How to Write

In a New Year’s Day post to From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, also known as “my other blog,” I wrote about the only New Year’s resolution I remember making as an adult. It was for 2002 and, surprise, surprise, it was about writing.

mud-cover-smI’d been working on my first novel, The Mud of the Place, for three or four years at that point, usually in fits and starts.  I’d never successfully completed anything longer than 40 pages. It was like 40 pages was the edge of a cliff and now that I had a novel draft of 300 pages or so, I was looking down into an abyss with nothing under my feet. I was terrified.

Terror kept me from looking at my manuscript, and the longer I went without looking, the more certain I was that the thing was total, unsalvageable crap.

So my resolution? I will work on the  novel every day until it’s done.

And I did. Some days I wouldn’t open the Word file till five minutes to midnight. Every single time I’d see that the ms. wasn’t crap at all and that just by looking at it I’d know what to do next.

guitar“Beginner,” my New Year’s Day blog post, is about learning to play the guitar. For (semi-)recovering perfectionists like me, learning anything new or doing anything for the first time can be very scary, and sure enough, learning new things is hard. My fingers won’t do what I want them to do, or they won’t do it fast enough, or everybody else in the class is getting it faster than I am. Yadda yadda yadda.

As a teenager I had fantasies of falling asleep and waking up a guitar virtuoso. It never happened. I didn’t dare pick up a guitar or even tell anyone how much I wanted to learn how to play. At that point in my life, being a fumble-fingered beginner was too scary to contemplate.

The intriguing thing is that by that point I was already pretty good with words, and over the decades I’ve gotten better. If I’m a virtuoso at anything, it’s writing and editing — which, by the way, I didn’t realize were considered separate skills till I was promoted from clerical worker into my first editorial job. I was 28 at the time.

But I don’t remember how I learned to write, any more than I remember learning how to speak English. Come to think of it, I had the same fantasies about French, Spanish, and Arabic that I had about the guitar: that I’d wake up one morning with a native’s fluency, having skipped the years of stumbling around making a fool of myself.

I do remember diagramming sentences in grade school, and vocabulary quizzes.  In fifth grade, I wrote a story for my class’s one-shot newspaper. I also adapted a young readers’ biography of Patrick Henry into a play that my class produced. (I got to play Patrick Henry. My most vivid memory of the production is that Thomas Jefferson was twice as tall as I was.)

So evidently I’d achieved some facility by that point, though I’ve no recollection how. I must have progressed through the beginner and intermediate stages without major trauma. By the time perfectionism kicked in for real, probably in early adolescence, I must have been so confident in my facility with words that I knew I couldn’t look or feel like a fumble-fingered fool.

The big problem with not knowing how I learned to write is that I haven’t a clue how I’d go about teaching writing. I’ve actually considered taking a how-to-write course or two, just to find out how others do it. Unfortunately, or maybe not, the opportunities available locally are very limited. Sure, I could devise lessons about parts of speech and sentence structure and the other mechanical stuff, but how to teach the feel for the language that makes me so good at what I do?

I haven’t a clue, beyond “Keep writing, keep reading, keep listening, keep trying new things.” If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know!

“Berryman” by W. S. Merwin

So much insight here, and so many great lines (“. . . but he was deep / in tides of his own through which he sailed / chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop”), but these are the ones that grabbed me hardest: “I asked how can you ever be sure / that what you write is really / any good at all and he said you can’t . . .”

hecatedemeter

2016-black-woman-writing-and-journal
Berryman
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I…

View original post 134 more words

Going Public

Recently I critiqued two book-length manuscripts, both novels and both promising. Before the authors contacted me, no one else had read either manuscript all the way through.

I say this not because it’s unusual but because it isn’t. Writing may be a solitary activity, but publishing is not. To publish is, by definition, to make public. (I’m not kidding about this. Look it up.) To many aspiring writers it seems easier to imagine putting their work before hundreds or thousands of strangers than to share it with people they may know personally. Is it surprising that so many writers labor for years on a book-length manuscript and then choke when it comes time to start seeking a publisher?

