New Tools For a New Year

footprints in the snowTo say that I dread winter is putting it mildly. In Minnesota, winter means beginning and ending my workday in darkness, enduring longer commutes, and sloshing through slush that leaves floors slippery or soggy. This year, however, winter supplied me with a gift: two new tools for revising my writing.

Like many writers, I’m a verbal learner. I prefer to process information through words, especially written text. My primary learning style, however, is visual. I learn best when I see or can envision an idea, and I communicate through metaphor, simile, or words that “draw” pictures in my reader’s/listener’s mind. These style preferences mean that, until recently, I relied on written text for every part of the writing process, from brainstorming to proofreading.

Written Text Isn’t the Be-All, End-All

I tell the college students I teach that the best way to edit their writing is to read it aloud. That’s true, and I follow my own advice, but it doesn’t work for big writing projects like it does for small ones. While working on my first book-length project, I’ve discovered that by the time I’m well into revising and editing, I know each passage’s backstory (how it appeared originally, how many times I’ve changed it and why, how it leads into the next passage) too well to assess it effectively. Familiarity causes me to read aloud what I intend the passage to say instead of what it actually says. Without realizing it, I read aloud prepositions and articles that aren’t on the page. And grammar is the least of my problems.

My discovery of a new writing tool began with listening to audiobooks in my car. I didn’t appreciate the extent to which a reader could shape how the text was perceived until I experienced it. For example, I stopped listening to a few potentially interesting books because I couldn’t get past the author’s reedy voice or flat delivery. Conversely, I finished a novel whose plot and characters I didn’t like because a professional actor’s voice and inflection made sentences that were already lovely even more compelling.

Tool #1

I don’t want an actor’s (or my own) reading to polish my writing while I’m revising and editing, so I tried Microsoft Word’s Read Aloud feature. (You’ll find it under the Review menu in most versions of Word.) Something about the computer’s lack of inflection makes problems I didn’t know existed leap off the page. Some of those problems include:

  • Potholes. This is my term for missing or inadequate transitions between ideas—places where the smooth pavement of ideas I’m traversing drops from beneath my feet. (See? Visual learner.) I feel a thud and find myself thinking, “Huh?” If I have that reaction, my readers will, too.
  • Ambiguous Sentences. A phrase I thought was crystal clear suddenly has an alternate interpretation.
  • Errors. Mistakes I read past dozens of times without noticing include everything from typos to repeated explanations to passages placed in the wrong spot.
  • Awkward Rhythms. Sentence clunkers stand out like wrong notes in a familiar song because the computer doesn’t intuit how they’re supposed to sound.

The feature’s pause button allows for quick fixes without losing my spot in the text, which is especially important when I pair this tool with the second one I discovered.

Tool #2

I like to walk and run outdoors. Aside from exercise and stress-reduction, these activities spur brainstorming and problem-solving. A walk or run always shakes loose ideas when I’m stuck, but I’m not as hearty as runners I see on the street, bundled so that only their eyes show. I’m limited to treadmills, which bring an added challenge: boredom. The less actively my brain is engaged, the more likely I’ll hit the “stop” button before I reach my goal. Watching Netflix helps, but nothing makes my workout go faster than revising and editing my book. Interval sprints (running and walking) are perfect for pausing Word’s Read Aloud feature to make corrections.

Exercising, listening, and editing at the same time ignites magical mind-body connections. I’ve come up with ideas on the treadmill that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Exercising while listening prevents me from rushing the editing process, too. I can only edit as fast as the computer reads. Besides, I’m ticking two things off my list at once, so I feel less pressured by time constraints.

I can’t say that these new tools make me a fan of winter, but they definitely offer a bright spot amidst the season’s dredges.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3028460/

 

Five Stages of Editing a Novel

Editing a novel is a thick fucking task, there are no buts about it. Anyone who says it’s easy is an asshole and/or a liar. If you’re working on your first draft, here are the stages you’ll go through, complete with tears, laughter, madness, and despair.

THE FIVE STAGES OF EDITING A NOVEL

1. Euphoria

Holy shit, I wrote a book! That’s what happens immediately after you type THE END, and it feels like fucking magic. Like you have lightning bolts coming out of your fingertips, and you are suddenly the figure in your imagination, churning out blessed words that people the world over will clamor to read, hear, and speak.

2. Panic

Holy shit, I wrote a book! This stage happens about five minutes after the first stage but lasts much longer. This is where you bite your lip as you stare at the literal REAM of paper you just printed out, and you ask yourself, nay, berate yourself for writing 86,000 words. Do I have to figure out where the glitches are? How will I ever find them? Why didn’t I just write a limerick instead? Woe is me! I’ll never finish! (Or if you’re especially dramatic and have a flair for languages, you might say “Dios mio!” And press the back of your wrist to your forehead, and possibly faint.). That’s how I roll.

