Word Desert

Ever experience a writing desert, when all your words evaporate under the glare of reality, depression, insecurity, fear?

I hate fear. It tells me nonsense–“You’re nothing. You can’t write. You speak what no one wants to hear, and write what no one wants to read. You’re a failure.”

Yes, I have failed. Many times. And many times have I faced opposition and conflict, sometimes of my own making, but sometimes the making of others.

Ever been disliked simply because you exist? There was a time, about ten years ago or so, when this verse sustained me:

Do not gloat over me, my enemies! For though I fall, I will rise again. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light.  -Micah 7:8 (New Living Translation)

An avid, voracious reader ever since my entertainment-oriented five-year-old brain was forced into learning by parents who weren’t afraid of educating me outside the classroom, as an adult I’ve read less and less. There was a time when a stack of books checked out from the library on Saturday might sustain me until, oh, say, Wednesday. Now, however, with the increase in editing work and other life matters, books have been set aside. I’ve even committed the horrific act of halving my library.

Reading for pleasure has become almost impossible. My internal editor must be quieted, and my wide-eyed reader must be set free. It’s not always easy to keep one distracted while the other plays.

And then there’s the dreamy writer, whose far-away thoughts and unfocused gaze too often is overtaken by the sharpish editor, and creativity stunted by protests of correctness or authenticity.

I hate fear.

I said that already. Well, I’ll say it again.

I hate fear.

It represses accomplishment and ingenuity, quashes free thought and individuality, diverts excellence into monotony. Nothing can shine or rise or be different, because anything beyond ordinary attracts attention, and with attention comes attack.

Perhaps that’s why some creators fear success. With success comes criticism. Perhaps they only want praise.

Wouldn’t praise be great? But with accolades often comes apathy, the sense of arrival, ultimate achievement.

So, I’ll take a little praise to keep me encouraged, a little criticism to keep me motivated toward improvement, and a lot of courage to keep slogging–nay, striding–through the desert until the words rain down once more and soak into the hard, cracked soil of neglected imagination.

Eastern Road Rider Magazine
Eastern Road Rider Magazine

Assumption v. Specificity

I caught this while editing a YA novel this week:

“Same to you, Selly.” He laughs at the familiar nickname as I step off the dock. “Sleep well.”

Goodbye, cruel world!

In truth, the narrator wasn’t stepping off into the lake, but stepping from the wooden dock onto the grassy lawn, and therefore I could easily fix the sentence to make it say what the author intended.

Writers, never assume readers can see the movie in your head.

Although there are assumptions we can make–when people stand, they stand up, for instance; when they sit, they sit down–there are times when specificity is the key to clear, solid writing.

In the case of the example listed above, the author simply needed to tell us this: “I step off the deck into the grass.” Three simple words, and we know the narrator didn’t suddenly go off the deep end. (Groan if you must! :))

By the way, there are instances when characters might stand down or sit up, and then stand or sit need further specification. Otherwise, leave them alone.


Snow was still falling during my break from editing about an hour ago, and the plastic “bubbles” covering the basement windows were covered in thick layers of white. Rather than blocking the light this morning, the snow enhanced it, creating a strangely bright glow. The light muted as evening arrived, but I love the brilliance snow lends the night.

Below is a photo I took last Christmas: lights strung around a tree and reflected in a snow globe on the fireplace mantle. (And, if you look closely enough, you can see the camera strap’s reflection, too, and my funky distorted image.)

c. EE, December 2011
c. EE, December 2011

Merry Christmas!

I’m not a fan of Santa Claus–just bein’ honest–but I didn’t take any good Christmas photos this year, so here’s Santa and Mrs. Claus, waving greetings to onlookers awaiting the lighting of the tree on the green:

c. November 2012, EEMerry Christmas!
c. November 2012, EE 

After some sneaky-sneaking and orders not to peek, a couple family members are holed up elsewhere in the house, wrapping presents for tomorrow. The littles are watching Nick Jr. programming on TV, the eldest is playing a game on her DS, and I’m contemplating a viewing of The Nativity Story later tonight. Nothing says Christmas like electronic entertainment. 😉

Actually, I’m anticipating more Christmas music, the tearing of gift wrap, and lots of smiles–“brought to you by” happy recipients and the second chapter of Luke.