Puppy Travvy (right) meets Chamois, a mature yellow Lab, spring 2008.

Puppy Travvy (right) meets Chamois, a mature yellow Lab, spring 2008.

Making our work public does not come easily to most of us. It does takes practice. Think of your work in progress as a puppy. Puppies do better when they get to meet other puppies, adult dogs, and people of various sizes. At the same time, their owners learn more about the pup’s personality and maybe what the pup could use in the way of socialization and training.

No, you don’t need to let your work in progress out of the house before it and you are ready, but do get used to putting your words out in public and (if you’re lucky) getting responses from readers. There are lots of ways to do this. Blog. Contribute to the blogs of others. Review the books you read on GoodReads. Write press releases for the organizations you’re active in or occasional stories for the local paper. Join or start a writers’ group. Etc.

I’ve been taking Wolfie, my novel in progress, to my writers’ group scene by scene since early on. This has been good practice for me because I’m perfectionist enough to be uncomfortable letting anything out of my sight before it’s done. Once I was well into draft 3, I decided chapter 1 was ready to go out before a public that hadn’t heard any of it before.

Fortunately the ideal venue for such forays exists at my town’s library. Writers Read, as it’s called, meets roughly once a month. Unlike the usual writers’ group, regular attendance is not expected, but it’s developed a core of regulars that offer stability while others drop in from time to time. Six or seven writers read at each gathering. To avoid listener fatigue, the time limit of nine minutes is firmly enforced by the moderator. This presents a challenge for writers of longer works, but even novels and memoirs generally include scenes that can stand on their own without too much explanation (which is included in the nine minutes).

Personal responses from listeners are encouraged, but this is not a critique group. “I was confused by this bit” is OK; “this is confusing” is not. The moderator enforces this too. It often happens that one listener loves what another listener is confused by. This might be the most valuable lesson any writer can learn from taking her work out in public: different readers may have wildly different reactions to the same passage, which means it’s up to the writer to decide what to do about it.

Most of the participants in Writers Read are writers, but non-writers and future writers are more than welcome. I suspect that venues like Writers Read help novice writers get their courage up, first to write and then to share their work.

If nothing like this exists in your area, try starting something yourself. All you need is a space, a bunch of writers interested in sharing their work, and a few ground rules to keep the gatherings friendly and fruitful.

Writers Read, November 2016, West Tisbury (Mass.) Free Public Library

Writers Read, November 2016, West Tisbury (Mass.) Free Public Library

Just the Facts

Several of my current or recent jobs involve a fair amount of fact-checking, so I’m feeling both heroic about the errors and inconsistencies I’ve caught and anxious about the ones I know for absolute sure I’m missing.

You know how it goes: You’re reading along in a pretty good book and you screech to a halt at something that’s flat-out wrong. Not a typo or a misplaced modifier or a grammatical goof: a genuine error of fact. Maybe you know the right answer because it’s about your hometown, the car you drive, a subject you’ve been studying for years, or the work you do for a living.

“Where was the editor?” you cry. “Any idiot knows that’s not right.”

The editor and the proofreader would probably be mortified to learn that this error had slipped through. The more significant the error, the more mortified they’d be. At the same time, it’s ultimately the author’s job to get it right, so let’s not be blaming it all on the poor editor — not least because the reader of a published book has no way of knowing how many errors and inconsistencies the editor and proofreader caught.

Pick up a good book, fiction or nonfiction, and read a few pages. Notice how many matters of fact there are, how many opportunities there are to get something wrong or not quite right?

As an editor I don’t do the kind of rigorous fact-checking done by good journalists and others, where everything that isn’t common knowledge (like the law of gravity) has to be confirmed by at least two independent sources. “Fact-checking” is a task in its own right. It overlaps copyediting, but it’s not the same.