3. Fear

There’s a good chance that you now treat that manuscript like it’s a rattlesnake, and boy is that rattle going. You don’t want to touch that stack of cellulose for anything in the world. It might burn you, or you may burn it, just out of spite and self-destruction. You put it in a corner of your house when you get tired of giving it a wide berth every time you walk into the house and turn on the television. It may grow into a ghost of sorts, haunting you in your sleep, and having strangers come over and stare at you wide-eyed, while they point hesitantly and say, “W-w-w-what’s that?”

4. The Ceremonial Eating of the FROG.

This is where you actually exorcise that fucking demon and pull it into the light, blow the dust off, and start reading. You have your trusty pen in hand to wipe away the drivel you wrote before, and you smile when you come across a piece that reminds you how much you enjoy writing. Alternately, you feel like a genius and a moron as you read what you wrote. You work through your manuscript like Indiana Jones hacks through the jungle (with a machete and roguish smile), and then you make those changes to the actual file like you’re seizing a flag at the top of Mount Everest. Good for you, you fucking baller. You mountain-climbing, jungle-thrashing, ghost-killing BOSS. You’ll continue to oscillate between steps 2, 3, and 4 for a while, so buckle up.

5. The Unburdening

You’ve gone through the stages multiple times, and you didn’t think you were ever going to make it. You probably missed someone’s birthday in there (hint: it was your own), and you can’t remember the names of the people living in your home with you, but you made it. You’ve grown a hump from hunching over both manuscript and keyboard, and you recoil from sunlight like a vampire. But you know what? You got through it. You’ve gone through all the stages and lived, just like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, or (for something a little less gruesome), Nicholas Cage in National Treasure. And you have your treasure, and it’s ready to go off on its own with a cute little backpack and a walking stick, and charm everyone it meets along the way, while you start the next book, because you can’t wait to repeat these five stages AGAIN.

Photo Credit: Stock Snap

Strategies for Beating Summertime Writing Blues

a picture of beach sand with the word success carved into the sandTime for some painful honesty.

I was more fidgety than the students I teach in anticipating summer. I couldn’t wait to revise my memoir without interference from my full-time job as a college professor. Gershwin’s song became an earworm: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy . . .”

Summer 2017 lingered in memory as an ideal I sought to recreate. It had been my first experience of feeling like a “real” writer. I woke early, dove into revising and suspended in a flow. My enthusiasm often outlasted my body’s willingness to hunker in front of a screen, so I went for an afternoon run, walk, or yoga class. Then I returned to revising, brimming with ideas that exercise and a shower had shaken loose.

By August 1st, I had rewritten my book’s second or third draft (I’d lost track). I felt proud of my rewrite’s unique structure, which I’d arrived at by sticking and unsticking color-coded Post-It Notes to my office door as if playing Tetris. I liked the structure’s resemblance to lattice, its layered imagery and echoing themes. I liked how closely that structure mirrored the content, which describes how learning to ride horses in my late 30s helped me recover from a decades’ long eating disorder and accompanying depression. The book felt like a true representation of who I am as a writer.

With the Dog Days breathing down my neck, I pivoted to prepping classes and hatched a plan: spend the academic year querying agents, entering contests, and building my author platform.

I attended a pitch conference in September, where a senior editor at one of America’s largest publishers requested my manuscript. I was thrilled but realistic, aware that a request was worlds away from an offer to publish. I also held the suspicion that every editor/agent we pitched to requested a few manuscripts regardless of intent to publish so we writers would leave happy and conference organizers would extend more invitations to earn stipends.

Months passed. The senior editor remained mute. Two agents not affiliated with the conference requested my manuscript, but neither wanted to represent it. Rejections trickled into my email inbox.

March 2018’s slog toward Spring, along with feedback from agents, forced me to some conclusions about my memoir:

  1. its premise was interesting
  2. its voice was appealing
  3. its structure was off-putting.

Agents, it seems, want a memoir that adheres to Freytag’s Pyramid, the familiar structure girding nearly every creative work, from ancient Greek plays like Oedipus Rex to 1940s novels like George Orwell’s 1984 to 21st century short stories like George Saunders’ “The 10th of December.”

I’d gambled on a structure and lost, so I stopped submitting. I put plans for a new writing project on hold and resolved to spend summer 2018 restructuring my memoir.

I submitted final grades gleefully in May and then . . . did everything possible to avoid my memoir.

Revising to please others (instead of myself) held no appeal. My book’s content felt stale—far removed from the experiences that had inspired it—and trampled by over-editing. And I couldn’t escape the knowledge that I might spend a precious, too-short Minnesota summer plodding through work I dreaded only to end up without publication to show for it.

June 1 came and went. I had to decide: Do the work or chuck the book. I finally managed to unearth some excitement about revising with help from some essential tools:

  • Self-help books. While looking for texts that would help my students learn time management, I came across Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Her book encourages readers to identify their preferences in order to form good habits. A passage on novelty versus familiarity answered questions I’d puzzled over for years: Why I did tackle some challenges eagerly but avoid others? The answer was my preference for novelty. While some people find familiarity comforting, I find it irritating. I crave discovery. Understanding that preference turned a character flaw into a small solvable problem: Hate the repetitive nature of vacuuming? Listen to a podcast while doing it. Dread revising a memoir? Find some new tools.

