Tag Archives: Critiques

This Book, Right Now

It’s an epic, never-ending battle between mind and emotions: Who cares? Who’s gonna read this? Is it a story worth telling? Well, dagnabbit, I’m a wordsmith; of course it’s good! No, no, it’s utter garbage.

Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written — none or dozens.

Doesn’t matter how many reviews you’ve gained — none or hundreds.

Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve sold — none or millions.

It’s all about the book in front of you.

What I’m about to write may seem to contradict what I wrote in Mentors v. Gatekeepers, which is about finding mentors to teach us, and breaking free of the gatekeepers who might try to keep our stories from reaching the world.

However, as much as I am a dreamer, I’m also a realist. No writer is perfect. We all need an objective eye. That perspective can come from a critique partner, a writers group, an agent, an editor. We need that honest person who’ll say, “I understand you’re trying to make us feel the wind, but this sentence crashes to ground.”

We might, on occasion, pen a short story or a poem that needs minimal revising, or none. Sometimes we’ll write a scene or a chapter that is barely edited, if it’s edited at all, because it’s good from the beginning. However, those rare glimpses of perfection should not be mistaken for signs that we have nothing more to learn.

Sure, you might win contests, awards, accolades, admiration, celebrity, financial success.

Sure, you might publish a string of bestsellers.

Sure, you could kick back and rest on the smug knowledge that you have written, and written well.

But all that falls away in the presence of the book you’re writing now.

This book, right now.

Will you dash it off, not spending the same time and care as you might have done when you were green and uncertain? When you were hungry?

Or will you be even more precise with your choices, your efforts, knowing that you owe your readers your best, although readers owe you nothing?

Until recently, I edited manuscripts for a publisher. It was challenging and educational, and far less glamorous and lucrative than some might expect. Many manuscripts should never have been given contracts, because either the stories or the writing weren’t ready for publication, and read more like works in progress rather than final drafts. But there were many that only needed a scene rewrite here or there, dialogue revisions, minor proofing, or expanded endings.*

The point is this: every manuscript needed an editor.
bookstore entrance (c2011, KB)
bookstore entrance
(c2011, KB)

However, one major reason I am no longer working for the publisher is the notion that some writers are perfect, their work approaching the sanctity of Holy Writ. I was given the resumes and bios of certain writers, not merely to inform me of their background, but to tell me — without the actual words being said — Here There Be Untouchables. I was expected to do my job so lightly that egos were stroked without being ruffled.

Anyone who knows me also knows I am not an ego-stroker. I give praise and encouragement, but I will not flatter. Flattery stresses me. Flattery makes my insides curl up like frightened potato bugs.

So does letting a problem fester and lie there without being addressed. I hate confrontation, but dealing with a problem is necessary. It’s like feng shui for the soul.

After the latest round of flatter-don’t-edit, I turned in my resignation. (Read more about it here: “When It’s Time To Go“.)

Just as writers aren’t perfect, neither are editors. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve been the pompous youngster who thought he knew far more than he actually did. Memories of past stupidities still make me shudder.

And I’m a writer, too, so there are even more past mistakes to make me want to hide under a blanket until everyone forgets I’m an idiot.

Pride and insecurity are two fires that fuel writerly angst and sensitivity. Pride stings when someone pokes, stabs, or slaps it. Pride doesn’t like it when someone says, “That scene doesn’t work” or “This chapter is boring.” Pride wants to cross its arms and ignore the negative feedback, or even to draw a verbal sword and attack the critic.

I know. I battled stung pride a couple days ago, wanting to stab back at a reader whose own arrogance overshadowed his advice.

But I’ve been here before. I’ve learned to sift through the feedback, take what I need, discard the rest.

I can’t pull out my past awards, my references, all the contest certificates or publishing credits. They’re nice on a resume, but they don’t have any bearing on the book in front of me.

Like every other writer, all I can do is my best on this book, right now.

 

* One disservice, I believe, television and movies have done to modern fiction is the rush to an ending. Back when The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was finally complete, and The Return of the King came to theatres, some viewers complained about the long ending. Those viewers had likely never read the book, in which essential story continued past the main battle. The conflict wasn’t over, and there was still an enemy or two to deal with. But that’s like real life, eh? There’s always something.

