Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009


Be nice on the internet, writer friends, lest you actually dismantle your own platform. Cautionary tale here.

Pre-Editing (Or, My Thoughts on Hiring Freelance Developmental Editors Pre-Submission)

I got this note the other day:
Hi there,

I am a first time writer and I just finished my first novel. In your opinion, should I try and get an editor before I query an agent? I haven't been able to find any advice on that and I read your blog all the time so I figured I would ask. If you have time to respond, please let me know whenever you can!


Dearest XXX, thank you for asking. I've been wanting to write about this for a long time. I'm afraid I have a TON of thoughts about it.

Let me start with an anecdote.

About six months ago, I got to meet an editor hero of mine, who is a big important head of an imprint at a big important company. We got to chatting, and she asked me about some of my favorite projects.

Being my humble modest self (ahem), I started bragging about all my most splendid projects (all of them, naturally). I took some special time on a book I was particularly proud of--one you've heard a bit about here--which I'd acquired after every other house in basically the entire world had passed. I'd seen potential there, and after working carefully with the author on editorial back-and-forth and thoughtful development, we published to mind-blowing awesome reviews. In my prideful, sinning mind, this was an ultimate victory, because I felt like I could see my own personal hand in the book's success in a special way.

My esteemed interlocutor, however, did not *realize* I was bragging! Instead, she said something that shook me from buttons to boots: "Oh wow, you guys edit over there? That's nice--I always used to enjoy editing. We don't have time, so we can only really buy books that are pretty much ready for production."

I was, as I said, pretty shaken. My very smart, wise, and experienced new friend had opened my eyes to an industry trend I'd kinda been ignoring--houses are increasingly not insentivizing their editors to EDIT. Instead, they are supposed to focus on ACQUIRING. I love editing, and realizing that it may not be a crucial or celebrated skill for an acquisition editor to have made me wonder what the future holds for me.

Enough about me and my ego. How does this tie into YOUR life as a writer?
I am not saying the system doesn't suck. I'm just trying to address this very specific question of whether or not you should hire a freelance editor.

Basically, you want your submission to be as clean as possible, at every stage.

"Clean" means both in terms of copy issues (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure) and in terms of content--your structure, composition, ideas, and for fiction plot, characters, and pacing should all be tight as a drum--it's not enough to want to sell your manuscript anymore. You have to imagine that, in a worst case scenario, you might get published without another hand tinkering with anything you've written. (Hopefully this won't be the case--but you should treat your manuscript as if it is.)

Don't let yourself cut any corners at any stage. You should be as clean as possible before submitting to agents, because while some agents are fantastic editors, some of the best agents are very poor editors (different although frequently overlapping skill sets--but don't count on an agent to edit your manuscript). You should also talk seriously to your agent about how clean the manuscript is before the agent submits to editors.

Some pros and cons (all mixed together) of hiring a freelance editor to work on cleaning up your project:

*The expense--they charge a ton. We're looking at hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the person and what kind of editing your book requires. And I know a lot of us aren't exactly rolling in it. You have to figure out on your own the risk/reward scenario fiscally--it's important to remember that working with an outside editor doesn't mean that your project will sell.

*You gotta have the right person working with you, and that's often hard to ascertain in advance. While you, personally, may not be an expert at grammar, or may feel you need a second opinion about pacing or the commercial viability of elements in your story, it's important to remember that you ARE the author, and that ultimately your idea and presence are sacred to what makes your book your book. I mean, I'm NOT one to tell anyone to ignore editorial suggestions (of course I'm not going to tell you that!). But I will tell you that it's important that you work with editors--whether in houses or on a freelance basis--who understand you and who agree with what is fundamental about your book. Yes, you want a clean and commercially viable book--but working with someone who loves to read (and ONLY loves to read) Sophia Kinsella may not be a perfect idea when your writing is designed to appeal to readers of Maeve Binchy.

*An outside set of eyes never, ever hurts. Every person who reads your manuscript will offer you a different kind of reaction, and those reactions (good, bad, ugly) should be both important and interesting to you as an author. Plus, a paid freelance editor will (hopefully) have a lot more to bring to the table in terms of concise, helpful advice than your neighbor Sue Ellen might have.