 

  • New tools. As a starry-eyed creative writing program graduate in 2003, I bought novel-writing software called Power Structure. Then I left the installation CD untouched. But I broke it out this summer. Learning a new program adds novelty to a familiar process. The software also presents options I’d never considered for experimenting with plot, character, and narrative tension.

 

  • Different environments. I struggle to write in the home office where I create syllabi and grade essays. My two professional roles—writer and teacher—require different mental framework. Simply moving from the office to the dining room table helped my brain shift gears.

 

  • Other writers. At my lowest point, I considered giving up writing altogether. Conversations with other writers lured me back to the keyboard by reminding me that we all sit on an emotional seesaw, that failure is a means rather than an end. A colleague who read my book’s first draft suggested beginning the revision with an event I’d mentioned in passing—something I hadn’t considered writing about. As soon as she suggested it, I could envision how perfectly it would set up the book’s central conflict. Viola! More novelty to fuel my fire.

 

  • Support Networks. Talking to my sister revealed how unreasonable I was in expecting an overnight transition from teaching to writing. Our conversation also reminded me of the two-year creative drought that followed my Ph.D. Every time I sat down to write, I heard my dissertation advisor poking fun at my proposal draft, saying that including transitional phrases was “bad writing,” and declaring I must start every sentence with one of three phrases she dictated. The power imbalance in our relationship convinced me she was right about my writing despite what tutoring graduate students in a university writing center had taught me. A supportive writing group helped me recover then, and it would now, too.

 

  • Value Mindset. Maybe it’s hubris, but I think my book offers value, especially to people battling negative body image, bearing depression’s weight, doubting the power of mind-body-spirit alignment, or seeking to understand what horses teach us about ourselves. I want to share hard-won insights so that others can avoid my mistakes. Believing in my book’s purpose adds meaning to a process that too often seems pointless.

I’m in the exposition phase of revising (again), so this post leaves Freytag’s Pyramid incomplete. Here’s hoping my summer plot thickens . . .  

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1909823/

4 Things I Learned From Self-Publishing

A person choosing a book from a large selectionIn the world of authors, no other subject is more mysterious, nebulous, and insane than self-publishing. It’s so nuts, there are a host of gurus out there with courses you can take (for only $59!) which will unfold the mysteries so you can claim the bag o’cash awaiting you on the other side. Well, I tried self-publishing, and I’m here to tell you what I learned, for better or worse.

  1. Edit, edit, edit. Since there is no one out there in self-publishing land who will automatically keep watch for misspelled words and grammatical errors, you have to make sure you edit. And then edit again. And then edit some more. Probably four more times. Then hire a professional. Then go through it one more time. It never fails that once you’ve hit the ‘Publish’ button, you find the typo on page three that says IF instead of IT, and you face-palm yourself, wondering how many people saw it, and how many other times you did that in this manuscript. The upside? You can re-upload content after you fix errors. Can’t do that with traditional publishing.
  2. You have to do ALL the work. There is no one to help you figure out how things work. No one is mounting a huge marketing campaign, or booking book tours for you, or hiring editors, cover designers, and so on. It’s allllll YOU. It’s time consuming and can be frustrating. Here, patience is key. Make sure you give yourself enough time, and don’t rush into anything. The book will still be there tomorrow. Chill out.
  3. You get ALL the rewards. The reason self-publishing is so attractive? Royalties. You get to keep anywhere from 35% to 70% of the money your book makes (depending on how you publish and with whom), and that is a significant amount. You also have full transparency—you see exactly how many copies sell, and in what format, so you can track what you are owed. It’s awesome. Publishing houses take most of the money your book makes to pay for things like marketing and book tours, while self-publishing leaves these costs to you.
  4. It doesn’t end after you hit ‘Publish’. That is only the beginning. You have to continue to market your book and find your audience, and keep at it. You also have to find time to write more stuff so you can publish more stuff so you can write more stuff so you can….you get the idea.  It’s a constant circle: write, publish, market, market, market, write, repeat. You will be married to this project for a long time.

There are a shit-ton of books in the world. What else happens when you hit ‘Publish’? Nothing. Abso-fucking-lutely nothing. Why? Because no one knows who the hell you are or what your book is! You must get out there and scream from the mountaintops that you have a book that people MUST read or their lives will be incomplete, and you have to get people to believe it. And this has to be true, so they tell other people. There are more and more books being self-published each year, so it’s noisy out there. But if you can be heard, then jump right in!

 

Photo Credit: Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

Ten Tips for Grooming Drafts, Straight from the Horse’s . . . Hoof

The author poses with a horse on a cold February morning
Smitty, the horse, posing with Lisa, the author, on a chilly February morning.

Why do I do this to myself? I wonder as my alarm jolts me awake on a dark Sunday in February. Its glow seems spitefully cheery combined with its announcement of the temperature for my horseback riding lesson: -14 degrees. Ugh.

Flannel pajamas, a quilt my great-aunt sewed, and a cat’s soft bulk plead with me to stay. But I love to ride, so I roll from my cocoon and don layers.

