Category Archives: Ideas

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Editor

You might think what a freelance editor does all day is worthy of a blog post. That would be a classic example of wrong thinking. But for the sake of filling this space I’m going to tell you anyway and since I just established that a freelance editor’s day isn’t all that interesting, some of the details below will be complete fabrication. Feel free to decide which ones.

6:14 AM – Get urgent phone call from Stephen King pleading with you to be his editor for the upcoming sequel to Under the Dome, provisionally titled Under an Even Bigger Dome - a project that pays by the word. Say “yes,” then mumble something stupid like “my name is Stephen too, how cool is that!”

6:33 AM – Figure out how to defeat the army of dragons that got in through the open bedroom window before they storm the poster of an Irish castle on your wall.

7:41 AM – Wake up.

7:42 AM - Check your phone to see if Stephen King called. Check the walls for scorch marks. Close the window.

8:16 AM – Go to the gym. While on the treadmill, solve a plot problem in a book you edited a year ago that’s already in bookstores. While on the stationary bike, solve a plot problem in a book you’re currently editing. Decide never to use the treadmill again.

9:24 AM – Put leftover pizza from night before in the fridge so you can throw it away next week.

9:25 AM – Eat a donut.

9:27 AM – Eat another donut.

9:30 AM – You really shouldn’t eat another donut.

9:41 AM – Shower. While in the shower, solve a plot problem in a TV show you saw last week.

10:11 AM – Arrive at your satellite office: Starbucks. Reserve a table by dropping your laptop on it despite evil stares from the 27 bestselling-authors-in-waiting in line ahead of you. Order coffee. And a donut.

10:29 AM – Open file for the novel, Nothing But Dragons. Scroll to where you left off on page 139 and begin reading. Scroll back to page 94 to see if the mage on page 139 is telling a lie on purpose or if it’s a continuity error. Determine it’s a continuity error and order another donut. Make notes about how to solve the plot problem. Resume editing.

3:30 PM – Calculate number of pages you edited per hour. Calculate number of waking hours left until your deadline next Tuesday. Divide the second number by the first and get Divide by Zero error. Google “Divide by Zero error.” Follow random link to article about the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Pray they discover time travel before Tuesday.

3:35 PM – Realize you forgot to eat lunch. Decide to eat early supper instead. Go to the same restaurant you always go to and order the same thing you always order.

4:41 PM – Return home. Settle in at your desk.

4:51 PM – Re-arrange stacks of paper and unread mail. Rearrange work schedule to find more hours in a day. Bump editorial review of Hey Look, I’m In Love With the Wrong Guy But it Will All Work Out in the End until later in the month. Email author with explanation and apology and lots of affirming words about her writing that are absolutely sincere even though later in the month you’ll send her a 12-page document describing all the things that need work.

5:22 PM – Get back to the Dragons edit. Determine that Herman the Conqueror is not conquer-y enough. Make notes to that effect and suggest solutions.

9:35 PM – Get up from your desk. Try to ignore sucking sound as the chair breathes a sigh of relief.

9:39 PM – Fix yourself a delicious, healthy snack like fresh veggies or in-season fruit.*

9:49 PM – Turn on TV to watch 11 minutes of some show you can’t remember the name of but the actress looks familiar and wait didn’t she sign a book deal last week and what’s the deal with that?

10:01 PM – Drink something besides Diet Coke while catching up on DVR’d TV shows.

11:18 PM – Wonder where the time went. Wonder where the remote went. Wonder why there’s an empty wine bottle on the TV tray.

11:27 PM – Climb into bed with your Kindle. Look longingly at the list of books you purchased and planned to read before Armageddon. Select a client’s manuscript instead. Begin reading.

1:13 AM – Close Kindle. Check date on your phone and subtract one to figure out what day it was.

1:19 AM – Fall asleep and dream of dragons who fall in love with the wrong guy but it all works out in the end.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

 

*Or just open a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Minis and a can of Diet Coke.

 

 

 

Finding Stories

I don’t know where you find your stories, but I find mine everywhere. All I need is a little prompt – an object, a smell, a look from a stranger. Some of my favorite stories are inspired by listening to the words people don’t say.

