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Advice for Writers and Editors

Way the heck back in August when I first started BookMusings, I posted a list of my recommended must-haves for any writer. Consider this a companion to that column. This time, though, the advice will be more along the lines of practical do's and do not's, for both writers and editors. 

Let's start with writers. What's your Pagan path? Do you honor a particular pantheon? Are there Deities who oversee writing and storytelling and the creative arts? More than likely, yes. I actually cannot think of a single pantheon which does not have at least one such Deity. The Greek pantheon which I honor has at least eleven: Apollo, Hermes, and the nine Muses.* I strongly recommend that you ....

1) Honor your Gods. Set up an altar or a small shrine to the Deity/ies of inspiration. If that is not feasible, make a small portable altar that you can open and close as needed. Offer a prayer before you sit down to do any serious writing. Offer a prayer when you run into that wall called Writer's Block. And, of course, offer a prayer of thanks -- and more than just a prayer, if you can -- when your writing is accepted for publication.

I am probably in the minority in that I believe that everyone is born with the inherent ability to write, to create, to spin a good yarn. Some are naturally better at fiction, others at nonfiction. Some are very good at composing novel-length epics, while others can pull a limerick out of the air. But that inherent ability will only take you so far. Like any muscle, it needs to be exercised or it will atrophy. So ....

2) Write. Plant your butt in that chair and start typing, or scribbling, or whatever medium you use. Tap away at your smart phone on the bus ride to work. Keep a notepad in your pocket so you can jot down an idea when it pops into your head (I keep one tucked inside my name tag). Do whatever it takes to keep the creative juices flowing.

Whatever you do, though, do not stop with the first draft. You may think it's brilliant. Bad news, but it's not. There is no such thing as a brilliant, perfect, totally the most awesomest thing evar first draft. Doesn't happen. So ....

3) Edit. Then edit again. If you need to, set it aside and write something else. Bake a pizza. Rip out some weeds. Let it ferment for a few hours, or a year. However long it takes. Then go back and edit it again. Give your poem or short story or novel two or three passes, and then ....

4) Get a beta reader. Preferably a circle of beta readers. Feedback is critical. Good feedback is even more critical. Just because Suzie is your best friend and loves Dr Who, too, does not make her a good beta reader. Find someone or several someones with solid grammar and vocabulary skills who are not afraid to tell you when your characters are acting out-of-character, when there are dangling plot threads that could unweave your entire story, or when the whole thing just plain sucks.

Bad news hurts. Tough. Take the criticism for what it is: the chance to improve your skills and make yourself a better writer.*

On a related note, finding a beta reader or three who is also Pagan is not a bad idea -- especially if your stories draw heavily on mythology and/or your particular Pagan path. (Would you send your Star Trek story to someone who has only ever read Louis Lamour?) It helps to have a beta reader who, in a sense, speaks the same language.

Once the editing is complete and you are satisfied with the finished product, the question becomes: do you keep it for yourself or send it out into the world? Either option is valid. It's your choice. Just remember: if you do opt to send it out into the world ....

5) Follow the submissions guidelines. Every publisher, magazine, journal, ezine and website has slightly different guidelines. They are there for a reason. Follow the submissions guidelines. As an editor, I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to receive a submission that is entirely inappropriate, the wrong genre, or in an attachment that I cannot open. That will just irritate me and significantly reduce your chances of being accepted if you submit again -- assuming you follow the guidelines the second time around. So follow the guidelines.

If your submission is accepted, that's great! Congratulations! Planning to submit more poems, short stories, essays, what-have-you to other venues? Good. In that case ....

6) Use a submissions tracker. There are quite a few journals and ezines out there that want only original material or do not accept simultaneous submissions. It is important to keep track of which pieces were sent where, when, and whether they have been accepted or declined. I personally prefer an old-fashioned excel spreadsheet. (Check googledocs; it's free.) It's only a few columns wide: the name of the piece, the venue to which I submitted it, the date of submission, the date it was accepted or declined, and the date it was published (if accepted). If it is accepted, I highlight that title in a bright color. I also record the compensation, if there was any.

On the chance that your submission was rejected (and, yes, you will be rejected, a lot), buck up and try again. If the editor was kind enough to send back some sincere criticism with the rejection, look it over and seriously consider their advice. (Most editors will not; they simply do not have the time.) Whatever you do ...

7) Do not send a nasty note back to the editor. That is just in poor taste. And it's immature. Plus, it will ruin your chances of ever being published in that venue. Ever. Be mature, and move on. And moving on entails ....

8) Honoring your Gods and writing and editing and, yes, doing everything again. And again. And again. Sometimes the process is enjoyable. Sometimes it is painful. But if you are a writer, if you want to be an even better writer, it is a necessary process.

Similar advice applies to all of the editors out there. Start with the same first step ....

1) Honor your Gods.

As the editor, you are the public face -- to a large degree -- of the publishing house or journal or ezine that you oversee. It is thus imperative that you ....

2) Act like a professional. Respond to queries in a timely manner. Be polite. Do not be snarky, mean or condescending. Everyone has a bad day, though, so, if you have to, take a step back; take an hour or a day away. Breathe, and get your focus back.

In line with that ....

3) Edit like a professional. It is your job to put out a quality publication. Yes, there is no such thing as a perfect manuscript. An error or two will always slip through the copy editing process; a misplaced comma here and there is fine. But multiple errors in every chapter or on every page? Nope, sorry. If you have to delay publication or pull an all-nighter to ensure a professional level of quality, do so. Be worthy of your readers, your contributors, and your Gods.

Also, be constantly aware of the fact that you would not be an editor were it not for your readers and your contributors. So ....

4) Say thank you. And sometimes, that is all you can do: say thank you. I know many editors whose work is a labor of love. Many are volunteers. Others fund their journal or website out of their own pockets; they often cannot afford to financially compensate their contributors. If that is the case, say as much up front. Explain exactly what the compensation will or will not be in the submissions guidelines. Contributors will appreciate your forthrightness and it will avoid any unpleasantness later. If you do offer compensation, than make your payments in a timely manner. Holding out is unprofessional and very bad for your reputation.

My last bit of advice goes for both writers and editors, and it is based on my own difficult experiences. I learned this the hard way, but ....

Do not take on more projects than you can reasonably handle. Are you not so good at multi-tasking? Than don't. Focus on one poem or essay at a time. Finish it. Make it as great as it can be. Then start another. Can you juggle multiple obligations? Good for you. But make sure that you really can devote as much time to each as it needs. If you have to turn down an offer or reschedule a project or cancel a publication entirely, do so. Stay sane, stay serene. Too many projects means stress and stress, for many, does not inspire creativity: it quenches the flame of inspiration.

So, there you have it: my hard-earned advice as both a writer and an editor to other writers and editors. Take it or leave it. Up to you.

*The nine classical Muses are only one such set. There are also several sets of two and three Muses (Titanic and Delphic). Plus Mnemosyne, the mother of the classical nine. Plus various heroized poets and writers such as Sappho and Homer.

**Learn to tell the difference between criticism of the work and criticism of you as a person. Any beta reader who starts attacking you, instead of analyzing the material, should be dropped immediately.

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

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