I do routinely check the spellings of place and personal names, especially when I’m not familiar with them. I’m currently editing a book about an eminent classical musician of the last century. This isn’t a field I know well, so I’m looking almost everything up. This is how I learned that Goosens was supposed to be Goossens and something else: that three successive generations of this musical family included a Eugene. The elder two spelled their first name Eugène but the youngest had dropped the accent. I couldn’t tell for sure which Eugene/Eugène Goossens was being referred to, so I asked the author. The youngest, she informed me. “Eugene” it was.

I’m also proofreading a long nonfiction book with many, many names, dates, and other details. This is a “cold read,” which means that though I do have access to the copyedited manuscript, I am not reading the proofs against it. When a book’s been competently edited and copyedited, errors and inconsistencies are generally few and relatively minor, but they are there. I was quite pleased with myself when I realized that a fellow who was survived by eight children when he died on September 13 had been the father of nine on September 9.

What did I do next? From context I knew that there was virtually no chance that a child had died between the 9th and the 13th; in other words, this was an error. Because  this fellow was not famous and the number of children he had was irrelevant to the story, I didn’t even think to look it up. (Fact-checking in the digital age can be a terrible time sink. There are a helluva lot of fascinating facts out there.) I noted the discrepancy on the proofs and left it to the author to deal with.

Reading the same proofs, I came to a sentence that ended with a series of organization names: “the House of Representatives, the New York Urban League, the National Legal Aid, the Defender Association, and the Buffalo Council of Churches.” “The National Legal Aid” looked odd. What was the “the” doing there? So I looked it up — and discovered that “the National Legal Aid” and “the Defender Association” were not two organizations but one: the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA). Which of course I had to read up on — see what I mean about time sinks?

This is what’s known in the trade as a “good catch.” I’m still feeling a little smug about it.

How about when an error goes beyond an easily verifiable fact? Some things we catch because we have knowledge of the subject matter. Editors bring their personal histories as well as their editorial experience to each new job, so we’ll catch things in the areas we know well and speed on by things in areas we don’t.

Checking street maps to make sure a driver can make a left turn from Street A onto Avenue B? Verifying appropriate technology in a historical novel, or customs in a place far from home? Basically it’s the author’s job to get this stuff right. When the editor, copyeditor, or proofreader catches an impossibility, an anachronism, or a cultural improbability, it’s great, but editors are not fact-checkers and we’re usually working on deadline.

An obvious gaffe can undermine a book’s credibility. Competent editing and proofreading will greatly reduce the number of errors, inconsistencies, and unclarities that slip through, but in this, as in everything else, perfection is not possible.

If you’re the writer, however, it’s your name in the byline or on the book cover. There’s a reason for that. You’re the one with the most power to get the facts right.

Master Proofread

I just finished a master proofread, and boy, was it a doozy.

The master proofreader reads proof against copy, line for line, word for word, character for character. It requires intense focus. This is exhausting.

Don't drive yourself crazy looking for the typo, OK?

Don’t drive yourself crazy looking for the typo, OK?

In a master proofread, errors fall into two categories: printer’s errors and editor’s alterations. Both are flagged and corrected in the margin with conventional proofreader’s marks. If the compositor didn’t follow the manuscript precisely, the proofreader marks the correction “pe” (printer’s error). When the proofreader catches something that the author, editor, and copyeditor missed, she marks the correction “ea” (editor’s alteration) or something similar.

When authors make changes in proof, they’re called, big surprise, author’s alterations and marked “aa.”

The distinction is made between printer’s errors and editor’s or author’s alterations because print shops correct their own errors for free. When authors or editors make changes at the proof stage, they generally get charged for them. Some writers have an irresistible desire to fiddle with their prose at the proof stage. Often the desire is somewhat easier to resist if they know it’s going to cost them money.

Fortunately the only person who has to translate this into type is me.

