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KJ magpie200

The Author’s Biggest Mistake

This post ought to be filed under “Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious”. I hope most of you reading it will mutter “duh” and move on.  Everyone else, kindly have it tattooed on an unobtrusive body part.

The author’s biggest mistake is not, as you may think, having your heroine gaze into a mirror itemising her lush hair, full lips and high, firm breasts while feeling insecure about her ability to attract men. That’s #2. I’m talking about contracts.

Let’s start with some true stories.

Friend: [tells me about a complex set up she’s doing with a fellow creator involving transferring large sums of other people’s money]

Me: You’ve got that down in a contract, right?

Friend: Oh, I wouldn’t want to ask for a contract, that would suggest I didn’t trust her.

At a conference contracts panel

Me: Hands up who isn’t clear what “Grant of Rights” means in a publishing contract.

[most hands go up]

Me: Keep your hand up if you’ve signed a publishing contract.

[most hands stay up. Embarrassed laughter.]

And in general:

Author: I don’t understand what all this legalese means but Publisher has always treated me well in the past, so I’m signing.

Author: I can’t believe I’m really gonna be published! I got the contract today and you better believe I signed it right away and sent it back before they could change their minds LOL!!!

Author: My brother deals with loads of contracts for the local council. He looked over it and he reckons it’s fine.

If that lot didn’t make your eyes bleed, you need to know more.

Contracts are scary, dull, and full of incomprehensible jargon. Nobody likes reading them, nobody likes negotiating them. But if you are an author looking to sign with a publisher, you have to read, and understand, and negotiate. It is culpably foolish not to.

The publisher’s job, and thus the job of everyone who works for them, is to make money for the publisher. Not for the author–that’s just a side effect which keeps the business lubricated. I have worked in publishing my whole life, over two decades, half a dozen companies. I have been a commissioning editor and a managing editor; I have negotiated, issued, and amended contracts, and dealt with rights exploitation and reversion. I was a publisher long before I was an author. And I know what I am talking about when I say that the publisher does not approach the contract thinking, “What are the most favourable terms we can possibly give?”

Writers are at a disadvantage here because, generally, we want to be published. We want to believe in the goodwill of the publisher with whom we’re dealing; we’re afraid of rocking the boat by being stroppy and asking too much. We probably can’t afford lawyers at all, and almost certainly don’t have access to an experienced publishing contract lawyer; many of us are unagented. Our eyes glaze as we read, and we’re not really sure what a lot of it means, but, you know, they publish lots of people, don’t they? The editor is lovely; authors say nice things about the publisher on Facebook. Surely it’ll be fine?

No. It is never okay to sign something you don’t understand. Your trust in the publisher’s goodwill will not get your rights or money back when things go wrong. Your unwillingness to read boring legalese isn’t an excuse, it’s an Achilles heel that covers your entire leg.

You should not sign an unexamined contract even if you trust the other party so much you’d get a tattoo of their logo. Because the best of us make mistakes. A contract may unintentionally fail to include, say, a payment schedule, or a date by which the book must be published, or a means by which the author can act on non-performance. The person drafting it can have deleted a clause by accident [raises hand] or just not thought to include something. Contracts are complex and boring, which is a great combination for producing errors. And stuff goes wrong. Relationships deteriorate, people get into bad situations. Some problematic publishers are scam artists from Day One; some start off well but get in over their heads. Some contracts are drafted by spectacularly incompetent lawyers; some have quite evidently not seen a publishing law expert at all.

Checking the contract

It is not an implication of bad faith to scrutinise the contract with great care, or to ask what clauses mean, or to negotiate more favourable terms. This is what the contracts process is for. If you aren’t prepared to take the contract seriously, you might as well just hand over your MS and ask the publisher to give you money sometime. (Don’t do that.)

The opinion of your brother who does contracts for the council is worthless (on your publishing contract at least; I’m sure he’s a great guy otherwise). You need someone who knows what they are talking about and can see potential pitfalls, and you are probably better off talking to a publisher who isn’t a lawyer than a lawyer who isn’t a publisher. The publisher might see what’s missing.

Some professional bodies such as the Society of Authors will scrutinise contracts for members. The RWA does not do this for individuals, although they did, admirably, pay for a legal opinion on a recent contract amendment that affected a lot of authors (including me). An agent ought to assess contracts for you, and have a lawyer to call on. If they don’t, or don’t ever suggest changes, get a new agent. If you have a friend in publishing or know an experienced author, you might call on them for an extra pair of eyes, but at your own risk, and be aware it’s a big ask.

Watch out if you ask an author at the same publisher. Many authors, for understandable psychological reasons, fall into a “my publisher right or wrong” attitude. Ignore anyone who tells you to have faith in a publisher, human or corporate. This is a business, not a family, and certainly not a church.

