Writer's Digest presents an excerpt from my webinar for them, 'Three Secrets of the Greats: Structure Your Story for Ultimate Reader Addiction.'
Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers, interviews me about storytelling, writing, independent editing, and the difference between literary fiction and genre, with an impromptu exercise on her own Work-in-Progress.
Editing client Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Seller Body of Water, talks about our work together on Memory of Water, the second novel of his Water trilogy.
Dear Victoria, I came across your lovely website while googling the difference between copy-editing and line-editing. I was a news sub-editor for a year and worked for six years as a quality assurance proofreader of technical documents. I’ve also worked in Asia, bringing ESL texts up to English native speaker standard. Recently I’ve been helping some self-publishing writers with a bit of basic copy editing and proofreading using New Hart’s Rules. I have also signed up for the SFEP’s Introduction to Fiction Editing course. I recognise that news editing, technical proofreading and ESL editing are all very different and unrelated to fiction editing! I would like to move into line editing as a freelancer. I understand that without experience this will be very difficult. Do you have any advice? Claire George
Yes, I do! I can sum it up in two words: endless study.
I also began my career as a journalist, with many years as the editor-in-chief of the smallest periodicals in the Pacific Northwest. Journalism is terrific training for conciseness:
Use only the words you absolutely need and no more.
I worked for a very long time in technical documentation in Silicon Valley, as well. Tech docs is terrific training for clarity:
The reader must understand what you’re saying effortlessly and intuitively, or they’ll walk away.
And I’ve studied English communication through translating Asian tech docs and my background in Spanish. ESL is terrific training for comprehension:
Take full advantage of the reader’s preconceptions and natural understanding of their native language wherever you possibly can.
Finally, yeah, I’m a published poet. Poetry is terrific training in subtext:
What you don’t say is more powerful than what you do.
Now, Hart’s Rules apply only to British English, and the SfEP Introduction to Fiction Editing is a copy-editing course only, which does not teach line-editing. Proofreading is a non-issue—that can be done by anybody, and most of the professional Editors I know are terrible at it (including me, although I worked for many years as a typesetter, in which it could be argued that my one responsibility was proofreading).
So what you’re studying right now is copy-editing, specifically copy-editing as it applies to British English.
You will probably not learn line-editing anywhere except from an experienced long-time professional Line Editor. (Not short-time! Most short-time Editors have never been taught proper line-editing.) College and university English Departments can teach you how to dissect a phrase or sentence or paragraph to understand the power of language. And poetry classes can teach you the importance of word choice, rhythm, and subtext. But I don’t know anyone reputable teaching courses in prose line-editing. And I definitely wouldn’t trust anyone I didn’t know—it’s far too easy these days for someone who doesn’t even realize that language techniques exist to set themself up online as an ‘expert’ and start taking money under false pretenses.
I taught myself line-editing over the course of several decades through an exhaustive study of hundreds of novels and stories and poems, a massive project involving meticulous word-by-word analyses of thousands of samples. I discovered for myself what the best techniques are and where and when and how and why they work. (Notice the basic tenets of journalism!) Today I know a ton of ways to make prose powerful, elegant, and transparent.
Line-editing is a fabulous craft that deals directly with the reader’s subconscious. It allows fiction to by-pass the consciousness to create visceral responses to brilliant language. And it is one of my greatest joys.
But it is also a dying craft.
So if you truly love language deeply enough to make it your life’s work, then definitely: embark upon your endless study of it! Help us save this craft and, with it, a full half of all the magic of fiction!
In the meantime, I would finish the SfEP Introduction to Fiction Editing course and then begin building your professional reputation as the best Copy Editor in the world.
Make this your life’s work.
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I regularly receive requests from high school and college students asking how to become a freelance independent editor. So here is our interview for this week:
1. What education do you recommend? I have done some research and found that an editor often has a B.A. in English or Literature or even a Graduate degree. Did you do anything to gain experience before become a full editor? Did you become an editor right after you got out of college? Is the field of editing competitive?
Definitely, get your education. As you so accurately point out: your competition will.
I earned my BA in English after many years as a professional journalist. Then I worked as a tech writer and editor in the computer industry for many more years, while studying fiction nights and weekends. Only then did I feel qualified to advertise myself as an independent editor. The work I do is very complex and in-depth. I didn’t learn it in college. I make this my life’s study.
The field of editing is crammed right now full of people advertising themselves as editors who are not actually qualified to edit. So that’s a hugely competitive pool of shysters taking money from innocent writers for nothing—or, worse, for damaging manuscripts. Whatever you do, don’t get your reputation entangled with theirs.
Many of us who are highly-qualified know each other personally, so we don’t compete. We help each other out and sometimes refer to each other potential clients. (I have referred to others probably a dozen writers in the last couple of months.) We mightily enjoy our editor-talk. . .whenever we get the chance!
2. Many websites say that having a love for books makes editing easier. Would you say that you have this love, and does it help you? Would you say that you specialize in a certain genre?
There’s no point in doing this work if you don’t love books. Don’t waste your life on something you don’t love. If you love something else, go do that instead. If you can’t make a very good living at it, don’t worry. We don’t make much of a living at editing either.
We do it because we love it. Yes, a thousand times yes, I love books. That love is my reason for doing this.
