An Editor’s Serenity Prayer

This pretty much sums up my editorial philosophy. I look for editors who are similarly inclined. My little sign is posted where I can see it from my work chair. When it gets tatty or ripped, I make a new one.

serenity prayer



Flashbacks Happen

A flashback is a trip back in time. The story leaves the main narrative line to tell a tale that happened before the narrative began. Flashbacks come in handy in both fiction and nonfiction, but they can be confusing to the reader. An excess of them may mean that the author couldn’t figure out more graceful ways to incorporate bits of backstory into the narrative.

This is an area where editors and guinea pigs (also known as second readers) can be helpful, but I digress: This post isn’t about flashbacks in a finished work. This is about the kind of flashback that happens when you’re in the throes of first-drafting.

The fictional Wolfie is based on the very real Travvy. He wooed at the deer, but the deer wouldn't move.

The fictional Wolfie is based on the very real Travvy. He wooed at the deer, but the deer wouldn’t move.

The other day I was cruising along in Wolfie, the novel in progress, when my mind started to wander. The scene up ahead looked boring. I didn’t want to write it. In it my protagonist, Shannon, and her sixth-grade protégée, Glory, run a temperament test on Wolfie, the Alaskan malamute they’ve rescued from getting shot. One option was to describe the test step by step. I yawned just thinking about it. I’m writing a novel, not a dog-training manual.

Much as I love to write scenes in order, I’ve learned that it’s OK to skip over or skirt the scenes that just aren’t happening. So I sent Glory home to look after her little brother, Matt, while their parents are otherwise occupied.

So the next morning my trusty Pelikan was laying down line after line of brown ink on the page. It wasn’t terribly interesting — sibling interactions that probably won’t survive the first draft — but I had this idea that Glory might try to temperament-test her brother and that sounded like fun. They were out in the driveway. Glory had set up some plastic cones. Matt was pedaling his racing car  around them. Then Matt decides he wants to play on the swing set. He leaves his pedal car in the middle of the driveway. Glory reminds him — with more than a dash of big-sister exasperation — that it has to be put away. Matt scowls —

— and Glory is thrown back a couple of hours, to Shannon’s living room, where she and Shannon are temperament-testing Wolfie.

Oh my. The brown ink flowing out of my Pelikan created A Scene. It did everything I want a scene to do: show my characters in (inter)action, move the plot forward, and turn the heat up — raise the stakes, if you will, for the characters, for future readers, and of course for me. It didn’t sound a bit like a dog-training manual.

I write my first drafts in longhand because my handwriting is barely legible and my zealous Internal Editor can’t fuss at what she can’t read. My writers’ group meets every Sunday night, and since my fellow writers can’t read my handwriting either, I’m typing this first draft into Word as I go along. I edit lightly while I type, but I don’t second-guess myself about the big stuff; I do make notes about things to consider when I launch into serious rewrite. This typescript isn’t really a second draft. I think of it as version 1.5.

In Wolfie 1.5, however, that serendipitous scene will appear in Shannon’s living room, not in Glory’s driveway. Wolfie will be there. Little brother won’t.

Why didn’t that scene show up in its chronological order? Damned if I know. Writing is full of mysteries, and like the songwriter Iris DeMent, I’m content to “let the mystery be.” (Great song, by the way. Take a break and Google it.) Some scenes don’t show up in order. They show up when they’re ready. All you have to do is keep your hand moving across the page, or your fingers on the keyboard.


Furry Dog Story

An excerpt from my novel in progress, working title Wolfie, has just been posted to the Writers & Other Animals blog.

Writers & Other Animals features regular guest bloggers, most of whom are writing about animals — especially dogs! While you’re over there, browse the previous posts. You’ll make the acquaintance of some good writers, and probably pick up a few ideas for further reading.

The excerpt, “Close Call,” features both Shannon and Pixel from my first novel, The Mud of the Place. This takes place about 10 years later. Pixel is based on the late, great Rhodry Malamutt and Wolfie (who isn’t named in the story) is based on my Travvy. Trav was born the day after Rhodry died, so the only way I could introduce them to each other was in fiction.

