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As I continue to write about editors and editing, I came across some very interesting insights in Jack London‘s masterful work, Martin Eden. Written as a thinly veiled autobiography, the story follows a low-class man and his desire for self-improvement in order to impress a high-class woman with whom he has fallen in love. He reads voraciously; learns language, grammar, and syntax; and teaches himself manners, politics, and philosophy. Eventually, he decides to become a writer–after all, he has many stories to tell from his travels around the world as a sailor.

Alas, every story he sends in is rejected and returned in what we would call the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). For years, he toils. He goes back and rereads the magazines to which he’s submitting to discover the “secret formula” for getting accepted. He spends hours and hours working at his craft, steadfastly refusing to bow to pressure from the woman he loves (and everyone else in his world) to just “get a job.”

He knows he’s a writer. He can feel it in his bones. He knows he has stories to tell, and he knows his stories are better than anything he’s reading in the magazines.

His money runs out. He barely survives. And the rejections keep coming. Martin begins to wonder:

He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and entrusted them to the machine. . . . There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that change the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. (160-61)martin eden

The chief qualification of ninety-nine percent of all editors is failure. They have failed as writers. Don’t think they prefer the drudgery of the desk and the slavery to their circulation and to the business manager to the joy of writing. They have tried to write, and they have failed. And right there is the cursed paradox of it. Every portal to success in literature is guarded by those watch-dogs, the failures in literature. The editors, sub-editors, associate editors, most of them, and the manuscript-readers for the magazines and book-publishers, most of them, nearly all of them, are men who wanted to write and who have failed. And yet they, of all creatures under the sun the most unfit, are the very creatures who decide what shall and what shall not find its way into print–they, who have proved themselves not original, who have demonstrated that they lack the divine fire, sit in judgment upon originality and genius. (322-23)

Ever felt that way as a writer? Ever felt like the editors either don’t exist or are simply cogs in machines that send out nothing but rejections?

As an editor, I do have to take a bit of offense that Martin sees me as “unfit.” But as a writer, yes, I have at times wondered if anyone with any taste receives–and rejects–my queries, my articles, my blood-and-guts pieces of creative nonfiction.

I’m sure many writers feel the same.

But let me put in a little bit of a plug on behalf of myself and my editor friends.

  • We truly do want the very best writing. But, you need to understand how subjective that is. It’s a gut reaction to a piece of writing. And if you get rejected one place and you really believe in your piece, keep trying.
  • Everything needs to be edited–everything. Trust us. We will work with you to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Editors are human, and each one of us is different. No two editors will edit a piece the same way. Take the advice, but also understand that we are in a conversation with you when we edit.
  • We are busy. Sure, no one wants to wait months for a response, but we’re reading hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pieces. Hence, the form letters that get returned in your SASE. We simply don’t have time to give personal responses to everything. (That said, if you get any kind of response–such as a quick hand-written note on that rejection letter–take that as a huge compliment and keep on trying with that editor.)
  • And generally we aren’t failed writers who defaulted to editing. Many of us write on the side (and get the same treatment from fellow editors). There’s no club. Our work has to stand on its own, just as with everyone else. Many of us have no desire to write at all–editing is our calling and we’re committed to that.
  • Rejection doesn’t mean failure. A piece can be rejected for any number of reasons. It may be that your writing isn’t good–but if you’re in a critique group and you’re taking advice, that probably isn’t the case. It could be things you have no way of knowing–maybe a story like yours has already been accepted and now yours isn’t needed. It could be that gut thing I wrote of above.
  • We really do care about the submission guidelines, the formatting advice we give you, etc. Read these guidelines and follow them. Because we receive hundreds of manuscripts, if it’s apparent you can’t follow the simplest guidelines, then we won’t take the time to read what you sent.

Eventually, Martin Eden does find the success he so long sought, but it comes at a price. He discovers the down side of fame and some of the hypocrisy in publishing, which begins his undoing.

Bottom line, Martin Eden teaches us that it takes persistence, faith in yourself, and hard hard hard work to be a writer.

Don’t give up. Don’t let the editors get you down. Realize that they aren’t “rejection machines.”

Nothing’s perfect, but work with us. Your great writing will find its home.

Quotations taken from Jack London’s Martin Eden: The Annotated Edition by Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. Upland, IN: Taylor University Press, 2006. This edition is pictured above.

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As I noted in last week’s post, I want to talk about the role editors play–and how vitally important they are. We can thank Maxwell Perkins for believing in F. Scott Fitzgerald and helping get his debut novel published. In his book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg describes the relationship between Perkins and Fitzgerald and quotes some of the correspondence back and forth as Fitzgerald worked on his novels.

