That Elusive Perfect Word

Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.

C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Finding that perfect word that says the thing I mean, what I really mean, is a struggle for the writer — and I know all writers experience it constantly.

But it’s not just a writing problem; it’s also an editing problem

As an editor, my job (especially at the copyediting phase) is to make a manuscript sing. If I read your story or essay or article or devotional, I’m looking closely at the sentences and the words — and I’m asking if the words I see are the best words. Sometimes something I read makes me stumble. I have to go back and understand the sentence, or visualize the scene, or simply try to comprehend what the author means to say. I stumble because something isn’t working.

And if it isn’t working for me — the editor — then it isn’t going to work for the readers either.

Maybe I need to replace a blah verb with a stronger verb — or better yet, an adverb and verb with a strong verb. “He slowly walked across the street.” Ugh. Adverb. Not helpful. Many strong verbs can picture a slow walker, but the verb needs to be the best verb for the scene. Does he amble? trudge? shuffle? Amble sounds like he’s carefree . . . trudge sounds like he’s sad . . . shuffle sounds like he’s elderly or injured perhaps . . . I have to study the scene and suggest a strong verb, the right strong verb.

Or maybe the descriptor isn’t quite there. A “shiny” item might better be described as shimmering or glittering or glistening or gleaming or glossy (wow, lots of “g” words there).

At times, I look for a word that will add some alliteration — if it works with the tone of the piece.

It takes a writer, a reader, a word lover to be a good copy editor, to massage the message, to tame the tome (see what I did there?).

the best

Some sentences just make me stop in wonder. Some words string together like the notes of a beautiful melody. They take my breath away. (I gave a few examples in this post called “Word Power.”)

It’s hard work, this writing, editing, and trying to say what we want to say or trying to help authors say what they want to say.

But when a sentence sings, when we “say the very thing [we] really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what [we] really mean” as C. S. Lewis writes, it’s all worth it.

We live for those moments.

Ever have one of those times when it all came together?

 

The Joy of Coordinating a Writing Conference

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!

IMG_7298

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.

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!

 

Thank You, Dr. Leax, for Your Inspiration

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.

sign

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.

garbage-1
Photo from “How to draw funny cartoons

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:

garbage
Photo from “How to draw funny cartoons

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?

 * Update on 12/21/19. I just finished reading John Leax’s book, In Season and Out (Zondervan, 1985). There, he writes, “When I started teaching, I was all for kicking. My students may have been bruised, but I was sure they were tough. After about five years in the classroom, I began to have my doubts. Perhaps they were merely bruised. I stopped drawing garbage cans beside their bad sentences and started making ambiguous little arrows that mean ‘something is not quite right here, but I think you might have the idea.’ Lately I’ve been tempted to write, ‘Come on. Please don’t break my heart by writing so badly I can’t ignore your errors. Don’t you realize how much I want to pass you?’ I’m growing soft and wishy-washy” (99).

Addicted to Reading

I hyperventilate when I go into used bookstores. For thirty years my husband has dragged me to antique stores and the only saving grace to these excursions (where eventually every antique begins to look the same) is that sometimes the booths will have books. I zero in on these, turning my head sideways to read along the spines. I don’t feel the same way in my local Books-a-Million, although if I have to go shopping that’s where I want to go.

There’s just something about the smell of used bookstores and the possibility of treasures to be found. If I’m going to by one of the classics or a book on my list, I don’t want one of those repackaged recent releases or (God forbid) the ones that put on the cover not the person but the movie star playing that person (seriously, a book about Julia Child with Meryl Streep on the cover?). And I’m not all worried about getting first editions or signed copies. Instead, I just want to pick it up and know that I’m giving it new life. It was written (by hand, in the case of those classics), edited, typeset (when typesetting was really setting type), printed bound, and sent out into the world. Someone bought it and put it on a shelf. Sometimes that person’s name will appear handwritten inside the cover. Chances are, that person read it. I love it when evidence of that shows up with underlines or marginal comments.