I know this isn’t easy, and many people just throw their hands up and sign for lack of other recourse. But you can protect yourself, starting by learning to read contracts. If you’re capable of writing a publishable book, you’re capable of grasping the basic principles of a publishing contract. If you have the courage to put your writing out for people to buy, read, and review, you have the courage to write “Please explain clause 4” or “This clause doesn’t cover everything, please add…”  And you will always be the person most concerned to protect your own interests. Nobody else in the process is going to put you first. Trust me on that.

There are tons of helpful posts by experienced authors, agents, and contract people out there. Some good information on Contracts 101 here and also here. I am not a lawyer or a contracts expert so I won’t presume to offer a checklist. I will, however, outline a few of the things that can go wrong, to give you an idea of the wonderful and exciting possibilities that await.

Grant of rights

Rights are everything in publishing. Most publishers will ask for all the rights they can get. If you don’t understand what rights are, do not sign anything till you do. Go away and learn or you will get screwed.

The publisher ought to specify which rights they are taking, in what languages and regions, and for how long.  So you might grant World English Language electronic publishing rights for a seven-year term, or World rights, all languages, all editions and formats, for the full term of copyright. (Which means till after you’re dead.)

Everything not explicitly specified as going to the publisher should be reserved to the author. Do not accept open-ended wording like ‘all media forms currently in existence and hereinafter invented’. Traditional contracts routinely used that, and when ebooks came along it gave publishers electronic rights that they never negotiated or paid for, and which in a huge number of cases they will neither use nor release. If an older in-copyright book isn’t in e, chances are a publisher is sitting on the rights. It’s not worth their financial while to digitise the book, but it would be giving away an asset to return the rights to the author, so they don’t. Business, remember?

Subsidiary rights

Things like audio rights and translation rights can be licensed to other publishers and can make a lot of money. If you grant, say, audio rights to the publisher, they will take a cut (specified in the contract) on any deal they set up. If you retain those rights you/your agent can sell them directly to an audiobook publisher, or you can arrange an audio version yourself. That’s a lot of work and you need to decide what’s best for you.

Publishers often demand subsidiary rights and then leave them unused, to the author’s impotent fury. Don’t sign these away without a “use it or lose it” clause: you give the publisher, say, 12 or 18 months from publication date to exploit those rights, after which period the author can request reversion (getting them back) if they haven’t been used. That gives the publisher a fair chance to make money but lets the author regain control if the publisher doesn’t do the work. And you can of course leave the rights with them after the expiry of that period.

If the publisher insists on controlling audio and translation but won’t agree to a “use it or lose it” clause, you will have to make your peace with never seeing any of those rights exploited, never making any money from them, never having an audiobook or a translation–because that is almost certainly what will happen. My own failure to insist on a “use it or lose it” clause is why my most popular series is not yet in audio, and why two of my other series will probably never be available in print. It is not something I will omit again.

It is not fun to fume in hopeless rage while a publisher sits on rights they will never use, but won’t revert, and it happens all the time. Publishing is a rights business and publishers hang onto rights like Gollum with the ring.

Failure to Publish

A crucial and often-omitted clause that covers when the publisher doesn’t publish the book, or doesn’t do so in a timely fashion. This is far more common than you may think. What you need is a set term in which the book must be published starting from delivery of the MS, and right of reversion if it isn’t. For example: “The Publisher will publish the Work within 12 months of delivery of the completed manuscript unless otherwise agreed in writing between Author and Publisher. If the Publisher fails to do so, the contract will automatically terminate and all rights will revert to the Author.”

The key here is to have the period start from your action, and not from any act of the publisher. (If they insist on the start being acceptance of the MS, then you need a specified time period, eg “at acceptance of the MS or within six weeks of delivery, whichever comes first”.) A small press of which I have heard has an 18-month failure to publish term that starts when the book is assigned an editor. That publisher has been known to sit on MSS for a year or more before assigning an editor, who then doesn’t even read the damn thing for another year, and there is nothing the author can do about it.

A refusal to include a decent failure to publish clause when asked is a flag so red your eyeballs should ignite. Use the flames to set fire to the draft contract and run away.

Other works

A large publisher’s boilerplate contract might forbid you to publish a competing work for a period (eg 2-6 months) either side of the publication date. Fine if you write massive non-fiction tomes once every decade, less so if you want to publish five romances a year. Make this extremely specific (“no competing work of male/male paranormal romantic fiction set in medieval France”). Otherwise signing a series to be published at four-month intervals might make it impossible for you to publish anything else in your genre that year.

Option clauses, giving the publisher first dibs on your next book, can be a problem. You don’t want to have a vile experience with a bunch of jerks and then find you’re obliged to submit your next book to them. Georgette Heyer wanted so desperately to get away from her detective-novel publisher that she wrote Penhallow, a murder mystery where the victim doesn’t die till 2/3 of the way through and we see who the murderer is as they do it. I assume the working title was Shove Your Option Up Your Arse. I have also heard of authors with popular series writing drafts in which their central couple die, purely in order to get out of options. Downside: the publisher might accept it anyway, and then you’re stuffed.

