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.
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!
I was having an online conversation recently with one of my novel-writing students about reading more thrillers–because she’s writing one–when one of her classmates chimed in with a question.
It boiled down to this: “How do you learn to write from reading? Is there an article explaining how that works?”
A number of answers occurred right away. There are so many ways to learn from reading other authors, living and dead. It’s a huge question. We learn from a form of osmosis, for example: simply by reading books for pleasure, we absorb some sense of how sentences are supposed to sound, proper grammar, new vocabulary, the idea of voice, fundamentals of worldbuilding, word play, plotting, and how to structure a variety of points of view. Everything we want to try, in fiction, is in a book somewhere.
If we want to try out some particular literary technique, chances are it’s because we read it in a book somewhere. I structured the Indigo Springs frame story as I did, in part, because I wanted to understand novels like Katherine Dunn’s exquisite and heartbreaking Geek Love.
We can break down a book we love or admire–examine it scene by scene, plot point by plot point, character journey by character journey. We can outline it, draw graphs, shuffle around cards with the story components jotted on them, all to better understand its structure. On the micro level, we can become better prose stylists by examining small pieces of writing within larger works, the passages that make your heart beat faster, the ones that sing within the mind’s ear because they’re just that effective. (Or, sometimes, the opposite. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places has some deeply annoying comma splices, which break up its rhythm quite badly.)
Many of you already know I do this, using my text fragment collection.
Moving off the beaten track of this topic, there are also a number of books and movies about readers and writers, pieces that are instructive. They’re fiction, is what I’m saying. But they can add to your understanding of craft, or discipline, or process. A somewhat frivolous example would be the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, which–amid the tasty froth of a boy meets girl tru luff always storyline–sneaks in some hard truths the value of art, the persistence and commitment it requires, genre snobbery, writer’s block, trying too hard, and giving up too soon. All that and Drew Barrymore, too!
Or, if you want something loftier in this vein–not to mention thoroughly wonderful–go pick up Alan Bennet’s novella “The Uncommon Reader” It’s about the birth of a writer, a certain eminent person who takes up reading comparatively late in life and who does nothing, for most of the story, but read, read, and read some more. If you want a fictional and yet true answer to “How do you learn to write from reading?”, this is very much it. And the beginning of that answer? Learn to read. Or, rather to read. Not glancingly or inattentively, but with passion, intent, and thoughtfulness.
(This novella is, btw, quirky and delightful. You’ll laugh.)
I hope to have more on this subject in the future, and perhaps not just from me. In the meantime, what do you all think?
I am thinking about dialog today. It’s a topic I’ve covered to some extent in my Yakkity Yak essay, but I’m wondering if there couldn’t be a way to construct some bare-bones exercises to teach beginners some of the basics of improving it.
A starting point, I think, would be to actually have dialog as opposed to implying it. So I might preamble with:
Though there aren’t necessarily any right or wrong ways to do anything in fiction-writing, it’s sometimes useful to pretend this isn’t the case. This is because some techniques generally work better than others; some strategies should be employed sparingly, rather than as a matter of habit.
With that in mind, let’s attach the label “Less Effective” to this:
Hans & Greta debated knocking on Mrs. Witch’s front door.
And this one we’ll call “More effective.”
“Should we knock?” Hans asked when they reached Mrs. Witch’s door.
Greta shook her head. “If we warn her, she’ll call the police for sure.”
Part one of the exercise would then be to supply three more less Effective sentences:
Pinnochio lied about breaking curfew, but of course his nose grew and Papa grounded him for a month.
Snow White tried to refuse the apple politely.
Mr. Straw Pig indicated he would very much prefer not to allow Wolf past his threshold, unless of course he had a warrant.
Part two would be for the writer to find and edit some examples from their own work, and part three would be analysis: did this improve your writing? How?
What do you think? Potentially useful?
I have been reading Linda Nagata‘s fiction since her mindblowing novel, The Bohr Maker came out and won the Locus Award for best first novel. She’s written any number of short stories and books since then, and her novella “Goddesses” has the distinction of being the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands.
Her newest science fiction novel, The Red: First LightThe Red: First Light, is a near-future, high-tech military thriller, just released under her own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. Here’s the back cover blurb:
There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere: Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for.
To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)
Today in Off My Lawn! she tackles the idea of ending your writing day before you’re ready, even if you’re on fire. And, in her way, I think she beats a nail into the coffin of all One Size Fits All writing advice. See what you think here, and let her know!
I’ve lived on the island of Maui for many years and I can say with fair confidence that this is not a “bookish” community. There are readers here of course, but compared to literary havens like Portland, Oregon, we don’t have a lot going on, particularly in the speculative fiction.
We do, ironically, have a large and thriving community of visual artists. Go figure. At any rate, around here writers don’t tend to be held in high esteem, and there aren’t a lot of myths about us. We are generally perceived as dreamers who don’t make money—and I have to admit that’s usually a fair assessment.
But myths about writing? Those are universal.
The one that annoys me the most has several variations:
* Stop writing for the day when you still have things left to say.
* Stop writing for the day before you want to.
* Stop in the middle of a sentence and pick it up the next day.
What? That’s insane! This is one of those rules made up by prolific writers who assume that everyone else’s muse operates just like theirs. May I say, “NOT!”
For some of us (many of us?) there exists the elusive “flow,” the “zone,” that place of writing nirvana where the words are simply there, in mind, waiting to be poured into the word processor of choice with only a few corrections along the way. When operating in the flow, the outside world retreats and even the Internet ceases to be a distraction. The page, the story, becomes the focus, and good things happen.
Some of us only occasionally reach this point of writing nirvana. Perhaps you’re not one of us. Perhaps you’re one of those writers able to slip into the zone and produce a thousand words a day, every day. Let me qualify that: a thousand of the right words, every day. (Because a thousand words of useless nonsense don’t really count.) Some of us find the zone elusive. We are faced with many days when cleaning the bathroom sounds like a delightful alternative to writing; when we have no clue what is going to happen next and who cares anyway? It might take us one, two, three days or more of forcing ourselves to write—during which time we produce mostly rubbish—before we find the zone and the words begin to flow.
To cut off that flow early, to reject the gift of it—sacrilege! ingratitude! If life calls us away, that’s one thing—if the kids are starving, or the dog needs to be walked, or we must be at work promptly at eight AM, well fine. But to reject the zone simply on the premise that doing so will help us find it again the next session—no! Because for some of us, it just doesn’t work that way, which is why I ride the flow as far as I can every time I find it.
Don’t hold back. Give everything you’ve got when you’ve got it. That’s my writing advice.
Although of course my advice is only good advice if it works for you.