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August 04, 2011


By Joshilyn Jackson

I have to talk craft today. This will be writer-centric, but I think it applies in all the arts, and maybe past that into jobbishness and life? In any of those contexts, I’d love to chew it over here. You see, I got I a little inernetsian tiffsy over in Lydia Netzer’s comments. It was kinda funny---got very E-PEENY and made me feel like I was 25, post-club-tiddley, and trolling the Prodigy message boards...AH MY MISSPENT YOUTH.

It’s the age old INNER VOICE v/s OUTER EYES debate...As writers, do we listen to our inner voice or the outside voices of our critters?

Ftk editorcat2


On one extreme side, I think GUT is too subjective to be wholly useful, unless you are one of your generations 2 or 3 Samuel Becketts, in which case, bully! Good on ya! but what works for the greatest among us is not true for the merely brilliant or talented or good. Gut alone stories generally only please one person, and they read it already. As they were writing it.

On the other side, 99% of the people I have met who claim they would be delighted to sell out aren’t good enough writers for anyone to BUY...Most good writers, in all genres, want to write what they are writing, and make the people they love in their head be alive.


Ftk editorcat
 In other words, one of these extremes is silly and the other is vile and mostly hypothetical. SO let’s throw them out of the mix. No straw man arguments here.

The real question here is, how far do you bend? When your trusted editor or long-term crit partner says the crippled duckling is not working, do you obediently cut that duck, knife to sternum, dead duck, done? Or do you change him until he does work, maybe into handi-capable albatross? Or do you fight for his right to exist as he is, because your gut tells you so?

(Reading this hyper-extended politically-not-correct metaphor, did you think, WOW SHE HAS BEEN WATCHING GLEE? Because you were right. I have totally been watching Glee on the elliptical every day.)

Me? I say you bend. 90% of the time. You mostly will not break and cut him (though sometimes you should---knowing when is the trick) but even when you are not certain... yeah.

I say you bend.

Ftk editorcat 1

Here is why: I have seen too many writers stick to an artistic vision that was SO STRONG in their heads, so glowing and lovely, that they were unable to see they had not managed to transfer that to the page. That the thing they were trying to do had not been done, that the words only worked as a short cut for THEM to enter their own world, and other readers were left outside of it.

But they were unable to hear that or take criticism, because the vision was SO real for them...

This is fine, if you are writing for yourself; I believe PERSONAL writing is a noble and worthy thing.

But if you are writing for publication, if your audience is greater than the sum of you, you need others to be able to enter your imaginary lands too; that means LISTENING to your trusted, smart critters when they tell you that they cannot, that you have blocked them out, that here and there you have muddied the way to your whole, real world.

One caveat---BEFORE you let editing eyes touch your creation, it better be wholly yours. You can’t turn in a fetus and expect the animal who is eventually birthed to be anything but a mutant hybrid.

Ftk editor cat 3

You have to get the spine and the heart and the brain of your novel wholly working and wholly yours BEFORE your editor/critters get aholt of it, and then, after that, editing is safe, changes are safe, finding new paths in is safe, because the animal IS what it IS.

Giving it a poodle cut or putting it in a bejoooooled collar won’t change the animal.

Your beast is itself because of the heart and spine and brain, the magnificent biological WORKINGNESS and LIFE of it.

I believe you have to not be all up ons if someone suggests you change your creature's shoes.

And if the animal is WHOLE and ITSELF and BEAUTIFUL, that’s what edits will boil down to. The world you create is yours---gut your way there. But when it comes to how you make paths in, you have to listen to the people trying to navigate your map.

SO here’s my nutshell take: If you are blessed with a good crit group/editor, get over yourself a little, and err on the side of listening.

Yes? No? What do you think?


