By Elle from original photo by David Monniaux007 Tanuki CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

How I Screwed Myself Out of a Publishing Deal

Okay. First, let me set the record straight. This is an opinion piece — a rant to keep me from blowing a gasket — a cautionary tale for those seeking to be published.

Second, in the big wide world of publishing, this deal was pretty small potatoes. It was a contract for one short story — a contemporary Halloween mystery. Minimal royalties, if any, ever. The website was totally upfront about not spending money on advertising. Their writers are mainly paid in free copies of the initial run. Nevertheless, published is published, or so I told myself. It would be a publishing credential, and that would have helped build my portfolio and online presence. And provide free stocking stuffers for a few select family members.

And here’s the hook, they flattered my writer’s ego. They said how much they liked my writing. Maybe this first publication could lead to inclusion in an anthology, or more short stories being published…

How could I turn down this opportunity?

Well, right now, part of me wants to jump up and down and holler, or pout like a little kid because somebody in the sandbox was mean. Or to rail at the world because the world didn’t play fair.

The other, saner part of me— the cooler head that always cautions in favor of pragmatism —advises me to calm down and take a step back. Look at the big picture.

Take the long view. How many times have we heard that one?

Well, never mind the long view! Trust your instincts. Sometimes, even in the long view, the terms are still unlivable. Sometimes you just need to run away. Very quickly. Screaming is optional.

From the moment I submitted my initial, very short story, I engaged in a long and bloody battle, sometimes frustrating, sometimes funny, and, over-all, in spite of everything, a great learning experience.

The series of emails we exchanged during the development process would make the angels weep. Or probably pee their pants, laughing. Do angels wear pants? Note to self, Google that… And my erstwhile publisher, who also ran the editing service which would not only proof-read the manuscript but also provide the final polishing, made it very clear that he was the ultimate arbiter of what would appear in his publication.

Fair enough. Upfront.

From the very start, even though he sounded rational, approachable and open to questions in his emails, in practice, in his comments in the manuscript, he tended to come all over stuffed-shirt and snide.

Quite early on, I asked what style manual he used so we would be on the same page vis-a-vis punctuation issues. My editor replied rather pompously that he relied on his years of experience writing and editing. Who doesn’t have a preferred style manual ? Isn’t it the editor’s bible for proofing and beating recalcitrant authors over the head? Online look-ups are fine, but you still have to use the same sources. There’s a world of difference between APA and Chicago, as well as between British and American styles.

Okay, fair enough, I guess. He may have been writing for a hundred years. But, a warning bell sounded. No sirens and whistles yet, just a quiet “ding.” Still, a warning.

He was really snarky when I offered a revision of some passages we weren’t currently working on. Now, please, I do understand how annoying it can be to have your focus pulled from one thing to another. And I’m used to receiving negative, rude and plain mean-spirited comments about my work. So, no biggie, right? After all, he was offering the critique for a purpose.

Of course, I would first respond very loudly and privately to whatever looked like a fairly idiotic comment, ditto for some of the meaner bits. I used a fairly common word — one I’m sure we all know.

I do try to avoid profanity except when absolutely necessary. Especially in writing. On those occasions, using this word was most definitely necessary.

I used it a lot some days. Along with several colorful versions of, “What do you know? Then I would get up, head into the kitchen, stomp around the room a couple of times, make another cup of coffee and get to work on the revisions.

I put on a lot of miles. See ? Writing can be good exercise.

But, right from the get-go my man was a bit tricksie to work with. I became very creative at finding work-arounds, better ways to present my proposed re-edits.

At one juncture, over the course of our correspondence, my editor very generously shared an anthology he’d published, and of which he was very proud. But, to be honest, reading the anthology made me very uneasy about signing on the dotted line.

The first story — a moody, period piece — was quite good. Atmospheric, a little spooky, and well-realized, except for two glaring anachronisms. Well, anyone can make a mistake… The second piece was a decent read but it suffered the same fate as the first — inappropriate word choices. The third was a genuinely sweet and moving love story, marred only by one absolutely appalling mistake — the use of a word so obviously wrong it fairly leapt off the page.

