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.

There Is Only One Right Way to Write (This Title Is Intentionally Misleading)

A hundred trillion years ago, when I was an impressionable young man, someone older and wiser told me that if I didn’t have a regular quiet time every morning, I might as well invite Satan over for breakfast. Since I was Someone Who Always Wanted to Do the Right Thing, I decided I had no choice but to comply (besides, everyone knows Satan eats all the crispy bacon and only leaves you the floppy pieces).

Here’s what my journal would have looked like if I’d kept one in the days that followed:

Day 1: During my quiet time, I prayed. Mostly that I would have a good quiet time. Then I had breakfast.

Day 2: Quiet time cut short by smell of bacon. Thankfully, Satan was busy elsewhere. I got the good bacon.

Day 3: I know it’s late evening, but I was in the middle of a good dream this morning where the pretty girl smiled at me and not the handsome guy standing behind me and I’m pretty sure God would agree I need dreams like that to boost my self-esteem and because I woke up late I had to race to school and after I got home I had to fill the rest of the day with things that made me seem busy so I could put off homework until just before bed. But I’m here now and even though it’s time for my favorite TV show I have decided to…oh, wait…the power’s back on.

Day 4: Floppy bacon isn’t so bad.

Fast-forward a few years. More. Still more. Okay, you’re just about there…wait, back up one or two.

Close enough.

Now pretend this is a brilliant segue from the previous paragraphs (which, in case it isn’t clear, seem to hint that there is a difference between healthy spiritual discipline and Pharisaical, guilt-based behavior, though I didn’t develop the point very much because I mostly just wanted to say stuff about bacon) and the next paragraphs (which will be all about writing, so you can relax now if you were concerned I was going to turn this into a sermon).

Someone younger and maybe nearly as wise told me that if I didn’t write every day, I wasn’t a real writer. Someone else who might have been older and wiser or maybe just about the same age and possibly not so wise but it really doesn’t matter for the purpose of this blog post said “you absolutely have to write every day if you ever want to be a published writer.” And then someone else who I’m reasonably certain was clinically insane said, “I get up every morning at four and write for five hours…” after which his face froze in a creepy question-mark expression that asked “and what are your regular daily writing hours?” He probably would still be waiting for my answer if he didn’t have a 4 a.m. “time to write” wake-up call.

I don’t do any of those things. And I still have the audacity to call myself a writer.

Want to know my routine? Here it is:

Whenever. And wherever.

Sometimes I write for a couple hours sitting at my desk in my ergonomically-engineered office chair. Sometimes I stare into space and don’t write at all for days or weeks. Sometimes I write at midnight while practicing horrible posture in the living room recliner and listening to the cable TV Adult Alternative music station. Sometimes I plug in the earbuds and write as I disappear into movie scores while sitting (with horrible posture) in a chair at Starbucks. Sometimes in the middle of the night I write from my horizontal office (that would be my bed).

So, like I said, whenever. And wherever.

And I’m almost content with this non-routine routine. I say “almost” because I find I still wish I had a few more hours to write. (Don’t all writers wish they had more time?) I suppose I could schedule them at 4 in the morning. But I really love my sleeping dreams. Maybe I could chain myself to the ergonomically-engineered office chair for a few more hours a day, but sitting for too long with perfect posture just makes me grumpy. So instead, I guess I’ll just always wish for more time.

Don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here. I believe a regular routine can be a very good thing. For some people, a disciplined schedule may be the best (or only) way to keep writing. If you’re one of these people, I salute you (from my horizontal office).

But if you’re not? Don’t beat yourself up about it. (Unless guilt is the only thing that gets you writing. Then self-flagellate all you want.) There will be times when you have to force yourself into patterns that might not be a natural fit (deadlines will do that to you), but otherwise? Just write the way you write. If you write best in your PJs, then slide into your bunny slippers and write away. If you write best at Starbucks, caffeinate your way to the bestseller list. (Just don’t steal my table.)