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I am not a novelist but love to read about the innards of writing.
What I perceive after reading some of the descriptions of the relationships between writers and novelists is that it all comes down to the business of getting the book published. If egos, or the spirit or the heart of the novelist seems to be sacrificed so be it.
If you find a benevolent editor, mentor or agent the blessings abound and it would seem to be a perfect amalgam. Thanks for sharing such passion in this blog.
I think as readers we can only imagine the angst and work in producing the final glorious product that reaches our hands to be read.

Depends on the changes. A friend of mine was rejected on the grounds of "Constables are in London, not Texas." I once had a script kicked back thanks to a poker game set in a Russian Embassy: "Russians play chess, not poker."

Not all editorial suggestions are bad ones, but they're not always good, either.....

My father was a writer, a much better writer than an actor, and he was a good actor. He did a lot of things for money, but theatre and writing were his love. He was so critical of his writing, he was seldom able to finish anything that he was willing to submit. Having an offer only made it worse.

I'm still laughing at "Editor Kitty proofreads a column".

It's all a crap shoot. I don't know how any of it comes together, ever. So much depends on timing, infinitesimal word/grammar/voice/plot choices, and the whims of publishers and editors. It's miraculous when it all happens and turns out to be a compelling story, and I'm grateful to all of you--the author and everyone behind the scenes with her--for the pleasure of your product for the few hours I spend with it.

My editor, my agent and my husband are the only ones who read my ms. before it goes to press. The first two are supportive and civilized in their criticisms and voice them with the caveat "But it's your book." With my husband, it's more like mud-wrestling. He seldom reads fiction and never reads mysteries. He doesn't care whodunnit, only that the characters be true to themselves within the parameters I've established. I read him each chapter as I finish it (he can NOT be trusted with a blue pencil). He'll listen quietly, then interrupt with a blunt "She wouldn't say or do that," and argue for a different take. Sometimes it gets ugly. I usually disagree (such a polite word!) with his solution, but I do mark the the passage for further consideration because if it snagged his attention, then it isn't flowing smoothly. Arguing with him about why it has to be like that or why I can't take his suggestion often clears out the underbrush and lets me see a third or fourth way that will make the book better.

Margaret, are we married to the same guy? My husband majored in English at Brown, and that singular fact has gone to his blessed head. :-) I have learned a lot about writing from him, but he is also not trustworthy when editing. He tends to reword things in his own style, rather than mine.

Good editors are thin on the ground, aren't they?

I have never been published (and may never be because my skin is not THICK enough) but I write a LOT. I used to keep these stories to myself, but in the past few years I've started opening them up for external viewing and I've found this:

The people who read my writings who are merely readers, and not English majors, can generally tell me if something works for them (this character kept EVERYTHING his lost love left behind? CREEPY! When that wasn't the intent at ALL) or if certain parts get too wordy, and therefore, boring. I have found that I will use a series of words that open up this whole scene for me, but somehow the vision is lost in translation (as you so aptly said).

Having these people read my stuff helps me to streamline my story since I tend toward wordiness (can you tell?) and not necessarily...necessary wordiness.

Another thing. The English majors, who have never actually written much of anything, try and apply all the "rules" that don't necessarily work within the framework of a particular story. But having them nitpick the gerunds and run-on sentences and my tendency to semi-colon everything to death has its own uses. It smooths the syntax out and creates a much more readable end product.

I've never worked with professionals, but I imagine, with the good ones (and maybe even the mediocre ones) input and extras eyes are definitely a bonus.

Interesting issue--I have seen writers dig in and refuse to bend even when everyone who reads their work suggests a particular thing isn't working. Which is their choice, since it's their work...except that then they are often furious about the consequences of that choice.

I was recently offered an editing job; the writer's work had already been edited, and she vehemently disagreed with the edits. She wanted to hire another editor to prove the first editor wrong. Turned that job down in less than a second. That situation had nowhere to go but down, and I have no need for that sort of aggravation in my life!

But I have also read collections of stories where the editor was so heavy handed that every single work sounded like it had been written by the same person. Awful!

