The Maybe (An Imaginary Conversation Between Writer and Editor)

Writer: Which is the better career – janitor or hairdresser?

Editor: I take it you got my editorial notes.

Writer: Yeah. So tell me. Which one?

Editor: You already have a job.

Writer: Humor me.

Editor: Hairdresser.

Writer: Wrong. Janitor.

Editor: I didn’t know there was a right answer.

Writer: Exactly! Do you see what I did there? You just fell into my segue trap.

Editor: You’re talking about my notes, aren’t you. Clever.

Writer: I know, right? So about those notes…

Editor: Which ones?

Writer: Well…all of them. But let’s start with the one that says “you show great promise.” That’s just another way of saying “you suck as a writer” isn’t it.

Editor: No. It’s just a way of saying you’re not “there” yet. That’s why I wrote the rest of the notes. I’m trying to help you find your way.

Writer: Where exactly is “there”?

Editor: There? That’s the place where an agent reading your manuscript shouts “Yes!” so loudly she scares one of the nine lives out of the office cat.

Writer: Okay. So you think I’m not there yet. I get that. Are you saying I should self-publish?

Editor: No. I’m not saying that at all. If you want to do that, fine. But even if you choose to self-publish, you still want to go to “there.”

Writer: I thought I was nearly there until I saw your notes.

Editor: “Nearly” is an interesting word choice. Lots of authors are “nearly” there. So many, in fact, that you really can’t tell one from the next. Do you see how that creates a problem for agents?

Writer: I guess. But if I’m nearly there, why do I feel like such a failure after reading all your notes?

Editor: Blame The Maybe.

Writer: The what?

Editor: The Maybe. Tell me, why do you write?

Writer: Because I like writing.

Editor: You don’t need me for that. Why did you hire an editor?

Writer: Because I want to be published. Someday.

Editor: Right. What makes you think you’re worthy of being published. Someday.

Writer: I don’t know. I guess I hoped that maybe…

Editor: Stop there. See The Maybe? When you came to me, you were standing on the sunny side of The Maybe. That’s the side where hope lives. It’s a pretty great place. The possibilities are endless. Maybe you’ll be the next Stephen King. Maybe your novel will be as popular as The Hunger Games. Or maybe you’ll find just enough readers to write full time, even if you never reach the bestsellers list.

Writer: Is it so wrong to hope?

Editor: Absolutely not. But you were asking me why you felt like a failure, remember? Here’s why: when you saw you had work to do, you stepped to the dark side of The Maybe. That’s where doubt rules. Suddenly you’re thinking “Maybe I can’t write after all,” or “Maybe I’ll never reach my dream of being traditionally published.”

Writer: When I got your notes, I was still pretty pumped. I do want to be a better writer. But then…you really like the color red don’t you.

Editor: You’re speaking metaphorically.

Writer: Yes.

Editor: It’s a strong metaphor, well-matched to the moment, and you didn’t follow it up with unnecessary explanation.

Writer: You’re giving me a writing lesson right now, aren’t you.

Editor: Yes.

Writer: So you think I can do this? You think I can get “there” from here?

Editor: I think that’s mostly up to you. How are you at paradoxes?

Writer: At writing them?

Editor: At living them. A successful writing life is all about paradox. You have to be okay holding confidence and uncertainty at the same time. Then there are the publishing twins: idealism and realism. Love and hate? That’s the definition of writing in three words. If you can’t live in paradox, the writing life isn’t for you. Can you do that? Can you be patient and eager at the same time?

Writer: Maybe.

Editor: Which side of The Maybe was that?

Writer: The sunny side.

Editor: Putting off your career change, then?

Writer: For a little while longer. Yeah.

Editor: Good. Because I was lying before. You wouldn’t make a good hairdresser.

Writer: Why not?

Editor: You don’t know the first thing about cutting. Yet.

Writer: That’s a segue, isn’t it.

Editor: Yes.

What To Do When You Get Your Editorial Memo

Ping.