After the great commercial success of This Side of Paradise, the publisher was ready and willing for more (funny how that works . . . ). Fitzgerald wrote short stories and another book for Scribner’s, and eventually he told Perkins about his next project, a book titled Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires. Perkins didn’t like the title. Fitzgerald had thrown out several other ideas, and The Great Gatsby was one, but Fitzgerald preferred Trimalchio in West Egg.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

When the manuscript finally landed on Perkin’s desk, Fitzgerald sent a letter explaining that he wanted his latest title, but he wasn’t altogether happy with the middle of the book. “Do tell me the absolute truth, your first impression of the book, & tell me anything that bothers you in it” (64). Perkins reported that he loved it, but “said he had several points of criticism, all of which stemmed from his dissatisfaction with the character of Gatsby himself” (65). Perkins felt that he could spot Tom Buchanan if he met him on the street, but Gatsby’s character was vague. Perkins suggested that Fitzgerald describe Gatsby as distinctly as he had described Tom and Daisy.

Perkins also understood that Gatsby’s past needed to maintain a certain air of mystery, but Perkins didn’t want to shortchange the readers. He suggested that Fitzgerald pepper in some phrases that would give the reader some clues, “The total lack of an explanation through so large a part of the story does seem to be a defect” (65). That caused a problem at the novel’s fulcrum–the scene in the Plaza Hotel. Tom calls Gatsby’s bluff, but it wasn’t effective because the reader didn’t know what the “bluff” was.

Perkins wrote to Fitzgerald, “I don’t know how to suggest a remedy. I hardly doubt you will find one and I am only writing to say that I think it does need something to hold up to the pace set, and ensuing.” Perkins was also concerned that the parts of Gatsby’s past that Fitzgerald did divulge were all dumped together in one spot. Perkins suggested, “I thought you might find ways to let the truth of some of his claims like ‘Oxford’ and his army career come out bit by bit in the course of actual narrative,” although he added, “The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms” (66).

Fitzgerald began his revisions–from the title page. He went back to the title Perkins had liked, The Great Gatsby. He responded to everything Max suggested. He broke up the block of information about Gatsby’s past and sprinkled the details into earlier chapters. He made Gatsby’s claim of his time at Oxford come up in several conversations. And one key change:

Again stimulated by something Perkins had said, Fitzgerald worked a small wonder with a certain habit of Gatsby’s. In the original manuscript Gatsby had called people “old man,” “old fellow,” and a number of other affected appellations. Now Fitzgerald seized upon the one Perkins had liked so much, adding it a dozen times, making it into a leitmotive. The phrase became so persistent a mannerism that in the Plaza Hotel scene it provoked Tom Buchanan into an outburst: “That’s a great expression of yours, isn’t it? All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?” (69)

Through the process of writing, Perkins encouraged, advised, and offered suggestions, but always knew that the brilliance lay with the author. He simply wanted to make what was already great that much better. In the end, Fitzgerald wrote that it was Maxwell Perkins who helped him write a book he was proud of.

That’s what we editors do. We try to take what’s already brilliant and make it that much better. We hope we can help authors publish books that they, too, can be proud of.

You authors out there, have you worked with an outstanding editor? I’d love to know who that person is so we can all learn from the best!

 

 

 

 

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So as it turns out, if it weren’t for an editor, there might not have been The Great Gatsby.

Yay for editors!

I have decided that–while it’s terrific to review books and interview authors–I’m going to go a slightly different direction in my blog in the coming weeks. I’m going to study up on some great editors from the past, and I’m going to interview some great editors of the present.

Because, well, I’m an editor. I know what it takes to work in the salt mines of editing manuscripts to make the good–the great–that much better. I know what it means to study typeset pages until your eyes cross, making sure no typos slip through because I want the author to look good. I know what it means to be in the background and let the author have the credit (as it should be).

I just want to bring some of these people out of the shadows and learn from them and, in so doing, pass along some info to you, my readers, and to the students in my editing classes.

After my last post about teaching editing, Rich Adin (who writes the blog “An American Editor“) commented, “We can teach people to be editors like me; we cannot teach people to be an editor like Maxwell Perkins. Perkins had that rare gift that made him the Michelangelo of editing.” Thanks so much for that comment, Rich, because that sent me on a quest to learn from the best.

perkinsAnd that sent me to A. Scott Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978).

Seriously, I’m so excited about what I’m reading I can barely stand it.

Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947) was the editor at Charles Scribner’s and Sons for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. The book is filled with quotes from correspondence between Perkins and these writers and anecdotes of how he worked with them–cajoling them, encouraging them, offering insight and advice on the big picture of each manuscript, and advocating for them at the meetings of the editorial board.