*The level of cleanliness required in a manuscript these days might be higher than what you're humanly capable of achieving on your own (as I discussed above). Are you up to it on your own? Be honest with yourself about your own abilities. But also don't be scared of your abilities--you may need less help than other people.

*Then again, don't trust yourself at all. Writers are notoriously bad about judging themselves--bad writers tend to think they're awesome, and terrific writers tend to think they're terrible. So get a second opinion about whether your manuscript needs outside help from someone who will give it to you straight.

*Now, a great way to get around an expensive professional edit is to work with a crit group. Not every crit group works out perfectly, but in the best case scenarios, writers can find another very kindred soul or two with whom to slap the silly out of their respective works before things go to an agent for submission. Just because someone isn't a publishing professional doesn't mean they can't help you awesomely. Just remember they need reciprocal incentive--you have to offer to take their project as seriously as they do yours.

*Don't be ashamed of hiring an outside editor. This is no longer a pride issue--it's not about your fitness as an author. It's more about the woefully understaffed and underfunded state of the union as it is at this moment in time. So if you are considering hiring an outside set of eyes, don't get hung up on all that.

*Remember that in most cases, you can't submit to the same editor (or, before that, agent) twice. That means that, again, you MUST be honest with yourself. If you are the kind of author who needs outside professional help, try to figure that out BEFORE your agent submits your manuscript to every editor in history. Many agents start out with small, exclusive submissions so that if the general editorial feeling is that the manuscript needs more work, the author and agent can go back and try again before using up all their submissions options. So in many cases, you'll have time to consider and reconsider.

You probably want a more concrete answer--yes or no? Honestly, I want to say that it depends on you. Some people are simply more able to self-edit, or have more friends who are able to give more (free) incisive criticism. Some people have more time for self-development. If you have some cash to burn, are in a rush, and are pretty sure you need outside help, a professional editor may be the easiest way to go.

I hope this helped--let me know if there's anything I can flesh out for you.

I come back to one point--I am not claiming the system doesn't suck. It sucks in lots of ways. But together let's try to pass around proactive advice/strategies.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

low publishing salaries ==> literature suffers?

GalleyCat posted this story about the stupid state of publishing salaries. I couldn't resist commenting.

I think everyone knows that publishing professionals (especially people in the early years of their careers) make salaries so low they're almost silly--it's kind of a truism, or maybe a joke.

But thanks to this guy for drawing attention to it again. Here's why, as he spells it out:

-In order to work in publishing, you have to be able to spend years (often lots of years) toiling at the bottom of the pyramid. Some of these years (in almost all cases, at least one of these years) are unpaid entirely.

-The only people who can afford to spend years toiling at the bottom of the pyramid are the (often elite) college grads with no loans and, frequently, outside help to subsidize their rents in some of the most expensive cities in the world.

-By hiring only the people who can afford to work for free or little money, publishers are essentially keeping the entire industry locked into a tiny socioeconomic bubble.

-The homogeneity of publishing professionals (see above) means a homogeneity of the literature they choose to publish--surely slots get filled based on (at the very least) interests or preoccupations that might not be as diverse or widely interesting as if human resources were drawn from wider demographics.

-The lack of perspective aside, think of all the talent that's getting arbitrarily shut out of the whole process.


Why does this matter to you, the aspiring author? Well, briefly:

-The first person in the industry to ever read your manuscript will probably be an unpaid intern at a literary agency. His/her opinion will make or break you.

-The first person to read your book at a publishing company will probably be a grossly underpaid editorial assistant. See above re: making/breaking.

You also remember Richard Nash's article (I posted a couple months ago) about the commodification of editors, and how underpayment and lack of job security essentially forces editors to not take their acquired projects too seriously.

Do I know how to fix this? Sadly, no. The truth is our profit margins are so slender I don't really know where in the process you'd squeeze out more for salaries.

But this is one of those gross problems in the industry, and one of the reasons I have a feeling there's going to be some major overhaul in the next couple of years.

Sorry for the rant. Missed you guys.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Ok, I haven't checked my Google Reader since MONDAY. Who's proud of me?

Of course, I'm blogging about it. But this is different. This is more of a... forum with friends than a mind-zap.

