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This past weekend (August 4-5, 2017), we held the second annual Taylor University’s Professional Writing Conference at Taylor University.

Last year, 2016, we did our first conference. We started with zero dollars and hoped that we’d break even or perhaps have a little extra to have seed money to hold a second conference. We didn’t know if we’d make it or not … until about two weeks prior to the conference when a flurry of activity brought us above our minimum (100 attendees) and encouraged us that we were meeting a need and should hold another conference.

Which we just did.

And this time? We got to 120  … 130 … 140 registrants, plus 20 faculty and staff, and suddenly my behind-the-scenes self was worrying about having large enough rooms for breakout sessions. So I closed the conference registrations (and still let through about 10 more people who begged) and held my breath that we’d have enough space.

THEN, our main session room was determined to not be ready, so we scrambled for another room and another breakout room. Thanks to staff at Taylor U, we moved to another room (holds 190, so we were tight but had close fellowship), and located another large-enough breakout room.

Then our folks arrived. Sessions began, keynoters encouraged, faculty taught, one-on-one meetings went on in the Campus Center, books were bought, snacks were consumed, staff people ran around, and while I used the passive voice here nothing was passive at all. It was proactive, energized, encouraging, and … from my perspective … so much fun!

It’s always terrific to get to communicate and rub shoulders with authors and agents and acquisitions editors and editors in the industry — some I’ve known for years, some I’ve known of, and some I’m getting to meet for the first time. They prepare talks and handouts, they sit on panels, they talk individually to conferees in one-on-one appointments, they stay overnight in college dorm rooms — simply because they love writers. All of them are amazing professionals with a heart for helping and encouraging.

And conferees? We couldn’t do a conference without those amazing people who set aside the time and money to come to a two-day conference. These folks were appreciative, which makes it all worthwhile!

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In addition, I had wonderful staff (former Professional Writing students) who spent two days running (which, as writers know, is not part of our general activity). They helped me put together conference packets, they ran to the store to purchase 160-people-worth of snack items, they checked on technology in the breakout rooms prior to each session, they got water for speakers, they ran extra copies of handouts, they carried boxes … they basically did whatever I asked them to.

And they made me laugh.

I couldn’t have run this conference without them.

Thanks guys.

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The purple staff shirts say, “You’re in the write place.” And we all definitely were. These were my “purple people.”

If you’ve never attended a writers conference, get thee to one! They’re a great place to be with like-minded folks, discuss the craft, be encouraged, and fill your tank for a few more months of lonely writing. Conferences happen all over the country (and world) at all times of the year. Look here and here and here for some listings of conferences.

And, of course, you can always consider the 2018 Taylor University Professional Writing Conference. We’ll be here!

 

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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.

 

 

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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?

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It’s 1976. I have just been dropped off by my parents to this place in the middle of nowhere. Houghton College, Houghton, New York. The town doesn’t even have a stoplight. Go too fast on Route 19 and you will go right on by without realizing there’s a really wonderful college just up that two-lane paved road part-way up the hill. In the years since I was there, the college astutely placed a large brick entrance sign and widened that road so that it’s a little more difficult to slide on by. However, there is still no stoplight.

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I’m trying America back on again after spending my four high school years in Europe. We didn’t have American television so all these guys are going “Ehhhhhhh!” flashing a thumbs up and the explanation I get is that they’re imitating Fonzie.

“What’s a fonzie?”

Clearly, I am way behind the times.

My first writing instructor in college is a man named Dr. John Leax (pronounced “Lex.” He was fond of telling everyone not to make him more exotic with some sort of pronunciation like the French word for water, l’eau. It was just “Lex”). After we get that he’s pronounced “Lex,” I learn that although he’s John, his colleagues call him Jack. Sort of that “John Kennedy–Jack Kennedy” thing going on that I never understood. How does “John” become “Jack”? Well, it really didn’t matter anyway since I would never have called him by his first name.

It’s the required 101 basic writing class with whatever department call letters are used at the time. I am terrified. I’m in a new place in, basically, a new country; all of my high school friends are scattered (literally) all over the world; I’m hoping I can hack this whole college thing; I’m eight hours away from my parents and sister. 

Here’s what I remember about Dr. Leax’s class:

Our papers are turned in and then mimeographed (I don’t think we yet had photocopiers in the world) onto clear plastic sheets. Our names are blacked out, and each paper is placed on the overhead projector so that all of its electric-typewriter-typed glory appears on the screen so we can read through it as a class. Not everyone gets this treatment. I think he picks out the especially good or especially bad papers.

One day my paper is being projected onto the screen, and I sit as nonchalantly as possible to make sure no one can possibly think it’s mine. Dr. Leax is underlining sections, discussing them. At one point, he draws a line through a paragraph and sketches a little trash can in the margin. It looks something like this–much more simple and crude, of course.