An email just arrived. The one you’ve been waiting for. The one you’ve been dreading.

The subject line is three words long.

Your editorial memo!

The exclamation mark almost makes those words seem benign. Cute, even.

But you know what the words are hiding.

Red ink.

Six weeks ago you sent your finished manuscript (the seventh draft, if you don’t count the first five) to your editor. And now it’s back. With notes. Comments. Suggestions. Demands.

What’s a writer to do? Here. I’ll help.

Step 1: Stare at the email without opening it for at least 10 minutes or until just before your hands begin to shake uncontrollably.

Step 2: Get up from your chair, walk to the liquor cabinet, open it and stare for another ten minutes or until you realize it’s not yet five o’clock.

Step 3: Return to your chair. Sit down. Stand up and stretch. Sit down again. Open the email.

Step 4: Save the attached file to your computer without opening it, then start reading the email. If you see phrases such as “There’s a lot of good stuff in here” and “I really like where you’re going with this,” this means the memo is 27 pages long. Briefly consider giving up your dream of being a writer. If necessary, go back to Step 2 until it’s five o’clock. (You know what to do there.)

Step 5: Warn all family members and pets within shouting distance not to bother you for the next three hours. If they’re sensitive to strong language, suggest they go out to dinner.

Step 6: Open the editorial memo. If it’s more than ten pages long, revise your family suggestion from “go out to dinner” to “go out to dinner and a movie and bowling and for that matter maybe you should just find a hotel somewhere for a few days.”

Step 7: Start reading. After one page, pause, take a breath and remind yourself that you really do want to be a better writer and that even the best authors get editorial notes.

Step 8: Continue reading. Somewhere around page seven, pause, take another breath, then go ahead and voice the question that’s been forming in your brain. This one: “Who does [insert editor’s name or more descriptive word in lieu of name here] think she is? What a [insert an even more colorful descriptive word (in gerund form) here] idiot!”

Step 9: Get up from your chair. Pace. Slam at least three doors. Cry. Slam another door. Throw your dog-eared copy of On Writing against the wall.

Step 10: Press the creases out of your dog-eared copy of On Writing. Apologize to Stephen King. Go back to your desk.

Step 11: Finish reading the memo. Close the file. Walk away from your computer. Do not open the file again for at least 24 hours.

Step 12: Liquor cabinet.

Step 13: [At least 24 hours later. More if you spent those 24 hours near the liquor cabinet.] Return to your computer. Pause to remember that your editor is probably a person, too, with a family and maybe even friends. Read the entire memo. Afterward, if you still feel like slamming doors and throwing writing books, shut down the computer and don’t come back for 48 hours. (If you only feel like throwing writing books, you can come back in 24.)

Step 14: Open the file yet again, but only after you tell yourself these four things: 1) yes, you’re still a writer;  2) writing is all about re-writing; 3) your editor is trying to help and her wisdom is worthy of consideration; and 4) your editor isn’t perfect. Now read through the note again…and this time, listen. Listen to your editor’s intent. Listen to your objections. And most of all, listen to your future readers. Will they have reason to wonder why you didn’t listen to your editor?

Step 15: Start making changes to your manuscript. Trust your editor, but don’t be afraid to question her suggestions. A good editor can provide a reasonable explanation for every suggestion. If it’s not clear in the memo, ask.

Step 16: Send an email to your editor, thanking her for the great suggestions. Begin a conversation about concerns or disagreements. Refrain from using any of the descriptive words you used in Step 8.

Step 17: Finish your revisions. Own them. If you’re publishing traditionally, send the manuscript back to your editor with further thanks and a promise of chocolate. If you’re self-publishing, hire a copyeditor. You’re going to need one.

Step 18: Recall that you have a family staying at a hotel somewhere. Rehearse your explanation for the dent in the wall, then ask them to come home.

Step 19: Celebrate. (Liquor cabinet optional.)

Step 20: Get back to that other book you were writing.

