From the Office of Admissions

Let’s not call them confessions, okay? Because that reeks of guilt. And for many of the following, I feel no guilt whatsoever.

I admit…

  • I am immediately turned off by best-selling books because I hold fast to an erroneous belief that for something to be popular, it must cater to the lowest common denominator and I prefer to believe I am far above that line.
  • I am not above that line.
  • I pick up a book based on its cover and only rule out a possible purchase if the blurb on the back bores me to tears. Otherwise, I’ll buy it and give the author every opportunity to surprise me.
  • I read more “debut” novels than any other category and am frequently pleasantly surprised.
  • I believe the sophomore slump for writers is usually more about lack of time to write than lack of talent.
  • I believe some writers only have one good book in them.
  • Great writing intimidates me to the point of wanting to give up.
  • Great writing inspires me to superglue my ass to the chair and write until I get it right.
  • I’m constantly conflicted by great writing. And I spend way too much money on superglue.
  • If people ask me what my favorite book is, I tell them “Tender Is the Night” when I want to sound smart and well-read, or “Go, Dog. Go!” if I just want them to stop asking me questions.
  • I haven’t read Anna Karenina, War & Peace, The Brothers Karamazov or anything by Danielle Steel.
  • I have at least 15 books sitting around my apartment (or on the back seat of my car) that I recently purchased and haven’t yet read. I will buy at least 15 more books before I’ve read half of the ones I already own.
  • I am infinitely more bothered by poor characterization or lazy plotting than misspellings or other typos.
  • I am quick to fall in love with a writer whose book makes me remember what it’s like to feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss. Then I stalk her with charming and clever emails. When presented with a restraining order, I am initially disappointed to discover that the language in the restraining order is boilerplate and not from the writer’s pen. At first, this hurts. But then I realize she is only choosing this approach because she knows the distance it creates between us will inevitably cause me to remember what it’s like to feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss. She is so clever. I love her.
  • Sometimes I believe it when people refer to me as “brilliant.”
  • Not really.
  • I love my job, even though it occupies my brain 24/7.
  • I have no idea what I’m doing 23/7.
  • The best measure I have of whether or not my novel-in-progress is any good comes when I go back to re-read an old section and find myself wondering who’s been tampering with my file and re-writing all the crap so it’s actually entertaining and witty.
  • I suffer from low self-esteem.
  • I love everybody.
  • Except when I hate everyone.
  • I labor over every Tweet, every e-mail, and every blog post (except maybe this one).
  • When I write a short story, I don’t always know where it’s going. This, despite the fact that I usually write the last sentence first.
  • I am pretty sure John Irving does this, too.
  • I would never compare myself to John Irving.
  • Unless he tends to fall in love with writers who make him feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss and subsequently stalks them. Then we might have something in common.
  • Unlike how I write my stories, I didn’t start with the last line of this blog post and therefore I have no idea how I’m going to end it.
  • Or do I?

A Guest Post Elsewhere

First of all, if you’re coming here from @katdish’s “Hey Look, a Chicken” blog, don’t click on the link below. It’s just going to take you right back to her post and then you’ll be stuck in an infinite loop and will eventually die of starvation. Or boredom. But since you’re here, feel free to look at older posts about writing and stuff. Just don’t click the link in the next paragraph. I mean it.

But if you’re coming here from somewhere else, go ahead and click this link so you can read what I wrote for Kathy’s blog. It’s a post called “The Unbearable Being of Linus” and it’s kind of about writing.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a highly entertaining post for this blog that I hope to publish over the weekend. And by “highly entertaining” I mean mildly humorous to anyone who’s had at least three glasses of wine.

Oh, and here’s a picture. It might be a metaphor. Or it could just be a picture of a zookeeper cleaning an elephant cage.

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When Editors Go Bad

book cover fakeIf you’ve been reading my little blog for any length of time, you already know that editors aren’t prefect. [Yes, I just wrote “prefect.” Squirming yet?]

As evidence of this, I present to you some of the most common mistakes editors make. By “editors” I mean me. And by “mistakes” I mean errors in judgment prompted by sleep deprivation, excessive drinking, lack of confidence in the job, or plain ol’ incompetence. I’ve given each of the editorial screw-ups a title, but these are only my made-up titles and are not the terms officially sanctioned by the National Governing Board of Freelance Editors (NGBFE), which I don’t think exists, but if it did I would already be reaching for my wallet to pay a fine for my contextually inappropriate abbreviation of “old” in the previous sentence.

