Category Archives: Editing

Hold That Ideal Loosely

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.”
– Ira Glass

What makes it so difficult to know what we’ve said is knowing so well what we meant to say.

Missing the mark. It’s a definition of sin.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the “gifts of imperfection” and embracing failure. Is this what’s meant, or do we need to understand something better here?

I thought I’d get the new chandelier hung and wired so easily this weekend. It wouldn’t be that challenging to switch out the old light fixture for the new. Or so I thought.

It turns out there’s a difference between the plastic coating on positive and negative electrical wires. We never know what we don’t know, but it can cause problems, and an extra trip to the hardware store for a new wall switch.

Missing the mark can be intentional, but more often it’s simply unrecognized. Most of us know well what perfection would look like, but few of us, if any, are able to manage it.

This can cause all sorts of internal challenges and blown fuses.

Ira Glass said our difficulty as writers comes from having great taste and not being able to achieve that special quality we want our work to have. We know it’s missing something, but we don’t know yet what it is. When I turned the power back on, there must have been a pop at the wall because when I came back, there was no light.

How do we get clear on what we’re missing unless we let go of what we hoped for to recognize something is missing?

Is this a gift of imperfection, this awareness of what we lack?

With a new wall switch installed and the wires reversed, the new chandelier worked and I’d learned more about wiring than I had before. But it took far longer, a couple Youtube videos on using a voltage meter, and Sheri reading the instructions to me aloud to determine what had gone wrong. And in the end, even my inability to read carefully was a humorous gift.

Isn’t this why we say writing is a process? We have to learn to enjoy the learning and forget the product. Perfection is a fine goal, but the gifts of missing the mark that teach us so well what we truly need from the work.

If we’ll slow down, let another see our failure, and take the time to see what it means we must do, we can grow and acquire the hidden gifts God placed in the process for us to discover.

If only we can learn to hold more loosely that simple, perfect ideal.

Hold that ideal loosely. And press on today.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Letter to an Anonymous Author

“I am a writer. Therefore, I am not sane.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Dear X,

I appreciated your note, my friend. And I’m grateful for it.

I’ve seen your struggle and I know how hard you’re working to progress and capture everything well, and also accept help. I knew your journey would be a special challenge, and while your issues and the resistance you’ve encountered is unique to you, I find (and I’d think your agent would agree) that resistance is also the most common thing about working on books.

Writers be farking crazy.

I know because I am one, first and foremost. To create a cohesive, authentic story out of your own life experience you have to dig into old emotions and memories and that’s like poking a sleeping dragon. Either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.

Your memories and inner struggles are unique to you, but every writer who dares this work finds that monster in the mirror and has to face it. You’re not alone in that–far from it. I see it over and over again, and it’s part of what drives me to study counseling and psychotherapy.

But my primary motive in all of this is understanding my own issues and my own resistance to progress, to change, and to accepting help for my struggles. I want to learn how to be better, and like you, I’m drawn by something bigger and higher than myself pulling me out and convincing me I’m okay and I can let go of my fear and protectiveness. As I read, my heart says, Yes, that’s true for me too, and I listen to that voice and he shows me where we need to go–to help you, yes, but mostly to help myself.

Early on, I know you didn’t want to accept any changes from me. The less I did, the happier you were. So I stuck to cleaning up the “verbal diarrhea” and made sure the digressions didn’t feel too distracting. I told myself that was enough and your freedom was more important than being succinct and focused.

After rereading it now, I stand by that. It’s conversational, inviting, and down-to-earth, just as you are and I don’t want to change that anymore. You were right to push back against my “literary sensibilities,” and I’m glad you did. I think readers will appreciate your honesty, sincerity, and personable style–just like they do in your other writing.

I’ll let sharper minds than mine decide whether we can trim any further–while there’s always more tightening that can be done, every book has an irreducible flow as well. As I said, I don’t think I’m objective enough to know whether we’re hitting that in every spot, but I can hear you speaking the lines in my head and that convinces me we’ve captured your essential style. I’m not worried at all about the length–never have been. It’s long and I want to let others know we’re aware of that and we don’t think it’s a problem. It’s a work of beauty just the way it is.

