photo by Kelly Robson
One of my irrational peeves about pop culture is the way writer homes are sometimes depicted as vast, cool, expansive spaces, with tons of square footage and twenty-foot high ceilings with massive amounts of natural light and floor to attic bookcases on the walls. This doesn’t bother me about Castle, however, because Nathan Fillion’s character is portrayed as having come from money in the first place and being extraordinarily successful in the second, but when the fictional writer in question isn’t a New York Times bestselling born-with-a-silver-spoon personality, it irks.
Having said that, my little condo doesn’t much look like a set designer went nuts on the premises, but it does have an extraordinary number of luxuries attached to it.
The hot tub you’ve all probably heard about, and like most of these places, there’s a gym, communal barbecues, and an event room. The real perk is the location: we’re five minutes from the subway and smack in the midst of cultural treasures like the AGO, the TiFF Bell Lightbox, City Halls new and old, and all the theaters.
One of the things I probably don’t mention all that often is that my marvelous well-located building also has a library, complete with a random scattering of books, WiFi that mostly does work, and a TV and faux fireplace that–as far as I can tell–aren’t plugged into anything.
It’s big, spacious, quiet, and frequently empty, and it has a couple of workstations as well as the lounging chairs pictured here. There’s a window along one wall which lets in the light of day. It’s where I go to clear my head when I need to get away from home, cats and distractions, but can’t or don’t want to go all the way out to a coffee shop.
I’m sitting here as I write these words, sifting through projects and priorities for the coming month, with Of Montreal’s Sunlandic Twins playing via a portable Bluetooth speaker and a view of gray and rainy clouds.
I suspect and hope that 2016 is going to be an extraordinary year, filled both with wonders and opportunities. This little bit of quiet, at the stub end of the year, is all about gearing up and getting ready.
Three good things about this week:
Duacon! Jessica came, she saw, and she conquered, by which I mean we walked the streets of Toronto… far more than she probably expected. It is a trait of mine that the concept of “Not far” conflates all too easily with the cold hard fact of “Five miles later, I promised we were nearly there…” Do not trust me to have a grip on distance, my dear friends. Note my walking speed and ask me for an ETA. Or stand your ground, and demand to use transit.
Okay, tangent over! We dined out, we paid homage to the cats and the hot tub, and J and I spent an afternoon on that nice beach on Toronto Island. We did not actively workshop fiction, but we did go out for multiple writing dates, and talked shop constantly.
Kelly came home! Five nanoseconds after Jessica left, Kelly had a work retreat out of town, or too far to walk, whichever distance is longer. About the night apart, the less said the better. But it was a joy to watch the purple dot of my darling’s GPS coordinates inching home along the major commuter routes yesterday evening. I did this using an app that the iStore calls Find My Friends. It was even more of a joy to have her back home again.
Oh, what was the third best thing this week? Was it watermelons? Seeing horse cops yesterday? Having someone contact me to ask for a secret spy name of their very own, thereby indicating that my sense of humor is not, in fact, a trial to all who know me? (I wasn’t actually worried about that last bit.) Getting a reprint request this morning? Or was it… turning The Nature of a Pirate in to my editor at Tor? Oh yeah, that last thing. Let’s definitely go with that.
Today’s victory dance shall be… the Charleston!
In unrelated news, my WordPress page has about 24,000 users, most of whom have the sort of names and e-mail addresses that lead one to believe they are spammy hacky bastards, as opposed to real humans interested in my blog. Is this problematic?
Writing is, to a great degree, learned through trial and error. But errors can be hard to identify – especially as a writer starts to be pretty good at the basics. Once things start to go subtly wrong with a person’s work, it becomes obvious there’s no single right answer as to how to fix a given challenge within a manuscript.
Part of the answer, of course, is to find a group of peers with good reading skills and the same need to have outside eyes laid on their work. People with goodwill, a story in progress, and an understanding that half of critiquing is about helping the author fix their work and the other half is about cultivating your own critical sense so you can better address your own.
