Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A cautionary tale for all writers

The following is a cautionary tale for all writers, a true story that I hope, without naming names, will serve as a warning to all of us who trust editors with our words and expect them to handle our writing with the same care and attention that we do.

A new print magazine accepted two of my (250 word) flash stories for its second issue, due out in late Feb. There was no contract that I signed, only an invoice for payment. The only correspondence from them said:

I am pleased to inform you that your story xxx, has been short listed for the second issue of @&*T. Could you please send us your story with final edits in our house style (details attached) as soon as possible but no later than Friday 21st December. We also need a biography of no longer than 100 words.

What should a (perhaps naive) writer assume in all good faith? That when they have put in the paragraph breaks that the house style demands (which, in my mind, already alters the piece slightly), that this is EXACTLY how the story will appear - given the words "final edits".

I was then invited to the launch party and when they heard I was planning to come from Israel, they asked me to read both flashes at the launch. I was delighted.

Then, yesterday, having heard nothing from them since I did as they asked, in late December, I receive this email:

Hi Tania,

This is just to let you have the copy-edited version
of xxx for the launch reading.

Can't copy and paste from the PDF, so here is the
whole second issue!

See you soon,

So, thinking that perhaps they added a few commas, I open the PDF.... and discover to my total HORROR that they have:

a) Changed the TENSE of the story from Past and Present to all Past tense
b) Removed a word from the second sentence, replacing it with another with a different meaning
c) Broken one sentence up into two sentences, thus changing the rhythm entirely.
c) Deleted a whole phrase.


I was so stunned I couldn't speak. I felt sick. I thought, Wait a while, maybe you will discover that they improved it. Then I decided, since I was supposed to be reading this at the launch event, to read both versions out to J.

I read MY version.


Then I started to read THEIR version. And I stopped. I couldn't. I got to the part where they chopped one sentence in two, and it was completely different. I nearly cried.

OK, so, without getting angry, I enquire politely if it is too late to undo certain changes because I feel they significantly changed the story. This is the (cheery) reply:

Sorry Tania it is too late!
You might like to add the missing line in performance
but 'xxx yyy makes it sound sentimental and detracts from it, I think.

Note the "!" as if this is FUNNY!

And a follow up email from her, as if this wasn't enough:

Hi Tania,
Just to add that it was either copy-edit or no
publication. The copy editor was very ambivalent
about xxx and I had to fight for it!
I do believe though that the edit sharpened it.
All the Best

So, after accepting my story, I am supposed to thank the Editor for fighting for it with the copy editor (who seems to wield disproportionate power here) and be extremely grateful that it is published at all, despite the fact that it is now a completely different story, with my name attached?

I call this arrogance of the highest degree.

After asking for advice from my writing forums, checking that I wasn't overreacting, I wrote a short email asking that the stories be withdrawn and stating that I did not want to be associated with a publication that behaves in such as "despicable" manner.

It is then I am informed that the magazine has been printed. And the editor (apparently an "award-winning writer" herself) is "amazed" at my "outburst". Has no idea what "despicable" behaviour I am referring to.

Unfortunately, when I post this in my writing forums, I find I am far from unique here. This has happened to so many people - with flash fiction, with poetry, short stories, even with novels! It seems as though we have been extraordinarily naive in assuming that someone who wishes to publish our work is doing it because they love our writing, our voice and our style.

What upsets me is that, firstly, this is a new magazine, setting out to create a reputation for itself, and this is how it is proceeding to do that? A literary journal, I had assumed, is founded not with any notion of profit but for sheer love of good writing and to provide a new platform for writers of fiction. Surely, then, the editor must have some feeling for what a piece of writing means to the writer? That it is not something dashed off in a quick free moment, posted in to a lit mag without much thought of what may occur. Everything I write - everything - is a piece of me. It has something of me in it. As I write this, I am getting quite emotional because that is what this is, an emotional issue.

I used to be a journalist and having articles altered by editors was a common occurrence and one that I learned not to take personally. Because it wasn't personal. I was reporting about something someone else had done. But my short stories? They are about words, sentences, paragraphs, beats, rhythms, flow. You want to change a comma? You ask me first.

The second reason this upset me is this: what if I was a beginning writer, what if this was my first publication? I might feel that I had to accept what this magazine has done. I might feel that maybe they're right, maybe the story is better. I might lose confidence in my ability to write. This kind of thing might have seriously damaged my sense of my own voice. That may sound precious, but I think it's true. Fortunately, I am experienced and confident enough to be able to protest, to demand my stories be withdrawn, to object to being made to feel grateful they are being published at all.

