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Back two summers ago (and Facebook reminded me with a photo I took of the dorm room I was staying in two years ago), I wrote a blog post where I discussed just getting started with this program here at Ashland University in Ohio. I talked then about how difficult it was to get started, to figure out what to write about, to discover my voice.

Well, it’s been two years and lots of writing. I ended up doing what I mentioned in my blog two years ago: “I’m experimenting right now with a series of essays talking about the whole process (and brilliance) of editing when it’s done well. I am thinking about tying in my research into the great editors (some of which I’ve begun doing on this blog) and extracting lessons from them.”

Indeed, that’s what I did. The final title of my thesis is Words with Friends: The Intimate Relationship Between Authors and Their Editors.

The struggles I faced in writing in the creative nonfiction genre were how to get a memoir out of my life as an editor and how to make that job an interesting read. As part of our study, we have to read similar books to help us understand the ways other writers approached what we are trying to do.

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Without Bonnie Rough, I might still be wallowing in despair. She helped to create a coherency and shape that made the writing process that much smoother.

From my own reading, I learned that editors, as well as folks in other seemingly mundane jobs, could write memoirs. Reading the memoirs of book editors such as Diana Athill and Robert Gottlieb, of a copy editor at The New Yorker named Mary Norris, and even a house painter helped me to understand that the power of such a memoir lay in the presentation of needed information (with a balance, not too much) and the ever-present interesting anecdote.

Even so, as I wrote I kept wondering, Is this boring? How can I possibly keep my reader fascinated enough to keep turning pages? Is the tone right? Have I found my voice? I didn’t have famous names to drop or fame in my own right or the cachet of working for a publication such as The New Yorker, as did many of the editor memoir writers I read. What I did have, however, was knowledge and longevity in my field (editing and publishing), a passion for words, and an understanding and respect for the power of words. What I needed to do was share that knowledge (just enough, not too much) along with anecdotal stories to illustrate and entertain.

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Joe Mackall, Tom Larson, and Steve Harvey honed the manuscript with me, asked the tough questions, and made me a better writer.

My theme is “the power of words.” Because words are so powerful, personal, and intimate, when we put our words into the world, we share a piece of ourselves. The special joy of being an editor is helping to shape words, sentences, paragraphs, and manuscripts by entering into that intimate space between the author and the work to help the author say what he or she really means to say. This requires a kind of familiarity and friendship with the words and the author.

I wanted to help my readers understand that if and when they enter the publishing world, the editors are generally there to be their best readers, their greatest encouragers, and their most strategic critics. The purpose is to help the writing be the best it can be—to help writers dig deeper, choose words carefully, and say what they really mean to say.

It’s all about the words.

Those powerful words.

 

 

The manuscript for Word by Word is nearing completion . . . but it hasn’t been easy sailing.

That first draft looked perfect! I felt an overabundance of self-confidence as I emailed those 49,000 hard-won words to the publisher.

And waited.

After several weeks, I received a loooooooooong email with the editor’s comments — some positive, some negative, lots of suggestions. I cried a bit and fell into a funk for about five days. Then I thought about how I would want my author to react if I, as editor, had sent such a letter (and I have sent a few in my day). Finally, when I got into the right frame of mind, I printed off the editor’s letter and dove in. Among other things, she wrote:

There are a number of issues in this manuscript that need focus and clarity. As I read your table of contents, my first thought was that you had nailed the content that needs to be in the project. But then I discovered that the actual content doesn’t quite deliver in some cases.

I had my work cut out for me. The biggest issue my editor pointed out was that my audience wasn’t clear. As I reread the manuscript, I discovered that she was right. Sometimes I was writing the book as a textbook for my students; sometimes I was writing to the person who already has a manuscript at a publishing house and is working with an editor; sometimes I was writing to people who are critiquing others’ manuscripts; sometimes I was writing to people who want to become editors. Only sometimes was I writing to the true audience of this book. I realized I had done more of an information dump about everything I know than staying true to my audience.

