Thursday, March 6, 2008

Same Question, Different View

Question: Because it is something I am incredibly sensitive about (grammar and punctuation) how much does that influence you when passing on a project? It has to, of course, but if something isn't too bad but the story is phenomenal, would you still go for it?

I've been mulling on this question ever since Susan posted it, and I see it caught Alicia's attention, too. There is a tipping point where the poor quality of the writing will outweigh the strength of the story. I keep trying to figure out whether I can quantify that point -- is it so many errors per page? are some errors more egregious than others? -- and I'm afraid that there's no simple way to explain this. There's no formula.

But there are a few common factors that come up over and over again. I thought I might share these.

First, I want to point out that because we edit genre stories for a house that accepts unagented submissions, we see a lot of bad writing. And when I say bad, I mean bad enough to make you wonder how delusional the writer must be to think this should ever be shown to another human being. And is he delusional enough to come after you with a slingshot when you reject him?

But the vast majority of stuff we read is workmanlike. It's good (but not great), moderately well-executed prose with a straight-up-the-middle story. Maybe it's a standard subgenre idea, but the prose is better than average, or maybe it's an idea that breaks a lot of rules but the writing is weak. Maybe it's a riff on whatever the trend of the moment is, in which case the story is probably formed around the trend (rarely the hallmark of a good idea) and the writing is probably competent but not dazzling.

Here's a factor that the writer can't control: our current needs, which fluctuate as we acquire other projects. I can tell you that for one of our acquisitions goals, we're having an enormously difficult time finding projects that meet our standards. And for that reason, in that particular group, we might be willing to work more with a writer who has a great story idea, solid vocabulary/dramatic presentation skills, and an abundance of technical errors. (No I won't tell you which goal I'm talking about. I want all people submitting to us to think they must submit the cleanest manuscript possible, regardless of story type and target line.)

Grammar and other technical errors are important because they represent time in my life. I expect to spend a certain amount of time per manuscript on story, character, setting, theme -- the big picture stuff -- and a certain amount of time per manuscript on the nitty gritty stuff like scene structure, dialogue tags, grammar errors, sequencing issues, and the like. I'm not looking for flawless manuscripts because, frankly, it would be easier to find the rainbow's end.

If a manuscript is clean and the writerly elements work well, but the story needs an overhaul, I'll generally give the writer another shot. I'll send a revision letter and see if they can take direction and produce solid results in a professional manner. Though a revision letter does take some time -- say, two or three hours to read the manuscript and an hour for the revision letter itself, depending -- this is time well spent if it results in a project we can acquire.

By contrast, let me tell you a story about a manuscript I once edited. (Note to my writers: this was not any of you. This was something from a while back. None of you should read anything into this.)

This manuscript had been acquired by an editor that suddenly left her house, and there were some workflow issues that resulted in me being hired to do the line edits. House management was eager to avoid going back to the writer for revisions, so I was working solo to do some cleanup.

The story was above average, unusual in all the right ways, even compelling in places. The writer used diverse word choices and had a knack for building drama in scenes. But the technical aspects were disastrous. Every single paragraph contained at least one, and sometimes as many as a dozen, punctuation errors. Bad ones, too, like semicolons dropped into the middle of prepositional phrases. Real head-scratchers. Even though the copyeditor would normally tackle those, they interfered with comprehension so much that I had no choice but to clean it up as I went, just as a first step toward trying to figure out what the hell to do with all that garbled word-glop. Even after my work, the copyeditor complained bitterly about this manuscript, too -- complaints which ceased instantly once the initial condition of that manuscript was disclosed.

It took me more than forty hours to fix that manuscript, and it was fewer than 300 pages.

So. Forty-plus hours of my life on good story/bad execution, versus three or four hours on good execution/problematic story.

There are two aspects to "writing quality" -- one is the technical stuff like commas and verb tenses, and the other is the writerly stuff like word choices and the ability to get tension into the sentences and paragraphs. If you get the writerly stuff down, I'm less offended by the technical errors, as long as they're not overwhelming. And of course, fictive grammar rules vary slightly from house to house, so we tend to be forgiving of things like final serial commas that don't conform with our particular set of rules. (Consistency is important there -- we will interpret consistency as a sign of deliberate choice rather than a sign of ignorance.)

But, you know, I just can't help wondering why any writer would be willing to risk publication on something like grammar. Doesn't a strong story deserve strong presentation? Why would you take yourself out of the running for something as simple as grammar? And yes, it is simple. Even if you don't understand it at the moment, it's certainly something you can learn. It's not like differential equations here. You don't need any special new knowledge base to learn grammar. All you really need are some study tools and the will to learn.