Fortunately the only person who has to translate this into type is me.

Before the digital age, typewritten manuscripts had to be completely rekeyed by the compositor. Good compositors are uncannily accurate, but when an entire 300-page ms. has to be retyped, errors are inevitable.  (Good compositors often correct obvious typos on the fly, but their only compensation for this is the gratitude of proofreader, editor, and author.)

These days, most mss. are submitted and edited electronically. Each version is “cleaner” — more free of errors — than its predecessor. The manuscript never has to be completely rekeyed, so at least in theory the proofs never have to be read against the edited ms. The proof still has to be read, however, ideally by a fresh set of eyes that have never seen the copy before. This is called “cold” or “blind” reading.

Most of the proofreading I do is cold reading.  (I’ve blogged elsewhere about why I like proofreading.) I never see the edited manuscript, so I don’t know what shape it was in when the copyeditor got it or how the author responded to the copyeditor’s changes. I’m the safety net. I’m supposed to catch whatever wasn’t caught earlier.

I’m also looking for formatting glitches, like weird end-of-line hyphenation (you don’t want “therapist” to break as “the-rapist,” or one-syllable words to break at all), “stacks” (when three or more consecutive lines end with a hyphen), and widows and orphans (these are variously defined, but basically they’re instances where a word or even a whole line winds up on a different page from the rest of its paragraph).

I do very few master proofreads these days. The last one was less than arduous: reading second-pass proofs against first-pass to make sure that all the corrections had been correctly entered and that the changes hadn’t messed up any line or page breaks.

So earlier this winter a publisher’s production editor (PE) asked if I’d be able to take on what clearly wasn’t your typical master proofread. Not only was the copyedit on paper (not common these days), but the author had done extensive rewriting after the copyedit. As the PE described it, it sounded like a compositor’s nightmare: “huge number of inserts in a hard-copy ms., no single file, author’s bordering-on-illegible handwriting.”

The 176 inserts — some of which were several pages long — hadn’t been copyedited, though the very capable PE had read them through and done some markup, along with making sure they were keyed to the manuscript so the compositor could replace old copy with new and keep everything in order. Where the author’s handwritten revisions on the original ms. were almost unintelligible, she’d written out the words so the compositor (and I) could read them.

To make it even more fun, both the PE and the book’s editor had written queries to the author on the ms., so part of my job was to copy these queries onto the proofs so the author can see them. These are marked “CQ,” which as I learned it stands for “carry query.” (Wikipedia notes that it actually stands for cadit quaestioliterally “the question falls,” which in legal writing and in some editorial venues means that the question has been settled. In my editing experience it means the exact opposite: the question hasn’t been answered.)

The first thing I did was lock Perfectionista in a closet where I couldn’t hear her carping. Perfectionista is my inner anti-muse who thinks perfection is a reasonable expectation and if I can’t achieve it I’m worthless. I was going to be simultaneously proofreading, copyediting, and looking out for continuity problems introduced by all the new text. No way was I going to catch everything. Once the proofs were corrected, there would be a second proofreading pass, both a master proofread and a cold read.  On jobs this messy, the safety net needs a safety net.

Blessing the PE for her meticulous work and the copyeditor for her comprehensive style sheet, which made it relatively easy to make all those inserts consistent with the copyedited pages that surrounded them, I made it through. Will the author have to pay for all those changes? I don’t know. The cost of implementing them — time spent by editor, production editor, compositor, and proofreaders — must be running well into the thousands of dollars.

The real moral of the story, dear writers, is this: Do your rewriting before your book goes into production, not after the manuscript has been copyedited.

Here’s what a fairly typical page of the copyedited, rewritten, and worked-over manuscript looked like:

ms page 2

Squeaky Clean

Sturgis’s Law #4 warns editors to be skeptical when anyone comes to them swearing that “all this manuscript needs is a light edit.”

