For every author who makes a habit of having their work published, there are dozens of others yet to experience that joy. Those aspiring authors are often locked in their studies tapping their hearts out on the keys. A huge percentage of them are doing the research to improve their craft. They’re reading advice blogs, they’re participating in critique groups and they’re constantly reviewing their work. And, as a matter of course, a lot of these guys and girls refuse to stop plugging away, trying to get that first (or second) acceptance.
If this resonates with you, you might be wondering what else you can do to take that next step. Well, depending on your levels of commitment, you really have two choices. You can blame the lack of decent submission calls, short-sightedness of editors who don’t ‘get’ you, and trends in publishing while you keep doing what you’ve always been doing, or you can take a leap of faith and branch out by taking a chance on professional advice.
This can be daunting. You run the risk of receiving negative feedback. That can be an eye-opening and eye-watering experience. Professional opinions of your work might not mesh with the opinions shared by your partner, Mum, or even your ego. But, anyone who’s familiar with Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth knows that the best of us need a little mentoring, advice or redirection from time to time. That’s where good professional opinions come in.
Chad Lutzke, an author who does make a habit of having his work published, sums it up very nicely. “Writers tend to spend countless hours toiling over just a single piece of work, and after a while it can feel like you’re standing too close to see.” If you’ve tooled around with a short story on multiple occasions, perhaps changing a word or phrase here or there, because it keeps being rejected, you might be too close to it. “What’s in your head doesn’t always come out the way you think it has,” says Lutzke. “You need another perspective. Someone going in totally blind.”
Lutzke also provides editing services and sees work from experienced and aspiring authors. As a result, he’s able to notice trends in the mistakes writers are making. Not trusting the reader, for example, is something Lutzke sees happen all too often. “This is normally done by overly explaining things, too much description, or constantly telling the reader how they’re supposed to feel instead of setting up the scene and letting the reader take it from there.”
If description is called for, sneak it in. The reader doesn’t need to know everything right away.
– Chad Lutzke
For him, this is a key aspect of the ‘show-don’t tell’ rule. “For example, if you’ve built an intense scene, don’t keep reminding us how scared the protagonist is and why. It bogs down the story, insults the reader and ruins any mood you were trying to set.
“Another thing I see a lot is info dumps and inorganic use of description. Things like looking in the mirror or running their hand through their hair. This feels fake and forced. If description is called for, sneak it in. The reader doesn’t need to know everything right away.”
These mistakes are not always easy to pinpoint in your own writing. You might be thinking that mannerism you include is a key part of your characterisation, while someone else might say it pulls the reader out of the narrative. The line is finite, but an experienced editor will know whether you’re making it work or whether you need to approach things differently.
So how can you, as an aspiring author, or even just someone who wants to improve their craft, go about getting this advice? Put simply, look for it. Author and publisher websites – as well as Twitter accounts will advertise the services you need.
Recently, I’ve invested in two sides of the same coin. Editing, and a Submissions Critiquing service. There are loads available and you can usually access authors, publishers and editors who work in your specific genre or style. In doing this, you can garner quick professional opinions on your work and then nail down those areas where you need to improve.
- A critique service will read your story and provide a few bullet points about what works and what doesn’t. It’s like a review that’s focused on the technical elements of your work. Often coming from editors, it will usually tell you what they’re looking for in a piece and why your submission does or doesn’t meet their standards.
- Professional Editing is often seen only as something you do after a story has sold, but for those wanting to hone their craft, the advice and guidance included is invaluable. If you want explicit feedback on what you’re doing, this is the way to go about it. The editor will work through your piece and give you, in many cases, sentence-level advice. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a general critique once they’re complete as well.
What neither of these services should be expected to do is ‘fix’ your work for you. That’s on you. You can’t look at it like having Mum help with your homework. They are about subjective advice. Also, don’t provide a piece of work that you don’t think is ready to go. This is not about correcting your spelling, punctuation or grammar. This is about an insight into the techniques and stylistic choices made by those seeing their work published, and by extension, those publishing professional work. The end goal of it is to get yourself knowledge you can apply across the board – not only on the piece you’re having edited or critiqued.
The bad with the good:
If you’re a sensitive person, you have to remember there is literally zero benefit in seeking advice and then discounting it because the advice didn’t match the narrative in your echo chamber.
I like to look at this process as garnering advice on the strengths and weaknesses of a single piece, but if you’re making mistakes in one draft, you’re probably doing it across the board. Once you’ve evaluated the response to one piece, you can then – on your own – apply the advice to all of your work.
Bearing all that in mind, two services I’ve used recently are:
- Eddie Generous’s submission critiquing service at Unnerving Magazine
- Max Booth iii’s editing services.
Eddie Generous, the brains behind Unnerving Magazine, provides an optional critiquing service for people who are submitting stories for consideration in his magazine. For someone just finding their feet and maybe still trying to get that first acceptance, this is a fantastic way to ensure you get some pointers on what is and isn’t working in your submissions.
