… And One Simple Way to Ignore Them All.
Raise your hand if, in your writing career, you have ever thought something along the lines of: this pompous moron of an editor, he has no idea what he’s doing! He has completely misunderstood/ruined my piece with his edits, he has clearly not gotten the underlying meaning of the narrative, and the work he ends up publishing sucks!
Okay, I might be exaggerating, but I do remember one instance in which I had to tie my hands to my refrigerator to prevent myself from writing an angry email. After a glass of black tea with milk – my greatest addiction - I sat down in front of the computer screen, and resumed working on my novel, alternating between thinking “that editor is an incompetent idiot!” and “who am I kidding? I suck!” followed by: “I should have listened to my parents, and studied medicine”…
Photographer: Valentina Nesci
Years later, having switched from a black to a red pen, I assure you that it’s almost as stressful. Since I know how painful it can be to get rejected, my instinct would be to salvage any piece that is posted to the site. The last thing I want is to instill self-doubt in anyone who shares my dream of being a writer. But, seriously, some of the work we receive is almost irredeemably unpublishable…
Even in those cases, I try to help. However, I noticed that, while some writers accept my edits/advice with grace, others would rather start a verbal World War than change a word of their already perfect manuscript.
If you want to learn how to create a constructive, peaceful collaboration with editors, you shouldn’t yield to the temptation of poking their eyes out with your pens. Instead, you should follow the ten tips laid out below.
Or not. If you are convinced that you are much too talented to listen to an editor, then jump directly to 11., and you will never have to deal with us again…
1. Annoy The Editor.
The easiest way to never get published is to make your editor so frustrated that he/she will write an article like this one or this one. So, you don’t want them to have the impulse to rip their hair off their heads, burn your copy, or make a voodoo doll of you and throw it into a shredder every time they hear your name…right? The editing world is smaller than you might think. Hence, it’s never a good idea to upset an editor so much that they end up gushing about what a horrible person you are to work with to all of their colleagues. Be polite, be respectful, and be patient. If you do need to vent, write! You might even churn out something entertaining. (Check this out, for instance.)
2. Riddle Your Work With Typos, Inconsistencies & Grammatical Horrors
I know that the act of writing can be exhausting at times, and that it’s liberating to just hit the send button and let someone else deal with it, thinking, I can’t have made that many mistakes…
This kind of amuses me, as I have a tendency to do it myself. However, it annoys the hell out of editors. Let me wear my editor hat, and tell you what it makes us feel:
- If you are so lazy that you don’t even take the time to proofread your piece once, why should I, or anyone else, a) take you seriously and b) lose my mind trying to figure out what you really meant to say, only to email you and be further disappointed when your reply is that you don’t know/rememeber/care. What do you expect me to do, make it up?
- We all have spell-checkers, don’t we? And they are FREE. So do everyone a favor and use them, pretty please? BUT, here’s the catch. You still have to read through your piece, because spell checkers don’t necessarily pick up every mistake, and can lead to embarrassing typos. I once found myself writing the word “bank” page instead of “blank” page. My father thought it was a hilarious Freudian slip, as I was talking about writing being an “extremely lucrative career…” (Yeah, right.) But I digress. Point is, reread through your work, and find someone else to read through it, too. Even the near-sighted eyes of your Italian father, who never studied English, can be better than just your own.
- The hilarious part last: if the name of the protagonist changes thrice during your story, that can become slightly confusing for your editor. Same if you mention something, like the fact that character so and so is dying of cancer, then never refer to it again. (For an amusing example of this, see this clip, or watch the whole movie. It’s a great example on how not to construct a plot.)
Which leads to my next point:
3. Write hackneyed patchworks of other stories, and predictable plots
To a writer’s credit, this is such an easy trap to fall into. And here, I’ll take your side for a second. Writers are told that we should stick to the three-act structure, and other b.s. like that. To make things worse, we are bombarded with books which purport to teach us how to write, and given step-by-step guidelines on how to write a “best seller” in 2.5 weeks…
In other words, first everyone tries to put us in cute little boxes…and then they complain that we are unable to conceive anything outside of them!
Similarly, everyone tells us to READ…but no one bothers to tell us how or what to read. So we read, and go to the movies, and listen to songs… and you know what we find? An inordinate amount of incredibly successful unoriginal remakes of Cinderella, The Three Little Pigs and The Hunchback of Notre Dame!
