A Bit of an Editorial Rant

This past autumn, a question was posed in an online group to which I belong:

I’m an editor, struggling with how to get the best from authors who are not professional writers. As an author myself, I know how easy it is to squelch the delicate creative voice inside, but I need to ensure readability and standards. I also want multiple submissions from this group of authors who are…experts on a narrow topic, so I don’t have many to choose from. How much editing is too much, how much too little? And how do you facilitate the editor-author interaction?

Readability and standards — both of them are concepts writers should understand. Yes, in your own point of view, you’ve told a wonderful story (or, in the case of the nonfiction authors mentioned above, a fascinating piece of nonfiction), but how readable is it? Have you paid attention to grammar and sentence structure and all the nuts-and-bolts stuff that makes a good story easy to read? Or have you tossed all your ideas onto the page in the literary version of a rubbish heap, and now you’re expecting someone else to make it pretty?

Even if grammar or spelling or punctuation isn’t your strength, learn it.

Ask questions. Read reference materials. Look up information online. Consult fellow writers and readers. Talk to experts.

KNOW your craft. HONE your craft.

If that sounds easier said than done, it is.

The hard work must still be done.

Why should anyone else — least of all, an editor — care about your work if you do not?

I wasn’t born knowing how to put together a story or how edit one. I didn’t arrive in this world knowing how to spell, nor even how to speak. None of us were — but we learned.

My response to the above question:

In response to whether or not an editor should rewrite sentences, or simply confine edits to comments in the margin: A good editor does both. It’s not about making over the manuscript into the editor’s image, but about helping the author produce his best work.

Sometimes, a comment in the margin can only confuse the matter, especially when explaining points of grammar, so rewriting the sentence is an excellent form of illustrating the point. Often, I rewrite sentences when they don’t say what the author intends (subject-verb agreement, for instance, or misplaced modifiers).

I’ll also restructure paragraphs that don’t flow well. In those instances, I generally don’t have to rewrite anything, but rearrange the sentences so the ideas will build on each other in a logical or more fluid manner.

My favorite kind of author to work with is one who approaches the editing process with trust and as a partnership, knowing that I want what he wants: an excellent end result = a clean, strong novel that readers will enjoy.

That enjoyment is lessened if they’re constantly stumbling over awkward paragraphs or convoluted sentences.

After all the rough drafts and messiness of the creation process have been cleared away, and you’ve set about polishing your jewel of a novel, pay attention to your audience, and help them enjoy your work.

And that’s what it’s all about, right? Serving our readers.

Blackberries

Blackberry_ClusterI remember the plump sound of blackberries hitting the bottom of a metal pail, and the purple-black stains they bled onto my fingers. I ate as many as I put in the bucket, and likely more. Although I feared the bees that nested in the briar patch sweetness, I bore more scars from thorns than from stings, for nothing kept me from hunting the treasures on those broad-leafed vines.

Yet, as I grew from adventurous child to uncertain adult, life yielded less fruit until its vines were bare even of leaves. I continued to search, but the day came when — like the caged bird whose bloody wings can bear the pain of hope no longer — I turned from the briars, hung my empty pail upon a peg, and commanded myself to grow up; to accept there are no magic kingdoms in this world; to realize control is an illusion; to see that love is a deed, not a word; to know happiness is a snowflake, not a diamond. I must weep no more.

Where once I wore thin sundresses in which to gather berries, I now wore armor that grew thicker with each stinging encounter. Even my soul was encased in iron.

The brambles behind me withered, yet their brown thorns honed in death, clawing at Memory, for it could wear no skin tough enough to fend off the sudden ambushes of the past.

Then, longing for days of excitement and wonder, I wept. Armor rusted and fell away. Tributaries of hurt, anger, fear and loss fed the torrent, flowing out to flood fallow ground and dormant dreams.

Green appeared, and hope returned. New vines grew from tangled thorns, for now sun reached golden fingers toward the seeds, revealing an ancient truth that is new only to youth and folly: “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

Taking the old metal pail from its peg, I went down to the blackberry patch, and there I met life and reached deep into its heart to pluck from it the fruit that grows there, sweet despite the thorns.

— E. Easter

Word Safari: Pith Helmet and Thick Skin Required

Ol’ Will said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Perhaps all the world’s a safari, and we’re either the hunter or the hunted.

