“No compulsion in the world is stronger than the urge to edit someone else’s document” said Herbert George Wells, and I know the feels––Herbert is better recognised as H. G. Wells, an exceptional English author, satirist and biographer (21 Sept 1866 – 13 Aug 1946) who famously wrote The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.
I can understand how the fingers of Mr Wells must have itched, his brain must have misfired and his breath must have been shallow as he read a paragraph which badly needed editing. Indeed, I often wonder how some books (or e-books) get into print when it is glaringly obvious they need a bit of trimming and correction.
Just recently I read an e-book with blurb announcing an award, author kudos and high sales. Undeserved as far as I’m concerned. Why? The author had no idea of descriptive body language. The best he could do was “He frowned”, “She frowned”, and for variety “He scowled”, “She scowled” until I deleted the book at “She wrinkled her brow”.
How did this get loose and launched on the general reading public? I’m sure Rule 101 is “If in doubt, substitute ‘said’ and let the dialogue do the work”. Don’t repeat yourself. Unpublished as I am, I guess the writer can sneer and say “Well, I got the pay cheque and you didn’t” but I can retort with “Have some integrity.” Or go back to writing classes.
It’s easy to think “Not all publishing houses are that blind” but, oh, many are. If you haven’t read a book with an error, you haven’t read enough books. Pathetically, hardly a week goes by without my subconscious editing a typo or tidying a sentence. I will never know how efficient I am, whether I am always right, but, man, it makes me feel better!
I have come to the conclusion that the Australian publishing industry and its associated editors and reviewers have set the bar way too high for Australian writers. Emerging authors have a pretty slim chance of being published with huge odds against hitting the big time.
Strong-willed literature-controlling gurus rule our domestic market like school teachers from the 1950s. They seek perfection, the best book of the year, often cerebral stuff ignored by half the population, and they disregard perfectly serviceable down-to-earth Aussie authors. Also, when did parochialism creep in, e.g. Melbourne is the hub of all things literary? Let’s focus on inclusive Australian content. Oh, and stop changing words to suit international readers, they’re cool, they can work it out.
Publishing houses receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts each year and the selection process is fierce. Only a handful of authors are chosen, gather a following, write more books and hopefully make money. The untried crime writer, for example, may not appeal to the literati judges, but, hey, there’s always that coterie of readers who will love them. The way it is now, their work may never see the light of day. Dive deep into that slush pile!
Sure, there’s always the internet, WordPress, e-books, self-publishing, writing competitions (see below) and a gazillion non-traditional ways to be seen but nirvana is a publishing deal with a real-deal publishing house.
“Relax,” I say to publishers from my seat of ignorance. “The shock of ebooks has faded, so forget micro-niche and churn out those books, get those names in print.” What? Too much of a risk, not financially viable? Yeah, I guess that’s right. Nobody wants risk in business. I say “Lighten up, people, offer a broader spectrum of books to the general public”. Stop book snobbery because, meanwhile, mediocre books with typos are flooding in from overseas and I’m getting a bit sick of it.
Did I hear our aspiring authors cannot compete with the overseas calibre? Our readers are not savvy, interested or sincere enough to try a reasonably good newbie? Come off it! Peel back those layers. An Australian author or reader is as good as the next person but needs the exposure, the push, the shove, the necessary connections and circumstances to make it work.
Chips on shoulders, the need to prove we Australians are well-read, has past. Forget the Cultural Cringe, dismiss ‘benchmark’ literary awards and too perfect prose and embrace the mass production of typically Australian-written and illustrated books and be proud of them.
Fleur was sick and tired of the competition rules, regulations and conditions which surround the submission of a manuscript. She decided to cheat the system. But one of the worst things is to think you are going to get caught, that you are double-dealing the system, that you’ve done something you shouldn’t have done. Be self-assured?
“Sure, you justify it to yourself that you aren’t going to win a prize in that writers competition anyway so what the heck, give it your best shot, enter four competitions with the same short story under 3,000 words.” Fleur finds her handbag and house keys. “And who cares? First world problems, right? They can only disqualify me. They’ll get an entry fee without the hard slog. What hey, they will do the hard work first. Judges will find out later that I’ve cheated. Well, not exactly cheated, more bent the rules.”
Fleur submitted the exact same story to four different organisations in the hope that one would succeed. Of course, deep down she knows that the story will not succeed. But there’s that tiny little glimmering hope that one entry will win. “Ha,” snaps Fleur’s psyche, ‘you’ll win first, second or third place in each competition and cause a furore.” There will be a lot of huffing and puffing, but Fleur says “I don’t care! Keep the entry fees, frankly I don’t care!” There will be tedious emails pointing out her indiscretion and how naughty she’s been – she don’t care! They can sort it out by themselves. Go ahead, eliminate her, but questions sneak through before the front door closes.
Fleur’s shoes pound the pavement as her rant continues “At the time I think I said to myself that I had not submitted to another competition, however, by the last entry I had. And I didn’t change a word. But here’s two questions for you. How come books and authors can win the Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, Ned Kelly Award, Prix Goncourt, Man Booker Prize, etc, even though they have already won another prize? Or magazine articles which have been reprinted elsewhere with author permission? Like I said, I don’t care!”
“Please, please,” Fleur takes a breath “don’t let me win a place in any more than one competition. I couldn’t stand the hassle. As a matter of fact I don’t quite understand why I did it. Well, in the case of the smaller organisation, I think I did it out of pity to bolster their entry numbers. And in the case of the larger organisation, I think I did it out of spite to prick their egotistical speech bubbles.”
Fleur is expounding this tirade now because three of the organisations have announced their cut-off date, entries have closed. The minor one is still struggling on. “Oh,” she says, her pace slowing “I forgot to mention that I have submitted another manuscript, quite a different story but the same copy to two interstate writing competitions. Their game plans are miles apart, one laidback and one stiff and starchy. The story is rather laidback itself so I will be interested to see if it gets anywhere, I do like it.”
On the subject of slightly ignoring their instructions on the grounds of “get over yourselves, bloody gatekeepers” Fleur couldn’t help adding “If they don’t like it then that’s tough. I don’t care!” She knows she will have second thoughts after formal announcements are made in a few months’ time, and she voices the unsettling assumption that she may be victimised. Fleur has heard tales of editors, indeed publishing houses, blacklisting people and the writing fraternity shunning one of their own for not following the guiding principle of “doing it the right way”.
Fleur stops walking. “Publishers want unusual, they want different, but mostly they are just as rigid as the public service, any spark of individuality snuffed before it ignites. Death to the formula!” She hears her bulky envelope fall into the metal post-box and slams the flap shut. The guidelines stated that all entries must be submitted by email attachment.