Touchstone Editing logo
Contact Us

Commandment 6: Never Sign Anything You Don't Understand

The title pretty much covers this point, but let's go into a bit more detail. When it comes to business dealings, most people aren't necessarily trying to take advantage of you. They are, however, trying to sweeten the deal for themselves, if only because that's the job of the lawyer drawing up the contract (a professional publisher definitely has a lawyer working on their behalf). And let's not forget about the shady people who are trying to take advantage of you. How will you know if you're dealing with one of them if you don't understand what you're signing?

Photo credit: thinkpanama
via / CC BY-NC
If you do sign a contract with questionable clauses (and plenty of publishing houses have some less-than-stellar clauses in their standard contracts—I've seen them), you're stuck, unless you can prove that the clause is illegal in the state where the contract is executed. Often, even if you could hypothetically do that, it would cost you an exorbitant amount of money. 

So it's your job, as an author but also as a responsible adult, to know what you're signing—and to understand the repercussions. And if you don't understand a legal contract without a shadow of a doubt, it's up to you to find someone who doesn't have a vested interest to explain it to you, because publishers will absolutely use your desire not to make waves—caused by your deep desire to have a publishing deal—to pressure you into signing something that's tilted heavily in their favor. 

If you're negotiating on your own behalf, it's also your responsibility to understand industry standards and do just that—negotiate. The other party isn't coming to the table with their best offer if they're expecting you to counter; they're leaving themselves room to sweeten the deal. If you don't even try, so much the better for them. And if you aren't aware of industry standards, you won't be able to call a publisher on their (false) assurances that everything included "is standard."
    Another thing to remember: if it isn't in the contract, it doesn't count. When things aren't going well, all those promises someone made to you (about marketing plans, or a forthcoming print edition, or anything else) never existed if they weren't written into the contract.

Some publishers will tell you that their contract is non-negotiable. This on its own isn't necessarily a red flag, if the contract itself is fair. In my experience, however, those non-negotiable contracts are usually far from fair. Most importantly, you once again have no way of knowing which category the contract falls under if you don't understand it. Someone could tell you it's standard to have a clause saying you'll purchase a minimum of 100 copies of your own book every month for three years, and if it's written in legalese you can't decipher, you might agree. And if you don't read the contract at all? Eeesh.

If you do have an agent negotiating on your behalf, to some extent your job will be easier: the actual back-and-forth with marked-up contracts won't be up to you. But if you understand contracts and industry standards, you can discuss your priorities with your agent and then judge for yourself whether s/he is doing everything possible on your behalf—especially if your relationship with that agent is new. Best of all, it's part of an agent's job to explain the contract to you, so you don't have to look very far for answers. Eventually, once you've established a deep trust with your agent, you might be able to make an argument for signing without reading too deeply. I would still recommend at least glancing through any paperwork handed to you, because ultimately it's your name, and your future, on that bottom line.

If you need some help wading through the inner workings of publishing contracts, check out:

** Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I am not offering you professional legal advice on your contract decisions. The main takeaway you should have from this post is: do your homework and understand what you sign.

Ready for more? Check out Commandment 7: Respect Your Editor

Commandment 5: Remember the Importance of Revision

Your first draft should never be your published draft. I don't often speak in absolutes, but in this case, the only exception I can imagine is if you're publishing a first draft alongside a finished version to illustrate the enormous difference.

Photo credit: cellar_door_films
via / CC BY-NC-SA
As a writer, revision is one of your best friends. Not only does it transform your work, but the knowledge that you can revise down the line also gives you the freedom to write a less-than-perfect draft now, so that you can have something to work with later. It is this knowledge that allows many writers to push past their inhibitions, or even their fears, and start down the path of creating.