I love the feel of those books. I will often buy it if it feels right in my hands. I look forward to reading it just so I can hold it and turn the pages. The last time the book felt that was when that person decades ago did the same as I am doing now. It’s a kinship. We read the same words, get engrossed in the same story, get pulled away into the world that writer created.

What is it that pulls us into books? Why do we read, anyway? In her book, Ruined by ruined by readingReading: A Life in Books, Lynne Sharon Schwartz muses about why we are willing to spend hours of our lives with tales others have spun.

I have read for so many years but, like Schwartz, I wonder at why it is I cannot recall so much of what I’ve read. Thus I’m glad to know that others have been in the same boat. Schwartz writes, “I don’t remember much of what I’ve read. My lifelong capacity for forgetting distresses me. I glance at a book on the shelf that I once read with avid interest . . . and while I struggle for the details, all I recall is the excitement of the reading. . . . What do I have, then, after years of indulgence? A feel, a texture, an aura.”

Precisely for this reason of forgetting what I’ve read (and the accompanying distress), a few years ago I gathered up some of those lists of “must read” classic books. I began to work my way through it, hoping to recapture the wonder. As I began pursuing an advanced degree in English, I realized that I had to be able to actually discuss the classic works, not just pretend that I had read them or, even if I had, pretend that I remembered them. So the past few years I dove into Moby Dick and This Side of Paradise and The Old Man and the Sea and Portrait of a Lady among many others of the great classics. Some I enjoyed. Some I wanted to pull my eyes out (hello, Moby Dick. I’m sorry. I probably need to turn in my credentials to speak such blasphemy). But I felt accomplished reading them and saying I’ve read them and being able to, while perhaps not remembering all the details (a problem I wish I could overcome, but maybe no one remembers every detail), at least remember the basic story.

And that makes me feel something.

What is that feeling? And why do I feel it? When I finish a classic work, I join a club—a club of readers across months or years or decades or centuries who also have gently opened the cover, absorbed the words, turned the pages, finished and imbibed the story. No matter what I do, it’s there forever. Of course, not all the details (as I’ve already established) but the story. I am forever changed, I have a new view on the world, I learned something.

That tends to be my “divining rod” (as Schwartz calls it) helping me work my way through the morass of books stacked in teetering piles in used bookstores. I go straight to the reference section to find books about writing that I can use in my teaching. Then I’m over in the classics, then memoir, then the books of essays. I have never been a reader of romance or popular fiction. (On a visit, I once picked up a copy of a Danielle Steele at my mother-in-law’s house. By the fourth page I was so appalled by the terrible writing I laughed out loud.)

When I read, I want to learn something. And if a book isn’t pulling me along with its lyrical writing or keeping me turning pages or giving me info that helps me see the world in a new way, then I’m not interested and am not above putting it back on the shelf unfinished.

Life is too short to read a bad book.

But I feel like I came late to the reading game. I wasn’t precocious. In fact, I remember being mortified that many of my fellow fifth graders were reading from the advanced areas of the reading box when I was down in the “average.” I stunk at math and hated science, but reading? I loved reading. I felt like I should have tested right into those higher levels. It didn’t make sense.

I didn’t go to grad school until I was in my fifties and felt the sting of both not having read the classics and not being “up” on even recent authors. So I made my list of the must-reads and began to work my way through it.

Now I read voraciously, as if trying to make up for lost time. Which I am. But, again, why? It gets back to that feeling of knowing¸ of learning. Is my life better for understanding the whaling culture explained to me (ad nauseum) in Moby Dick? Actually, yes, I think so. Do I have a better understanding of writing from studying The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby? I do indeed. Is my writing life inspired by the writing of Flannery O’Connor and  Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekov? Yes.

In short, I read because it inspires me. Sometimes it is the grace of the writing. Sometimes it is the very encouragement I get to live better and be better and write better.

So tell me, what is it about reading that enthralls you?