I’m sorry for the times I haven’t understood your vision and for pushing you at times beyond what was reasonable. You and your book are a work of exquisite art balanced between extreme contrasts, and like all beautiful works of art, you and your book are symbolic of the creator from which you spring, one-of-a-kind as anything. I appreciate you and your book as such wonders.

Thanks for sticking with it and being true to yourself–you teach me tons, and I’m so thankful to get to work with you.

(Don’t think this means I’m going easy on you if we get another shot at this. The struggle is inevitable and inextricable. And fears be danged, that’s for good, not bad.)

Looking forward to the rest of the journey.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

How We May Finally Recover Ourselves

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

– T. S. Eliot

 

The life of faith is a rescue mission, I thought, listening to our pastor preach on the woman at the well in yesterday’s sermon.

He explained how she wasn’t necessarily promiscuous, since marriage was more a matter of survival in those days, and men could often die early. Her excitement in running to share with her neighbors isn’t likely to have come from being shamed by Jesus for having five husbands, but probably from having her pain and fear so clearly understood.

The living water Jesus really offered, I thought, is the recovery of our life.

As I sat in church yesterday furiously taking notes, it felt like one of those holy download moments where you just know you’re getting a peek through the curtain at the secret to life. I’ve had these a few times in life and they always seem to come at very inconvenient moments. This time, at least I wasn’t driving or in the middle of conversation. And these good, older Presbyterians would probably forgive me for being disrespectful and taking out my phone to capture the thought during the sermon.

I thought about the book I have to finish before I go on vacation next week, a book that’s all about recovering our lost self, the purer one undiminished by so much fear and pain. And I realized that’s the core idea that has made The Shack so successful as well. And really, One Thousand Giftsand How We Loveand so many of my favorite memoirs, novels, and nonfiction guides too:

They’re all rescue missions about a person in search of a thing we’ve all lost along the way.

It was a revelatory moment! Are most books at their heart about this very thing? I wondered.

When I got home, I picked up another book, A Faith of Our Own by Jonathan Merritt. He begins by sharing a quote from Goethe’s Faust:

“That which you have received as heritage, now rediscover for yourself and thus you will make it your own.”

Okay. I think I got it, God. Paying attention now.

You know those times when you sense everything has been leading up to this moment? Yeah. It was one of those times. Jonathan wrote that this is the journey his faith has taken. I think, This is the journey I’ve taken as well….

And maybe it isn’t just with faith and with books. I start to realize I’ve also experienced this same sense of recovery with Sheri, my wife, falling in love and feeling known and somehow re-connected because of her. And it was like that with my first love, writing, too.

Could it be? In love, in faith, in art, in writing, in life the goal may not necessarily be to become ourselves more, but to recover ourselves more?

And in doing so, maybe we do become more ourselves. But in faith, in romance, and in writing–that is to say, the three most influential things in my life right now–the fire may be less in discovering what I never knew and much more in rediscovering what’s been lost.

It’s the resonance–a connection struck with something buried or forgotten–that draws, woos, and delights us. Something inside longs to reconnect with a spirit that is somehow not us but beyond us, some vestige of a place we’ve seen before–even lived in–but hardly remember in everyday life.

We’re seeking to recover that sense of home.

Don’t we all seek this same recovery of home, of unity with ourselves, with God? Like Nicodemus, we’re confused, frustrated by the difficulty: how does one return to the womb?

Jesus said we’re to become as little children again. Similarly, Julia Cameron’s world-famous training for artists and writers, The Artist’s Way, originally described the work as:  “A Guide to Recovering the Creative Self.”  And anyone in love knows the sensation is like something in you feels known, reunited with itself again.

Recovering is the real work of this journey. 

There’s this great word: agency. It’s the capacity to exert power, and it’s used to express the amount of power someone has to help themselves. I believe a lack of agency is the biggest reason most people suffer, and the most misunderstood concept by those who have it. It’s easy to forget others don’t have much agency when we do. When we have it, we tend to think others around us do too. And we’re prone to judge and think they should just use their agency to improve their situation. But if it were that easy, simply exerting power, wouldn’t more people be doing it already?

Maybe higher purpose writers seek the recovery of agency because we’re acutely aware of this universal ambition to recover what’s been lost. Maybe we’ve felt that fear of losing what matters most to us. Maybe we fear we’ve even lost it. Certainly we know others have. And we’ve experienced the thrill of remembering and recovering personal agency from another writer who saw into our deepest heart and spoke hope, comfort, and we recovered our determination.