The skepticism is warranted, but in all fairness — light edits do happen. I’m working on one now. In my post about Sturgis’s Law #4 I wrote that light edits “are generally prepared by fairly experienced writers who have already run them by a few astute colleagues for comments and corrections.” This particular manuscript was prepared by extremely experienced writers, and it’s being published by a reputable trade house. I copyedit regularly for this house, but this ms. is clean even by their standards.

Cleaning bucket

Cleaning bucket

To editors and others engaged in the publishing process, “clean” means, more or less, in very good shape. Whether edited on paper or on screen, the ms. doesn’t have a lot of markup showing. If an editor who’s reviewed your ms. tells you it’s very clean, that’s high praise. It doesn’t mean that the ms. won’t benefit from editing, but it does mean that the editing will mostly involve fine-tuning and polishing, not a remedial overhaul.

“Squeaky clean” to me goes a step further. A squeaky clean ms. could probably go straight to press without embarrassing anybody. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, I’ve caught a few typos and formatting glitches, a missing endnote, and one instance where a character is 17 years old on one page and 16 a few pages later. But this is not stuff that most readers notice. In gravity or quantity, these are not errors that would prompt even the perfectionists among us to toss the book aside as sloppily edited. The writing is just too good.

Squeaky clean mss., like well-edited proofs, can be a little scary. That perfectionist in the back of my head is sure I’m missing something. Maybe my eyesight has deteriorated overnight?

They also lead us into temptation — the temptation to fiddle where fiddling is not called for. The impulse to make our mark runs strong in most of us, and the manuscript where minimal marking is needed can be profoundly frustrating.  Doesn’t it mean that all the knowledge of grammar, punctuation, usage, and sentence structure crammed into our heads is going to waste?

No, it doesn’t. I adapted the familiar Serenity Prayer for editorial use. It goes like this: “Grant me the serenity to recognize the prose I should not change, the ability to improve the prose I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That wisdom, and the self-restraint that comes with it, is an essential editorial skill. Most of us take a while to develop it. Novices are notorious for fiddling with what doesn’t need fiddling with, usually because we’re afraid we’re not doing our job if we aren’t making marks on page or screen. (When this persists and spins out of control, I call it “piss-on-fire-hydrant syndrome.” One of these days I should blog about that.)

Over the years I’ve come to realize that these squeaky clean manuscripts are a gift. When the prose is already clear and graceful, attentive to sound, pacing, and nuance, I get to focus on the finest of the fine points: Does this particular word, though definitely OK, perhaps have connotations that get in the way? How about a comma here, to slow somewhat the headlong rush to the end of the sentence?

With a ms. this clean, the competent editor quickly comes to trust the writer’s judgment, and even to sense why the writer has phrased something this way and not that. At the same time — well, this particular ms. is almost 500 pages long and contains more than 180,000 words. Even the most experienced and careful stylists can’t devote equal attention to every one of those words. So I suggest the occasional change, suspecting that the writer will appreciate the suggestion even if s/he decides not to act on it.

serenity prayer

Letting Go, Take 2

 

An editor colleague just asked what to do about a client who’s written a very good novel but wants to keep revising and revising and won’t start querying agents or publishers.

There’s not much you can do, I said.

Aside: “Letting Go,” take 1, was prompted by a similar query. It took off in a somewhat different direction. I suspect that writers and editors never stop dealing with this stuff.

The word “perfectionism” came up.

As a recovering perfectionist — often a recovering-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth perfectionist who wonders if she’s recovering at all — I know a few things about this. Perfectionism can mean that everything you do has to be perfect before you’ll let it out of your sight, but it can and often does mean more than that. Perfectionism is a way of maintaining control. If I do everything right, I won’t get fired, my lover won’t leave, my kids will turn out perfect, and my novel will get made into a top-grossing movie and the world will swoon at my feet.