Whether you're writing flash fiction or epic novels, or anything in between, your first draft is unlikely to be the best version you could write. It's important to know when you've done all you can do—and not to get stuck in an infinite loop of revisions—but you can't decide you're done before you've even started. Though most readers will never know that you've written 5 or 20 or 100 different drafts of your story before it ever reached their hands, you still don't have the right to skip this crucial step. It's disrespectful—to your readers, to your fellow writers, and to your own work. It implies none of them are worth the effort.

Revision also isn't something that writers "grow out of"—and more-experienced writers, including those published many times over, know that. It is an unrealistic dream that one day, you'll write a perfect first draft of a novel. Most likely, you'll never write a perfect second draft, either. And that's okay, because that's why you revise; it's why you're likely to need multiple passes through, even when working with the best editor. In fact, a perfect first draft shouldn't even be your goal. With experience, your initial drafts may become more cohesive, closer to the finished product, but you'll also start seeing all the many ways that revising augments your work.

Think of it like a gem, mined from the ground. The mining itself is important; it brings the gem out into the world. But after that's done, the rock still needs to be cut and polished to showcase its beauty in the best possible way. By stopping when the rough stone has been mined (i.e., the story has been drafted), you're doing your work a great disservice, impeding the world's ability to appreciate—or even notice—its beauty.

So respect the process of revision. And respect the critique partners, beta readers, and editors who help you along the way.

Commandment 4: Be Professional

Writers, if you can't present yourself as the kind of person people want to work with, you can't expect them to be interested in representing you. Your writing itself may be great, but if you're rude or flat-out insulting, nobody will want to work with you (whether beta readers, agents, editors, etc.).

Let me tell you a story.

Many years ago, I attended a writers' and editors' retreat for Circlet Press, during which we held a party for anyone associated with the press to join. This was a great social networking opportunity—face-to-face networking, to be specific, which is still an incredibly important aspect of getting your name out there and getting others interested in you. At this party, I was schmoozing with various people when a man looked at my name tag and said, with a sneer, "Oh, you're one of the editors here? I bet you're one of the editors who rejected me."

How this man thought this was an appropriate way to approach me I will never know. Both as an editor and a writer, I understand the pain of rejection and the inclination to take it personally. From an editor's perspective, I can assure you that a critique or rejection is never a personal attack, though sometimes it might feel like it from a writer's perspective. It's okay to feel resentful, or angry, or hurt—in private—but it is NOT okay to express those feelings in public, or on the internet, or to the person you think might have been your editor. (For more on this, see Anya's post on Finding Your Coping Mechanism.)

For the record, this man had never submitted anything to me. Regardless, starting off a conversation with an editor (an editor you might be submitting your stories to in the future, no less!) with a bad attitude and an accusatory tone is NOT going to incline them to think well of you.

I assured this man that if his story had been rejected, it certainly wasn't meant to be a personal attack; his story may have been amazing, for instance, and might have just not fit with the theme of the anthology. But (speaking of personal attacks) he went on to make a snide remark, saying that he was writing before I was even born—the implication being that what did I know, he was older and thus more knowledgeable about my job than I was. So I bit my tongue, made an excuse, and left the room.

The need to be professional seems obvious to me, but, judging from this man's behavior, it isn't. Here's the thing about social networking, no matter what field you're in, whether you're interacting in person or online: every word you say, every smile or sarcastic or rude remark, is representing not only you but also your work. It's true that some famous writers are rude in real life, but I guarantee you that those people, when they were starting out and first trying to impress editors and agents, turned up the charm and kept their snide comments to themselves.

Don't forget that for every bridge you burn, that bridge has told one, five, or ten other bridges to avoid you, too. The publishing industry is a small place; if you don't treat others with respect, don't expect them to treat your work any better.

Have you ever had to deal with someone acting unprofessionally? Tell us in the comments!

The Great Breakfast Debate: Winners!

This week's Great Breakfast Debate was a ton of fun! Anya and I would like to thank everyone who participated, whether you voted #TeamPancake or #TeamFrenchToast. It's a pretty contentious topic, it turns out—with very strong opinions on both sides of the breakfast fence!

