Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Sad Scam of Professional Editors

Every once in a while a writer comes along that I feel sorry for, not because I'm crushing their hopes and dreams by mailing them a rejection, but because they've clearly got no clue what they're doing.

Today we got an unrequested full manuscript. This happens from time to time - usually the author tries to make it seem in the query like it was requested by being vague. (We hate that) Today the manuscript was an especially long piece of historical fiction, something like 150K. That's not totally unacceptable for historical fiction if it's a sweeping epic, by the way (Shogun must be well over 200K), but the poor guy mailed it unrequested, and it obviously cost him a fortune to do so - especially because he sent it priority from Canada.

Rubbing salt in his own wounds was his mention of using a "profesional editor" for his manuscript. There are professional editors out there who are actually professionals, and you don't know who they are. They're usually individuals who get contract work from agencies and publishing house editors who know them and are willing to shell out the money for their services. It's sort of an in-industry thing - we only contact a professional editor if we know them personally and know their track record.

He even included the recommendation letter from the editor, who was from some scam editing company in Canada. I know the pain of being tricked into "professional" editing companies. When I was sixteen, after a slew of rejections for my terrible novel, I shelled out about $600 of my Bat Mitzvah money to use the services of a company. I think it was Edit Inc. Anyway, I got the manuscript back and all they had done was change around some punctuation. They didn't mention the obvious problems with the novel, which I had written when I was thirteen and actually made very little sense because, well, I was thirteen.

These companies usually charge by the page (I think the rate I got was 5 cents a page) or by every hundred words, so this author shelled out big for the editing, which clearly did nothing for his manuscript. I'm particularly tough on historical fiction, because I have a BA in history and about half the books I read for fun are history books, and historical fiction is really a genre that requires a lot of research and if you make a mistake, I probably have enough expertise to catch it. Well, I didn't get more than three paragraphs in before the first mistake.

The story took place in Roman Britain and the main character was a rather foul-mouthed Briton. He was so foul-mouthed that he apparently had gone forward in time to learn new curse words that hadn't been invented yet. Shit is legitimately a word that predates the Norman invasion (1066), but it probably originated the Germanic tribes who fought against the Romans and didn't make it to the isle of Britain until the Anglo-Saxon invasion, when it was scitte. It didn't become schītte until Middle English developed after the Norman invasion. (Chaucer wrote in Middle English)

Fuck is another word that probably wasn't in the regular vocabulary of a first-century Briton. It also only has origins back to the Anglo-Saxons, when it was probably a different word, because by the Norman invasion it was still fuken. In other words, having the main character say, "What is the fucking problem?" denotes a serious problem - lack of research.

This guy should have spent the probably thousand bucks he dropped on editing and mailing around his huge manuscript on some history books instead.

33 comments:

Nick said...

Yeah, I had hired a freelance editor a few years ago. That turned out to be a mistake. Most of the things he pointed out weren't anything I couldn't have found if I had a copy of Strunk and White at the time. Then a friend of mine edited it, and she did actually used to be a professional editor at a publishing company. She pointed out storyline info both he and I had missed and the book is better for it. However, I still can't say it's been "professionally edited" just because of the stigma attached to the phrase.

-Nick

Bernita said...

One assumes Britons had equivalent expletives.

The Rejecter said...

Yeah. Those should have been looked up. And if the author couldn't find any (because few records exist from that period in British history), he shouldn't have used obviosly modern ones in their place.

bunnygirl said...

So what would be the best way of finding a competent, reputable editor?

Threepenny said...

As a professional editor, I confess that one of the most difficult parts of my job description is that I share the title with some truly stinky fish.

The signal-to-noise ratio of professionals to sad scammers is unfortunate, but there are plenty of real ones. Real ones, meaning we don't tell you your book is done unless the story grabbed us by the shoulders and dragged us into the dream. Real ones, meaning we belong to guilds, go to workshops, pull out our hair until we figure out how to prepare your reader for Mrs. Brown's meltdown on page 250.

The people who hire me have gone on to get good agents, but no, I don't get referrals from an agency or publisher. I'd like to differ with Rejector on the point that professional editors are an industry thing. There are lots of freelancers who do their jobs well -- just like there are lots of excellent designers, photographers and marketing consultants who don't work for an ad agency or publisher.

Many people hire editors, and for many reasons -- e.g., as a last stop before publishing, or to take their craft to the next level, or because they are self-publishing a book on how and why to co-sleep with your new baby, because the audience is niche.

If you’ve never worked with an editor before, these questions are a good starting place:

1. Who are the editor’s clients?

2. Who is the editor? Look for association or guild memberships, publications and experience.

3. Is the editor willing to do a sample edit? Most editors will do a free sample edit on a few pages of your book so you can see how they work.

4. Does the editor have a smooth communication process? Do you feel like you're dealing with a professional?

5. How does the editor charge? A good rubric is the Writer’s Market guide for freelance rates .

6. Does the editor use a contract?

Taken together, you can form a pretty reliable picture of an editor.