I usually don’t let my writing out in public until it’s pretty close to done. Wolfie is nowhere close to done: I’m maybe 50 pages into a first draft. “Close Call” represents about four of those pages. Since it comes near the beginning, it doesn’t need a lot of explanation, and it’s self-contained enough to stand on its own.

See what you think!

Travvy woos at the waves, Lambert's Cove Beach, January 2014

Travvy woos at the waves, Lambert’s Cove Beach, January 2014

Rhodry and Dis Kitty, Malabar Farm, ca. 2005

Rhodry and Dis Kitty, Malabar Farm, ca. 2005


Location, location, location!

It’s not just about real estate. For writers it’s also about where you place the words, phrases, and clauses that make up your sentence.

English is wonderfully flexible in oh so many ways. Sentences don’t have to follow the same subject-verb-object pattern. The same word can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it’s placed. Here’s a simple example, using “only”:

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.

Phrases and clauses can mean different things depending on where they’re placed in a sentence. I do much of my copyediting for trade and university presses. The authors of the manuscripts I edit are a generally experienced, accomplished lot. They know what they’re doing. When a sentence brings me screeching to a halt, it’s often because a phrase or a clause either creates ambiguity or gives the wrong impression altogether. The phrase or clause itself is fine: it’s just in the wrong place.


Recently I copyedited a biography whose author had a penchant for dropping short phrases in between subjects and their verbs. An example: “Smith, at times, tried to relax.”

Mind you, this isn’t wrong. Sometimes sticking a phrase between subject and verb yields exactly the shading and cadence you want. In general, though, proximity strengthens the connection between two parts of a sentence, and usually we want our subjects clearly and closely connected to their verbs. More to the point, this particular author was splitting up subjects and verbs so often that I suspected a literary tic — one of those habits writers get into without realizing it. So I made it “At times, Smith tried to relax.”

If you deal in dialogue or quoted material, where you place the attribution — whatever you’re using to identify the speaker — can make a big difference in how readers  read/hear the text. “He said,” “she said,” and all the rest function like punctuation. They can create a pause or emphasize a phrase or group a string of phrases together. Here’s a random example from my novel in progress. Matthew is a four-year-old being bratty in the back seat.

“That’s enough, Matthew,” said their mother, not turning around. Matthew looked surprised. “When we get home,” she promised, “I’ll put water in the play pool and you can play in it while I work in the garden.”

That last sentence could be arranged in several ways. “She promised” could come at the end, or after “play pool.” The “when” clause could come in the middle or at the end. For now I like it the way it is. (I beginning to suspect, however, that the mid-October weather is too chilly for the play pool and that Mom isn’t much of a gardener.)

Here’s a nonfiction example, adapted from the biography mentioned above:

“The big issue of the campaign,” stated Williams, “will be security.”

Coming upon this sentence, my immediate reaction was that putting the attribution in the middle weakened the connection between the subject and the object — when “big issue = security” is the whole point of the statement. So I moved it to the beginning:

Stated Williams, “The big issue of the campaign will be security.”

Again, the original isn’t wrong, but the edited version is stronger. (The author liked it better too.)

The lovely flexibility of English makes it possible to construct sentences that are perfectly grammatical but that either don’t say what the writer meant to say or make it unclear what the writer did mean to say. Here’s an example. The author is writing about the New Deal.

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda which saw such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps vanish amidst the exigencies of war.

Huh? thought I. FDR’s domestic agenda killed the NYA and CCC? On second reading, I realized that no, it was the congressional counterattack that helped do the agencies in. The “exigencies of war” evidently had something to do with it, but “amidst” was vague about what. And was the congressional counterattack just sitting on the sidelines watching all this happen?

As a writer, I know that ambiguity can be intentional, but in a history book it’s generally not a plus. I didn’t see a way to move the “which” clause closer to “counterattack” without making a big snarly mess, so I broke the sentence in two:

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda. That, along with the exigencies of war, caused the demise of such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.

Because the original was somewhat ambiguous and because my edit made the cause-and-effect relationship more explicit, I flagged it with a query to the author: “OK?” It was.