Other issues included some random items that made me think, I know better! Why didn’t I see that?

But then this:

Thank you for your hard work on this project. You are obviously knowledgeable and have a broad background of experience to enable you to write this book. . . .

I trust you will take the critiques as constructive and that you will be challenged to take it up with renewed enthusiasm. . . . You are a wealth of knowledge, Linda, and your voice is needed in this arena. I really really want this book from you.

Yes, indeed. And I really really want it published! So yes, I can and will do this.

My editor listed a number of fixes.

1)    Identify a clear picture of the audience.

2)    Set definite goals about the type of material you want to write.

3)    Prepare an outline (extensive) of each chapter and what will be covered in that chapter, as well as the primary target audience for that chapter.

4) Rewrite the manuscript using these tools and suggestions.

I pictured my audience and knew what I wanted to write. My target audience is that pajama-clad and coffee-fueled author who has just pressed the key for the period at the end of the stunning final sentence on the first draft of his manuscript. He’s finished! But in the back of his mind he knows he isn’t really finished. He knows that no first draft is perfect; he knows he needs to edit.

But he doesn’t know how to do that or where to begin.

My goal is to help that writer understand both the publishing process and the steps and keys to self-editing.

bookProbably most helpful was my editor’s suggestion to create a revised extensive outline. Internally, I balked a little. Why do I need an outline at this point? But forcing each section of my manuscript to prove why it was there, where it fit best, and how it helped my target audience caused me to be very focused and brutal. Doing the big-picture editing with a revised outline proved invaluable.

I set to work with scissors, tape, and a red pen. Cutting, moving sections, taping pieces together — following my new outline. After a complete restructure on hard copy, I made the necessary changes on the electronic document. I let it sit for about two weeks. Then, I printed it out again. . . .

. . .  and read word by word.

That’s where I am now. Reading and marking with my red pen. Suffice it to say that my manuscript is very red.

It will be better for it.

I am doing what I said everyone should do — in my book. The lesson is, of course, that no matter how much you go over your own manuscript, no matter how many critique readers you have, editors will still make marks and offer suggestions. They come at the manuscript completely objective. While an author sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees, the editor comes in like a surveyor and see the trees and how to create a clearing.

I’m thankful to have been on this side of the desk with an excellent editor who saw exactly what my book needs.

What about you? If you’ve worked with a professional editor, what has been the best advice he or she gave you in feedback on your work?

“Okay, this next sentence just baffles me.”

“We need to stop here and talk about this.”

“Let’s delete the word somewhat.”

“I found another fake swear word. Add it to the list.”

“Wait, how did they get to the woods?”

“I’m gonna go ahead and remove this whole paragraph.”

“Can your face curl in anger?” (question asked of class) “How about contort?” (someone says) “Yes! That’s it.”

“I don’t know what’s going on here.”

“Wait . . . .!”

“This sounds like a Tim Burton movie.”

“I like that!”

“Wow. Good description.”

These are just a few statements I’m overhearing as I listen to my student editors work on the copyediting part of this project. (You can read about the content editing part here.)

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It takes a village . . .

For this part, we revised the groups into three groups of four to focus on the three fiction manuscripts. The authors did what they could over the past month and sent us their full revised manuscripts. Now the new groups are diving into the copyediting phase. The manuscripts were moved onto Google docs where the groups can read together and comment along the way.

“This takes so long!”

Another comment.

They’re getting a real understanding of what’s involved at the copyediting level. It does take time to really consider every sentence, every word, every bit of punctuation. To make sure the facts are lining up, to make sure the reader won’t be confused, to make sure that the author is saying what s/he really means to say. (If my editors are confused, future readers will be confused. Now is the time to fix any concerns.)

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“Copyediting is hard,” he complained. (Dramatic effect.)

There’s new appreciation brewing for how hard editors work and why they work so hard.

I think mission accomplished.

We’re at it again. Last year, I taught a class in our Professional Writing program that exposed our students to the entire publishing process, “from manuscript to book.” We read and edited real manuscripts written by real people; the students took them through the content editing phase, the copyediting phase, and the typesetting and proofreading phase. We also worked with the layout and design class, which created cover designs for us.