Great Editors: Faith Sale Works with Amy Tan

She went shopping with Amy Tan and Amy’s mother in Manhattan. She loved bargains, just as Amy does. When it came to finding the cheap deal, she and Amy were joined at the hip.

Her name was Faith Sale and she was Amy’s editor—the one who first saw the potential in a young business writer who began to write novels as a creative release from the doldrums of writing for corporate executives. Sale said in an interview that finding the novel about Chinese mothers and American-raised Chinese daughters was “the biggest thrill an editor can have.” Before she passed away in 1999, Sale had an editing career that spanned four decades, working with, in addition to Amy Tan, authors such as Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Hoffman, and Joseph Heller.

In her autobiography, The Opposite of FateAmy described her relationship with Faith this way:

Whenever I gave Faith something to read, she’d ask me what I wanted from her as an editor. “Keep me from embarrassing myself in public,” was my usual answer. And she did keep me from exposing the glitches in my prose, but she also prodded me to go deeper, to be more generous in the story I had to tell, to not hold back, to show what was most important in my life and on the page. She had an unerring sense of what mattered—to me. She could help me find it, though there were many ways in which we differed in taste and opinions. (63)

Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, hit The New York Times bestseller list and remained there for several months, winning both the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award.

joy luckI appreciate that Sale paid her dues—working her way up through the levels of editing as she moved to various publishing companies. Beginning as a secretary at Knopf, she moved on to Lippincott in 1959 where she was an editorial assistant, then moved up to assistant editor. In 1963, she moved over to Macmillan as associate editor. After living out of the country briefly, she did freelance work upon her return—working for publishing companies, literary agents, and authors. In 1977, she was named senior editor at E. P. Dutton, and then joined Putnam where she was vice president and senior executive editor.

In an essay she wrote for Editors on EditingSale emoted about her love of being an editor. She saw good writing as “the highest form of art” (268), and she knew that she wasn’t someone who could accomplish it. Like Maxwell Perkins, she had no visions of being a writer; she was an editor through and through. She saw herself in service of the art by helping the writers.

What I try to be for an author is the smartest, most sympathetic reader of the manuscript. . . . This means I must earn the author’s trust, make the author feel comfortable with me and my perceptions. . . .

When I’m hooked, I’m unshakably committed for the long haul, regardless of obstacles. But I can’t fake it: my devotion to fiction is born more out of instinct than intellect, based more on emotional response than calculated judgment. The moment of connection is the moment I become a book’s (or an author’s) advocate—its nurturer, defender, supporter, mouthpiece, bodyguard. . . .

Having made the decision to take a book on, I must figure out how to convey to the author what I think could or should be done to make the book the best it can be. It never is—because I think it never should be—making the book into anything other than what the author has envisioned. In my role of the author’s best reader . . . what I mean to do is help the author to realize the author’s intention. (269)

She saw the editorial process as organic, working back and forth with the author, with both trying to take the raw manuscript, deepen and enrich what exists, sharpening the book and the plot arc and the characters. Then she shepherded the manuscript through copyediting, answering questions the copy editor may have that she knew she could answer on behalf of the author, discussing with the author if she didn’t. She wanted to “make sure that nothing is being done to harm the work in any way. I also look over the proofreader’s markings to ensure that the author’s style has not fallen victim to a by-the-book grammarian. And I follow along through the further stages of production so that neither the author nor I will discover any surprises in the printed book” (271-72).

A good editor doesn’t stop when the book gets sent to copyediting and then to proofreading. There has been so much communication with the author that the editor knows the book through and through. Authors may want particular things that go against the rules of grammar—and a copyeditor may make changes that the author would not want. The editor will know this . . . and keep it from happening.