Finally, here’s an instance where a very capable writer didn’t realize that the words weren’t saying quite what he meant to say. The question was whether Jones (not his real name) was “the right man for the job in China, which required more diplomatic finesse and fewer prejudices than he was capable of.”

Jones was fairly riddled with prejudices, and being capable of more wouldn’t have made him the right man for the job. The writer knew that; the problem was the word order. The fix was easy: I swapped “diplomatic finesse” and “fewer prejudices” and voilà, the question now was whether Jones was “the right man for the job in China, which required fewer prejudices and more diplomatic finesse than he was capable of.”





Writing stalls for myriad reasons. Sometimes the glass is empty, and when you peer down into the well there’s nothing there either. Maybe the secret of avoiding writer’s block is to catch yourself in a stall before it gets worse?

Last week I stalled. The well wasn’t dry — the words were flowing, but they were breaking around the scene I wanted to write. The scene I wanted to write sat on a little island in the middle of a stream. I kept floating on by, over and over. It was opaque. I couldn’t see inside. The outside told me nothing.

In the scene, an 11-year-old girl bikes home after helping a neighbor save a loose dog from being shot. Her long hair is flying, the helmet she’s supposed to be wearing is swinging from her handlebars. I’m getting to know this kid pretty well. She calls herself Glory. Her mother calls her Gloria. Already I don’t like her mother.

But the scene froze as soon as she turned in to her driveway. I could see her house. I couldn’t see inside it.

Time to do some research. Sometimes, in fiction as well as nonfiction, this means looking things up, or going somewhere in person, or interviewing someone who’s got the information you need. In this case the information was in my imagination. Freewriting is my most reliable tool for tapping into my imagination.

Too reliable. That‘s why I was stalling. I’ve glimpsed enough of where my story is going to not want to know what’s going on in that house.

Time to start getting acquainted with Glory’s mother.

I sat down in my chair with lined paper, an old-fashioned notebook, and a fountain pen loaded with the Tropical Blue ink I hadn’t used for a while.

I met Bruce at a fundraiser for a conservation group — they were raising money for rainforests in Brazil or mustangs in the Wild West, I can’t remember. I’m not into all that — life is overwhelming enough in the here and now, don’t you think?

Pen, blotter, and the first page of Glory's mother's monologue

Pen, blotter, and the first page of Glory’s mother’s monologue

Hot damn. I hadn’t even known her husband’s name. Then Glory’s mother confirmed what I’d begun to suspect: that this Bruce fellow is her second husband, and not Glory’s biological father. Glory looks so unlike her parents that her best friend asked if she was adopted. I’d been wondering the same thing.

Javier and I were talking about separating, so it’s OK that I went out for a nightcap with Bruce afterward, don’t you think?

Glory’s mother kept talking. We were at a party — or maybe I was her new therapist? She didn’t tell me her name. I didn’t ask, because I thought I was supposed to know it already. Bruce may not be Bruce either, or or Javier, Javier. That doesn’t matter. Some characters come with names firmly attached — Glory did, that’s for sure — but other names take time to settle in.

What matters is that now I knew enough about Glory’s family to see inside the house. The film started rolling again. Glory walked her bike into the garage and leaned it against the wall, noting that her mom’s car was there but her dad’s car wasn’t. She wasn’t surprised: her dad works off-island (my novel is set where I live, on Martha’s Vineyard) and often isn’t home during the week.

None of Glory’s mother’s monologue is likely to end up in the novel. If I were counting words, would these six handwritten pages count toward my quota? No idea. What counts is that I had to write them before I could write Glory’s next scene.


Whose Story Is It?

I’m posting this to both my writing blog, Write Through It; and my Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. I love it when the two converge like this.

Earlier this week I read a blog post on “What Makes Cultural Appropriation Offensive?” Both the post, by blogger TK, and the ensuing comments are well worth reading. “Cultural appropriation” is hard to pin down. Cultural borrowing happens all the time. The only way to stop it is to shut everybody into a room with people who are culturally just like them. I hope we can all agree that this is (a) impossible, and (b) undesirable. So when does cultural borrowing become cultural appropriation? And why does it matter?

