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

Revisionist

You bet I’ve got revision on the brain. There are books and websites a-plenty that will tell you how to go about revising your novel, memoir, essay, or whatever, but here’s what I’m doing. I can’t tell you what to do, but maybe this will give you some ideas.

Scribbles on the printout

Scribbles on the printout

In my writing time each morning I’m reading through draft #2 of the novel in progress, making notes on the printout and also preparing a longhand synopsis. In the synopsis, I go chapter by chapter, describing what happens in each scene in black cherry ink (a rather disappointing color, by the way: I was hoping for something that was more cherry and less black), then in red I scribble whatever occurs to me about where something might lead, what it reminds me of, or whether it might be better off somewhere else.

After a couple of hours of this, Travvy — on whom Wolfie, the title character of this novel, is based — and I go for a long walk. While I walk, scenes and fragments are usually churning, swirling, composting in my head. Sometimes an idea or insight will swoop in out of nowhere — or maybe they’ve been there all along waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Re-vision: To see again, to see with new eyes, to see new possibilities.

A few months ago I blogged “Simplify: A Key to Revision.” My later drafts are mostly about simplifying — pruning whatever doesn’t enhance the story in some way. I’ll be doing some of that in draft #3, but at this point “the story” is still expanding and deepening so it’s often not clear what’s essential and what’s extraneous. Some of the latter bits turn out to be hidden doorways or the glinting of sunlight off something that needs exploring.

At this point Wolfie is still evolving. It’s a will o’ the wisp, out of reach but still reachable. Revision brings me closer to it.

My response to anyone who asks what Wolfie is about has been “It’s about a girl and a dog who need rescuing and how they rescue each other.” The very first scene I wrote brings together Glory (the girl), Wolfie (the dog), and Shannon (the rescuer). That scene, currently chapter 3, has changed very little since I wrote it, and it’s not likely to change in draft #3.

In the course of draft #2, however, Glory, a smart, artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs and hates her stepfather, has become more guarded, more calculating. Felicia, her mother, has evolved from a two-dimensional figure whom I didn’t much like into a more complex and much more interesting character who may hold the key to the whole book. Shannon, who as an advocate for women and children in crisis is an old hand at rescuing, is contacted by the one person she couldn’t rescue: her younger sister, long-estranged refugee from the same violent, alcoholic family, now sober and wanting to make contact.

Rereading the early chapters of draft #2, I’m surprised to see that much prep work and foreshadowing for these themes is already there. It just took me a while to figure out where it was going.

I still don’t know how the novel ends, by the way. Draft #1 didn’t tell me, and draft #2 hasn’t either. Each draft has come closer, though, so maybe by the time I get close to the end of draft #3 I’ll know.

How will I know? That’s the question. I’m always saying “Your writing will teach you what you need to know,” which can sound terribly glib when your writing is staring you in the face and not saying anything. Mine does that too. Sometimes you just need to walk away and ignore it for a while.

Other times — well, learning to listen to your writing is part of the process too. Since I’m an editor as well as a writer, it probably won’t surprise anybody that I like revising more than first-drafting. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Revising is working with something that’s already there — and that’s what I do for a living. I’ve come to expect each new manuscript, be it academic paper or memoir or novel, to tell me what it needs, and it nearly always does. Same goes for my own stuff.

Reviewing other people’s books can be useful too: It focuses your attention on the big picture and how the pieces fit together. Trouble is, really good books often seem inevitable, and you don’t see any of the drafts that got them to that point. With works in progress or less accomplished works, it’s easier to see the gaps and the missed opportunities. This is why I heartily recommend writers’ groups, if you can find or start one that works for you, and sharing work in progress informally with other writers. Reviewing, evaluating, and critiquing other writers’ work will make you better able to hear what your own writing is trying to tell you.