 

Cold Heart, Kindly Meant

In recent months, I’ve been approached by new writers seeking to self-publish their work, and have participated in a few discussions about and with independent authors. As a result, I’ve come to this conclusion: Regardless of literary skill or monetary remuneration, one’s self-discipline and willingness to keep learning are important to one’s success. (And one’s definition of success is important, as well.)

Some of the authors I’ve met understood their manuscripts’ need for good editing, but have wanted it at little or no expense. I understand that. I’d love to obtain excellent products at no cost to me. Free housing, free utilities, free whatever — that’d be great, huh?

But we appreciate and cherish that which we gained at great cost, that for which we sacrificed.

So, despite how cold-hearted these words may seem to new writers in search of praise and handouts, I say, “Suck it up. Work it out. Learn. Strive. Improve. Don’t whine. Grow up. Bind your wounds. Stand on your own feet. Know when to ask for help. Keep fighting. Know your worth. Be humble. And in the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent.”

Cold Spell ("I'll get you, my pretties!") c2013, EE
Cold Spell (“I’ll get you, my pretties!”)
c2013, EE

 What’s Your Style?

24 Amy's lip gloss^vertical crop
Amy (c2010, EE)

I am not a fashionista.

My style would raise eyebrows on Fifth Avenue. Eyebrows lifted in amusement or shock, who knows? I like comfort. For shoes, I prefer Birkenstocks or Crocs, or a pair of lightweight Sketcher knockoffs made of sturdy, breathable material. For pants, capris (’cause I’m a weird height, smack between petite and average) or stretchy pants (’cause along with a weird height, I’m so oddly sized that I rarely find jeans that don’t turn me into a sausage or fall down to my knees). Shirts? Skirts? Again, comfort.

Comfort with my imperfect self, comfort with my imperfect appearance, and comfort with not fitting in to the crowd. My angsty, stressed, approval-driven teenage self wouldn’t recognize me now.

Neither would Rookie Writer Me, whose voluminous, pretentious prose painted many a page purple. Deep purple. Flamboyant purple.

Embarrassed-Blush Purple.

By comparison, Veteran Writer Me is almost Earnest Hemingway. The writing is concise, direct. It feels comfortable, like a pair of baggy pajama pants.

But I don’t wear those pj pants everywhere. Such a style is not universally appropriate.

Borrowed from a book review on Keanan Brand’s blog, Adventures in Fiction:

A note about style or voice: Neither of those elements should overwhelm the story. Style or voice should never become the star of the novel, but should serve the story. Therefore, when I say that no particular passage stands out due to style, that’s not a bad thing. I’d rather have substance than pretty, pretty lights.

The same could not be said of a particular fantasy novel I read a few years ago. Touted as lyrical and mesmerizing, the writing style was often so flowery — ahem, poetic — that my brain glazed and my eyes crossed. Although there were a couple of scenes where I paid close attention and read word-for-word, most of the novel passed in page-flipping disinterest. The style overtook the story.

Good writing will always be recognized, because it is smooth, refreshing, engaging, intriguing, a good vehicle for the story — but the best writing style doesn’t draw attention to itself. It doesn’t stand in the way of the story.

I’ve edited a spate of manuscripts plagued by sentence fragments. I love sentence fragments. In moderation. When they make a point. But always? For no apparent reason? Just to be trendy and “with it”? Not so much. (See what I did there?) Sentence fragments are great for indicating surprise, irony, humor, fear, but too many in succession can quickly grow wearisome.

An awkward writing style is a form of author intrusion. Ever read a book or an article that feels forced, not because the author doesn’t know his material, but because there’s a self-conscious attempt to be cute, hip, or literary? The author doesn’t feel comfortable, as if wearing an ill-fitting garment. No matter how luxurious the fabric or how fashionable the label, it looks cheap.

Play around with clothing styles to find your fashion sense, and play with different writing styles to find your creative groove. Get down inside it, turn around a few times, take a few steps to see how it fits. And then write, write, write.

For Independent (Self-Published) Authors

A fellow writer and blogger, Sandy Appleyard, asked this on LinkedIn, regarding independent (self-published) authors: “Has the bar been lowered?”

One person commented that the bar is easy “to reach if you’re the one holding it.” Indeed.