If you stick to pop culture, it seems that sex, drugs, violence, vampires, cars, heroes with super powers, special effects and, for some reason, cheating, are necessary to success. In other words: give us shiny things, and we’ll follow. We just want shiny things. And please, don’t surprise us with anything too new or daring; then we would have to actually pause for a second, and be forced to reflect about art, instead of passively consuming entertainment.
All this being true, what is an artist to do?
Well, first of all, look beyond the bestseller list. Go to the library and, when inside a bookstore, ignore all the books displayed prominently at the front, and browse through the shelves yourself. If all else fails, lock yourself up with a pile of classics, and supplement them with foreign literature. I’m Italian, so my first instinct is to point you to Italian authors – I will have a post about this soon – but anything from a different culture will do the trick. It will be different from your preconceived idea of what “works” in a story, and it will help you to more confidently walk away from the rest of the pack, and get away with it.
You know why I am telling you this? Because, if you submerge yourself solely in pop culture, you will not be able to transcend it, and write something that is yours and new. You will help perpetuate the illusion that the only things that work are those that have worked before. Instead, a true artist seeks the new, goes against the current… A true artist breaks the box and is proud of it.
4. Write an autobiography of your life, sprawl the word “fiction” all over the cover of your book, and hope to get away with it.
Fledgling writers do it all the time. And, I mean, there is nothing intrinsically bad in letting real-life experiences color your plot. But don’t try to pass your diary as fiction. Firstly, you might get into trouble and, secondly, you might be disappointed to find that your story just doesn’t work as fiction. The problem with reality is that it can either be too boring, or too incredible, to be turned into literature. Plus, you might even end up getting sued, if one of the people you write about recognizes himself in your work.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t borrow from real life when you write? Not at all.
Good writers steal. All the time. But they are stealthy thieves. They don’t just copy reality, because that would be boring. Instead, they play with it, as if it were just a piece of clay. Once their work is dry, they paint over it, too, until the new product has little resemblance to the original event that inspired it. It’s a new creation. And, most importantly, it’s FREE. Free from the burden of sticking to the facts. Free from the burden of being credible. Free to be truer than life. Because, after all, the surface reality of what actually happens is no more true, wise or credible than fiction.
5. Make It Impossible for An Editor To Contact You
I wouldn’t have believed this could actually happen… if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. If an editor has to hire a private detective to find you, chances are they won’t! (Or, if they are like me, they would but don’t have the money to do it.)
6. Don’t Accept Anyone’s Feedback (Especially not the editors’!)
In The Anatomy of a Writer – Part 2, I explain the importance of humility. Now, I’m not a belligerent person, so don’t expect me to fight back over an edit. But allow me to be amused when “writers” defend their grammatical mistakes and other horrors with vehemence. “There is an explanation for this!” they say. Or “I still like it more that way.” Can’t you just accept the fact that even a seasoned writer might make a blunder or two at times? No. You are perfect. You don’t make mistakes. And you don’t need to make any corrections. You are going to write whatever you wish. You, the misunderstood genius. And if I can’t appreciate your writing, someone else will.
What can I say? Read number 11, and continue doing what you believe is best. But don’t complain if nobody reads you, or if editors ignore you when you come crawling back. (As we say in Italy, “uomo avvisato mezzo salvato” - a man who receives advice is already half-saved.)
7. Don’t Follow Submission Guidelines
Usually, a competition/magazine/website etc. will have specific submission guidelines. Read them! Personally, I don’t care too much about how something looks – but that’s because I myself am horrible at following directions! However, I know that other editors won’t even bother reading your work if it’s not properly formatted. After having spent months or years working on your manuscript, you don’t want an editor to throw it away because you have forgotten to double-space it, or because y0u haven’t enclosed a query letter with your submission. For guidelines on how to format your book, you can check this website.
8. Tell, Don’t Show
Don’t write, “she was angry/sad/intelligent and blah blah.” That belongs to OK Cupid profiles (and, even in that case, saying that you are “a happy person” who “likes to have fun” doesn’t really tell us anything about you, or grab anyone’s attention.)