Eulogy for a Novel

Word came earlier this week that a member of my writers’ group passed last Sunday night. Following a serious illness Allen was in an assisted-living place in the Boston area, so he’d missed several weeks’ worth of group meetings (which, coincidentally, take place on Sunday evening), but we assumed he would be back, sooner better than later, but later would do.

In the Sunday night group we’re all working on book-length works, history, memoir, or fiction. Each of us brings a chunk of the work-in-progress to each meeting, passes out copies, and reads it aloud (or has another member read it). Then we discuss it, mark up our hardcopies, and pass them back to the writer. Each week we hear a new installment of eight different works, history or memoir or novel.

Allen’s novel is set in and around Berlin in the early 1960s, a time of heightened Cold War tensions — the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Its protagonist, Faust, is a young, idealistic army lieutenant newly arrived in Berlin and assigned as a press officer. His father is a small-town newspaper editor in the U.S. Midwest, but high-stakes Cold War journalism looks little like journalism back home. Gradually Faust learns the ropes, dealing with, among others, his superiors, a taciturn noncom who knows much more than he does, a CIA operative, and the international press corps. He falls in love with the civilian employee assigned to tutor him in German — she turns out to be a high-level spy for the USSR.

To say that we were caught up in the story is an understatement. Faust’s growth from naïve idealism into sober experience and the beginning of wisdom is well handled, and the setting, the evocation of the times — well, we kept wondering out loud how Allen knew so much, but Allen would smile enigmatically and a little self-deprecatingly and we would move on. As writers we all know better than to press too hard. (Faust’s war-correspondent friends would have pressed harder.)

And now — we know from the history books how the political crisis was resolved, but what became of Faust? How did he assimilate all he was learning and reconcile its myriad contradictions? Did he remain in the military, become a war correspondent himself, or perhaps return home to become a newspaper publisher like, and in some ways very unlike, his father? We’ll never know.

So I’m thinking of all the novels out there left unfinished, or finished and unpublished, by the death of their authors.

A writer friend of mine died suddenly last December. Don and I never met in person, but we’d been corresponding online for 17 or 18 years. When I was close to done with The Mud of the Place, we swapped manuscripts. His Summer Blues was based on his experiences as a gay man in the military stationed in Germany in the late 1960s, a politically turbulent time in both Europe and the U.S. It was quite wonderful. He submitted it to a couple of independent presses specializing in gay lit, got no takers, and set it aside.

My first thought after learning of Don’s death was for Summer Blues. The publishing world has changed considerably since the early years of the last decade. Would he have wanted it published? I suspected that yes, he would have, or at least he’d have been OK with the idea, but pretty soon reality reasserted itself. Transforming a manuscript into a book is hard enough, and costly in both time and money, but publishing also involves getting the book into the hands of readers. That means distribution and marketing.

I have been thinking the same thing about Allen’s novel. It’s not quite finished, but it’s publishable, and perhaps Allen had either reworked the problematic ending or left notes about what he was thinking?

But with Allen’s novel, as with Don’s, I looked myself in the eye and realized that I have the time and money and commitment for my own work (I hope), but not for anyone else’s.

Long time ago, 20 or 25 years ago, I worked with Virginia, a local writer, on her novel, which was based on her own life, growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s, living in New York in the 1940s, eventually moving to Martha’s Vineyard, losing a daughter to suicide. It’s beautifully written, moving, honest. This writer too made a couple of attempts to find an agent then gave up.

Not long after she died,  I was telling another writer about this wonderful novel I had on my hard drive that no one but close friends and family members even knew about. My friend shook her head sagely. “We all have one of those,” she said.

It seemed callous at first, even dismissive, but then I got it. Counting only the completed or nearly completed publishable manuscripts I’ve read, I’ve now got several, in head or heart or hard drive. For each one, we, the lucky few who’ve read them, form a sort of secret society: we’re privy to something special that no one else knows about.

For a few moments I’m overwhelmed with sadness at the loss.

