Monday, April 29, 2013

This is What Happens

The inner voice that guides your actions and decisions-everyone has one. Some of us have one we choose to ignore, but we have one all the same. Sometimes you ignore that voice and nothing happens. Sometimes you ignore that voice, and it comes back to bite you in a big way. This is a cautionary tale of being bitten in a big way.

For those of you who don’t recall, I recently shared the exciting news of being signed with a publisher to release my first young adult novel. You may have noticed I specifically omitted mentioning the name of the publisher, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t allowed to name them. It was because I was ashamed for ignoring that inner voice telling me accepting this offer was a bad decision.

The first time I heard the voice regarding this matter came when I was doing a review of the publisher’s web site. It had a few typographical errors that raised a red flag to me. A publisher looking to establish himself as legitimate should convey an image of professionalism and instill confidence in their abilities.

My nagging voice of concern grew a bit louder when I did a little more in depth research on the publisher and found the only client signed to their agency was the publisher. Trying to be fair, I checked out the summary of the publisher’s book. While the book seemed moderately intriguing, I was again bothered by some errors with grammar and punctuation. I was even more bothered to see the distributor the publisher used was a self-publishing site. I excused it by saying the publisher may have started out self-publishing and then decided to expand to mainstream publication.

Another concern arose when I could find no record of other authors working with this publisher. Normally, I’ll take to writer friendly websites that contain ratings on publishers and agents as well as feedback from other authors as to their experiences. None of this existed, but I chalked it up to the fact that the publisher was too new to have anything in the database. There are some industry experts who caution writers not to get involved with a new publisher. Rather than being the guinea pig for a house that could flop, writers are advised to focus their efforts on working with those with a proven track record. I’ve always disagreed with this. Everyone has to start somewhere, and that includes publishers. Why not give them a chance? With what I’ve put myself through lately, I’m starting to change my stance on this.

More concerns surfaced when the publisher was quick to respond to me sending in my manuscript. Most agents and publishers will take weeks or months to respond due to the high volume of submissions. Having discovered so many issues, I opted not to respond to the request for my manuscript. That is, I initially opted not to respond. When the publisher sent a second email asking for the book and expressing a strong interest, I pushed aside that voice of reason and sent it in.

There was the first of many mistakes I made in this journey. I should have replied with a polite thanks but no thanks. Instead, I let my desire to be published and the overwhelming sadness in my life drive me to make a poor decision. This publisher’s interest came less than a month after my father unexpectedly passed away, and diving head first into this gave me a new sense of purpose and something to focus on other than my loss.

When I received the offer to publish a mere week after sending the novel, I couldn’t totally block the nagging voice. I asked some savvy questions about the editing and publishing process.  The answers I got seemed satisfactory and the publisher always responded timely to my concerns and questions. And the big sticking point was that the publisher never asked me for any money. Asking for money upfront is always a bad sign. Against my better judgment, I allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of security and agreed to sign with them.

My first big moment of regret came when the publisher sent me the editor’s mark up. There were a number of things the editor changed that went beyond correction of spelling and punctuation errors. One of the greatest concerns I had was the fact that the editor, based in the United Kingdom, changed several of my phrases to reflect the language of that region. Despite my novel being set in the United States, the editor changed the word friends to mates and crazy to mad, among other things. Having read the mark up, I went running for my lap top and dashed off a letter to the publisher expressing concern. I asked if these were things I was going to be forced to accept and reminded the publisher we’d agreed I would have the option of either accepting or rejecting any changes. The publisher assured me the decision was mine and even went so far as to say I could change the story back if I wasn’t comfortable with the changes.

To be fair to the editor, there were a number of things pointed out that I felt were viable and would improve the story. However, there were just as many things I couldn’t and wouldn’t accept. I changed some things and not others. After spending weeks working on this, I sent the revision to the publisher late last night. Along with the requested revision, I sent an email explaining what I disagreed with and why. Given the amount of time the editor spent working on the story, I felt it was only fair to explain why I’d overruled the suggested changes.

Imagine my surprise to open my email this morning and find a scathing reply from the publisher accusing me of lecturing them and being difficult to work with and telling me they knew this would happen when I started asking questions at the initial stages. Of course they knew it would happen! I asked those questions to avoid this very thing. I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time or money. The publisher went on to point out that if I’d signed with a “big six” publisher I wouldn’t have any input and wouldn’t even know about changes until after the fact. Again, I was fully aware of this which is what motivated my decision to work with a smaller house. I wanted to have a voice in the creative process. To me, it feels like I was offered that voice only to have it silenced when I had the nerve to use it. The publisher ended by saying I had three choices: 1) publish the way I originally sent it in and take my chances it could have errors, 2) deal with the fact that the editor’s changes were going to be incorporated into the work, or 3) terminate the contract.  Ironically, this electronic tirade was laced with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors.

