Category Archives: On publishing

How to Know When You Need an Editor

“Please turn to page 127,” she said.

The word “I” had been circled every time it appeared on the page.

“How many circles are there?” she asked.

I counted fourteen. The page nearly jumped and jostled with circled I’s. But I was not sure what to make of this. Every time I’d written “I,” I meant “I.” Was it wrong to mean “I” so much? Or did the problem have to do with the word itself? Ought I find a synonym–is there a synonym?–for “I?” But no, I suspected the problem ran deeper.

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

 

Deliberate is a good word.

As adjective, it means purposeful, the opposite of careless: careful.

As verb, it means to engage in careful consideration.

Deliberate, de-liberate, is to remove carelessness. It’s a good word for clarifying why editors are so feared and often untrusted. Their work is frustrating. Writers need them, sure, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dread their constraining, de-liberating work.

After all, the editor’s job is to constrain the writer, to bind her wandering words to her intended meaning. You recognize the implication here? The blinding light of inescapable judgment? Like a reckoning?

To the extent you’ve found liberation in writing, an editor de-liberates, evaluates, measures, balances, and masters it. Like a dog.

Famous editor Sol Stein talks about writers getting out of the way of their work, the way Fitzgerald said his editor Max Perkins helped him do. All the throat-clearing distraction and unprofessional insertion and interpretations an author tends to give, the explaining and artful hiding they do, it’s not needed, so editors are helpful, if annoying, sort of house elves.

But honestly, professional editing is not required for any author anymore. Only those entering the traditional industry of royalty-paying publishers. It’s only necessary for reaching a broader audience than the author can reach on their own, if that’s what they want. This painful sacrificing of your way–the unconsidered way–for the better way, it requires an uncomfortable humility, a submitting.

And if you’re gonna do it, that’s not optional.

When I was a self-conscious writer just starting out as an evil editor, I used to try and make a case for editing, try to argue for the professional painful poking and proding of editing. But after so many years, I’ve given up. I’m tired of convincing. I finally decided professionally edited books speak for themselves.

But how can you know when you need an editor? Is there a best time to seek editing?

I think, yes. At least, when you’re a beginner, an editor can help right away–although I wouldn’t recommend hiring an expensive one until you’ve got some experience writing and being critiqued by strong readers. Learn from their books, classes, videos, posts, and articles. Find one or a few you like in your genre and enjoy that learning stage. You can gain so much online these days it’s not even funny.

When you first seek out an editor, you’ll need help with structure, theme, and deeper issues than style and craft. Most editors are better writers than you, but it’s because they know how to set up a story, create context, and identify the underlying promise with tangible examples and sensory detail. Their word choices, clarity, efficiency, and sentences are all secondary to satisfying storytelling.

For example, many writers begin by frontloading their story with backstory. We need to care about our primary character first, so polishing the flashback scene doesn’t help. It needs to be moved to later in the book. In nonfiction, the big problem or context for the promise you’re offering readers hasn’t been sufficiently developed. Developmental editing (substantive editing, or content editing) ensures the book feels weighty and important at the outset.

That’s the kind of thing you’ll get once you’ve written the book, so it’s best to simply write and not worry about wasting time and effort. It’s often more easily solvable once you’ve completed the journey.

But if anxiety about having to edit later is derailing you from writing, or if you’ve gotten some strong pushback from readers about fundamental elements–character, plot, setting, theme–an evaluation or consult with an editor may be a good idea.

Coaching is for writers who need deep encouragement to face their dragons and go into that cave they fear. It’s one thing to know it holds the treasure and you just have to do it, but it can be quite another to keep showing up day after day and struggling to explain why you’re doing this to yourself. But specific editing comments during writing are minor and mainly for reassurance.

The best time to hire an editor in my opinion is after you’ve completed two full drafts and had 2 or 3 trusted readers offer detailed feedback. Building that community is essential and prepares you for professional feedback. Then when major revision or minor recreating is recommended, you’ll have some idea of why and how to do it.

Everyone is different, so you need to consider your personal situation and experience level. If you’re a freshman, senior level classes are going to be hard to apply–and vice versa. What you read and how much you pick up from it are very important factors. If you’re in the writing process, enjoy that and if/when you get stuck, consider a consult if no trusted friends can advise.

While editing is about far more than fixing errors, identifying issues that require some revision is not as painful, horrendous, mortifying, life-altering as most authors tend to think. Take heart, warrior. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last to survive a rewrite.

You’ll be assessed, you’ll be shaped, and you’ll grow. All good things come in good time. Don’t short-circuit the supercharging work your inspirer’s intended to challenge, spur, and revise you. 