Term and Reversion

What triggers the end of contract. A “full term of copyright” contract may conclude if the book is not available for sale in any edition, which means never given that ebooks can sit on Amazon forever at no cost to the publisher. If you must sign a term of copyright contract make sure there’s a sensible sales threshold below which you can revert, such as fewer than 500 copies sold at full price in a 12-month period. But frankly, consider before signing if you’re ready never to have your book in your control again. (Several author advocacy bodies are trying to get rid of these lifetime contracts: see here for more.)

For smaller presses there is likely to be a set contract term, e.g. seven years from date of contract, after which the author may request reversion at any time. Make sure the reversion process is laid out and simple. Some publishers have rolling renewal clauses, e.g. a two-year contract term, but the contract automatically renews annually unless the author requests return of rights in writing six weeks before the renewal date. This sort of arrangement has no obvious purpose other than to trap authors into another year’s contract against their will.

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These are only a few of the possible pitfalls. I haven’t even mentioned the big one, money, and there are many more. Many. What if your book isn’t professionally edited, or the editor demands unreasonable changes? Do you get a meaningful say on the cover? Are there provisions for redress in the case of publisher breach?

 

CONTRACTS

It may sound like I’m saying authors should fear and distrust contracts. Not at all. A good contract is the thing most likely to protect your working relationship with a publisher, by spelling out exactly what both sides’ rights and obligations are, with dates, and allowing for redress if those obligations aren’t met. That’s a sound basis for a business relationship, which is what the publisher-author relationship is. It is not a family, or a friendship based on warm feelings of trust. Good intentions, fine promises, and cute dog pictures are all great things for a publisher to offer in addition to a rock-solid well-drafted contract; they do not replace it.

It is absolutely fine to scrutinise the contract, ask for clarification, demand extra clauses and alterations to wording, or ask for clauses to be struck out. That’s negotiation. And you don’t have to be afraid that the publisher will withdraw your offer for asking. (That has happened once in my 20 year experience, and I’ve worked on contract negotiations that took two months and made me afraid to open my inbox. The one where we withdrew the offer was far, far beyond that.) There are of course publishers who will offer you ‘take it or leave it’ terms; to me this is a massive red flag. Consider: if this is how they’re treating you when you can still walk away, what will it be like when you can’t?

A bad contract is worse than no contract, just as a bad publisher is worse than no publisher. It may not seem that way when you’re desperate for publication; it bloody well will five years down the line. And you may feel that a publisher has you over a barrel now, but that barrel will not become more comfortable if you sign a document that allows them to keep you there for seven years.

Signing a contract without full consideration is the biggest professional mistake you can make. This game is hard enough at the best of times. Make sure you read the rulebook before you play.

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KJ Charles has worked for seven publishers as an editor (including many, many contract negotiations) and with four as an author, and has made every possible mistake in that time.

Her newest release is An Unseen Attraction with Loveswept.

Hey, Everyone, Be Nice!

At RWA 2015, an editor from Pocket Books answered a question on diversity by saying that ‘diverse’ topics/authors were published in a couple of particular lines and not as part of the general list. The implication was that authors (not even just books, which is bad enough) would be channelled to lines based on ethnic origin. (Obviously, agents representing non-white authors would thus find them a harder sell, with fewer chances for publication.)

Rightly, the RWA has come down on this like a ton of bricks, refusing to accept corporate flannel from Pocket (who say this isn’t their policy) and demanding a clear commitment to equal treatment for all RWA members. This is a professional issue and that’s what they’re for.

Today board member Alyssa Day tweeted this:

nice 1

‘Be nice’. Be nice.

The RWA is a membership organisation for professionals, with a substantial admittance fee. Its remit is to protect members’ interests. They are doing their job by going after a publisher who, according to their own editor, are behaving in a way that damages some RWA members’ interests.

And someone thinks they should be nice? Nice! What has ‘nice’ got to do with a professional dispute? What is there to be nice about?

There is currently a horrendous, damaging row going on in m/m romance. Some LGBT people reacted to material they found offensive and hurtful in forthright (or rude) terms; other people basically told them to shut up and sit down, it escalated. And a lot of people have ignored the hurt being complained of, and instead focused on the tone and manner in which the complaints were made. Because they were angry and blunt about stuff people liked. They weren’t being nice.

Now, I’m an author. I know words matter. I know people react differently to different tones. I know that it’s possible to put your case politely, and can be much more effective to do so.

I’m also a woman. I know that putting your case politely can also make it much easier for people to ignore you. I know that it’s possible to say the same thing politely a dozen times, and be ignored, and then when you finally stop being polite, they say, “Calm down, love!” or “There’s no need to shout!” as though raising your voice the thirteenth time is completely unreasonable.

And I’m a human being. I recognise that actually, sometimes, people are no longer able to put their case politely because they are driven to expletive-peppered fury by the relentless goddamn bullshit of other people…

…who then turn around and say, “Hey, be nice!”

Be nice when someone’s treating you as if you don’t matter, as if people like you have never mattered, when your pain is dismissed as less important than the comfort or embarrassment or convenience of the person causing your pain. Be nice.

