Writer profiles part 1
1) The academic writer. Rocket scientist—English degrees & poets—editors.
2) The fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or mystery/thriller writer
3) Romance writer
4) Children’s stories writer
5) The English-is-not-my-first-language writer
6) The very young writer
As an editor, I’m often astonished to wake up in the morning and find I still have hair. Over the years, many different writers have crossed my path. The one thing they all have in common is a desire to write and be published.
What to do when an editor gets a manuscript that is so bad it barely makes sense? Does the editor send a polite letter saying they’re too busy at the moment, or do they take it on?
I’m sure everyone has heard the century-old story of two siblings on Christmas day. There are many variations of this story about these two kids, a pessimist and an optimist.
The pessimist wanted a watch for Christmas and got one. He picked up the watch and said, “I bet this doesn’t work.”
The optimist wanted a pony and got a bucket of horse shit. The kid scratched through the manure with great excitement and said, “I just know there’s a pony in here somewhere.”
Editors need to ask themselves if they’re an optimist or pessimist? Manuscripts are just like watches or buckets of manure. Having said that, there isn’t a writer or editor in the world who didn’t start off as a bucket of horse shit themselves—or at least their writing was crap. Those that succeeded, found an optimistic editor with balls of steel and a hide like a rhino.
I choose to be the optimist. And I've found quite a few ponies over the years.
First, I want to explore the category of academics, turned aspiring novelists:
This writer may be a rocket scientist, engineer, geneticist or paleontologist, but they do know their subject. They have this great plot in their heads, but it gets drowned in metaphorical academia. They do get one thing right, write about what you know.
Their fatal flaw is often that they write with such knowledge and at such length on the subject, that the high-grade speak and meticulous detail is lost on us lesser mortals who may not be so highly educated.
An editor or reader, faced with this will pale at the first few chapters and seriously doubt their intellect. They’ll doubtless have to read sections over and over, whilst scrambling through a dictionary, Googling the subject, or trolling Amazon for a book like Rocket Science for Dummies.
One cannot even accuse this type of writer of “clever writing” because they are clever—sure as hell cleverer that most of us.
The academic’s most frequent response, usually accompanied by indignation, when told to simplify is, “Really? So you want me to dumb-down?”
The bottom line, even academics want their book published and for that to happen it must appeal to all readers, not just the handful of rocket scientists in the world, who would probably pick holes in their logic anyway—that’s what academics do.
Personally, I love reading novels written by people who know their subject, but for the book to have general appeal, the author has to be really smart about how they handle the academic information so that readers can understand it.
I’ve suggested to these writers that they explain what they’ve written to a nine-year-old child and see if the kid grasps what they’re saying. If the kid gets it, then kick it up a notch for those of us just a tad more advanced. For godsake, don’t read it to a teenager—they know just about everything.
The academic is already in love with his subject because that’s his day-job. But the academic has to learn how to fall in love with storytelling as well, then marry it seamlessly to the academic sections—dumb-down.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, the reader is the one who matters, not the writer. Novels are read for pleasure, escapism or to suss out the competition. Most readers want to snuggle down with a book and be entertained—end of story. That is not to say readers don’t enjoy learning something, but for pity’s sake don’t bombard them with pages of academic data that they need a degree to decipher.
They will put the book down or toss it in the bin, even if the plot is good, assuming they get as far as the good part. The truth is, no one likes to feel stupid, plus they’ll get bored with trying to understand the rocket science.
English-degreed academics often love words so much they don’t know where or when to stop. I need to include poets that have burning desires to write books. They adore reading books with descriptive prose—lots of it. Their novels, like the degreed academics’ works, are littered with reams of spectacularly beautiful prose that end up gagging the reader like an over-rich chocolate cake. These writers revel in saying the same thing, beautifully, mind you, in three different ways until the reader has to scream, “I got it first time around!” This writer also delights in obscure analogies—lots of them. When told to go on a word-diet, their response is long, wordy and, well, indignant. “Then I’m writing for morons who don’t appreciate good English!”
Nope, but they love a good story more.
Then you get the editor-novelist, who is an academic in the field of editing. They are probably the worst academic of all. They will go to war with their peers over a comma. They’ll vampire one itsy-bitsy sentence and “improve” it a thousand times until the poor sentence is reduced to a sanguinated soulless heap. They will hunt down every last typo or grammatical flaw, then hand it to a fellow editor to proofread. After all, editors only need a proofread—right? Wrong.
When the editor-novelist gets their manuscript back and it’s groaning under the weight of deletions and comments, they go into a vitriolic decline. “What? Where the hell did you find so many grammatical errors? And what’s with all the typos you found? I edited this thing a hundred times! You made a crap-house of mistaken calls here, buddy. Are you drunk or high on something?”
Some editors can be the epitome of unteachable. They might, of course, say nothing to their peer, but I can almost guarantee they will comb through that manuscript and argue every point whilst muttering into their beards about the harsh and incorrect verdict.
When reviewing a peer’s work, editor-novelists pounce on a typo with glee—it just made their day. You see, they aren’t expecting to find a typo, but it thrills them when they do.
So, editor-novelist, take comfort from the conclusion of this profile—editors are harder on fellow editors than they will ever be on clients—and less diplomatic. Plus, editors usually take criticism and resist changes worse than most writers.