Going viral – the problem with authors being discovered on the web

I’ve got a question to which I don’t – yet – know the answer. One of the biggest problems with the new publishing paradigm is the fact that the tools publishers have to make themselves known by are common to all social media and internet users. Any individual voice consequently gets lost in the noise.

Hence we see the phenomenon of some really good books – the blood, sweat and tears of really talented authors – often languishing, purely because there’s no way they can be discovered.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

It seems to me there are two ways for everyday people – such as writers – to get prominent in the web. One is to ‘go viral’ – something that happened to a couple of my posts three times in the last fortnight. Suddenly my blog was flooded with hits at ten times the usual rate. But after leaping about the house a few times going ‘woohoo’ – I remembered that these things don’t last. A ‘Redditlanche’ in particular is really only good for about 12-24 hours.

Virality is driven by a particular quirk of human psychology and which doesn’t bestow lasting discovery, because the same phenomenon that provokes ‘virality’ also provokes transience.

Virality is really about quick entertainment and sharing the fun. And to some extent it’s also about the gladiatorial spectacle of watching the reactions of somebody who’s had no training in media relations, no experience of fame, and whose contribution (inevitably) doesn’t reflect long-practised talent but is often some chance off-beat moment. The key feature is transience. Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame, these days, is more like five seconds.

There are one or two exceptions to this – people who’ve gone viral and then leveraged that to go further. But they are the exceptions that prove the general rule. That’s not really the answer for writers – or any other artist – wanting longevity. The other way people get ‘famous’ on the web is because they’re already well known outside it – thus, in effect, have access to promotional tools that aren’t those of social media.

People go looking for them on the web – they don’t have to promote themselves so much. There’s doubtless a fair degree of synergy there too; once you’ve got established prominently, your voice is a bit louder than that of everybody else on the web. That works for some authors, of course. But most authors aren’t prominent in their own right, and they – and their publishers – struggle to get the material shifting via electronic means.

What’s the answer? As yet, I don’t know. I’m working on it. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Editing secrets for publishing – line editing and final quality control

In the last few posts I’ve been outlining how publishers edit manuscripts – which, at this part in the process, is quality control ahead of release. This process applies just as much to those who are self-publishing.

Wright_BooksOnce the manuscript has been proof-edited and the author’s comments taken in, a variety of things happen – all associated with quality assurance. The manuscript, even a novel, is typically sent to an expert for a fact-checking editorial pass. This may kick up glitches that need fixing. I still recall the time I fielded a query from a major publishing house to do this for a novel they were publishing, by a well-known author on which I was the best local subject expert. The author had done some great research, but I still found stuff.

From here the manuscript is often given a read-through for ‘literals’. This is different from proof-editing, in that it’s concerned with the nitty gritty of spelling, correct punctuation (especially getting those pesky en- and em- dashes right) and tiny details like that.

Editing skills are all transferable – but the very best people at this stage probably won’t necessarily be a good writer, or a good proof-editor.

And publishing houses usually have a stable of people they know shine at this particular task, who they turn to for the purpose.

After that the manuscript is designed and typeset. This process also kicks up its own glitches and issues (including the No. 1 Evil Problem with Adobe InDesign import filter, in which deleted “track changes” return to the text). Typesetter/designers, typically, are thoroughly visual thinkers – and so, if they do have to type anything in – as often happens with headings, gutters and such like – it will likely be mis-spelt or inconsistent.

That means another proof-reading pass, after which the typeset pages go back to the author for final overview. It’s here that the “ten percent” limit kicks in – at this point, the author shouldn’t be trying to re-write or do anything other than hone a few words here or there. If they do, it costs, and the author bears that cost after a certain point.

All going well, the pages are returned by the author to the publisher.

That’s the last the author usually sees of the book. It’s close now to publishing. Any last amendments are included, and it then goes through at least one – and more usually two – proofing passes for any last literals, glitches or inconsistencies. Sometimes this can kick up fresh queries back to the author, but not often.