Of course I don’t mean it’s good for everyone to shout and rage all the time, as if that’s the only alternative. I prefer civil discussion to shouting and raging too. I would much rather that everyone spoke respectfully, which is only likely to happen when everyone listens respectfully. Let’s try to do that, shall we?

But let’s have a clear example about telling people to be nice.

When my 7-year-old son comes up to me whining, “It’s not fair, my horrible sister won’t play with me because she’s horrible,” that is a teachable moment. That is a time to talk about tone, and being nice, and how the way you approach people makes a difference to how they listen.

When my 7-year-old son comes up to me with a cut lip shrieking that a boy hit him and took his football, I don’t tell him, “Speak more clearly and don’t cry, your tone of voice must be calm and reasonable.” I don’t tell him, “You’re angry, and anger isn’t nice, so that boy deserves the football more than you do.” Instead, I try to fix his problem, his real and legitimate distress, because that is what we do when someone is actually hurt.

Assuming we give a damn for people’s hurt, of course. Which we would, if we were nice.

Let’s be nice.

KJ magpie200

Starving Artists, Team Players and Plagiarists

One of the go-to observations about authors is that we’re not team players. Ask an editor/publicist about trying to organise authors for an event and the phrase “like herding cats” is liable to be used. When I tell most people that I work on my own all day in a shed, they ask things like “How do you cope?” and “Isn’t it terribly lonely?”, whereas authors tend to reply, “Oh, you lucky cow.” Authors say plangent and meaningful things like, “Writing is one of the most solitary activities in the world.” We are the isolated figure in a garret, alone but for the cast of characters in our heads.

Writing isn’t actually like this.

It’s all very glamorous-sounding in a ‘drinking yourself to death on absinthe’ kind of way. It is, however, a pile of crap.

Unless an author does her own covers and her own editing and no marketing and never communicates with readers, she has a team. Here’s a rundown of the people with whom I collaborate:

The agent who sets up and manages deals, holds my hand, looks at proposals and helps plan my career

The editor to whom I send the synopsis

The publisher’s team who sign off on the deal

The contracts person with whom I dicker over terms

The covers team who turn my cover art brief into something plausible and saleable

The designer who takes that brief and makes it lovely, and who listens to me when I raise objections and makes changes

The beta readers who look at my drafts and help me get the thing into shape for the editor

The development editor, who works on the story and characters, raising problems and identifying issues

The line editor, going through the MS to pick up my inconsistencies, my echoes, my infelicities, my clumsy phrasing and overused habits and poor stylistic choices and unintended implications and dangling threads

The copy editor, hitting the million tiny errors inexplicably still in there, oh my God I suck

The proofreader, saving all our necks at the last pass

The marketing team who put together promo materials, get the book into offers and magazines, send review copies

The rights team, who push the foreign and audio rights

The finance team who make sure all the copies I sell are properly accounted and my royalties promptly paid

The book bloggers and magazines who make space for me

The reviewers who read the ARCs and write and share reviews

The readers who choose to join my Facebook group or follow my blog or send me emails, who support and encourage me because they like my books. They owe me nothing, but when they choose to help and support me, they’re my team and I love them for it.

The fellow authors who hold my hand, talk me down when times are bad and rejoice with me over successes. Who understand, as only people ploughing the same furrow do.

And there are other and greater teams, of which all authors are part. For me there is Team Queer Romance, pushing the equality of everybody’s love story. Team Romance, the people who work separately and together to promote the genre we love. Team Author, the other people who get what you’re doing and understand what it means, why it’s the best job in the world and why it sucks.

That’s a lot of people to let down when you screw up.

When Laura Harner plagiarised m/f romances to make them into m/m romances, she didn’t just commit a theft of intellectual property from Becky McGraw and Opal Carew. She let down her teams: the readers who supported her by buying her stolen books; the m/m romance community of readers and authors that had created a market for them, the LGBT+ community whose lives she travestied by switching pronouns to make a story “gay”; the bloggers and conference organisers and cowriters who worked with her; the whole romance community who stand up for each other against the contempt of lazy journalists and litsnobs to whom she’s handed us on a plate as a target of idle mockery; the romance writers who put their heart and souls into their work; and the whole author community because for those who live by words, stealing them is an unforgivable treachery.

At least Harner self pubbed. I was the editor of a plagiarising author once, and I promise you, the sense of rage and betrayal inside the publishing house was tangible when we found out. I’m still angry. Publishing may be a business but the vast majority of publishing staff care deeply about books, and don’t like being treated with contempt any more than anyone else.

Authors aren’t isolated figures, and our choices don’t take place in isolation. We have responsibilities. We have responsibilities to the publishing team who works with us to make the books better, make them pretty, make them sell. We have responsibilities to the people who invest their time in reading and maybe reviewing, their money in purchasing. We have responsibilities to the people we depict in our books, the humans who see themselves in our stories (or don’t), the lessons our stories teach. We have responsibilities to other authors: not to make each other’s paths harder than they need to be, not to bring the genre or the profession into disrepute, not to shove each other down in the effort to get ahead ourselves.