Never Say Never – It’s so easy to do and it seems so right, we don’t think twice. We just do it. And the thing is, it’s quite often the right thing to do. But…not always. I’m talking about trimming adverbs. You see, we’ve read all the books, too – the ones that say adverbs are badverbs. Or something like that. So we cut ‘em out of habit. Even when we shouldn’t. We make similar mistakes when applying other Rules of Good Writing, like getting rid of all semi-colons or universally suggesting all “tell” copy needs to “show.” Thankfully, this sort of mistake only happens when we’ve been editing for 24 hours straight. Which we aren’t supposed to do, according to the NGBFE.

Exterminate! Exterminate!Despite the fact that the title is a reference to Dr. Who’s Daleks, this editorial no-no has nothing to do with science fiction and instead is a subset of what I lovingly call The Goldilocks Compendium. (Actually, I’ve never called it that until just now. And because of that little lie, I can expect another fine from the NGBFE.) Exterminate! Exterminate! is all about being “too hard” on a manuscript. It’s about cutting. (Not the kind that people do when they’re emotionally unstable, though it must be acknowledged that all editors are emotionally unstable and probably would resort to this sort of cutting if not for coffee, wine, and chocolate.) This is the arena where I am most roguish. If I had a sweatshirt with my editorial mantra on it, it would say “Less is more.” I think it would be dark gray, with a half-zip collar and white lettering. I celebrate the economy of words, perhaps to a fault (except in blogposts, where I overwrite to my heart’s content). Maybe this is why Twitter is fun for me. Anyway, when I come across a big paragraph, my eyes get bigger still and out comes the X-acto knife of death. Cut, cut, snip, snip. And now it’s just a single sentence. There’s nothing wrong with cutting extra words (most people use too many), but I run the risk of cutting away the pretty colors in a manuscript if I’m not careful.

Intimidate! Intimidate! – Part two of The Goldilocks Compendium is a corollary to the above: going too soft on a manuscript. I’ll admit I can be intimidated by good authors. I’ll read an amazing manuscript and think, “damn, that’s good,” and question my editorial skills and my sanity and my salvation and wonder if I have the right to touch any words at all. Usually, on a second pass, I discover areas for improvement and make those edits and recommendations. But sometimes I’m not tough enough on what’s there. It works, so why change it? Well, here’s a good reason: to bump it from good to great, or great to excellent. This is why I’m (eventually, though never soon enough) paid the (not really) big bucks. And this where an editor’s art and uncertainty walk hand in hand like young lovers. (No, I don’t have a clue what that means.) Hopefully, more often than not, I make the right call. But I am always thankful, if a little sheepish, when an author says, “Hey, you missed something. I think we could actually cut this (or add this, or change this)” after I’d already let it slide.

My Word Is Better Than Your Word – I think this is self-explanatory. But I’ll explain it anyway. Sometimes an editor replaces a perfectly good word just for the hell of it. [Note to NGBFE: I"m kidding. Officially.] Okay, that’s not usually why. They replace the word because they like it better. I have my word preferences and you have yours. Most of the time, yours work just fine. But sometimes, I’ll read yours and think, “Really? ‘Crepuscular?’ Why?” And then I’ll change yours to mine because I’m the editor and I’m supposed to know what’s best for you. Normally, I’ll realize my selfish ways before I finish editing and you’ll never see my words because I’ll change them back to what you had. Unless there’s defensible benefit to changing your word, I don’t need to touch it.

Whose Voice Is It Anyway? – Some authors have clearly defined voices. When I read their manuscripts, I hear exactly what they sound like and can attenuate my editing to match that voice. However, when I work on a manuscript where the voice isn’t so distinct, I sometimes make this editorial blunder: I apply my writer’s voice (or one of them, anyway, considering I suffer from Multiple Author Voice Syndrome). That’s not the right thing to do. In these cases, it’s the editor’s responsibility (according to NGBFE statute 27.1, subsection R.) to help the author find and then maintain his or her voice throughout the manuscript. This is easier said than done, by the way.