It often doesn’t work out that way. Deep down we perfectionists suspect this. Deep down we know that once something leaves our hands, the outcome is out of our control. So we don’t let it go.

Which is what I suspect is going on with the novelist who can’t stop revising, mainly because I’ve known many writers over the years who can’t let go of their work. They tell themselves the work isn’t done — they need to do more research, or do one more draft — and nothing anyone tells them can persuade them otherwise. The problem isn’t that the work isn’t done, it’s that the word “done” isn’t in the writer’s vocabulary because “done” means s/he has to let go.

For writers, here is where it gets tricky. Letting go means you’re putting the outcome in the hands of person(s) unknown. Persons who don’t know you and don’t have any particular reason to wish you well — unless, of course, you’ve produced the sort of work that might make lots of money. The overwhelming majority of us have not done this. Competent agents agree to represent only a small fraction of the manuscripts they see. Many of the ones they reject are very good or better.

In other words, if “failure” to you means rejection by an agent, or by a dozen or a hundred agents, your fear of failure is completely justified.

So is your fear of success. Fear of success is the flip side of fear of failure. They both have deep roots in the fear of letting go. Say you do get an agent, the agent sells your book, and there’s actually a book on the market that has your name on the cover. To you it’s a huge deal, as it should be, but most of the world — including your friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances — is going to say, at best, “That’s nice,” and move on.

Am I telling you to give up? Of course not. Read on.

Here’s a little parable: A kid finds a new butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis. The kid pulls the chrysalis apart and helps the butterfly get out. But the butterfly’s wings aren’t fully developed. It cannot fly. Moral of story: It’s the struggle to get out of the chrysalis that strengthens the butterfly’s wings so it can fly.

I like this little parable even though some people turn it into a rationale for never helping anybody out. I like it because it applies so well to writing and other creative endeavors. In the struggle to create, we not only become good writers, we also figure out what we want to do with our writing. We create a path forward for ourselves and develop the courage to follow it.

For many of us, this involves seeking out and sharing experiences with other writers. We become better writers, yes, but we also develop two crucial skills: the ability to dissociate ourselves from our creations, and the ability to sort through other people’s comments, edits, and critiques and decide what works for us. In the process, we learn about the many options for getting our work out into the world.

To complete a book-length work without doing this — well, it’s like finding that the road you’ve been on for years ends in a precipitous drop. Or maybe like opening the door from your dark room and being blinded by the light outside.

The very first line of this blog, back in “The Basics,” was “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”

I believe it.

In that same post, I quoted two of the truest things I’ve ever heard about writing. I believe them too. Here they are again.

”I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.”
Alice Walker

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Marge Piercy

Sturgis’s Law #1

I’m taking a hint from one of my favorite bloggers, Evelyne Holingue. She’s a native French speaker who now lives in the U.S. During the month of April she went through the alphabet A to Z. For each letter, she chose a French idiom then gave its literal meaning, its idiomatic meaning, and its nearest English equivalent. It was great fun — playing with language always is! — and (dare I say it) educational.

I loved the idea of doing some kind of series. Not about idioms but about — what?

Over the years I’ve been compiling observations about writing and editing. I call them Sturgis’s Laws. Not “rules.” No way. We’ve got enough rules already. There are 17 so far, plus one unnumbered law that isn’t really a law at all — I’ll save that one for last.

So here begins an occasional series with, of course, Sturgis’s Law #1:

If you stare at any sentence long enough, it will look wrong.

Sturgis’s Law #1 has an obvious corollary. Call it Law #1a:

If you stare at any word long enough, it will look wrong.

In the editors’ forums I frequent, editors often post sentences we’re having problems with. Is this construction OK? we ask. Would you use this word in American English (AmE) or is it mostly British? Is a comma enough here, or should it be a dash? What the hell does this sentence mean?

And so on. Usually the question is answered pretty quickly, but the editorial tribe rarely stops there. We rip the sentence apart, rearrange the words, change the punctuation, and come up with clever ways of misreading a phrase that was perfectly clear at first glance.