With short story critique groups, there’s a rhythm that can work quite well: new writers submit a story to a workshop, everyone critiques it, and then everyone goes home to hopefully rewrite the piece before sending it to market. When they return, it’s generally with another piece. There’s a fresh start. This is how Clarion and Odyssey and a number of other workshops are configured. (There’s an article in Wired about the SF workshops this week
, by the way. I found it a bit shallow, and the comments thread may make you blind with rage, but some of the actual interview responses are interesting.)
With novel workshops, the logistics get much trickier. If you submit your first three chapters, and get a bunch of feedback, do you then revise those chapters? If you do, do you submit them again to make sure they’re working? If they’re not, do you revise and resubmit them again? That’s just an ornate way of never getting the book finished.
On the other hand, it can feel very weird to submit chapter one, get feedback, try then to use that feedback to write a better chapter two. (Next you submit that, and try to use the next round of feedback to inform chapters three and four.) This gets your novel done–and I am a huge fan of done! But drawback can be that if you are truly improving your craft as you go, the last chapters of the book may be significantly better-written than the opening ones. This leaves you to discover, four or five hundred pages later, whether you’re up to the task of revising. You are drafting better, which is great, but can you raise something you wrote six months ago to the level of what you’re creating now?
Additionally, the plunge-forward system doesn’t address any huge structural changes you decide to make along the way. When you turn the guy who was formerly the love interest into the main character’s brother, around about chapter five, the question arises again… do you go back and tweak this before moving forward?
Okay, so what if you got a dozen writers together and they all managed to submit a completed novel draft on the same day… make it November 30th. You could then set some kind of reading period–one book every two or three weeks–and trade off so that each participant was getting one critique during each round. But how to get a dozen writers to all finish their book on the same day? I chose November 30th because it’s the end of Nanowrimo, but most Nanowrimo projects would require considerable massaging before they were workshop-ready.
There are other logistical challenges with novel-in-progress workshops, but these are some of the things I’m mulling right now.
Has any of you been in a novel group that worked? How was it structured?
Something I did in October when I was in Vancouver was to tell everyone I know that I’d be at Caffe Calabria in the mornings, writing if I had the place to myself, and socializing if anyone cared to show. I met Barb there. Badger came, as did Emily from our old condo. I figured I’d see some of the cafe regulars, but it turned out there are a shocking number of them: I saw both Toms, for example, the alternate-energy physicist and the religious studies professor. An aspiring YA author, Jenny, was there both mornings. I caught Adita and Harry, the snowbirds whose daughter is a poet, on their last day in Canada. Oscar was there (what I know about Oscar is TMI for the Internet), and Yespat the engineer. I even exchanged friendly hellos with a trio of people I think of (not that this reflects well on me, but their voices carry and all they do is bitch bitch bitch some more) as the Friday Snark Club.
The sheer number of people I had a “Hey, how are ya?” relationship with and the delight that came with seeing them made me realize how many connections I’d built up just by going to work at dawn in the same place, 6-7 days a week, 2 hours a day. It drove home that I hadn’t even begun to do that particular kind of in-community root-growing here.
This lack of effort was no accident–in fact, I had it scheduled for November. I didn’t put much effort into a cafe hunt in May when we first moved to our new building. I knew there’d be guests coming and then travel and more guests and more travel, and the publicity push for Child of a Hidden Sea and then the film festival and more travel atop that. It was a thoroughly awesome summer and autumn, but I wasn’t keeping to the sort of schedule that makes it possible for me to settle into a routine.
Of course it was impossible I’d score another place quite as perfect as Calabria. It was 300 meters from my door, it opened at six in the morning, and Frank Murdocco’s eclectic curation of 20th century music is uniquely delightful, irreplaceable.
But! Now that October and all those trips are in the rearview, I’ve been going to a recently opened cafe called Portland Variety. The coffee is excellent, the atmosphere is right, the staff is lovely, tables are plentiful and the music leans to jazz (which is easier to tune out than pop, satellite radio’s litest hits or the go-to choice at Jimmy’s Cafe, the Doors.) I’m comfortable working here for hours on end, and there are starting to be other morning regulars. It’s not obscenely close to home, but the route back to the condo leads past the grocery, and that’s a significant plus.
