Confidence (and Lack)

I‘m just going to come right out and say it: sometimes I feel completely incapable as an editor.

When these times come, I stare at the author’s words and they swirl together like some cheap TV special effect to spell out “You are a fraud!” I worry every time the phone rings that one of my publisher friends will be on the other end of the line.

“Hey, Stephen?”

“Yes…?”

“We’ve been looking at the book you just edited. You know the one we’re talking about?”

Gulp. “Yes?”

“…and we were wondering…did you send us the wrong file?”

This experience is sort of like a waking version of that dream where you show up to school and realize you’re naked and then suddenly you’re in the auditorium to receive some stupid academic award and the girl walking toward you on stage to present the award is Sherry Morris, the most beautiful girl in the school and the object of your secret crush but when the lights come up everyone starts laughing at you. Because you’re naked. And it’s cold.

You know that dream, right? Anyone? Anyone?

Ahem.

Anyway, the point is – I have moments when my confidence falters. Yes, editors wrestle with doubt. This is different than “editor’s block,” which is our corollary to writer’s block and is identified by a glazed, faraway look and frequent clicking of the “send/receive” button in hopes that the solution to the problem in front of us will appear in a serendipitous email.

Doubt presents itself in another way altogether: a look of abject fear prompted by the singular question, “Am I ruining a perfectly good novel?”

The answer (thankfully), is usually “no.” But what prompts such a big question? It’s simple: There is often more than one way to edit a scene. Editing is an art. Just like writing. And sometimes we get it wrong on the first pass. Most of the time we catch our mistakes before sending the manuscript back to the author. And when we don’t? The author almost always calls us on it. And this is the real secret to the editorial process: it is a collaboration. As the publisher’s gatekeeper, I’ll fight tooth-and-nail for editorial changes that my experience and intuition say are right on, but gladly step back and let the author hold sway over those changes that could go either way.

Okay, so now you know.

You aren’t going to tell my publisher friends, are you?

Just a reminder, tomorrow I’m going to tell you all about this blog’s first writing contest. The prize? I have this really lovely flocked Yoda Christmas decoration that my writer-friend Tosca Lee gave me and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if I passed it along to another writer. Or maybe a Starbucks gift card? Hmm…I’ll let you know tomorrow.

Chasing the Flame

Note: I am a writer as well as an editor. Sometimes I wear my writer’s hat when blogging. This is one of those times.

When the source of his fiction was autobiographical, Eddie could write with authority and authenticity. But when tried to imagine – to invent, to create – he simply could not succeed as well as when he remembered. This is a serious limitation for a fiction writer… But Eddie would make a living as a novelist, nonetheless. One can’t deny him his existence as a writer simply because he would never be, as Chesterton once wrote of Dickens, “a naked flame of mere genius, breaking out in a man without culture, without tradition, without help from historic religions and philosophies or from the great foreign schools.”  – A Widow for One Year, by John Irving

I spent four years trying to unearth my “naked flame of mere genius” while I struggled to write a speculative novel about a group of strangers who become trapped in a small mountain town when an impenetrable dome (not unlike the sort you might place over a slab of cheese) suddenly surrounds them. I reached as deep as I could to find all the relevant experiences I’d known that could place me inside the characters’ minds, but since I’d never been trapped under a giant cheese dome, I just made everything up. My characters came across as flannelgraph approximations of my writer’s intent and the story quickly crumbled around them. After about 40,000 words, I admitted defeat. I killed Sphere of Influence and spent the next year mourning the loss.

During that year, I read lots of great books. And, after a brief season of bitterness toward God for having given someone else the writerly genius I was supposed to receive, I reluctantly agreed to re-visit my childhood dream of becoming a published writer.*

I downscaled my plan: I would become a brilliant short story writer instead of a novelist (a plan that included frequent publication in The New Yorker, of course). I was much more intentional this time around. Before I wrote a single word, I sat down with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and tried to reverse engineer the stories in order to discern what it was about Anderson’s writing that made his short story collection “literary.”

Then I started writing.

Three overwrought, underdeveloped short stories into my new career, I sighed a defeated sigh and began to prepare my heart for the end of all dreams that featured “becoming a writer” as a key plot element. I was frustrated and discouraged. I stared into the mirror searching for evidence that I might be wrong, that I might be a writer after all, but all I could see was that I was no Sherwood Anderson.

Epiphanies are funny things – they appear out of nowhere and look at you like they’ve been there all along. They offer a kind smile instead of the smirk they have every right to wear and wait patiently for you to notice the truth they carry.

This was mine: I was no Sherwood Anderson.

Duh. (This is the only allowable response to recognizing an epiphany. A hand-slap to the forehead is optional.)

To my surprise, admitting I wasn’t a literary genius didn’t destroy my dream of becoming a published writer, it saved my dream from extinction. In time, the epiphany led me to this truth: Either you have the flame of genius or you don’t. But even if you don’t (and most writers don’t), that doesn’t mean you can’t become a successful published author.

After my epiphany, I started writing again, but this time I wrote autobiographically.

