Sunday, March 25, 2012


Drawing red with sharp pointed objects ... it’s all in a long day’s work for book editor D MORGAN

YOU COULD CALL ME A SERIAL KILLER. My weapons of choice have sharp pointed tips—the finer the better. With each stroke a flash of crimson erupts, and my victims are silenced. For the special ones, I leave a note.

Who are my quarries? Unsuitable adjectives. Typos and misspellings. Split infinitives. Purple prose. The list goes on. My job is to hunt and eradicate them all. I am a book editor. This is my world.

Although it’s only been a little over a year, I’ve witnessed so many crimes done to the English language by lots of people who’ve probably read or heard of JK Rowling or Dan Brown and think “Hey, I can do that.” They’re often wrong.

One of my first assignments was to hack through the verbiage Amazon and simile hell that was a manuscript for a kids’ book. Another sleep-robbing, mind-screwing nightmare fuel of a manuscript had inappropriate and excessive use of adjectives and obscure, hard-to-find onomatopoeia (words that hint at the kind of sounds they describe) and rambling, overly descriptive passages.

Creative writing may involve painting mental pictures with words, but one can go overboard. Like kids who go ape with new colours in their box of paints, new writers tend to sprinkle their writing with newly discovered, often multisyllabic words into 29-line paragraphs that try to “take readers there”. Look up the term “purple prose” and learn why it should be avoided in certain cases.

My personal favourite?

There was a beautiful cloth doll propped up against a cardboard box of rubbish ... she had hair of red yarn, and a little snub nose, and her voice when I heard it in my head was a pleasant, young voice, with the optimistic innocence of untainted ...

... I knelt down in front of the beautiful little thing, and touched her cheek lightly with the curved inside tips of my fingers and sighed at her beauty and how lonely she would be ... and she blushed, and giggled, and sighed.

Here’s a winter jacket. And a scarf. And woollen mittens. And a furry hat with mufflers. Sit down by the fire, while I make some hot chocolate and turn off the air conditioning.

Painting mental pictures with words is fine, but make sure they make sense in context. For example: would it be a good idea to liken a character’s excitement to “tiny thrashing anchovies in the cockles of her heart”?

The YA Lottery
Speaking of mental images ... the amount of stuff we get for young readers gives me the impression that the genre is “easy”. Use your imagination, no need to fact-check, and so on. And didn’t that lady make a fortune, even though she got vampires (and maybe werewolves) wrong?

That mindset, if prevalent among aspiring writers in the young adult (YA) genre, would explain the examples of lazy, shoddy writing and odd turns of imagination I’ve seen. Books that have been “published internationally” and submitted for local publication were no exception. A writing sample from a book by the founder of one such “international publisher” made tiny thrashing anchovies look good in comparison.

And would it hurt to think deeper about the plot? One submission for a young reader’s book is based on a mild-mannered fellow who, after being bitten by a strange creature, becomes an invisible man with a host of other abilities who fights bullies by beating them, throwing them into rose bushes or disfiguring them with acne.

Of all the traits, laziness seems prevalent. Some have no proper cover letters, no synopsis, no author’s information, or all of the above. In Western publishing houses, a bad cover letter is grounds for rejection because it shows a lack of commitment to getting published and no respect for the recipient.

As Asians, however, we do things a bit differently. We go through everything we get, so it’s a tad unfair when I find—instead of a complete, properly edited, formatted and spell-checked manuscript—a rough draft that looks like:

It has been a week now since i found out about my familiy’s [sic] heritage, and because of that I have been going through some problems ... like on Wednesday, I accidentally teleported my history teacher , to another state. but however with the help of my beloved mom I was able to locate him and brought him back safely ...

With all the blogs and websites out there on writing and publishing, there is no excuse for anyone to send us this. If you’re too lazy to write a nice letter telling us a wee bit about yourself and your book ... that’s fine for now. But please, at least, work on your manuscript. Rough drafts like the one above just make you look very bad.

Some writers are unclear of what editors at publishing houses do. The chief apparently got an earful from a ghostwriter who felt that editors are supposed to make books even better and sellable. Perhaps, but when we have to rewrite at least a third of the manuscript, we could probably qualify as co-authors—not part of the job. And there’s nothing we can do about stuff that has no commercial value.

Sometimes, we get psychological warfare. One aspirant had quit her job to write full-time; she claimed it was a calling from on high. So, perhaps it’s understood why, at one point, she brought religion into the picture. And the tons of adjectives in her pitch. Though the writing was slightly better than the previous snippet, it didn’t make the cut. She also misspelled the chief’s name in her e-mail.

Of course, being the senior editor, the chief gets some of the best ones. One caller asked if the chief could help him research pirates for a novel the caller wanted to write. Then, there’s this hero: “Hello, I’m a songwriter. Can you help me publish my songs?” Apparently, this is the first time he received such a request in his years at the company.

’Zine zingers
Besides books, we also publish a number of magazines. An article that was sent to me for rewriting, I was told, was translated to English from Malay. I had to break one paragraph into two because it was too long.

What I didn’t expect was proof that it was run through Google Translate: In the text were two out-of-place items: “Listen” and “Read phonetically”.

Of course, the translation quality was found wanting. I was looking for more things to break after I was done editing.

Sometimes, I also get publicity write-ups with explicit instructions to use them as they are. But how can any editor worth his salt leave this alone?

In modern times, working in the kitchen is not only for cooking, but consider it a place where you work with pleasure. Integration of entertainment, a flat screen TV can be placed at the kitchen wall, enjoying the sound of music, and networking via a laptop at the island table. Kitchen has become a new social space.

That write-up came in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet file.

Being a good, conscientious driver in KL or even Malaysia is nearly impossible. You get honked or yelled at for being nice to other road users. What does that do to decent people over time?

In the same way, editors are conditioned into being “mean”. It takes a certain sort to be able to read and fix bad writing for hours and crush someone’s writing dreams—and still have enough fortitude and faith in humanity to return to work the next day. There’s a lot at stake when we take on a manuscript. The numbers vary, but generally we’re talking five figures worth in losses for each title we can’t sell, and many publishers crank out dozens a year.

The calls and (mostly bad) manuscripts will keep coming, and the quality won’t be improving soon, judging from a collection of “prize-wining essays” by a bunch of undergraduates.

So, how do I avoid being a victim, Mr “Serial Killer”? Well, for one—

... Sorry, we’ll have to continue this some other day. A manuscript just hit my desk.



Reproduced from the January-March 2012 issue of Quill magazine