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.

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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.

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.

 

 

 

Make Room

Place matters.

Places help shape the things that happen there.

A classroom doesn’t look like an office doesn’t look like a church. All classrooms (etc.) don’t look alike either. They aim to shape different things. Some work better than others.

Some people can write anywhere, anytime. When you’re stalled or stuck or feeling balky, though, having place on your side can be very helpful. Classrooms, offices, and churches help people focus on whatever they’ve come to do: learn, teach, work, worship, whatever. Your writing place can do likewise.

It doesn’t have to be a separate room with a door that closes, though if you live with other people this might help.

When my workspace is messy, it means things are happening there. That's Travvy, one of my muses, on the left.

When my workspace is messy, it means things are happening there. That’s Travvy, one of my muses, on the left.

It doesn’t have to be a place you use only for writing either. Plenty of good writing happens at kitchen tables. I write in the chair where I also sit to edit or read. When I sit down to write, I light a candle or two. If a candle is burning, it’s writing time.

Particular objects and rituals can help turn ordinary time into writing time, an ordinary place into a writing place. Experiment. Pay attention to all your senses. Candles, incense, music, a favorite glass or cup or mug, a special photo — any or all can help create the place where writing happens.

Actually writing in that place makes the place more conducive to writing. That might be the most important factor of all. So don’t obsess too much about making the place perfect. (Perfectionista is always lurking in the background, waiting for a way to get into your head.) If writing doesn’t happen immediately in your writing place — just write. Write anything. Write the same sentence over and over again. Do it for 10 minutes. Then do it again tomorrow.

 

Lower Your Standards!

The shrieking you hear is Perfectionista in the background. “Lower my standards? Never! You want me to write dreck?”

Etc., etc., etc.

No, dear. I want you to write, period.

Expectations are good. Goals are good. When they’re unrealistic, however, they’re not so good. When I’m stuck or stalled, unrealistic expectations are usually the source of my troubles.

Consider: You’ve resolved to write for two hours a day, but day after day you don’t do it because you can’t find two hours to write in.

Revise your goal. You’ll write for one hour a day. If you can’t find one hour a day to write in, make it 30 minutes. Or 15. Or 5. When you’re meeting your goal, start revising it upward. Be sneaky if you have to.

After I’d completed a draft of The Mud of the Place, I freaked out. OMG, thought I. I might actually finish this thing.

This raised all sorts of scary questions, like “What if it sucks?” and “What next?” I dillied, I dallied, I stalled.

I made a resolution: I will write every day until it’s done. At that point I knew myself well enough not to specify a length of time or a number of words. Just I will write every day until it’s done.

And I did. Sometimes I didn’t start till 11:30 at night. A few times I didn’t open the file till five minutes to midnight. But I wrote every day till it was done. In the process I learned that when I’m working on a long or scary project, writing every day is important. Hell, just looking at the thing every day is important. If I don’t, I quickly convince myself that whatever I’m working on is unsalvageable crap. Then I don’t dare look at it. What if I look at it and discover I’m right?

Thanks to Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, I got into dog training. He needed it. So, as it turned out, did I. One of the basic principles of the training I do is Make it easy for your dog to succeed. If your dog isn’t learning what you’re trying to teach, try breaking the task down into smaller parts. When the dog gets one part, move on to the next.

Works for writing too. Try it.