David Kubicek

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Editorial Comments: Keep Them in Perspective

When I was a novice writer I lived for editorial comments. Occasionally they came, scrawled on a standard form rejection slip, just a few words to let me know if I was on the right track, if what I was writing was any good. I would bet that most aspiring writers long for that coveted editorial critique.

Receiving editorial comments is great, but keep them in perspective. Fiction editing is a very subjective business, and what one editor doesn’t like, another might rave about.

I’ll give you a few examples from editorial comments I’ve received over the years.

“New Beginnings”

  • “. . .  a fairly enjoyable story, very simple, but enjoyable. But it was also one of those that comes very close to the borderline for acceptance  . . .  ” – Alpha Adventures Science Fiction and Fantasy.
  • “Your story is interesting – a touch of Bradbury – but it just didn’t grab me.” – The Argonaut.
  • “John was right that I like it; unfortunately, it doesn’t fit what I’m trying to do with the magazine.” – Bifrost.

“Keeper of the Shrine”

  • “This is carefully and persuasively written and keeps a reader intent on what’s going on, but in spite of the existential metaphysic it generates we still find ourselves doubting the inferential conclusions it proposes. And we can’t make it all fit together.” – Kansas Quarterly.
  • “It had three readings here, two of which were praising. The third reader suggested you consider [changing]  the title . . . One reader said the story ‘is a little too heavy on the symbolism’ but I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” – Prairie Schooner.

MY NOTES: I took this story back to my Beta Reader, an English Professor at the University of Nebraska. He re-read it, and we decided that I should change the title (“Of Life, Death, and Spiders” seemed a bit pompous), but I shouldn’t touch the symbolism because we believed it was right for a story like this (and apparently two other readers at Prairie Schooner agreed.)

“That Time of Year”

  • “This is a well-written story, and I enjoyed it. However, we are very selective on fiction as we use only two or three pieces per issue.” – Proof Rock.
  • “‘That Time of Year,’ exhibits a good control of the subject matter, but I have to say that we didn’t find the subject matter particularly engaging.” – Pulpsmith.

“The Moaning Rocks”

  • “. . . The blending of legend and impending doom works nicely. Your imagery ranges from trite to splendid. There are moments where you approached Bradbury’s October Country. . . ” Fantasy Macabre.
  • “…May I suggest, too, that you think about putting the information in Maria’s legend in some other way (if it’s really necessary at all), because this is where what happens later is telegraphed. Up until then the suspense holds.” – Shadows Anthology.
  • “[Although we've already met our quota for this year] . . . the title intrigued me enough that I read it anyway. The beginning could be tightened up and shortened a bit, which I believe would strengthen it, but even as it is it is a powerful story and perfect for the magazine. If it should still be available in April, please send it back; I’d love to have it.” – Antithesis.

MY NOTES: Unfortunately, by April Antithesis had ceased publication, so the story went out on the submission trail again. It garnered a wide variety of comments – mostly positive, some not, but most editors to whom I submitted commented on it. I  published it finally in October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. Also, note that Fantasy Macabre liked the “blending of legend and impending doom,” but Shadows wondered if the legend is “really necessary at all” because it “telegraphed” the ending. The part about telegraphing the ending may be true for some readers, but I know of one reader who was so startled by the ending that she threw the book across the room.

Also:

  • My novel In Human Form excited an agent enough that she suggested some rewrites and then offered to represent it [didn't sell, unfortunately], while the same novel “didn’t grab” other agents.
  • One of my screenplays was optioned recently  [see the News page]. It had been shopped around quite a bit and even received a page-and-a-half critique from the story editor at NBC. One of his concerns was that the dialogue was “somewhat archaic,” which was true, but I had a reason for it, and the screenplay was readable and the dialogue was sayable (yes, I know that’s not a word) and moved the story along, so I didn’t change a word.

The point of all this is that editors are just readers, and stories strike every reader differently. As I hope I’ve illustrated with these editorial comments, one editor may like something about a story while another may dismiss the same thing. It is nice to get editorial comments because they are a window into how others –  particularly, others who read stories for a living – view what you write.

But the best advice was given by the editor of Prairie Schooner in her comments on “Keeper of the Shrine:”  “. . . I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” If you have any questions about your work in view of an editor’s comment, take it back to your readers – and every writer should have a few readers he or she can trust to give honest feedback – and ask them if they think the the story might be improved if you followed the editor’s advice.

Some things you may choose to change, other things you may choose to leave alone. But take editorial comments in the spirit they are given: as one person’s reaction to your story. The next person’s reaction might be completely different.

Four Steps to Building a Successful Writing Career

For a business to succeed, four things are necessary:

  • Financing
  • Research and development
  • Production
  • Marketing

To build a successful writing career, you must use the same principles.