Great editors know that the book belongs to the author, and they fight for it every step of the way. Faith Sale understood that. In The Opposite of Fate, Amy adds this:

[Sale] was . . . wrong in one thing about me as a writer. She believed for some reason that writing came easily to me, that words poured onto the page with the ease of turning on a faucet, and that her role was mostly to help me adjust the outpouring toward the right balance. That belief had so much to do with her confidence in me. And I guess that is the role of both an editor and a friend—to have that confidence in another person, that the person’s best is natural and always possible, forthcoming after an occasional kick in the butt. (64)

Confidence and a kick in the butt. And bargain shopping. Sounds like a perfect match.

My Favorite Books about Editing

So I’m writing a book. Yes indeed. A couple actually. One is for my MFA program; the other is for a small publisher. Both are about editing–one more in a memoir-esque fashion, the other more like a textbook, something I want to use in my future editing classes.

In the process of putting together my proposal, I needed to check out books similar to mine. As I ordered books online and checked them out from the local library, I fell in love with some of them–the voice, the humor, the helps, the advice, the exercises. So I thought I’d pass along to you some of my favorites. If you want to learn about editing or want to work more on being your own self-editor, you might check into some of these excellent resources. The great thing about reading books about editing is that you really get a double-whammy–you are also studying how to be a better writer, the kind of writer editors dream about!

 

dumCopyediting & Proofreading for Dummies, Suzanne Gilad. Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2007.

I’ve used this book in my editing class since 2010 when I first began teaching. The book does an excellent job of being very introductory, has exercises for practice, and incorporates vocabulary. It’s also the only book I could find that gives a clear delineation between copyediting and proofreading. It includes practice exercises, proofreading marks, and publishing vocabulary.

 

 

Stein on WritingStein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies, Sol Stein. St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

I wrote more about this book in this post, so you can check it out there. Suffice it to say that this is one of those books that really will help you ask the right questions as you work on your own writing. He also offers advice to both fiction and nonfiction writers.

 

 

 

artfulThe Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, Susan Bell. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Bell takes on the topic of editing yourself (and, by extension, others). She covers what she calls Macro-Editing and Micro-Editing. I love that she uses several pages working from information in Scott Berg’s book about Maxwell Perkins to discuss the editing process—and how Fitzgerald edited The Great Gatsby from Perkins’s advice. In between are testimonies from various authors about their editors. She discusses the history of editing–which is quite fascinating.

 

 

 

thanksThanks, But This Isn’t for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being RejectedJessica Page Morrell. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. 

Morrell talks about her experience as a developmental editor, includes chapters that focus on the various elements of good writing (plot, suspense, characterization, stories, etc.), and teaches with anecdotes and examples. Her focus is on helping writers write better so that they can avoid getting rejected for the most common reasons that manuscripts get rejected.

 

 

 

companionThe Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More. Steve Dunham. Writer’s Digest Books, 2014.

If you’re interested in more than just book editing, this one is a great resource. Dunham includes a level of content editing, copyediting, and proofreading. There are chapters on “Editing for Content,” “Editing for Focus,” “Editing for Precise Language,” “Editing for Grammar,” “Typography,” and some tips about word usage, words that are often misused, etc. He includes some checklists and examples. There is information about magazines, online publications, “and more.”

 

forestThe Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner, Putnam, 2010.

I also wrote about this one in a blog post. Lerner describes some general types of writers and then peeks behind the editor’s desk and into the publishing world. If you want an idea of what goes on in the editing world at a publishing house, this is a great book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

on writing wellOn Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser, Harper Perennial, 2016.

No list of books would be complete without this little gem. If you often write nonfiction, this little guide offers everything you need to “write well.” We lost Zinsser in 2015, but his legacy lives on. I wrote more about this book in this post.

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, every copy editor should have style manuals (Chicago Manual of Style or an AP Style Guide). I’m sure I’m missing a few. If you’re an editor or interested in editing, what books have you read that you’ve found most helpful?

Word Power

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?

The Writer’s Craft–Learning from the Best

That’s it–The Writer’s Craft. That’s the name of a required class in our Professional Writing department at Taylor University–a required class that I will be teaching for the first time this fall. I’m so excited to teach this class because we’re going to read great writing, unpack it, understand what makes it great, and learn what we can use to improve our own writing.

