10 Stages of Grief: The Editor’s Note Edition

So let’s say you’ve made it through the first hoops and now your Amazing and Brilliant First Novel is sitting on the desk of a Real Life Editor at a Real Live Publishing House.

Your contract has been framed and placed on the fireplace mantle between your dusty wedding photo and dustier 5th Grade Spelling Bee Champion trophy. You’ve spent the first part of your advance on the clothes you just have to have for that inevitable booksigning at the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln, Nebraska. And you’ve ordered business cards that list your occupation as “Author” to replace the ones that said “Writer.”

Then you get the email. The one from the Super Sweet Editor you met over the phone that one time you sort of remember but not really because it was all a blur since you were still drunk with the news you’d been signed to a three-book deal. The email reads something like this:

Dear New Best Writer Friend,

Hey, I really enjoyed your novel, The Heart of the Matter of Things. So many good ideas and some nice sentences, too. Now the real work begins. I’ve attached my editorial notes for the novel. Don’t be frightened, it’s only 27 pages long. That’s pretty good, actually. Sometimes my notes are longer than the book itself. So, yay for you! Anyway, read my notes, do exactly what I tell you to do, even when I preface my comments with phrases like ‘it might be better if…’ or ‘here’s a suggestion…’. K? Great! It’s gonna be so much fun working with you. I see bestseller written all over this novel!! (When it’s done, I mean.) Oh, and I love the title. But it will have to change. We’re thinking something like ‘Under the Blue, Blue, Blue Sky’ or maybe ‘Monkeys of Heaven.’ TTFN.

-Your Super Sweet Editor

This is it. The moment of truth. The attachment is staring at you from the tail-end of the Super Sweet Editor’s email. Wait, don’t open it yet. First, take a look at the 10 Stages of Grief that typically accompany the editor’s note.

Read. Learn. Prepare.

The 10 Stages of Grief

1. Fear – You don’t want to open the attachment. You don’t want to open the attachment. You don’t want to open the attachment…

Symptoms: Sweaty palms, pacing, much prayer.

2. WTF?* – Upon opening the attachment, you discover that someone has accidentally broken a pen because there’s red ink all over your masterpiece. Surely these notes were meant for someone else, like a writer who doesn’t have a contract for a Three Book Deal.

Symptoms: Swearing, more swearing, a sudden desire to print out the editor notes so you can run them through your shredder and use them to line your hamster cage.

3. No, Really, WTF?? – You are now 100 percent certain that the publisher assigned a clinically insane person to edit your novel because no one in their right mind would suggest the changes this loony is suggesting. Kill the subplot about the lingerie salesman who lives with his mother?? WTF???!!

Symptoms: Still more swearing (including the creation of new compound words that would make Christian Bale and Susan Boyle blush); kicking things until they break; looking up the address of the editor and searching Google for a florist that delivers dead flowers and rotting fish.

4. Avoidance – You walk away from the computer for an hour, then a day, then five.

Symptoms: Yell “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” when friends ask if your book is in the bookstores yet (which they’ve been asking since the moment you started writing it).

5. Denial – You compose an angry letter to your editor explaining just how wrong she is with everything she suggests. Your novel is perfect as is. After all, you’ve been writing it for six years. Your finger hovers over the “send” button.

Symptoms: Constant head-shaking; finger cramp from hovering over the “send” button.

6. Dream Abandonment – You decide you’re not a writer after all. You don’t send the angry email because “what’s the point? I don’t know what I’m doing.” You call Dr. Hoofersnarkington and ask if you can have your old job back as dental assistant.

Symptoms: Start speaking in absolutes, especially sentences that begin “I’ll never” and end “write again.”

7. Contemplation – You begin to think that maybe, just maybe, some of those editorial notes have some value. Yes, in fact, you were planning on making some of those very changes yourself, now that you think of it. And a few of the other ideas – the ones you hadn’t thought of yet – well, they’re not so terribly off the mark. You can always save the subplot about the lingerie salesman for your next novel. Hey, maybe it could be the main plot of that novel!

Symptoms: Ability to read the editorial note without swearing, kicking things, or shedding more than six or seven tears.

8. Negotiation – You trash your original angry note and compose another one describing how thankful you are for the great suggestions but also challenging some of the notes (politely, but firmly to re-establish the fact that this is your book first and foremost). You send this one right away without regret.

Symptoms: Ability to laugh a non-maniacal laugh when friends ask “so how’s that book coming?”

9. Acceptance – You and your editor agree on changes that need to be made, and you begin making them. As you do, you realize your editor probably isn’t clinically insane after all.

Symptoms: Removing that box of new business cards from the trash; fixing things that you broke earlier when you kicked them; making repeated visits to local bookstore to find out who your shelf neighbors will be.

10. Chocolate – You’ve sent off the last revisions. So you eat chocolate.

Symptoms: Chocolate fingerprints on your spouse; a happy spouse.

*If you’re abbreviationally squeamish, feel free to read “WTF” as “Where’s The Fun?”

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.

7 Things that Keep Editors in Business

A long time ago, in a life far, far away, I worked as an assistant manager of a Pizza Hut. The owner of this particular store (a former Pizza Hut corporate big-wig) had hired a man we’ll call “Gary” (since that was his name) to globally manage the stores. Since each store already had its own manager and more than a few assistant managers, I wondered what Gary’s responsibilities entailed. I found out one Friday in the middle of the lunch rush hour. He entered the restaurant as any other customer, waited to be seated, then proceeded to order enough food for a family of six.