Happy writing.

threepenny said...

Sorry, the link to rates (above) may not work -- try here:

http://www.writersmarket.com/content/howmuch7.asp

Anonymous said...

Rejecter,
When writing historical fiction set in a culture that didn't speak English (Roman Briton would be one example, since the English language hadn't yet developed), obviously a writer would want to avoid contemporary expressions, but other than that, why does it matter what exact year a word came into use?

I don't understand why this would be an issue for ancient time periods. Except for some cognates, few of our words were in use during that time period.

The Rejecter said...

Because the line, "What the fuck is your problem?" just sounds plain stupid in something that took place two thousand years ago. Unless this is an episode of Family Guy and they're going for that.

Dave said...

The writers of "A Knight's Tale" starring Heath Ledger created some really inauthentic dialog -- so awful that it's hard to watch the movie.

Miss Java said...

"A Knight's Tale" is actually not supposed to be authentic. If it was, they wouldn't have had the crowd at the jousting tournament singing Queen's "We Will Rock You."

It really is a silly movie. They mix modern and historical stuff together to make something really quirky.

Now IF they were trying to be authentic...then it would be quite stupid indeed. But since their goal was something completely different, it was a lot of fun to watch. (Having Heath Ledger in it doesn't hurt either.)

--Miss Java

My Blog

Imelda said...

Threepenny, I agree that there are editors out there who are worthwile, but I think from an agent's point of view, to say you have used one in a query is probably a red flag, because it sounds like your work needs all the help it can get. Not the impression one wants to make.

If I was getting rejection after rejection and I couldn't work out why and my crit group/partner couldn't either, I would consider using an editor, but I wouldn't tell an agent I had done so, when I submitted the revised ms. They don't care what I did to make it good, only that it is.

And as a freelance writer and editor, as well as a wannabe author of fiction, I would caution people to make sure that the editor they choose is skilled in editing fiction. I would never advertise myself as a fiction editor. I could fix up their spellling, grammar and syntax, but I am not competent to fix people's story arcs and so on. However I know for a fact that not all editors are so circumspect. It's a bugger for the good ones that they share their field with charlatans, but they do, so beware. Follow threepenny's advice when choosing an editor.

Cheers, Imelda

Lisa Hunter said...

I don't see what the problem is updating the curse words. Archaic spelling takes me out of the story and heading for the dictionary.

I would see your point if the curse words were of the wrong sort. For example, most contemporary English curses seem to do with bodily functions. Here in Quebec, where I'm currently living, they almost all have to do with blaspheming the Catholic church. The biggest, most common curse word here is "Tabernac!" which means "tabernacle." The French word for "chalice" is another big curse.

But as long as the type of curse fit in with the culture, I personally don't mind modern updates.

Chris said...

Latin certainly had words for fuck (futuo) and shit (merda) so maybe the character was being sophisticated and swearing in a foreign language.

Anonymous said...

I can easily imagine a Brit saying exactly that to a Roman.

Anonymous said...

I'm under the impression that most agents have editors that work with clients on streamlining etc...and often major revisions get done.
Is this true?

However, to "admit" to hiring an editor to improve your work before having an agent is considered bad.
I have a feeling, and maybe threepenny can speak to this- that this happens all the time-? But we don't know about it.

Anonymous said...

I was also a history major, and anachronisms of any sort in historical novels drive me nuts. I'm not saying one should learn history from them, but if the author chooses to use that world, I don't want to be suddenly and roughly thrown out of the world by the appearance of say, a 20th c reference in a 18th c scene. Ruins the story for me.

Brendan said...

Wait, you spent $600 at $.05 a page? How long was that novel?

Cheryl Mills said...

12,000 pages!

That's some novel for a 13-year-old.

threepenny said...

Imelda and Anonymous 6:50 -- I tell clients they can thank me all they want in the acknowledgements, but don't say a word about me in the query letter.

Miss Snark said it best. Agents don't want to know what you did to get the book in shape, they just want to see the gorgeous six-pack on that thing.

People do hire editors all the time, but if I had to guess, I would put the percentage of total writers hiring editors at no more than 50%, no less than 25% -- bearing in mind that not all my clients hire me to do a huge edit on their entire novel. Some just buy a few hours of my time to read a chapter or two, sit down and talk about the narrative voice.

If I had a magic wand, the first thing I'd do is wave it at the stigma associated with freelance editors. I work with many, many very good writers who are smart, savvy people with no illusions about "purchasing" publication. They want to make their work better and improve as writers, and they don't have a stable of literary friends who will do the job as a favor.

Racy Li said...

I was a history major too (actually in grad school now for teaching history) and anachronisms in historical novels drive me up the wall. I generally tend to stay away from historical fiction because I'm so picky.

The Rejecter said...

Actually, the novel was 546 pages. I don't remember the actual rate (might have been 3c or 4c per page) but there was also a flat fee. I'm also rounding on the total, but it was around $600.

Anonymous said...