Ever been to a writers meeting? Belong to a writers group? Attended a critique at a writers retreat? Ever present your work for others to rip apart?

If so, brave you!

Writers can encourage one another, help one another, or we can turn on the weak, the wounded, even the strong, and attack them as if we were piranha and they were the blood-rich flesh in the water.

Like any other group (actors, politicians, the local PTA), we writers have our personalities and pettiness: people who squash others on the way to the top; people who have all the talent but are too timid to use it; people who hone their skills and step boldly into the light — only to get shot down because now the enemy can see them.

So, why bother? Why put our work out there for the world to annihilate? Isn’t that a lot like putting an infant in front of a tiger? Perhaps.

But why not live dangerously? After all, if the hero has nothing to fight against, has nothing to overcome, what’s the point?

We can take all the writing classes available, read all the books we can, but until we write, we are not writers. Until we let someone read our work, how will we ever know how strong we are, as people and as writers?

I remember the first critique my writing ever received, and it wasn’t pretty. I had to read a story in front of the class, and I was the only one laughing at the jokes. I was a determined 10-year-old, however, and I was not going to quit just ’cause some unimaginative fifth-graders didn’t like my story. So there! Receiving honest feedback was not something I did well.

Even now, decades later, critiques can still sting. I may not like the fact that a story has weaknesses, but a true friend will point out those weaknesses so they may be corrected. Like iodine to a wound, it may hurt but it is only meant for good.

But beware frustrated writers who suspect everyone else is better than they are. These writers are rarely happy for anyone else’s successes. They carry verbal elephant guns loaded with enough ammunition to take down entire herds of ideas.french-pith_lrg

BANG! They don’t like the style.

BANG! They hate the setting.

BANG! The subject is boring.

BANG! They’ve never liked that genre.

Nothing pleases them, they have little or nothing useful to offer, and they leave carnage in their wake. I’ve seen talented writers fall prey to their traps and never rise again.

When you do decide to set off into the wilds in search of the elusive critique partner perfect for you, wear a pith helmet sturdy enough to keep your thoughts encouraged, slather on enough sunblock to protect you from scathing words, and carry clear-lensed binoculars calibrated to let you see the truth in spite of all the verbiage. Wisdom comes with time; there will be pitfalls on the path, and you will suffer injury sometimes, but you won’t find the help you need if you never venture out of the Land Rover.

The best stories are born of adversity.

Crazy how we need to take our own advice. In my former writing group, I really needed to be reminded of this. One writer was working on her next manuscript, and although everyone else brought new material in need of a critique or a polish, she absorbed most of the attention. I stopped bringing anything for the group to read, because they didn’t “do” fantasy or science fiction.

However, I do have a small circle of readers — friends and family — who give honest feedback. Took me a while to train ’em to not be so delicate, but we have a pretty good give-and-take now, and they catch a lot of my errors, for which I am grateful beyond words.

—————————————-

The above was posted several years ago on a different blog. I revised and updated it for this site, and below are a few responses from fellow writers to that original version. Their remarks add to the discussion, and might be of use to the readers today.

DP — “I don’t know what to say. I am at a loss for words. I have a full bottle of Iodine and nothing to pour it on. I now reflect on how upset I got at some of those critique groups who couldn’t see the genius in my verbiage, and realize after re-reading it after a long hiatus how right they were. Very salient post.”

AF — “I get this totally, on several levels. I’ve been a part of far too many writer’s groups filled with people who rarely get any writing done, that or as you say, the “writers” critique with no idea what they’re talking abou…so why do I go? Well the short answer is, I don’t anymore. Like you, I have a few friends that I trust, who read my stuff, and we have an agreement that I’ll read theirs as well…and we go on that a’ way. Works much better than listening to people talk about what they want to write (though they never actual get anything on paper) and then trusting that lot with my manuscripts? No way…”

KB — “I’ve considered ditching any form of round-table-style group,but I can’t seem to totally absent myself from the one to which I’ve belonged for several years. I like these people, but it’s frustrating that they’re more than happy to take my help but won’t give time to my work.

“As for people talking about what they’re going to write, but producing little in the way of actual writing, I’ve been in those groups, too, and had the same reaction: Why put my hard work in the hands of people who won’t do the hard work themselves?”

Writing Your Novel Your Way

Elements of Plotby Terri Main
Elements of Plot
by Terri Main

I recently read the Kindle edition of Elements of Plot: A Personalized Approach by Terri Main, founder of Wordmaster Communications, with a mission of providing writers with “quality publishing and educational services at reasonable prices.”