I like Stephen King's advice to find a trusted reader. Then? Set up a shrine to that person and treat them very, very well!

It seems to me that the job of the outside voices is to point out when things are not working, but it is my job to figure out why. I usually know, anyway, that I need more work on this or that, but sometimes an agent or editor read can help me pinpoint it. After living with material for so long, it's hard to really see where the path is muddy. I need somebody to say-- here, this is messy, thin, wrong.

But I want to be the one who figures out how to clarify or fix that point. I've just been through a months long wrestling match with the book for next year, and needed feedback desperately at one point, so shipped the whole messy thing off to beloved agent & editor (with whom I have worked for a decade, so we all know our processes). The feedback was critical. It also gave me a breather from the book so that I could see it more clearly, and it is a much, much better book for that.

Every writer is so different, though. Not any hard and fast rules, are there?

HAving just come back from a workshop in which I was told conflicting things about the same piece of writing, I know the dilemma. My eval person (a published author many times over) showed me things that needed to be cut and maybe added in bits and pieces later on, suggested a word or two, but liked most of it. We discussed my twin protagonists as well. The agent to whom I pitched loved the pitch but told me those same first five pages were "filler". She wanted to "be dropped into the middle of the action" even though I'm writing an amateur sleuth, not a thriller. In retrospect, some of her advice was the same as my eval person, so it wasn't what she said, it was the way she said it. She told me that when I had revised according to her specifications, I could send it to her. And this was just for the first five! Is it worth revising that much this early in the game for just one person? I'm not there yet. Now I have to help the husband jump start the truck....see y'all and have a great weekend :o)

Karen, he wasn't an Eng. major, thank you, Jesus! The trick is NOT to give him the ms. to read; instead read it out loud to him. One you give them the pages and permission to mark, they can't help themselves. (And another benefit of reading it out loud is that you yourself will hear when the dialogue is stilted.)

I'm feeling really old and lame. I had to go to Urban Dictionary to look up the definition of "e-peen." Knowing and liking Prodigy is probably another admission of aged anti-hipness, right?

Writing is a solitary endeavor. Publication is not.

Writing for me is a way of better understanding my perspective. Reading is a way of gaining someone else's perspective. I benefit from both.

TENNESSA I LOVE SEMICOLONS. They are GOD's Punctuation mark.

Yes reading out loud to self or others is SO super smart.

I too love semi-colons, I agree with absolutely everything you said and I think you are a genius.

I have a critique group I've been with for 15 or so years (we try not to count because it makes us feel old) and we trust each other and love each other and bring lots of chocolate on Wednesday nights. There is often not a consensus, but if there's anything approaching a consensus, I MUST listen to them. They read everything I write, and they're the only ones who do. After they like it, I send it to my agent. She's very--well, I was going to say persnickety, but what if she's reading this comment? Anyhow, if she suggests a change, I do it, 93% of the time. The other 7% of the time I keep the ugly duckling, but I stick a hat on it or something to make it work.

Ah, Margaret, that's the key. Got it!

Ah, flashing back to peer editing by students -- give compliments first, then suggestions. Tell them about errors, just as you'd tell them if they had spinach on their teeth . . . but gently. Old proverb, "a friend does not remove the fly from your head with an ax."
I am grateful for all the hard editing work authors do . . . and a bit miffed at those who don't do it . . . I have been known to take a red pen to my copies of books (and a pencil to the library's books).

My critique group meets twice a week, usually with different people attending. At one meeting everyone agreed I should remove my character's reaction to a heroic act by her grandmother. They enjoyed it, thought it was humorous and in the character's voice. But it distracted from the fast paced action of the scene.
The second group was unanimous that the character needed to recognize how brave her grandmother should be. Oh well. My choice.

I'm going to be the grumpy elf here.

Grammar is not your enemy. Language is built to work a certain way, and while there is always the desire to stretch as artists, I believe in respecting grammar and working within its confines--unless you have a specific reason for doing otherwise.