Missing the Point Completely – Sometimes Editors Miss the Point Completely. An author may have constructed a perfectly reasonable plot or created a perfectly believable character, but the editor Just Doesn’t Get It. And in their attempt to fix The Thing They Just Don’t Get, the editor makes things worse. I don’t have a Really Good Excuse for why this happens. Let’s just go with, Editors Are Human and follow that up with Humans Are Imperfect and leave it at that. Here’s the good news, though – Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Then someone invented the Internet. Now editors and authors can Talk About Stuff and Clarify Things They Just Don’t Understand. [Another note to NGBFE: I've already calculated the fees for excessive capitalization. You'll be receiving payment in approximately six to twelve-hundred weeks, depending on when my accounting department can get to it.]

Other Stuff – We add typos. We miss continuity errors. We break a plot when trying to fix it somewhere else. We change the color of your protagonist’s hair. We get fingerprints on the printed manuscript. We remove all references to Al Gore. We add references to Al Gore. We write whole sections for you instead of simply noting in a comment what we think is missing. We can be lazy and careless.

But mostly we try really hard to do everything we can to make your book the best book you’ve ever written.

That’s all for today. I need to go screw up edit a manuscript now. Thanks for coming. Please deposit your 3-D glasses in the bin at the end of the hallway on your way out.

The Delirious Ecstasy of Getting Lost

The other night I took a break from an editing marathon to watch a movie. This will not surprise anyone who knows me. I love movies. Especially movies you haven’t heard of yet. Like this one.

Phoebe in Wonderland.

It’s the story of 9-year-old Phoebe (brilliantly played by the other Fanning, Elle) and her apparent Alice-in-Wonderland-flavored struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (which turns out to be something else but I’m not telling because I think some of you are going to rent this movie now that I’ve mentioned it and it’s always more fun to discover Important Plot Points in the context of your own experience rather than through the eyes of another).

There are a number of reasons I enjoyed this film, but I’m only going to talk about one: I got lost in it.

Not lost in a “where is this going?” way (though a certain amount of that kind of lost is actually a good thing), but more in a “where did the time go?” way.

Phoebe (the movie, and the character) took me on a gentle, unexpected expedition. I felt as if I were actually wandering around in this uniquely blended mix of the real and unreal where Phoebe and her parents and sister and peers and a brilliantly odd drama teacher and more than a few fictional characters lived. It’s not that the story was a meandering mess – the structure and plot and point eventually revealed themselves. But for much of the story, I didn’t care about that.

I was having too much fun with the beautiful uncertainty.

I wanted to wander. I wanted to get lost.

Here’s the thing you already know about wandering: the point isn’t to end up somewhere, it’s all about wondering. (Didja catch that clever wordplay?) Wondering what’s around the next corner. What’s under the rug. What’s hiding in the tree. What’s lurking. What’s in the box. What’s making that noise.

Movies like Phoebe bend narrative rules a bit. They break out of the expected plot lines and invite viewers to experience snippets of the created world from the unique perspective of one of the characters. (See also: Finding Neverland and, if you’re not frightened by cardboard, The Science of Sleep.)

What does all this have to do with novel writing? Well, it’s simple, really. I’m telling you to get lost.

Go ahead and plot your story if that’s how you like to write. But once or twice or a thousand times, steal away into the novel’s world and allow yourself to step off the plotted path. Explore the stuff that’s not obvious, that’s not there.

You might be thinking “yeah, well my novel isn’t fantasy so I don’t see how this applies to me.” After slapping you silly with a waterlogged gnome hat, I’ll ask you to take back your words. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing – the world you’re creating is bigger than the story arc you’ve imagined. It’s deeper and wider and taller than the words on the page. You can’t point readers to that expanse unless you’ve been there yourself.

When you lose yourself in the world of your making, that world can grow, expand, and offer up things you’d never thought of. This can be a scary prospect, especially if you’re a write-by-numbers person. It might feel like being asked to strip naked and chase saber-toothed bunnies in a blinding sleet across a frozen lake. And it’s quite possible you could run in a hundred different directions and never discover a single thing you can actually use in the novel. But at least you will have gotten some exercise. And more than that, you’ll have discovered what you want your readers to discover – that there’s a great big living, breathing world behind the page.

If you follow all the writing advice books and blogs and tweets, you can learn to write a perfectly serviceable novel. Maybe even a really good novel. Tension on every page? Go for it. Flawed characters? Sure. Use all the tips and tricks you want. But before you type “the end” please take some time to wander. Here’s a helpful tip: If you find there’s nowhere to wander? Well, you might just need to start over.

There. That’s it.

Now get lost.