This post is a version of the dog ate my homework, or why I haven’t posted anything for two months. Around that time I posted my intention to do a one line writing practice every day, inspired by an article about a NY Times videographer. It was going to be a little side project, an exploration, while I did my real writing and work–this blog, two manuscripts I’m in the midst of, and some editing and consulting. Well, life intervened in the form of a medical crisis (I’m on the mend) and a hugely disruptive leak that forced me to move out of my condo for a period of time only days after surgery (I’m still not home).
And practically the only writing I’ve managed to do is those one-liners, recorded in the “notes” section of my phone. And, at the end of the year, I’ll have an archive of a kind I’ve never had before.
Being on the mend, I’m turning my thoughts to other projects. I’ve found a few interesting articles to post about. Watch for those in the coming days.
And I’m working on a workshop I’ll be teaching coming up next month (April 17th) for six weeks at Book Passages in Corte Madera, CA (for those of you who might be in Northern California). Here’s the link: Workshop information.
There’s very little I love more in the world that talking with writers about what they’re doing, sharing techniques, giving feedback, helping them shape their work. This workshop will be a chance to do it in a small group. There will be assignments designed to help you dig deeper; feedback on your work in progress; and fun!
Write on, through thick and thin. Don’t think about it too much. Just sit down and do it. That’s my instruction to myself for this week.
I’ve subscribed to the Book Designer’s newlsetter for years. It’s an amazing resource and you might want to check it out at bookdesigner.com. Not every post will speak to you equally of course. But these are some of the most detailed and best ideas available, written by a number of people who practice what they preach, with great guest blogs too. If I had a rating system I’d given this one five our of five, or ten out of ten, or, okay, maybe 95 out of 100–nobody’s perfect. If you subscribe, remember, take what you like (or can use or may not want to hear, but know to be true)and leave the rest, because there’s a lot to take in here.
And write on!
A friend recently sent me the link to an article by Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Here’s the article. It’s a fine read, even if you have little interest in commas. (I’m guessing the article might pique your interest, though.)
I’ve had many different jobs in several, quite different book publishing houses. Copy editing was my least favorite, in part because I dithered. Did this rule apply–or that? Was it a restrictive clause–or not? Later in my career, I used to drive a managing editor who went through comparing author and proofreader changes to distraction by telling her that grammar was an art, not a science. I also told her that, in all but the most egregious instances, the author is always right. If you are the author it is, after all, your name on the front of the book.
I worked with one writer who took a leaf from Kurt Vonnegut about semicolons. To wit: “Don not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” The copy editor and managing editor on the project did not share this view. Many semicolons were added. The author took them all out. The managing editor put them back in. The book was typeset and sent back to the the author and the proofreader. The author blew a gasket at that point and called me. The author, as I said, is always right. The semicolons went. The staccato sentences stayed.
I am not a very good copy editor. I have great admiration for good copy editors. They save writers from grief. They make the illegible legible. Sadly, except at venerable institutions like the New Yorker, copy editing is becoming an archaic activity. Computer programs with spelling and grammar checks are not copy editors.
My takeaway is this: read the article if you wish. But, whatever you do, before you publish a book, pay attention to the copy editor. I always tell authors that he or she is the first disinterested person to read your work. Pay attention to queries that essentially say: I don’t understand what you’re getting at. If a person who’s being paid to read is getting kicked out, imagine how your readers might react. And, if you’re publishing independently, do yourself a big favor. Hire a copy editor.
Now I’m going to post this and wait for the friend who sent me the article to correct my post. He’s a much better copy editor than I am.
When I speak to groups about writing and editing, people sometimes ask about what an editor can do for them. If you are closing in on a finished manuscript (fiction or non-fiction) or proposal (for a non-fiction book) you may want to look for a line editor–someone who can sort our tangles of sentences; re-order your paragraphs; suggest cuts or alternative wordings; and generally polish your work. And/or, if you have a more polished version of a manuscript almost ready for typesetting, you may want to find a copy editor (and if you are being traditionally published, your publisher will find one) who corrects grammar and punctuation; makes sure that there are eight steps when you say there are or that all your characters have retained their final version names and biographical details in a novel–details like that.
But, if you’re not at that stage, if you’re stuck in the middle or at the beginning of a new project, or don’t know if you’re writing a memoir or a novel, or need some motivation and direction, you might benefit from a writing coach. Like life coaches, writing coaches do a lot of different things, but what they mostly do is encourage you, find ways to allow you to be your better self and write a better book.