ProseThe class has traditionally used Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

I love this book because it gives examples of great writing in areas of words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. All of this is studied by way of what she calls “close reading,” taking the time to annotate a chosen text and study it carefully.

So I’m excited to bring to the students stories from John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor and John Updike and Tim O’Brien and Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce and Anton Chekov, among others. I can’t wait to have my students do close reading of amazing writing, discuss it, learn from it, be inspired by it, use it.

I’m just a little thrilled to teach this class.

It is important that writers read “textbooks” about writing–and those textbooks are the great works that have stood the test of time. Prose (don’t you just love that the author’s name is “Prose”?) writes that these great works are “textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction” (3). What is it about this piece of writing that makes it great? that has stood the test of time? that makes it classic? She continues, “A masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly” (11).

We’re not going to look at the big picture–the why of the writing. Instead, we’re going to focus on the mechanics, the how. What words does the writer use? How are those words making this piece sing? What about sentence structure? Paragraphing? How is this dialogue telling us the story without telling us the story? (For the last one we’ll read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”)

In his wonderful little book Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon talks about making sure we artists surround ourselves with other great artists (I talked about this book more in this post). He advises us to be collectors, collecting the things we love.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. My mom used to say to me, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It used to drive me nuts. But now I know what she meant. Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by. (13-14)

Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff. I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk.

The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work. (17)

So we’ve got our readings, our lesson plans, our pens, and our desire to collect and learn from the greats.

Can’t wait!

What great writers or particular pieces of writing have inspired you?

The Tax Man Cometh . . . and He’s Here to Help

If you’re like me and you’re a word lover, the IRS tax forms with all their lines and numbers send you into a panic attack. I get it. No matter what political persuasion you are or whether taxes bring you joyous refunds or difficult fees, filling out the dang forms can be a stressful endeavor.

If only you could get help—good help, help who knows what they’re talking about. If only there was a website that would answer your questions about your life as a writer and whether or not all of those expenses count on your tax returns (even if that long-sought-after royalty check has yet to arrive . . . or be promised).

Today, my friends, “if only” is here. I offer a helper whose passion is Tax Solutions for Writers (which also happens to be the name of his website). Gary Hensley was an accountant for his entire life, an IRS agent and auditor for part of it, and one of the guys who answered the phone for TurboTax if someone needed help.

He knows whereof he speaks. [Update: Gary Hensley passed away in 2018.]

Every year, our Professional Writing department at Taylor University invites Gary to talk to our students about acting like writers and filing their taxes as such. (In addition, you can catch Gary every year at numerous locations, including Midwest Writers Workshop where he is always one of our most popular speakers.) Or you can go to his website that has every question you can think of, and many you probably haven’t.

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Here are just a few things I have learned from Gary about handling my tax returns.

(1) You don’t need to be an official “business” to be in business as a writer and to file a Schedule C for deductions. If you are busy writing (sending out articles, researching that novel, attending conferences to improve your skills), you are a writer and should treat yourself as a professional on your tax return.

(2) Purchase a $5 planner that you can carry with you. In it, document every single activity that you do that shows your activity as a writer. Write down what you did at your desk (your home office area) each day. Track the time you spent writing and what you did. This separates you as an active writer (even if you’re not published) from someone who is sitting around thinking he’d like to write a book someday. You are actively writing. That makes you a writer.

(3) Then use those daily slots to document writer expenses. Maybe you subscribed to a particular magazine or website to help you with information for an article or book. Maybe you attended a conference. Maybe you purchased books about the topic you’re writing about or simply to improve your writing skills. Then, of course, find a place to keep those matching receipts.

(4) In that diary, also keep track of mileage for writerly activities (not just miles, but write in the actual odometer readings to and from anything that had to do with your work—and write next to it the business/writerly purpose for your trip). Perhaps you drove to the library to do research. Maybe you drove to interview someone and purchased lunch for you both. Track the mileage to that writers conference.

