(What two editors said about my novel)
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Before I put my Deep Space Nine novel Dreadnought on the net, I studied 17 texts on effective writing, read several top science fiction novels for examples, and rewrote the draft incorporating everything I had learned. Then I had three people read it and make suggestions. I rewrote it a second time using all of their comments. I put it away for several months, studied some more, then rewrote it a third time. I knew I had a winner. I posted it on my site and within a few days heard from the fanzine Orion Press that they were interested in publishing it. I immediately took it off the site and sent them the manuscript. "Okay," I thought. "This is it! Pulitzer here I come!"
Then I got the manuscript back from their editor, Laura Taylor.
To say that she trashed it would be an understatement. She sent six pages, single-spaced, of mistakes I'd made... then came more specific comments in the manuscript itself. I counted over 1000 small mistakes I'd made in addition to the six pages of global mistakes she'd addressed up front. Then she said something that floored me... she liked it! Somehow, in spite of all the things I'd done wrong, she saw a story that had enough promise to be worth publishing. So, I dug in, made all the changes she asked, read through it one last time making additional improvements, and sent it back to her. "Okay, this was it! I'd made some mistakes but they were all taken care of now. She'd love this version!"
Unfortunately, Orion Press decided to kill all DS9 work one month before Dreadnought was due to be released. Laura Taylor had worked long and hard on Dreadnought but there wasn't time to get it ready. However, she did recommend it to Kathy Agel at Criterion Press, another fanzine. Confident that Laura Taylor had helped me polish Dreadnought to perfection, I sent Kathy the manuscript. It came back in due course with a very pleasant letter that said she liked the story, wanted to publish it, and needed just a few things changed. I counted them... 753 changes! Ouch!
To say that this has been a humbling experience would be understatement in the extreme. From all this I learned a number of important lessons that fan fiction writers might find useful, so I'm posting them here.
1. The best way to learn to write, is to write. No amount of study will teach as well as doing it.
2. It is absolutely essential to have a qualified person review your work. Beta readers and proof readers will help a lot but only a professional editor will give you the level of brutal honesty you need to see what you are doing wrong and suggest ways to fix your mistakes. I learned more in minutes reading Laura Taylor's and Kathy Agel's comments than I learned spending years reading text books. I am very lucky to have had them take time out of their busy schedules to critique my work. (Thank you Laura. Thank you Kathy.)
3. You have to develop the mind set that criticism is your best friend. One person telling you what you did wrong will help you become a better writer more than one-thousand telling you what you did right. If your feelings are hurt by criticism, go into some other line of work... writing's not for you.
4. Writing is hard and it hurts. The most painful thing to do is to have to delete a passage or scene you love, but doesn't belong. One way to console yourself is to keep a draft just for yourself with all the inappropriate images you like and write another version for public consumption. This lets you write the story the way you want it and also make it palatable to your readers.
The following are some specific mistakes Laura and Kathy nailed me on. I'm listing them here in the hopes that this will help you avoid making the same mistakes:
In spite of running the manuscript several times through a spell checker, there were many misspelled words. Don't trust spell checkers to catch every mistake.
Watch out for "too" instead of "to," "They're" instead of "their," etc.
Make sure there's a period at the end of each sentence. It's surprising how often I missed this.
Don't be afraid to use commas to control the reader's pace.
If you're writing into an established series, make sure that you have researched the series enough to know where your story takes place. I had Dreadnought two years out of place with the Deep Space Nine time line. Similarly, make sure you get everyone's names correct.
For fan fiction, cut back on the physical descriptions of established characters.
Use pronouns in place of names except where it wouldn't be clear about whom you are speaking.
Eyes cannot jump out of their sockets and "jump, drop, track, or skip" around the scene. At most they can blaze or glare. Keep eyeballs firmly planted in your character's heads.
Have character actions in a scene relate to other characters. Avoid having characters merely shake their heads, blink, or gesture with their hands. Try to get the actions to connect the characters and suggest how they are feeling. If one person throws something, another should catch it or duck. Have the act of throwing express something about what the thrower is feeling. This is called the interactive subtext.
Avoid having a lot of short pithy paragraphs. They make for uneven reading. The same applies to sentences.
Avoid "talking heads" scenes. These are stretches of only dialog without any character actions to remind the reader that the people talking are flesh-and-blood.
Keep dialog tight. In military settings, avoid having characters repeat commands and use "Yes, sir," all the time. This is particularly important in fast-moving battle scenes.
In tech-stories like Star Trek, avoid loading down a story with too much technical detail about the color of the activation pads. Confine sensory information and detail to the minimum that's needed for the scene. Focus on the action.
Show, don't tell. (I knew this and still broke this rule so many times I'm embarrassed.)
Don't say "he jumped like a bomb went off." Instead use, "he jumped as if a bomb went off."
If using an ellipse "..." to end a sentence, add a forth period.
"Further" implies progress, "farther" implies distance.
Openings in walls, holes, etc. are "gaping" (long "a" sound), not "gapping" (short "a" sound).
Spell out numbers in dialog.
Hands are "clenched" not "clinched" into fists.
Be aware that every publisher has certain writing conventions that he or she prefers. Respect these conventions. Editors are professionals and have good reasons for what they do.
Is that all? Not by a long shot. I made countless more mistakes but these were the worst and most-often repeated. Avoid them and if you are fortunate enough to have an editor review your work, you'll do better than I did. Good luck!
By the way, in case you are wondering, Dreadnought debuted as a published fanzine at the Mediawest Conference in Lansing, Michigan on May 15, 2001.
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