Mind officially blown.

No, I will never be Max Perkins–and, no, I cannot teach anyone to be Max Perkins. The next Max Perkinses will arise from folks with that internal “gift” that is, simply put, God-given.

But I want to learn from the best and pass along to my students what they, too, can learn from the best.

And for my students out there–I tell you this all the time–you probably won’t start out as full-fledged editors. Max didn’t even study literature or writing in college (Harvard); instead, he studied economics. But his real love was words, and it was a freshman English instructor who, as Berg puts it, “certainly . . . developed Max’s editorial instincts” (32). After graduation, Max went to work writing for The New York Times as the writer who hung around all night and picked up the “suicides, fires, and other nocturnal catastrophes” (33).

His first job at Charles Scribner’s and Sons was in the advertising department where he spent four and a half years before ascending to the hallowed fifth floor–the editorial floor.

And, students, guess what he did there . . .

He was a proofreader!

For the most part, Maxwell Perkins’s duties as an editor were limited to proofreading galleys–long printed sheets, each containing the equivalent of three book pages–and to other perfunctory chores. Occasionally he was called upon to correct the grammar in a gardening book or arrange the selections in school anthologies of classic short stories and translations of Chekhov. The work demanded little creativity. (12)

But then here’s what happened. A regular Scribner author named Shane Leslie became friends with a young author from Minnesota. Leslie sent this young author’s manuscript to the editors at Scribner. It got passed from editor to editor (no one liked it) until it ended up on Perkins’s desk. While he liked it, he was forced to write to the author and decline it (the lowly proofreading editor didn’t have much sway at first). But Perkins saw something in the young man’s writing, and the rejection letter held out some hope and encouragement to the young man who went to work revising and revising and revising.

The manuscript came back much improved, and Perkins went to work doing everything he could (and it was a lot) to get Scribner’s to publish it. At one tense editorial meeting, he said, “My feeling is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish talent like this, it is a very serious thing” (15-16).

The young author was F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book was This Side of Paradise (Scribner’s 1920).

What about The Great Gatsby? More on that next week.

Suffice it to say, Maxwell Perkins is my new editorial hero. And I’m his newest student.

 

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I plopped down in the middle of the Shakespeare aisle in the library.

And I burst into tears.

Mind you, I kept my sobs silent, my mouth covered. No one could see me. This was in Range 107 and 108 on Third Floor East in the BSU library. The hundreds of floor-to-ceiling shelves of books are spaced just far enough apart to sit with legs crossed. I love this place, getting lost amongst the stacks. I love the smell and feel of real books, old books. I love that so many people at one time or another were able to hold a work in their hands and be proud to have had their words published–in this particular aisle, so many many words about the bard, Shakespeare.

The criticisms and handbooks and guides on his tragedies and comedies mocked me from the shelves. “You’ll never have time to learn everything you need to know. Just look how much has been written! Ha ha! And you think you have something to say?”

It was a tragedy that I, a grown woman, sat amongst the stacks bawling.

It was a comedy for exactly the same reason.

Please, no one come by.

I can just imagine: “There’s someone up there crying,” a concerned student reports to the circulation desk. “And she’s, like, really old. Maybe she’s, like, having a breakdown?”

I can imagine the words over the intercom system. “Clean up on Third Floor East, Range 107.” And someone will come looking for me with tissues and a concerned face and maybe a straitjacket.

“I’m all right. Really. Just a bad day. And I’m just really tired.”

I glance North and South from my spot on 3 East. Aside from the occasional student passing by, no one even seems to know I’m here having my little meltdown. I wipe my nose on my shirtsleeve (gross) and lean against the stacks. A few deep breaths.

“You can do this. Just finish this semester. You can do this.”

Snorkeling

By Nemoischia (Own work)

But it’s that little voice from college days that pushed me so hard to be perfect. Why do it if it can’t be perfect?

The doubts creep in. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? What is the point?

A few more deep breaths. A prayer sob to the heavens.

“God, I know you want me doing this. I know beyond any doubt that you’ve walked me through this so far these last three years. I know that this is good for me in more ways than I can imagine. But I’m in over my snorkel . . .”

So God simply and quietly calms my heart and reminds me that he isn’t going to give me shallower waters; he’s instead going to provide a longer snorkel.

And maybe some swim fins.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

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I have to admit–this has been a bit of a struggle, this whole grad school English major thing. This summer and this semester I’m taking literature classes. I’m trying to become an academic and think deeply and write position papers and do critical analysis.

I’m definitely out of my comfort zone.