Regardless of your religious affiliation–or non-affiliation, as you choose–I send you the warmest wishes for a blessed holiday.


How to Alienate an Editor

IMG_5934^ReadWriteEditThe conversation began October 9: “What would be your charges for editing 300 page ms?”

Seems like a simple answer would be in order, right? Just quote a figure and wait for his reply.

But the cost depends on what kind of editing the potential client might need, and whether or not we’d work well together, and–to be honest–whether or not I want to expend much energy on his manuscript. After all, I have to like the story, too, if I’m going to spend weeks or months helping an author prepare a novel for publication.

So, I asked a question or two in return, and included a list of services and fees.

A couple days later, he asked for that information again. I sent it.

Four days after that, he told me a little about himself–he’d spent several years as an editor, too–and then asked for a break on the fees. He also asked (“since you live in Vancouver”) if I’d read an article he’d written.

I don’t live in Canada.

My reply:

Let’s do this: send your first five pages — or any set of five consecutive pages, the rougher the better — and I’ll provide edits for free, which is a courtesy for new clients.

Then we can evaluate one another, and decide if we’ll be a good team.

Not only do I freelance as an editor, but I currently work for a publishing company, so I’m almost always working on a project for someone else, in addition to producing my own writing. If you need a quick turnaround (within a month, for instance), I may not be the editor you need. However, if you have a couple of months, I can accept the assignment.

…If we decide to work together, I’ll propose a flat fee for the manuscript then. Sound good?

If we decided to work together. If.

Another couple of days, he sent his five pages, I edited and returned them, and all seemed well with the world.

The potential client:

Thanks for sending  a sample edit and your comments. Where do we go from here?

He asked questions about the editing process and, once more, inquired about the fees.


In answer to your question about changes: Sometimes I make changes directly in the text, but the author always sees those changes and can make his own revisions or leave things the same. As for the comments in the margins, I use those to explain why I made a change, or why an author should consider a change.

…As for the fee, I must be honest: It’s probably going to be expensive. I’ll consider dropping the…rate down to $__/page, but that’s still a hefty price.

…Are you sure you want to pay for an editor at this stage…?

…I’d like to find out whether or not we’ll work well together. To that end, there’s a questionnaire…(By asking these questions, I get to know you as a person and as an author, and am more able to make an informed decision.

A month passed. I moved on to other projects.

Then the author responded, only halfway answering vital questions, which I re-asked. Turns out, what I thought was a novel was actually autobiographical material recounting the author’s experiences as an immigrant to Canada from India. Caught my interest, but from what I’d read of the manuscript, the story needed shaping.

So I made further suggestions for the author to consider, including the notion that he might consider beta readers (colleagues, friends) who could provide feedback on the book at no cost to him. After all, he seemed concerned about the cost of a professional edit, and readers can be the best editors, in that they know what they like and what they don’t. Honest, detailed feedback from beta readers can be an author’s goldmine.

The author:

I am sending you synopsis of my ms which answers most of your questions. The ms i complete and ready to be sent. I have been a copy editor with newspapers so I am hoping my ms will not need much editing. However, I would welcome critique of the story/ structure etc.

Would you be inclined to do a sample edit? Plse advise.

Journalistic writing is different from fiction in goal and structure: one conveys information first then story, while one focuses on story while interspersing information as necessary. These are generalities, of course–sometimes journalism can read like fiction, and sometimes a novel can use the form of journalism to tell its story.

Still, simply because one is experienced at one type of writing does not mean one is prepared for the other. In this case, the author needed an editor to help shape the material into a coherent, smooth story rather than just a list of facts and events.

My response:

I did a sample edit back in October (document attached), but if you want a critique (…evaluation of story, structure, etc.), go ahead and send along the whole manuscript.

…FYI: I will be working on two existing projects, as well, so if you have a deadline, please let me know so I can adjust my schedule accordingly.

If this response sounds clipped, it is. I was annoyed at the circular conversation, at the covering of old ground and the lack of forward motion.

Again, he asked:

Can you please give me a ball park figure so I know if your charges are within my budget?

Me, setting aside the niceties and being blunt, and doing a bit of repetition of my own, though still with the author’s good in mind as I typed the reply:

Today, you sent a request concerning my cost to work on your manuscript; below is a message I sent about a week ago, quoting $__/page for a critique. An in-depth content or storytelling edit would be $__/page.