Once at the barn, I’m glad I ventured out, not only because I’m assigned to ride a favorite horse I haven’t been on for a long time, but also because grooming him sparks insights about grooming my writing.

During the previous two years, I’ve ridden Penny, a horse who spends her winter free-time in a stall because she stirs up trouble when allowed to roam the paddock (the fenced holding area). Preparing an indoor horse for riding is easy: brush her coat, pick her hooves, cinch her saddle, buckle her bridle. No muss, no fuss.

Smitty, the gangly, dark brown gelding I’d ride that February morning, spends his winter free-time in the paddock. A laid back personality makes him easy to catch, but an outdoor life makes him difficult to groom. As soon as he crosses the barn’s threshold, a dull thud replaces the hollow tock his metal shoes usually make on concrete. A look at his feet confirms my suspicion: Ice balls have formed in his hooves’ recessed center, so his shoes float above the ground.

I slide the blanket from Smitty’s body and grab a nail puller (a flat metal bar bent at one end). He lifts a foot, and I cradle his hoof in one hand while I use the puller as a chisel with the other. It’s tough going; the tool glances off the ice instead of carving into it. Just as my back begins to ache and my wrist to throb, an ice chunk falls away. And so do the blinders I’ve been wearing when I revise my writing.

Smitty’s hooves remind me that if I allow grooming—whether horse or draft—to become a series of unaltered steps, I lose touch with its purpose. And process without purpose turns futile.

Grooming must be shaped by context, such as weather for horse, audience and intended effect for writing. Here are ten tips Smitty revealed for warming up to revision:

  1. Start slow. Grooming’s first step is the toughest. I chisel away but make little progress. Then, suddenly, a piece falls. That’s all I need to build momentum. The chunk’s absence reveals weaknesses in what remains, so I attack each spot in succession.
  2. Don’t rush. It’s obvious, but when eager to submit my writing for publication, I forget. Forcing grooming’s pace is as fruitless as it is unwise. Hoof-picks dig mud, grass, oats, and manure from recesses, but they aren’t designed to break ice. Similarly, digging into paragraphs before chiseling big ideas into shape leads to wasted effort.
  3. Rest. I don’t have to clear the whole mess on the first attempt. I merely have to chip away enough frozen muck that the hoof or draft rests on solid footing. Once Smitty can stand flat, he’s safe. Body heat will melt the rest, making it easier to pick. Time away from a draft thaws problems that seem intractable, too.
  4. Let nature share the workload. Allowing Smitty’s bodyweight to warm his hooves offers an opportunity to luxuriate in brushing. Instead of going through the motions, I take my time and stay present, which calms Smitty. I’m surprised how often a solution arises when I let a draft’s trouble spots stew as I work on something else.
  5. Switch it up. Not much gets under Smitty’s skin, but other horses (ahem, Penny) don’t like being brushed. If I start with picking her hooves instead of brushing her coat, I give our relationship a better chance of starting off on the right foot. Switching up where I start revising a draft highlights thematic strands I can braid into something special.
  6. Follow the text’s lead. I’m present enough while brushing to address what Smitty’s coat shows me it needs. A curry comb’s zig-zagged metal teeth cull debris that causes saddle sores and inhibits new hair growth. Reverse outlining is the comb’s textual equivalent. I isolate each paragraph’s main idea and decide whether it benefits the whole, detangling knotted logic.
  7. Apply pressure. A stiff-bristled brush lifts to the surface what the curry comb has loosened. It also distributes oil that nourishes Smitty’s coat, but only if I push hard. When revising, I press myself to answer, “Do I really need this?”
  8. Let it go. A soft-bristle brush provides a gentler way to “kill my darlings.” Dust flies from Smitty’s coat with each stroke. Sometimes the grit makes my eyes water, but the effect is worth the discomfort: Smitty’s hair gleams. My draft, too, shines once stripped clean.
  9. Go back to the beginning. With Smitty’s hide ready for saddling, I return to his hooves—those key points on which he stands. A few swipes with the pick is all it takes. Skipping this step would compromise Smitty’s health. Just as hoof problems left untended can escalate to life-threatening crises, proofreading errors left uncorrected can escalate to career-threatening rejections.
  10. Enjoy the ride. The most important lesson Smitty teaches and re-teaches me is to value process as much as product. In both riding and writing, I used rush preparation to get to the best part: stepping into the arena. Over time, however, I’ve seen how crucial grooming is to success. Now, I look forward to grooming’s meditative nature.

When I finish grooming Smitty, I look him in the eye and see my reflection anew. When I apply to revision what he teaches me, my writing gallops toward unexplored territory.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—check out her blog, Writing Unbridledor find her on Twitter @LisaIrishWhalen, Facebook (lisawhalen4hs), or her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

Photos courtesy of Lisa Whalen

 

Rant by Nancy Villalobos, Feisty Writer Guest Blogger

side view of a human skullWhat were you feeling?

What was your emotional response to that?

Show more of your emotion.