Then Mother Jones’s famous words surface in my head: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

blank paper

Orthographic Musing

In the novel-in-progress excerpt I took to my writers’ group last night, one character (Glory’s mother, Felicia, for anyone who’s keeping track) spoke of a onetime band member who had ODed.

That’s the way I spelled it: ODed.

Several of my fellow writers thought it should be OD’d. That made sense too.

At my writers’ group meetings, we bring enough copies for everybody — at the moment we’re seven, with the eighth on sick leave — then the writer reads aloud while everyone else marks up the hardcopy. My Monday morning tasks include opening the active file (draft2.doc), going through the marked-up copies, and making revisions, corrections, or notes as needed or desired.

So I came to “ODed”, remembered what the others had said, and changed it to “OD’d”.

Being terminally curious, I then had to look it up. Being an editor, I had to look it up in three dictionaries, not one.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (online) gave both “OD’d” and “ODed”.

American Heritage said “OD’ed” — with both the -ed and the apostrophe.

Oxford, both the UK/World and the US editions, had “OD’d”.

This drives some writers and editors crazy. Not me. I love it. The variation reminds me that when it comes to orthography, there’s often a right way and a wrong way to spell a word, but other times it depends. It’s “sceptic” in British English (BrE), “skeptic” in American English (AmE), but neither one is wrong. Newspapers and magazines usually have a house style that, in the interest of consistency, specifies a preference in cases where several choices exist.

Publishers do too, but the better ones generally allow more variation than magazines and newspapers. Books don’t have to be consistent with each other. They should, however, be internally consistent. If “OD’d” comes up more than once, spell it the same way each time. Make your choice, enter it on your style sheet, then stick to it. (Style sheets are a copyeditor’s best friend and secret weapon. Wise writers use them too. For more about style sheets, check out my blog post “What’s a Style Sheet?”)

While writing the above, I took a break to look up “orthography”. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition: “the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage”. I see two loopholes I could drive my car through: “proper” and “standard usage”. And that’s OK (okay?). MW calls it an “art”, after all, and in art the right answer is often “it depends”.

So what am I going to do about ODed / OD’ed / OD’d? For now I’m going with “OD’d”, but that may change.

How Clear Is Clear Enough?

20151007 blot 2The English language is a mother lode for punsters. So many words and phrases have multiple meanings. Viewed from a different angle, an innocuous phrase becomes hilarious. I love puns.

The very same quality makes English rich with possibilities for ambiguity and confusion. Here’s an example from the scene I took to my writers’ group last night. Shannon and Jackie are doing some sightseeing. Shannon is driving.

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed out Jackie’s window.”

One group member stalled on “pointed out.” After a moment she understood what I meant, but, she pointed out, “point out” can mean “call attention to” as well as “point to something outside.” (See what I mean?)

At this point, I have a choice: leave it as is or reword it. On one hand, this is not a gaffe that will provoke the reader to gales of laughter. On the other, this is not a sentence that I want anyone to stumble over. Most important, it’s easy to fix. This morning, while reviewing the feedback from my writers’ group, I made a little change:

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed a forefinger toward Jackie’s window.”

Part of an editor’s job is to misread everything that can be misread. The writer thinks something is perfectly clear; the editor says, “I’m not sure what you mean here.” This is one reason that writers sometimes think editors are a pain in the butt. (Being both writer and editor, I often think I’m a pain in the butt, so don’t feel bad.)

This is also why it’s an excellent idea to have others read your work before you send it out into the world: peers or colleagues, a writers’ group, maybe even a professional editor. At the very least, let it sit for a week or two or three, then read it as if you’ve never read it before. Be warned, though: This takes practice, and it’s never as reliable as having others read it.

Often a reader’s “Huh?” will prompt a rewording that works better than the original. Sometimes you’ll decide to stick with the original, perhaps because it’ll be readily understood by your target audience(s), or perhaps because all the fixes you come up with make it worse. It’s the writer’s call, but writers are usually better off for having some idea of how our writing is coming across to readers.

