Well, it's happened. After 8 weeks of Red Pencil Thursdays, I find myself in the position of having no volunteers.
Several writers have contacted me and I'm waiting for their material, so I feel confident this feature will continue. (If you'd like to take a ride in the RPT hotseat, please contact me through my website!) But this week we'll do a more general critique based on some of the things I heard directly from editors during RT.
Here's what an editor wants:
1. A clean manuscript. This means proper formatting (12 pt. Courier New font, one inch margins all around, author/title/subgenre/word count in the header, pages numbered). It means you've run the spellcheck. It means you've made several passes through the manuscript, looking for proper use of there, their and they're and other common errors. It means you've enlisted the help of a beta reader who's a solid grammarian if you're not. If you turn in a manuscript riddled with little errors it says you don't respect the work, the editor or yourself. (That last sentence dropped verbatim from an editor's lips.)
Make sure your punctuation is correct and appropriate. Heather Osborn, editor for Tor-Forge, has an intense dislike for overused exclamation points. According to Heather, "Everytime you use a ! you kill a kitten."
Lots of careless mistakes mean more work for an editor. Put yourself in the editor's shoes. If you have a choice between two roughly equivalent manuscripts and one is clean and the other is not, which would you choose? Why give them a reason to say no to you?
2. A tight manuscript. Angela James, editor of the Harlequin's Carina imprint, says, "Not every noun deserves an adjective." Don't pad your word count with extras. A tight manuscript does more with less.
Use the Find function to search out these space wasters: too, even, just, only, almost, nearly, that, still . . . You get the idea. They become a "writer's tick," flowing out our fingers without our conscious knowledge. Cut them wherever you can. Qualifiers suck the life out of your prose. Descriptive verbs and specific nouns get the job done without the niggling little hangers-on.
3. An on-time manuscript. There must be a rash of late authors out there because I heard this from several editors. If you sign a contract, you make a promise to deliver a product by a certain date. If you fail to deliver, you are in breach of contract. Worse, you've potentially hurt other people's careers.
A publishing house has a schedule to keep to bring a book to market. If you fail to deliver, you may lose your slot and cause someone else to be hustled in to fill it. And if you're given a new slot, you may be bumping someone else. I lost a spot in the Historical Book Club for one of my releases because a lead author failed to deliver her manuscript on time. She wasn't a historical, but the reprint they shoved into her slot was, so it bumped me out of the Book Club and several thousand guaranteed sales. No light matter when you live or die by the numbers.
And no. Nothing will induce me to give you that other author's name. I'm sure she has no idea her action (or inaction) affected anyone else. But now you know what happens when you miss a deadline and I know you don't want to muddle things up for others.
So even before you sell, set a deadline for yourself. You may as well get used to delivering on schedule since it will be part of your creative life later. Get a calendar. Figure out what's a reasonable daily page count for you. I have a project planner on my computer and have set a reminder for myself each Friday of where I need to be in order to stay on schedule. Factor in some fun time. If you don't have a life, you don't have anything to write about.
Project the whole thing out and set the date on which you will actually type "The End." This is not the date you should agree to as a deadline. Pad your estimate with at least a week and a half. Send it to your beta reader as soon as it's finished, but give yourself a week to set the manuscript aside so it leaves the forefront of your consciousness. Then after a week, read it in one sitting, marking places that need correcting as you go. Take a day to fix the boo-boos and send it off, basking in the glow of having made your editor proud.
Now sometimes life intervenes in the best laid plans and everyone understands emergencies. What editors don't understand is that you're late because you had to go to Italy for a month on vacation. Or because you were working to meet a deadline for another house and that's why you're late for them. (I kid you not. Someone actually told their editor this. And we wonder why we don't feel the love.)
4. A wonderful story. Several editors told me they want to forget to edit because the manuscript is so compelling, they become readers instead. They want the same things readers want--to be surprised and delighted at every turn.
So our goal should be to make our editor's job easy. We should give her a clean, tight, on-time story that sweeps her completely into our fictive dream.
Sounds a little daunting, doesn't it?
As Blanche Thebom, a celebrated operatic diva, once said to me: "Hey! If it was easy, anybody could do it."