Take note though, Unnerving is a horror mag and submissions must fit the bill advertised on the submissions portal. This is not the place to seek feedback on your space opera or romance story.
I personally feel that having a story accepted by Unnerving would be pretty rad. It’s always full of excellent short horror stories that provide a high standard of work from well-known and emerging authors. Put simply, it features fiction of a quality worth aspiring to. Breaking into it would mean you’re definitely doing something right.
If you follow Eddie’s Twitter account, you’ll know he’s a man who’s passionate about short fiction, but very particular in what he likes. That clear articulation of what he deems publishable makes his critiquing service very valuable – if a little…unnerving (sorry, couldn’t help myself).
Eddie responds very quickly, and his experience as editor of his own magazine – and as a skilled author in his own regard – means his feedback is concise, subjective and above-all helpful. A big reason for that is because he won’t sugar-coat things for you.
What you get out of his critiques is a quick understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of fiction. In a succinct response, he’ll let you know why or why not something you’ve written is publishable and outline a couple of strategies that may help you improve your writing if you’re willing to look into them. If you’re smart about how you read it, the advice he gives is widely applicable to any future pieces of writing and not only the single piece you submitted originally.
Max Booth iii
Max Booth iii, another author and editor fans of horror know very well, also provides editing services and provides feedback on the work you’ve sent him. If you’re looking to improve your work, you could do a lot worse than get advice from Max. He’s one of the good guys in the industry, and his output is prolific. Whether it’s his fiction, reviews, podcasts, features or releases from his publishing company, Perpetual Motion Machine (which he runs with the equally awesome Lori Michelle), he’s always busy with something. Still, he somehow manages to find the time to edit. Again, the small tips and tricks you can take from his feedback are immensely helpful.
Because Max’s service is editorial in nature, he provides sentence level advice. This is something I really value. Like many of you, I’ve worked in various fields of writing for most of my adult life, but what is widely accepted in some fields may be seen as awkward in others.
Pacing, characterisation, dialogue, etc, he’ll point you in the right direction if you’re not quite making it work. His feedback will even contain helpful advice on why you don’t need certain aspects of exposition here or there, and how you might better structure, build on or omit certain sections of your narrative.
It’s incredibly professional, prompt, and excellent value. If you’re looking to self-publish – which isn’t something I aspire to do – Max’s editing service would make an excellent choice, but I find great value in looking at the real-world advice and using it to guide future work.
When you’re sending work to Max, he’s not looking at it as a submission. He’s looking at as the person who will edit your work and point out all the rough edges that pull readers out of the narrative.
Again, what you take away from an editing service depends on your goals and mindset, but like Chad Lutzke pointed out, there’s a lot to be said for having an experienced pair of eyes look at a piece of writing, highlight some glaring flaws and explain why they’re glaring flaws.
I haven’t personally benefitted from Chad’s editing service, but we can go straight to the man himself for a description of how he can help you with an editing service that does far more than correct your spelling, grammar and punctuation:
“I pay close attention to what is keeping my interest and what isn’t and why, and I point these things out. I do this every time I read, whether I’m editing the book or reading it leisurely. If a book is giving me the desire to turn the page, I try and figure out why. What exactly is it about the book that is pulling me in. I do this so it can reflect in my own writing. And if something isn’t working, I dissect that as well. It’s harder to be a good storyteller than it is to make a sentence that sounds eloquent or proper. Readers don’t care how intelligent you sound with your prose. They want to hear a good story. They want to be pulled in, and in this day and age, they want that to happen fairly quickly. I also keep on the lookout for redundancies, excessive verbiage, inconsistencies, and flow.”
Obviously, the idea is not to judge the service on whether something previously unpublishable is now guaranteed to be accepted. If you’re looking at it that way, you’re doing it wrong. The real benefit is in taking the advice you’re given and applying it to future stories you write (or in a redraft of what you sent.) Remember, lifelong learning is the goal, and if editing and critiquing provides you with take away points, it’s done its job.
If you’re interested in improving your work, investing in editing and/or critiquing is just smart. I like to look at the investment as ‘education’ and treat any advice given as professional learning.
Hopefully you will too.
PS. Finally, a huge thanks to the Max Booth, Chad Lutzke and Eddie Generous for their willingness to be included in this. Chad, in particular, provided excellent thoughts (and quotes) on the process. All of these authors and editors are providing work of the highest quality. Please buy their fiction – and use their services.
To access their services:
Dark Moon Digest. The magazine Max is the Managing Editor of. Issue 32/33 is highly recommended. My story, Blood Memory is in that one.
Eddie Generous & Unnerving Magazine’s Submission Critiques. Only submit work you are confident in and would submit to any other publisher. Do not submit drafts or error-riddled work. There are a range of guidelines you’ll need to adhere to. Please read them.