In my consulting with writers, one of the things I do is to ask a lot of questions. I read the first 25-50 pages of a novel, maybe an outline if the person has one, or a chapter or two of a non-fiction book. In my first meeting, I’m generally trying to help writers clarify the scope of their project. We talk about structure, how to tell the story, what to leave in and often what to exclude. We agree to next steps–goals if you will, or assignments. When we meet again, and these meetings can be in person or by phone, we review progress, set more goals. I continue to read and comment on the manuscript in progress. I make suggestions about possible avenues for publishing. And I continue to ask the questions and suggest the goals and deadlines that will get the book done. I’m on the virtual sidelines cheering, cajoling, coaxing you to get that book done.
Okay, old person alert. When I was young I wrote my first stories and poems on a manual LC Smith typewriter. Then there was a little portable electric, a Royal maybe. Then, oh Frabjous Day, an IBM self-correcting Selectric, at least I think that’s what it was called. And then an Apple, Two-ee was it’s name I believe, followed by a long string, Macs and PCs both. Who knew there would come a day? A day when there would be so many websites and resources for writers of all ages and stripes that someone would think to name the 100 best, for several years running, in fact.
It’s a huge list–an ice cream super duper sundae with three flavors of syrup and whipped cream and a cherry on top kind of list. I’d bet my IBM Selectric (if I still had it) that no one person is going to find use for every website on this list. But I’d also bet that if you’re a serious writer and you’re looking for one sort of resource or another–from help with independent publishing to research ideas to editing help to finding a writer’s group to who-knows-what–you’ll find something on this list useful. So pin it up on your cork board, or maybe just bookmark it. You might find it useful.
And here it is: 100 Best Websites for Writers
Every time I speak about writing and editing, particularly to a group of less experienced authors, I make a categorical statement: I have never edited a manuscript that couldn’t be improved by deleting about 20-30%. (And I have edited more than a thousand books.) As with all rules and truisms, there are the exceptions that prove them. But, by and large, everybody overwrites.
Recently I read an article in a recent New Yorker by John McMpee, one of the grand old men of creative nonfiction (before the term was invented). You can read it here. The article ranges far and wide. It’s well worth the read. McPhee talks about choosing your words to make room for the reader to enter into the article or book. What beautiful idea. If you want to write nonfiction, you should read, no study, this article.
McPhee writes about his time at Time magazine when writers were asked to condense the text by a number of lines. The pieces were marked “Green 5” or 8 or 15, the number of lines by which the writer was to cut his or her piece. This needs to be done carefully, preserving the author’s tone, like carefully pruning a plant. (I’m paraphrasing here.) That’s what McPhee tells his writing students when he asks them to green 10 percent of one of their own pieces.
McPhee challenges his students to green 10 percent of one of their own short pieces. That’s your challenge. Can you bear to delete 10%?
(If you want more, there’s a list of famous pieces in the article, including the Gettysburg Address, all of which the students are asked to green.)
This blog had over 487 words in it the first time around.
First write, then edit!
This short article offers just a few pieces of advice for authors who want to self (or independently) publish. Read it here. Mark Lingane has been there and done that. What sticks with me most here is that everyone needs an editor and every writer is different. Don’t judge yourself against others! Hmm, good advice for life as well as writing.
What can I add? is this a cautionary tale? An inspiration? If I had a dollar (or even a nickel) for every time somebody has told me in the last forty years that if I wrote a little bit everyday on a project I would have a finished manuscripts. I’ve never exactly been able to follow this advice, at least consistently. That said, I have written everyday and finished manuscripts. And it’s advice I give and endorse.
And while not everyone who wants to write is going to go to graduate school, we can all find someone–a consultant, an editor, a writing group–to give feedback. Maybe tell us where they get kicked out of our stories. Or who, that is which characters, they might want to hear more from or about. Or another book to read to inspire us through the slog.
What can I add? Write, write, write.
How do you know you want to write a book? How do you know a book is what you want to write? What might you do to explore these questions.
- You might start writing a page or two a day and see what happens. (Check out Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones or The Artists’s Way by Julia Cameron.)
- You might make a rough outline, exploring the scope and structure of what you want to write about. (Is it a book, an article, something in between?) And, yes, books are different lengths. Each book should be about as long as it should be–long enough to thoroughly explore your subject and short enough to not include every bit of extraneous side story or bit of information you know.
- Ask yourself why you want to write a book. Really. Be honest with yourself. (Not to be too flip, but if the answer is to make a lot of money or get famous, you might want to spend the hundreds of hours it takes to write a book doing something else.)