The other writers in my Read and Critique group pounded away on this theme after I read from my memoir the latest revision of an experience that occurred more than fifty years ago. When I was in Lima, Peru as a 20-year-old international student, I’d gotten locked in the cathedral that holds Pizarro’s tomb. I thought that was a pretty interesting vignette, even mildly humorous.

I had written it exactly as it happened. I described the day, the surroundings, the interior of the church. I described the way I’d taken a long time to find the tomb and what it looked like and then the realization I was locked in. I finished up with my escape at the hands of a disgruntled priest with a bit of translated dialogue. I even closed the piece (really a chapter) with a foreshadowing of the obstacle that had arisen in the rest of my life, the subject of the next chapter. I’d done a defensible job of relating the events of the day. I didn’t know what else to say without making something up. I hadn’t felt like crying or laughing or screaming. I’d just wanted out of the church so I could get to my class on time.

My friends avoided my gaze, unhappy at not being able to applaud my efforts.

“But what were you feeling?”

Enthusiasm drained out of my pores and pooled around my unemotional feet.

Digging deep into my memory after I got home, I kept coming up empty. They expected me to feel something, but what?

The more I thought about it, the only emotional response I felt was anger at the beloved members of my group. Why did they keep harping on this? It happened in 1965, and I really couldn’t remember feeling anything.

What did they want me to feel? Joy? No. An intense spiritual awakening? No. Fear? Nope. Panic? Not really. Despair? Seriously? Anger? Not then.

My list of emotions I hadn’t felt grew. I began an imaginary conversation with that group of very stubborn people who only wanted to make me a better writer but who refused to accept that what I had felt at the time of the event was NOTHING. Why was that so hard to get?

Listen, I would say to them, the only thing I wanted on that day in Lima was to find the tomb of Pizarro. I wanted to see if that skeleton was really there and I wanted to see what it looked like. Period.

And right then my imaginary conversation petered out.

Because…I had really WANTED to find that tomb. It was almost like a quest—Harrison Ford in his battered hat. So, I must have felt ANTICIPATION. And I knew the skeleton was in that church, so I must have felt the EXCITEMENT about seeing it, and I must have had the EXPECTATION of fulfilling my quest. And because I’d never seen a relic, I must have been filled with CURIOSITY. And when I finally found the tomb, and it wasn’t what I’d expected, I must have felt at least mild DISAPPOINTMENT. And when I realized that I’d been locked in, I must have felt FRUSTRATION and CONCERN ABOUT BEING LATE. At the very end, I must have felt CHAGRIN at not having paid attention to my surroundings after the doors were locked. And then I remembered walking out of the church feeling pretty STUPID.

Damn! This was working.

I peeped at my pages again. Yes, I could add an adjective here, another line of dialogue there, a tighter or looser description, move this phrase to the end of the sentence, add a final paragraph with a takeaway—something the reader could relate to. And, in the end, a tiny little phrase rang like a timid bell in the recesses of my writer’s brain: I’d been telling about my experience, but when I’d been able to resuscitate my emotional state, I was able to show.

Sometimes it takes an emotional response to critique to elicit the emotional response to an event.

 

Headshot of authorABOUT NANCY: When not revising her memoir, sending out query letters, and building her blog queue, Nancy loves being on Nana duty with Lucas, her newest grandson, attending Cavalier King Charles Spaniel meet-ups with her Tri-color Coco, or traveling with family and friends. Her writing has been featured in the Memoir Writers Showcase. Her memoir, Peru, My Other Country, chronicles her twenty years there as an American married to a Peruvian in the midst of revolution, earthquakes, and her husband’s untimely death, until an extortion call during the Shining Path terrorist movement forced her to choose where her loyalties lay: in her adopted country or in the land of her birth.

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-476740

 

Three Steps to Finding the Editor for You

Marni in a pink hat working with clientsAs a writing coach and developmental editor (some of you are already going – whaaaat?), I get asked this question often: What type of editor do I need?

I am going to give you my best advice as to who does what, or who is supposed to do what. But I will say right off the bat that many editors overlap in what they do. In other words, they may perform one or more editing tasks. This can all be highly confusing for a writer. Let me try to break it down for you.

Let’s start by walking you through the process.

STEP ONE: EDUCATE YOURSELF (Hey, Editor, what exactly do you do?)

STEP TWO: FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU NEED FOR EACH STEP IN THE PROCESS  (Hey me, what do I need?)

STEP THREE: INTERVIEW THE EDITOR OR WRITING COACH (Are you the right person for me?)

STEP ONE: Educate Yourself

Most people will agree that there are three types of book editors.  (As I said earlier, some may overlap in what they do.)

Each editor is needed in different parts of the writing journey. The first type is the developmental editor who looks at the big picture and the general substance. The second is the copy or line editor that looks at the nitty gritty before you submitty. The third is the proofreader, or the last point of contact before your work is born into the world (checks the copy in its entirety to make sure it is ready for publication).

Editor #1 Developmental or Content Editor – The “BIG PICTURE” Editor (Sometimes known as a writing coach.)

(This is the kind of editing I do, and I know it most intimately.)