The point is this: there is no one “right way” to write. There is only your way.

So write.

Or not.

Do you smell bacon?

Writing Tips from Novels: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

Yes, there are lots of great books “on writing” (my favorite is the one that goes by that name, except capitalized; it’s by Stephen King), but I’ve found that you can get some great tips from the characters and narrators of Actual Novels. And isn’t it more fun to read a novel than a book about writing a novel? Sure it is.

I have a few of these lined up in the queue (gosh, I love writing that word), but I thought it might be fun to open this irregularly recurring blog feature with an unexpected little book. It’s called Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and is written by Adrienne Kress. Alex is a middle grade novel about pirates and treasure and schoolteachers and a train you can never leave and an Extremely Ginormous Octopus and the Very Wicked Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society. It stars young Alex Morningside who is actually a ten-and-a-half-year-old girl with short hair, not a boy at all.

The book is clever and quirky-with-a-capital-Q (watch for the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it scene featuring a pirate who uses a laptop to record the piratical business of the day). I’ve visited the author’s website and followed her tweets (that just sounds creepy) and I believe I can say with absolute most-likely-hood that she, like her novel, is also Clever and Quirky. And while Adrienne is a real life actress in addition to being a multi-published author (there’s a sequel to Alex, called Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate), she seems a very down to earth sort of person, quite unlike the Extremely Ginormous Octopus who tends to drink a lot because no one sees him as a serious Actor.

This is where we can all take a moment to offer a soft sigh of complaint that Some People are granted more than their fair share of talent and “why oh why can’t I have just a little of hers?”

There. I feel better.

Now, on to the helpful writing tips, taken directly from the novel. Feel free to apply the wisdom found here to your own writing. I trust your interpretation. After all, you’re Very Clever. (And Possibly Quirky, though I’m not sure how that applies here.)

On Imagination:

She also liked making up stories, though she wasn’t sure if the Alex in her stories was as brave as the Alex in real life. Well, it didn’t matter, because her imagination was her own, and she could do with it whatever she wanted.

On Plotting and Pacing:

“Um, could you tell me about the painting?”

“Oh, I am so glad you asked, dear,” replied the little old lady, spit flying out of her mouth. “It is of an uncharted island, somewhere far out to sea. Now I don’t know if you know about the tale of Alistair Steele and the Infamous Wigpowder…”

“Yes, I do – very well,” she said quickly. She hated it when people took too long to get to the heart of the story.

On Predictability:

Because of all their warnings, Alex half expected a cage to fall from the ceiling and trap her. But nothing happened, not even an alarm, and Alex went quickly over to the secret door.

Without waiting – as she knew well enough that, in stories, if you wait or think for too long, you get caught – she pushed the button, and the door opened.

On Showing Vs. Telling:

Philosophy is sort of silly like that. We spend all this time wondering why things exist, instead of dealing with the fact that they do.

On the Value of Interesting Words:

Coffee-table books are written to be so extremely dull that you can’t do anything but give up and look at the pictures. And you always start by reading the book, you always really, really, try, but it is no good. No matter how hard you focus, your eyes will start to glaze over, your mind will begin to wander.

On Problem-Solving:

Alex crossed the hall into the dark library. She looked out the window – again a steep drop down. She could see the town twinkling in the distance. It was so infuriating how close she was to escaping, and yet so far! There must be a way. There was always a solution to any problem. You just had to find it.

On The Importance of Setting:

Now sometimes, and I don’t know how it knows, the weather decides it wants to help with a certain situation by creating Atmosphere. At this moment, it decided to blow a gust of wind that rattled all the nonbroken windows and properly attached doors of the buildings along the bridge.

On Believably Imperfect Characters:

And what made one person good and the other one bad, anyway? In her long journey she had met good and bad people alike, people who were not pirates, but who had respectable jobs and were well-liked within their communities. And yet these same people could get away with the most reprehensible behavior. Couldn’t there be good pirates and bad pirates?