This semester, we again have five manuscripts and four authors.

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Here’s our semester schedule.

You can read about the actual process on last year’s manuscripts through the hyperlinks above. This time around, we have three fantasy manuscripts and two nonfiction.

I want to tell you about this experience from the viewpoint of an author. One group of this class gamely took on my MFA thesis and my new editing book for Bold Vision Books, titled Word by Word, coming out this summer

I had this group work on both of my manuscripts because the word count added up to roughly the same as the manuscripts in the other groups (about 100K), spreading the work evenly.

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Fantasy manuscripts call for a lot of discussion . . . 

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. . . as the editors figure out the setting and characters and plot lines and, in fantasy, often the magic system the author created.

Here’s what happened from my perspective as an author. I had sent in the first draft of my thesis for review in my program. My MFA mentor wrote back with some excellent advice and good questions. One thing had to do with the entire premise. My thesis is about my life as an editor — it is more memoir-ish with research and other nonfiction elements. At first, I had the title “Superhero Editor.” My mentor challenged that, sensing that the metaphor didn’t really work. The editor doesn’t swoop in and “save the day”; no, it’s much more collaborative and intimate than that. He challenged me to try another metaphor.

I thought and thought and thought, coming up dry. Then, when I decided to give the project to my students, I offered them the challenge. And they came through.

They thought that the friendship angle would work better. They gave me the title “Friends with Words.” Then I realized that for the last month I’ve been playing on my phone every night with my mom — the Scrabble game “Words with Friends” (and, by the way, she usually smokes me!). We moved their words around, and I titled the thesis “Words with Friends” and went back and recast the entire thing to reflect the new tone of that kind of relationship between editors and authors.

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These editors made my manuscripts so much better!

I couldn’t have done it without my student editors!

After they finished my thesis, they gamely moved on to my contracted book, which is more of a textbook style (a book I will use in my editing classes moving forward). The full manuscript for this was due to the publisher on March 1, so I asked what I needed to do to improve this first draft.

I told them to put me through my paces and do what I’ve trained them to do . . . and they did. They pointed out my overuse of the word “So.” (When I checked it, Microsoft Word said, “There are too many instances to check. You use this word a lot!” Yikes!) They mentioned that I needed to watch for passive voice. They told me when I got long-winded (read: “boring”) and need to cut or revise some lengthy sections.

AND, they let me know what they liked, what was engaging, and what was helpful.

All the editing groups put together their editorial letters with suggestions and advice to their authors, who will do what they can with their manuscripts by our March 28 due date.

Stay tuned!

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Hammering away at a manuscript.

In Praise of Bookstores

You can spot a book lover. I mean, a real book lover. In a world where everywhere we look people are scrolling through backlighted pages on their phones, real book lovers are sitting on the bus, or in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices, or in the corner of the office lunch room engrossed in the pages of an actual book.

And book lovers, by definition, are often bookstore lovers as well. This is what is celebrated in Lewis Buzbee’s little book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History. The book celebrates the wonder and beauty held in your local bookstore.

When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain—books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time. (3)

Those of us who love bookstores—the smell of paper, the colors of covers beckoning us, the intense desire that we could just, somehow, read it all. (Except for the banalities, of course.)

bookshopBuzbee has spent a lifetime around books—working in small independent bookstores, visiting small stores as a sales rep, and, of course, as a reader. His love for bookstores is unabashed. Where else, he asks, can you go in and sample the merchandise in the way you can with books—sitting over your latté reading the first half of that novel before you decide to purchase? Where else can you purchase for a minimal price the wisdom of the ages (or, if you so desire, the wisdom of a Kardashian or two)? Where else can you be so alone as a shopper and yet so connected to the others in the store—simply because of your love for books? Where else is there absolutely something for everyone and someone for everything? Where else can you purchase something that doesn’t need any upkeep but promises hours of entertainment—and then willingly sits on a shelf for as long as you choose to keep it, easily accessible, ready with the same words in the same spot with, perhaps, the same effect as they had on you the first time?