Henry_Wallis_-_Chatterton_-_Google_Art_Project

Writing really isn’t like this either.

Authors are part of a huge complicated web of relationships, just like every other human in the world. It may not feel like that alone in the metaphorical shed. But if I plagiarise, treat others disrespectfully in my writing, or otherwise mess up, through commission or omission, I am letting more people down than just myself. And I forget that at my peril.

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KJ Charles is an editor, writer and organiser of Queer Romance Month. Her most recent release is the short story “The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh“.

When Publishers Fail: publishing and author service

So there’s this book, recently out, looks exactly my cup of tea, and a friend I trust recommended it wholeheartedly. Woop! I zoomed off to one-click, saw the publisher, and stopped.

Oh, I thought. It’s published by them. Meh. I’ll get the sample first.

I’ve abandoned several books from this publisher in the past because I’d found the editing unacceptably poor. I now hesitated, very seriously, over buying a book that I wanted–because the publisher was a significant strike against it.

And yes, I’m a nitpicking editor, but here’s something I read just today from the excellent romance book/food blogger Elisabeth Lane:

I recently closed my blog to unsolicited ARC submissions and I’m slowly working through a very small backlog of Netgalley advance titles. I don’t think I’ll be opening it back up any time soon. The reason is at least partially aesthetic. There are a lot of badly-written, badly-edited books out there. … I’m tired of feeling like I have to sort through a ton of chaff to get to the wheat […]

I had stopped enjoying myself. I’d read so many bad books in a row–books with no conflict, books with glimmers of a strong voice that wasn’t fully realized, books with dubious or incoherent themes and moral positions, books with cardboard characters that never move beyond archetypes and yes, books with typos, grammar errors, missing words and other mechanical defects in inexcusable quantities.

Now, if you’re self published and you decide not to use an editor, that’s your business decision. But if you’re with a publisher who doesn’t edit–if they make the business decision to put out your book in poor shape because they don’t know or care that it should be better, if their imprimatur is not a guarantee of anything like quality, if their editing is no better than you’d get from your mate who reads lots of books, if bloggers and readers are looking at your book and saying, Meh…remind me why you’re handing over 60% net receipts again?

Publishing is an author service industry. Publishers provide a set of services to make the book good, an imprimatur to tell people it’s good, a sales and marketing structure to get the book to readers; and they take all the financial risk for these things. In return for these services, the publisher gets a cut of the book’s revenues. When publishers fail to provide these services, when their imprint is no longer a guarantee of quality, the reason for authors to give them money disappears.

There are publishers that don’t pay for proofreading. There are those whose editorial fees are absurdly below professional rates, which makes you wonder who’s doing the work, and how fast they have to do it to eat. There are some that don’t pay editors at all and simply use people who do it ‘for love’, or, to put that in French, amateurs.  I’m well aware editing is a huge cost, of course, especially to small publishers. But if I go to a cake shop and ask for a cake, I don’t expect to be handed a bowl of raw flour, eggs and butter, on the grounds that ovens are just too expensive so they decided not to bake the damn thing. (For the avoidance of doubt: I am not talking about my own publishers, with whom I am extremely happy.)

Of course, it’s very easy to say, ‘Don’t go with a publisher that doesn’t edit properly!’ but let’s be honest, most aspiring authors would sign pretty much anything, with anyone, to get the first book published. (“Beelzebub Books, Inc? My name in blood? Sure!”) But as you develop a few books, a readership, a sales history, you can look at the deal again, as well as at what’s being offered to the reading public with your name on it. Because if the trad pub deal ceases to be worthwhile–if it doesn’t include good editing, cover design, marketing support, the halo effect of being with a respected publisher, a decent royalty split–authors can and should move to other publishers, or self pub, or a hybrid publishing strategy without a second’s hesitation. Once again: the publisher’s split of the receipts is their payment for services. If you’re not getting adequate service, why are you paying?

Don’t get me wrong: I love publishing. I believe in it as a good thing for authors and readers and the future of books. As an author, I would far rather be with a publisher, big or small, and work and succeed together. (That’s not to disrespect self publishers, it’s simply my personal preference.) As a reader, I want to be able to one-click a book with a blithe certainty that it will be properly edited and proofread simply because it carries a publisher’s imprimatur. But to make that work, publishers have to serve their authors properly, because if they don’t they will lose both authors and readers. Which is why a publisher that skimps on those obligations to its authors  is chipping away at its own future.

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ThinkOfEngland72webKJ Charles is a very happily published romance author with Samhain and, coming this summer, Loveswept. She’s also a freelance editor with twenty years’ publishing experience. Her latest book is Jackdaw, out now, and her novel Think of England just won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.