Listen Carefully, Your Manuscript Stinks

Your manuscript doesn’t speak English. (Or American. Or Australian. Or Esperanto. Or whatever you call your native tongue.) It speaks Manuscript.

This is why all the threats you sling at it in your native tongue go unheeded. (Well, that, and the fact that it doesn’t like being threatened. It can read your tone even if it doesn’t understand your words.) And while yelling at your manuscript may help release existential angst (Cue “Shout” by Tears for Fears), increased volume still doesn’t result in increased comprehension.

When you’re having a novel crisis, it could be simply because your novel is truly awful. (Give it hemlock.) Or it could be that you’re overwhelmed by life and those things causing your overwhelmed-ness (work stress, heartache, parenting challenges, more heartache, lack of wine, still more heartache) are making the writing process harder than it needs to be. (Give yourself hemlock. Wait, don’t do that. Hemlock is a poor substitute for wine. Just take a break from writing until your real life stuff settles down a bit.) Then again, it could be a million other things, but for the sake of this blog post I’m going to pretend there are only three possible reasons for your crisis and that the third one is a simple case of misunderstanding.

You need to learn Manuscript. (You can call it Story if you like. Or Novelish. Or Splargenslap. Whatever. It’s not a real thing, so I don’t care what you call it.)

Manuscript isn’t easy to learn. There is no Rosetta Stone program for it. Editors waste spend their entire lives learning it. But you don’t have that kind of time. So I’m offering you a handy translation guide. Did I mention that Manuscript is a language of metaphorical scent? No? Well, it is. And it’s terribly fickle.

When your manuscript starts to smell (metaphorically) like rotting fish, it’s saying one of the following things:

  • You’re falling back on those pet words and phrases again. How many times can our heroine nod her head before physics demands that it fall off? And who “swipes at their eyes” anyway? Stop it or I’ll delete myself from your computer.
  • You’re using similes to distraction. I’m as tired as a tired thing is tired of things that make it tired. Please vary the way you describe stuff. Thank you.
  • Hey, it’s not me. I’m fine. You just forgot to put the fish in the fridge.

When your manuscript starts to smell like a moldy orange, it’s saying one of these two things:

  • Nothing is happening. Nothing. Is. Happening. Kill somebody already. But first, delete the last 30 pages.
  • Hey, put some words on the page. Yes, I might just tell you to delete them tomorrow. Trust me on this, just put something here so I don’t go mad from all the white space.

When your manuscript starts to smell like burning rubber, it’s saying:

  • This is probably a good time to release the clutch on some of those plot points. I mean, they’re all great and everything, but there comes a time when it’s no longer suspenseful to “wait for it” – it’s agony. Not the good kind.

When your manuscript starts to smell like paint, it’s saying:

  • Step away for a while and let the words settle. I think they’re good, but if you keep messing with them you might screw things up. Work on something else for a few hours – like a blog post or a bag of M&Ms.

When your manuscript starts to smell like some kind of flowers but you aren’t sure what kind of flowers because it’s just some generic floral smell, it’s saying:

  • Get specific, friend. If our protagonist’s pet weasel smells like flowers, just tell me what kind of flowers. I don’t know what “floral” means. And about that “beautiful” sky? Really? That’s all you can come up with? Beautiful is a stupid word. It’s practically meaningless. If you can’t find the right words to describe a thing, write a shape around it instead.

When your manuscript starts to smell like chocolate, it’s saying:

  • Send me to your agent/editor already. We’re good. I like myself just as I am. I’m not just saying that. Stop revising or you’re going to give me a complex. Would you send your agent/editor a chocolate bar with bite marks?

When your manuscript starts to smell like coffee, it’s saying:

  • You just knocked over your venti white chocolate mocha. I hope you remembered to back me up to the cloud.

There you go. Sniff away, writer-friends.

[Insert scent of bacon here.] This is Manuscript for “We’re done here. Go eat some bacon.”