Buzbee describes bookstores’ evolution—the stalls where a hawker sold his wares, the semi-permanent store, and the itinerant bookseller going from town to town with his wares on his back. Before the invention of the printing press, books were copied by hand, often by the bookseller himself. Sometimes booksellers acted as publishers, entering into contracts with authors.

It wasn’t until the expansion of the universities across Europe that books came to be more required and thus needed to be made more cheaply. A new class of copyists and the introduction of paper into Europe transformed the face of books and publishing. Then, of course, Gutenberg’s printing press was the game changer. “A printer could create in one day what it might take a single monk six months to accomplish. It’s estimated that before the printing press, there were 50,000 books in all of Europe; fifty years after Gutenberg’s first Bible, there were more than 20 million” (102).

Along came copyright laws and the rise of brick and mortar stores. One bit of information I found fascinating was that in early stores, books sat horizontally on shelves, just the pages bound in signatures (sets of pages), no covers. A customer would purchase the book, then choose the color and cost of the binding. (So that’s why all those books in the big old mansion libraries are all the same color!)

Those who get to frequent (or work in) today’s bookstores have a distinct advantage—the ability to work around things we love.

I can say we because, for a few summers after my college years, I was happily employed in my parents’ small Christian bookstore. I dusted shelves and shelved books. I watched my dad meet with the salesmen in the office in the back, my mom making a fresh pot of coffee, considering the books our clientele in the little rural town of Corry, Pennsylvania, would buy. I loved to see my mom putting together tasteful book displays in the front window. I loved to see my dad behind the counter with several Bibles laid out on the glass-top case, explaining the various features of each to an intent-looking customer. I loved that my parents would sell a Bible to a person who couldn’t afford it right away, but would allow them to take it, knowing that the person would be coming in with maybe only a dollar or two each week to pay off the purchase.

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The grand opening and ribbon cutting of Ye Olde Book Shoppe, 1980. That’s me second from the left.

Ye Olde Book Shoppe had been an institution in town for decades. The previous owner had it in a room of her home; when my parents purchased it, they moved it to a storefront on Center Street. The bookstore was always such a peaceful place – soft music humming through the speakers, sunlight through the windows, the smell of fresh books, and the opportunity to sit at the counter ready to wait on customers. When I wasn’t busy dusting, I could pick up the latest book off a shelf to read at the front counter or purchase it (at a discount!).

So as a reader and writer and publishing professional and former bookstore employee, I found the history in Buzbee’s little book fascinating. His description of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach is itself worth the read. Not only was the bookshop the haunt of expatriate writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Pound, Beach also acted as publisher for Joyce’s Ulysses. Then the story of how she hid the entire contents of the store from the Nazis—well, that makes her a bookseller’s hero.

You reader friends will agree—there’s just something about a bookstore. Tell me your favorite bookstore story. What do you love about bookstores?

Buzbee, Lewis. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006.

This morning I turned in my first draft of my pristine 157-page thesis for my MFA program. Pushed send, felt a sense of accomplishment, opened the document back up just, you know, for pride’s sake, and found this phrase: “This is a book to tell help writers understand the publishing process . . .” Really? “Tell help”? On page 1? Right there. In my thesis about . . . editing?

Let’s just say, humble pie isn’t very tasty.

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So to help myself feel better and remember that yes, indeed, I can edit and know a lot about it, here are 10 tips to help you with your own self-editing process, 10 things copy editors hate.

(1) Writers who press the space bar twice after the ending punctuation between sentences. 

See it?   Annoying isn’t it?   Because that is a no-no.

If you learned to type on a typewriter, you were taught to put a double space after your punctuation and between sentences. On a typewriter, every letter and punctuation mark and even space took up the same amount of space. So to clearly see the sentences and make a page readable, double spacing was needed.

But now our word processing software has typefaces that create proportional spacing, so that extra space is not needed. So stop doing it.