Oh history majors, it is silly to get so hung up on such minutiae in work that must be comprehensible and appealing to the masses if it is to be commercially viable. The Knight's Tale did well for the genre, as you can see if you go to box office mojo. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=medieval.htm

Obsessive adherence to historic detail, especially with things that translate as poorly as authentic jokes and insults, almost guarantees your movie will bomb at the B.O., even if it does win the oscar for best costumes. A novel has the luxury of being viable while appealing to a smaller audience with more specialized knowledge because it doesn't take 20,000,000$ to market a book, on top of a multi million$ production budget. But still, if you want to sell millions of books, millions of people must instantly know whether your character just made a joke or an insult. This means you should assume virtually none of your potential readers took the same upper division history classes you loved so much in college. "Fuck" might not be a clever or original solution to this problem, but it serves the purpose.

barbara said...

anon 11:40, the problem is that people who buy historical novels tend to do so with some expectation of historical accuracy, just as people who buy romance novels do so in the expectation that there will be a Happy Ever After Ending, and detective novels will have a scene where the murderer is revealed.
Bringing movies into this muddies the waters, perhaps, since no one expects the movies to get any history right. Certainly A Knight's Tale was not marketed as a 'historical'. If it had been, it probably would have been a flop.

judy said...

There are good, professional editors who can really make a difference and get a book from OK to great.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Actually, a number of movies have tried to be historically accurate. There is generally a weekly movie on the History Channel usually on Sunday afternoon where some experts sit down and discuss some of the historical points in the movie being shown. They point out where the movie succeeded in getting it right and point out the scenes where the movie had to compress something in order to get it in even if it wasn't historically accurate in that scene.

I have to agree that it makes sense to use the language your audience will understand even though it might not be the historically correct word. I believe most audiences will accept the modern equivalent for an ancient usage unless it goes too far in making a link to something or someone known to exist only recently.

SAND STORM said...

SHIT - FYI
In the 16th and 17th centuries, everything had to be transported by ship and it was also before commercial fertilizer's invention. So large shipments of manure were common.

It was shipped dry, because in dry form it weighed a lot less than when wet, but once water (at sea) hit it, it not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, of which a by product is methane gas.

As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen. Methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern, BOOOOM!

Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was determined just what was happening. After that, the bundles of manure were always stamped with the term "Ship High In Transit" on them, which meant for the sailors to stow it high enough off the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane.

Thus evolved the term "S.H.I.T " (Ship High In Transport) which has come down through the centuries and is in use to this very day.

The Rejecter said...

Sand Storm,

The word is much older than that. That story is an urban myth. Look "shit" up on wikipedia.

barbara said...

Come to think of it, my problem with a Roman Briton saying "What the fuck is your problem?" would not be so much the fuck, but the problem. The phrase "What is your problem?" is modern enough that I (a mere sprat of almost-50) remember it coming into use. What next, does he ask if the other guy "has issues"? Or ask "What part of NO do you not understand?"
Someone I beta-read once had a Puritan-era lay-preacher attempting to console a woman who had fornicated (in the strict sense of having sexual relations before marriage) by saying "It was just one of those things."
Not a concept. Really, really, not a concept for the time.

Termagant 2 said...

If you want a great (IMO) example of modern language used authentically in an ancient time frame, read Parke Godwin's A MEMORY OF LIONS. It rocks on many levels, but the one I loved is when the conquered Saxons tell dumb-Norman jokes.

It works. Really. It just takes an expert to do it well.

T2

Don said...

I'd be willing to cut him a break on the curse words if only because he's not writing in early proto-English to begin with so all the other words on that page are also anachronistic. If he said something about his character driving a humvee while listening to some iron maiden on his iPod while dodging machine gun fire on the other hand...

In any event, because the vast majority of literature from pre-1950 or so avoided the use of such language, I would tend to avoid it in anything that I wrote that was set in the past as well.

Catja (green_knight) said...

There's a difference between necessary anachronisms (aka writing in English) and obvious ones. For instance, can you have china plates? If the dialogue is blatantly off, as in rejecter's example, the problem isn't just the anachronism, it's the tin ear of the writer; and even if he substitutes another word for 'fuck' the phrase would stand out badly.

Prose shouldn't draw attention to itself too much. You want to read on without thinking about the words too much.

Kim Stagliano said...

Rejecter - one tiny defense here --last week at Backspace tghe agents told us the LIKED when we hired an editor because implied that the MS might be cleaner than if we hadn't, meaning less work for YOU. And also, they liked that we had invested our own moolah in our work. I know nothing of which editor or the quality of the work presented -- just sharing some info that was bandied about last week in NY. Perhaps the writer was at Backspace? Was YOUR boss there?????

:)

KS

Kristen King said...

"If I had a magic wand, the first thing I'd do is wave it at the stigma associated with freelance editors."

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is my biggest hot button: being lumped into the same category with low-life scammers who call themselves editors despite the fact that I am a legitimate editorial professional. I wonder if agents have to deal with breaking through the stigma of scam agencies the same way editors do.