  1. Financing. What this means is: don’t quit your day job. You will need money to support yourself and your family while you are struggling to break in. The financing may come from your job, your spouse’s job, a trust fund, or the lottery, but it must be there until you’ve established yourself. A WORD OF CAUTION: Don’t quit your job as soon as you get an advance for a novel, unless it”s for a million bucks or so; a first novel usually won’t bring an advance anywhere near that, but it’s not unheard of (i.e.-Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook).
  2. Research and Development. Applied to novel writing, R & D is thinking up story ideas and developing plots and characters. Many success gurus recommend setting aside an hour a day to think about how to improve your work. Lots of writers use this method to plan stories. Sit at your computer or with a notebook and write down everything that comes into your head about the story you’re working on. Everything. There will be lots of garbage, but you can eliminate that later. For that hour, don’t reject anything. Write it all down.
  3. Production. Writing the novel. Sit at the keyboard and type and revise and polish your manuscript. Although some writers claim that you’ll know your novel is finished when you’ve revised it so much you’re sick of it, I maintain that you will know when it’s completed, and you won’t be sick of it. There’s a thin line between doing the best you can and being a perfectionist; at some point you must let go. Perfectionism may seem like a good thing, but it’s not. Perfectionism can stall a budding career because the writer is trying to make his or her novel perfect, and that is impossible. You’ll only be tinkering with it–tinkering that won’t make any difference in the long run–when you could be trying to sell it. You must sharpen your ability to sense when you have crossed the border from revising to tinkering. After all that work, you’ll be too close to your novel and your judgment may be impaired. Send out 10 queries, and if you get 10 rejections, your manuscript will have cooled off enough for you to take another look at it (also take another look at the query letter; that could be the problem, not the story).
  4. Marketing. Send out queries. Send them out to 10 or more agents at a time. If you have a good story and have written a good query, chances are good a few of the agents will ask for partials or the complete manuscript. If none of the first 10 agents offers representation, send out 10 more queries–possibly rewriting the query slightly. Repeat this process until you sell your novel. Don’t dash off your query; take your time, make it as good as you possibly can. A query that grabs an agent’s attention may be all that stands between your novel being published  or being shoved to the back of your closet where it gathers dust. For some good insight into writing queries, go to agent Kristen Nelson’s blog and scroll down the right side of the screen for everything you need to know about submitting to agents.

For your writing career to prosper you must not neglect any of these areas. And don’t stop. After you’ve gone through the process with one novel, begin again with another. Keep repeating the process. And never give up. The first novel you write probably will not be the one that is published.

To see how one best selling author did it, read Nicholas Sparks’ account of how he found an agent and a publisher for The Notebook.

Rejections of Famous Authors Before they were Famous

I heard a speaker at a writing conference remark recently that many talented writers remain unpublished while the works of many marginal or bad writers find their way into print. Writers who keep sending their work out will eventually be published.

Among the rejection slips I’ve  received, my favorite was from a science fiction anthology: a full-page drawing of a dragon dabbing at his eyes with a kleenex as its tears flowed down.  It was much funnier than these meager words can describe. I once showed it to a friend, also a science fiction writer, who didn’t find it quite as amusing. It’s a matter of attitude; I couldn’t do anything about the rejection, and it was a change of pace from the usual, uninspired  form letter.

If you have trouble staying motivated in the face of an expanding  file of rejections, perhaps this list of the receptions of some famous authors and their work will help.

  • Crash by J.G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
  • Dr. Seuss: “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
  • Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway: “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish this.”
  • The San Francisco Examiner, rejecting Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
  • Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh: “A long, dull novel about an artist.” Sixteen publishers rejected the novel. When it finally saw print it sold more than 25 million copies.
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback.” The novel eventually sold to Avon Books and racked up sales of more than 7.25 million copies.
  • Tony Hillerman, best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels was advised by publishers to “Get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells: “An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would ‘take’ … I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.'”
  • Although Emily Dickinson published only seven poems in her lifetime, an early rejection advised her: “(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
  • So many publishers rejected The Tale of Peter Rabbit that Beatrix Potter published it herself.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
  • One publisher to another  on John le  Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: “You’re welcome to le Carre–he hasn’t got any future.”
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel: “We are very impressed with the depth and scope of your research and the quality of your prose. Nevertheless … we don’t think we could distribute enough copies to satisfy you or ourselves.”
  • The Deer Park by Norman Mailer: “This will set publishing back 25 years.”
  • Carrie by Stephen King: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

And my favorite:

  • Sanctuary by William Faulkner: “Good God, I can’t publish this!”

Fiction editing is a subjective process. There will always be editors who think your writing is crap, but there are also editors who will be enthusiastic about it. You just have to find them. And the only way to find them is to keep sending out your work.

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