Revision as Improv

I’m in deep revision mode on Wolfie, the novel in progress, so ‘ve been thinking a lot about how I know what needs to be added or subtracted or completely rewritten.  The truth is, I don’t know. In an early Write Through It post, I write that editing was “Like Driving.” Revision is like that too.

Early this year, I started a second draft before I’d finished the first. As I blogged in “On to Draft 2!” a couple of plot threads had emerged in the writing. Those threads were going to affect the novel’s climax and conclusion, but until I developed them more fully I wouldn’t know how.

A sound foundation

A sound foundation

The same thing happened with my first novel, The Mud of the Place. I thought I was writing a tragedy. Then around page 300 of the first draft, a minor character said something that took me by surprise. Suddenly I could see a way out for a main character who was digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole. I tried to keep going — “I’ll fix the first 300 pages in the next draft,” I told myself — but I couldn’t. It was like building a house on a crumbling foundation.

So I went back to the beginning and started again. The rewriting wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. I didn’t have to throw everything out. That minor character’s words revealed new possibilities in the story that was already unfolding; they’d always been there, but I hadn’t noticed.

Since I can’t tell you how to revise, I’ll start by telling you how not to revise: Don’t return to page one and immediately start fiddling with punctuation and word choice. Revision starts with the big picture: structure, organization, plot and character development, that sort of thing. The little stuff is frosting on the cake. Mix the batter and bake the cake first.

To see the big picture, you have to step back — to approach your own work as if you’ve never seen it before. Of course you have seen it before, but if you let it sit for a while — a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months — you may be amazed how different it looks when you come back to it.

While you’re letting it sit, start a new project or wake up one that’s gestating in a notebook or computer file somewhere. If nothing tempts you, use your usual writing time to scribble whatever pops into your head. Chances are it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

If the work is far enough long, you might even draft a colleague or two to read and comment on it at this point. We all have different ideas of when the best time is to do this. I generally wait till I’ve gone as far as I can on my own.

When you’re ready, save your current draft with a new filename. The old draft is your safety net. Then start reading. Read like a reader or a reviewer — and not the kind of reader who pounces on every typo! Notice where you get impatient, or confused, or curious.  I’m always on the alert for clues that something interesting is happening offstage. This is like walking by a closet and suddenly there’s loud pounding and thumping coming from behind the closed door. Something is demanding to be let out. See “Free the Scene!” for more about this.

Word's Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I'm looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Word’s Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I’m looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Make notes as you’re working about scenes that need trimming, or expanding, or moving to somewhere else. If you know what needs doing, go ahead and do it. Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature enables you to make tentative additions and deletions, then revisit them later.

Look for “soft ice” — the words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that don’t carry their own weight. Look for the pathways that led you into a scene but that become less important once you know where you are. They’re like ladders and scaffolding: crucial to the construction process, but dispensable when the job is done.

You’ve heard the standard advice “Kill your darlings,” right? It means different things to different people, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I’ve got mixed feelings about most “standard advice.” Most of it’s useful on occasion, but none of it is one-size-fits-all. Take what you like and leave the rest.

But sooner or later when you’re revising you will come to a stretch of drop-dead perfect dialogue or a scintillating anecdote and realize that it just doesn’t belong in the manuscript. Maybe it’s too much of a digression. Maybe it calls too much attention to itself. Maybe it duplicates something better said earlier. It’s hard to let these things go. Track Changes comes in especially handy here. You can zap it provisionally and gradually get used to the idea that it really does have to go.

When you’re slash-and-burning and filling in gaps, don’t worry too much about the transitions between paragraphs and scenes. If the right segue comes to you, by all means go with it, but if it doesn’t, move on. You can smooth it out later.

If you can’t solve a problem while you’re staring at it, stop staring, make a note, and move on. My thorniest problems tend to solve themselves when I’m out walking or kneading bread, falling asleep or just waking up. Solutions sometimes appear for problems you haven’t come to yet. Writing is weird.