Moral of the story? That nagging voice inside you exists for a reason. When it’s telling you to listen to the red flags, listen to the red flags! This is what happens when you don’t listen.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Problems with Editors and how to Avoid Them

If you’re a writer, or if you know one, what I’m about to say is something you’ve heard before in one way or another.

Being a writer is great. Sharing your writing with people, though equally great, is taxing on your nerves. Letting people read your work is like letting them see you naked, and I don’t just mean you hope they’re going to like what they see without focusing on the flaws. I also mean you’re exposing yourself to people in a way you’re not always accustomed to or comfortable with. That’s particularly true when it comes to accepting criticism of your work, the constructive and the destructive. For many writers, their work is so personal it’s difficult to accept it could be flawed.  That novel is your baby, and you won’t tolerate people putting your baby down.

Before I go any further, I should be clear. Editors can and do serve an important purpose when utilized appropriately. I just think we need to reshape the definition of what an editor is. For me, the editor can be that second pair of eyes that will catch the things I didn’t, usually a missing word or misspelled word. I’m sure I speak for many writers, myself included, when I say I don’t always catch the mistakes because my brain knows what’s supposed to be there which is what it allows my eyes to see. I’m also appreciative when the editor can point out the holes in my story. Chances are, if the editor is confused when reading the rest of the readers will be too. I’ve also recently discovered I have a tendency toward repetition of words, which an editor was able to catch and help me address.

My problems with editors are these:

First, I don’t appreciate it when an editor takes my story and turns it into his own. A suggestion to change a word here and there or tighten up a scene is one thing. Taking my paragraph, or even just one of my sentences, and making it his definition of better is something I take exception to. For instance, I had a line in my story which read ‘Danni didn’t have the heart to tell Marcy she had no chance of getting a date with Nick’.  The editor changed my line to read ‘Danni lacked the courage to tell her friend there wasn’t any hope of Nick asking her out’. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like a minor change. Why am I getting so worked up? I’ll tell you why. Number one, this is my story. I liked it my way. Number two, and on a more serious note, the characters of Danni and Marcy are seventeen. Danni is the main viewpoint character. Having been a teen once and being the parent of two teenage girls, I can tell you for a fact they don’t say they lack courage. This book is targeted to teens. Therefore, I want the protagonist to sound realistic.

Second, in speaking of my issue with editors, is how often I find their opinions will vary on the same subject. One editor told me that when use said tags in dialogue, publishers only want to see the words said, asked, and the occasional answered. As in, ‘I’m hungry,’ Mary said. The reason for this being that use of any other tag was telling the reader how to interpret the dialogue and writers should always show and not tell. After formatting my recent novel this way, a different editor suggested I invest in a thesaurus so that I could learn other ways to describe the said tags! According to this editor, reviewers and publishers wouldn’t take kindly to the repetition and readers wouldn’t be able to get a feel for how the characters were feeling when they spoke the words. Are you kidding me here?

And the differences don’t stop there. One editor says not to hyphenate time. It’s seven thirty, not seven-thirty. Another changes all of my instances of time to include the hyphens. This editor says don’t use adverbs, especially not in describing dialogue. Don’t say John spoke angrily. That editor says I have to use the adverbs, especially in dialogue, so that readers will know John was angry when he spoke. The most perplexing suggestion of all was the editor who told me I should never use contractions in the narrative of a novel and should confine them to the dialogue only. Having never heard this before, I took to the internet for some research only to find I’m not the only writer to receive this little nugget. My research also uncovered that using contractions in narrative isn’t the taboo some editors believe it to be. Many successful novelists employ the use of contractions in narrative passages, which means… You guessed it! The use of contractions in this instance is subjective and one of personal preference.

My third problem with editors is the nature of their job. They’re supposed to take a writer’s work and make it better. No other artist has to suffer this torture. No one told Michelangelo how to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I’m sure no one told Picasso that blue was a terrible color and devoting an entire period to it was pointless. Okay, to be fair, these artists are deceased and I can’t ask them if they endured these crude suggestions. However, I’ve never heard of this happening to any other kind of artist, only to the writer. 