Some writers justify poor use of grammar with style. This is not the same. If you choose to write a fragment for stylistic purposes, great. Have at it. That is not the same as writing incorrect sentences and not realizing you are doing so.

Which brings me to semi-colons. Semi-colons are a wonderful grammar tool when used properly. Unfortunately, only 12 people in the universe know how to use semi-colons correctly. Chances are, if you get called on the carpet about a semi-colon, it's not for using it, it's for misusing it.

Joss, have you been attending my summer workshop and we haven't seen you eavesdropping?

Most of us have a brilliant world in our heads. It's not easy to put it on the page, though.

Count me among the firm believers in having a RUTHLESS first reader (or two or six.) I want to be told firmly when I've gone wrong. I am, however, the last person to see the ms before it goes to print. (Well, figuratively.) I am The Decider.

I use them correctly. I get called on the carpet for using them a .... lot. :)

Properly. But a lot.

There are numerous examples of artists who stuck to there guns, didn't give an inch and created masterpieces. The line. "guitar groups are on the way out" and "the Beatles have no future in show business" comes to mind.

Me too Nancy. I am the final decider, but yeah. Before I final decide, I often-times decide to listen.

Alan -- true fax. It's a gamble -- SOMEONE right now is facing this question and they are beckett, they are the beatles.

But there are many more examples of talented almosts and brilliant not quites---if they had been open enough to hearing the truth about their private darlings, they would have been yesses.

Joshilyn, I've read your books. You're one of the 12.

As a writer, I belong to a brutal critique group. If something doesn't work, they say so, and why. It's my choice to listen...and I do. But there are many writers who shop around for what they want to hear about their work.

Good piece of advice I was given, long ago: If you find yourself defending or explaining your work to a critiquer, remember that you're not going to have that luxury with your readers. All they get is what's on that page.

THAT is good advice, Ramona.

My deadly grammar foe is homophones. AWFUL. SO embarrassing.

Re semicolons: I like them and use them in 3rd person narrative, but a copy editor once said that "Semicolons in dialogue look pedantic." I took another look and decided she had a point, even though it goes against my grain to use a comma when a ; would be more correct.

I don't write fiction, but I do write professional reports (and letters ;-) ). I do like semi colons, because they do seem to connect thoughts, without the usual "and." A friend of mine, who is an English teacher, said that a semi colon implies a pause. She also said that not every person understands the use of a semi colon. How's that for an ego booster (laughing now). I like being edited because I assume the piece will get better-I hope. Interesting post.

Hesitantly, I put my hand up to say I might be in the "semi-colons always look pedantic" camp. But then, I taught 8th grade grammar and never really grasped any of the high school concepts very firmly.

My editor is almost always right, thank goodness. At the end of our long phone sessions I always say, "Okay, what's the little bitty thing you haven't said, because you think it's just one thing too many to tell me right now, but which will probably be the one thing that will make all the difference?" And she'll tell me that one little thing, and it will make a HUGE difference.

Semi-colons are my favorite punctuation too, but I don't use them in dialogue because then it doesn't look like "real talking" to me when I see it on the page.

I was going to add the other side is also true. With DVD you get "Director's Cuts." If the director had been allowed to distibute Blade Runner as he envisioned it, 12 people would have seen it.

As today is editing and proofing, William was Peterson Chance supposed to find punks or bunks in San Fransisco?

Coming late to the party - but let me say this. First, I may not be one of the 12, but I count myself in the group that at least has a clue about semi-colons. As a reader, I get very disconcerted when I see commas where semi-colons should be. Joshilyn, I love, love, love your semi-colons :)

I have recently begun to write non-fiction professionally and to work with editors for the first time. I don't have to worry about whether or not they're able to enter my world, because I'm not trying to create worlds. I am, however, trying to find my way into students' brains and to create paths for them to follow toward comprehension - sometimes even to revelation. I admit to getting twitchy the first few times I got editorial feedback, but realized very quickly that the folks I'm working with are pretty darned brilliant and have made my work one helluva lot better.