Here, I’ll show you what I mean. I’m sitting in a Panera restaurant. I have a window seat. It’s just after the lunch rush. I’m going to look around and eavesdrop and see what stories appear. I’m sure I could find a hundred, given time, but I’ll limit myself to the first five that appear. And so you can see how my brain works (don’t look too closely), I’ll put the inspiration for the story idea in brackets. Keep in mind these are just seeds of bigger ideas (or possibly suited only for a short story), but you gotta start somewhere, right?

Waiting – Barry is a busboy at a busy chain restaurant in a Chicago suburb. Most customers ignore him or offer fake, polite smiles that Barry recognizes as the kind someone offers a person they think is mentally handicapped. He’s not. He’s just quiet. He’s also rich. He inherited seven million dollars two years ago, but he hasn’t touched a penny of it. He’s waiting to fall in love first. He wants to be loved for who he is, not for his money. On a particularly rainy Wednesday, a woman who is clearly annoyed by the young man she is enduring lunch with smiles at him with a different kind of smile. The kind that sets his heart to beating fast. She looks vaguely familiar, but he tells himself this is because she’s eaten there before. He’s wrong.

[A busboy was Hoovering, and hovering, near my table.]

Barriers – When Jerry Kincaid is stuck in I-40 traffic on the August afternoon following the worst day of his life (his girlfriend left him for a state trooper), his attention is drawn to the orange safety barriers – the ones they fill with sand or water or something to keep drivers from killing themselves should they drift off the highway into the median. He reads the manufacturing information and notices the model name is appended with “Mark 3.” A strange curiosity compels him to find out what happened to the “Mark 1″ and “Mark 2″ models. The next day, on the way to the manufacturing plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into the median. A year later, the “Mark 4″ is introduced.

[There's sidewalk construction going on across the way, complete with orange safety cones.]

Every Thursday for a Lifetime – Father Karcher has lived a long and mostly uncomplicated life. He’s weathered more than his portion of the global disdain for the sins of his ilk with quiet humility, nodding and sighing and even tearing up at just the right moments to absorb the anger meant for evil men who have damaged so many young lives. But despite his own bitterness toward the wrong-minded priests, he never points an accusing finger. “God’s fingers are better suited,” he says if anyone asks. Every Thursday he sits in the small coffee shop at the very same table, sipping hot Passion tea (an inside joke, but not the one his parishoners might expect, particularly around Easter) and waiting, hoping, longing for a few moments of shared secret silence with the dark-haired woman who’s been coming every week for years.

[An aging priest sat alone at a corner table. He looked wistful.]

A Trail of Crumbs – She almost always can be smelled before she is seen – the middle-aged woman with the clothes that are much too big and the dog that is much too small (they didn’t even see him the first three times, hidden as he was in her suitcase purse). She comes at the end of the day, just before the doors close, and asks for whatever bread they’re planning on throwing away. Kelly is the only manager who breaks the rules and gives her some. Just a loaf or two. One evening, when Kelly is feeling paradoxically depressed and adventurous, she follows the woman. After a few dozen twists and turns through unmarked doors and down unlit stairwells, she finds herself in an underground city. It is a world unto itself. Not the stronghold of criminals and ne’er-do-wells, nor the trash-riddled sewer of sad lives and sadder stories she expected to find, but a bright and beautiful community that always smells like a summer rain; a place where the only currency is love.

[Saw stacks of bread behind the counter. Wondered where it all ended up.]

Listening – Matt and Joanne have been struggling lately. He calls it the “eleven year itch” and she calls it “that damn golf channel.” Following a particularly nasty disagreement on the relative merits of marital counseling, they agree on a more unique approach to sorting through their mess. They decide to interview long-married couples in search of practical wisdom. Secretly, they’re each hoping to find evidence to support the opposite result – they don’t think the marriage is salvageable. At first, they get their wish – these long-married couples don’t seem the least bit happy. But as they delve deeper and deeper into the strange (and sometimes disturbing) love lives of strangers, they find themselves growing closer instead.

[A young couple was sharing a table with a much older couple. There was something in the way the young couple was sitting (as far apart as the booth seat allowed) that prompted the story idea.]