20130227 birthday bone

If only more sentences were this tasty . . .

We’re a pack of vultures or a dog with a bone — take your pick. I’m partial to the dog-and-bone metaphor myself.

The editor who posted the query, if s/he is wise, has long since moved on, leaving the rest of us to our gnawing.

There’s much to be learned from these gnaw-fests, but at some point Sturgis’s Law #1 comes into play. If you stare at any sentence long enough, it will look wrong — and the longer you stare at it, the more things you’ll find to fiddle with.

Hesitate too long at one sentence or one word and you’ll never finish the job.

How many sentences in the typical short story, academic paper, or full-length book? How many words? How long does the typical reader linger over a typical sentence, a typical word?

Moral of story: Don’t linger too long over this sentence or that word. As the poet said, “the Moving Finger writes; and, having writ / Moves on.”

It’s good advice.

typo

Restarting

I can revise, rewrite, and edit pretty much any time I’m awake, but for writing, especially early-draft writing, especially writing long and scary projects (like Wolfie, my novel in progress), I’m best in the morning, in the hour or two or three after I wake up.

I’m braver in the morning. I’m less easily distracted by the voices chattering inside my head and by whatever I’m supposed to do that day.

For several recent weeks my early-morning writing time was taken up by work, editing for pay and on deadline — my livelihood.

Another thing: When I’m working on a long and scary project, my mind is usually mulling it over while I’m out walking with my dog, or dropping off to sleep at night, or waking up in the morning. Mental logjams break up when I’m nowhere near my pens or my laptop.

During those several recent weeks, the jobs I was working on took up semi-permanent residence in my head. That’s what my mind kept mulling when I was out walking, or driving, or dropping off to sleep.

Blank paper is scary, but it's full of potential. (That's the scary part.)

Blank paper is scary, but it’s full of potential. (That’s the scary part.)

In short, for about three weeks I did no work on the novel. I barely even blogged.

How to get back in the groove?

Starting is easy (ha ha ha). Blank pages are scary but they’re full of potential.

I’d recently started a second draft. The not-quite complete first draft is more than 225 pages long. (First draft = first draft prime: the real first draft is in longhand, and I always do a little revising as I’m typing it into Word.) When I tried to recall it, it was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

More to the point, I was sure that if I actually looked at it, I would realize it was crap. I have had this problem before. It’s why when I’m working on a long and scary project I look at it every day. Five minutes is enough. I don’t have to write anything. I just have to open the file and look at it.

Once I’ve opened it, I always find something to fiddle with, and after I’ve done a little fiddling, I nearly always write something new.

Wolfie‘s title character is a dog. So far the only cat in the story is Schrödinger’s, and of course I don’t know if that cat is alive or dead, real or unreal. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment hypothesized a cat in a closed box with a vial of lethal radioactive material. The vial may or may not have broken; the cat may be alive or dead. I, outside the box, don’t know what has happened inside the box until I open it. Is the cat alive or dead?

I, sitting at my laptop, am dead certain the novel in progress is crap. If I actually look at it, I will know for sure it is crap and then what will I do with the rest of my life?

But it never works that way. It’s always

looking -> fiddling -> writing

After I’d read a few pages of my second draft, the seed of a new scene took root in my head. The scene comes much later in the novel. I sketched it out in longhand then went back to reading.

So why the dead certainty that the writing has turned to crap in my absence? Interesting question, but it’s going to have to wait. I’m writing.

The moving hand writes and a scene takes root.

The moving hand writes and a scene takes root.

 

 

What Makes a Real Writer?

Stacey, who follows Write Through It and blogs at Diary of a Ragamuffin, posed this question: “What makes one a real ‘writer’?”

