Wednesday, November 21, 2012

So Why Pulp? - The Proof is in the Reading

You absolutely must proofread your work before you offer it to a publisher.

Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Well, you’d be surprised at what we editors wind up dealing with. We get to look at a lot of stuff that would be stunning work if it wasn’t full of misspellings, punctuation and grammar errors, redundancies (repeated words, phrases, or ideas) and just plain awkward sentence structure. Sometimes the story starts well, and then goes off on some tangent, and I don’t understand why it’s called ‘Zoe Conquers The Evil Mercenaries’ when Zoe doesn’t appear until page 23 of 25. Or maybe Rambunctious Rodney does something truly amazing in Chapter 10 that would require three arms and the ability to turn himself inside out. Now and then I see a sentence so cryptic I can’t for the life of me figure out what the devil is going on in there. Hey I’m no English Lit major, nor am I a bluestocking reader, because I love me some raw pulpy action, but if I am stopping every so often scratching my head about what’s happening within this manuscript, that doesn’t bode well for your future readers. I have to finish editing it. They don’t have to buy and read it.

I’m a writer and an editor, so I understand both ends of the spectrum. As a writer, I know how the best of intentions often go astray. You have a deadline, and somehow life always makes things more complicated. You’re plugging away on one project, and some amazing offer comes along, so you drop the first story to go knock out the second one. And then you sign on for a third one, because that’s exactly what you always wanted to write. You’ve been working on your novel for a decade and it’s almost finished, and now someone actually is interested in seeing it, so you can’t get that out the door fast enough. Then whew—let’s kick back and take a break! Now that first publisher says, “If you want your story to be in this anthology, send it immediately!” So you do an 11th hour spellcheck run and you’re pretty sure they’ll take the standard formatting, and off it goes because you’re on to the next shiny thing. The editor will take care of any problems in there anyway.

Well huzzah for you being so busy, except what you just sent out to me was a rough draft and I’m going to have to give up my own writing time to get it ready for print. It may be finished, but it’s not polished or anywhere near ready for publication, and you probably haven’t really read through it in weeks. You just became the editor’s nightmare, especially if this is a novel size manuscript. One or both of us is now going to be spending a whole lot of time reading and revising, and it’s likely going to fall way back in the line of things waiting to see print. If this was a mainstream submission, unless you have a very well known name, you’re either going to get it back for major revision, or it’s going from the slush pile to the round file. If it’s for a New Pulp publisher, we’re going to at least read it over and make some corrections and suggestions as warranted. If it’s simple stuff, we’ll handle it. If it’s a mess, or needs to be far shorter, you’re getting it back for a rewrite at some point. We will work with you, unless you have an issue with changing stuff, in which case we bid you good luck and send you on to find some other planet where nothing ever needs proofreading. Here on Earth, we read through all the submissions we get for that reason. We’re a team, and to be part of that team, you have to put your game face on and deal with it.

Neither writers nor editors are infallible. We all make mistakes. We get rushed. We forget how to spell words and spellchecker guesses wrong. The evil keyboard purposely screws up entire paragraphs. We neglect to go back to the first 5 chapters and change ‘blind Aunt Mabel’ to ‘lame Cousin Lizzie’. Everybody writes a totally bizarre sentence now and then; something so indecipherable the Rosetta Stone couldn’t decode it. And we all have trouble figuring out where to put the punctuation in a quotation, when to use a dash or semi-colon, or how to distinguish a character’s thoughts from spoken dialogue. That’s normal stuff that turns up in every manuscript, and it’s expected. That why we have editors—we’re that important second set of eyes. What makes editors pull their hair out by the roots is a manuscript so loaded with errors that it’d be easier to read the Dead Sea Scrolls. Especially if it has to be reformatted too, because if you didn’t upgrade that, it’s probably still in the setup you used for the last publisher it was sent to, 8 years ago.

Yes, you need to proofread most if not all of what you send out. Take some pride in your submissions, because it makes you look far more professional if you’re sending out polished work. Some writers are very good at that, and their stories are always a joy to work on. At the very least, if you are at that absolute deadline and time is running out, give us some warning that this is actually a rough draft. Something in the cover email saying that it hasn’t been gone over very well would be appreciated, and no, we won’t hold that against you. We’ve all been there, but a little advance warning does help us immensely, because we might be able to shift other work so your baby gets the attention it needs up front, while we still have time. Whatever you do, never represent a rough manuscript as finished work. You’re only lying to yourself; we’re going to see it immediately. Keep your reputation in the positive zone.