Appleyard expanded further on her blog:

This past summer, however, I started reviewing strictly indie authors, simply to help them out and to gain more perspective in the indie world.  In a nutshell, as an indie author myself, I have found book reviewing to be a very positive experience, and it has helped my writing career a lot.

What’s disappointing is the amount of less-than-great independently published books that I’ve stumbled upon recently.

Here is a short list of the issues I’ve seen:

-Grammatical/spelling

-lack dialogue

-too much back story

-not enough action

-un-relatable characters and/or story line

When I read these less-than-great stories, I feel like rather than reviewing them, I need to provide a beta read and an edit.  Are indie authors neglecting to take these vital steps?

Susan McBeth, founder of Adventures By The Book, responded with a concern about professionalism:

As an author events coordinator, I am frequently asked to host events for authors with self-published books. I am amazed when I read the books, how poorly edited many of them are (strictly speaking from the ones I’ve reviewed, not to judge all). I recently read a book that I would have considered for an event because the writing was very good, and the story was compelling an innovative, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that it didn’t appear to have been edited, and as a professional who prides my business with quality events, I want to ensure the product I am featuring is professional.

She’s right to be concerned. Not only is the author’s reputation at stake, but so is hers.

By the way, for writers living in or near Southern California, McBeth has begun The Author Academy, workshops to train authors in marketing. (I live a few states away. sigh)

My two cents’ worth:

I’m a freelance editor as well as an associate editor for a publisher, but I was a freelancer first, and have always set a high bar for my clients. Whether or not they choose to rise to meet it is entirely their choice. I do my best for them, and then they submit their work wherever they will.

As an editor for a publisher, though, the circumstances are different: A contract has been signed, and now I must help the author polish his work for public display. Still, I encounter authors who don’t seem to realize that, yes, there’s still work to be done. A contract doesn’t mean a pat on the head, all is well, the work is perfect, and all the editor has to do is fix a few commas and grammatical errors. No, there are often major story overhauls and dialogue fixes, et cetera.

Even then, authors dig in their heels, revert corrected sentences to their original incorrect state (dangling/misplaced modifiers are a huge problem), refuse to insert a necessary scene or do the proper research into an industry about which they know nothing, and so on. It can be right warlike, trying to edit the book of an entrenched, recalcitrant author who deems his work perfect and my work meddling.

On the other hand, there is real joy in editing a writer who has already done much of the work, and submits a manuscript with clean copy, good story pacing and flow, dialogue that contributes to the story rather than stagnates on the page, and has considered every word’s right to be there. That means the author is a self-editor, and knows how to be strict with his work, and is therefore able to take the advice of another editor.

And, yes, I’ve encountered many self-published books similar in state to the ones described in your blog, Sandy. I wish authors could take a few steps back, release their “babies” into someone else’s arms, and open their minds to honest feedback — before publication. Perhaps they don’t realize that those nagging misspellings or a saggy middle or the anti-climatic climax really are big problems. Readers won’t just overlook them, nor will they be likely to forget. The next time they encounter a book by an author who disappointed them, they’ll pass.

Independent authors, don’t be afraid of feedback. Welcome it.

Honest critiques by beta readers are worth more than money, and you don’t have to pay for them. Beta readers have an objective point of view that you, as the author, do not. They’ll help you find plot holes, flat dialogue, forgotten plot threads, weak scenes, and much more. Not only will they find problems, they’ll provide solutions.

Hire a freelance (independent) editor. Seriously. Save up the money, no matter how long it takes, and hire an editor skilled in editing your type of book (novel, memoir, reference, et cetera). Ask for references or editing samples, establish a good rapport, and let the editor have at your manuscript. Nothing beats a well-edited novel.

If one or more of your beta readers is also skilled at grammar, spelling, punctuation, and such, they’ll likely find and point out many nitpicky errors as they read. This is helpful, especially if it’ll be a while before you can afford to hire that editor.

Writing can be a lonely business. If you have no close support system — a writers group, for instance — several can be found online via an Internet search. I belong to a couple, but don’t use them as much as I thought I might. Actually, I’m on the hunt for a group in my town or in a nearby community, and have considered posting signs, seeing if any hidden writers will join me in starting a new group. Just as honest beta readers are priceless, so is a solid group of writers who can critique and encourage one another toward excellence.