As I noted in this post, much of my learning curve has to do with being back in academia after 33 years.  But, just as I advised my children during their college years, I made myself appointments with my professors.

I asked the first professor about critical analysis. “Really,” I asked, “hasn’t everything been said? How can I possibly find something more to say about Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Emerson or Twain?” He acknowledged that, indeed, there are whole conferences devoted to certain authors and their writings, and academics read papers to one another and everyone sits around and talks more about that particular author or book.

“We’re really kind of nerdy,” he admitted.

“And,” I added, “isn’t there a point where we’re starting to see things that never crossed the author’s mind? Isn’t there a point where we’ve beaten something to death and now we’re into territory the author wouldn’t recognize?”

His answer surprised me. Sure, it’s possible to beat something to death–and no one wants to do that. But, he explained, when these authors put their words out there in print, those words become ours. We can look at them through any lens we want. We can interpret by what we see there because, ultimately, that’s what all writing is. It calls for a response from us. Those authors are trying to say something, and it behooves us to figure that out, but ultimately we may never know completely. He explained that often there is indeed new scholarship that arises–new letters or papers written by the author surface somewhere and get published, thereby changing scholarship by showing that an author really wasn’t being sarcastic in that story (or was) based on opinions revealed in those papers.

So it can indeed be an ever-changing landscape.

And the classics are classics because of some timeless element that keeps us reading. They show us something about the time period but also something about ourselves. They cause a reaction in us. They make us look at ourselves or our own world differently.as you like it

And he encouraged me about what it means to be a scholar, an academic. “Anyone can have a response to a piece of writing. They like it. They don’t like it. It made them laugh or cry or think more deeply about something. But it takes a scholar to look at a piece of writing and consider the time and culture of its writing, compare it to other writing, look at the language, etc. Nothing is written in a vacuum; every author writes from (or against) influences in his or her life.” He encouraged me that by writing a paper or doing a critical analysis, I’m simply joining the academic conversation with another nuance, another point of view.

“Joining the conversation.” I like that. He told me to picture myself walking into a room with a whole bunch of nerdy people talking about As You Like It. Stand there and listen for awhile (translated as read a few academic journals and see what people have said about the topic I choose in that play). Then, from how I read it through my own lens of learning and life experience and study, I can add to the conversation. And I do indeed have something to add if I’ve done my homework, read the work carefully, and read what others have said.

An email to my other professor reiterated this. After I apologized for my seemingly basic question, she wrote this: “Focus on locating critical texts about AYLI and seeing what conversations currently surround the text. As you get familiar with the criticism, one or several things will likely happen: 1) You’ll find a gap where the critics aren’t quite touching on a theme or issue that you’d like to emphasize, 2) you’ll seriously or even partially disagree with someone’s point of view, which opens the door to your own argument, 3) you’ll see connections among previously separate arguments and you can help thread them together into a larger argument.”

I think I can do that.

So as I contemplate a position paper on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I realize that maybe I have something to say.

I’ll let you know.

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He always arrived in a rumpled brown suit and a wide, striped 1970s-style tie. He would bustle in the door of our apartment in Germany, run his stubby fingers through his mop of gray hair, say “guten Abend,” and sit down in the chair beside the piano bench.

And I duly took my place beside him on the bench.

We opened the book.

I had one piano book when I studied under Herr Mueller. Not a book for scales or a separate book to write in and draw the little notes on the staff and practice making the G-clef. I was way more advanced than that. I’d been taking piano since I could remember.

My piano book

My piano book

So when we arrived in Bonn, Germany, in my freshman year of high school, my parents set about finding a piano teacher.

And they found Herr Mueller.

I wish I knew his whole story. He had been the pianist for the some big orchestra in the United States. Thus, in his younger days, he had played in large concert halls to crowds of appreciative symphony goers. I’m sure he’d worn a tux and, when he approached the piano bench, had deftly tossed the tails behind him. He had been applauded.

And now, he sat beside a high school girl who didn’t appreciate that she was learning piano from a genius.

I ache to think of it.

We practiced from this one book–a big red book filled with music from the great composers. The cover and spine and title page are all missing, so I can’t even give the title. But when I sit down at the piano thirty years later and open the book to page 44, I can still play Beethoven’s “Adagio ‘Moonlight’ Sonata.” I can still play parts of “Fur Elise” (page 48) from memory.

When we opened to a new song that came from an opera, Herr Muller told me the story and where, in the opera, this song appeared. He told me how to play Edward Grieg’s, “Anitra’s Dance” (from Peer Gynt) based on the action at that point in the story, and he could hum every melody from the entire opera.