Editors have to do a lot of work to get a manuscript ready to publish. You want yours as finished looking as you can make it before they get it because the more that has to be done, the less likely it will appear on time. Having it in the right format will help. If you don’t know what XYZ publisher prefers and can’t find it on their site, please ask. We love those kinds of questions, because then we know you are doing something now we won’t have to later! An hour or three spent changing fonts and chapter headers, getting rid of indents, arranging scene breaks and transferring underlines to italics is going to save someone else major headaches. We’d rather focus on reading and editing the story itself than tinkering with the mechanics of the pages.

Editors do read your story, line by line, which is something you should have done too, before you sent it in—preferably aloud. Listen for the flow of the sentences and the way the paragraphs and chapters fall. Make sure you have all the information correct. If you stumble over something, that’s a clear indicator you need to reword it. If there are glaring errors, by all means, fix them. If you just can’t manage this, find someone else you trust as a beta reader who is willing to, and give her or him a paper copy that can be marked up. I can’t stress enough the value of a beta reader, because yes, I use one too. Don’t trust yourself to do everything and always get it right because I can guarantee you won’t. Your brain is going to fill in the gaps and your eyes will skip over mistakes that are going to be very evident to someone else. It’s an extra step, but an invaluable one.

Spellchecker is a tool. It’s not there to replace good proofreading. It’s a computer program and it has no idea which word you need to use, it just makes suggestions for how to spell common words correctly. So if you have a choice between pear, pair, and pare, it will either prompt you to change the word or it will fill in the most common spelling and move on. If you don’t know the difference between the three, we’re all in trouble because you can pare a pair of pears, but you can’t give Julio a pear of .45s and expect him to shoot someone with fruit. It’s still a correct spelling, but the wrong word. Get a printed dictionary or find an online site (I like but there are others) so that you can look up the proper usage. Never let spellcheck make your decisions for you.

And please, now and then, access the thesaurus function or buy the paperback version, and find some new words to use. Nothing is more boring than column after column of he said/she said dialogue, or narrative with the same five action words. If Konin the Ronin always slashes with his kitana, we’re going to wonder if he has any other moves. If Sister Mary Beth said this, Sister Mary Beth said that, and Sister Mary Beth said some other thing, she’s going to get tiresome to listen to. Mix it up a little so the story doesn’t sound so flat. With real life dialogue, people don’t just stand there and talk without moving, they’re fiddling with things, tapping their toe, winding hair around their fingers, or grimacing. Dialogue is a great place to get those little personal quirks in that distinguish one speaker from another so you don’t have to say ‘SMB said’ all the time, and yet no one will have to go back 15 lines to figure out who’s talking now.

Plot holes happen, and when they do, they suck your story into oblivion faster than that door-to-door vacuum cleaner picks up coffee grounds. You’re going to locate them a whole lot easier if you read that manuscript from end to end. Timeframe issues are common, because it’s easy to get lost in space when you’re trying to lay out a string of events and you’ve been back and forth in chapters or scenes during the writing process. Read through and make sure you don’t have someone appear over here when they were over half a continent away 5 minutes ago. Unless that person can fly at the speed of light or cast a spell to move from one point to another, that just isn’t going to work. If Slingo the Magnificent dropped his whip in the lion’s den in last paragraph, you’d better explain how come he has it hanging off his belt in the next one.

Character abnormalities also show up as glaring neon signs. A reticent schoolgirl isn’t going to suddenly become a super powered crime fighter without some motivation and training. A back alley brawler isn’t likely to sit down and cry when he sees a magnificent sunset. If you’re going to change a character, make sure we see him or her change. Don’t just throw an about-face in there. Make sure you go through your work carefully, so that it remains consistent to the plot and characterization you initially chose.

It does take time to proofread a manuscript this way, but it’s very much worth the effort. You will gain a reputation as a careful, competent, and ultimately professional writer whose work is well prepared and a pleasure to deal with.  That goes a long way toward getting you an invitation to join in on other projects. You’ll benefit from it too, because proofreading trains your eyes to spot typical typos, misspelling, mixed tenses, and grammatical errors; and your other senses will learn to pick up on those nuances of dialogue, characterization, and plotting that make your work stand out in a field crowded with those who also have stories to sell. Most importantly, your tales will get into the hands of readers far sooner, and they will be a whole lot more entertaining for the extra attention to detail.

So don’t skip the proofreading stage unless you absolutely have to. Speaking for all editors out there, we’ll love you all the more for it.

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