I work with people who are writing or want to write a book. If you have an idea or a method of teaching something or knowledge or inspiration or a story to share but haven’t a clue how to get started, or got stuck in a first draft, or don’t know what to do now that you have a finished draft, I guide people through the process—writing to publishing—or any portion of the journey. I’ve worked in book publishing for more than 40 years as a coach, inspirer, task master, goal setter, idea clarifier, and editor.
I’ve probably edited more than 1500 books. (I’ve been working in publishing since 1972.) It is work I love. It is incredibly satisfying to help people articulate what they want to write and then help them write it. I ask dozens of questions. I give deadlines and assignments. I cajole and suggest and praise. Sometimes the assignment is to read. Sometimes it’s to write. Sometimes it’s to make a list. Sometimes it’s to finish an outline–not the final, exact outline that the project will follow. But an outline. A way to get started!
My friend Mark, who is the best computer handholder ever, threw in this picture of a typewriter. I’m not sure why. I love how old typewriters look. But even more I love the tools we have now. Computers won’t write a book for you–at least not yet. But they sure make the doodling, and drafting (but beware the boogie version control), and editing, and publishing a lot easier!
Everybody who writes a book needs an editor of some kind. As you choose your route to publishing—independent, traditional, or some combination in between—you need to think about what kind of help you need to successfully publish. An editor is someone who makes you sound like your best self, sing in your best voice. The words on the page need to absorb your readers, communicate your ideas, tell your story in a way that people stick with it. We become attached to our own words. We think we are communicating clearly. We’re sure we’re not using jargon. Uh huh!
Not everybody who got an A in freshman comp is an editor. Please shop around. You owe it to yourself. There are editorial services on line. Go to classes or seminars. Go to the writing center in your city. Ask your friends. Do interview the editor! Talk with her about what kind of editing you think you need. Listen when he tells you what he thinks the project needs. Do talk about the cost upfront. How does she bill—by the hour, the page, the project? Will she let you know when she thinks she’s done as much as possible. Ask as many questions as you can think of. (Look for a post on questions to ask a potential editor, coming here soon.)
If you’re writing a book you want an editor who has edited books!
acquiring, developmental, rewrite, line, copy—editors one and all
- Copy editor—the one kind of editor every book should have—no exceptions ever. Light to heavy, running into line editing. Querying on meaning and facts. Punctuation and grammar, which is more about consistencies throughout than RULES! Do you misuse or misplace adverbs? Do you use a descriptor word too frequently? A copy editor will find your ticks and fix them.
- Line editor—will do more than a copy editor might with language. Finding your voice and keeping it fresh and consistent. Regularizing tenses. Unearthing the topic sentence of any given paragraph or section from the middle or the end. Sometimes (often inside publishing houses) copy editing and line editing are merged into one procedure.
- Rewrite editor. Okay, you’ve got a great idea. It comes from your long experience. You have notes for a bunch of stories illustrating your points. You know what you want your readers to know when they finish your book, but you’re not really a writer. You’re a teacher, or an activist, or a spiritual director, or a therapist or a . . . . And you have something to say. Working with a rewrite editor or a ghost writer can make an idea a book. A rewrite editor, like a ghost writer, can take your ideas and write them up. Traditional publishers don’t pay for this kind of editing. If you want this kind of edit/editor, look for someone with experience. Buy a few hours of their time, work on a bit together, and see where it leads.
- A developmental editor is a coach or a consultant. S/he will work with you to help figure out what should go into your book or proposal. And work with you as you find your voice and write your proposal (if non-fiction and if you’re aiming to go with a traditional publisher) and/or manuscript. A developmental editor is someone who can look at a stack of papers and see the organization and shape of the book. Again, traditional publishers rarely spring for this kind of editing, unless you are very famous or unique at what you do and have to say.
- Acquiring editors, who occasionally do some of the editing described above, are what we call the people who fall in love with your project, sell it internally to their marketing and sales people, talk you up to anyone who will listen. Piss you off by saying you absolutely cannot have the title and cover you want and you have to remodel the baby you both fell in love with. Help position the book and write back cover copy; hold your hand when you’re stuck; tell you to suck it up and accept or make changes they or others who are working on the book are suggesting; explain the publishing process; suggest cover ideas. Suggest new topics or ideas after your first book is a success. Hold your hand when you’re stuck. Urge you on.
Each kind of editing is a particular set of skills a person learns by practicing them. A thorough developmental or rewrite edit of a 300-page manuscript can cost a few thousand dollars. My advice is to hire an editor who is experienced at BOOK editing. Talk with him/her about what you expect to get and what it will cost. Most expensive is not always best, but, as with other things in life you most often get what you pay for.