Tea and No Sympathy: the Invisible Editor

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Editing is an underrated, underpaid skill in large part because it’s invisible. Good editing, in the reader’s experience, is a negative. Some people may note the absence of typos, or the lack of stumbles over poor sentence structure. Nobody but editor and author knows about the rambling, pointless plotline, the ending that weakened the whole book and had to be redrafted, the inexplicably omitted antagonist, irritating repeated word, massive plot hole, or 5000 words of unnecessary verbiage. By God you’ll see all that if it’s left in, and leave scathing reviews accordingly, but with a properly edited book, for all the reader knows, the author delivered an impeccable MS and every plot twist, satisfying scene and well structured ending is her genius. Nothing to do with anyone else, oh no.

And of course, because editors are invisible, you get people thinking they don’t need them. Authors who refuse to accept editing, self-published authors who say, ‘I’ll get my friend to read it over’. And, worse, people who work as editors without really understanding the job. People who think it’s about tidying up, who have no idea how to tackle deep structure or tonal issues or limp characterization, or how to do that without breaking an author’s heart.

Dinner party man: What do you do?
Me: I’m an editor.
Dinner party man: Don’t they have spellcheck for that?

I learned to edit working on travel guides. There is no room for sloppiness in a printed travel guide. There was no room for bringing them out late, either, since they are out of date from the day the author delivers. We used to edit in shifts, splitting MSS to finish them. People sometimes slept in the office. After that, I worked at a large romance publisher for several years, where the book turnaround was insanely fast. There is nothing like editing four books in a week and reading six slush MSS in between to get you good at X-raying a book, seeing the bones, and rearranging them to make a functioning skeleton. Do that enough and you don’t just have a vague feeling of wrong: you know exactly why this character’s decision weakens the book; why that scene, brilliant in itself, destroys the pacing, or alternatively needs to be twice as long; why these two plot points have to be rearranged; why this character ought to live rather than die.

I really feel this book should end on the obliteration of the entire human race.

(Editorial email from me to author. She agreed.)

As both an editor and an author who has benefited greatly from editing, I know how much work goes into this. I know how hard it can be to identify the problem with your own MS, and how hard it is to write the email that explains what has to be changed. I know that nobody wants to hear ‘massive rewrite’ and that it actually doesn’t feel that much better if the editor calls it a tweak. And mostly, I know that editors are the unsung heroes when it goes right, but the first in the firing line when it goes wrong.

Because, if you think for a moment, ‘This book is badly edited’ is kind of meaningless. What that actually says is, ‘This book is badly written and the editor didn’t fix it.’ But that’s the job. The author’s hacked out the raw material and the editor’s there to do anything from a light polish to a full-blown carving operation – but leaving no fingermarks, with no trace of her presence, just letting the story shine.

So when you read a book and you don’t notice anything wrong with it, spare a thought for the ninja editor, reading the clunky and the poorly structured, the repetitive and the nonsensical and the really quite alarming, the badly spelled and the just-not-quite-perfect…so you don’t have to.
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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and author. Thanks to Andrea Pina for the inspiration for this post!

How to Speak Blurb: a translation guide

You pick up a bunch of books at random. The blurbs claim that they are ‘A hilariously trenchant romp’, ‘Breathtakingly original, written in rhapsodic prose’, and ‘Lyrical, charming and heartbreaking’. Do you wonder if you have stumbled across a cache of literature representing the pinnacle of human artistic endeavour, or do you think, ‘These all look pretty average’?

Some books are indeed breathtakingly original, brilliantly written, wonderfully charming, or even life-changing. Let’s face it, most aren’t. But publishers still have to put some sort of something on the back to make people spend money. ‘Pretty good, will pass the time pleasantly’, while honest and perfectly respectable, isn’t going to get past Marketing. And thus we end up with ever-increasing blurb inflation, where the starting point for a mildly amusing book is ‘hilarious’ and trying to convey that it’s actually, really funny requires a specialist thesaurus.

So, here’s a (not entirely serious) translation guide to blurb-speak.(Please note, this doesn’t mean that these words below aren’t sometimes used with soul-deep sincerity. Just that, even when the book is merely okay, mediocre or full-on bad, some poor schlub still has to find something to say.)

How to Speak Publisher-page0001(1)

Lower Your Standards: getting through the book’s babyhood

In honour of my son’s fifth birthday the other day, I present a Parenting Metaphor. (This really is a post about writing, not a kiddy blog. Bear with me.)

My son was born 17 months after my daughter, and as parents of ‘two under two’ will know, this is a bad time. I recall my husband coming home to find me sitting on the floor, crying, holding a crying baby and a crying toddler who had just wet herself copiously over her brother, me, and the floor. (Which is what we were all crying about.) It was not good. So I called my friend Natalie, who speaks wisdom.

KJ [wails about disastrous house, empty cupboards, nappies, failed breastfeeding, unsleeping children] I just don’t know how you’re supposed to DO everything! How do I do it?

Natalie [audible shrug]: Lower your standards.

This is, quite seriously, the best advice I have ever received.