Phew. Brain detox... Although my fingers are itching to click that "Reader" tab...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

whee antique Japanese book covers!

Mid-week link of delightfulness, via the fearsome, intrepid, and indefatigable Janet Reid:

Extraordinary Japanese Book Covers from the Early 20th Century

I love all the bright colors. Hmm, I wonder if any of my books could take on some of this style...

Happy Wednesday, folks!

Monday, June 15, 2009

eek deadlines

Dear Mischief,

I have three (3) pretty daunting deadlines this week and next. I suspect this means three things:

1) I will not post long meaty things, and may not post at all unless my assistant sends me an amusing baby animal to share

2) I'm going to be less present on Twitter (I know, you didn't think it possible)

3) I'm not going to have time to keep up with my Google reader, so probably won't be visiting blogs again until the weekend.

Wanted to apologize in advance. Normally I try to keep all the balls in the air, but this week at least one has to come down.



Sunday, June 14, 2009

love stinks, literally

[warning--this story is PG13 and not appropriate for children or very impressionable monkeys.]

[Rally Monkey emits loud, obnoxious fart.]

YT: Ewww!! That's disgusting. You should go do that in the bathroom.

RM: [Stands up to wave his butt in YT's face.] That's what you get!

YT: There's a hole in the back of your underpants.

RM: What?! No there's not.

YT: There is! You clearly blew a hole in your underpants with your inappropriate fart.

RM: That's impossible! It must have been there before.

YT: No, it's perfectly round!

RM: YOU'RE perfectly r-- [Abruptly cuts himself off and goes running into the kitchen.]


RM: [silence and cowering in the kitchen]


RM: [further cowering]

YT: That's right. You better hide.

Happy Sunday!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

email of the day

[from my assistant]

To: Moonrat
From: XXX

Subject: I found this picture.

It reminded me of the interns.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

just finished reading

The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields. My review here. Anyone else read it? Any thoughts?

I'm moving to WA

So I can have this cake.

(please cf my FAQ re: whether I'd rather have a chocolate layer cake or a tray of sushi... I NO LONGER HAVE TO CHOOSE.)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

is there a word count cap for a debut novel?

I got this note the other day:

Hi Moonie,

Could you tell me - are there big word count issues for a first novel? Mine is accessible literary fiction. The thing is. it's edited down to 135,000 words from approximately 150,000 words. I'm wondering if I've gotten it down to an acceptable size. My novel is a period piece, and it has required a good number of words to capture the characters as well as the place, period, and action. Does this sound all right to you? Am I in a reasonable ball park?



Sorry, this is harder to hear than it is for me to say. Honestly, no, you're not in the ballpark, regardless of your topic--you'll get blanket rejections before people even look.

I would say that the absolute upper limit of OK is 100,000 for a debut novel, but you'll find some people turned off to it if it's anything above 80,000.

I'm not making these numbers up from my experience--I've read identical stats on a lot of agent blogs. It's pretty much an industry standard. But (with only a very few exceptions) I think you'll find in a survey of successful literary debut novels, the average page count is between 250 and 400. Often, authors get really famous for longer opuses--but those aren't their debuts. Those are their second or third books.

There are practical reasons for this rule! It's not (entirely) that editors are close-minded pigs. The reason is 100,000 words casts off at about 480 typeset pages. That would make your book...well, a lot of pages--astronomically expensive to produce. Since literary fiction (particularly debuts) sell in smaller numbers than genre fiction, the potential profit margin on your book would be even lower than on another debut. Publishers would be very, very wary of the financial risk they were undertaking.

Furthermore, think of your audience--you're an unknown writer at the onset. But readers are probably going to be more willing to take a chance on you if the commitment is relatively small.

This is really hard for you, the author, in terms of your story, but what I would do is try to whittle it down for your submission. If an agent or later an editor is like, "awesome story, but why didn't you develop the romance between Billy and Matilda [or Craig or Alice or Pete] more?" then you can stick stuff back in.

Also, ask yourself if maybe you've written two books--can you strike out one element of this book and spin a whole other plot out of it? Might as well make all your hard work work for you.