And that’s it for the editorial side. Everything from that point on is production and marketing. As you can see, the editorial part is a complex process that begins with the art of proof-editing – and it is an art – but becomes increasingly more focussed on technical production as the book moves through the system. It’s used by all major publishers with some variations. And the onus is on self-publishers to do the same, because the quality results are clear.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why short stories lashed together as novels don’t work

It seems to me that one of the main differences between a short story and a novel isn’t just scale; it’s perspective, which is why novels made up of lashed-together short stories with the same setting don’t always work very well. Let me explain.

Wright_Typewriter2A novel typically has the length to engage in a fairly in-depth story, with an involved plot and a clear character arc – or arcs, if it’s a multi-lead novel. Short stories, by contrast, typically focus on a single individual and often on a single thing that happens to them.

That’s what I mean by perspective. It doesn’t obviate the need to have some sort of character arc – the character has to learn something. But the “thing” that the character learns won’t be the way they develop in a novel. It might be a single event that gives them a single insight into themselves, or into how they see the world.

The point being that a string of short stories does not a novel make – unless they’ve been written, deliberately, to form a novel-length series of such snapshots, perhaps with an over-arching structure overall. To some extent The Wind In The Willows is of this variety – Kenneth Grahame actually wrote it as a series of letters to his son. Even then, though, the book has a stop-start aspect to it.

Just lashing stories up, though, doesn’t work so well. I’m thinking, among other things, of A E Van Vogt’s ‘fixup’ novels – The Voyage of the Space Beagle and The Silkie, particularly – in which he took loosely linked stories with the same setting and re-fashioned them into novel-length books.

I enjoyed both; but to me they also came across a bit like layer cakes with icing jammed between the pieces. In each case the original stories had been written with a broad over-arching arc; they still worked as stories in their own right, and the last tale effectively wrapped up the plot cycle. The same is true of Asimov’s first three Foundation novels. But to me none of them quite had the punch of a ‘purpose-built’ novel. I guess Van Vogt called his own version ‘fixups’ for a reason.

To my mind the better way – still using the SF genre as an example – was applied both by Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov; a themed series of short stories, each self-contained, that could be published as an anthology around a single theme. I’m thinking Asimov’s robot stories– and Clarke’s brilliantly funny Tales From the White Hart.

This last was genius: a single setting – a pub in which a lot of British sci-fi authors regularly met – where they were entertained by a slightly mysterious newcomer who regaled them with preposterous – and hilarious – tales of science and invention. They were all on a ‘setting reset’ switch with the exception of the last one, which brought the cycle to an end.

What emerged was novel length – but it wasn’t a novel, it retained the perspectives of a short story. And to me, if anybody did want to write a novel-length series of short stories, this is how to do it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Editing secrets for publishing – the necessary skills for proof-editing

When a publisher receives an author’s manuscript, several things happen. If it’s unsolicited (which happens where the agency system doesn‘t apply), it’s sent to the ‘slush pile’ – the term for the heap of unsolicited manuscripts that might, maybe, contain a gem.

Typically the most junior editor gets the task of reading them, then packing 99.99999 percent of them up and sending them back with a polite ‘thank you, but no thanks’.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential editing fuel!

Reasons for rejection can be as simple as the book not meeting the publisher’s brand. Or it might be that a suitable market isn’t thought to exist. And sometimes it’s rejected because, well, it’s a bit rubbish.

Manuscripts chosen for publishing – which the publisher, as often as not, seeks out rather than waits for – go through a different process.

First off, the manuscript is given a brief overview read for quality. Publishing contracts, even those where the publisher has solicited the work, contain a quality clause. If it’s not good enough, it’s sent back for re-work. It’s never happened to me, as author; but I have heard of it happening – specifically, to someone who’d been employed to write at taxpayer expense but, it seems, hadn’t quite mastered the art of it.

If the re-work isn’t good enough, or the author refuses, the manuscript can be rejected – or re-written, at author expense, by somebody else.

Once over that hurdle (which usually ends with paying the delivery advance) the manuscript moves on to the next process step: proof-editing.

Proof-editing is  the large-scale side of the quality assurance process and is a skill of itself. A proof-editor takes the manuscript and edits it for consistency – both within itself and to meet ‘house style’ – the list of consistent spellings and punctuation used by the publisher. Content queries, including ambiguities, are noted for referral back to the author.