I looked at my manuscript in my suitcase, thought about all those beautiful, hilarious, poignant people I had been working with for almost three years, and all of a sudden I was in a rage. I called my editor at home. He was not planning on going to work that day. He was a little depressed, too. “I am coming over,” I said, and there was a silence, and then he said, very tentatively, “Okay,” like he wanted to ask, “And will you be bringing your knives?” 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

 

It’s all, always been, for a higher purpose,

Mick

Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Don’t Want to, Teach.

Writing a book is hard work.

Everyone knows that. But what most people don’t realize is that it’s also a skill.

And if that’s true, it can be learned.

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That’s why I love teaching my story course. You have to admit, the fact that it’s so easy to email a lesson, show how to apply it, and then evaluate what someone sends back, is pretty cool. What other artistic talent can be so easily developed? We live in a great time.

Of course, writing well isn’t easy or everyone would be doing it. But I believe everyone should be doing it because we all have a story and it matters to tell it in the most compelling and truth-honoring way. It’s not as hard as performing a symphony from memory or painting a Vermeer or even being on So You Think You Can Dance? And if success isn’t some unrealistic American Idol pipe-dream but writing a book you can be proud of, a book you can hand people and know it’s what you wanted to say, anyone can learn to do that.

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But just like any challenge worth taking, the best part is what you learn about yourself while building your writing muscles, so to speak.

I’ve been editing books and speaking at conferences for a while, but I’m not a star. I haven’t published my magnum opus. I’m not interested in being a celebrity or getting on the publishing treadmill. Mainly because I don’t relish the end game–I don’t enjoy writing to a deadline or doing it for money or touring or speaking to big groups of people. And I figure until I’m not a young dad anymore, I’d just as soon use my training to train and edit others’ work.  That’s just me.

Maybe I’m fooling myself and I couldn’t hack it. It’s completely possible. Maybe I’m running away from my calling or telling God no, like Jonah. Maybe I’m scared. I’m sure it looks like it to many people.

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I’ve never enjoyed attention, actually. When the people I love are happy and interested in me, I love it like anyone does. But I’m a big introvert and always have been. And being the center of any attention feels like death. I’d rather jump out of an airplane or try wrestling a black bear. And with any luck, I’ll never have to feel that pressure.

The path for any Christian author is fraught with difficulty. Writing the book and editing it. That’s the easy part. If you do it well, you can expect to have to continually reject the accolades, esteem and status people try to thrust at you, similar to how Christians do it to pastors and other Christian celebrities. It’s a verifiable fact. I can’t manage my anger and disappointment about that yet. So I’m staying out.

That’s more than you needed to know, I’m sure. But when the question about publishing was posed by someone last week, I had to wonder if my slowness on my novel is related to my loathing of the possibility of public scrutiny. I’ve considered it before, but I have to reluctantly acknowledge that’s been a factor. I do fear success, almost as much as I fear failure. And with all I’ve written about facing fear and overcoming it in the power of trusting God and knowing his love, this is humbling. (Seriously, I’ve been blogging since 2004. It’s a lot.)

But I don’t deny that I can write. And I don’t hesitate to teach it every chance I get. And if there’s a way out of fear, I know it’s no single solution but a collection of God-honoring strategies–prayer, writing and facing fear in community being chief among them. Fact is, I see writing as prayer, and both are life-giving and affirming. And I’ve seen amazing progress in this journey already, so I’m keeping on until God says I’m free and clear to publish. (and technically, I am published.)

But until then, I’ll continue enjoying where I am, smelling the flowers and looking for more brave souls ready to face the truth about themselves and shine a light for others to see their own stories a little better…

If you’re on the fence about committing to your story, I hope you’ll jump with me. The Story Course starts May 1.

Link: Top Myths about Editors

Writers I meet at conferences have a lot of great questions about editing. Most of us know we need help but don’t know where to start.

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I don’t have any money; why are editors so expensive?

Do you really need a content editor and a copyeditor?

Can you just hire an editor to fix your mistakes?

Here’s a really great post clearing up some common myths about editors. I’d have titled this: How to Stand Out

Come back and tell me your thoughts here!

Is Christian Art Useless?

Fellow Christian writers and artists, do you consider this a challenge?

“Christian art is a knock-off.”

Maybe? Maybe it depends on what we consider Christian art.

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How do we define Christian art? Are the rules different than for regular art? Probably they are, and that’s fair since “Christian” should involve some specific differences about what’s artistic and what’s not.

So what does “Christian art” mean?

Is it art when it portrays some aspect of the glory of God? And are the qualities of the work less important, more important, or as important as the content, the message? Are the specific qualities merely the wrapping paper for the gift inside? Or is the packaging of the message the more important part?

Should “Christian art” mean what pleases God rather than what pleases man? Should it entertain or only be serious? Should it seek to convert its viewers by providing an alternative to unwholesome art? Should it be less interested in depicting the real world and more interested in what is pure, true, good, et cetera? Should it provide specific takeaways?