* * *
Q: Where do you find your stories?

Dreaming Up and Writing Down

At this very moment, I’m sitting in a Borders bookstore cafe. I tell you this to give you context for the words that will follow. See, when I’m surrounded by books and people looking at books and people talking about looking at books, I find it difficult to stay focused. My thoughts wander, my words follow. Or my words wander and my thoughts follow. Sometimes my thoughts and words both wander and I lose myself in a…

I can’t figure out if the tiles on the floor of this cafe are arranged in some kind of purposeful pattern or if the tile-placer just made it up on the fly. A five-year-old girl who’s wandered away from her coffee-pondering parents is hopscotching from yellow tile to yellow tile, avoiding the evil brown ones. She pauses, shipwrecked on a small island. She looks down at the yellow square. I wonder if she thinks of SpongeBob SquarePants. She looks up. I catch her eye. She would shrug if she knew how. I shrug instead. Maybe I just taught her how to shrug. She turns and hops back the way she came. I’m pretty sure she didn’t think about SpongeBob SquarePants.

…moment. Lack of focus is quite the opposite from what I experience when I’m actually reading a book. In those moments, I find it difficult to un-focus. I become tethered to the world of the writer’s making. Untethering from a good book before I’ve finished reading it usually requires a radical surgical procedure.

From where I’m sitting, I can see hundreds of novels (there are thousands more I can’t see from here), the result of countless hours of dreaming up and writing down. It’s the first part of that equation that I want to explore here. Where do all those ideas come from? And how is it that writers keep coming up with new ones?

All you cynics can put your hands down now. I’ve heard that, too. “There are only a finite number of plots in all of literature, blah, blah, no real new ideas, blah, blah, etc.” Go back to your spreadsheets and your outlines and your character arcs and inciting incidents. I’m not talking about plotting and craft and structure or any of that crap. [Relax. I don't actually believe all that stuff is crap. Not in its rightful place, anyway. But here? In a post about the dreaming up? It sort of is. So stop throwing it at me.]

I’m talking about the idea. The spark. The inspiration. The thing-without-a-name that shouts or whispers “follow me,” then takes off like Alice’s rabbit or Hickam’s rockets and…

There’s a rather intriguing character standing over by the display case. I’d bet he’s 20 years younger than he actually appears, which is seventy-ish. “What kind of cookies do you have?” he asks the smiling twenty-something barista. He is staring through the glass window at the four kinds of cookies they have. He needs a shower more than a cookie. “Chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter,” she says. He thinks about this, then asks, “Do you have chocolate chip?” “Yes,” she answers, still with the same friendly smile. “Do you have any other kinds?” he asks. “No, just those four today.” He plays a silent version of “eenie, meenie, miney moe,” touching the glass case in time to his unspoken rhyme. I can see the fingerprints from here. She’ll have to clean those later. He stops on the oatmeal raisin cookie. “No,” he says, then begins again. There is a line forming behind him. A man in a suit looks at his watch and taps his foot, oblivious to the stereotype he is becoming. A woman in a floral print dress that might have been a shower curtain in a previous life is trying to corral her three small children, one of whom evidently likes to collect coffee stirrers. “Would you like to think about it a while longer?” the barista asks. “Yes,” he says. She ask the man in the suit what she can get for him. The old man by the display case interrupts, “do you have chocolate chip?” “Yes,” she says. “I’ll have one of those, then.” She apologizes to the man in the suit, gets the cookie, puts it in a bag, tells the old man how much it is. He doesn’t have that much. She slides the cookie across the counter to him. “Consider it a gift.” He finds a ten dollar bill in his pocket. He drops it on the table and starts to leave. “Wait, your change…” she says. He doesn’t turn around, but I see him smile.

…compels you to follow. I’m talking about what the muse brings.

But for the life of me, I can’t figure it out. I don’t know where the ideas come from. One minute you’re just sitting there, or standing there, or lying there, or just there – and the next you’ve got an idea for a story or a character or a poem or song or a blogpost. Yes, lots of those ideas disappear as quickly as they arrive, but the ones that linger? It’s almost like they were waiting for you to notice so you could wrap words around them.