Questions or comments? I’m happy to help where I may.

Always Greener

March 2012, c EE
March 2012, c EE

We work all week so we can rest for a couple days. We scurry through chores so we can sit down and enjoy a moment of quiet, watching TV, reading a book, playing a computer game, solving a puzzle. We dream about winning a million dollars, retiring from a decades-old job, having more time, doing only what we love.

The grass is always greener. Our lives are always better. In some rosy far-off paradise in the future, everything will go our way and we’ll have everything we want.

In your mind, how does that future look? Who will be there? How will you spend your time? What does happiness look like?

In the present, I’ve caught myself complaining about things I once loved but now cause my jaw to clench. They chase away sleep and inspire rants.

Am I someone who is above being pleased? Never satisfied, plagued by perfectionism or idealism or just plain I-want-more-ism?

Maybe that’s not it.

Yeah, I’m like ‘most everyone — I dream of that nebulous someday — but what if the source of angst and complaint is something fixable? Not a bad attitude and “it’s all about me”, but something more tangible?

I’m reminded of a story told by Philip Yancey: He once served as the managing editor of a magazine, a job he could do but one that robbed his sleep, stressed him, and took away from his writing time. So, after trying and praying and plodding onward, he quit. Best decision. Now he could sleep.

A while back, I left a long-time job, and suddenly I could sleep. When I woke, I was rested.

Now, the sleep-thief is back. I’m doing a job for which I’m perfectly fitted, skill-wise, but temperamentally, not so much. The perfectionist in me expects more of others than they may be able or willing to give.

Do I quit?

Or do I alter my approach?

Do I change myself but still quit?

I’ll let you know.

Moment of Truth

Everyone stresses. Even those of us who meditate or pray, or try to set aside burdens that are not our own and let others take responsibility for their own actions — we all stress about something.

One person’s concern is not necessarily another’s. What angers one may make another laugh. What makes one cry may make another contemplative.

I try to be balanced in thinking and reacting to whatever life hands me, but have been known to let my train go screaming spectacularly off the rails over the stupidest things.

There’s no train wreck now, but a quiet, intense waiting. Earlier this week, I told the truth that had been roiling inside me and expressed to everyone but the two people who needed to hear it the most. For months, I wrestled with this truth — let resentment build, and anger. I worried that I might be wounding a tender young ego (the author’s), or might invite the wrath of an older but still tender ego (a founding editor’s).

So, instead of speaking truth, I stressed. I ranted. I grit my teeth and got to work, knowing that all these hours of labor might very likely be in vain when the egos refused to admit the same truth: the manuscript is weak, full of holes, and displays a lack of insight, knowledge, and life experience that can only come with maturity and hard work and a few knocks from the mere act of living.

But I, as the editor, am supposed to fix all that and make the novel worthy of publication.

I remember being a young teen author, maybe thirteen, maybe only twelve, when a novel-in-progress was critiqued by a local author. At the time, I didn’t appreciate her effort and time and wisdom. All I saw was the stuff she didn’t like, the flaws and the corrections. I didn’t absorb the truth. Not for many years, sometime in adulthood.

Then, finding her notes one day while looking for something else, I read again those words printed in pixelated font on yellowing paper. She thought I was a good and imaginative writer. She liked the story. It’s good; now, here are a few ways to make it better. If she didn’t think it or I were worth the time, she wouldn’t have written such a long critique.

In that moment of realization and shame, I wanted to thank her, but surely she’s long passed, and I don’t even recall her name.

So, decades later, I am hoping my own honest critique, written in the spirit of encouraging the author while still telling the truth, will be received in the way I intend.

Worry is fear, and I don’t want to be ruled by fear: fear of what others may think, say, or do; fear of a future that hasn’t arrived. Come what may, truth has been told. Stress is gone.

The Poo Hitteth the Fan

I love books. However, due to being an editor, when I read for pleasure and not work, I don’t necessarily finish every book I attempt. Call me jaded. I won’t argue.

When I was younger, my mother scolded me for having too many novels stacked by the bed, bookmarks sticking out, because she said I started more projects than I finished. That was a valid concern. But I was voracious and not very discriminating: If a book was even remotely interesting, it was read. Or, at the very least, it was skimmed for the good parts.