That’s what he did for everyone when something just was . . . well . . . trash. Trash cans in the margins. Sometimes, if the writing was especially bad, he’d do this:

The squiggly lines above the trash can signifying the especially pungent odor of said writing . . . er . . . bad writing. I don’t recall ever getting the squiggles on my papers, although I know I got more than one trash can.

Later in my career, I discovered proofreading marks, and there are no trash cans.

But there should be.

Since I eventually declare a double major in English and Writing, I will have the privilege of studying under Dr. Leax for other classes. He’s a poet and an inspiration. From Dr. Leax, I learn about the value of good writing and how to spot poor writing. And he teaches me how to make bad writing better. He teaches me the value of words and of finding just the right word.

Thank you, Dr. Leax. You gave me the tools I still use today.

Who’s your inspiration? Is there a person in your past who helped inspire you to be the person you are today?

 

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I tried an experiment in one of my writing classes this past week. We’re talking about the power of words and learning to, as Francine Prose writes in her book Reading Like a Writer, “put every word on trial for its life.”

We looked at the words used (and not used) in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.” (They were amazed to realize that the word “Nazi” is nowhere in the story, even though that’s what it’s about and they knew that’s what it’s about, even without that word and many others one might expect.) We studied the descriptions of place and people in Guy de Maupassant’s, “The Piece of String.” We watched how Flannery O’Connor chose words and led us along in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Then I read them some quotes from one of my recent favorite books, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Here are some of the beautiful, lyrical lines:

When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if torn from a package.

All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall.

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.book thief

That was when a great shiver arrived. It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

<a scene of the Nazis burning books> The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.

The cold was climbing out of the ground.

Snow was shivering outside.

The window opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges.

Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.

I love how Zusak uses words, putting them together in surprising ways to make descriptions that are exact and yet so unusual and unexpected. It’s that very unexpectedness that delights me.

So we did an exercise in class. I gave students four small pieces of paper. On each paper they were to write a word — two papers would have adjectives, two papers would have nouns. Any adjective, any noun. I gathered the papers into two piles, shuffled them, and then each student chose one adjective and one noun and had to find a way to use them together in a sentence.

We got “chilling sun” and “soft children” and “shiny dream.” And the students wrote amazing new sentences, allowing these unusual pairs to work together.

In a weekly journal post, one of my students wrote, “I liked the adjective and noun game. Combinations like chilling sun made me think about the ways I described things throughout the week. Instead of relying on easy, conventional descriptions, I searched for different, more unusual word pairings that still made sense.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

What are some of the most lyrical, surprising, and unexpected sentences you’re read — and where did you read them?

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As a writer myself, I totally understand the frustration of trying to read an editor’s mind and understand the why behind lengthy edits or outright rejections. What’s going on?

I’ve been encouraging my professional writing students to be aware of and submit to literary magazines as an outlet for their creative writing. Some of them were only aware of a few such locations to send their writing, others didn’t know about lit mags at all, others knew only about contests and didn’t enter often because of the submission fee. But with the thousands of literary magazines out there (I just discovered Duotrope and used it to help me locate lit mags that publish in my genre), anyone can build a list of locations for future submissions. Literary magazines don’t generally pay (although a few do), but the by-line and exposure are invaluable. So this semester, each of my students will be researching lit mags and building lists.

As with any publishing house, however, the writing needs to pass muster for any number of reasons in order to get published.

That’s why I love this article by Savannah Thorne over at one of my favorite websites for following the world of literary magazines, “The Review Review” (and thanks to Becky Tuch for creating it!). Savannah was accepted for publication in a literary magazine called Conclave: A Journal of Character, only to find that the magazine was possibly going to close down. So she took the amazing step of taking it on as managing editor and turning it around.

Her article, “What the Editor Sees (That the Writer Does Not)offers wonderful insight from a writer turned editor into the world of editing a literary magazine. She describes for writers what happens after you’ve hit “submit.” And why it takes so long to hear back. And what you should do when you get a rejection. And why you should keep trying. And, yes, why it takes so long to hear back.

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I’ll wait while you click on the link above and read her article . . . [pause for a refill on whatever I’m currently drinking]

What’s the takeaway? Do your research, write well, keep on writing, keep on submitting. Editors have any number of reasons for accepting some pieces and rejecting others–and often it’s just a gut feeling about a particular piece.

As I said in this post about how editors really aren’t “failed writers” with, as Martin Eden would say, nothing but failure in their past causing their desire to make life miserable for writers who are still trying. Instead, editors are slogging through piles of submissions, many of which are probably great, looking for the excellent, something that sings to them, something that they want to publish in the magazine about which they care so much.

No, you can’t know what that is necessarily. But write your best. Get critiqued. Keep writing. Keep submitting. If someone rejects it, try somewhere else.

Don’t give up, my friend. Keep writing what is truly you. As Herman Melville once wrote, “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.”

 

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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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