The secret in this is to have a lightness of touch – a willingness to allow the author’s own style to flow. That may not be the one the proof-editor would use themselves, but this doesn’t mean it’s ‘wrong’, and a skilled proof-editor does not interfere with the author’s voice by trying to re-style it. The key is abstraction – accepting that properly skilled authors, too, have valid reasons for writing as they do.

Then the manuscript goes back to the author for reply to the queries raised, and to address any other issues. Unless the author is a complete novice, the publisher usually relies on the skill of the author to make that happen.

Sometimes the author needs to make significant changes to answer all the queries. A lot of this is done, these days, via ‘track changes’, but I’ve never found this a useful way of doing things because the file formats involved are proprietary and the whole process can be derailed by using a different version of the software. This actually happened to me with a book I was writing in 2014, which caused a lot of grief.

Once the author’s input has been completed, the manuscript goes back to the publisher for the next steps. This is the point where the writing/content process is held to have effectively finished. Most publisher contracts contain a clause stating that changes after this point, typically to more than 10 percent of the manuscript, are always possible – but will be done at author expense. It’s purely a business/cost calculation, because once the typesetting begins, costs rise.

More next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

What ‘editing’ means to publishers – and it’s not what you think

‘Editing’ is an oft-misused term. In the next few posts I’ll be outlining what it is in terms of editorial systems for publishing – which isn’t what authors mean by ‘editing’.

To do that, I’m drawing from the thirty-plus years I’ve spent in the business, not just as a writer but also working professionally in publishing over that span in various ways: tasks where among other things I’ve had to edit stuff, define ‘house style’ and grammar standards, hire editors and proof-readers, and evaluate the quality of their work.

Wright_Books2I don’t often blog about this. It’s not where I expected I would find myself, given my first love of physics, music and the sciences in general. But such are the turns of life: I learned the business through some very hard yards, and today there is little about writing or publishing that surprises me. In this agile new age I can also say that while the print paradigm has gone, traditional standards of quality assurance – including ways of getting to that point – have not.

One of the key realities of that world is that professionally editing a book for publication demands more than one sort of editorial skill, all of them separate from writing and all of them just as difficult to get good at. It’s why most publishers run ‘virtual’ operations, hiring specialists as needed.

First – the definitions. When authors talk about editing their own material after they’ve drafted it, they actually mean they’re still writing. From the publishing perspective, the creative changes an author makes to their drafts before submission are all part of the writing process.

Only when that’s over does a publisher begin ‘editing’. This is an important distinction. Publishing is a commercial enterprise; and ‘editing’, in this context, is a structured process that falls into several categories and is geared towards quality assurance at all levels. It also demands a very different skill set from writing.

Perhaps paradoxically, some of the best editors are those who understand writing, but who don’t have ambitions as writers. This is because the mind-set has to differ. Writers typically are creative, lateral, dream-filled and think in concepts, which are all vital to writing. Editors are usually organised, literal and linear, all of which are crucial to editing.

Some people are able to do both with equal facility – and that’s great. But it doesn’t avert the learning curves.

One of the key skills of editing is to let the author’s voice flow – to accept that there are many valid ways of expressing things and that once the basic concepts and rules of expression are known by an author, they become guidelines. If that wasn’t possible, then unique voices such as Hemingway, Kerouac and others (yes, I’m thinking of you, Franz Kafka) wouldn’t emerge.

I’ve found, over the years, that one of the biggest pitfalls in the business comes when an author gets an editing gig and proceeds to butcher another author’s work. The cause is that they haven’t learned how to step back and let the author’s voice flow. It’s a common problem that I’ve seen many times, most egregiously over one project in 2002 (yes, it was so legendary that I still invoke it 13 years later, but we won’t go there…). It happened again in 2014, costing me so much in time as to destroy the returns on a book I’d written.

There is a lot more to the business than this. One point is that proof-editing (which is what I’ve been talking about so far) is only one of several different editing types applied by publishers. These different forms often demand different sorts of editors – people with different strengths and talents.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

What copyright actually means and how it works

Every so often I see labels attached to YouTube videos to the effect of ‘no infringement intended, copyrights remain with the original owner’, or similar, as if this gets around the fact that the poster has obviously put something up they haven’t licensed.

Wright_Typewriter01Infringement has nothing to do with trying to take possession of another person’s copyright – infringement is the act of copying without license from the copyright holder.