At 99 cents, Elements of Plot is certainly reasonable, and the material inside is concise, valuable, and fun to read.

First in a projected series (“Writing Your Novel YOUR Way”), Elements of Plot includes a variety of methods to plotting/outlining your novel. It is very readable and well-written–35 pages, so it’s compact– and full of good advice without trying to impose “the” way to approach novel-writing.

Reading books on writing, though useful in many ways, can simply add to the confusion. I’ve read more than fifty of them and if I include articles in Writer’s Digest, The Writer, on blogs and websites, I probably read the equivalent of another fifty or one hundred books in the forty-five years since I first decided I wanted to write things other people would read.

I’ve learned from each of them. Many of them have also confused me. One book was all about plotting and the “proper” way to do that. Another I read, said “plot is an illusion.” According to that author, plot is merely “the accumulated actions the character takes in resolving a problem.” Hmmm… Sounds like a plot to me.

Most require very long and very detailed plot outlines, although the nature of those plot outlines varies greatly. Some look like snowflakes, some like wagon wheels, some are meandering paths, some are written on cards and shuffled, some are pages in a notebook.

Each author has his “one-and-only” way to write an outline.

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you’ve run into these one-and-only-way types who just know how a story is supposed to be told. I’ve encountered some recently in a debate over the necessity or usefulness of prologues and epilogues, but that’s a story for another day.

Main is also the author of Creative Calisthenics: A Workout for the Writer’s Imagination, and she recently answered a few of my questions about her new book.

I’m an educator first. One thing we know about education is that different people learn in different ways. The same is true of writing. When I teach magazine writing, I give students six methods of “outlining’ an article. None of which your English teacher told you about. So, I’m very big on adapting to a person’s individual style and helping them optimize that style.

I’ve got a book in outline form right now I’m calling “Noveling by the Seat of your Pants.” No one I can see has written one from that perspective. The big misconception (even among Pantsers) is that they don’t create a plot outline. They do. The plot outline is their first draft. Instead of trying to imagine where the story is going to go and writing down notes, scratching out a line in an outline, and moving around summaries of scenes. They do that with paragraphs and pages.

So, that’s my next big writing book project. This month I’m working on getting a sequel out for another novel.

1. What inspired the series?

Actually, I bought a book on novel writing authored by a woman who taught a class for a major reputable writing school. I started reading it and she was speaking very “authoritatively” about the way to plot a novel. It was a very detailed method planning out every nuance of every scene in every chapter before you began to write anything. Then she said something to the effect that people who don’t do this type of planning simply will not ever be successful writing their novels. They will fail. So, that made me curious about her track record. I looked her up and discovered that aside from the book on novel writing, she had only published a couple of short stories and an article for a literary magazine. She had never actually published a novel.

It started me thinking about the successful authors I knew. Some did do detailed planning, like this author advised. Others made a sort of overview and then filled in the rest as they wrote. Still others “write by the seat of the pants.” As an educator (I spent 30 years teaching college), I already knew different people learn differently. It only made sense that they would approach writing differently as well. That didn’t mean that they couldn’t improve, but that improvement needed to take account of their methodology.

Yet, every book and school out there took the same approach. There was one and only way to write a novel – MY WAY! So, people would grab a hold of one of these methods, and they worked for some, but most got burned out because they were using another person’s tool and not their own. Also, I found that none of the books even recognized that you could write a novel without making detailed plot outlines (of course, only using their method.) So, I wrote a few limited blog posts about the three methods and later expanded it into a short course and then a book.

2. How many books do you think will be included?

I currently have books planned on the following:

Character Development (Character dossiers are fine, but not for everyone. Why not interview a character or discover her as you write?)
World Making (Creating the “world” in which your story takes place)
First drafts, Editing and Revision (Product creation)

And one I am just now beginning to consider adding is Publishing and Marketing YOUR Way. At one time there was really only one way to get that novel published. Find a publisher or agent and hope your novel made its way through the slush pile. That’s still one way, but we have so many others as well. You can go to small traditional publishers who may only publish a few volumes a year, but can give each author a lot of attention.