When I started draft #2, I swore I’d get to the end before I started draft #3, but now, at page 238, I’m pretty sure I won’t. At present I’ve got  two viewpoint characters. To develop an important but currently underdeveloped plot thread, I need to add a third. He’s already a player, but adding his point of view is going to change the book’s balance a lot.

There’s also an incident I need to stage near the beginning of the book: my central character, Shannon, listens to an answering-machine message from her long-estranged younger sister. Shannon never picks up or returns these calls because her sister is always drunk or strung out. This time, however, her sister sounds sober and lucid. Shannon doesn’t pick up this time either, but the call ripples through the narrative. The ripples were already there; I just didn’t know what had prompted them.

So I’ve got a little farther to go in draft #2, then it’s back to the beginning to start on draft #3.

Sturgis’s Law #4

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #4:

“The check’s in the mail,” “I gave at the office,” “All this manuscript needs is a light edit”: Caveat Editor.

If you’ve forgotten all the Latin you ever learned or never studied it in the first place, “Caveat” means, roughly, “Watch out!”

brochure cover cropWhen someone tells you “The check is in the mail” or “I gave at the office,” your most likely response is skepticism. You know this because you have used variations on the same excuses yourself, right? I sure have.

It is true that all some manuscripts need is a “light edit.” These manuscripts are generally prepared by fairly experienced writers who have already run them by a few astute colleagues for comments and corrections.

When I and most of the working editors I know roll our eyes at “All this manuscript needs is a light edit,” it’s because the manuscript in question usually needs considerably more.

So what does “light edit” mean?

Nothing associated with editing has one clear-cut, hard-and-fast, universally understood definition, but “light edit” generally means copyedit, as described in “Editing? What’s Editing?”:

Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.

Once one starts dealing with matters of style and structure — snarly sentences, internal inconsistency, abrupt paragraph transitions, missing information, and so on — one has moved beyond the realm of the light edit.

Most of us are not the best judges of our own work. Good writers know this. When we think a story or essay is done, the very best we can do, we set it aside for a week or a month. When we come back to it, we see it with fresh eyes. Problems we missed before are now glaringly obvious, from typos to dangling participles to plot holes that could swallow a truck.  Often the fixes are just as obvious, thank heavens.

Outside editors come to the work with even fresher eyes, along with considerable experience in identifying and fixing problems in all sorts of manuscripts. They haven’t seen the previous drafts. They don’t know what you meant to say. They see only what’s there on the page.

So when you approach a prospective editor, don’t lead off with “All this manuscript needs is a light edit.” Describe the work and let the editor know what you want to do with it: submit it to a literary magazine or academic journal? find an agent? self-publish?

With a book-length work, fiction or nonfiction, an evaluation or critique is often the best place to start. Editing a book-length work takes time. This means it isn’t cheap. A good critique will point out the strengths of your ms. as well as any weaknesses that may exist. It will identify problems that you can fix yourself. It will let you know if this particular editor is a good match for you and your manuscript.

And if you’re an editor, the next time a prospective client approaches you with “All this manuscript needs is a light edit,” don’t snigger, raise your eyebrows, or roll on the floor laughing.

Because this time the author may be right.

In Marilyn’s Kitchen

Word came last Friday that an old friend had passed. Years ago Marilyn had left Martha’s Vineyard, where I live, to return to her native Canada. She was a phone person; I’m not. I’m an email person; she wasn’t. Communication between us was sporadic, but we did manage to touch base at least once a year.

Marilyn was a retired teacher, and if anyone ever had a richer, more adventurous retirement I can hardly imagine it. She was a master of the fiber arts, spinning and weaving. She loathed Canadian winters and would usually spend the winter months in a warmer place, often in Central or South America, or in Goa, on the west coast of India. She’d come back with fabric ideas and stories about the people she met.

