It’s Your Call

In creative writing classes, students often study exemplary essays, stories, poems, and novels. Learn from the masters — makes sense, doesn’t it?

It does indeed. Nevertheless, much can be learned from flawed works as well.

Does that sound paradoxical?

Think about it. A top-notch work seems inevitable. There’s no trace of the earlier drafts, the ones where sentences and whole paragraphs have been deleted or moved around. There’s no hint of all the back-and-forth second-guessing the author did before settling on that word that strikes you as exactly right. A major character may have dwindled draft by draft and finally disappeared entirely. A bit player in the first draft may have wound up the star of the show.

We editors are lucky: we’re continually immersed in works that aren’t done yet. Copyeditors focus primarily on words and sentences. Substantive editors focus on structure. We develop a knack for identifying, diagnosing, and recommending fixes for whatever problems arise. (For a quickie rundown on the various levels of editing, see “Editing? What’s Editing?”) Sometimes the problem is simply an error that needs to be corrected. Other times it’s that something just doesn’t work.

On a recent job, a novel, I was supposed to be focusing on words and sentences, but before long I was acutely aware that the manuscript needed big-picture help. The novel’s title character — let’s call her Renée — has interesting adventures. She’s a spy behind enemy lines in wartime. But the author has chosen to use a first-person narrator for the entire novel — and this narrator has no contact with Renée while she’s having her interesting adventures. As a result, neither does the reader. The most interesting stuff happens off-stage.

Interesting choices open up possibilities. Not-so-interesting choices choke them off.

Travvy, whom these days I frequently call Wolfie.

Travvy, whom these days I frequently call Wolfie.

Recently, after forging bravely ahead in Wolfie, my novel in progress, I reached a crossroads — a point where choices have to be made. Wolfie, the title character, is an Alaskan malamute who’s been saved from probable death by Shannon, who already has one dog and does not want another. (See this excerpt in the Writers and Other Animals blog.)

What was Shannon most afraid of?

That Wolfie would get loose again. Wolfie’s life and Shannon’s credibility are on the line.

Well, that made it a no-brainer: Wolfie was going to get loose again. The big question was, What then?

Out walking one morning with Travvy, Wolfie’s inspiration and alter ego, I played with possible choices:

  • Wolfie is shot and killed by a farmer.
  • Wolfie is shot and disappears into the woods.

I don’t want to kill Wolfie off. He’s my title character, my wild card, and the first draft of the novel isn’t half done yet. He’s not going to die. Shannon’s going to find him first. The question is how. Shannon can’t run nearly as fast as Wolfie, so these were the obvious options:

  • The leash he’s trailing snags on a tree and he can’t get loose.
  • Wolfie finds Shannon before she finds him.

The second choice startled me: Wolfie comes back of his own accord? I ran with it. It startles Shannon too. It opens up possibilities — the sure sign of a good choice.

The rougher road often makes the more interesting choice.

The rougher road often makes the more interesting choice.

Often it’s not till the second or third draft that you recognize that more interesting choices are possible. What if the author of my recent job had thought, “Aha! If I made Renée a point-of-view character, or even a narrator, her wartime experiences would be so much more immediate and vivid”?

It would have been a much more interesting novel.

When you’re first-drafting and you reach a crossroads, ask yourself: What’s the most interesting choice I could make? What do I want to learn about my characters?

Your readers probably want to learn it too.

When you’re revising and a scene falls flat, ask yourself: What am I missing here? Where’s the conflict? Who’s the wild card? How do I make things happen?

You’re in the driver’s seat. It’s your call.




I have more fountain pens than any girl needs. More bottles of ink too. But hey, since I do nearly all my first-drafting in longhand, the pens and the ink get a good workout when I’m working.

Which I am, huzzah, huzzah.

To write with fountain pen and ink, you can’t mind ink stains on your fingers. You also need a blotter, to wipe the excess ink off the point after you’ve filled the pen. I use paper towels, folded into a more-or-less square. Then I use the folded squares as coasters for my tea mug (morning) and beer stein (evening).

Sometimes the towels have patterns. Sometimes they’re plain white.

After a few days, the coasters get grungy and have to be replaced, but in the meantime they’re awfully pretty. Here are a few recent ones.


ink blot

ink blot 2

20140408 blotter

20140718 blotter

Letting Go

Recently a colleague posted to an online editors’ forum: “How do you tell a client who keeps tinkering to just stop?” Her client’s tinkering was not improving the manuscript. In some cases it was making things worse.