That’s what ‘copyright’ is. It’s a protection for the owners of intellectual property against people using their material without permission. Most nations have their own minor variations on copyright law, typically involving duration of copyright after creator death, but the basic thrust is the same world-wide – and there are international treaties to protect those rights across borders.

So by reposting stuff on line without first obtaining licence, whoever’s done it has committed an infringement – and their assertion that copyright remains with the owner is actually stating that the owner has that copyright and thus every right to prosecute.

I don’t know where the idea that ‘ownership of the copyright’ was the point at issue, rather than ‘act of copying after failing to license the intellectual property’. I guess it’s up there with the other idea – which I’ve also seen – that it’s somehow OK to pirate stuff as long as it’s deleted within a certain time-period. Kind of like the ‘five second rule’ for dropped food.

Again, the issue isn’t the duration of possession, but the act of copying it without license from the copyright owner.

Just to complicate things, copyright is in fact transferrable – it’s a saleable right, and that’s how (for example), Michael Jackson ended up owning the rights to the Beatles catalogue. Whoever owns that right has the power to license use of the intellectual property – and to take out infringement proceedings. And the licenses are also transferable, too, as property.

All that said, I can say on my own experience – as a copyright owner – that it’s sometimes remarkably difficult for me to do anything when my intellectual property is infringed. I had another object lesson in how hard it actually is to enforce my rights, just a few weeks ago. More on that soon.

Have you ever had your intellectual property infringed?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing

Writing is as much a performance art as anything else. Let me explain.

Moonlight SonataWriting is a constant learning curve, but there are stages along the way – and these include the Pit of Illusory Skill. This happens when newly acquired knowledge isn’t accompanied by experience – because ‘the rules’, strictly speaking, don’t define quality. They’re necessary to know – but don’t express all that writing must be. The analogy is music, which delivers to listeners the same emotional charge that great writing also provides to readers. Naturally according to personal taste – among other things (more on that soon) – but there are still principles that work across the field.

Let me explain. If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid. I know: I started playing it like that, way back when.

That was soon corrected by my piano teacher: the trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer. Some of the requirements were obvious: Beethoven wanted the first movement to evoke shimmering, so the triplets couldn’t be played straight: they had to float dynamically. That demanded subtle changes of both volume and rhythm, something that from Beethoven’s perspective had only recently been made possible via that mad new keyboard instrument called a Soft Loud (aka ‘Tranquil Strong’). This was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early eighteenth century, but it took a while for composers to figure out what it could really do emotionally. Bach didn’t like the piano he heard. Now go listen to one of Mozart’s piano pieces and compare it to Beethoven.

There was the time I talked my way into playing a 92-key Bösendorfer concert grand, which has a phenomenal tone colour that to my mind blows a Steinway Model D into the ground when it comes to being able to express emotional feel. I hit it with ‘Louie Louie’. But I digress.

I won’t inflict my own playing on you. Trust me, it’s better that way. There are reasons why I chose writing. Instead, check out this lovely interpretation by Tiffany Poon. Watch, particularly, as she prepares herself – the piece starts 45 seconds in. This is something writers need to do too, before writing. And yes, it’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.

That’s the thing about writing. You can obey the rules – but knowing how to make the writing express itself, to invoke the emotion you want in the reader is a learned skill. It means bending those rules in a controlled way – and that skill only comes with experience. What’s more, there’s only one way to get that experience – which is to keep writing, keep learning, and don’t be afraid to throw away the practise stuff. Engage in writing exercises. One of my favourites is this:

  1. Write a passage, say 150 words, involving (i) a character action, and (ii) their emotional response to it, ideally with dialogue. Write it as you normally would.
  2. Read something by an author of known quality – J K Rowling, for instance, whose work is extremely good on all levels, including styling.
  3. Look at the rhythm of the words – the flow of the text. Identify what the unique features are in the selected author’s work.
  4. Now write that original passage of your own again, this time deliberately ‘in the style of’ the chosen other author.
  5. Compare the two passages for flow.
  6. Repeat the exercise with another author.

Do this enough, and that ability to mould words – to understand how styling works – should emerge. Probably by bursting upon you, suddenly, when you least expect it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015