So, what’s the point of this rant other than unloading some no doubt obvious bitterness? It’s to educate the writer. If you haven’t learned by now, you will learn that writing and publishing that writing is a subjective business. One man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure. Most successful authors have tales of rejection. Very few make it big right out of the gate. Having a polished product can increase your chances of getting published, but it’s no guarantee. If you want to use an editor, do so but be clear to the editor in what you want as well as what you don’t want. Ideally, you should find an editor who shares your vision of what editing should be. Following these tips and tricks will improve not only your novel but how you feel when that novel comes back full of mark ups.

Good luck and happy editing!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Step in the Right Direction

Last week, I talked about my reasons for being away from writing for so long and my decision to put my best foot forward and move on.  I must confess that since that announcement I haven’t done any creative writing.  I gave it the old college try yesterday only to be delayed by the fact that it’d been so long since I’d turned on my computer that it needed to go through endless updates.  By the time the updates finished, I’d lost the motivation which was for the best given the busy afternoon I had.

Despite this minor setback, something did happen that I’d consider a step forward. I was offered a publishing contact for my first young adult novel, Like You Mean It.  Having been in this business for so long, I took a cautious and practical approach to considering this offer. You know what they say; once bitten, twice shy.

After a bit of soul searching and some fishing for feedback from family and friends, I decided to go for it. I’ve signed a contract with a small start-up publisher which will make this book available in both electronic and print format.  The publisher and I are already working together to launch the first of many marketing strategies designed to reach a larger audience and make the book an even greater success.

Though it’s not in my nature to be optimistic, I do have some hope this book will have, at the very least, some modest success. The story was already released in its entirety to a large online audience who’ve been clamoring for a copy. Upon signing the contract, I had to remove the novel from that site. In doing so, I informed fans of my reasons and was met with an overwhelming show of support and promise of sales. 

Although I appreciate the support, I like to temper my budding optimism with a healthy dose of realism. I’m not going into this venture with the expectation that I’ll become a best-selling millionaire whose books are turned into blockbuster movies. The only thing I want, that I’ve always wanted, is to reach people and touch their hearts. I want people to feel they can relate to my stories while at the same time getting lost in them.

Would I like to be a best seller and turn my passion into something more? Sure; who wouldn’t? I’m just happy to have met my smaller goal of getting back in the writing saddle. I’d say this qualifies as a step in the right direction!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Starting Over After Sadness

Until two months ago, I felt unstoppable as a writer.  I felt like this was my year to do big things.  Every year I seemed to be getting further ahead than the last so I entered 2013 with a good feeling. Two months ago something happened that yanked the rug from under the feet of my world and changed my perspective; at least for a little while.

Two months ago, my father died. My father wasn't always in the best of health.  He was a recovering alcoholic with four years of sobriety under his belt. He had diabetes. He was a heavy smoker.  He was obese. Last year, he was in the hospital with pneumonia and sepsis and a litany of other health problems that threatened to claim his life.

After two lengthy hospital stays last year, my dad came back with a renewed sense of purpose. While still in the hosptial he told me he was going to be a better person. He had three major goals.  He wanted to quit smoking. He wanted to go to church more, and he wanted to make a better effort to see his elderly mother who's been in a nursing home for several years.

Quitting smoking didn't happen. That was one addiction he never could shake. His first night home from the hospital he made a midnight run to liquor store for a couple of packs of smokes. Not that I blamed him or even expected otherwise.  He always joked that he gave up alcohol so we had to leave him something. The two goals he did realize were making a better effort to get to church regularly and to see my grandmother more often. Knowing my dad, he'd say two of out of three wasn't bad.

I admired his sense of purpose though. I admired it and I mirrored it. I recommitted myself to being a better writer and reaching more people with my work. I hoped to reach my goal of mainstream publication this year and touch even more lives; at least I did for a little while.

When my father died at the age of fifty-nine, I lost more than his presence in my life. I lost the motivation to succeed at writing. To be honest, I lost the motivation to write.  I couldn't bring myself to write, which seemed to work out pretty well since I didn't have any good story ideas anyway. 

Despite this loss of interest and motiviation, my family, friends and fans stayed supportive. They enouraged me to take the time I needed to heal and come back when I was ready.  So many people reached out to me to offer kind words of support, including strangers who knew me only through my writing.

Two months have passed. The pain never goes away, but every day really is easier than the one before it. More and more lately, I've been thinking about my dad.  My dad was one of my biggest supporters in my writing and in my life. I still feel lost without him, but I made a promise to my dad once. It's a promise I'm not sure he ever heard since he was in a coma when I made it, but a promise is a promise.

I promised my father no matter what happened I'd be okay.  It's time to start living up to that promise.  It's time to go back to making my dad proud. It's time to start over after the sadness.