submit it to a publisher or an agent. I've never found this to be true. You do need a neat, clean manuscript that's grammatically correct and easy to read. You do need a good story and a great hook if you're unpublished and you're trying to get an agent or an editor to notice you. You need to know how to write a great query letter with a perfect book/plot description to get the agent or editor's attention. And you need to know the basics of crafting a novel. But you don't need to pay a high priced freelance editor out of pocket if you're in the query stages.

This is what publishers do if they decide to buy your book. They edit the book, not you or the freelance editor you hired before you started to query. Some agents even edit before they start shopping books to publishers. I've seen this more often than not. But you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on a freelance editor if you're querying and shopping a book. For some, this is where beta readers can come in handy. They can help you get the manuscript to the point of being neat, tight and ready to submit.

Over the years I've worked with more editors and publishers than I can count offhand. The editors I've least enjoyed working with have teaching experience, especially on a college level. In fact, I usually don't submit to them more than once because it's too frustrating to deal with them. They. Know. It. All.

But each time I've submitted a book or story to a publisher the editing process was a different experience. For one recent book that I released with a pen name, I submitted the book thinking there were very few things that needed to be changed. That's usually how it works out. However, the editor returned the manuscript and asked me to cut 8,000 words and turn the first chapter into the prologue. And guess what? That editor was right. I did what she asked me to do and it made the book better. And I'm the one who hates prologues. Go figure. As a sidenote, I also turned the 8,000 words I'd cut into a short story and sold it to another publisher. Like a chef who doesn't believe in wasting food, I don't believe in wasting words.

Before I submit a manuscript I do all kinds of checks. One of those checks is to look for words I sometimes write too often without realizing it. One of those words is "that." I do a search, find, and delete. My copy editor usually thanks me for this. But it doesn't always work out this way. I once submitted a manuscript to a publisher and the managing editor sent it back with revisions. And huzzah, she'd added the word "that" in all the places where I'd removed it. But better than this, when it came back for the final read through from the copy editor, she'd removed the word "that" in each place where the managing editor had inserted it.

I've always found that my copy editors are the most important people with regard to getting a book out. I depend on them more than anyone in publishing, because they are the people that can make or break a book. I've worked with many and they all have different styles and different opinions, too. The best know the meaning of the word diplomacy. Which leads me back to where I began in this post: there are not set rules and anyone who tries to tell you there are isn't someone you want to take seriously. So beware of that kind of advice. It's only going to leave you wondering why you bothered to listen in the first place after you've had a book published and found out what it was really like to go through the editorial process. Believe me, it's nothing like what they say. And that's because it's always different, with each book, each professional editor, and each publisher.


T.D. McFrost said...

Amen brotha. When I first started writing twelve yars ago I absorbed every single piece of advice I heard, saw or read without prejeduce. I've been told I suck and should never write again more times than I can count. But in the end, I told myself this business is about practise and I'll do just that until I'm better. Still prctising but the moral of the story is to never give up no matter what people say.

I troll--ahem--visit a writing forum from time to time and I'll often see members post comments such as, "Telling is never allowed." To which I reply, "That's not true, you need a balance. When you're deep in an action scene you need to tell (sometimes) or the prose will be too overwritten and lose that quickness." Some agree, some scorn--it doesn't bother me.

I also don't like beta readers simply because I have this unshakable fear that people are going to steal my idea. LOL. I know that's unlikely but, yeah, it scares me silly.

I lovd this post, Ryan, specially this line: "...Like a chef who doesn't believe in wasting food, I don't believe in wasting words."

You should print this on T-shirts and sell it to writers. It'll sell like hotcakes, I swear!

ryan field said...

That post I was talking about with showing and telling was on Kristin Nelson's blog. I know you like her. You might have seen it there. It was one of the best posts I've seen in a while.

And why waste a perfectly good 8,000 word cut when I can sell it somewhere else :)

Jon Michaelsen said...

Very good post, Ryan. I'm curious, when shopping a novella recently, everyone told me to "show", don't tell. I've even given this advise out, and yet I still see top sellers of fiction "telling" versus "showing. Even published writers in my crit group advise this is the same advice they get from other publishers. Why do you think this is? A current fad?

ryan field said...

I tend to go with show rather than tell for the most least I try. Most writers do. But I also think it's about the story and how it's being told by the author. It's one of those things that can be very subjective.

Jon Michaelsen said...

What about "first person" narratives/pov? I think it would be difficult to avoid the "telling" in many cases, but I've not tried this in many years.

ryan field said...

It is hard to do in that case. But I don't usually write in the first person, and this is one reason.

There's a blog post that talks about this in details. Here's the link:

T.D. McFrost said...

I worhsip Agent Kristen. I've been following her blog since 2007.

I hope someday I can query her and be blessed with the opportunity to have her rep my work. That'd be a dream.

ryan field said...

Did you read "Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet?" She reps the author, Jaime Ford. It's still my favorite book in the past two years. I keep hoping I'll find one I like more and still haven't.

A.B.Gayle said...

Great post, Ryan. I totally concur about the show vs tell.

Jon, I did a blog recently for Dreamspinner Here:
I definitely found what you said to be true. First person tended to natural be a tell as if the POV character was chatting to the reader.

I wrote a lot in first, tried converting it to third but it had a totally different "feel" about it, so I changed it back to first.

Then, when I got to the "Red+Blue" section which was alternating third. The "show" flowed naturally.

It was weird.

Erica Pike said...

Excellent post, Ryan.

Before I became published, I read tons and tons of editorial advises in books and on the internet. I read even more advises and experiences from published authors and agents. I actually did spend a load of money on having my manuscript edited before querying it (because that's what people were telling me to do and I was naieve enough to believe it) and it was a waste, because I decided I had to re-write the whole thing anyway (and it still hasn't been queried). My insecurities about the writing isn't in the writing itself, but on the language, because English is my second language.

The problem with these various advises, although they can be helpful, is that they can make new writers very nervous and insecure about their own writing, even when there's nothing wrong with the writing. I was relatively confident in mine until I got all these conflicting messages on how to write and, yeah, the script is still unpublished (YA manuscript).

I believe I know enough by now to be my own adviser on how to write a book. I go over the spelling and grammar to the best of my abilities and my editor handles the rest (discovered that there really weren't that many mistakes after all). The showing vs. telling, for example, is something I now make my own opinions about. I'm a big believer in a healthy balance there. If you tell throughout the book, the story is seriously lacking, but if you show throughout the book, the story is likely to become too detailed and slow. Sometimes you need things to move on and that's one of the instances where you switch to telling (in my opinion).

There is another group of people who are giving out advises on how to write: people who are just beginning to write and haven't been published yet. Some of them think they know it all and don't hold back on the advises. I'm not saying that every new writer is this way - most aren't - but there are some who do that. I'm not snubbing unpublished writers either, I'm just hoping that other new writers will choose to look up advises from more experienced people who know what they're talking about, such as yourself and Kristin Nelson (I love her blog, by the way).

On a side note - "that" is also a word I have to be watch out for. Never noticed it until a person pointed it out and now I notice it every single time.

ryan field said...

Thanks for commenting and giving examples. I almost got caught in a trap paying someone to edit for me. And once a small press said they would pub my novel if I paid a 600 dollar editing fee. Instant red flag. I still cringe when I see this guy is in business.