Recently, I posted a review of a novel that shall remain nameless. It isn’t a glowing review, as many of them are, yet despite being in the minority, it isn’t the only review to point out a glaring fact: Although the artwork and premise of the book are good, the writing is not.

I don’t make a habit of posting negative reviews, and I generally have to feel strongly one way or the other (positively or negatively) before reviewing anything. In this instance, I really wanted to like this book. It had been talked up and marketed, and the artwork is fantastic, so I opened up the book in anticipation of a great ride.

Disillusion in the first paragraph.

But I kept going.

As the pages piled up, so did my disappointment.

I would have let the matter lie, and just walked away in search of something else to read, but this particular author and his enthusiasts acknowledge and even defend the poor writing while extolling the virtues of the overall story. After all, they say, many bestsellers aren’t necessarily written well (Twilight and Harry Potter have been cited to me several times, as if they are the standard).

There was a time, years ago in my wide-eyed youth, when I might have joined their parade, and berated any ol’ jaded editor for being hung up on the sentences and missing the big picture.

Now, though, after years on the other side of the writing and publishing biz, I thoroughly understand the need for the writer to take pride in his own work first. After all, if he doesn’t, why should anyone else? Why should an editor fix all his mistakes?

“Yes, but that’s your job,” you say.

Agreed. An editor’s purpose is to help a writer shape and polish his work.

It is not my job to pat him on the head and let him get away with crappy writing just because his noggin is chock-full of cool ideas.

Below are excerpts from my original review, as well as a brief exchange with one of the author’s fans who is not pleased with what I wrote. (Excerpts, because the original exchange is rather long.)

Me:

The artwork is fantastic, and this book appears to have an enthusiastic audience, which bodes well for the author’s future…The story may very well have been as intriguing as all the glowing reviews indicate, but I could not get past the awkwardness/clunkiness of the writing.

Someone else who also attempted reading the book wasn’t bothered by the writing so much as by the execution of the story. When I pressed for more details, this person just handed back the book and said she lost interest after the first few chapters.

Disgruntled Fan:

You are an editor… your job is to find problems with books. Some of the most poorly written novels sell in the millions (Twilight, Harry Potter). This is because the masses are not editors but normal people who enjoy a good story. As someone who works for a competing publisher the ethical move would be to remove this review.

Me:

As for the argument that poorly-written novels are often bestsellers, I have no argument there. They are.

However, it’s not in me to lie about writing quality — to simply go along to get along, because, hey, everyone else seems to like it, so I should just shut up. No, this is my craft, and it matters to me…So when I expect excellence from fellow writers, that’s not unethical or negative. It’s simply a matter of course. After all, I’d much rather walk over the bridge built by the meticulous craftsman than walk over the one constructed by someone content with “good enough”.

Disgruntled Fan:

And as to your craft, is it only to give negative criticism? I was not aware that this was an editor’s job. Is it so hard to find redeeming qualities in a book (granted you only read two pages) when I see a multitude of people making a laundry list of redeeming qualities…(W)hat I read is “Your writing sucks; how did you get published? This was a mistake. Don’t quit your day job.” There was nothing positive and you made it sound like the worst book in the world. I do not want him to quite writing, I loved the story. You mention a bridge that is good enough… But that isn’t what you said. You didn’t say that his novel was good enough. You said that the dung was so rank that you had to walk away before vomiting. (comments truncated due to being more of the same)

Me:

I never said I quit reading after page two (“the first few pages”), nor did I tell the author to quit writing. As a teacher, I would never tell someone to quit writing. And you’re the one who mentioned dung and vomit — not I.

You also seem to be saying that, since I’m an editor, I have no right to an opinion regarding any book, nor should I post a review unless it’s positive. To the contrary, only saying positive things would be unethical, because I wouldn’t be completely honest…I can appreciate a person’s creativity and effort without enjoying how those efforts and creativity are employed.

…I never attacked his creativity or his ability to conjure up intriguing stories. In your first comment, you stated, “Some of the most poorly written novels… .” Seems you already know that the author, while creative in his storytelling, could have spent more time on the way he presented his story. And that, (dear reader), is my original review in a nutshell.