‘Lower your standards’ doesn’t mean ‘leave the child in a dirty nappy while you go to the pub’, of course. It means that you turn ‘playing educationally with your spotless children in an impeccable house while a casserole cooks’ into ‘playing with your children’, and the hell with the rest. It means you get the important stuff right. The rest of it can always be done later, when you have time – and if you never have time, that’s probably because it wasn’t really important. Pick it up if it starts to smell.

‘Lower your standards’ got me through early parenthood. The house did not fall down, nobody got cholera, the kids survived and so did we. We lowered our standards, and cleared up later, and you know what, it’s worked out pretty well.

And ‘lower your standards’ is also excellent advice for your difficult first draft. (Subject to deciding that it’s worth writing at all.)

  • Forget that blasted descriptive passage. If you need it, it will come, later. If you don’t, aren’t you glad you stopped trying to write it now?
  • Conversation not working, but you know where it needs to go? Force it. Leave a space if you have to. Don’t get bogged down. If it’s really where the book is going, it’ll come to you, and you’ll probably find out what your characters wanted to get at in fifty pages’ time. It doesn’t have to be perfected now. It will probably change anyway.
  • Realised you want to do a thing which requires going back and seeding all the way through the last fifty pages? Make a note, and do it later. Don’t go back and fiddle and overwrite. You can do that forever.
  • Your Edwardian heroes are on a train to Berlin and you need to find out the name of a station they stop at on the way? If it’s not plot-shapingly crucial, just put [STATION] in the MS and do it later. Do not break your writing flow to mess about with 1904 Continental railway timetables. (I’m talking to you here, KJ.)
  • Your subconscious will work with you, but it needs something to work on. If you just get the full story nailed, I guarantee that the little character notes and pertinent descriptions and seemingly trivial vital details will sing out on second draft. Like careers, manuscripts make most sense with hindsight.

Of course, your standards need to shoot back up in the second draft, when you remove the awkward transitions, and see, in the glorious light of a completed story, why that scene didn’t work and this conversation doesn’t flow. That’s the point where you start to get it all right. And when it comes to editing stage, your standards should be those of the Tiger Mother from Hell. Your finished book should be as perfect as you hope your finished offspring will be. (Hahahaha.)

But in the baby-and-toddler period, sometimes you just need to concentrate on keeping the damn thing alive.

Do you agree? Disagree? Are your standards too low even to engage with this conversation? Let me know!

The ego has landed: Musing on reviews

This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”

Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.

People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)

Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.

I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.

And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.

People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.

I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.

… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.

There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?

Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.

What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?

Ten Rules for Writing Joyless Books

My children are avid sticker book consumers. (Bear with me: this is an extended metaphor, not a parenting blog post.)

At first they simply wanted to jam the stickers onto the pages, upside down, off the edges, covering each other in great lumps of shiny paper, just for the pleasure of playing with sticky things.

Then they got a bit older and more careful. Put the penguins in the snow scene, put the pirates on the beach. They set up little bits of staging. “Look, Mummy, the baby dinosaur is going to eat the bird. Look, the pirate’s chopping the other pirate’s head off. Look, the polar bear is going to – I am playing nicely, Mummy!” Even when the sticker scene was long completed, they’d sit there poring over the pages, making up stories about what the absurdly juxtaposed creatures were up to.

Older still, and the sticker books have become more complicated. Now you have to put the sticker in the right place. The pirate has to be applied perfectly over just the right bit of rigging or it looks all wrong. The clothes must be put on the correct dolly in the correct order.

Let’s just consider that. The sticker book’s purpose is to give the child a scene to populate with characters, yet we insist the characters should be applied and arranged only in a certain way, the right way. These dinosaurs have to go in those trees. Those knights only fit if you use them to fight the dragon. The sticker for the Lego dumper truck must be applied over the silhouette of the Lego dumper truck. The boy dolly has to wear the boy clothes. This isn’t play any more, it’s an exercise in form filling. The books where you put the stickers wherever you like and create your own scene are babyish. Big boys and girls follow instructions. Even if the child, half way through a sticker page that was supposed to be fun, looks up and pleads, “Mummy, do I have to finish this?”

I’m sure you see where I’m going. In this case, I have been driven to distraction by the umpteenth repetition of Elmore Leonard’s ‘10 Rules for Writing’, which would be more accurately titled ‘10 Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard’, but you can put ‘top ten tips for writers’ into your search engine of choice and come up with any amount of vetoes and restrictions and rules. Let’s just start with his first tip, shall we?

Never open a book with weather.

–  Elmore Leonard

To which I have only this to say:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

–  Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Or again

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

– Elmore Leonard

I’ve ranted about poorly chosen speech verbs myself, but never?

“Shut up,” he explained.

– Ring Lardner

Leonard goes on to say that writers should not go into detail to describe people, places, or things. I’ll just go home now. (In fairness, Leonard knew perfectly well that his rules were for himself, not for everyone. I’m just sick of seeing them repeated like they are a recipe for anything other than his prose style.)

I’m bored of reading text that feels like it’s been run through a set of rules. I’m bored of literary novels by authors that have been through the same Creative Writing MA course and learned to do the same things. I’m bored of genre fiction that knows how genre fiction should be written and does it just like that because it should, not because it wants to. I’m unbelievably bored of books that don’t play.

