When Mylar Balloons and Manuscript Rejections Go Together

Night to Dawn features zombie fiction, vampire tales, and poetry.Night to Dawn has had to close to submissions again because a lot of folks responded, and I hate to make writers wait three years to see their work in print. A lot of acceptances went out, along with rejections.

How do I approach story submissions? When a story intrigues me, I take that work along with several others to the meeting room, where twenty-five Mylar balloons float around a long table, each with copies of the manuscripts, prepared for a go-no-go discussion on each tale. I ask every balloon for their thoughts on the first story, and a heated discussion follows. The heart-shaped balloon complains that the story needs more romance. The Smiley face might prefer a humorous piece. The flower points out that the story will need a lot of editing. The pink butterfly might holler, “Damn all edits, let the story fly!” With six stories on the table, the meeting might last three hours, and maybe three stories will make it to Night to Dawn. If I bring a novel manuscript to the table, I’d better pack a lunch. The ensuing meeting could take all day.

At least that’s how it works in my balloon world.

In the real world, like many other small publishers/editors, I read submissions borrowed from time needed for editorial and writing chores, not to mention my day job and life events. There is no editorial board or meeting room, though I might enlist the help of beta readers. I read each one, at least the first three pages. If the first pages keep me in suspense, I’ll continue to the end. The stories that spoke to me outright got an immediate acceptance, especially if they haunted me long after I closed the file. Some tales read mostly well, but something along the way stopped me. These went on my shortlist. Some folks haven’t heard from me yet because their story’s on the shortlist.

Several folks sent a cover letter addressed as “Dear Editor.” You don’t want to do that with any editor, balloon world or not. When you’re ready to submit, take the time to visit the website and find out the person’s name. Other publishers—and agents—have complained about “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” submissions on their blogs, too. My name is plastered all over my website, so a “Dear Barbara” cover letter would work. Heck, if someone sent me a letter addressed “Dear Balloon Lady,” I’d smile and think, this person sure did their homework.

On many of the rejections, the story doesn’t begin until page four or later. One story had a beautifully written setting that went four pages, describing the heat in the protag’s town. I imagined an egg frying on the pavement, but I couldn’t use the story. If you want to start with your setting, litter the ground with some dead bodies. Cleaning out a closet is backstory, but if the character stumbles into a corpse dangling by a rope, that will keep me reading. And, by the way, there’s no need to send “you’ll-love-this-work” cover letters. Like a Mylar balloon, a well-crafted horror tale will get my attention on its own merit.

Beware of typos. We’re all human, and no writer sees their own mistakes, but…a submission littered with typos would give any editor pause. Most authors review their submissions before sending, but folks who use their eyes a lot (like writers) can run into visual issues, especially as they get older. I know – I’ve dealt with cataracts and now, scarring. So if you’re straining to read the print, turn up the zoom feature. For editing, I magnify mine and use Word’s “search and find” feature.

Occasionally I get well-written work in a genre I don’t publish. Though I can’t use them, I might ask to see more work. Anytime I ask to see more work or offer a though critique, take heart. I never waste time picking dust off of battered balloons. And if I have nightmares after reading your Night to Dawn tale, you’ve done a great job. My Mylar balloons would agree.

Your thoughts?

Getting through Tough Edits

Gemini WordsmithsThe denizens of hell attack in Barbara Custer's Steel Rose. completed the developmental edit on Blood Moon Rising, the sequel for Steel Rose, and the edits needed are extensive. Many of the fixes involve point of view, repetitive words or phrases, and inconsistencies in the plot. Better that these problems are caught now when I can fix them rather than having a reviewer call them out on her blog later. Yay, Gemini Wordsmiths! All the same, it’s taken several Mylar balloon acquisitions to fortify me for the work needed.

Most of the fixes are easy, and my editors have been patient with my questions. Some things I’m finding out I can look for when revising before sending to an editor. I’ve been struggling with repetition, clichés not so much, but I have seen clichés on others’ manuscripts. Solution: Prowriting Aid. I’ve found Prowriting to be a useful tool for winnowing out clichés, redundancies, and repetitive verbs and phrases. In this way, it works as a second pair of eyes. I regret not using Prowriting for Blood Moon Rising. Live and learn.