(2) Writers who quote sources and then don’t give me the source.

Lazy—and problematic. Same goes for Bible verses and no references or Bible version. (Please, thou shalt not do this.)

If you’re quoting a source, give it to me exactly. If it’s a book, tell me the author, title, publisher, date of publication, and page number. If it’s a magazine or journal, I need the title, the issue date, the article title, the author, the page number. If it’s on the Web, at least give me a hyperlink so I can find it and confirm all the needed information. If you’re quoting from the Bible or other religious text, give me all of the information I need, and make sure you’re quoting correctly.

(3) Writers who consistently use passive voice.

“The book was being written by a writer who wanted people to be inspired by it.” (Ugh.)

It’s lazy writing. You can spot passive voice if you find that you’re using a form of a “to be” verb over and over. In the above sentence, the “was being” and the “to be” are clues. If you change it up, you’ll find that you can use much more descriptive verbs: “The writer labored over the thesis, hoping that her words would inspire other writers.”

(4) Writers who add needless words.

“The writer wrote the sum of ten pages on each day of the seven-day weeks of the semester.” (Annoying.)

C’mon people. We’re way past the days when we were trying to stretch our writing to fill up the number of pages our English teacher required in our essay about The Great Gatsby. No more padding sentences. Good writing is succinct and to the point. Find the best verb, the best noun. Avoid adverbs. “The writer wrote ten pages every week during the semester.”

(5) Writers who dangle their modifiers.

“Sitting in a pile on the desk, the book writer looked at her manuscript.”

You have a dangling modifier if your modifier is not right next to the word being modified. In the sentence above, it sounds like the book writer is “sitting in a pile on the desk,” not the manuscript itself (although this could actually be true, depending on the book writer’s state of mind). These sentences sound right until you really look at them: “I saw the dead deer driving down the country road,” should be “While driving down the country road, I saw a dead deer.”

(6) Writers who don’t use the dictionary.

“I sat stationery as I wrote my letter on stationary.”

In the sentence above, the “stationary” words need to not be stationary; they need to be switched because they’re incorrect. If you’re unsure, look it up. If you’re even a tiny bit not sure, look it up.

(7) Writers who don’t understand commas.

Commas, put in the wrong places, are, and always, will be, annoying. (Yes, annoying.)

Commas are difficult, so don’t lose sleep over them. A copy editor lives and breathes commas and will make sure that your final piece has them placed correctly. But do your best. Check a grammar book or read a few articles online about commas to at least give you some groundwork.

(8) Writers who use random fonts and font sizes that change all over the place.

To impress whoever you’re submitting your manuscript to, follow the basic rules of submission: Times New Roman font, 12 point, one-inch margins, double spacing between lines. You can get away with a different font for your chapter titles, and you can bold or italicize where necessary, but other than that, stay clean and clear.

(9) Writers who write sentences that don’t have parallel elements, are mixed up, and because they are confusing.

Rereading your writing aloud to yourself can help you spot this one. It happens often when you’ve done some revising, so you need to go back and revise your revision to smooth it out and make sure your elements are parallel. “Writers who write sentences that don’t have parallel elements, are mixed up, and are confusing.”

(10) Writers whose subject /verb agreement aren’t correct.

This is a huge one. If I had a nickel for every time I fixed this. . . . Anyway, again, this error often gets introduced in the revision process where you’ve gone back and changed tenses or changed the number of subjects which then affects every other part of the sentence. So go back and read carefully to catch all of these: “Writers whose subject/verb agreement isn’t correct.”

But one thing I DO know . . . I always expect to find a random typo, no matter how carefully the manuscript has been self-edited. After a while, we just can’t see the forest for our own trees. After all, that’s what gives people like me job security.

I won’t stress (too much) about my typo on page 1. I’m sure there are more lurking in those pages. It’s funny but no matter how many years I put into this job, perfection still eludes me.

What’s the worst typo you’ve seen–in your own or in printed works?