There are some writer’s collaboratives springing up which share the costs of publishing and marketing, but otherwise run the collaborative like a publisher with standards for publication, etc. Then you can go the self-publishing route and get out a print book on Amazon for as little at $20 and have it distributed to other online sellers for under $100. Or you can go digital and publish ebooks on Kindle, Nook, iPad, Sony and a bunch of other places essentially for free. Each of these has challenges and advantages.

Also a lot of the old rules no longer apply. Self published books in the past simply could not be sold unless you were, say a traveling speaker and sold them after the meetings. Bookstores wouldn’t carry them. But with Amazon carrying just about anything that has been published, you don’t have to worry about the local Mom and Pop not having your book.

I’ve published traditionally with a small publisher and I’ve self published. And honestly, the “respect” that followed traditional publishing helped me get some reviews, but not really a lot of sales. But then, if I want to publish with the Big Houses someday, self-pubbing now might spoil those possibilities. Also some people simply do not have the personality to self-pub. You are in charge of everything. Some of us like that, but others prefer to “just write.”

So, again, there is no one-size fits all approach.

Sounds good to this independent writer!

If you’re interested in any of Main’s other work, here are links to her previous books:Dark Side of the Moon

Death Gets an “F” (A Pinewood College Mystery)

Dark Side of the Moon (A Carolyn Masters Mystery)

Parmenter’s Wager (Science Fiction Short Story)

A Question of Defense (Science Fiction Short Story)

Terri Main’s book announcement blog

She is working on a sequel to Death Gets an “F”, and her traditional publisher has the sequel to Dark Side of the Moon.

So, we are moving along.

And with the various outline methods available — especially in the chapter entitled Creating Detailed Plot Outlines — I have no excuse not to plot my next novel. This pantser had better get crackin’!

Grape Arbors, Gray Hair, and Grandma

c. EE
c. EE

There was a grape arbor on the property where we lived in Sweet Home, Oregon. It was an arched structure that grew heavy with grapes each year, and was a haven for kids playing hide-and-seek, as long as the bees weren’t disturbed. I don’t know how many times I was stung! But, no matter how much I feared those bees, I wanted the sweet grapes, and they just weren’t reachable on the outside of the arbor. Inside, plump bunches hung from overhanging vines, easy pickings for a six-year-old.

Thirty years, many houses, and several states later, I still want a grape arbor in the back yard. They show up in my stories until they’ve become a recurring motif; I’ve cut them out, except for one or two instances where they fit the story too perfectly to be moved.

This covered walkway (pictured here, early November 2007) is at Little Portion Hermitage, and features not only grape vines but honeysuckle and other viney plants. Even in autumn, when leaves and blooms are gone, beauty remains in twining stalks and graceful braided limbs that still provide shelter from the sun, filtering its light, softening sharp edges, muting harsh colors.

Too often in Western culture, specifically American culture, our elders are accorded little respect, as if their usefulness and beauty are gone now that autumn has come. In winter, their strength latent, stark and snow-covered, how many elders are sought for their wisdom, for their stories of yesterday? For their advice about tomorrow?

My paternal grandmother was not an educated woman, in the sense that she had only elementary schooling. That didn’t stop her from writing. She wrote letters to whoever would correspond with her, and from Oregon she wrote articles for a newspaper back in Arkansas (now gone, burned decades ago, along with its archives). She also wrote her memoirs, which disappeared after her death, taken by a family member who either lost them or destroyed them; the family has never been quite sure. But it is, after all, a colorful and imperfect family, and who knows what secrets Grandma revealed in that stack of paper?

I have every letter she ever wrote to me (or pretty near every letter), stored in a box in the office closet. Sometimes I bring them out and read a couple at random. Some of them have a note from Grandpa in his own handwriting–he was never much of a talker, much less a writer–but most of the comments from him are in Grandma’s scrawl, her record of his dictation.

Far from perfect, possessing their share of mistakes and human follies, my grandparents still had wisdom to share. They prayed nightly for every child, grandchild, great-grandchild, and who-knows-who, calling them by name. I know, because I would lie in bed or on a pallet on the floor and listen for my name.

They encouraged my writing, listening to me read it aloud even when there were other things that needed doing, or when there were grownups around who wanted to talk to them. I have no children, but my oldest niece is fourteen, and she is a writer. Where I used to work, I helped schoolchildren learn to write poems, essays, stories. As my hair grows grayer, and age becomes yearly more apparent, I am more relaxed about appearance but more aware of passing time, of all the things I’ve left unwritten.