A developmental or content editor (sometimes called a substantive editor) looks at the big picture. Many choose to work with a developmental editor before they begin the writing process (by that I mean the-words-on-the-page stage) to hone the idea and help craft the story. This type of editor sits down with you and looks at your idea, your dreams and goals, and your plan to execute your vision.

You may also seek out a developmental editor after you have completed a draft and before you start the query process, or if you have submitted and are not receiving the kind of response that you had hoped for. If you are receiving comments like “uneven” or “good idea but not well executed” or some version of “almost,” a developmental editor can be an invaluable asset to keep your work from ending up in the slush pile.

The developmental editor can do any or all of the following: assist you in creating and developing your core idea, plot, structure, characters, concept, outline, tone, theme, and general marketability of concept. In other words, they can help you develop the full plan (or story, or world) that you will use to write your book.

Once you have a first draft (or even a chunk of pages), a developmental editor can offer analysis and specific suggestions about the concept, plot, structure, characters, organization, style, flow, tone, and presentation.

For Fiction they look at:

  • Structure
  • Plot
  • Flow
  • Characters
  • Pacing
  • Core Idea or Premise
  • Description/Action
  • Theme
  • Setting and/or World Building
  • Dialogue
  • Scene Creation
  • Point of View
  • Writing Voice
  • Marketability and Fulfillment of the Genre (not all editors do this)

 

For Non-Fiction they look at:

  • Structure
  • Organization of Ideas
  • Voice
  • Theme
  • Style of Writing
  • Pacing
  • Tone
  • Description and Detail
  • Thoroughness of the Argument
  • Effectiveness of the Argument
  • Approach to the Thesis or Core Idea
  • Marketability
  • Target Audience (Are you giving them what you promised and what they need?)

Once the BIG PICTURE issues are solved, most of the time you can stay with your developmental editor and zoom in a bit on the material to check it out for style and flow.

With all of the above in mind, they look at the material and address questions like:

  • Is this material clear and understandable?
  • Does the information or story flow?
  • Does one idea support the next? Or, in the case of fiction, does the tension continue to build toward a climax?
  • Is the information presented accurately?

To improve the flow of the piece, they may write or rewrite sections, re-organize paragraphs, suggest changes to the order of chapters, and assist with introductions and conclusions of your material. They may also make suggestions as to places you can cut or trim or just get in there and revise any aspects that can improve the overall readability and clarity.

Some developmental editors get in there and assist with research, offer resources, and assist with the rewriting process.

Marni says: While most developmental editors assist with style and flow, some stop after the big picture and refer you to the copy or line editor for the paragraph and sentence structure issues.

Editor # 2:  The Copy Editor (or Line) Editor – or – what I call “The Nitty Gritty Before I Submitty” Editor

When most writers think of an editor, they think of this person. The copy or line editor dives in and makes sure the document is in order so that it can be presented professionally.  This is the last stop before submitting to an agent or publisher.

Copy editors will check and correct: spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, word usage (or over usage), consistency of style, and format.

The copy editor will read the draft as if they are a beta reader and offer notes or changes that will enhance overall clarity and flow.

A good copy/line editor will always try to respect the author’s voice and try to fulfill the author’s original meaning. In other words, your book should still say what you want to say, and it should still sound like you.

They may cross check your references, facts and figures, tables, quotes, infographics, and illustrations to make sure that the information in the text that points towards these is consistent and accurate. If they find copyrighted material, they may alert you to the need to gain permission for use. When completed, a copy editor will give you a manuscript that is ready to be submitted to a professional such as an agent or a publisher.

The Third Type of Editor is called a Proofreader or the “Are We Good to Go?” Editor

A proofreader looks at the formatted manuscript and makes the final assessment on how it looks. They pay attention to catching any of the errors or inconsistencies that the previous editor(s) or writers may have made (it’s hard to catch everything). They notice any typographical errors or any errors in typesetting. This editor looks at the last version that the copy editor and writer signed off on and they ask: Are there any discrepancies? Did the typesetter make any errors? How does the page look? Is the layout correct?

In my experience, some copy editors also offer proofing services.

STEP TWO:  What do I Need?

Here you want to ask yourself where you are in the writing process.

PREWRITING

If you are just starting out in the process and want some help developing your story or core idea, a developmental editor or a writing coach is a great place to start.

If you have a first draft and you are not sure what you have exactly, you may want an assessment or critique from a developmental editor.

With prewriting, you do not need the other types of editors.

AFTER 50 or so pages or THE FIRST DRAFT

At this stage, you can still work with a developmental editor. Since they do both assessments and reworking of the material itself, you want to figure out what you need. Ask:

Do I want a critique? (Where someone tells me what is working and what is not working and how to fix it.)

OR

Do I want someone just to get in there and fix what is not working?

Marni says: My advice is to get a critique first as it is less expensive and you may be able to make many of the changes yourself. You can always move on to the “just fix it” phase where you have an editor smooth it out and make it all pretty.

Once you are clear on what you want, ask your editor if they perform that service. If not, ask for referrals. (A good editor will have referrals.)