Since this was my first experience with Gary, I was puzzled by the fear that marked the faces of my lead cook, the hostess, and every other employee under the red roof. (Even some of the regular customers seemed to cower in his presence.)

I soon learned that Gary’s primary responsibility was delivering surprise inspections. On this particular Friday afternoon, he was troubled by the dents in the Parmesan shaker (ten point deduction); the microscopic tear in the red and white checked table cloth (goodbye five more points); and worst of all, one of the pizzas he ordered was overcooked (there goes the hope of a passing score).

Inspection fail.

At first I was a little peeved at the nit-pickiness of Gary’s complaints. I mean, dents in the Parmesan shaker? And the pizza wasn’t that overcooked. After my fifth surprise inspection, I began to wonder if he kept finding things wrong with the store solely to justify his job. But then one day we scored a 97, much to the delight of the store manager (a man I feared not because he was my boss but because he was a semi-pro kickboxer and carried himself in the store like he was stalking an opponent in the ring).

It was then that I finally understood what Gary was doing: he was teaching us the difference between good and great, illustrating (in his own snarly, self-important fashion) how vigilance and attention to detail can introduce excellence where “good enough” once held sway.

Here’s the clever transition from a post about pizza to a post about editing. (You were way ahead of me, weren’t you?) Yup. I’m Gary. All editors are Gary, though thankfully, most of us don’t look like we’re trying out for the part of Blake in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross.

So to that end, here’s a list of seven things that keep editors in business. Fix all of these in your novel and we’ll all be out of a job.

Or maybe we’ll find something else that needs attention.

  1. Pet Words and Phrases – These are the words that just keep coming back like the killer that won’t die in a cheesy horror film. You may think “Becky spat the words at him” is perfect for the scene you’re writing, but what you don’t recall is that Becky spat words three pages earlier. So did Louella. And Fred. And in the next chapter, Timmy is going to spit words. With so much spitting going on, your novel is drowning in saliva. Kill the repeat offenders when possible. Please.
  2. Head-hopping – I’m aware there’s an ongoing debate (I prefer to call it a conversation) about the whole POV issue, but my complaint here is very specific. Let’s assume you’re not trying to write from a pure omniscient POV (it might well be the hardest to pull off with excellence). Okay, so you’ve got your four or five main characters and each one is reasonably well defined. Good for you. So why, in the middle of Jason’s scene, does the unnamed baker across the cupcake counter have to interrupt his POV to point out just how indecisive Jason is being? Head-hopping within a scene is confusing. And I think it’s just lazy writing.
  3. [To be added later] – I have a writer friend who can churn out 10,000 words in a day. In order to maintain that pace, she often slips in placeholders such as [descriptive word] when the right words don’t come quick enough or when further research is required. But long before she turns her novel in to her editor, she goes through the manuscript and fills in those blanks. This way, her editor won’t have to wonder what she meant by [large potted plant with spiky leaves]. Now, if you’re collaborating with your editor early in the process, this isn’t such a horrible thing. You can work together to solve the puzzles. But if you’re saying “this is it – this is the final draft” and it’s full of holes…well…fix it first, dear Liza.
  4. The Brady Bunch Syndrome – This may just be my pet peeve, but I’m constantly amazed by how many novels (including many published novels, mind you) end so abruptly. Characters you’ve come to know and love suddenly resolve all their issues and everything is dandy. End of story. It almost feels as if the writer just got tired of writing and said, “well, I’d better end this now.” Give your ending due consideration. If you’re pushing the edge of your word count, don’t automatically cut from the ending. Just write your novel, then go back and trim (most likely from the middle). Allow the ending to breathe. A good story doesn’t stop at the last page. Well-written characters live on.
  5. Perfect Characters – This is a corollary concern to the previous item. Have you ever known anyone without a flaw? I don’t mean have you ever known someone whom you perceived as flawless, I mean have you ever known a perfect person? Me neither. Allow your characters to show their weaknesses – even the ones you want the reader to despise. Give the reader a peek behind the curtain to see at the very least, a hint of their humanity.
  6. Name Dropping – When writing dialogue, it’s not necessary to attribute every spoken sentence to a character by name. Nor is it necessary to write out their full name every time they appear. If we’ve already met Skip Johnson, it’s okay to say “Skip stepped up to the counter to order a Nehi Grape soda.” If you’ve chosen your character names well (if they’re not too similar, for example), the reader won’t be likely to mistake Skip for someone else. Also, think about how people address each other in real life and apply that to your dialogue sequences. Yes, it’s true that written and spoken dialogue have a different pace and flow about them, but if you’ve got too many names flying around the page, it can be unnecessarily distracting for the reader.
  7. Thesaurusitis – Do I need to say more? A thesaurus is a great tool, but when used as a crutch, it can obfuscate the congenital pulchritude of the scribed utterance. Sometimes the first word that comes to mind is perfect. Use it. Unless, you’ve used in a dozen times before. Then see item #1. (Obvious tip: To improve your natural un-thesaurusized vocabulary, read. A lot. Above your grade level.)