My mug is courtesy of my son, and I think my sister gave me the little tea guy. Just put loose-leaf tea in his pants, set him into the teacup hot tub and voila! Tea. Right now I’m drinking some loose leaf India black tea called Assam House Blend. It’s delightful!

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Mr. Tea Guy is enjoying his hot tub, and I’m enjoying my hot drink on this cold day.

In the interest of sharing a bit more about myself here–I’m ready to ‘fess up about my cats, because, yes, my son may be right. I just might be “one cat short of crazy.”

Yes, we have too many cats.

I’ll be the first to admit it.

No, we don’t live in a house of squalor with a hundred furrballs. I like to think our house is in pretty good shape, all things considered. See, here’s the deal. We moved to the country from the suburbs. I had never owned a cat in my life.

We were dog people. Small dog people. We have our little Shih Tzu named Snickers who moved with us to the country and was our only pet.

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Snickers, beloved pup.

That is, until I sat on our three-season porch one summer evening and heard a distinct mewing. With a flashlight and careful step, we located the little culprit—a black kitten with neon green eyes.

Finally, with a little string for enticement, my husband knelt down beside her and made friends. We allowed her on the porch “but not in the house.” Then, she was in the house. And in our hearts. We named her Kit Kat. Here’s a link to that story. We had her spayed and got her the shots she needed.

So we had a cat and a dog. Nice combo platter.

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Sweet Pea helps with the Christmas wrapping.

Next, my husband was working in the barn when a full-grown black and white cat jumped up on his workbench and rubbed her head against his arm. “Hello sweetheart,” he said gently, and she purred. When he left the barn, she followed. When he got to the porch and entered, she followed. When he came into the living room, she made herself at home.

Two cats and one dog. He calls her Sweet Pea.

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Pretty Petite, our “little one.”

We took her in to have her spayed, only to find she already had been. So she had belonged to someone. Had she been left? Had she run away or gotten lost? How had she found her way to us? No matter. She apparently was here to stay.

Then my husband saw in town a mama cat and three kittens, all in a cage on the front porch with the weather changing to cold. He knocked on the door and asked if he could rescue them.

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Basket of kittens.

Six cats and one dog.

The kittens grew, mama wandered, papas in the area learned of some hot chicks (kits?) new to the area. Pregnant cats.

Kittens. Too many kittens.

Kittens given away. We took one set to a farm where kids come to play with the animals. Several got taken by a few acquaintances. More spaying appointments.

Oops.

One more set of kittens.

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Molly has a “mouse” and isn’t letting go.

We put out a sign offering “Free Kittens,” but in the Indiana countryside that’s like an Eskimo offering free snow in Alaska. So that set ended up staying around. A couple of those surprised us with having one kitten before we could get them spayed. One had kittens that we tried desperately to save, but they were just born too soon.

My husband rescued yet another kitten from the side of a country road. Mama and another kitten crossed over, but this one was nearly blind from gunky eyes and full of fleas. He took this little one to the vet to get him all cleaned up. We call him Little Bit—and he’s now our biggest and heaviest cat.

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Little Bit hangs out

The numbers have fluctuated over the years as some have just disappeared—either victims of getting lost amongst the stalks of corn in the field across the way, or in the woods, or perhaps killed by a predator or a vehicle. That’s the sad part. I don’t like to think about it. But then, new ones arrive – twice we’ve had skinny, malnourished cats find their way to our doorstep and into our hearts. Both Mike and Molly are now healthy and well fed. At current count, we have eight cats. They come and go, but this is home.

So there you have it. These cats sit on my lap as I try to work, sit beside me on my desk waiting for me to put my face close for a nuzzle, lay beside me on the bed wrapped around my legs.

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Bandit and Spanky are clearly bored with me.

I wouldn’t trade these little inspirations for anything.

So sure, maybe too many cats, but all of these have found their way to us and decided to stay. So am I a crazy cat lady? Perhaps. We take care of them. We love them.

Oh, and they are all currently spayed or neutered.

Because really, eight is enough. Because more than that? Well, that would be crazy!

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