One of the most common questions I see new or aspiring writers ask is “How do I show my manuscript to an editor/publisher while also preventing them from stealing it?”
The conventional answer to this question–the one you’ll hear from most writers–is “Don’t be silly; no editor is going to steal your book.” To convince you their answer is realistic, these writers will cite all sorts of silly facts, like “A publisher that gets known for stealing manuscripts will never receive another submission” or “It would be far too easy for you to prove you actually wrote the book” or even “Editing pays far better than writing books does.”
But what if all those writers are just throwing you off the scent? What if they’re lying to you in order to cut down on the competition, so their own books can get stolen–I mean, sold–more efficiently?
Some editors, like mine, are the nicest people in the world. Some editors, also like mine, are dastardly supervillains just waiting for heroes like me to slip up so they can steal my book and pretend to have written it themselves, in my notebooks, in my handwriting, in my house three thousand miles from their office. *shakes fist* I’ll get you for this, Dr. Nick!
Fortunately, you don’t have to suffer the same fate. There are several “tells” that can clue you in as to whether the editor really wants to help you, or just wants to steal your book.
When you first talk to an editor, ask yourself the following questions. If the answers to one or more of these questions is “Yes,” don’t trust that editor!
When you ask to meet, does the editor turn down normal locations like coffee shops and insist on meeting someplace out of the way, like a Lair of Book Thievery?
Is the editor’s conversation filled with sinister puns and innuendo, like “I’d love to steal your manuscript, if you know what I mean”?
Does the editor wear a cape or twirl their mustache a lot?
Do they have a maniacal laugh?
Does the editor insist on calling you “Mr. Bond” even though you have repeatedly asked them to stop?
Instead of accepting your manuscript via email, cloud storage or thumb drive, does the editor insist on a convoluted scheme involving costumed henchmen and a large machine of mysterious origins and unfathomable purpose?
During negotiations, does your favorite author burst through the door and shout “Evil Editor, unhand that manuscript!”?
Does the editor ever say “Curses, foiled again!” or “I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling bloggers explaining copyright law!”?
Did you find this editor on EditorsWhoDoDastardlyDeedsofManuscriptThievery.com?
If any of these red flags sound familiar, start looking for a new editor right away — preferably before your current editor brings out the Giant Book-Stealing Laser.
Show your appreciation for this advice by buying me a coffeeor sharing this post with someone you know who fears manuscript thievery.
The date varies a little depending on where you were last year. But you already know which date I mean. The date everything changed.
For me, the week of March 8, 2020 was a week of preparation and apprehension. My state’s lockdown orders went into effect Friday, March 13. My last day in the gym was Tuesday, March 9; I skipped wind band rehearsal that week, so my last time with the ensemble was Tuesday, March 3.
I’d spent the previous Saturday, March 7, putting a Class A winterguard on the floor in our pursuit of what, at the time, we all expected to be a solid state championships run. Maybe not a medal-winning run, but one we could all be proud of for a Class A guard in its debut year on the floor.
Winterguard competitions tend to be packed. We sit shoulder to shoulder in the bleachers; we perform in poorly-ventilated gyms; set up and tear down are a mad scramble of a dozen or more people in close quarters, gathering equipment and folding or unfolding a 40-foot by 70-foot tarp in the two to three minutes (total for both) we get to do those tasks before we take a penalty for delay of show.
Even at that last competition, I felt apprehensive, but nothing seemed real yet. I knew what was happening in Italy; I’d seen the Bay Area shut down just days before; I knew we were next. But I didn’t really understand on a more than superficial level what that meant. No one did. We’d never lived through it before.
I planned this post months ago, while making my blogging schedule for the year. At the time I thought it would be easier to write. After all, we were ten months into this pandemic. We all knew the ropes, right?
Now that The Week Everything Changed is back, I realize–again–how I have underestimated this pandemic. I’ve underestimated the house of mirrors time-travel aspect of trauma–again.