Her client was having a hard time letting go, and with good reason: letting go is hard. Off the top of my head I can think of several excellent manuscripts that are languishing in their authors’ desk drawers or on their hard drives because their authors can’t let them go.

The subject has been on my mind lately because I’m in the process of making an ebook out of my novel, The Mud of the Place. The print version came out in 2008. My final draft was a Word file. The proofs were in PDF. Plenty of corrections and tweaks were made on the proofs. My first step was to transfer all of them to the final-draft Word file. Now I’m proofreading the Word file from which the ebook will be created.

In proofreading mode I’m looking for typos and stylistic inconsistencies. I am not looking to change or rearrange any of the words. Yes, a few times I’ve paused at a word and thought that another word might be better. But I want the text of the ebook edition to be identical to that of the print edition. If I find an error — a genuine, bona fide error — I will fix it.

But the time for tinkering is past, long past.

The urge to keep tinkering is often a sign that Perfectionista is gripping your shoulder and scaring you half to death with her what-ifs. What if you’ve left something out? What if you’ve made a mistake? What if your whole book is a mistake? What if everyone hates your book? What if everyone thinks you’re stupid?

Sometimes Perfectionista keeps you from writing. Other times she wants you to tinker endlessly with what you’ve already written. Whatever she’s up to, the way to loosen her grip is the same: Lower your standards. And no, that doesn’t mean “do shoddy work.” It means that no matter how much tinkering you do, your work is never going to be perfect — and even if it is, someone‘s not gonna like it. You can’t control what anybody else thinks.

Letting go takes practice. You’ve got to have confidence in your work — that takes practice too. If you’ve been sharing your work in a workshop or a writers’ group or with readers who’ll give you honest feedback, you’re well on the way. Sharing your work, after all, is a kind of letting go.

Deadlines can be a big help. When the clock or the calendar says you’re done, you’re done. The train is leaving the station and your story’s on it. When you see your story in print, a few hours or days or weeks later, you probably see something you would have done differently, but the chances are excellent that it’s fine as is.

Especially if you have a good editor acting as your safety net.

And one last thing: It’s easier to let go of one work when you’re hard at work on something new. The new story or essay or book probably won’t leave you much energy to obsess about the one that’s ready to leave home. Kiss it goodbye and move on.

Not ready to let go: The late Rhodry (1994–2008), right, and his buddy Rosie.

Not ready to let go: The late Rhodry (1994–2008), right, and his buddy Rosie.




The Editor Queen’s Song

With apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan . . .

Here is the sole surviving song from The Edits of Freelance, a legendary operetta about a band of jovial, impecunious, beer-swilling copyeditors living off the New English coast. The rest of the script sank with all hands during an ill-advised and possibly inebriated attempt to walk across Vineyard Sound on Fireworks Night.

For those unfamiliar with the show: Young Frederika’s parents are highly placed in the Halliburton World Government, but Frederika has nothing but contempt for their conspicuously consumptive lifestyle and so runs off to join the Freelancers. After much waving of weapons and paying of bribes, a detachment of lawyers, accountants, and transportation security screeners have found Frederika and persuaded her to meet with her parents on the privately owned and heavily fortified island of Gnoshon. Frederika is reluctant, but the Lawyer Chief has warned her that the Halliburtonian Triumvirs know that the Freelancers possess pencils of mass destruction and are prepared to act accordingly. The Editor Queen and her Editorial Associates bid Frederika a rousing farewell with this song.


Editor Queen:
For I am the Editor Queen!

You are! Hurrah for the Editor Queen!

Editor Queen:
And it is, it is a glorious thing to be an Editor Queen!

It is! Hurrah for the Editor Queen, hurrah for the . . .

Editor Queen:
Oh, better far to just get by
editing books with standards high
than take some far more lucrative work
olishing crap for some rich jerk!

Away to the corporate world go you
where words are false and no one’s true
But I’ll be true to the song I sing
and manage to thrive as an editor queen!


For she is the Editor Queen!
She is! Hurrah for the Editor Queen!

Editor Queen:
And it is, it is a glorious thing to be an Editor Queen!

Hurrah for the Editor Queen, hurrah for the Editor Queen!