…We keep circling the same topics/questions, which seems to indicate neither of us is ready to tackle this project beyond where it is now. My price is very likely outside your preferred range, which perhaps makes you reluctant to proceed, and I am currently contracted to edit two manuscripts for a publisher as well as produce my own writing, so am not able to take on an in-depth editing until well after the New Year.

For free (or almost free) editing, nothing beats beta readers you can trust to give you honest feedback on your work. You’ll have to do the editing/revisions yourself, and maybe pay for coffee or lunch for the readers as you discuss the book, but it’s worth it.

The author:

Thank you for your insensitive and rude response. For your info, I have been a copy editor on daily newspapers in Canada so i resent your rude and patronizing remarks.

Since you are so busy, I’ll look for someone else who knows how to treat clients with respect and work with them, not against them.

My response:

We must have communicated at cross purposes, because I did not intend any rudeness in my response.

I do have copies of all of our correspondence. We have circled the same topics on more than one occasion, and I have answered the same questions more than once, which tells me that we are not communicating. That is simply a statement of fact; it is not intended as rudeness.

Just as you have worked many years as a copy editor, I have worked many years as a writer and editor. This isn’t my first rodeo.

I’m sorry that you are not satisfied with this process, but this just lets us both know we likely would not have been a good fit as a writer/editor team.

I wish you well in your future endeavors.

Only one other time has an author attacked like that, and it was about ten years ago, when an elderly writer whom I did not know scolded me over the phone for not responding to his e-mails. (I never received them.)

As someone pointed out regarding the current author, though, I may have experienced a cultural gender clash. This is only speculation, but he may have expected me to slash my fees because bartering is an acceptable part of purchasing goods or services, and I should have done whatever it took to get the job. (Bartering’s okay with me, but I also have a bottom line.) Also, as a woman, I should have shown more deference to a man.

The communication process was a preview of what I would likely encounter during the editing: he might not actually read what I wrote, would ignore my suggestions, or not even consider looking at his work from a different angle. He might keep pushing me to negotiate this or that. We would go ’round and ’round the same topics, making little or no progress.

Not my idea of fun, nor of a good way to make a paycheck.

In this case, who knows if I would actually have been paid once I performed the work?

Simply because one hangs out a shingle advertising one’s expertise, and a potential client approaches, does not mean one is obligated to accept the commission. There is more than money to consider when making a decision.

What Love Looks Like

This week, I’m visiting family for Christmas, and one might think that, after many months away and long hours of travel to return, I might forego any editing work or writing, and spend all my time in the warm embrace of close kindred.

That embrace has not always been one of comfort, but of control and bought affection. It smothered. It threatened. It even attempted murder.

More than once.

But some of us broke free. We left those we thought we loved, but whom we knew could not love us.

Holidays assayed in their presence often ended in fights and ugly words, and sometimes violence. Our final Thanksgiving with them, my father beat his brother-in-law—not because Dad was spoiling for a fight, but because he was protecting us from an unwarranted and unexpected attack. Thank God Uncle’s head had just been buzzed, or Dad would have grabbed a fistful of hair and beaten Uncle’s head against the gravel driveway.

Lest you feel too much sympathy for him, here are a couple examples of violence against us children: Uncle had tried to hit my infant cousin’s head with a shovel (my aunt turned, shielding her son, and was herself hit with the shovel). Years later, at the aforementioned Thanksgiving, that same cousin’s older brother and I were almost smothered inside a sleeping bag when Uncle wouldn’t let us go.

So you’ll understand why I say, “Thank God Uncle’s head had been buzzed.” I’d rather never see that man again than lose my father for murder.

A later attempt to return for a summer visit—the last time I entered that house, hoping that family could mend—resulted in weapons being turned on us children as a threat to our parents.

That was the first of two times I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun.

Over the years since, we’ve had to learn what love looks like, how it feels, acts, speaks. The old taint tries to creep in every once in a while, tries to steal understanding with impatience, to replace humility with contention. Pride has no place in love, nor does selfish superiority. Love seeks the good of others, not for anything it can gain, but for everything it can give.

tree lighting c. 2012, EE
tree lighting
c. 2012, EE

It’s a shared laugh, a shared burden, even a shared shoulder. Sometimes it speaks just the right words, with or without tangled tongue, and sometimes it holds its peace.

