The editorial process for short fiction

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Martin L. Shoemaker
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The editorial process for short fiction

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sat Nov 11, 2017 8:22 am

As suggested by Ishmael, this is a thread for discussing the editorial process and what to expect. Novel editing and short fiction editing have significant differences, so I'm launching two threads. I'll bet you can guess what this one is...

I've also invited editors to contribute their thoughts. We'll see if they respond.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sat Nov 11, 2017 8:48 am

My own experience (so far) is strictly short fiction, and almost exclusively pro-paying markets. (I'll occasionally give a story for a friend's market or friend-of-friend's. I'm notoriously easy to flatter.) My markets have included:

  • Analog
  • Galaxy's Edge
  • Clarkesworld
  • Digital Science Fiction
  • Writing for Charity Volume 1: The Gruff Variations
  • Writers of the Future Volume 31
  • Little Green Men: Attack!
  • Rockets Red Glare
  • Avatar Dreams
  • Humanity 2.0
  • Christmas Caring II: A Christmas Charity Anthology
  • Time Travel Tales
  • The Glass Parachute

Plus various reprints. And in MY EXPERIENCE with THESE MARKETS, so YOU MAY HAVE A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE WITH THESE OR OTHER MARKETS... They don't want to edit. At all. Editing takes time and money, and they never have enough of either. So if a story requires significant edits, they'll likely pass and find one that doesn't.

Every once in a while, Analog sends me a copy edit or three. They send me galleys to proof. Nothing major.

The most significant edit I ever got was from Digital editor Christine Clukey Reese. Not significant in size, only five changes. Two of those were wording changes, and one was a paragraph break. And every single one of those made the first person narrator sound MORE like the voice in my head. Christine understood what I was doing AND where I had failed at it. If you ever get a chance to work with her, I highly recommend her work.

There have been two cases of nudging. Trevor suggested that in one of my Analog stories, the first person narrator -- a truly disgusting person -- didn't suffer enough in the end. The reader might think he got away with it. So I added a postscript that made it clear that his life ended up worse. Trevor said that was too blatant. So I rolled that back out, and I added maybe a line to the original; and Trevor said it was perfect.

The second case of nudging was Dave for Writers of the Future. He liked the dilemma and how I resolved it in the end, but he said I could set it up more strongly at the start. He suggested something I could try. I sat down to start writing that... and I wrote something else entirely instead. Something that encompassed the dilemma, but also personalized it, and strengthened the romantic conflict as well. Because it's my story, not Dave's.

There were also two cases of pre-nudging. When I got K.D.'s critique on my Semi-Finalist story, she suggested specific things I should cut. I disagreed. I thought they were central to the character, and I added MORE of them.

And before my first Analog sale, Stan Schmidt told me what was wrong with the story (the opening was too long), but NOT how to fix it. When I figured that out (cut out the space science that should be obvious to Analog readers), he bought it.

From these examples I believe (and you may find otherwise) that short fiction editors at these markets prefer authors who don't need a lot of editing, as well as authors who can respond to gentle guidance and fix things themselves.

This has spoiled me. I'm not sure how I would react to an editor significantly rewriting my words, but I fear it would be ugly. It's my name under the title, it should be my words in the story.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby Ishmael » Sat Nov 11, 2017 9:47 am

I'm finding it hard to write down my recent experiences. I shall be brief.

If I've counted right, and I may not have because the exchanges were drawn out, it adds up to six rewrites, four by me and two (uninvited) by an editorial team.

The first of the editorial redrafts came after my first. It took me aback to the extent of making me feel physically ill. I replied that there was nothing wrong with the story I'd been sent except it wasn't mine and I didn't want it published.

Nevertheless after more rewrites by me, the story was described as basically ready and a contract was promised once a junior editor had made any last comments.

What actually arrived was another editorial rewrite with many of the same problems as the first. I declined publication for the second time.

I'm sure this was all well meant. I have no children, so I trust I won't be thought melodramatic if I say it felt as though someone was trying to kidnap my child.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sat Nov 11, 2017 10:00 am

So sorry, Ishmael. I've heard horror stories like that. In one (much discussed here, I think), the editor practically wrote his own story -- adding in major elements of sadism and sexual brutality -- and then mocked the author for objecting. A little research showed he was famous for that. And for getting sued (fruitlessly, since he had no money). And for shutting down his press when his reputation got around, and reopening under a new name. And repeating the pattern.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby disgruntledpeony » Sat Nov 11, 2017 10:10 am

Martin L. Shoemaker wrote:So sorry, Ishmael. I've heard horror stories like that. In one (much discussed here, I think), the editor practically wrote his own story -- adding in major elements of sadism and sexual brutality -- and then mocked the author for objecting. A little research showed he was famous for that. And for getting sued (fruitlessly, since he had no money). And for shutting down his press when his reputation got around, and reopening under a new name. And repeating the pattern.

...That's horrible.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby jficke13 » Sat Nov 11, 2017 10:54 am

Martin L. Shoemaker wrote:So sorry, Ishmael. I've heard horror stories like that. In one (much discussed here, I think), the editor practically wrote his own story -- adding in major elements of sadism and sexual brutality -- and then mocked the author for objecting. A little research showed he was famous for that. And for getting sued (fruitlessly, since he had no money). And for shutting down his press when his reputation got around, and reopening under a new name. And repeating the pattern.