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And does this really matter? After 4 decades in the Christian subculture, I can finally say I don’t have the faintest clue. I stopped being able to judge Christian art somewhere around age 30. I can probably make a pretty fair argument for both sides, from “everything has to literally spell out the gospel in order to be Christian art” to “only organically Christian art is truly a witness.”

But the recent “film debate” between Fifty Shades of Gray and the Christian alternative “Old Fashioned” revived some of the unanswerable questions.

“This is the irony of the Christian film industry: movies that appeal mostly to Christians are marketed as if capable of bringing sinners to repentance.”

Is that true? Is Old Fashioned art for Christians? And is it really incapable of reaching beyond that? Why? And who really knows?

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And should we really spend time debating this?

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Every Christian industry–film, music, books and all those giftable products–exists for Christians. The art they sell is for people who want a message and aren’t as interested (though they still are) in the wrapping. Should we debate whether the message of Christian art is getting seen by regular folk?

Or should we be making art?

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My opinion? We should be making art. If the appeal of “50 Shades” proves anything, it’s that the wrapping of the message matters–a lot. Maybe more than the message, in many ways. (As Marshall McLuhan said back in 1964). So if you’re a Christian inclined to making beautiful art, you should probably spend more time working on making the package work, and not worrying so much whether the message is clear.

But my point is, whether Christian art is or isn’t largely miserable, useless and derivative, who cares? What if instead of debating we just got to work and focused more on making art than the distractions of others’ opinions?

Maybe that would be a more productive use of our gifts and time?

I’m reminding myself here. And now leaving to write.

Feeling better already…

Confronting Harper Lee’s Monster

It came across our Facebook feeds yesterday:

Harper Lee is releasing a new book!

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It had already been announced and discussed and when I told my wife, she said what we all thought, “Isn’t she dead?”

Almost immediately there were suspicions about it all over the feeds. News and opinions went back and forth without much substance to go on. Was she being coerced or manipulated? Who had actually talked to her about it?

But behind the speculation, some of us sensed a monster lurking, a question we can’t quite answer: are we doing what’s right here?

This wasn’t just about what a beloved author really wanted. It was about what the Internet and media (social and otherwise) is doing to our world. Knowingly or not, Nelle Harper Lee has started a conversation again over the central issue her debut speaks to most presciently: the hopelessness in today’s world of doing what’s right.

Whether it’s the conversation about our country’s Internet and media addiction that none of us want to have, or the one about reparations and systemic injustice, there are winners and losers in this country. And we all have to face how deeply unfair so much of what we call “fair” is just not.

The story of a famously private author finally deciding to release another book is some of the best news fodder we Chatty Cathys could hope for. Think of the traffic being generated! But whatever else it’s about, the story is also a warning, a reckoning, that we could be killing a mockingbird here. If someone is lying or manipulating this living national treasure, they’ll most certainly be published, er, punished.  Ahem.

For all our hopes of another novel, shouldn’t we be asking, Should we just leave her alone?movie

Then there’s the fact that this couldn’t be more fitting to the point of her novel: no question Bob Ewell and his kind of prejudice are evil and wrong, and so is the jury for believing him. But we all know there’s another monster on the loose that we’re not talking about, a deep evil, possibly the greatest of all–a bully with an insatiable hunger for more.

More news. More information. More of the juicy story. More amazing books. And even if you weren’t as excited as I was to hear about this new book, we’re all in danger of becoming sick-drunk with this thirst for more.

Maybe she realizes there are still many innocents who need protecting and maybe her novel can help. Or maybe she still sees herself as Boo Radley as she has said.

Are we taking advantage of her? Remember, even Atticus was ready to force Boo and his own son to face public “justice” for the murder of Bob Ewell, spinning it as positively as he could.

It took the hardened lawman, Heck Tate, to talk sense into him and show him his misplaced faith in people to do what’s right.

This news story and To Kill a Mockingbird have everything to do with how we view right and wrong and our responsibility to seek true justice. Make no mistake, the point here is just like in the novel–doing the right thing may be hopeless, but it’s still worth doing all you can. We must consider the consequences of our snap judgments, and remember that in our modern rush to consume information, we can so easily become ravenous “More Monsters.”

I believe deep down, we all know we’re a mix of great good and deep evil. And because of that evil, Boo Radley wouldn’t really be left alone. Not in the real world.

Wouldn’t we all kill a mockingbird if we had a chance to own her song? As good as he wanted to be, not even Atticus, for all his good intentions, could see that without help.

2Q==To be sure, Go Set a Watchman is a very promising title. Should it happen to be about coming to terms with our tendency to go after those who need our protection, it could inspire discussion again about the importance of limiting ourselves to preserve something good and pure in the world. Maybe it will be about respect and facing our prejudices and dealing with the misguided bullies in our hearts.

We can only hope. And maybe if Nelle’s new-old vision from a grown-up Scout Finch does ignite that vital conversation again, she’ll forgive us for needing the reminder?