Marilyn was multi-talented. Along with spinning and weaving, she wrote wonderfully, sang in the same chorus I did, and made the world’s best chocolate chip cookies. She also had a genius for bringing together people who wouldn’t have connected otherwise. I was lucky enough to be one of them. She roped me into a group of women who gathered, usually in Marilyn’s kitchen but occasionally elsewhere, to write and share our writing.

Puppy Rhodry tangled up in Marilyn's weaving, ca. February 1995. That's me standing by.

Puppy Rhodry tangled up in Marilyn’s weaving, ca. February 1995. That’s me standing by.

A fire might be burning in the fireplace. Coffee was ready on the counter, a plate of chocolate cookies on the table, and not infrequently we’d have a nip of Black Bush on the side. My half-malamute dog Rhodry sometimes came along. Once when he was a puppy I forgot to keep an eye on him while we were writing. A thump from the living room brought us all out of our seats: little Rhodry had managed to get himself tangled up in one of Marilyn’s looms. I almost panicked, but Marilyn didn’t: she methodically disentangled the puppy from the precious weaving. Nothing was damaged. Then she insisted on recreating the scene so we could get a picture.

I’m an editor by trade and a writer by avocation, but I was hooked on computers by then. I typed on a keyboard and my words appeared on a screen. In Marilyn’s kitchen we wrote in longhand, in pen or pencil on yellow pads of paper. One of us would choose a word or a key phrase, set the timer for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, and say “Go.” And we’d write write write till the timer went off.

Then we’d read what we’d written aloud to each other. No one had to read what she’d written, but we nearly always did. And what we wrote was amazing, sometimes startling, often beautiful or wry or laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes all of it at once.

No one was more amazed than I. I’d fallen into the common writerly trap of thinking that writing was synonymous with suffering and angst, and especially that it was inevitably solitary. In Marilyn’s kitchen I learned otherwise. I learned that if I let myself go, I could cover two pages with words in 15 minutes or less, and that there would always be images and insights and whole anecdotes that I could then build on.

While working on my first novel somewhat later, I discovered that the surefire cure for writer’s block was to take pen and paper in hand and leave the computer behind. Later still, with first novel mostly done and me sinking into the writer’s equivalent of postpartum depression, I did Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook from beginning to end. Morning pages reminded me of the power of writing in longhand, and I’ve been doing most of my first-drafting that way ever since.

But the revelation first came in Marilyn’s kitchen, and another one too: that writing doesn’t always have to be a solitary struggle. Writing together can be exhilarating, and a reminder of what richness can pour from the pens of those who don’t consider themselves writers.

On to Draft 2!

This past weekend I took a very deep breath and started draft 2 of Wolfie, my novel in progress.

The time had come.

I like to take a break between drafts. The longer the work, the longer the break, which means that with a novel or a long essay it can be a few weeks. This time I didn’t exactly take the break: the break took me. In late January I suspended work on the novel to focus my attention on a long, challenging editing job with an impending deadline. That deadline met, I turned to a review assignment whose deadine was also impending. I’d read the book and been thinking about it for weeks, but now I had to write the review. (For some thoughts about reviewing see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy.”)

Wolfie was never far from my mind. To push on with the first draft or to start the second? That was the question.

Draft 1 wasn’t complete. The Word file stood at 227 pages, almost 55,000 words, with a dozen or so handwritten pages yet to be transcribed. I had a pretty good idea of where things were headed. I probably could have forged on through climax to conclusion and then started the second draft . . .

The trouble was, a couple of significant plot threads have only come clear during the writing. One is hinted at in draft 1 but only sketchily developed. The other comes as a backstory dump in the handwritten pages I haven’t transcribed yet. It needs to start much earlier and be woven into the story.

Over the last year I’ve been taking Wolfie installments to my Sunday night writers’ group. This is a first for me. Usually I don’t let anything out in public until it’s in second or third draft — when I’ve gone as far as I can on my own and need some outside eyes. With Wolfie, though, the weekly deadline and my group’s encouragement have kept me going.

