The real difference between editors and authors

I am often intrigued by the number of authors who, for various reasons, believe they can also be good editors – and market themselves as such.

Wright_Typewriter2Sometimes it works. More often it doesn’t. Several times, now, I’ve had manuscripts butchered during the publishing process by contract editors who, in fact, were obviously writers. One of them totally failed to ‘get’ what I was doing in one of my books and tried to totally re-write it, as if he were the author, sourcing his re-writes with stuff he’d pulled from a single other book, and sprinkling the MS with patronising comments along the way as if I were a novice in his field. (When I last looked, I had ten times the number of books published that this guy had managed, over a far longer period. Sigh…).

It happens, though. And my first port of call in such circumstance is to ask the publisher to find another editor and get the job done competently. Sometimes that happens.

The fact is that editing is a separate skill of its own, one that demands less creativity and more technical analysis than writing. Editors also have to be able to stand back and accept that the author’s voice is valid, even if it isn’t how the editor would necessarily express themselves. If the archetypes are to be believed, authors and editors are actually two different sorts of people:

1. The Archetypal Editor is…

– analytical thinking
– goal-focussed
– structured
– identifies boundaries
– word-focussed
– technical

2. The Archetypal Author is…

– visual/creative
– has original thoughts
– identifies boundaries in order to break them
– dreams
– relational/conceptual thinking

See what I mean? As I say, sometimes you’ll get an author who fills both categories. But not often. And that’s why authors really shouldn’t present themselves as editors – unless, of course, they have those ‘editorial’ analytical skills. And a red pen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: handling the skill transition

There are no two ways about it. Writing is a learned skill, like any other. And like most skills it takes time to master – I’ve seen figures like a million words or 10,000 hours. On my own experience, that seems about right.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

That shouldn’t daunt hopeful authors. Writing is a learning process and there are points along that learning curve where the material’s going to be good enough. It just takes longer to produce.

The four main steps of writing are the usual ones – starting with ‘unconscious incompetence’. You don’t know what you don’t know, haven’t learned self-critique, and joyously plough in, making every writing mistake known to humanity but having a whale of a time doing it.

In the old days, that never used to see the light of day because the traditional publishing system provided a fairly high entry barrier.

These days, anybody can publish – and a lot do, creating what US author Chuck Wendig calls a ‘shit volcano’. (Gotta love the term).

But there’s much, much more to writing. Three more stages, in fact. And it comes with training and practise. The second-to-fourth stages are:

– ‘conscious incompetence’, where you realise how much there is to learn;

– ‘conscious competence’, where you’ve learned the stuff but have to think about it; and

– ‘unconscious competence’, where it’s become second nature and writing is part of your soul.

I think the second is probably the most challenging, because suddenly the writer realises how much there is to learn – and how difficult many of the techniques actually are. A writer has to have mastery of the words, of grammar, and of language; they need mastery of the field they’re writing about; and they need mastery of the form they’re writing in – be it fiction, non-fiction or whatever.

It’s daunting, and I think a lot of writers at the ‘conscious incompetence’ stage stress over it; they so want to write, they’ve pushed ahead and got this far – discovering  how hard it is, and they fear they’ll never learn or be good enough.

To which I say – don’t sweat it. There’s a LOT to learn, but it’ll happen! If you’ve got this far you’ll get the rest of the way, step-wise. The trick is to keep writing – but to do so in a meaningful way. My suggestion? Every time you sit down to write, try asking three questions:

  1. What can I learn from this that will make me write better? Is there something I need to practise?
  2.  Where can I discover more information about this aspect of writing?
  3. How can I apply that when writing?

These questions, incidentally, apply for all writers – not just those on the learning curve. As Hemingway put it, we are all apprentices in the craft. And once you have the answers, sit down and apply them. Write something that uses the lesson. Even if it’s then thrown away – this is practise, remember. Concert pianists don’t just sit down and chop out Beethoven piano sonatas. They spend hours, days, weeks, months and years practising. And writing’s the same.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Can you sell through social media? Not directly…

A while back I ran into a writer friend on the street, began chatting, and we ended up lamenting the complete disconnect between the popularity of our respective blogs and the number of books actually sold through them.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIn a way it’s an idle expectation. I don’t blog specifically to sell things. I’ve put click-to-buy links up (hint, hint), but to me the blog is more a place where I can publish stuff that interests me (and hopefully you), such as my science posts – and, more to the point, engage in interesting discussions with the people I’ve made contact with through social media.

Still, I’d kind of hope there might be the odd click-through – you know, those large book covers on the right. No?