This is not an easy post to write. This is not an easy day, or week, for me to be living through. In the process of changing everything to Pandemic Mode, I have spent the last year more or less in a constant present. The past, so different from the pandemic, served no useful reference. The future became un-plannable and therefore unknowable.
Today, though, I see the past like it’s here again. I relive moments of The Week Everything Changed, when Before Pandemic was still normal and During Pandemic was strange, quiet, terrifying.
I’d say “otherwise, this is just a normal Monday,” but I don’t even know what that means. Not anymore.
The pandemic has not been entirely terrible for me. I’m still alive, for one thing; 525,000 Americans, 2.59 million people worldwide, cannot say the same. I’ve had time to breathe, to figure out my priorities, to set goals and to question whether everything I ran around doing pre-pandemic needed to be done by me and what it cost me to do it.
I don’t even want to talk about how bad this pandemic has been for the U.S. We know. We watched it all fall apart under the opposite of leadership. And as promising as the latest stimulus bill is in many ways, it’s not going to repair the damage that has already been done. It can’t. So many things are irreparable.
I’m not sorry we forced the world to slow down. I am sorry it cost so much.
I like to keep track of which questions I get asked about writing and how often. Sometimes I’m surprised by the results. For instance:
One of the most common questions I’m asked by aspiring and beginning writers is “What’s your writing strategy” or “What should my writing strategy be?”
If you’re asking established writers this question, a “writing strategy” is not what you think it is. Yes, you need to understand writing strategies – but no, I don’t have just one, and neither should you.
What a Writing Strategy Isn’t
When beginners ask “what’s your writing strategy?” or “what should my writing strategy be?”, they typically mean “How do you get your writing done?” or “How can I get my writing done?”
Since a “strategy” is by definition a means to achieve a goal, it makes sense that some people would express a question about how to do the writing in terms of a “writing strategy.” If the goal is to have written, what are the means by which writers achieve that?
There’s just one problem:
The goal of writing is never “to have written.”
It’s really not. And I say this as someone who will fill entire notebook pages just because it feels good to make the pretty letters with my nice pen with the good ink. Even then, the goal is not “to have written”; the goal is the sweet, sweet dopamine rush I get from putting the letters on the page.
All writing has a purpose beyond having been written. Most writing has several purposes. When I write a novel, for instance, one of my purposes is to entertain my audience. Another is to tell a coherent story, with a coherent message (though what that message is will depend in part on the reader’s interpretation). Yet another is to add to the depth and complexity of the universe I’m creating through the novel series.
Likewise, when I write marketing materials for clients in exchange for pay, I’m pursuing a set of goals set by me and by the client. I’m seeking to persuade or inform a particular audience on a particular topic. Because so much of my paid work focuses on thought leadership, I’m often trying to build my client’s ethos with a professional audience – usually their professional peers, or other businesses that might seek out my client’s expertise. I’m trying to write something an editor will accept without too much reworking. I’m trying to write something I haven’t written a million times before already, because I, personally, loathe boredom.
“How do you get from having an idea to having written it down in A Form” is the writing process. “How do you make that writing fulfill its intended purpose” is the writing strategy.
What a Writing Strategy Is
The reason I wince at the question “What is your writing strategy?” is that I don’t have just one writing strategy. No good writer has only one writing strategy. Rather, we cultivate a collection of strategies, which we deploy in various ways in order to meet certain goals.
One of the oldest writing strategies in fiction, for example, is “Show, don’t tell.” But it’s not the ideal strategy for every fiction situation. Plenty of things in fiction can be told rather than shown. Need to inform the reader about some background detail or explain quickly how these six people got in the same room at 10 am on a Sunday? You can tell that stuff. It’s fine.
Another fiction writing strategy is to reveal details about characters through dialogue, rather than by exposition or other means. Again, this is not ideal in every situation. Deciding when to use dialogue and when to use other ways to build your characters is part of the art of writing fiction.