One of the most well-known, oft-quoted definitions of love, one we can all embrace:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

(I Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV)

This holiday season, I wish you peace, hope, and much love.

*     *     *

UPDATE (12-21-12): In an ironic twist, who should call this afternoon but the uncle mentioned in the post above. He wanted to speak with my mother, but she was at work, so he chatted with me. Yes, chatted.

Thirty years, thousands of miles, and a great amount of both reflection and forgetfulness can lead to mutual Christmas wishes. Crazy. And full of grace.


A Feast of Notebooks

I’m currently editing two manuscripts for a publisher (one is a suspense novel, the other YA romance). After sending back the second round of edits on one manuscript in the wee hours of morning, I gave myself a mental break Wednesday: I sorted old writing notebooks.

That may not seem like a break, but for someone still finding her way with a neglected, unfinished manuscript, going through old notes is like a refresher course in creative writing. There are dialogue scenes that are pithy and pointed; action scenes that I wish continued past a few paragraphs; plot notes about threads I’d forgotten. Reading this material as if it were the work of a stranger, I became so absorbed that I didn’t even hear the call for supper.

It’s daunting, to tell the truth. There’s so much there, how can I ever hope to organize it into anything usable? Some of the material is moot now — I’ve already incorporated it into the manuscript, or the story took so different a turn that those notes no longer apply — but much of it is exciting, reminding me why I wrote the first book, and why this book must be written.

I found epic poems and humble prayers, a couple old maps penciled on blue graph paper, a scene from the point of view of an invisible boy.

Those notebooks are like the rich aromas of a home-cooked meal, tantalizing my senses until I can scarce wait to sit down to the feast.

Literary Kerfuffle

So, I unwittingly started a kerfuffle when I posted my response to a literary discussion concerning the “rules” for prologues.

And, since I didn’t toe the expected line, someone presented me with a bit of a finger-wagging scold.

Scold away, I say!

Here’s what the fuss was about:

A gentleman posted a topic for discussion, and in his post he stated, “(S)ome people have made comments about prologues in novels that surprised me. It seems that different people have different views on them and their purpose. Not all novels need a prologue. But for those that have them, to my mind, a prologue is a teaser.”

Then he presented a list of what a prologue should or should not be, and ended with the question, “Agree/disagree?”

Some folks agreed with the list of rules, some took exception to a point or two, and one gentleman gave this response:

A good subject to raise in view of the various opinions expressed elsewhere…True, prologues are often short, but I don’t think the length matters too much so long as the piece is well-written…Prologues seem to fit into some works more than others. Have a look at Ken Follett’s “The small boys came early for the hanging etc” in his prologue to The Pillars of the Earth. If you don’t read it you miss a heck of a lot; it both teases and foreshadows and, in my view anyway, is necessary.

Follett’s sequel World Without End doesn’t have a prologue. I found it interesting to compare his techniques.

Logical, with some backup material to support his remarks.

Then I waded in.

I’m leery of rules. And I’m especially leery of rules that are based on a particular writer’s (or group of writers) preferences.

Although there are some painfully bad prologues in this world, there are many that exhibit fine examples of condensed storytelling.

A prologue isn’t always necessary, true, but if it’s there, it needs to carry storytelling weight. It can reveal history, it can tease future events, it can be a scene that doesn’t fit neatly into the main body of the text, but it must, must, must add to the story.

Arbitrary rules go out the window if they exist at the expense of story.

Someone disagreed:

(R)ules…develop in response to trends & needs, & to avoid chaos. They help prevent newcomers from reinventing the wheel.

The list that started this thread is open for debate – thus the purpose of this thread, so they may or may not represent generally accepted rules.

The “rule” I live by is “you gotta know the rules to break them” (& to know if/when/how/why to break them).

Before breaking them or deeming them arbitrary, it deserves our attention to know if they really are rules, & why they exist.

Before passing judgment on whether rules ought be broken, I think we’re just establishing what basic rules exist in the fiction world re: prologues. Whether to follow them is another matter.


I’m all for knowing the rules. After all, they exist for a reason. My objection in this case is notion that prologues have rules.

There are writers who abhor them and writers who love them; writers with poor prologue execution, and writers whose prologues are poetry or exquisite short stories. Prologues are short, long, back story, future action, teasers, packed with information, and so on. Prologues are as different as the writers who write them.