And that makes me think…

There’s an extra chair at the empty table across from me. Someone pulled that chair over from another table so there would be room for five. I wonder what they talked about? Maybe the Franzen novel. Or the crack in the wall under the painting of the boat. “The foundation is crumbling. We’ll probably all die.” I bet they said something about the obnoxious squeal of the nearby escalator. Someone compared it to a banshee. Someone else nodded enthusiastically while trying to remember what a banshee was. Did they all get coffee? No, one would have gotten tea. The one who pulled up the extra chair. They didn’t know she was coming. Thought she was out of town. “Nope. That’s not until next week.” “Well, you look good. We were just talking about that obnoxious squealing sound. From the escalator. Doesn’t it sound like a banshee? What’s that you’re drinking? Oh. Tea.”

…it makes me think…um…I’m sorry. I don’t think I can finish this post right now. I have to write down some stuff. Make up your own ending. Okay? Thanks.

I think it sounds more like the screech of a train pulling into a station…

[Disclaimer: I really was in the Borders bookstore cafe. I really did see a girl hopping on tiles and an old man buying a cookie. And the escalator does squeal. But the rest of what I wrote above? I have no idea where those words came from. I should probably blog about that.]

Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

Scent. The forgotten sense.

Take a look at your work in progress. How often do you invite the reader’s nose into the story? My guess? Not as often as you should.

Consider real life for a moment. (In case you’ve forgotten, this is the life where you have to do laundry and feed the dog and occasionally acknowledge the existence of your spouse and/or children.) Breathe in each the following. Be sure to pause long enough for the brain to write the scene that goes with the scent.

Diesel fuel.

Chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

The sidewalk after a summer rain.

Burning plastic.

Theater popcorn.

Cigar smoke.

Wet dog.

Spinning class.

The ocean.

Lavender.

Is your head spinning yet? Good. Then you get my point. In real life (see above for reminder of what this is), scent is one of our most powerful memory-triggers. Whereas I sometimes struggle to re-paint the visual elements of a past experience, scent memory acts like an impatient time machine. The moment I smell vanilla, I’m in my mother’s kitchen, barely as tall as the counter, fingers dusted with flour and waiting impatiently for the first spoon of cookie dough. The heady tease of campfire smoke takes me to any of a dozen childhood-through-adult memories, each flashing by in some visceral “Best Of…” camping memories video. And then there’s the unique pheromonic signature of those we love… or once loved. Sigh. The paradox of hope and a broken heart in a single inhale? Don’t even get me started on that one.

As with every other aspect of writing, using scent in story is an art form. It’s not as simple as saying “She smelled of raspberries.” Here are a few basic tips to make the most of scent:

  • Vary the manner in which you put the scent on the page. While it’s easy to write “she smelled like…” or “the air smelled like…” and so on, this sort of simplistic introduction to scent can actually diminish the reader’s experience over time. Mix it up. Use sentence fragments. Or just toss the source of the scent on the page. (“When she reached for the spoon, she knocked over the open bottle of vanilla and it soaked her sleeve.”)
  • Choose your scents carefully – what takes you back to a happy memory could take someone else back to a sad one.
  • Obscure scents can be effective (they take readers to very specific places), but familiar ones will have the most universal impact.
  • Allow plenty of space around the scent. Unless you are trying to overwhelm the reader in a particular scene, don’t throw a bouquet of aromas on the page. A single mention of burning plastic can linger almost as long in a story as it does in real life (remember real life?).
  • Scents can be used for good or for evil. Don’t be afraid to use them for the latter. Nothing will make a reader remember a villain more than being told he reeks of a decomposing mouse.

The nose matters.

That’s all for today. But before I go, I thought I’d share some of the titles I almost used for this post. Just because.

  • The Ol’factory
  • Scents and Sensibility
  • Sulphur for Your Art
  • The Odor Way to Write
  • Scratch and Sniff Your Way to a Pulitzer

In case you’re wondering – I haven’t forgotten the “First and Last” contest. Your entries are lined up in my reading queue. I’ve skimmed them once already. You people are quite creative. And slightly insane. In a (mostly) good way.

Winners will be announced Friday.

Smell you later…