I think of those days now. I remember how I’d hold my breath when he leaned in close to scribble on the piano page and his bad breath floated into my nostrils. I remember how his stubby fingers flew across the keys. I remember how he loved, loved, loved the piano.

Herr Mueller's fingering notes on my piano page

Herr Mueller’s fingering notes on my piano page

If I could just take lessons from him now. These thirty years later I would cherish every word. I’d have a notebook beside me where I would write down the context of every melody he assigned just as he told it to me.

And I’d just offer him a breath mint and be done with it.

I worked hard for him. I practiced hard. I loved the piano too, for a time, even accompanying my high school chorus for a few programs.

Herr Mueller, I wish I could thank you. I’m sure you’re long gone from this world, but I thank you for your love of the piano and great music. I’m sure that some of my love for great literature comes from hearing Herr Muller tell me the great stories of the operas with unmatched passion. And the fact that I could accompany my high school chorus as they sang Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” was because I had pounded away at Bach and Verdi and Grieg and Tschaikowsky and Wagner.

The same is true for writers. We’re readers first for good reason. We read great literature (past and present) because it helps us with our craft. We read because we love love love the words on the pages–and we’re amazed when, like the music notes floating on the staffs, the words come together in a way that gives us goosebumps. We want to learn to make that happen in our own writing.

We’re creating a melody in our manuscripts.

I wish I had appreciated the privilege of studying under Herr Mueller. Likewise, I wish I had appreciated the time I spent reading the classics in my literature classes both in high school and college (this summer I’m rereading many of those classics that any self-respecting English major should be conversant about!).

Because now, I understand. Now I appreciate them.

Thank you, Herr Mueller.

Me at the piano with appreciative baby sister as my audience (ca. 1970).

Me at the piano with appreciative baby sister as my audience (ca. 1970).

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I have plenty to do to keep myself out of trouble this summer, what with fish to feed and gardens to weed and cats who keep having kittens and a research project to finish and a syllabus to write, not to mention the great time to be had at the Midwest Writers Workshop at the end of July.

But what is summertime about if not reading? I’ve been focused on the books I’m reading for my classes, and in the fall I’ll be up to my ears in Shakespeare and the English Romantics, so I’m enjoying this little window to choose my own reading. I got inspired by my summer intensive class where I read:

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

The Blithedale Romance–Nathanael Hawthorne
Their Eyes Were Watching God–Zora Neale Hurston
The Great Gatsby–F. Scott Fitzgerald
Frankenstein–Mary Shelley
The Awakening–Kate Chopin
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–Mark Twain

I also reread Crime and Punishment (just for fun) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Now I have decided to devote this summer to revisiting some classics. Here’s what’s on my reading list for the remainder of the summer (so far):

Moby Dick

Moby Dick

Moby Dick–Herman Melville
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer–Mark Twain
The Scarlet Letter–Nathanael Hawthorne
The House of the Seven Gables–Nathanael Hawthorne
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man–James Joyce
Uncle Tom’s Cabin–Harriet Beecher Stowe
Walden–Henry David Thoreau

So what are some of your favorite classic books?

And how about a little challenge. . . . What if I asked you to tweet the classics?

Join me at #tweettheclassics on Twitter (@LindaEdits) and see if you can condense a classic work into about 100 characters (you need to save enough room to add the hashtag and at least some of the book title).

Here’s what I have so far:

In class, we talked about how Dr. Frankenstein (remember the creator is Frankenstein; the monster is not named) is so narcissistic, so self-absorbed, that he willingly lets the monster dash about the countryside killing people because he’s unwilling to deal with the consequences of his actions. In the end, Dr. Frankenstein is more like a monster than the monster himself.

Here’s another one:

Everyone was so willing to party for free at Gatsby’s house, but, despite Nick’s Carraway’s best efforts, “nobody came” to his funeral. Not even Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s obsession. You’d think she could have torn herself away for a few moments? You’d think that the obvious fact that Jay Gatsby took the bullet (literally) for her killing a woman might have softened her narcissistic little heart? But no.

Speaking of narcissists:

I had never read The Awakening before. Edna Pontellier is such a complex character, but I have to say I’m glad she isn’t in my circle of friends or family. Sure, she’s trying to be empowered. Sure, she’s trying to find herself. Sure, this was the timeframe when women didn’t have the opportunities that we take for granted (they couldn’t yet vote, for pete’s sake). But her self-centeredness grates on me.

So here’s my challenge to you. Can you tweet the classics? Either sum up the book in those few characters or tweet a favorite (short) line. Put the title of the book with a hashtag and “tweettheclassics” with a hashtag. I have a column on my Tweetdeck so I can see what we get! I’ll feature some in future blog posts. I’ll be adding more of my own as well.

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