STEP THREE:  INTERVIEW THE EDITOR

Ask the editor what types of editing they do and be specific about it. (Don’t be afraid to ask questions, if they can’t take questions, they are not the right editor for you.)

Questions to ask:

What type of editing do you do?

How do you define the type of editing? As mentioned before some editors use different language—so it is entirely appropriate to ask for clarification as to what services they are offering.

How do you charge?

What will I receive as feedback?

How specific will your notes be?

How long will it take?

Do you have any testimonials or former clients I can speak to? (If this editor is a referral, you can skip this step.)

Can I speak with you if I have follow-up questions?

How would you like to receive my material?

Marni says: Each editor may have their own best practices for submissions. However, here are some general guidelines. Submit in a Word doc or rich text file. Your page size should be 8.5 by 11. 12-point font, double-spaced. One-inch margins on the top and bottom.

Remember that your editor does not need to be your best friend. One of my editors told me, “I’m not your best friend, I’m the best friend of the material.” You want them to tell you the truth. Still, it’s important to know if you tend to be pretty delicate with feedback.  If so, you may want an editor with a gentler touch so that you will stay in the process.

Overall, my advice is: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If this is your first experience with an editor give yourself time to become acquainted with the process and be patient as you stumble through it. Try to go with referrals from a trusted source. The best editors are known within their writing communities. Best of luck!

Photo Credit: Marni Freedman (She’s in the pink hat)

Moderate Your Lingering

the outside of the Hobbit's homeI’m reading The Fellowship of the Ring right now. No big deal for a sci-fi/fantasy geek, right? Well, the crazy thing is I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings before. I don’t even know how this happened. How did I go through life this way? I’m the kind of guy who knows the difference between a halfling, a hobbit, and a kender. Everyone should read through Tolkien at least once. So I’m making things right, starting now. And I have some thoughts about what we can learn from Tolkien as aspiring authors.

I’m not gonna lie—reading Tolkien is slow going for me. I just blew through all three books in The Magicians trilogy, which was like super-fast brain candy compared to Tolkien’s literary pot roast (damn hobbits, making me think of food all the time). I loved The Magicians by the way, including the Syfy show, and I might write about Lev Grossman’s incredible world-building in another post. But back to Tolkien.

Tolkien likes to linger. I don’t know how many pages I just read of Tom Bombadil singing and dancing along the river Withywindle. And the hobbits are always eating (hot soup and cold meat with blackberry tart and buttered bread!), which makes me hungry. I can’t sit through a long reading of Tolkien without wanting to heat up some Ellio’s Pizza or Hot Pockets or something, but maybe that’s a personal problem.

Anyway, the fantasy genre is rife with notorious lingerers. George R.R. Martin, “The American Tolkien,” comes to mind. But the prevailing wisdom for new writers is to keep the story moving. The fantasy setting and the fact that you can get away with a higher word count is not an excuse to spend a million years dancing in the Old Forest.

I see this a lot in writing groups with aspiring fantasy authors. Everyone wants to produce huge tomes with lots of lingering. And I get it, I do. It’s exciting! You’ve created this awesome world, and you want your characters to spend tons of time making their way along the winding Withywindle, listening to Tom Bombadil and his wife singing their songs and telling their tales and preparing bread and fresh cheese for hobbits. I’m not saying to cut out your Tom Bombadil completely. Just make sure you’re applying the rules of good writing, even to the lingering. Is this going to pay off for the reader at some point in the future? Does it have some value greater than “look at how cool this place is?” Keep the story moving!

Some lingering is okay; you just have to find the sweet spot. Writing can be a self-indulgent activity, and I think that’s where some of the temptation to linger comes from. Moderate yourself, and your future agent and editor will most certainly thank you.

Now excuse me, I’m going to preheat my oven.

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash

How to Be a Feisty Rewriter

Woman holding sparkling orb in her handsNew writers simply do not understand rewriting (Sigh). It comes as a shock to most of them that their first draft will be far from their last draft. I get it. I’ve been there. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

But once a writer has gone through the entire process of taking a first draft and making it sparkle, not only does the piece transform, but the writer transforms. They see how what was once “good,” can now become “great” or “amazing.”  And guess what? Rewriting, dare I say it, can become sort of addicting.

So, if you have completed a first draft and sent it out for feedback, we have two missions:

MISSION ONE:

Keep you from falling into the dreaded Lack of Rewriting PIT.

What is this pit of which I speak? It looks something like this:

  • Not rewriting from the first draft to the second (after getting notes on how much work it needs).
  • Not rewriting as many times as the piece needs. (“Okay, I will write it again, but just once more.”)
  • Contracting “But-I-just-want-it-to-be-done-itis.”
  • Not understanding that every writer—yes, EVERY writer— rewrites.

MISSION TWO:

Encourage you to embrace Feisty Rewriting.

Let’s go back to our premise for the series: Take the ego out and stay in creative motion.

Again—it may feel counterintuitive or nonsensical.