Accepting others instead of excluding them is the message of Jesus to everyone he encounters. Think of it. Who are you excluding?

Don’t you feel that longing to be reunited with them, free of any exclusion?

Before you write today, close your eyes and imagine them being inspired to go on and write books to inspire others to recover their capacity to exert power over their situations, a power drawn from the Source of Love so great that He gives His power to anyone who asks.

Especially those who feel too lost to be recovered….

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why Writing Alone Is Impossible

Writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazzards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy and freedom.  – Joyce Carol Oates

We all believe this fallacy that writing is a solitary sport.

Of course we write alone. At least, that’s what we tend to think. It’s not a team activity. It’s one writer, sometimes two, but even then, they’re not actually writing together.

The words are your only company and they’re strung together alone.

But every writer knows they’re not truly alone. 

There are people to your right and left, before and behind you. Where you’ve come from, where you’re headed, people who’ve helped and advised you, and those who form the oppositional voices in your head.

They’re all there, waiting and watching as you work to bring everything you have to bear on the draft, saying it all and saying it well.

And then there are your advisors, readers, teachers, coaches, family, editors, agents, publishers, and friends who form your team. Some, obviously, are more helpful than others. Some you’ve internalized, and some give you opinions even when you didn’t ask for them. We all struggle to decide how many and which ones we should give access to. Is their advice or support important or even necessary? And beyond how it makes you feel, how do you know who should be allowed in? What factors or characteristics should qualify them?

Or should we let no one in? Is limiting outside influences best? Or do we cripple our potentially broader appeal when we don’t share?  These are important questions and we can’t afford not to consider them carefully.

In Writing Alone and with Others, writing coach Pat Schnider says, “Writing can be a lonely endeavor, much of the work must be done in solitude. However, too much solitude–or too much conversation with people who do not write, and too little with those who do–can lead to depression and despair. Having a place to listen thoughtfully to new work by others and having the option of receiving response to your own writing can be invigorating, encouraging, and tremendously helpful.” (p 177)

I’ve found that during the first draft, as difficult as it is to write straight through without stopping or looking for outside affirmation, it’s important to limit influences at that early stage. Other than that hopefully short time relatively (maybe 10-20% of the actual work), your select, surrounding influences are very important as you research, rewrite and edit.

Writing may be a solitary sport, in a way. But your influences and internalized voices are always there. And the rest of the process of completing a book (80-90%) is unmistakably about teamwork. 

What’s more, as a writing coach, I get all up in writers’ business. I think it may be that for some writers, other books are their best friends and advisors for the research and revision. Other times, a “translator” helps, someone to guide and discuss the process with.

There’s an essay I love and often refer writers to, written by T. S. Eliot, called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In it, he describes how each writer stands upon the shoulders of those who came before her and must draw upon that tradition while emptying of self to attain the highest universality of experience and thought:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” (ref. 4)

Figuring out your place in this literary heritage is admittedly for those who seek to contribute significant art. However, every writer has comparable writers. And it may be wise to seek out a respected reader or family member to serve as your “coach” or first editor in this. Ideally, everyone you’re taking advice from would be familiar with your goals and at least some of your literary influences. However, those books themselves are usually the most important sources of feedback on your work, far more than the interpreters of those books, however trustworthy your friends may be.

When it comes to editors, you can’t afford to think about saving money. Almost every writer I know starts out trying to save money. It’s important to be able to pay, of course. And yet, most of us can make sacrifices for what’s really important. And there’s nothing more important than ensuring your editor understands your type of work, your vision, your literary influences, and the vagaries of style to improve your work and make it appeal widely.

For every book that succeeds, there’s an editor who has become an author’s best friend.

This isn’t American Idol–writing isn’t singing. Yes, you’re channeling universal thoughts and emotions, but it’s not only you being heard up there. And even singers have coaches, teachers, and trainers. Neither is writing painting. The brushstrokes aren’t going to all be yours. That’s for your good. You can’t complete your work without a number of dedicated people contributing their colors, content and context.