I would hope this reputation now precedes this individual?
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sat Nov 11, 2017 11:32 am

[quote="jI would hope this reputation now precedes this individual?[/quote]

I don't recall the name, unfortunately. I'll search the archives, but old threads get pruned to save space.

In the mean time, it's always a good idea to check Writer Beware and Absolute Write.
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WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! WRITE!
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REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT!
Patience. Patience. Patience. Patience. Patience.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby Ishmael » Sat Nov 11, 2017 3:08 pm

The truly infuriating thing about recent events was that I had contrived to improve the story. I think when multiple changes are made to a text it's very easy for it to become rather clunky. What began as a beautifully-choreographed if perhaps slightly elaborate dance becomes a series of disconnected, jerky, rather basic steps. In this case I'd held fast to most of the poetry in motion and I really thought all the effort had been worthwhile.

The final rewrite was just bad. So bad that I saw nothing to be gained by even beginning to work with it. And I haven't the first idea why anyone would want to do something like that.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby Ishmael » Sun Nov 12, 2017 3:27 am

I want to stress that I have worked with pro editors who were content to leave the writing to the writer (Flame Tree and Third Flatiron for example.)

I've also had the good fortune to work with editors who saw what I was trying to do and helped me do it better. Honourable mentions to MJ Moores, Joshua Palmatier and Alison Wilgus here. The last of these, as I've mentioned before, effectively switched on a light in my creative brain, pointing out to me what 'The Man on The Church Street Omnibus' was missing. I immediately saw she was right.

The problem arises when you feel the opposite; when your reluctant footsteps are being dragged down a path that you'd really rather not go. For me there comes a point when you have to say, 'Thus far and no further.'

I was struck by the parallel of the Brexit negotiations. Some may see this as fanciful, but when your negotiating partner thinks your position is weak he pushes for more and more concessions and gives nothing in return. If there is no point at which you will walk away, and he knows it, there will be no end to the demand for concessions. In fact the UK position is very strong because of our trade deficit with the EU and is only being weakened by political irresolution at home.

I hope this long process was concluded without any ill-will. I restrained myself from a hissy fit. I just drew the line. Now of course I don't know how much the publisher really wanted the story in the first place, but it seems an awful lot of hoops to jump through if they weren't that bothered.

In consequence I would hope this experience will remain in their minds when other stories (mine or anyone else's) enter similar shoal waters. Maybe some good may yet come of bad.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby amoskalik » Mon Nov 13, 2017 7:19 am

My example is from the other end of the spectrum, too little editing. I had a story published by a fly-by-night operation that has since gone out of business. I submitted by email which, as you might imagine, can change some of the formatting. The editor 1. Posted the story as it appeared in the email 2. Never gave me the opportunity to proof what was posted. The final product was less than satisfactory.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby historythatneverwas » Mon Nov 13, 2017 4:13 pm

So as someone who edits for a magazine (admittedly, token paying), I'm firmly of the opinion that the lightest touch is the best. We have bought a few stories that needed some significant copy editing work, but we rarely accept stories that we would not publish pretty close to as they are presented. If we think that an element is out of place or poorly executed, we generally don't buy the story. We do occasionally reject with a request for rewrites, if we can pinpoint what needs to be changed, and then look at it a second time.

I've had a couple of stories accepted by markets that went through heavy edits. But those wound up being fantastic learning experiences for me that I feel improved my writing greatly. So I was really thankful for the time and care the editors took with those stories.

I've had a few rewrite requests as well. In one case, I made some tweaks and sold the story to the market that requested the rewrite. In other cases, I've gotten requests to drastically rewrite a reprint story. I've said no thank you on those.

I think in general, I'm happy with grammar-based edits and minor rewording to make the story flow better. Changing major plot points is something I'd say no to as an author.
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Re: The editorial process for short fiction

Postby MattDovey » Tue Nov 14, 2017 3:01 am

I think it's worth making a distinction between edits after acceptance and revise & resubmit.

For the former, it's usually copy-edits IME--an editor highlighting an image they think could be clearer, or striking something they think hurts the momentum, but the story is fundamentally still the story. This was my experience with PodCastle and the No Shit! anthology edited by Alex Acks. And, to be clear, even as copy edits these were comments saying "repetition, consider synonym instead" rather than edits made directly.

WotF is a little different because of its nature. My edits were fairly light--mostly Dave asking "be more specific here, what kind of trees?" etc.--but I think he can recommend bigger changes. Martin will remember this better than me as it's his class of 31, but I think he had Sharon Joss add a whole subplot. The point is, though, he had her add it--he didn't do it himself.

For the latter, I've had FFO's editor get back to me with "we didn't feel enough connection to the protagonist, if you can strengthen that we might buy it but no promises" and CRaES say "we'd like you to alter the voice of the middle section to match the narrator better", but again, both of them were "here's what we'd like you to do, we'll see how it goes" rather than "I've made these changes for you, what do you think?" (I've also had an R&R from F&SF asking for a stronger ending, but alas, in revising for that it seems I slowed it down too much for Charlie and he didn't accept the new version).

I'm lucky enough not to have had an editor rewrite chunks of work directly yet, but I think I'd run a mile. As with Ishmael, that's a function of my privilege--I don't need the money and can afford to take the stand--but I'd rather protect my name and my brand, for what they're worth. Dammit, I just want to be proud of everything that's out there.
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