It’s promising, in other words. I have high hopes that at last I’ve found this particular piece of my workaday puzzle.
Every last soul reading this post could, if they chose, have 5,000 words of fiction up in some prominent e-bookstore by the end of this week. This is true too of feature journalism, epic poetry, creative non-fiction, film scripts, thinly veiled Raylan/Boyd Justified erotica, song lyrics, diary entries and stream of consciousness commandments for that new religion you’ve been meaning to think up.
Step one would be typing 5K words of, seriously, whatever. Steps two through finished would involve figuring out step-by-step instructions available everywhere, on how to set up, price and upload the relevant files.
If we were all to do this, some of those hypothetical stories–say the ones written by Neal Gaiman, Tana French, George Lucas, Elvis Costello, Patricia Briggs, Joss Whedon, Connie Willis and Wayne Gretzky*–would be commercially successful. They might not offset a week’s worth of other work at the Lucas level of income, but they’d get lots of uploads, reads, likes and user reviews.
A different subset, including some but not necessarily all of the works just mentioned, would make for entertaining reading. They ‘d be good stories, fun experiences, and worthy uses of reader time. There’d be some delightful drafts in the mix. Depending on each writer’s process, some would be quite polished. Others would be pleasing shambles of prose.
There might be a few runaway successes that were simply awful, and a few unnoticed, typo-ridden gems.
Then there’d be everything else: quiet stories that didn’t quite pull it off, novel beginnings that had promise, stories with okay structures but off-putting protagonists, and a whole lotta stuff that wasn’t all that great. A great bulk of words that would, whether deserving of attention or not, sink like sediment to the bottom of the great and growing e-commerce database.
What does any of this have to do with editing?
New writers can tend to see editors as a source of adversity. Editors are the ones who say yes or no to buying our work, after all. Yes means publication, money and–perhaps most importantly–a certain kind of validation. No… well, it’s hard not to take a rejection personally, especially if you haven’t yet heard Yes.
New writers wonder if editors will steal their ideas. They worry about whether they’ll ruin their stories. They wonder if they’re too cynical or overworked to recognize quality. All of these questions have been part of a larger discussion about how publishing is changing, in this age of throw it on the Internet yourself!
I don’t want to get sidetracked into everything editors do. Beth Hill has a quick and very useful summary here.
The question about editors on my virtual floor (this came from Blaise Selby, on Facebook**) is: do we still need them?
I say: do we still need chickens, I say? Pacific salmon? Caribou?
Editing, the act of reading fiction and providing insight into how the author can improve it, is a key process in the storytelling ecosystem. It is also, incidentally, an entirely noble activity.
One could–and many do–argue that editing can be performed by anyone with a reasonable degree of literacy. Your english teacher, your mom,your critique group, the lady who supplies your Diet Coke habit, a hired freelancer, fans, beta readers, agents, college professors, tax accountants, deposed dictators, or your romantic partner. They all read, right? And the fact is writers do seek out these people, and others, to read our work before it goes to market. This is, in itself, an argument that editing is vital.
But if anyone can do it, why do we need editors?
Expertise: the above random list of people could also provide first aid if you had a heart attack on the street.
If someone from your critique group CPRs you until the ambulance shows up and as a result you don’t die this week, that’s awesome. Go them! It’s a delightful human interest story. Even so, I bet you’ll be pretty happy when you’re ensconced in a hospital having a face to face consult with an actual cardiologist.
Getting CPR at the scene may keep you alive for awhile. Honestly, though, “not dead on the streetcorner” isn’t a very high bar. You want your writing to sing, to dance the Charleston in the streets. You want it climbing Mount Everest and swimming the Channel! Smarter, cleverer, stronger, and ever more effective.
There’s nothing quite like working with a professional editor to not only pull up the quality of a given piece of writing but to teach you techniques and spark ideas that will inform the quality of the next story.