So — should I push on and bring the final chapters one by one to the group, explaining that the backstory to this or that wasn’t set up yet and they’d have to wait for the second draft to understand what was going on? I didn’t like that idea at all. I want the writing to stand on its own.

Maybe more important, I don’t really know how those last chapters are going to unfold. It’s going to depend in part on what my characters do and say in the parts I haven’t written yet, and I won’t know that until I’ve written them.

So I opened draft1.doc and saved it as draft2.doc.

old chap 1

Then I deleted Chapter One. It was an experiment that didn’t work out. The tall man is still in the story, but he doesn’t live in that house anymore. He’s no longer a viewpoint character either.

So far, so good. For me revision is usually about 80 percent cutting and rearranging what’s already there. Chapter Two from draft 1 is now Chapter One in draft 2.

new chap 1

My recollection was that this chapter didn’t need much work. It does a pretty good job of introducing one of the two viewpoint characters: Glory, a sixth-grade girl. What I’d forgotten was that somewhere along the way I’d shifted Glory’s sections from past tense to present, but her introduction is still in past tense.

And I’m still not 100 percent sure that present tense is the way to go. Rather than rewrite it now, I made a note in the margin. The muses haven’t given me a clear answer on that one yet.

For the new Chapter Two, I’ve gone back to writing in longhand. The story itself isn’t going to change much, but I need a new way into it — a way that hints at some of the things I didn’t know when I wrote it the first time. What this means is that with Wolfie second-drafting is going to look more like first-drafting than it usually does. It’s going to involve plenty of exploring, digging, and otherwise adding new stuff — writing, in other words.

Travvy

Travvy, on whom Wolfie’s title character is based, takes a break from digging in the snow.

For me, editing is relatively easy. The writing tells me what has to be done, and I do it.

Writing is more like breaking trail through two feet of snow. My dog and I have done a lot of that lately. It’s exhausting, and it takes longer to get anywhere than it does when we’re walking on good old dirt.

But second-drafting already seems less daunting than starting from scratch. This time around my characters are helping — some of them more than others, of course — and so is the story. If I listen carefully, I can hear what’s not being said. I can visualize the scenes that need to be there that aren’t there yet.

My writing will teach me what I need to know if only I keep writing.

What Is Editing Worth?

Ask a bunch of editors what good editing is worth and they’ll probably reply that it’s invaluable, priceless, and indispensable.

Listen to us talk for a while and we’ll probably get around to the books we’ve read that were either abysmally edited or (probably) not edited at all. What’s the matter with those writers? we wonder. How can they put their names on something that’s so disorganized or riddled with typos and grammatical errors?

Being both a writer and an editor, I think about this a lot. “Value” is a shifty word in English. “Valuable” and “invaluable” mean more or less the same thing. Plenty of value can’t be measured in money, but when you have to pay for it, money has to be considered. Editing has monetary value to me as an editor because it pays the rent. For me as a writer, whatever I spend on editing is money I can’t spend on book design, cover illustration, and marketing. Besides, I can do it pretty well myself.

The inescapable fact is that editing can’t be automated. If some outfit promises to “edit” your 300-page manuscript for a dollar a page, you can be sure that they’re not doing much more than running a spellchecker and a grammar checker through it, and maybe cleaning up the formatting. In my book that’s not editing: it’s word-processing.

Depending on what level of editing is called for, editing involves going through your manuscript page by page, line by line, even word by word. This is not like reading for pleasure. It takes time. For a book-length work, it takes a lot of time. Hypothetical example: Take a 300-page,  75,000-word manuscript. (In publishing, a page is conventionally reckoned at 250 words.) If the ms. is well written and has no structural problems, a good copyeditor might be able to clock 10 pages per hour. That’s 30 hours’ worth of work. Say the copyeditor is charging $30 an hour. (Some charge more, some charge less, but you can get a good copyeditor for $30/hour.) That’s $900 right there.