I’ve found it’s not just a matter of indifference. If I put up a post that directly promotes a book just published, my readership disappears. Those posts simply don’t attract many views by comparison with the others (especially the science ones).

It’s not just a ‘books’ thing. My sister teaches about making craft wools, mostly online. Her main business is in the US, where she regularly tours and lectures (Florida, in April). And she runs a good deal of social media to support it. Same deal. Direct promotions simply don’t work, and if you DO hard-sell, your readers go away.

The reason’s clear. People don’t go to social media to buy things. They go to be entertained, distracted, make contact with people – all free. What’s more, the defining nature of this media is a constant stream, like a radio or TV broadcast. That means content is transient. In fact it’s becoming more transient as time goes on. When I began blogging in 2010, my posts typically attracted a fair number of views for two or three days. Now the ‘novelty burst’ is down to 24 hours.

I suspect the reason for that is the spread of media. We have Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Pinterest, StumbleUpon (check it out if you haven’t already), Reddit, Google+ and a host of other services competing for our time. I’ve seen some scary figures about the actual time people spend on any one post, picture or thing – and the number actually browsed in any social media session. What that tells me is that attention spans are down.

As for using it to market? No. And yet, I suspect, most authors will have ready buyers for their books; and that highlights the real challenge for writers these days. Discovery. In that, blogging – and other social media – can help. But it won’t sell directly.

Have you had similar experiences with blogging and books? How do you see social media? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: making a credible near-future setting

Near-future settings have been part of the territory for many novelists since George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry mainstreamed SF. These days, science fiction sells, and it doesn’t have to be way out. Tomorrow’s near-future will do – different enough to make whatever point your novel’s about.

Packard: 1935. Building: 1932. Photo: 2015.

The timeless stylings of modernism. Packard: 1935. Building: 1932. Photo: 2015.

For all that, actually generating such a world is a lot harder than it seems.  The biggest pitfall is the ‘recency’ phenomenon, where some recent or current event – maybe the latest science discovery – defines the future world. That works in the immediate – the author produces something that seems hip and amazing, because it’s keying into whatever’s in front of readers right at the moment. But not for long, because today’s big event inevitably becomes yesterday’s old hat. Or forgotten.

The best example I can think of is a TV show – Gerry Anderson’s UFO of 1969-70, his first live-action SF series. It was set in “1980” – and that future was decidedly “mod”, filled with the latest extreme styling of London’s late swinging sixties. A world of Nehru jackets, purple wigs, pants-suits for women and some truly scary submariners uniforms.

At the time it worked a treat. This was The Future. Today its stylings seem absolutely “period” to the time when UFO was made. “Mod” was, of course, a brief trend – a hiccup in a century of styling that was more generally defined by “modernism” (which isn’t “mod”). A pity, because Anderson also nailed the late-1960s trend for gritty character stories in that series, more so than in any other he made.

I mention UFO’s hilarious mod “future” because it’s so obvious, but things that swiftly date SF stories also emerge in dialogue, in the settings an author describes, even in the issues the author tackles. The problem is one of depth. The stuff that captures our attention, spectacularly, is often also transient. News, social trends, styles – all come and go. All of them, of course, are different expressions of deeper human realities in various ways. Remember ‘boom boxes’? Killed by the Walkman even before digital music players came alone. But in terms of the human psyche they fulfilled the same function – which included self-validation through asserting status via whatever the latest trend happens to be.

It’s this lower-level motive that authors have to focus on to make their SF near-futures credible. How does whatever detail being written into the story – some new invention, some fashion, or some trend – reflect deeper human issues? Human nature doesn’t change much over time. We’re all riven with kindness, hate, ambition, greed, selfishness, generosity and all the many characteristics that make us human, both individually and as a species. And that is where the author needs to focus, if they want their future setting to engage readers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: how publishers credit photographs

Someone asked me the other day about how to credit photographs in publications. How do the professionals do it? And is there a standard?

This is MY photo. MINE. I TOOK IT. Bwahahahahaha. (This isn't how to credit a photo...)

This is MY photo. MINE. I TOOK IT. Bwahahahahaha. (This isn’t how to credit a photo…)

The answer depends on house style, the design of the pages and, to some extent, on the quantity of credit required. Terms of use imposed by the owner of the photo, or the licensing terms – such as Creative Commons – can also affect how the photo is credited. Read them. Respect them. Quantity of credit is often a major issue. Some photo libraries demand several lines of acknowledgements and references, frequently quite arcane. Others don’t. The quantity of that material helps determine where the credit goes when a book is being designed. That’s also true of material released on the internet under Creative Commons licensing. And to my mind, even if you’re using public domain material, it’s courteous to provide due credit. That said, there are three main ways publishers usually credit photographs in print books:

  1. Directly attached to the photo on the page – for example, in a small point-size font running up one side of the photo. It’s direct, up-front, and works well if the credit is short.
  2. Attached to the caption – this suits longer credit information and unmistakeably attaches the credit to the picture.
  3. In a separate page, typically as part of the back matter, with references identifying each photo through the book and crediting it. This is done often for page-design purposes in picture books – avoiding clutter – but also because it accommodates the very longest forms of credit.