Instead, take the reader by the hand and help him to immerse himself into your world; to see it for themselves. One of my favorite examples of this technique comes from the Italian author Dino Buzzati. In his short story The End of The World, Buzzati never mentions the words that unfailingly cross my mind every time I read it – human beings are selfish, hypocritical, cowards. He never says it. Instead, he completely abstains from judgment, simply describing the end of the world as if it were happening in front of his apartment window.
The entire story is barely two pages long, and yet it leaves a lasting impression in your mind, because you feel as though you had been there yourself. With your mind’s eyes, you can see the formerly prude couples making love everywhere, without restraint, thousands of people running after priests to get a last-moment absolution, and money “strangely” retaining its appeal, just to further prove how ridiculous human beings can be. You can see it, it’s almost as if you were there, next to that “well-informed man” who looks at his watch and “authoritatively” declares that there are only ten minutes left before the end of the world. Similarly, you sympathize with the poor priest who, besieged by a crowd of sinners, is forced to absolve them all. He looks “feverish,” and starts panicking. But even then, does Buzzati use the word panic? No. He describes it:
“It was clear that the wave of confessions came to [the priest] as no more than a confused murmur devoid of sense; he made signs of the cross one after another, repeated Ego te absolvo mechanically.”
Not once does Buzzati use the words “panic” or “fear,” and yet the image he portrays suggests just that: the priest is so panicked that he barely knows what he is doing.
When you finally come to the end of the story, you have the image of the poor priest imploring the crowd to let him leave stuck in your mind. He is “on the brink of tears” and keeps asking the people: “And me? What about me?” But the crowd is too “voracious of Paradise” to let him go, and no one pays attention to him.Your stomach is queasy and, although the end of the world never happened, and Buzzati never said anything negative about humanity, you can picture the event so vividly inside your head that it doesn’t even seem that incredible anymore.
9. Never publish your work for free, and never share it with anyone for the sake of it.
I’m not saying you should sell out, or let people trick you into writing for free or for ridiculously low amounts of money, a la Huffington Post. But, when I approach a writer and they tell me that they would rather not publish anything on Write-a-holic because their oh-so-precious story might win this competition or other, I cringe. (Okay, it happened only once, but still.) Seriously, if you think that your creative output is exhausted after one story, then you should try doing something else. Write-A-Holic aside, I believe that generosity is an important quality for writers to have. After all, it’s the desire to share, to communicate, that drives many of us to get our work published. (If that’s not the case for you, jump directly to 11.) Additionally, working for projects other than your own can help you to combat writer’s block, according to this article from Stepcase Lifehack.
10. Don’t try to publish your work
This might seem like a silly thing to point out. But, considering that Kafka had requested that his manuscripts be burned, and that many writers – me included – have an inordinate amount of unpublished words hiding in every corner of our house, I thought I should take the time to state the obvious. If you don’t even try to submit your work, or to show it to people, the chances of it ever getting published are very slim.
So… You don’t want to bother with any of the rules outlined above. Maybe you tell yourself that you don’t care if anyone reads you, or you are just writing for yourself. Very well then, I will let die in obscurity, having indulged in fantasies of posthumous success.
But what if complete irrelevance doesn’t appeal to you, and yet you don’t want to deal with judgmental editors or myopic publishers? Then, just…
11. Self Publish. Or, better yet, Publish Online!!!
It’s easy, it’s free, and… and… some writers make it big! Yes, okay… But, as outlined in this article by David Carnoy, it’s not all “roses and flowers” as Italians like to say. In other words, there are downsides to publishing online. Firstly, self-published books don’t usually sell much. Making your book stand out among the hordes of other works that get published online is far from easy, and you can’t count on your Facebook friends or Twitter followers to buy it and spread it virally across the internet. That is….unless the book is really, really good. But if it was, then why did all of those publishers reject it? Why did editors adamantly tell you to change it?
I am not saying this to discourage you, but I do want you to know that self-publishing a mediocre, roughly-edited and hackneyed plot of a story is not the best way to go. If I were you, I would self-publish my book as a last resort, and only after ensuring yourself that you are not simply contributing to the deterioration of art to satisfy your grandiose ego. Ultimately, if you have skipped all the way to 11., bypassing all of the other points, I advise you to go back and at least skim through them once. But this is just a thought. After all, “uomo avvisato…”