My response:

Who or what is the arbiter of the prologue rules? Is there one? Why must a prologue (or an epilogue, for that matter) be subject to rules, outside of helping to tell the story?

Just as in other areas of life, there are bandwagon issues in literary circles: “never use an adverb” or “never use flashbacks”, and so on.

These “rules” are often preferences, not grammatical or mechanical necessities, or storytelling must-haves.

And though I can advocate for knowing the rules in order to break them well, I still argue that the prologue issue (should a story ever have a prologue, or what must a prologue include?) is not itself a rule, but a preference.

The written word is limited in its ability to convey tone of voice. That is evident in the response below, because the author has read into my words something that didn’t exist when I typed them:

So the opinions here are negated, unnecessary & this is a silly discussion?

…Just because no one’s yet (to my knowledge) written a book about the prologue & laid down rules doesn’t mean some unspoken rules exist…I’d further guess a lot of publishing houses have very definite, articulated rules re: prologues, written for all editors to heed (& break when appropriate).

Preference or not, it’s good to know what the literary preference is, figure out why, & know when to or not to heed it.

By answering here, I’m trying to return to the subject & take the confrontational tone out. Please follow suit.

Well, that’s a head-scratcher. I was never off topic. Never said anyone’s opinion was negated or unnecessary, never said the discussion was silly. Confrontational tone? I can see how my questions might have seemed that way. I objected to imposing rules where none exist.

Nor, in my opinion, should such rules exist. There may be a basic story structure we all employ — beginning, middle, end, with an arc of rising action, climax, and falling action — but we all use that structure to serve our stories, not twist our stories to serve that structure.

Some tales are told inside out. Some are told backward. Some rely heavily on dialogue, some on action. Some are introspective, some spend very little time in the main character’s thoughts. Some have epilogues or prologues. Some use lines of poetry as chapter titles. Some only number their chapters. Whatever works. Whatever serves the story should be used.

I hate seeing young or rookie authors being hemmed in by storytelling “rules” that are imprisoning and arbitrary. One editor said she hates the word atop, and will strike it from every manuscript in which it appears. At a conference several years ago, the keynote speaker (a woman) said that women should not write battle scenes, because women are too soft to write with real grit. One writer likes to keep his descriptions to one sentence, and another likes to invite the reader into the scene by including an entire paragraph.

Different approaches, but certainly none of them following a rule authors can point to in a grammar book or a storytelling guide.

Preferences, not rules.

And I still love a well-written prologue.

Now, Where Was I?

NaNoWriMo is over. I barely broke 30,000 words, so I didn’t win a web badge or a downloadable certificate, but progress was made on a dusty manuscript, too long neglected because its author is too easily distracted. With life tugging on my attention, I need to remember why I write. I need to remember to write.

Ever have those days when you forget to eat? Or go for hours before remembering that, oh, yeah, the reason you originally left the office was because you had to use the restroom?

Lately, that’s me and writing.

After about a year or so of acute manuscript neglect, I’ve lost my way with the plot, characters, dialogue, you name it. This past month, I floundered in a mire of old notes, some so oblique I no longer know what I intended.

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been cranking out all sorts of small projects, just not working on any of the unfinished novels. The only complete manuscript has been sent out, and is most likely lying in a publisher’s slush pile, awaiting perusal by a reader who will decide whether or not it advances to the editor’s desk.

Despite uncertainty how to proceed, I haven’t grown bored with the novels. If the author’s uninterested, how much more the readers! No, it’s time to become reacquainted with the stories. If I can’t recall my original intentions for their progress, well, then, who says I can’t imagine something new?

When I asked a plot question of a fellow author whose romantic suspense novel I recently edited, she replied, “The story has to happen that way so (a later dramatic event) can happen.”

She refused to plug a plot hole by approaching her story from a new angle. I’ve been there a time or two: This must happen because that must happen.

waiting for the paradec. EE, November 2012
waiting for the parade
c. EE, November 2012

Says who?

Says me?

Well, since I’m in charge, I can change my mind. I can adjust the plan, redirect the characters, change the venue of an action scene, put one character’s dialogue into a different character’s mouth. It’s all in my hands. I am the master of the universe! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!

So. That’s all sorted.

Now, where was I?