(5) Get a separate bank account for your business that has a debit card attached. Again, you don’t need to be an official DBA or LLC or Ltd. or anything. But this particular bank account holds only the money that you earn as a writer (yes, even that $35 for the column you wrote), and it tracks anything you purchase for your business (printer paper, stamps, books, conferences). Maybe you don’t have income, or nothing really worthy to call that. Doesn’t matter. Get in the habit of separating out your writer life from the rest of your life. I know, you may need to lend yourself money back and forth in order to cover a business expense (like a conference—the $35 article won’t cover that), and Gary explains how to do that on his website. The point is to keep your writerly income and out-go separate from the rest of your household.taxes-2

All of this documentation will make it easier both when you go to fill out next year’s form and if you ever get audited. These expenses are deductible on the Schedule C, so you want to take advantage of them and you want them to be accurate.

I know. The forms are difficult, but it’s time to take hold of your writer self and claim your professional status. Check out Gary’s website for answers to other questions.

And go purchase that journal to track this year’s activities! (Oh, and write down the odometer reading before you go and when you get back!)

Great Editors: Betsy Lerner Helps Writers Understand Editors

I love this book and was so excited when I found it a few years ago. I go to it often and read excerpts to my editing class. Betsy Lerner created a product that helps writers understand editors and vice versa. Titled The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Putnam, 2000, updated 2010), the first section of this book describes some general types of writers, and the second section peeks behind the editor’s desk and into the publishing world. Lerner knows wherof she speaks having been an editor for fifteen years before becoming an agent. forest She says, “This book is about what I’ve seen and what I know. I wrote it to help writers achieve or get closer to their goals. At the very least, I hope that in contemplating your life as a writer you may get some perspective on your work and in gaining that perspective, see the forest for the trees” (9).

I teach my students that, as editors, they are working in tandem with authors–Betsy describes it as an intricate dance.  The manuscript arrives on the editor’s desk. The editor will close the office door (or bring the manuscript home where she won’t be interrupted, she hopes) and sit back to read through the entire manuscript–either electronically or on hard copy. The scary red pen may be wielded–perhaps on the manuscript itself but certainly on a nearby notepad. She’s taking notes about first impressions–what’s working and what isn’t, what’s clear and what isn’t, when the pacing seems slow or a character seems out of place. She’s not correcting grammar or sentences; she’s seeing if the book in its entirety works.

The best editor is a sensitive reader who is thinking with a pencil in her hand, questioning word choice, syntax, and tense. An editor is someone who probes the writer with insightful questions, who smooths transitions or suggests them where none exist. A good editor knows when the three pages at the beginning of a chapter are throat-clearing. Start here, she’ll mark in the margin, this is where your book begins. And she’ll know when you should stop, spare you from hitting your reader over the head as if your point were a two-by-four. (194)

A good editor is careful. She needs to explain her point clearly and she needs to be respectful of the author. She knows that it’s never easy for an author to finally turn in a completed manuscript only to have it come back covered in comments and suggestions.

Editing is a science and an art. There is a basic architecture to every book, and if the author has a wobbly narrative leg or an insufficient thesis to stand on, the editor must find the blueprint or create one. What an editor learns as she gains experience is that while no two manuscripts are exactly alike, certain predictable patterns crop up, and as with math problems, the more experience you have, the more readily the solutions appear. (196)

I tell my students that, while they may see the problem in the manuscript clearly, they need to be careful and kind when making the suggestions. The best editors build trust with their authors by giving positive as well as negative feedback. They need to be respectful of the words (most of my students, writers themselves, understand that). In short, they need to be good dance partners. But then, so does the author. If you’re fortunate enough to be working with an editor, trust that person. Yes, it’s still your book, but the editor is going to be your very best reader. No one else is going to read your book with the same attention and care. Let your editor help you, as Betsy Lerner so aptly explains, “see the forest for the trees.”

Tell me about your experiences with editors. How have they helped your manuscript improve?