Editor Queen:
When I sit me down to pummel some prose
I smack my lips and I hold my nose
I shred a few more sentences, true,
than a novice editor ought to do

But many a pro at a top trade press
to make a book from an awful mess
must manage somehow to slog through
more gobbledygook than ever I do.


For she is the Editor Queen!
She is! Hurrah for the Editor Queen!

Editor Queen:
And it is, it is a glorious thing to be an Editor Queen!

Hurrah for the Editor Queen, hurrah for the Editor Queen!

Repeat CHORUS as Frederika climbs into the waiting dinghy and the Associates shower her with Post-it notes.

Possible rescue on the horizon?

Possible rescue on the horizon?


In a Facebook discussion about my recent blog post “Shibboleths and Other Pitfalls,” my friend Greg Feeley, writer, critic, and adjunct professor of writing, posed a question: “What about ‘like’ / ‘as if’ (or ‘as though’)? I still teach my students the distinction, because they should know formal English — the kind the people who read their interview cover letters will judge them by — as well as the English they already speak perfectly well.”

He’s right, both about “like” the conjunction and about the general principle. I grew up with the ad campaign for Winston cigarettes whose key sentence was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” I remember English teachers and other adults going up in the air about “like a cigarette should.”

“As!” they’d yell. “It should be ‘as’!”

They probably said stuff like “the youth of America is going to hell in a handbasket,” or maybe western civilization was going to hell in a handbasket, and all because of this damned cigarette ad.

I probably went around saying stuff like “Say it like you mean it” just to piss them off.

“Like” the conjunction may have been around since Chaucer’s time, as the American Heritage Dictionary notes, but plenty of well-educated English-speakers don’t like it at all. They may dislike split infinitives, place great value on the which/that distinction, or subscribe to other shibboleths and zombie rules whose justification is shaky . . .

But, as Greg points out, they may be the ones reading your interview cover letters, or your agent queries, or your grant proposals.

They’re the gatekeepers, in other words. Gatekeepers are the ones you have to get past in order to get what you want: an agent, a publishing contract, a job, a grant, whatever it is.

You can get by this gate, but not in a car.

You can get by this gate, but not in a car.

I was a gatekeeper once. Between 1989 and 1991 I edited three original anthologies of women’s fantasy and science fiction: Memories and Visions, The Women Who Walk Through Fire, and Tales of Magic Realism by Women (Dreams in a Minor Key). Over three years I read nearly a thousand stories — and accepted a grand total of 46.

Think about it. For every story I accepted, I rejected about 21. At first, I considered every good story — and there were a lot of them — a possible YES. Before long, the numbers got to me. My attitude changed. When I started reading each story, I was looking for reasons to say NO.

Before that, I’d heard editors and agents say that within a very few paragraphs of a story, a very few pages of a novel, they knew whether the work was publishable. How unfair! I thought. How could they possibly tell?

I read most of those thousand f/sf stories through to the end. I learned to trust my snap judgments. A story had to be more than “good” to make it into the YES or even the MAYBE pile. I learned to look for intangibles: energy, originality, clues that I’d never read anything like this before.

After that I had much more sympathy for the gatekeepers.

Even the ones who are using shibboleths and zombie rules to stick your query or cover letter or proposal in the NO pile. They’re probably swamped with good letters and applications. Their “sort” parameters may be flawed, but they’ve got to keep the MAYBE pile down to manageable size.

The moral of the story is that when you’re dealing with gatekeepers, give the gatekeepers as few reasons as possible to say NO. Follow the appropriate guidelines. Use standard formatting, or whatever format the organization or publication prescribes. And avoid the shibboleths and other pitfalls that may set the gatekeepers off. Pay attention to your teacher, your editor, and all those handy “10 things to never do in your writing” lists that are all over the Web. (Yes, I just split an infinitive. This is why I like being my own gatekeeper.)

If you’re an editor, teacher, reader of grant proposals, or other gatekeeper, you can do your bit too. Placate the shibboleths but don’t use them to sort people into SMART and STUPID, YES and NO.

Think of the language as your wardrobe. When you dress for a cocktail party, you don’t put on the same clothes you wear to do barn chores. Clothes don’t make the person, and neither does word choice, but there are plenty of people out there who think otherwise. Be prepared.

turn back

At least they’re polite about it.