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Collaboration is Cool

Ali Coyle Collaboration is Cool

By Ali Coyle

A blue sky and four hands each holding a gear and fitting them into each other

Sometimes, I write some short fanfiction, check it over a couple of times for wrong words and post it over on AO3. I love that gratifying hit of seeing a new chapter or a new work appear on my dashboard. Even better, I love seeing the first few kudos and looking forward to maybe getting a comment or two.

Almost always, when I read my fic over a few hours after publishing it, I see mistakes. For example, I’m particularly blind to spotting if I’ve mistyped 'form' when I meant 'from,' or putting British spelling and American spelling in a pot and cooking up something that’s neither. Shoulder? Sholder? Whatever, I’ll be shrugging mine along with my characters. Ah, yes. Gestures. Like many writers, I have my favorites. Sometimes I go back, thesaurus at hand, and edit out every other instance of the words 'grin' and 'nod.'

Then One Day…

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought one day as I prepared a story for submission, if there was someone out there who could cast a professional eye over my words and pick out all the mistakes for me?

I’d had a couple cases of unsolicited writing advice in fic comments before. Both made me bristle. I wrote this for free? And you’re criticizing? Take a long walk off a short plank!

But there is a world of difference between clicking 'publish' on something you know isn’t perfect, and asking for professional feedback on a story you want to polish until it is shiny enough to dazzle a submissions editor.

My first experience with an editor (many years ago) was a good one. I wasn’t ready to show my story to someone I actually knew, because what if they hated it? I might resent them for saying so, or delete the story and never write again. Instead, I paid a fee, equivalent to a pub dinner for two with drinks, to have my story picked apart by a stranger I would never meet. I waited a few days until an email came back telling me, “Your story is almost publishable as it is!” and inviting me to review the comments in the Google doc I’d shared.

My story was just under 1000 words. There were just over 100 comments and suggestions. Reader, I almost cried.

It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared from the liberal peppering of red on my black type. When the editor wanted to change a comma to a full stop it generated four separate suggestions. Delete comma. Insert full stop. Delete lowercase letter. Insert capital letter. And there were a lot of those. I am definitely more sparing with my commas now, although my overlong sentences will probably always need professional pruning.

Seeing With the Reader's Eyes

The main benefit to my writing, and to my attitude, was that I got to see some of my writing habits from a reader's perspective. This made me far less defensive about my work. It also made me see that editing is collaborative: I was free to accept or reject each suggestion and make a few new suggestions of my own. And I did reject where the suggestions would have Americanized the protagonist’s dialect or changed her inner voice.

The next time I paid for concrit, I knew what to expect. I welcomed the comments on a piece of flash fiction I’d wrestled down to 250 words. This time, although my story didn’t make the shortlist, I got good advice about using imagery efficiently.

What "We're Editing Your Book" Really Means
Reader's Block (yes, we said reader's block)
How to Disagree With Your Editor

What I am saying is that accepting professional feedback is a good thing aimed at improving your writing, and not a judgment with a final grade attached. Writing for a publication is a collaborative process. Reading an editor’s comments can be excruciating, but once the initial indignation wears off and you get down to work on the final polish, the end result will be a far better story.

As well as being the right fit for the publication, your story has to be written in an appropriate style. I once had a very short flash fiction published where my single exclamation point had been deleted because the editor didn’t like them. Was I bothered? Yes! Yes. Think of the difference in your head when you read those two yeses. Punctuation sometimes works hard in flash fiction. Was I bothered for long? Five minutes. Maybe ten. Ultimately, it was that editor’s policy to erase the humble exclamation point from existence. And that’s his right!

Collaborating with Editors

I have recently been working on two very different works of fiction with two very different, but constructively collaborative editors. Understanding that the editor has the exact same goal as the author – a publishable work that is the best it can be – makes their comments feel a lot more constructive and makes doing the revisions a lot less onerous.

The most current thing I’m working on is fanfiction for someone else’s universe. Rhole and I discuss scenes, then I write and Rhole makes gorgeous art. My 'creative consultant' has live access to my document. As well as picking up my mistakes, she often makes comments and suggestions to help me see how to get a better fit to her ideas about how the characters live, how they interact and how their lives put them at odds with each other. Plucking up the nerve to ask, “Can I write for your characters?” has gained me a collaborator, editor, and friend.

The other, about which I am very excited, is an upcoming collection of three novella-length stories. It has had a long journey from my initial proposal to the final manuscript. My initial proposal was rejected. What! How dare! But the email contained brief, honest advice about why it was unsuitable.

So I got over my indignation and rewrote it. The new version is so much better than the original that I can’t wait to share it, because it is my favorite thing of everything I have written so far. Working collaboratively with my editor helped make that happen.

Ali Coyle is the author of 'Chrysalides,' which will publish with Improbable Press in the spring. They also publish fanfiction on AO3 as Rudbeckia.

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