The Prowriting Aid didn’t help with the POV problems, however. I’ve noticed POV inconsistencies on other people’s manuscripts, too, problems similar to what you see in the following paragraph.

A bouquet of six Mylar butterflies, a rainbow assortment of red, greens, blues, and purples, called to Cassandra from the display stand. The soft shushing sounds they made when she ran her fingers through them brought a smile to her face. She just had to have them. The cashier, upon hearing the balloon sounds, called out, “Can I help you?”

That last sentence is a no-no because we’re in Cassandra’s head. So how would she know what the cashier heard? A better way to word that last sentence might be: The cashier’s voice impinged on her thoughts. “Can I help you?” he asked.

I can resolve most POV issues without making major structural changes. The plot flaws require more work, the guidance of an editor, plus lots of Mylar balloons to get me through a tough chore. Many of my plot inconsistencies happened in the second half of the book. The first half got evaluated, rewritten, and evaluated again through writers’ conferences, etc. and thus saw editing done before Gemini Wordsmiths got the file. Not so for the second half. If I had my do-overs, I would have completed the first draft before attempting any revisions like the pros recommended. Instead, I wrote two chapters, edited them, moved on to the third and fourth chapters, edited again, and so forth.

I’d like to recommend a blog “10 Words to Search For,” which helped me cut the fat in my manuscripts. Juliet Madison suggested ditching words like very, just, almost, began, and start. I did a Word Search and Find, which enabled me to substitute the word with something better or ditch altogether. The plot issues are the hardest to fix, because even in a horror or SF novel, the world has to stay consistent. The characters should act consistently, too; if not, then I’d better come up with a good reason for the aberration in behavior.

So…what do you find most difficult about revising a manuscript? How do you get through the tougher edits? Do you use any shortcuts for self-editing? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

I’m offering a signed copy of Steel Rose (first prize) and copy of Night to Dawn 26 (second prize) to a random commenter. Overseas winners will receive Starbucks gift cards and PDF copies.

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Pruning your Manuscript

Yesterday morning and today, I went through my Mylar garden and found a lot of deadwood. Some balloons couldn’t hold helium, but looked great with air. So I filled the air balloons and decorated my walls with them. Others couldn’t handle air or helium, so I had to discard them. Some balloons held their gas nicely, but one had gotten detached from the vine. I transplanted the stand-alone into a trunk of weights with other balloons. Pruning my balloon trees takes several days if I want to do it right.

Then I got to thinking about When Blood Reigns, the manuscript now in the hands of an editor. Before I sent it out, I did a lot of pruning, and I anticipate more before I submit it to a publisher. With the Pro Writing Aid, I winnowed out adverbs, “to be” verbs and vague descriptions like “some,” “many,” “several,” etc. Cutting adverbs alone took away 1,000 words. Replacing “to be” verbs cut another thousand. Ditto thousand for overused words and dialogue tags instead of “he said, she said.” I also found “darling” phrases that were cliché, and others that didn’t belong. Maybe they’ll work better with a different storyline.

Was I under pressure to meet a word count? No, but wordy manuscripts can lose a writer unless the writer happens to be Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Like many writers, I’m married to my manuscript and it’s hard to see the flaws without an editing tool or live editor. In particular, I struggle with repetition; my beta readers often point out the same adjective used twice in one sentence. I don’t think my forthcoming eye surgery will change that, though I might catch more errors on manuscript submissions afterwards.

I’ve started working on another novel, with elements of a plot coming together. So I’ve had to turn off my internal editor and think plot. When the revisions start, I know I’ll find plenty of adverbs. The trick is to find them before I send it to a publisher.

How is the pruning process going for you? Do you struggle with repetition, adverbs, and other issues? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Steel Rose features compelling horror fiction by Barbara Custer.

When to Hire an Editor

Some time ago I posted the advantages of Autocrit software, and the wisdom found in Writing the Breakout Novel. Autocrit enabled me to catch repetitive words, and I ferreted out problems in my novel when I applied techniques from Writing the Breakout Novel. However, the devil is in the details, and a small press editor once told me that no writer sees their own mistakes. So I kept going through my work again and again.