A manuscript that, as we say in the trade, “has problems” will take longer to edit. At 5 pages/hour, that’s 60 hours. At $30/hour, that’s $1,800. If the problems are serious enough, you may have trouble finding an editor who’ll work for only $30/hour. There are few things more frustrating than being asked to copyedit a manuscript that has structural problems. It’s like frosting a cake that’s collapsed in the middle and didn’t taste all that good to start with.

I don’t know about you, but $1,800 would put a huge dent in my budget, even if I could pay it off over time. I’m never surprised when a writer has sticker shock at an estimate for editing. Editors can say that editing is “priceless” and “invaluable” because we’re not paying for it. When a service costs that much, “priceless” and “invaluable” go out the window. Writers who are paying out of pocket — and this includes me — are up against a harder question: “What is editing worth to me?”

It depends. It really is OK to say “not much” or “I’d love to hire an editor but I have to win the lottery first.” Here are some things to think about:

  • Do you want your work to be read by people who don’t have to read it? Do you want them to spend their hard-earned money on your book?

If the answer to these questions is no, you don’t need an editor, so editing may not be worth all that much to you. On the other hand, it might be. I spend my hard-earned money on things I don’t need. (Ask me about the two fountain pens I just scored off eBay. And don’t ask me how much money I’ve spent over the years on training and competing with my dog.)

If the answer is yes, or maybe, or “I’m not sure,” consider the following questions.

  • How good are you at spelling and punctuation?
  • How much experience have you got? How good are you, period? (Be honest now.)
  • Are you in a good writers’ group or otherwise sharing your work with competent and honest writers?
  • What are your plans for your work?
  • Is your work likely to bring in any money? Enough money to make editing worthwhile from a financial standpoint? (Be realistic here. If you’re writing fiction or poetry, the answer is probably no.)
  • What are your goals and priorities as a writer?

And here are some strongly held personal opinions on the subject:

If you aren’t a crackerjack speller and/or you aren’t confident with punctuation, you need help — especially if you plan to submit work to journals, agents, or publishers. These gatekeepers are swamped with far more submissions than they can use. They are looking for reasons to reject incoming manuscripts. Sloppy spelling and punctuation is painfully easy for a competent editor or agent to spot. You might be able to get the help you need from a talented amateur who won’t charge for her time. It depends on how talented and how generous your friends are.

An old printer’s adage: “Cost, speed, quality: Pick any two.” This means, for example, that if you spring for a low price and a fast turn-around time, the quality will probably be less than stellar. If you want a high-quality job done ASAP, expect to pay a premium price for it. This applies to writing too. If you the writer are willing to put in the time, in classes, writers’ groups, and/or self-study, you can get by with less editing. You will also be better able to choose the right editor for your work if you decide to hire one. Just sayin’ . . .

And here’s some free advice for anyone working solo on a book-length manuscript, fiction or nonfiction. Even if you’re cheap, even if your disposable income is barely in positive numbers — think seriously about hiring a pro to critique it. Critiquing costs a lot less than editing because the critiquer is reading your manuscript the way a reviewer might, not going through it line by line. The critiquer will identify both strengths and problems. She’ll probably have suggestions about fixing the problems — but it’s up to you to do the work.

I’ve read several novels in the last year or so that read like good first drafts. Lots of good raw material, but plot holes abounded. Characters did implausible things just because the author said so. Backstory was dumped here, there, and anywhere. Tantalizing leads were introduced — and then dropped. And so on. These are things that can be dealt with in revision, but these novels all went to press in various states of disarray. One of these novels, by the way, was published by a major trade publisher, probably on the strength of the author’s reputation in nonfiction.

Maybe that’s “good enough”? Maybe it is. But ask yourself: When you start reading a book and realize that the author has cut corners, do you keep reading? If you get through to the end, do you recommend the book to a friend? Do you write a glowing online review?

Good editing is expensive, but sometimes it really is worth the money. Your call.