Many, if not most, of the good submissions I get could be right for us, but only with some work. Generally the disqualifying issue isn't mechanical-- if the manuscript has a lot of grammar and punctuation errors, I return it with a cheery note that I know the writer must want another chance to edit before submitting it, and when she does go through the manuscript again, she should look especially for (most egregious errors 1 and 2).
Fortunately most submitters aren't in that situation, or at least the first reader at my house snares most of them and rejects them before I can even see them. :) But often there's some structural or presentation issue, and, if that is fixed well, the ms will be more in line with what we publish, and I can evaluate it without going with that quick dismissal, "Not right for us, thanks."
Anyway, here are a couple recent exchanges that illuminate the complications of this "between not there and there" position (I'll do the first here, and then another post on the second, because I have a meeting to go to)--
First, I had an interesting submission with a lot of pluses-- clever premise, effective style, and just the right length (which is important right now). But there were some development lapses-- that is, some threads weren't really pulled through, some characterization was inconsistent, some later scenes weren't set up, and the opening was one of those "protagonist and best friend talking about the situation" scenes which can almost always be deleted without pain. Except for the last, each of these revisions required a fair amount of work. That is, if you have in Chapter 9 the revelation of an internal issue, you might need to go back and "seed" that in Chapter 2, and that's more than a matter of sticking in a new paragraph.
Of course, the original revision letter took a lot of time, and then when the revised version came back, I noticed some other aspects that could be deepened or expanded or set up, and in all, I think there were three revisions. A lot of work for both of us. After the second, the submitter asked, and I don't blame her, if this meant I would buy the story once everything had been fixed, as she had never done so much work before contract. I was a tiny bit stung-- I thought we were having fun :)-- and replied with something like, "Well, you get what you pay for." That is, I thought she was getting free editorial advice, and how lucky was that, huh? And whether or not we went to contract, the story would be better for my input. That's what I thought, anyway. She quickly responded that of course she was happy to do the revisions, and she did, and we did go to contract with a story I think will please us both (and will please customers).
This revision-before-contract process was a direct result of a couple experiences where we took a story to contract with a mere promise to revise afterwards-- and then the author had trouble doing the revisions, or was unhappy with the issues raised. I decided that with new-to-me authors, I'd really rather fight that battle beforehand rather than do it after the publisher had already committed money and contract. And if a writer doesn't want to do revisions, or is incapable of doing them, I want to know before I send a contract offer.
(Now this might not apply to authors whose revision history I know already. I'm more likely to go to contract on a promise from an author I've worked with before, and so far that hasn't been a problem.)
Getting the book nearly perfect for us before contract has ended up being the most effective process for me the editor. But let me toss this out for discussion. How does it feel to writers? Consider that you're asked to revise and resubmit, and the revision requests are fairly extensive, and the letter comes with not a promise of a contract, just a promise to take another look. What's your reaction to that? Would you feel differently if you were, say, previously published than if this were your first submission, or if you'd submitted a lot, but hadn't sold yet?
Now let's say you happily do the revision and resubmit, and the editor comes back with even more suggestions. What's your reaction?
At what point (if any) do you demand that the editor fish or cut bait?
Hey! I actually had a similar-- well, not really, but it was illustrative of how dim I can be when it comes to my own business-- experience as a writer! Someone emailed me-- on recommendation from a friend of mine-- asking if I'd consider ghostwriting a book. The money dangled was pretty good, and I can always be bought, you know. Anyway, I said sure, and they wanted credentials, which I sent happily, and then they wanted a sample --published-- of my work, so I sent them a copy of a book, and then they wanted to see how I'd fix a chapter, and so I fixed one of their chapters. And sometime about here I realized-- or they revealed-- that there were THREE OTHER people vying for this job, and dumb me, I hadn't realized I was competing. And I had this flash memory of some guy who had advertised for editorial help, and as an "audition," he sent a chapter of his book to each of 20 applicants. A -different- chapter. After the audition chapters came in, lo and behold, he had the whole book edited, as he'd planned all along. And of course he never hired anyone-- he didn't have to-- though I've always wondered how well all those differently-edited pieces fit together. Editors, like writers, have voices.
So I told the writers about this experience and asked straight out if this is what they were doing. They weren't-- everyone had gotten the same chapter-- and by their lights, they were simply interviewing different applicants for a job and using tests to determine who was best. By my lights, of course, I'd already done a lot of work for nothing, and I said I wasn't going to do anything more, that they had enough information to make a decision. (I guess they did... I never heard from them again.
Not really the same thing, in that it wasn't a story but my skill and future work that was going to be bought, and so there was never any moment of certainty-- "Here! It's right!" But I know the frustration that came of that back-and-forth. The difference is, of course, I had nothing to show for it-- there was no improved story for me to take elsewhere.
Hmm. That's another question. I assume that my suggestions will improve the story, or at least that the process of working through my suggestions will help the writer learn more about the story or more about writing. And that even if we never go to contract, the writer hasn't wasted her time, and I haven't either-- I didn't get paid for my work if we don't go to contract, but heck, I've built up some karma points by helping, right?
But what if I'm wrong? (The next post will deal with a situation where the writer disagreed with the revision suggestions, btw.) What if after all this, we don't go to contract, and you secretly think-- I do hope you refrain from telling me this :) -- that it was a whole lot better before I mucked with it? Do you think of the time as wasted, as I did with my unsuccessful foray into ghostwriting? Or what?
What do you think is fair here?