The time is coming for me to step up to the plate: either submit my next novel or publish it through Night to Dawn. A lot more authors are turning to independent publishing, but I’m hearing complaints about the spotty editing found in self-published books. The books on the table are Steel Rose, the novel following Dark Side of the Moon, and Dead Folks Stalking, a short story collection. The child in me insists that since I edit Night to Dawn material, I should be able to edit these books myself, right?

The adult in me hollers, “Wrong!”

After looking at comments workshop leaders made about so-called “ready” material, I decided to send Steel Rose off to an editor. This will include content editing. Editing any book is a big job, and takes time, so I proceeded with work on a sequel and the short stories.

I went through the short stories that had seen publication in small press magazines. There’s a lot to be said for putting one’s work aside and then reviewing it weeks later. When I looked at the tales with a fresh pair of eyes, I saw areas that needed rewriting. Perhaps a paragraph had too much tell and not enough show. So I did some rewriting and sent these off to an editor for polishing.

Good thing I did. The content in these stories was addressed by the editors who published them, but there were quite a few typos. Had I sent these tales to press, the errors would make them look less than professional. Mind you, typos make it to print in a lot of books. Two or three errors in a book may not harm sales, but two or three typos on a page will. “Sunset Kill,” a tale featuring dead nursing home residents who resurrect and feed on their caregivers, had that many on some of the pages. Not any more.

So why couldn’t I see my own mistakes? I think because I consider my stories like family members, and I’m too close to them to edit them effectively. At most hospitals, policy dictates that health care workers not treat family members because they’re too close to their situation. Perhaps the same policy should apply to writers and editors with their own stories.

Barbara Custer is the publisher of dark fantasy and science fiction.

Editing Software, Anyone?

I’ve read good and bad about writing software over the years, and once considered such gadgets a handy way to flush your money down the sewer pipe. About a year ago writer Gregory Frost talked up Scrivener software, which enables you to edit writing and research at the same time. Scrivener works well, once you get through the learning curve, and comes with a reasonable price tag at about $40. I was all set to try it out, until I found out that only Mac computers accommodate it. Both of my computers have Windows. So I cursed in three languages, went back to my editing for Night to Dawn, and forgot about the whole thing.

My thoughts on software changed when arguments developed between me and blurred vision, particularly when I read long passages. I will reserve the matter of my vision for another blog, after I’ve seen the doctor, but I came to realize no writer can see his/her own mistakes. I’ve gone through work done by professional editors and found faulty passages. Do-it-yourself editing, even for editors, is like a physician performing surgery on a family member. Alas, a content editor can cost about $1000, and a proofreader about $400 for a novel. Not many of us have that kind of money lying around. I was grateful indeed that Ginger Johnson edited my Starship Invasions stories. Now I’m back to Steel Rose and my blurred vision. Then I stumbled on Autocrit software, recommended by Writer’s Digest.

I tried out sample passages and was pleased to see Autocrit weed out weak words. The free version will point out repetitive words and sentence variability. You have to pay to edit longer passages and to get the other types of editing. This I did, and was amazed at the repetitions it turned up and cliches too. The readability report offered limited value, since I write for adults, but it did turn up several run-on sentences. When I used words like “look,” “have,” and “was,” the substitution forced me to use more “show” to substitute for the “tell” verb. Ditto for the dialogue tags. I found myself cutting unnecessary words. The people managing Autocrit are fast to reply to technical questions.

You can flush out repetition with Word’s search-and-replace feature, but Autocrit color codes the errant words. Color codes work best for me.

There are several caveats. I don’t believe the sentence variability, pacing, and homonym sections offer much. It might for a first-time writer, but most experienced writers vary their sentence lengths instinctively. Autocrit won’t catch misspellings, and neither will Word’s spell check. Use your judgment for cliches and sentence readability; sometimes changing the passage can ruin it. Autocrit will not guarantee a sale, but it may improve the chance of your story finding a publisher. Caveats notwithstanding, I was glad I purchased the software.

Have you ever used Autocrit, Scrivener, or other writing software? Would you consider trying it? I’d like to hear about your experiences.

The Gunslinger's Companion by Michael De Stefano features historical fiction with its own brand of horror.

 

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