Of course authors need to learn how to write, which is mostly done by reading, and writing, and by being read, and by taking criticism and learning from it. A writer who doesn’t learn her craft is the child jamming stickers onto the page, and the wallpaper, and the cat.

But when ‘rules’ of writing (of what publishers say the market wants, of what the SFF establishment approves, of what gets a Booker prize nomination, of what this top author or that course dictates as the only good) kill the creativity and individuality and fun of the writer doing her own thing… well, that’s when the readers start to wail, Mummy, do I have to finish this?

The Art of the Blurb: How to write back cover copy

Many authors, both self pubbed and those with small publishers, find themselves writing their own back cover copy. Or, at least, staring at a blank screen thinking, ‘Do I have to?’

Yes, you do. The blurb is your biggest and best opportunity to sell your book. It’s what readers see. It’s their reason to click through or move on.

And this means, for each book, the blurb should be the most polished passage of writing you do – including the manuscript. Labouring over a MS and then knocking out a quick blurb is like spending hours creating a marvellous feast of molecular gastronomy, and then serving it on paper plates off which your toddler has eaten jelly.

So how to do it? Well, practice, mostly. I’ve been writing blurbs for fifteen years and it still makes my head hurt. But if you’re feeling stuck, some of this might help…

A blurb sells the book

The blurb is a selling tool.  Everything in your blurb should be directed at making readers want the book, preferably in exchange for money. The blurb is the sizzle that sells the sausage.

The blurb does not tell the story: it tells the potential buyer about the story. Major difference. If you find yourself telling the story, cut. Watch out for ‘And then’ connectives, which often signal that you’re giving a sequence of events. Turn them into ‘But’ connectives –  the ones that suggest obstacles, reversals, drama.

Telling the story makes boring blurbs. I used to work with a sales manager whose cry at sales conference rehearsals was, ‘Nobody cares.’

Editor, rehearsing presentation: ‘Polly Smith was sent to Lady Letitia’s Orphanage when her parents died in a hot-air balloon accident – ’

Sales manager: Nobody cares.

Editor: But it’s important for her reactions –

Sales manager: NOBODY. CARES.

Of course they’ll care when they read the book. But in the back cover copy, the expression you’re looking for to cover your three chapters of carefully crafted emotional dissection at balloon-related bereavement is, at most, ‘Orphan Polly Smith’ and quite possibly, just ‘Polly’.

What sells? A conflict, a romantic set-up, a mystery, a dramatic situation. Not a backstory, a description, or an explanation.

Answer the key questions

These should get you at least halfway to something usable.

Who are the main character/s?  Headline details only, and try putting the adjectives before the noun. ‘John is a photographer burned out after years covering conflicts in war zones’ is an infodump. ‘Burned-out war photographer John’ is the beginning of a sentence that might get interesting.

What’s the problem facing your hero/ine/s? A race against time, a family battle, the love interest being a zombie…

What’s at stake? The world? A child’s happiness? The love affair? The heroine’s braaaaains?

If you can tell the reader that [appealing person] in [interesting situation] has [thing going on] with [X at stake], you have 80% of a blurb right there.

Avoid the pitfall questions

There are some things it’s very tempting to tell the reader, but think twice.

Where/when are we? Unless the setting is really a major selling point, beware. If you start your blurb with ‘Devon, 1782. As the mist drifts through the chilly moorland…’, that clicking noise is the sound of a lot of readers going elsewhere.

Who else is in the book? The child/dog/sidekick might be one of the most effective things in the book, but are they part of what sells it? The cute dog may be the thing that readers will remember, but you’re not addressing existing readers here, you’re selling to potential buyers.

What’s important to the book is not necessarily what’s important to the blurb.

Keep it short

This is not an essay, it’s a selling tool. Go Edward Scissorhands. You won’t lose out by keeping it to three paragraphs; you may well lose readers if they have to plough through six.

A blurb sells the book that you wrote

Not the book that you suddenly feel you should have written, or the book that would probably have sold more copies. It might temporarily drive sales up to give the blurb a commercial spin (e.g. selling it as a romance when it’s that very different thing, a book about two people who occasionally shag). But it won’t endear the author to the misled readers.

Remember the classic Wizard of Oz TV guide listing?

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

You can pull in the Cormac McCarthy fans this way, but you won’t keep them once ‘Over the Rainbow’ starts.

Avoid:

Typos and errors. Spellcheck like mad. Get someone else to read it. Do not rush this. You wouldn’t use a picture of burned steak and soggy chips to advertise your restaurant; do not use sloppy writing to advertise your book.

Extract. No matter how good your writing is. Let people be stunned by the extract when they’re already hooked on the concept. Exception: a single fantastic line that sells the book, as a pull quote.

Spoilers. If your book’s impact depends on a massive unforeseen twist, for God’s sake don’t give it away on the back.

 

KJ Charles has five blurbs to write for work, which is why she’s blogging.