Photo credit: taidoh via / CC BY-NC-ND
Despite my concern that pancakes might have had an unfair advantage this week (it being the better-known Mardi Gras food), I'm happy to say that Team French Toast trounced our competitors, proving once and for all that French Toast is the best. (Just kidding, pancake lovers. You can still sit with us. This way we don't have to share!)

So, without further ado, the two randomly selected winners are:

  • @_KimChance
  • @kdeflane

Congratulations, Kim and Kathy!

Anya will be critiquing manuscripts for both of you for free! As a reminder, 30 manuscript pages = ~7500 words, and the turnaround time will be one week from receipt of pages. Whenever you're ready, go ahead and send her your manuscripts for edits.

We hope everyone else had as much fun with this contest as we did! What would you like to see us debate in future contests?

The Great Breakfast Debate: #TeamPancake or #TeamFrenchToast?

Mardi Gras is tomorrow! This upbeat holiday is celebrated all over the world, with beautiful costumes and masks, lots of drinking and flouting of propriety, and perhaps best of all: delicious food. It's common to celebrate this holiday with pancakes, and in some parts of Latin America & the Caribbean, people also celebrate with sugary fried breads (sound familiar?). This made the Touchstone editors ask: which one's better, pancakes or french toast? Now we need help settling the debate!

We've split into two teams and hope you'll join us in figuring out once and for all, which one is more delicious: pancakes or french toast? The losing team's captain will provide two free 30-page critiques!
  • 30 manuscript pages = ~7500 words
  • One-week turnaround time from receipt of pages

Captain: #TeamPancake


Captain: #TeamFrenchToast

Which side will you choose?

To enter:
  • Pledge your allegiance to #TeamFrenchToast or #TeamPancake publicly on Twitter (include your team's hashtag)
  • Tag your team's captain (@AnyaKagan or @JLevine3)
  • Include the link:
  • Paste your tweet's link into the Rafflecopter below & hit enter!
    • Without this step, your vote will help decide the winning team, but you will not be entered to win one of the critiques.
  • Entries close 11:59PM ET (8:59PM PT) on February 10th
  • Results announced Friday, February 12th

Need some tweet ideas? Just click to tweet your pick!

Commandment 3: Read Often and Widely

Fact: you can't be a good writer without being a good reader.
Photo credit: aafromaa via / CC BY

"But Jennifer," you may say, "I'm too busy to read. Any spare time I have needs to be used for actual writing."

As Stephen King famously said: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write."

What he meant, of course, is that without reading, there is no writing; without being inspired by reading a book, you might never have wanted to write one in the first place. And if you stop taking the time to read, your writing will suffer.

Everything you read is a learning experience, whether it's a novel, newspaper article, short story, poem, memoir, blog post, or something else. When you read something great, you're learning what writing style appeals to you, how an author pulled off a trick you love, and what kinds of stories you want to tell. What was it about the imagery in that story that let you feel so completely immersed in the world? How did that author suck you in so quickly that you felt like you couldn't stop turning the pages?

And it's not only important to read the good stuff. You learn from the bad, too. Things like: what made that scene fall flat? What was it about the way that character kicked over a chair that didn't seem to fit within their personality? What was it about that author's style that drove you nuts and that you want to make sure you avoid in your own writing? You can read all the textbooks and blogs you can find about the writing craft, but nothing substitutes for actually doing the hard work yourself—and reading is a big part of that work. Sometimes you might not even realize you're learning just from reading a good book, but you are.

Reading improves a writer's vocabulary and teaches a writer:
  • how to create narrative structures and characters;
  • how to develop tension;
  • and how to write compelling dialogue. 

Read often to keep your imagination active and to learn new ideas and techniques from other authors. And read widely to ensure your own writing doesn't become stagnant in reflection.

What's the best thing you've read recently? When was the last time you read something outside of your preferred genre? Tell us in the comments!