November 2010


Well, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this month for the first time, and I have to say that it has done wonders for my creatively stuck but deadline-driven self. I highly recommend it for any fiction writer who has writing work they know they need to do and simply haven’t been able to prioritize it. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words – a respectable length for a novel’s first draft – in 30 days. I’ve taken away at least two lessons in the first 10 days (the first of many, I’m sure):

1. The creative impulse of writing and the meticulous nature of editing can fully live and even thrive in the same person. You just have to keep these two impulses completely separate.  When your primary goal is to get 50,000 words out in 30 days, quantity, not quality, counts. I’ve found that I have to just keep writing through the plot, even if the tangents seem to make no sense and even if I used the totally wrong tense back there, if I am to meet this goal. Here’s a fun & frivolous video from the NaNoWriMo site on trashing your inner editor.

Now, this is obviously not about trashing editing entirely, just viewing the two capabilities as a light switch – when one is turned on, that inherently means the other is off. Otherwise the same crackling noise you hear when a light switch is hung in the middle will happen to your brain. Which leads to learning #2:

2. Editing is just as vital to the writing process as the writing itself.  As much as editors may assert the value of editing, no one recognizes their value more than writers who really care about their work – not just what their work says about THEM. Receiving good editing requires killing your inner narcissist. This may seem embarrassingly obvious, but this is as difficult to do as parents learning to personally separate from their children. If you’re called into a teacher conference with your son’s principal after he was caught cheating on a test, only the most narcissistic parent would blame the principal and the school and try to cover for her son. (Well, OK, we would all think this, but only the most narcisstic would actually do it.) A parent who really cared about her son and wanted him to be an independent and thriving adult would (until proven otherwise) give the principal and teachers the benefit of the doubt, and would do whatever it took to help her son change for the better. The same is true for writing. Otherwise we’ll have all these clingy, manipulative, perpetually adolescent stories sticking to us, because we’re as unable to let go as they are. When what we really need are independent, thriving entities capable of moving freely about in the world and having their own good and independent effect, as all great stories do. In fact, as much as we need our inner editor after we finish the plot line of our manuscript (at the very least, to save us from utter embarrassment during the workshop), we need that external editor even more to help us separate, already.

I think we guard ourselves from editors because, let’s face it, editors can be holier-than-thou perfectionists, judging our work against the annals of the Western canon. I know this because I am one. When really, that’s not why we write. (See a fantastic profile about how Poetry editor Christian Wiman broke through to writing his own authentic poetry collection in the print version of Poets & Writers this month.) Nonfiction writers have a much easier time dissociating themselves from their books, because they want to get the ideas right – sharing direct ideas with readers who can benefit from them practically is just a simpler proposition than fiction writing. Why do we write fiction, anyway? To get into Norton’s after we die? Hopefully fiction writers write because there’s no other way to give voice to this particular and complex truth that won’t feel complete until it’s expressed, and that the world probably needs to hear just as much as nonfiction. All writing needs to be shared – that’ s how it lives, right? So the best place to first share your work – the first external editing pass you should get – is from a fellow writer. The gentlest way to separate and establish objectivity is with lots of affirmation of what IS working. When you’re struggling with your children, would you rather talk to a Ed.D. with no children, or to a fellow parent? Writers understand how personal this is, and they’re a lot more apt to name the strengths and just enter into the frivolous and emotional parts of your book without criticism. They’re more apt to get it. Which is why I’ve loved being associated with local poetry and creative writing centers – we can share our work to be enjoyed, not criticized. And if any feedback comes, it’s usually couched in understanding. When I’m done with this novel, I’ll definitely be workshopping it – with other writers first. Then I’ll have the confidence to receive the cold, hard, marketable truth from professional editors and agents – whom I will be glad to hire precisely because at that point, when I believe in the intrinsic value of my work, I can be objective enough to hear it and accept it and enable them to do their job.

To come full circle: If the editor – either inner or outer – gets involved at the wrong stage – the book’s over before it begins. Which is why a full outline for this novel sat on my computer for so long – I couldn’t turn off my editor brain to just write through the thing. I’m pleased to say I’ve finally learned how to turn it off appropriately, and as of today my word count is on target – 17,525. So I’m glad I finally submitted to someone else’s whip-cracking – not an editor’s, but a writer’s.

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Last post I cited Digital Book World’s article on measuring the value of editors by James Mathewson. What’s equally valuable is the discussion the post generated below. As the business model of publishing is changing, and professional roles are sliding all over the place, I think a place is emerging for a tighter relationship between authors and their personal publishing consultant. Previously this used to be the role of the publisher’s editor, and, if you had one, your agent. But what authors really need is an advocate throughout all stages of the publishing arena – not just in helping them develop their manuscripts, polish them for submission to publishers, keep track of submissions, etc., but also in helping them manage the project of publishing once their book is accepted. Many authors are shocked by what is expected of them after they thought they won the prize of publisher’s acceptance (particularly when they have full-time jobs alongside their new job as “author”), such as handling all permissions, creating graphics, indexing, marketing, etc. Of course, not every editor has skills in these various areas – project management, indexing, even marketing – but as the Internet has allowed for the personalization and customization of almost anything, it seems an efficient model that emerging is the personal publishing consultant, helping the individual author navigate every step of the way from manuscript to published book. The separate specialized roles – developmental editor, copyeditor, proofreader, indexer, agent, marketer, even publisher as authors choose to self-publish – although they certainly require their own kind of expertise, are starting to blur and meld. I’ve also heard agents talk about the same dynamic as they find themselves doing more direct editing of their authors’ manuscript. The new gravitational center, rather than skill specialization, could be the author as a person (and, yes, commodity).

However you view it, authors could at least use some more help navigating the publishing world, as the publishers are struggling under the weight of their offset printers and working hard to accommodate electronic media and still make a profit (which they deserve). It’s just not realistic to expect publishers to do a lot of author hand-holding right now. Publishing has never been terribly profitable, and if authors need lots of help developing their manuscript, it makes sense for them to invest in a personal consultant or trusted guide, whether that’s an independent editor or an agent. And although an editor might have a knack for finding a book’s place in the market, and an agent might be a skilled, intuitive wordsmith, I’m not at all claiming that editors or agents have to be all things to all people. The closest thing to this would be a project manager, someone who will take charge of the process, working within her realm of expertise but also knowing the process inside out (as well as her own limitations) to contract out when needed. But this is more than just a project manager – personal connection is just as key. The relationship between author and editor will be the significant motivating factor in pushing a previous specialist into a generalist. If you believe in a project, you’ll naturally want to help it succeed – and that means the author as a person as well as the book as a product. So even in the midst of all this uncertainty in the future business model (and job security) of publishing, authors may actually end up benefiting – the fluidity of editors and agents’ roles can only help the author, while publishers’ resources are strapped at the moment.