Monday, June 12, 2017

A Few Bad Choices

There’s two types of bad manuscripts. One is mediocre. It doesn’t do much of anything. It doesn’t have anything new to say, or an interesting twist on the old. The characters are lackluster, the plot is predictable, the world is tolerable, and the prose is fine, maybe cringeworthy in parts, maybe some obvious fixes here or there, or even maybe so painful that you can’t get through a paragraph without your interior editor on. But the real issue is, whether or not it is really bad, there’s just nothing all that good, nothing great, nothing outstanding. No matter how much they fixed the problems, it merely leaves a generic story that you’ve seen before. A polished version would be another Hollywood formula B movie.

But the other kind is worse. This is the story that has merit. This is the story with a wonderful concept and terrible execution, or even vice-versa. Interesting characters who say stupid things. Dialogue that just misses its mark. A confusing and vague description of a beautiful world. Spelling errors and typos to the point of illegibility. Poor pacing of an intriguing plot. Something that makes you want to like it combined with mistakes that are just too bad to let go of.

Honestly, as a writer, I prefer when I have the second manuscript to the first. It is easier to fix and tweak something with good bones than try and colorize a perfectly acceptable plot. But as a reader, nothing pains me more than when I see something that could be brilliant with a little more effort.

I read a post by a young writer who had been published for the first time, an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit, celebrating his long road. The responses tried to be happy for him, but quickly turned to the red flags of his publisher; Dream Big Publishing seemed a lot like a vanity press.

The author argued that he had done his research, that he had three contracts offered to him, that he negotiated, and that he had made his decision accordingly. He claimed to have a professional editor prior to submission, but it turned out these edits were done by ‘profesional’ himself. People asked if he had any beta-readers and he said he didn’t believe in it. “Too many cooks in the kitchen.”

He created his own cover, taking the drawing of a friend. He was contractually obligated to self-promote, making a blog once a week, but said that if he failed to meet his requirements nothing would happen. He claimed that they offered up advertising and would pay for marketing, but wasn’t specific about how.

Even the publisher’s website states, “Our traditional publishing is sort of a non-traditional publishing.”

The reason why I’m posting about it isn’t in my usual vein of annoyance or frustration. He refused to listen to other people’s opinions, but strangely he didn’t come across as too arrogant. The first few pages of his story needed some revision, and his claims as a professional editor were worrisome. An editor (or a beta-reader for that matter) is not someone who writes your book for you. They don’t make changes themselves, they offer up perspective, opinions, and suggestions. As a freelance editor especially, you will never rewrite or revise for the author, and if it's their wallet, they can easily reject anything you have to say.

Having alternative opinions is not about having another cook in a kitchen; it’s about letting someone try out your new recipe. Writing is about communicating just as much as it is expression, and assuming that you’re always going to say exactly what you mean and be heard that way is silly.

What struck me, I suppose, was how easy he made it all seem. Some called him delusional, but I’ve seen worse. Not so long ago I made a comment on a blog post about how to improve dialogue, suggesting that focusing on the meta-mechanics (“Don’t use exclamation points!”) tended to distract from the real issues. The man who responded (not the poster) argued that adding things in like ellipses, “Ums,” and “Y’reckoned” was how he, “a professional editor,” helped people improve their speech, and the results of his own writing proved my point: he had no subtext, but a distracting amount of punctuation.

The aforementioned Redditor’s cover art looks homemade, but it’s not awful. His bullet pointed history in his prologue is dull, the poor copyediting evident but still legible, but mainly the prose is acceptable while having a few redundancy and seemingly contradictory issues.

I’ve always said that the easiest students are the really bad ones, the ones with obvious issues—take out your over-abundance of ellipses and the dialogue wouldn’t be half bad—but this book missed the mark in some places while at the same time, doesn’t seem worth the revision. The whole thing is somewhat generic.

Which brings me to my main point: he argued that he doesn’t believe in having other readers, and I think that’s right. Or, at least, I don’t think there’s a lot I could tell him that would really help. Strangely, it’s not that he’s not listening that’s the problem. It’s not that he’s arguing with everyone who tells him it really is a vanity press, or he’d be better off self-publishing than getting himself contracted to a company for the next five years. It’s that he just needs to experiment more.

His first paragraph explicitly told us the village was silent three repetitive times, before adding, “Except for the footsteps.” This isn’t just something a beta-reader or an editor or a critique partner would have noticed; it’s something he would have noticed if he had read it more.

I’ve read some pretty painful manuscripts over time. (Some of them other people’s!) This was not one of them. There were not obvious issues that if he just pulled his head out of his ass he could solve, only smaller problems that would be fixed through more introspection and questioning of himself.

As someone who has delved too far in that area, today too concerned with the opinions of others and doubting my own abilities, it’s hard for me to recommend that to anyone.

I’m not worried for him. The contract holds him to giving up a percentage of his sales for five years, but it’s limited to the one book, the publisher does not take copyright, and the manuscript itself doesn’t seem like his baby, something that will be thought fondly of, but not something he’ll be overtly attached to. If you are working with a manuscript that losing the rights to will scar you, or a contract that will put you under someone’s thumb with later works, it’s all the more important to be careful about who you get into bed with. But I think this writer would best turn his eye to other manuscripts, keep writing, and push the next one harder.

I will say until I’m blue in the face that you need to trust yourself, that your instincts matter, and that you know what’s best for your book, but with all that in mind, it’s imperative to remember you don’t know what you don’t know, and improving yourself is about finding what that is.

The author in question came in believing he understood the publishing process, believing he understood grammar, believing he understood what good writing is. He’s not entirely wrong. He’s definitely not the worst writer, the most egotistical, or the most lazy, but he definitely could push himself further, question his assumptions much more. It would be helped by external opinions, but that isn’t what I actually think should be at the forefront.

I have spent so long questioning myself that I can’t help but push authors to trust their own opinions. For my Stories of the Wyrd, I took apart my manuscript, Silver Diggers, and found the drastic way my writing style has changed. I took more risks, had better pacing and atmosphere, and though it was so much more redundant and contrary, there was some magic I had lost in my pursuit of being good and caring what others thought. It’s times like these that I have to remind myself it’s not all for the worse and the constant questioning has enabled me to gain greater control over the effect my words have.

Outsiders will help you be more accessible, but you’re the one who will know how to be different.

I suppose everything in moderation. Read your own writing. Push it to be the best it can be. Use other people’s opinions to help you get there, but don’t restrict yourself to only doing what’s acceptable. It sounds obvious, but it’s harder than you’d think.

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