We all know plenty of books underperform. That’s a failure of community. A competent content editor and/or coach could have helped. Reputable writing coaches would prevent the thousands of books that go unnoticed from getting published without careful scrutiny and vision-casting, not to mention the lack of consideration of the market’s readiness for that message. Qualified readers, other writers, and developmental editors worth their salt can and do prevent many writers from falling on their faces.

The point is, every Higher Purpose Writer needs to be clear on this: Writing is the solitary part. The rest of the journey is teamwork.

Construct your team to succeed.

The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.  – T. S. Eliot

For the higher purpose,

m

Designing the Read

Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Anne Lamott

 

When you set out to write, you’re designing the read for a certain type of reader – you.

So the question is, FullSizeRender_2What inspires you? 

As I mentioned last week, powerful writing comes from powerful editing. So when you edit and when you’re writing your first draft, you’ve got to continually think about what fires you up about this story. How is the theme, the big idea, the message, involving and providing what you want to read?

The thoughts and feelings of your main character and the story itself arise from that. That’s where the deepest drama comes from.

This is why I recommend considering your favorite books and how the author captured that essential empathy and connected to your own hopes and desires. Think about and decide specifically what you love and why. Likely, you share some similar passions with your favorite authors you can cultivate and develop.

What is it exactly? Certainly, it involves the words and phrasing–the elemental writer’s passion. But beyond that, what in the subject, the observations, the dialogue and relationships shows the author’s mind at work, their heart for this story? Think of the book as a well-tended garden and consider the care invested in it.

That’s what your applied passion will produce if you just keep at it.

FullSizeRenderRemember, your reader wants to figure out not just the external puzzles and mysteries, but the interior ones as well—the insights and connections, the hidden distinctions and revelations. Those are the uniquely suited plants a writer chooses and waters. And then, as they flourish, decisions come about which elements to bring forward and which to prune into subtler background. Your preferences matter most and your vision needs to be strong to shape the effect you want to have. But what readers need, that’s the writer’s job to consider too, no matter what kind of book you’re writing. And that’s where good editing considers all the elements and designs the best possible experience.

The beauty of a well-designed garden is obvious. But how exactly the gardener made their decisions, what went into each plant and how much pruning was involved? Most people won’t care. But you will. Because you’ve felt the swell in your spirit at knowing someone took the time to care that much. And it inspired you to care as well.

Repeat it until it’s second-nature: the drama and impact of the read comes from what you write and what you don’t. Ponder on that for several mornings as you sit down to write: it’s what you’re bringing and what you’re taking away that makes the garden beautiful. Consider your favorite books and how you yourself are thrilled when you read a story that allows you to fill in and imagine what the author suggested. That’s what good writing does. And if you’re writing a first draft, just tell the story to yourself and don’t worry about designing it yet. This shaping work creates the magic from the editing process, where you think about creating a stronger experience by augmenting the essential, and eliminating all else. But in writing, often you have to over-plant and then edit for economy and efficiency.

Focus on the 2 of 3 rule when you write, and think what readers need in each chapter/scene/section: 1) reveal character, 2) advance plot, and/or 3) describe setting. Ideally, have 2 of those 3 happening at any given spot and you’ll have a lush garden.

FullSizeRender_1Then, once the first draft is done, read aloud with someone and address any obvious weaknesses as you work to strengthen the experience — heighten the central desire, deepen the opposition, raise the stakes, convey the plight. Show what your character is seeing and feeling through description of the setting, reduce extra detail, digressions, and places where the story stops moving forward. Show us the characters’ feelings about her situation and the people in her life. Use your outline to consider what each chapter experience is—happy, sad, anger, fear, or surprise. And refer to the feel wheel often.

And where does your motivation for all of this work come from? From the chance to do something very few people get to do for perfect strangers: offer hope.

What brings that hope, what saves someone desperate to live, is a story—your story. That’s why you’ve got to believe in that power.

You don’t need to know whether the story is timely, fitting, competitive, or even desirable. You only need to believe in the power of your story to save.

You can do this if you’ll choose to ignore the distractions and lesser gardens around you. You can speak the truth of your experience clearly and powerfully so that anyone attuned to hear it will feel in their heart it’s their own story being expressed.

For as Buechner said, “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

Free your reader, my friend. Concentrate on that concentrated passion….

For the higher purpose,

Mick