My enduring lesson in why it matters came in the early 1980s. I was just starting to publish my reviews and essays. I was also the book buyer for Lammas, the feminist bookstore in Washington, D.C. As both writer and bookseller I thought a lot about ethics and politics and especially the often shifty terrain where the two converge.

What brought cultural appropriation into sharp focus for me was Medicine Woman, a book by Lynn V. Andrews. Andrews, a white woman, claimed to have studied with “Native American” shamans and been initiated into their spiritual tradition. Medicine Woman was popular with white women, including white feminists, including customers of the bookstore where I worked.

Soon after it was published, Andrews’s claims were challenged by people intimately familiar with tribal spiritual traditions. These challenges, at least at first, were published primarily in the alternative press and journals of limited circulation. Andrews’s book was published by a big-name trade publisher. It sold very well. It won Andrews more book contracts and eager attendees for her workshops and lectures. Her audience comprised primarily white women who had no experience of “Native American spirituality” — a misleading phrase because this continent is home to many indigenous spiritual traditions — and in most cases didn’t know anyone who did.

Andrews had access to a mass audience in part because of her own color and class privilege, in part because her big-name publisher thought — correctly — that her book would sell, and in part because her followers didn’t really care if her tales were authentic or not. The aura of authenticity was enough. Medicine Woman would not have had the same cachet had it been published as fiction, which it most likely was. (For a thoughtful and well-documented discussion of this case and cultural appropriation in general, see The Skeptic’s Dictionary.)

Cultural appropriation often involves racism, implicit or explicit, but not always. It does always involve an imbalance of power, but the imbalance can be based on race, sex, class, region, nationality, religion, or other factors. Here’s an example of appropriation, or mis-appropriation, in which the people doing the appropriating look a lot like the people whose stories they’re presuming to tell. Maybe it will shine a little light on the whole contested matter of cultural appropriation or, as I like to think of it, “whose story is it?”

In the summer of 1993, President Bill Clinton vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d been a year-round resident for eight years at that point, long enough to know that the year-round island and the summer island occupy the same hundred square miles of land but are not the same place. He was accompanied not only by his family but what seemed like the entire national and regional press corps. The first family made some public appearances, but most of the time they hung out on a hard-to-reach estate near the south shore. They were here for three weeks.

This left all those reporters with a lot of downtime. To justify their salaries and expense accounts, they had to file stories, so they swarmed all around the island, seeing the sights, buttonholing everyone who didn’t look too touristy, and writing about The Vineyard. I saw some of what they wrote because friends around the country sent me clippings — this was before the World Wide Web, never mind Facebook and Twitter. Often a single story would be syndicated and wind up in several newspapers.

Paley TNY clip sm

From The New Yorker for May 16, 1994

This wasn’t exactly going viral, but it did mean that stories written by reporters who’d been here for a week or so reached many, many more thousands of people than anything that appeared in either of the Vineyard’s two weekly newspapers. At the time I was working for one of them, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I was doing what most year-round working Vineyarders do in the throes of August: trying to keep my act together and praying for September to come PDQ. In a summer resort, September means sanity, or at least the semblance thereof. But in the national press the Vineyard was all about lolling on the beach; hobnobbing with the rich, famous, and influential at cocktail parties; and seeing the sights.

The following May, still fuming, I happened upon a small item in The New Yorker about Grace Paley, a poet, writer, and activist I much admired. It said, in part:

“Paley’s stories are local, in the wisest sense. If you ask her about whether she would write about what’s going on in South Africa, she says no. A character might comment on the situation, she adds, but ‘if your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.'”

Grace Paley nailed it: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.” Not only did that become the epigraph of my first novel, it gave me its title and sustained me in the writing of it. It sustains me to this day: my feet are in the mud of this particular place, about which so much has been written by people who only skim the surface, so what the hell else should I be writing about?

mud cover logoAnd that, in a nutshell, is why appropriation, cultural and otherwise, is a problem. Stories have power. Stories told by those with access to education and, especially, to the mass media circulate far more widely than stories told by those who lack such access. Stories that the mass audience wants to hear, or what the editors and publishers in charge think they want to hear, circulate more widely than stories that make us uneasy. Stories told by those whose feet aren’t in the mud of the place all too often come to be seen as authentic, as more real than the real thing.