When I have discussed this idea with writers I often hear this type of thinking:

“Oh please, Marni. How on earth can I remove my ego if someone is critiquing my work? They are criticizing me!”

Let’s take a moment to look at that thought. I see writers blend the idea of “their work” with “themselves” all the time. But guess what? That is just the ego trying to lure you to the dark side of not moving forward and staying in delicious, creative motion.

Sidebar:

If someone is criticizing you and not your work, get out, not the right place for you.

If someone doesn’t want you to succeed, get out, not the right place for you.

But if someone is critiquing your work and they want you to succeed, stick it out.

The truth is that your ego may feel bruised. After all, you tried your best, and someone is saying it can be better. It’s okay to feel that “ouch.”

But wait for a second—it’s not the end of the story for your piece! Someone is saying it can be better. Isn’t that what you want? Better? You want to stand out from the crowd. You want to make headway and move your career to the next level. So better will be easier to work with, right?

If you have come along with me this far (congrats!) it means you are ready to become a feisty rewriter.

How to Become a Feisty Rewriter:

  1. Take some time after receiving notes. Remember: you don’t have to, nor should you accept all notes. Otherwise, you will be traveling in many different directions trying to please every note giver. Time to let the notes sink in helps. (No matter what anyone says, you are not in a race.)
  2. Look for the common areas of agreement. If you had multiple readers, where did they agree?
  3. Pay attention to lateral movement. What’s that? Remember that almost every critiquer will have something to say. Some critiques will make the piece better. Some will just be different, but not better.
  4. Decide which notes feel authentic for you and the piece you are writing.
  5. Develop a plan. Work with a writing coach, trusted mentor, or writing group to create a new plan of attack.
  6. Don’t be afraid of a page one rewrite. This is where you start cursing at me. It sounds horrid, I know.  But I have seen brilliance stem from many writers who took a step back, then approached their material with a new take or slant. None of it was wasted time. You can’t get to step two without step one.
  7. Reward yourself for staying in the process. (It’s a big deal!)
  8. Utilize your writing tribe to keep you on track.
  9. Remember that the process itself is part of the reward. Enjoy every small rewriting victory.
  10. Don’t let anything stop you, get in your way, or side track you from completing your next draft. You are a train in motion. And that is creative dynamism at its finest.

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/search/sparkle?photo=iDW-R3fSuhg

5 Steps to Taming the Writing Ego (When You Get Harsh Feedback)

Wrecking Ball hitting brick wallOn the one hand, as a writing coach and teacher, I ask students to go to their most vulnerable place, to reach deep down in their soul and risk everything they’ve got. Otherwise, their writing voice won’t sound authentic and most likely—they won’t get noticed.

As writers, we simply have to risk, and risk often.

On the other hand, I ask students to take said risk-filled material—in which they have possibly exposed themselves in a very personal way—and put it up for review.

It’s sort of an insane process.

Passionate, vulnerable, emotional writers + critique = not so great recipe.

In fact, this recipe often leads to shutting down, lack of listening (hearing the feedback) and sometimes meltdowns and tantrums. In my experience, no one wants to work with or be around a TTW. (Temperamental-Tantrum-Writer.)

The critique process has been going on for thousands of years and is vital to the writing process. You simply can’t know what you have communicated until you get out of your brain and hear how others are experiencing your material.

So how do you use the critique process without stomping your feet, going insane (or pretending you don’t care) so you can actually benefit from it?

I have five steps for you:

  1. Do your best to recognize when the ego is at play. You can train yourself to recognize when the ego is popping up. Just recognizing it is an important first step in taming the damn thing. (Ego thoughts can sound like: No, they are wrong, how could they say that to me? They just don’t get it. I am being attacked here. They are stupid. If only they read other pages, they would get it. This is unfair. I’m getting out of here.) When you recognize the ego taking over your brain just breathe in and out. That’s it.
  2. Recognize WHY you are receiving feedback. To get better. You are putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation to grow. That’s the bottom line.
  3. Switch hats. Today’s writer must wear many hats: the creator, the editor, the promoter, the marketer, etc. It’s vital to realize that when you are receiving feedback, you should not be in your creator-writer space. Put the editor hat on.
  4. Do the “Two Minute Rant, Take a Walk” method. Yep, it’s just what it sounds like.

⇒ If you are alone, rant to your pillow, or write out all of your angry thoughts. Get it all out. Get out the most childish tantrum-y thoughts you got. Then take a walk. Don’t respond. Take as much time as you possibly have before responding. You want to respond from your wisest self.

⇒ If you are in a group, it’s a little harder. You can rant inside your unhappy brain. But then, you might miss out on valuable feedback. When in a group, I suggest postponing the rant. Keep the editor’s hat on, don’t argue back no matter what and take notes. Even if you don’t agree: take notes. When you calm down, you will want to remember what was said.

  1. Let it go for a few days. Approach the material when you are fresh. Allow the critique to settle in. Don’t start writing thinking you will fix the problem in a few minutes. Often, you will need to come up with a new approach.

The good news: it does get easier! You do get acclimated to the process and stop taking it all so personally.