Special Note to Dave: I read a mere 150 pages yesterday. Go ahead! Call me a slacker! :D


Dave Shaw said...

Special Note to Dave: I read a mere 150 pages yesterday. Go ahead! Call me a slacker! :D

But Theresa, I'm drop-dead-certain-sure (that's from a dialect called Redundant Geek Speak) that you worked incredibly hard on stuff for the blog that will turn all of us eager students into marvelous writers whose personal fortunes will soon outstrip J.K. Rowling's. Given that, how can I call you a slacker? ;-)

On a more serious note, I'm one of those people who proofs his emails and feels severe embarrassment over the occasional errors that I miss in them. I can't imagine submitting a manuscript like the one you describe. I'd probably drop dead of mortification when I realized it. I've talked to people who write (non-published, of course) who say 'that's okay, the editors will clean it up', and I've always wondered if they have no pride or if they were just dropped on their heads when they were small. Of course, their piles of rejection letters are always someone else's fault. I just don't get it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, don't take me wrong either. I would want to present a manuscript that was as clean as possible also, and I'm always willing to learn. I just didn't know *how* particular editors were. I just got a smack in the face the other day when an agent said I used commas like a government mule. I didn't think I did. Several of my reviewers know what they are talking about when it comes to grammar etc so it totally set me back on my heels thinking "I'll never get it."

I dread the thought of someone looking at one of my manuscripts and doing a headdesk out of sheer horror. If I've got the narrative drive and a good plot I am not going to let a little thing like a comma stop me, it's just frustrating, is all.

Thanks so much for answering.


PatriciaW said...

I don't think most houses tell submitting writers in their guidelines which grammar rules to follow. So I think your point about consistency is important.

If it's generally clean but I have one more serial comma as a rule than you prefer, I'd hope you didn't read my submission on a bad day when your patience level was depleted. On the other hand, if I couldn't get the most basic things right, like a period (or other punctuation) at the end of every sentence, I'd expect you to have a submission-burning party.

Edittorrent said...

I would never reject someone on the basis of using or not using the Oxford comma. That't not the sort of grammar error you need to worry about--if we can even call it an error!


Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that an editor sees story fixes as 'the easy bit' and the technical stuff as difficult. From a writer's perspective, fixing story elements can be a nightmare, requiring rewrites, not just polishing.

I'm not going to quibble with whose time is more valuable. After all, the writer is the one who is responsible for the product AND the writer should be able to handle the tools properly.

When I review, I also get stuck trying to find story if the mechanics are incorrect. I often do a line edit if I'm doing a review, figuring that is the best help I can do for a crit partner who needs mechanics help. It's a basic requirement to me.

I'm just a bit baffled by the concept of story being the easier change. Maybe you mean that for an editor, story changes are easier [and quicker] to convey??

Edittorrent said...

Lovely typo in my last comment. You see, it can happen to any of us. (Which is why I do try for a certain tolerance.)


Edittorrent said...

Jwhit, with story elements, we generally point out what the problem is and tell the writer to fix it.

"Can you look over that first chapter and see how you can make his motivation for stealing her car clearer? Now it seems just like a random decision on his part. Also the ending tells me that the theme is kind of like 'Don't trust because everyone betrays.' It's a bit 1984ish (Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me), and doesn't really go with the slow growth and earning of trust you have up to that point. Can you read that over and see if it's the right ending for this character's journey, to be betrayed yet again?"

There. Five minutes.

Now imagine how long it takes to explain to someone ALL the punctuation rules, and how to format dialogue, and what deadwood is and how 422 sentences in that book could be trimmed (each, of course, differently), and how to combine sentences to create a smoother flow... all the while knowing that if someone has been reading for 30 years and never noticed that at the end of most sentences is a period (you think I'm exaggerating, don't you? Trust me... Theresa doesn't. :) ... well, anyway. It's easier to fix than explain, and fixing takes a very, very long time. Even a clean manuscript probably takes about 10 minutes a page to line-edit, and a messy manuscript can take 5 times that.

But I doubt your manuscripts are like that! And a few errors per scene are to be expected, so don't sweat that-- of course, polish as much as possible, but we know we can fix (and will fix) plenty of minor mistakes. It's just, as Theresa says, there's a tipping point when making this publishable seems like Mission Impossible.

We should make a list of what every writer should know before submitting, but I doubt it applies to most of our commenters, who seem awfully good at felicitous prose, not to mention fierce editing. :)