These days, given the way things have swung to electronic formats, there’s also a fourth option:

  1. Hyperlinking – basically as (3), but a link associated with the photo jumps you to a separate page in the same document, which carries the credit. Care needed to ensure that, if the link fails, you aren’t breaching any terms of use.

Bottom line for the whole process is respecting the terms of use – and finding a way of presenting the credit information in a way that works for the design of the book. Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: a few interesting publisher terms

Like all professions, publishing has its own terms – many of them plain English words that mean something different within the field. Today I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting ones.

  1. The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

    The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

    ‘Title’. This has two meanings in the publishing industry – (a) The identifiying name given to a book, in the sense we usually know it; but also (b) a particular book. For instance, if I’m contracted to write a new book, it’s referred to as my ‘new title’.  Publishers, similarly, don’t talk about the ‘number of books’ they release in a year – it’s ‘number of titles’. The distinction helps avoid confusion with ‘book’, which to the industry can also mean ‘stock unit’. I can always tell whether an author’s worked with the trad publishing industry for a while or not, because the term leaks into everyday author-speak.

  2. ‘Release to trade’. This is when a new title is made available to the market. It differs from ‘launch’, which refers to a special social event designed to mark that release. Outside the publishing industry, the terms ‘launch’ and ‘release’ are often used interchangeably to mean a title’s on the market, but that’s seldom done within it.
  3. ‘List’. This refers not just to the catalogue of titles that a publisher has available, but by implication also to its nature – to the style of title the publisher seeks to produce and be identified with. It can also refer to an author’s own personal catalogue of titles.
  4. ‘Back list’. The prior catalogue of titles that a publisher has issued, but which may not necessarily be available. Authors can have back-lists too (mine is in process of being re-issued, heh heh heh).
  5. ‘Imprint’. This is the brand under which a book is issued. Many of the larger publishing houses issue under several imprints, each usually associated with a specific sub-brand. Penguin, for example, always issued generally under its house brand; but also into more specialist markets as Puffin (kids), Pelican (intellectual) and Allen Lane (elite).
  6. ‘Sale or return’. This refers to the practise of a publisher lending their stock to trade. If the books don’t sell, they’re returned to the publisher, hopefully undamaged. Authors, who are at the bottom of the financial food chain, usually get a proportion of royalties withheld – by contract – as the publisher hedges against too many copies coming back. While it means publishers can get mountains of books physically on sale inside bookstores, to my mind all it really does is transfer the risk of a bad stocking decision by a bookstore back on to the publisher (and, of course, the author).

There are many other terms, often technically associated with the editorial and production process. More of them anon. Do you have any curious publishing terms you’d like to share, or which you’ve encountered? Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: why commas count when you write

Commas count when you write. Really. Franz Kafka thought he could do without them. But for the rest of us, commas are essential. Look at it this way. If I said to my wife, “I bought a new camera bag,” she’d be happy, whereas if I said “I bought a new camera, bag,” she might take it entirely the wrong way.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Some writers, beginning writers especially, wrestle over commas – like, where does the comma actually go? In fact, they are obvious in a well-written sentence. The confusion emerges when the sentence hasn’t been structured properly and the phrasing isn’t clearly delineated. That’s a matter of practise.

Other writers mistake the definition of single-word phrases and mistakenly use commas to bracket qualifying adjectives or adverbs.

You know. Single, qualifying, adjectives or adverbs. I once read a whole book filled with that particular construction. Ouch. (MS Word knows. It awarded my offending sentence a Wiggly Green Underline when I wrote it).

Typically, a phrase represents a single idea. It can be as short as a single verb or conjunction, or as long as half a dozen words. If you find a phrase extending much beyond that, look at the styling – there is a risk of convolutions that confuse readers. You might want to consider re-phrasing the sentence.

Commas can also string long sentences together. Sometimes it’s handy to add one in conjunction with the word ‘and’ to mark the final phrase of a sentence. This is the ‘Oxford Comma’ in honour of its origins with Oxford University Press, though I believe it’s also known as a Harvard Comma and Serial Comma.

So what’s the difference between a comma and its two cousins, the colon and semicolon? More soon…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015