Proverbs 26:4 comes to mind: “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are” (The Bible, New Living Translation).

Just as I don’t often post negative reviews, I don’t often become mired in online debates. I’m not one who enjoys arguing or conflict. What would you have done? Would you have posted any review at all? Would you have let Disgruntled Fan have his/her say, and remained silent?

Death Comes to Pemberley: A Partial Review

200px-CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810)_hiresI’m a Jane Austen fan, ever since I read Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as a young teenager, and giggled at the subtle, gentle humor of those comedies of manners. Before opening the books, I was warned they might be difficult to understand for readers used to being spoon-fed ideas, so I’d best pay attention.

I did. And I loved them.

Then, in my twenties, I encountered Persuasion, and my first attempt at reading it ended after the first chapter or so: too many commas, as if Austen had found them on sale at a punctuation store, and made free with them all over the page. (Those extraneous commas may have loomed large due to my state of mind at the time rather than any quirk in the writer’s presentation.)

However, a friend had given me the book, despite herself not liking Austen, so I determined to overlook the excess punctuation and finish the story. When I did, I found a lead character with which I could identify, having myself been persuaded despite my heart.

160px-Jane_Austen_signature_from_her_will.svgNow, I own copies of each complete Austen novel, a biography, some of her early writings (fun!), and various incarnations of her stories on film (three versions of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, and two of Persuasion, and have owned up to three copies of Emma, though one has since gone away).

51sBuLT1ZzLAlthough amused at the recent romantic comedy/horror story mash-ups of the novels (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters), I wasn’t intrigued enough to read them, and although many modern writers have created sequels or spinoffs of the original material, I hadn’t read any until checking out a library copy of Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, an author whose mysteries I’ve enjoyed reading on occasion. (She is also the author of a dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men, that became a movie starring Clive Owen, and her Adam Dalgliesh novels were adapted for television; I watched them on Mystery! on PBS.)

Happy to have a stack of books to relish, I chose Death Comes to Pemberley as my first course in a literary meal.

The prologue amused, because it mimicked Austen, and I thought, “Well done, Baroness James!”

But then I hit chapter one. Then chapter two. And realized this was neither as scintillating as Jane Austen nor as mysterious as P.D. James, but some strange, bland mess that respected neither the authors nor the source material.

The characters from Pride and Prejudice lost their personalities, and became strangers to the reader, with Darcy and Elizabeth questioning their marriage: Should they have married at all? Did they love one another? Did Elizabeth choose Darcy only for his money?

James seems to have missed the fact that Elizabeth was a great one for irony: she would say the opposite of her true feelings or thoughts on a matter, just to poke fun at herself or to spar with a conversational partner. Therefore, she was not being serious in Pride and Prejudice when she mentioned falling in love with Darcy only after seeing his sumptuous estate.

Before the visit to Pemberley, she also had his letter, revealing some uncomfortable truths as well as making himself plain. I figure that went a long way toward kindling romantic feelings, which were likely present beforehand, although disguised as conflict. (There is a distinct push-pull when one is attracted to someone one believes is not quite acceptable, and Elizabeth and Darcy kept circling one another in social situations, never quite able to not engage.)

So, just those three things — the letter, the pre-existing attraction, and Elizabeth’s character — negate the doubts and second thoughts presented in James’s novel.

There was a distinct lack of suspense about this mystery. There’s no tension, intrigue, or interesting quality in the writing.

I didn’t care that Wickham was accused of murder. I never liked him anyway. He was a scoundrel and cad — as presented in P & P — and therefore why should I care now? Also, and I didn’t like the fact that a likeable, reasonable character (Colonel Fitzwilliam) was being written as the unlikable side of a love triangle, as well as a potential suspect in the murder of another somewhat likeable character (Captain Denney).

I tried liking Death Comes to Pemberley, but could only slog through until several pages after Wickham was found beside Denney’s body, and then I had to admit I was too bored and annoyed to continue reading.

We writers all have times when the words are enemies we fight, or when the stories are mountains we can’t climb with any grace, and I have loved James’s novels in the past. This one book is not the end of that affection. It’s an aberration. I shall not recommend it to other readers, because there are far better examples of her work elsewhere.

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.

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.

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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?”