The question is: What are you trying to do in any given situation? When you’re sitting at your desk, writing this scene in this story, what does the scene need to do? Does it need to set up the stakes of the story? Does it need to plant seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind that maybe Sneaky McCruelVillain isn’t as trustworthy as they claim to be? Does it need to demonstrate that the character really has learned their lesson and can now defeat the bad guy (who or whatever the “bad guy” is)?
The choice of things like showing versus telling, dialogue versus exposition, and so on will depend on the goal to be achieved by that particular line or scene in the piece. No writer has one singular “writing strategy” for fiction because no one “writing strategy” can do everything a particular scene might need to do.
There are probably hundreds of different strategies that can be used for writing fiction. I’ve probably used most or all of them at some point in my career, and I’ll probably use most or all of them again before I die.
Non-fiction, too, has a vast range of strategies. Most readers are aware that these strategies often differ from strategies for writing fiction, even if they don’t realize they know. For instance, finding dialogue in the middle of a peer-reviewed research article on RNA transcription would baffle most readers. No matter how effective dialogue is as a strategy for developing a story in fiction, it is not an effective strategy for explaining the methods used to draw certain conclusions about RNA transcription in a laboratory setting. And neither the fiction story nor the lab report use the same strategies that a marketing writer would use to get someone to buy a product.
So What Should Beginners Do?
First, embrace the difference between a writing process and writing strategies. You need both. You’ll spend your entire writing career learning more about both and refining both. (Trust me; I’ve been at this for almost 40 years.)
Some basic tips for your writing process:
The most effective process will always be the one that works for you when you’re trying to use it. If anything stops working, try something else.
Many people find they get more writing done if they have a daily writing routine. The bare-bones version is “pick a time and place, and be there every day, doing writing.”
Don’t let perfection stop you. If you don’t have a really good first sentence, skip the first sentence or skip the first paragraph/scene entirely. Just start writing some part you really like. You can always come back later and fix the beginning.
If it helps, password protect your document or hide your notebook so no one will ever see your draft. You decide when people see the finished work.
Some basic tips for your writing strategies:
Whenever you start writing a story, scene, essay, or anything else, ask yourself, “What does this story/scene/essay need to do?” (Hint: Teachers usually give you this answer on the assignment sheet. For writing your own stories and so on, you’ll need to decide what the writing needs to do.)
Once you’ve decided what the thing needs to do, ask “What would be a good way to make that happen?”
Try things that sound weird, just to see what happens. If you hate cheesy villain speeches in which the villain reveals their entire plan just before the hero escapes, write one anyway. You might still think it’s a terrible strategy for understanding the villain’s plan, but you might learn something about your villain you didn’t know before. At the very least, you’ll be able to say, “I hate the cheesy villain speech strategy because I’ve tried it and it is not effective.”
For highly-structured writing like legal motions and lab reports, ask “What does this document need to do, and how does the structure help it do that?”
One of the most baffling things for new writers encountering the concept of the writing strategy is that there are very rarely hard and fast rules. Strategies are chosen based on what the written piece needs to do, whether that’s entertain, inform, persuade, or something else.
A lot of new writers are used to having other people set the parameters for a piece of writing, which makes choosing strategies easier. When it’s just you and the page, there are fewer rules. Suddenly, you’re not just in charge of making the words go on the paper. Now you’re also in charge of why that matters. What do the words need to do? Who do they need to do it for (or to)? What result should come from someone reading what you write? Does that result change if the reader changes?
It’s fine to change your mind about the answers to these questions mid-draft. The whole point of a draft is to put something down, so you can work with it in editing. If you decide halfway through the villain is really the hero or that in fact you hate Local College U and never want to attend, roll with it! Just fix it before you let someone else read it.
One of my favorite writing goals is to get paid for it. You can help: Buy me a coffee or share this post on social media.