Praisesong for the Semicolon

My T-shirt collection probably numbers close to 180 by now, but I’ve stopped swearing that I’ll neither buy nor accept new T-shirts. The newest shirt is pale yellow. It sports a large semicolon on the front and on the back it says: “The semicolon is not used enough; the comma is used too often.”

semicolon2Along with the T-shirt I bought two oval semicolon stickers, one for my car, the other for the semicolon hater in my writers’ group. She accepted hers with grace but promptly drew an international “NO” symbol on it with a red Sharpie.

Anti-semicolonism isn’t rare among writers and even among editors, but I don’t understand it. A writer who favors simple, usually short subject-verb-object sentences will seldom have need of semicolons, but is that any reason to hate them?

I suspect that sometimes anti-semicolonism may be a cover for the fear and loathing of complex sentences: “I hate complex thoughts” sounds rather anti-intellectual, but “I hate semicolons” sounds literarily discerning. To have a strong opinion about semicolons implies that one knows what a semicolon is, and that alone is enough to shut many people up.

As a writer and editor, I love a well-stocked toolkit. Every sentence I encounter, the ones I wrote as well as the ones someone else did, has its own needs. Punctuation marks are tools for shaping sentences, and many sentences can be shaped in different ways. Here’s an example, pulled from an essay of mine: “I’m an editor and writer; without functioning eyes, I can’t work.”

This not especially long or complex sentence could be punctuated in several ways, all of them perfectly correct:

#1: I’m an editor and writer. Without functioning eyes, I can’t work.
#2: I’m an editor and writer: without functioning eyes, I can’t work.
#3: I’m an editor and writer — without functioning eyes, I can’t work.

The first is the most matter-of-fact. To my ear it’s the most staccato, and probably the most emphatic. It leaves the reader to connect the two statements in her own way.

In #2, the colon sets up a cause-and-effect relationship between the two parts of the sentence. The colon suggests because or therefore without adding a word.

The em dash in #3 also conveys cause-and-effect, but more expansively — literally: em dashes take up more space than colons or semicolons and push the elements on either side of it further apart. Like the two-sentence option in #1, an em dash lets the reader make her own connections, but it gives her more room to do it in. To get a feel for em dashery, read a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems the way she wrote them and then with “standard” punctuation imposed. (This was done in some early published versions of Dickinson’s work.)

I read most everything I write aloud. Often I read aloud what I’m editing. I highly recommend the practice. When one reads aloud, the punctuation functions like musical notation: it signals pauses, breaks, and phrasing. I read each of the above options a little differently. In this particular sentence, period + new sentence imposed too much separation between the two thoughts. Neither colon nor dash quite worked because I wanted to downplay the cause-and-effect connection — it’s there, of course, but it’s suggested rather than stated.

Hence option #4:

#4: I’m an editor and writer; without functioning eyes, I can’t work.

Plenty of readers will swear up and down that they read all four sentences exactly the same way and don’t see an iota of difference among them. Some writers will swear likewise. Maybe they’re right, but maybe — at least some of the time — the punctuation works subconsciously.

When I’m reading for pleasure I often don’t notice what punctuation marks the writer has used, or even what word she’s chosen in preference to the various alternatives. When I’m editing, or reviewing, or just rereading to figure out How did she do that? — then I notice. Craft is often self-effacing and invisible to the casual observer, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

So my toolkit is amply stocked with semicolons, and I keep them near the front where they won’t get lost. If yours drift toward the back, or get buried under commas and dashes and colons, that’s fine with me. But don’t banish them altogether. A writer who eschews semicolons is like a carpenter who doesn’t have a Phillips head screwdriver (several of them!) in her toolbox. Sure, you can often make do with the tools you’ve got, but you can achieve more precision and (dare I say it?) elegance if you’ve got exactly the right tool for the job.

P.S. for semicolon fans: Semicolon T-shirts, mugs, stickers, and tote bag can be had on Cafepress.