Even one of those in your published work can seriously damage your credibility as a writer. It’s just so damned jarring when the reader encounters such an obvious error. They may not throw down the book in disgust, but it sure as hell catapults them out of the world you’ve created and right into judgement mode.

Isn’t that why we have editors — so errors like those don’t happen?

The fourth tale was completely over-the-top. And the preface by the editor, my soon-to-be editor, read more like an apologia than an introduction. I can only hope no-one ever writes a preface like that for me. Talk about damning with faint praise… My confidence was badly shaken. The warning bell rang very loudly. It was starting to sound a bit like a knell.

I managed to make it about half-way through the fourth story before giving up on it completely, but the fifth and final short story in the anthology was not only well-written, it was completely free of the errors that plagued the other stories. My spirits rose again — albeit slightly. Maybe there’s hope…

Over the next couple of months, full of revisions and emails, I learned to tread very carefully in my communications with my editor. He wasn’t open to discussion — of anything. His word was law.

I did win several concessions, though. Through a series of rewrites, I was able to sort out issues of character and point of view. The little fragments of the very short story blossomed into a respectable novelette.

I still swore at some of his comments — loudly, and a lot. On those days, it was good I live alone. I also drank pots of coffee and didn’t ever have to worry about getting enough exercise.

I learned to read my editor’s suggestions for how a character should appear or move or speak, and then tap into the idea underlying some of his pretty out-there examples of what he wanted. I learned to rewrite the passage in question to suit the story and not offend my sensibilities. And my revisions were accepted — applauded. Things were looking up.

His suggestions led to some valuable changes, once I learned to translate the idea behind his suggestions and examples into a better way to convey my story and the characters.

Then, the big day finally arrived. I submitted the story for a final polish and waited with baited breath.

A week later, it all came crashing down. My spirits plummeted to my boot-soles as I read the edits. Don’t get me wrong here — I totally appreciated having him correct every typo and oopsie, and fix every bit of improperly punctuated text.

What I didn’t understand was why he changed so many words. For example, every “though” became “although”, and every “round” became “around.” He added “that” unmercifully. My little contemporary Halloween mystery had become stiff and stilted. Sentences were tortured into overly correct forms. He added “thus” to an explanation. Thus? I haven’t used “thus” for anything except the occasional research paper.

The stifling formality eased off a bit after the first few pages, but first impressions are made in the first few words.

And that’s where the wheels fell off.

Even though he graciously offered a form to submit my requests for changes, he only allowed a couple of very minor edits and then balked completely. And he wouldn’t hear of any rewrites to get rid of the many instances of “that”. His message was clear — publish as is or it won’t be published.

I guess I was supposed to roll over and let it go. Say something like, “Oh, no, you’re absolutely right. Please, publish my story with all your edits.” But the more I read and re-read the text, the more I realized I couldn’t — wouldn’t.

The litmus test was imagining my friends and family reading the edited version. One sister, a writer, would have hooted loudly at the stilted, formal prose. My other sister, also a writer, would have been more polite, but she’d have made at least one pointed remark about the style. At least one… every hour…

So, we came to a mutual parting of the ways. My editor/arbiter was unwilling to budge, and I was unwilling to cave. We exchanged polite emails. Done.

Bye-bye publishing contract, bye-bye cred, bye-bye free stocking stuffers.

…feel free, at this point, to insert any heartfelt oath of your choosing…

On the upside, I have a much better story than when I began my odyssey. I learned a lot working with my almost-editor. Like, how to accept criticism about my work without being crushed, and to believe in myself and my writing.

Don’t ever give up on yourself or lose faith in your ability to write.

And, I’ve been able to use what I’ve learned to improve my fiction writing.

You can learn something from almost anyone. And you don’t have to agree with them or even like them a whole lot to do it. Sometimes we learn our best lessons from people who really annoy the pants off us.

And now I have a decent story to submit elsewhere. Maybe enter a few competitions… Who knows? But one of these days, you’ll be seeing it in print.