The shift from “trying to be a brilliant storyteller” to “telling the stories I knew” was life-changing. I stopped chasing the blue flame and simply started to remember…

…I remembered the day I ran home from school without a care in the world, fully believing that the very next footfall would touch only air. I remembered the jeering taunt of a classmate that pulled me back to earth mere seconds before I defied the law of gravity. I remembered the sadness that fell over my 10-year-old body like a lead blanket and slowed me to a defeated walk…

And as I began to remember this and a thousand other real-life stories, I realized what my writing had been missing: me.

Immediately, I had a deeper connection with my characters. When they cried, I felt the pain in my gut. When they yelled in anger, my blood boiled. When I painted a character into a corner, it was the character himself who would shout directions on how to solve the plotting problem.

What a difference this made. Instead of chasing the wind, I started to feel it caress my skin. Instead of trying to impress with big words, I chose to express with words I already knew. I stopped trying to be Charles Dickens or Sherwood Anderson and started to figure out who Stephen Parolini was.

Though improbable, it is possible my continuing study of writing and my willingness to learn might someday fuel a dormant flame that reveals a hidden genius.

In the meantime, I’m just going to keep writing. Because no one can deny my existence as a writer.

Not even me.

*I actually realized this dream nearly 20 years ago, and between then and now I’ve published a half-dozen non-fiction books, dozens of curriculum titles and hundreds if not thousands of magazine articles. But I’ve revised the original dream. Now it’s to become a published novelist. I’m still working toward that goal.

First Things…

Question: Do we really need another blog about writing?

Answer: Probably not.

Question: Then why are you here?

Answer: Because I like it here.

I know why you’re here. You’re curious about this little writerly blog and wondering if there is enough practical wisdom or entertainment value in it to merit regular reading. (Either that, or you’re related to me. Hi, Mom.) If you came here hoping to find a blog written by a famous, widely-read author who might, in the course of sharing his writerly journey with practiced humility and choreographed candor, accidentally let slip the carefully-guarded secret to publishing success, this isn’t it.

Nope. I’m not that guy. (Though, like you, I am writing a novel that I am reasonably certain will be both a literary and a commercial blockbuster. Check back in a couple years. Meanwhile, if you beat me to it, will you let me touch the hem of your garment? A little proximal magic couldn’t hurt.)

I am an editor. If you tend to read books that come off the Christian fiction shelves at your local bookstore, it’s possible you’ve read a book I edited. (Go ahead and read the Stephen Who? page for more info about me.)

Back so soon? Wait, you didn’t click the link, did you. Then you’re missing out on an awfully cute picture of a kitty snuggling with a puppy. C’mon, click it.

[Insert tick-tock sound here and/or visual of blog author tapping fingers on table while staring at the ceiling.]

Welcome back. Sorry about that little deception. I know how much you were looking forward to that picture.

Now where was I? Right. I’m an editor.

I have had the privilege of working with a number of “first-time” novelists. (If you’ve been writing for a few years, you know that “first-time” designation can be misleading. Many of these authors had written a number of novels before finally publishing one.) I’ve also enjoyed working with a few seasoned authors. Second only to my own writing (a process I lovingly compare to performing open-heart surgery on myself without the benefit of anesthesia), the thing I enjoy the most is investing in someone else’s story and helping the author slice his or her way through the jungle to reveal the beautiful mystery of a well-told tale.

If you met me at Starbucks, you might initially mistake me for part of the furniture. I blend well. But get me talking about books or music or movies and you’ll soon discover I know a little something about words. And although I know the rules well enough, I’m not a particularly “by the books” editor (don’t tell my publisher friends). I edit by instinct and am currently pursuing a master’s degree in making this up as I go from the Indiana Jones school of editing. It’s an entertaining adventure. I am passionate about what I do and sometimes can get a little snarky, but everything I say and do is born of a love for the written word.

I’m planning all sorts of potentially life-altering posts for this blog. In addition to the requisite wisdom and foolishness that will bear my imprimatur, I’ll share some of my favorite words that other people have written – and tell you why I like them. I’ll challenge you with writing exercises. I’ll host the occasional contest and give out really swell prizes (and by “swell” I mean odd and yet strangely compelling). And, if the wind is blowing just right when Marilynne Robinson or J.K. Rowling or Stephen King saunter by on their way to another success, I will pass along that carefully-guarded secret. (As long as you promise to keep it to yourself.)

Here’s one more reason why you might want to come back: I’m the only Stephen Parolini who is writing about writing. I’m one of a kind. I know. Makes your head spin, doesn’t it.

Either you’ll like it here or you won’t. If you do, tell your friends. If you don’t, then only tell friends who think you’re a master of reverse psychology.

Oh, and fair warning: I push at the edges sometimes both in my editing and in my blog-writing. I don’t do this for the sake of edge-pushing. I just want to be true to who I am as an editor and writer…and I’m a real work in progress. A messy work in search of truth that matters. So, if you’ve arrived here from a rather conservative blog or link and you’re easily offended by occasional words or thoughts that don’t fit neatly in the Christian marketplace, you might want to slip away quietly. I won’t judge you for leaving. I’d appreciate it if you don’t judge me for my rough edges.

Next post? Something scintillating. Or a picture of a kitty snuggling with a puppy. I haven’t decided yet.

Have a great day. Write well.