One last word for the wise--I wish that all publishing was based on beautiful writing and wonderful ideas, not on marketability and production costs. I wish literature as the pure art and publishing as the industry had a little bit larger of an overlap. BUT. More content does not always mean better content. So please, revisers who read this and want to accuse me of being mercenary, please believe me when I say there are craft and readability issues central to this as well as production/money ones.

I don't mean this to apply to anyone in particular--and indeed, it may not apply to you--but try to keep in mind as you're revising that probably the most universal flaw in early-career writing is overwriting or over-inclusion of material.

I find that I, personally, feel less regretful about taking a knife to a manuscript (my own or someone else's) when I keep a separate document where I deposit everything I've parted with. There's no reason you can't use good material in something else later, and there's no reason you need it now (unless you NEED it now--and be honest with yourself about the difference between "need" and "really really want").

Hope this helps. Any thoughts out there in the blogosphere?

Monday, June 08, 2009

things the rally monkey says

Rally Monkey: Just ask your dad about how marriage works. The only time the man gets his way is when he proposes.

Sometimes, to get what you want, you just gotta go out and take it.

Happy Monday.

(back to the editorial bat cave now)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tiananmen, the "Gate of Heavenly Peace"

Today's the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest/massacre in Beijing, when unarmed student protesters were gunned down by the Chinese military in the historical Beijing landmark.

The official Chinese number of casualties was 7,000. You can imagine the unofficial number is much, much higher.

This anniversary doesn't only matter to me because I'm interested in China and Chinese history. The event itself, in 1989, is the first international political event I remember hearing about (I was 5 at the time, and still have a vivid memory of the NPR coverage, and talking about what happened with my parents at the dinner table).

But most importantly, we should remember not only those who died and how they were killed, we should stop to think about what they stood for, and the sad irony of how this anniversary is being treated in China. According to my AM New York (p 6), China has banned foreign journalists from the Square itself, shut down Twitter, Flickr, blogs, and other social networking sites, and treated the whole story with radio silence.

This is an important statement about how the world's largest, most populous, and possibly most powerful country thrives--or thinks it thrives--on the suppression of information and on depriving its citizens of their own history. We should remember not only the event but the anniversary.

Our resident China blogger Froog offers his take on why this anniversary matters (and I'm inclined to agree with him).

Here's the video of the famous single man who stood in front of the tanks (short, Chinese language).

The 1989 BBC coverage (I'll warn you, I found this clip particularly upsetting).

I'm wearing white today for memory and free speech.

Monday, June 01, 2009

BEA wrap-up

I promised a full report on BEA. Alas, I had 4 different authors in town (!) (don't ask--none of it was my fault, I promise) and while I LOVE hanging out with my authors and would rather do that than anything else, it meant that I didn't attend many panels or meetings worth blogging about.

For that kind of coverage, you might try PW, which has culled a number of reports.

Also, because of my general unavailability, I didn't get A SINGLE GALLEY. Boo. However, I did make my slave assistant get in line at 8 in the morning on Friday to wait in line for a Catching Fire galley. She managed to get like 40 pounds of "swag" so I don't feel bad. She did better than I did.

However, I did eat a number of delicious things (in chronological order):

-goat cheese omelete
-the rest of my agent friend's granola and yogurt
-some fresh fruit
-four (4) cups of coffee
-a poached pear and arugala salad (did I spell that right?)
-four (4) assorted pieces of delicious bread from the bread basket
-1/3 a bottle of olive oil (smeared all over above-mentioned bread)
-fried calamari with Thai chilli sauce
-spring rolls
-two (2) blueberry mojitos
-an almond croissant
-six (6) slices of ham
-two (2) cups of coffee
-a yogurt parfait
-another cup of coffee
-a huge handful of sunflower seeds
-edamame dumplings
-deep fried rock shrimp
-bok choi (yum)
-some kind of flat brown noodle
-some kind of gin cocktail with elderflower in it
-a martini with three olives
-frozen peanut butter mousse in a chocolate shell
-one (1) pot of coffee
-a cup of green tea
-one (1) bread basket
-a bowl of raspberries
-a cup of hot chocolate
-a bowl of olives (this time I did NOT eat the pits)

Now, unfortunately, I am saddled with hideous deadlines. So until I think of something awesome to blog about that's worth blowing off deadlines for, I think I'll go do some "work."

happy Monday

I need a day off. So does this guy.