Oh - I'm with Lydia-of-the-original-comments. I make a substantial number of changes exactly as requested, another large chunk of changes to address a problem in a different way than the editor does, and keep a very small number of original bits as is - after discussion.

Personally I love the punctuation police and greatly appreciate edits of that sort. However, what drives me BONKERS is personal preferences packaged as feedback...

What they say: "There's no need for a ghost in this story. The plot would be stronger if Hamlet actually witnessed some clue that made him suspicious."
What they mean: I don't like ghost stories.
What they say: "You have to connect these letters with first person or second person narrative in order to tell a story."
What they mean: I don't like epistolary novels.

Love this quote from Neil Gaiman, "Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

OOOOH that Gaiman quote is AWESOME. and super true.

Okay, I'm not a writer but I just want to say that semi-colons often make more sense to me than commas. When I read something that contains a semi-colon where I believe a comma would have been better, I feel as though I'm being "rushed"!

That being said, I'd also like to say that misuse of semi-colons or commas does not detract from a good story, in my opinion!

I'm sticking that Neil Gaiman quote in my notes for a class I'm teaching this fall. Thanks, Traisha!

Trisha - great quote. Copying now. Will print and post. Thank you.

I have the purely subjective notion that a former ghost-writer is likely to be a good editor, because s/he is accustomed to setting their own voice aside to focus on the goals/rhythms of the author.

My pet peeve is when I show a story to someone for their response to the story, and they return the pages with two or three corrections to punctuation (that didn't need correcting).

Neil Gaiman is just brilliant. I want him and Harley and Joss and the Nancy's and Karen in Ohio and Laura, Becky and Margaret for my first-readers group, please. Oh, and Steven King, please.

I don't understand getting upset over how someone uses punctuation, not unless the meaning is dependent upon comma placement, say.

As a reader, I am terribly distracted by plot improbabilities and even more by character non-development. Angst without any resolution at all gets really boring, especially in a series. I get most angry when the writer is obviously good - I feel cheated.

I want to believe that people learn and change over time; that tragedy makes at least some people bigger; and that endlessly wallowing in the past is futile and counter productive.

Do so appreciate those of you who brighten my world and make me think.

I am terribly late to this conversation, but I think that you bend selectively. Ultimately, you have to fight for things you REALLY believe in, but having someone else read and critique and SUGGEST is invaluable. What I find is that a lot of times I have to sort of think my way around the notes that are given to me, at least when it comes to screenplay notes. It's important to learn the difference between a note that's actually going to help the story, and one that's just another writer trying to make the story their own.

Hi Reine,

I'm even later to the conversation and I don't know if you'll see this, but I explain punctuation to my students this way.

Punctuation is like the tempo of the writing. When used correctly, the reader won't notice it, but it will guide the reader through your piece like a metronome, changing speed and pacing the story or essay.

It is also helps the reader navigate the curves and hills and twists in your writing like a driver would use a gas peddle and brakes. When used incorrectly, it calls attention to itself because the reader must either stop and re-read to clarify meaning, like the author is popping the clutch and stalling the car. The reader rarely notices the punctuation because she has been using it as soon as she learned the difference between a period and a question mark, just as an experienced driver doesn't see a red sign with white lettering and think "Oh. That is a stop sign. I must apply my brake now." The experienced driver can usually drive and listen to the radio or think about work. It is when another car disobeys the signals, or a child darts out after a ball that the driver has to scramble and readjust. When a writer mis-uses punctuation, the reader becomes confused and frustrated. The reader may also misunderstand the intent of the writer, as you noted with the comma placement.

The writer's mission is to get the reader from point A to point B without any accidents, or without pulling them out of the story or essay.

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