She added:

My reason for asking:  After 15 years of teaching, I decided to change careers and have begun a job as a reporter for my small-town newspaper (that is owned by a not-so-small-town corporation).  They knew I had no journalism experience when they hired me.  After four  months, I’m beginning to wonder if just anyone could do the job I do.

I’m not sure if what I do each day is what I had hoped it would be.  Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it (in my opinion).

The answer is that there’s no answer, but you know I’m not going to stop there, right?

First off, I worked eight years for a small-town newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, in a succession of overlapping capacities: proofreader, features editor, features writer, theater reviewer, copyeditor. Reporting wasn’t my forte, but I did a little of that, mostly covering stories when no “real” reporter was available.

So I’m here to assure Stacey: The job you do can’t be done by just anyone, or by just any writer either. The fact that you’re wondering probably means that you’re good at it. You’ve got the knack. You learn fast. You’re able to apply your experience in other jobs to your journalism job.

Been there, done that. I wasn’t a journalist either when I got drafted to fill in for an editorial typesetter who was going on sick leave. I was scared to death I’d screw up, but I needed the work. I could type, I could proofread, I could write, and I had several years’ editorial experience. Short version: I loved it, I was good at it, and pretty soon the paper hired me as a part-time proofreader.

The tricky thing about job description “writer” is that it covers so many different kinds of writing. Reporter. Novelist. Columnist. Essayist. Poet. Diarist. Blogger. Biographer. Academic. Copywriter. Technical writer. And so on and on. No writer does all of them. No writer I’ve ever met wants to do all of them.

I know some crackerjack journalists who won’t cop to being writers. In their minds, writers write books, or fiction, or literary criticism. What writers don’t do is write for newspapers. You see the paradox here? If real writers don’t write for newspapers, then the writing in newspapers isn’t real writing.

Of course it is. If it isn’t, what the hell is it?

That's me, long before I knew what an editor was.

That’s me, long before I knew what an editor was.

In my teens and twenties, I assumed that a real writer had to know grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards and be a world-class speller besides. So I developed those skills. It wasn’t until I got a job as an editor in the publications office of a big nonprofit that I realized that in the real world these skills made me an editor. I hadn’t even known what an editor was. Some editorial skills belong in every writer’s toolkit, but you don’t have to be an editor to be a real writer.

Poets & Writers is a venerable organization that publishes a bimonthly magazine of the same name. Doesn’t the name imply that category “poets” isn’t included in category “writers”? It does to me. Plenty of poets either don’t call themselves writers or are semi-apologetic when they do: “I just write poetry. I’m not a real writer.”

Same deal as with journalists: If what poets write isn’t writing, what is it? And if the people who write it aren’t writers, what are they?

About her journalism job Stacey noted: “Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it.”

This is true. Journalism means writing to deadlines, and deadlines don’t stand around waiting for the writer to get it perfect.

Deadlines don’t wait for editors either. Accuracy is more important than a perfectly crafted sentence. Spell a kid’s name wrong and her parents and grandparents will remember it forever.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha's Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Working for the newspaper made me a better writer and a better editor in more ways than I can count. I learned I could write and edit with phones ringing off the hook and people bringing me press releases 12 hours after deadline. I learned that endings don’t have to be perfect because the last two or three inches of a story would often be lopped off when a late ad came in. I learned that writers who can turn out prose like yard goods may write sloppy sentences but they sure come in handy when a scheduled story doesn’t show or an ad gets pulled. I learned that in the work of novice writers the lead paragraph is often buried a third of the way down. I learned that I can turn out a coherent theater review even when I haven’t a clue what the play was about. (It was Beckett’s Happy Days, in case you’re wondering.)

I learned that “good enough” often is good enough, and it’s actually pretty damn good, though for sure you could do better at a writers’ retreat. For a congenital perfectionist like me this was huge.

So what makes someone a “real writer”?

Marge Piercy nailed it in “For the Young Who Want To”:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

 

That’s the last verse. Read the whole thing. Read it often. You don’t have to be young.