In the end, I went over the head of the editor to the managing editor, to see whether this was in line with the magazine's policy, to ask if this was really the way the magazine treated its writers. I received an apology, but undermined somewhat by the claim that the edits had been sent to me for approval but must have got lost in transit, so the editor "assumed" I was "okay" with them. Of course. Assume all is well, and it follows naturally that the said editor would then send me the edited version when it is too late to do anything about it, but before the launch - because the editor knows that I am totally happy with the edits, is not concerned at all that, should I see the final printed version at the launch I will notice that it isn't my story, I will react, I will make a scene. Ah yes, that makes total sense.

The managing editor agreed to my request to print an apology in the following issue. Fine. Too little too late. The damage has been done.

This is a wake-up call: do not assume any editor treasures your work. Demand to see the final edits before it is too late. Treat everyone with suspicion. I hate to write this but from my experience and those of my fellow writers everywhere, we can't be naive about this. I apologise to the publications that in the past have treated me decently, sent me proofs, asked for my approval. I didn't realize how much I should have appreciated that and not taken it for granted.

I've certainly lost my innocence. I will think twice before submitting any story to any publication. I am afraid to say that I think we all should.


Vanessa G said...

It is a distressing story. Sure, we expect work to be tweaked, and that's fine... so long as it is done in partnership.

But this is crazy. And worse than that, the tone of the emails to you is almost teenagery. All those jolly exclamation marks. Arrogant and belittling.

Coming when it does, at a time when there are all these wake us about for writers, I wonder whether writers have lost some credibility. Some respect, from the publications? So they feel it doesn't matter if they treat our work like this with no reference back?

Whichever brand of magazine this is, I will avoid it!

Yael Unterman said...

It's significant, though, that after many successfully published pieces this is the first time this has happened. Doesn't that prove this is a minority of cases? Still, good to know.
By the way, it can really irritate within journalism as well. I had an editor of a local newspaper (with which you are familiar!) add in the word "curmudgeon" to my description of someone - not a neutral word, and a problem when I personally knew the family and wanted to remain on good terms with them!! I had another editor add in a spelling mistake where one didn't exist. Sigh.

tafka pp said...

Ouch. Agree with Vanessa, this editor sounds about 16- and I hope that you've told other writers to avoid the magazine using other fora...

Women Rule Writer said...

Yes, I've had this done to me. It's shocking because you want to yell: 'No, no. That's not what I wrote. I didn't mean it to sound like that!' But there's no one to hear you. Distressing stuff.

Debbie GH said...

I'm completely horrified. Not only that someone could be so blase with the words of another, but that:

a. said person is supposed to be an editor, yet clearly has little grasp of the rules of basic grammar. (Use -- or abuse -- of commas, in this case.)

b. the assumption that you'd be happy with arbitrary changes made to your work. In fact, that particular gem has stuck in my craw like a stubborn piece of popcorn (presuming that I understand correctly exactly where the craw is located biologically). I know that it was the main thrust of your post (that and thinking twice before blithely submitting to a magazine), and i apologise for rehashing old ground.

But seriously. What a fucking chutzpah.

I send hugs -- for all the professional use they are, and my unfaltering support.

D xx

TitaniaWrites said...

Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment.

Vanessa, teenagery is an excellent way of putting it!
Yael, yes it is irritating when it happens with journalism too, especially when they add mistakes!
Tafka - I am certainly trying to warn as many people as possible.
WRW - amazing how many people this has happened to, perhaps we should start an international blacklist.
Debbie - fucking chutzpah sums it up completely!

An addendum: the whole business about having sent me the proofs to approve was a lie. It turns out that a friend who had a story in the 1st issue of the magazine only discovered a significant change they had made when she got her copy. She was never asked to approve anything. It's disgusting.

Anyone who wants the name of the offending publication, email me privately taniah (AT) gmail (dot) com.

Nik's Blog said...

Well, I know I wouldn't be happy if this was me. As Vanessa says, tweaking should be done as a partnership.

On to the next one!


Nik x

Kay Sexton said...

Awful behaviour, and good of you to allow others to learn from your bad experience.

Sara said...

Thanks Tania, for telling us about this, and for being brave enough to fight for your words.

Big Cab Daddy said...

Hmm... I almost hesitate to say anything because I'm so much in the minority. I tend towards the editors side at least to an extent. I guess I think of my creative efforts similarly to your journalistic efforts. Granted though, the communication might have been better. Still, I don't see it as that big of a deal either way.

Sam Hilliard said...

It would be nice if a writer's work was considered sacrosanct. But outside of theater productions, where the playwright can halt a production over a flubbed line, or the few screenwriters who earn the mythical "no change clause", the chance for a monkey tinkering in the works persists.

Hopefully they make changes for the better. On occasion, they might not.

That being said, editors can bring a lot of value to the process. Those who read with a critical eye and a surgical pen have pushed me to bring my A-game.

In the end though, why let a rogue monkey keep you from what you want? If you stop writing and submitting, the monkey is almost certainly not going to care. He/she will just eats another banana and soil the cage.