So what else? Editors have a financial stake in your writing: anthology and magazine editors curate selections of short fiction that reflect their taste, the themes they want to explore and the best prose they can find. Book editors seek to add authors and novelists to their publishers’ lists that will bring glory, awards and pots of money to the company coffers. If they do these things well–economy notwithstanding–they get to keep publishing their favorite writers, bringing things they consider beautiful and affecting and important to readers.
I’m not the biggest fan of the invisible hand, but there is an increased investment in this process that can’t be matched by volunteer readers. Editors’ reputations rise and fall on their professional choices. When your workshop group is just trying to get through the latest round of manuscripts without breaking into a flamewar, and your writing professor is moving on to the next classroom full of aspiring Rowlings, when the freelancer cuts you an invoice with a handwritten note saying “Good luck with this!” your editor is still there, chewing away on the problem of why this or that angle within your book doesn’t quite work.
Financial stakes the sequel: It is simply nice to work with people who send you cheques. This sounds facetious, but consider: you have profit motive too. And when the person paying you says “This is a problem,” you’re going to be less inclined to ignore them than when your writer BFF says it. We all get tired of revising our work. Sometimes we need to suck it up and do another pass.
An editor who buys your work is investing in you. They’re taking a risk on you, in a way that the purchaser of a 99 cent e-book simply isn’t. That is a heady and important thing, something every artist deserves to experience.
The gatekeeper thing: I hate the word gatekeeping. To me, the word puts everyone in mind of club bouncers or Saint Peter in an unreceptive mood, barring the gates to Heaven. And we’ve all heard from writers who see it in exactly that light, and resent it accordingly.
But editing is about finding treasure! It’s archaeology, Indiana-Jones style. A quest for the awesome. They’re unearthing nifty written artifacts, polishing them up, and bringing them out into the light to blow readers’ minds.
In a world without editors, readers are be left to do their own digging in the quest for good fiction. Word of mouth, these days, includes professional review, as it always did. It’s also everything from blog entries to user reviews from anonymous posters to that friend you never quite agree with to what your book club’s reading. There are lots of ways to get opinions, good and bad, on what you should read.
In many ways this is a good thing. But crowdsourcing has its drawbacks. The accumulated opinion of everyone who happened to post might not be an opinion that helps you. Consider Yelp’s restaurant ratings. Canny Yelpers tend to have to develop a personal system for divining which ratings are actually accurate. A five star restaurant with only three reviews isn’t really a five star restaurant, is it? It’s a place that three people happened to like. A restaurant in the heart of a big city tourist district might have hundreds of reviews and ratings. And many of those are going to come from jet-lagged, hungry travellers who were grateful to be able to sit down and eat something that wasn’t deep fried nuggets o’ Spam.
As S.M. Stirling pointed out in a comment on this thread, any reviewer or gang of pals with an ax to grind can skew things the other way, dragging down the approval ratings of perfectly good writers, books (or restaurants, hotels, and fix-it guys) for obscure reasons of their own.
Thriller writer Chris Pavone praises gatekeeping elegantly here, at Publisher’s Weekly.
High grade your time: I consider making stories to be the highest and best use of my working hours. I want my writing to be fantastic, and I don’t want to spend endless hours on typos hunts–a skill at which, you may have noticed, I entirely suck. Every time an editor notices that I’m fuzzy on the difference between north and south or that I’ve forgotten to distinguish between constitutional debate and criminal law in the third Stormwrack story, I look smarter.
Editors have been part of the storytelling ecosystem for a long time. Cut them out, and the system will react accordingly: invasive species will flood in to imperfectly fill the niche they’ve left. Writers and readers would both suffer.
The idea of not needing them is, to me, unthinkable.
*It’s my blog, I can imagine any readership I like.
**This essay is one of a series inspired by all of your responses to a query I threw to the Internet, asking everyone to let me know what you’d like to hear about in the near. I am still welcoming your topic suggestions.
***Your Raylan/Boyd recs are always welcome.
Thank you for the question, Blaise!