I specialize in the mystery genre, but I work in almost all genres: thriller, love story, sci-fi, fantasy. I do not work in category romance or with gratuitous violence. I have just recently begun specializing in the fabulous genre of ghost stories.
3. What do you look for in a manuscript, and how long does take you to edit a manuscript? How many manuscripts do you turn down in comparison to the manuscripts you keep? Do you ever find that it is hard to turn down a manuscript? Do you ever recommend that an author has their manuscript looked over by another editor before it is published, just to be sure?
I look for a fresh idea, great qualifications in the story background, and a writer with guts, commitment, and good humor. The length of time for an edit depends upon the type of edit requested and how many days a week a writer wants to reserve, how fast they want to work. A full Copy, Line, and Developmental Edit takes (minimum) @120 hours.
I can only accept a fraction of the manuscripts with which I am queried. I take on every job I love, so I’m fortunate that if it’s hard to turn down I don’t turn it down.
I do not send writers on to other editors after me. I know some editors who do. However, I believe that a writer should be able to get from me everything they need. It doesn’t seem fair to take a writer’s money and then tell them to spend even more on someone else.
4. How would you describe your relationship with the authors you edit for? What would you say your favorite part and least favorite part of editing are? Would you say that you enjoy editing?
I LOVE my writers! I absolutely love them. Because I work only on projects that I love, I get to work only with writers I love—we have a wonderful time, become friends, and bond over our shared passion for each of these stories that mean so much to them. Then they bring me further manuscripts, and we work together throughout the years.
Absolutely, my writers are my favorite part of my job. Their imaginations, creativity, and dedication to this fabulous craft are my constant joy. My least favorite part is dealing with the tide of misinformation currently flooding the Internet and the horror stories of writers who have paid fake ‘editors’ and been burned. That’s always rough.
I love editing. I love the art and craft of storytelling. I love working with wonderful writers to develop their ideas and expertise into gripping, polished books that their readers will love as much as I do. I love the written word: beautiful description, significant details, brilliant dialog, unexpected-but-perfect action, the rare profound touch of exposition. I also love the grammatical eccentricities of the English language, my favorite punctuation, and the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th Through 18th Centuries.
The bottom line? I love it all. My writers and their writing mean everything to me.
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10 Ways to Become a Better Writer in 10 Days: “We can feel free to throw in gratuitous imaginary details, so long as they’re neutral and not meant to sway the reader toward positive or negative interpretations. If we feel the urge to sway the reader, we’ll use a detail bent in the opposite direction from where we want it bent.”—Why wouldn’t you put in a detail that elicits a positive (or negative) interpretation if you want to sway the reader that way? And why would the detail be bent in the opposite direction?
This is about learning authorial control.
Too often, we just put down on the page whatever falls out of us in the moment. When we’re riding along on the surface of the story like that, we’ll very likely to put down cliches, because those are what occur to us first.
So we use this exercise to build the habit of drilling down past the surface cliche stuff into surprising details that will make our scenes unique.
Tension: “We don’t bother with transitions.”—Are you applying this to first drafts, when it’s all coming out of our right brains? Because I’ve been told that I have weak transitions.
Yes. Skip right over the boring bits. Go straight to the exciting scenes. The reader does.
Isn’t SOME exposition necessary? I try to tell as much as possible in dialogue, but don’t want it to read like a play. Isn’t exposition part of a scene?
This is a very, very common misconception. I can’t even tell you how many industry professionals routinely parrot this belief without doing their research.
NO exposition is necessary.
The reader doesn’t want to be ‘told’ about the story. They want to be ‘shown’ the story itself. They don’t want to waste their time on extra stuff. They just want to see characters speaking and acting in their environment.
So the more you stick to your characters speaking and moving in their environment and leave the reader to do the thinking, the better the reader will love you.
Now, exposition can be done beautifully. Most of our canonical greats are famous for it. I post their quotes on Twitter. And we do generally wind up using some exposition, just because none of us is ever as disciplined as we ought to be. But exposition is so incredibly difficult to make worthwhile—and so incredibly easy to screw up—that I always advise writers to work as hard as possible to discipline themselves to do without it.
What’s that one word Henry James uses to show his perfect authorial control?
“Stopped.” It’s the final word of “The Turn of the Screw.”
5 Ways to Make Our Novels Unforgettable: “The reader is not moved to weep when we get all blue inside.”—You know that saying ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’?
Yes, I do. Another very, very common misconception.
And the only way for it to make any sense at all is to simply ignore the myriad fabulous techniques of fiction that have been discovered and developed over the past 150 years.
I’m afraid this is the kind of thing that happens when your industry becomes inundated with people who don’t even know that techniques exist.
I realize they’re not going to cry at everything in the story that makes us cry, or be entertained as we laugh hysterically (love that line—I laughed at it!) but since our purpose is to evoke emotion, don’t we want to make them laugh and cry at the things we want them to?
Yes, we do. That’s why we have fiction techniques. And that’s why we practice our perfect authorial control.
For example: when I taught at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, one of the things I was asked about was humor.
How do you do it?
I told them that I could teach them the techniques of humor, but I could not give them a good sense of humor.
This got a laugh.
Because I used the technique that I was about to teach. Humor is exactly the same as a story: build the reader’s expectations, then end on a punchline that is both surprising and yet—in the context of the expectations you’ve just built—inevitable.
I didn’t need to laugh in order for them to laugh. I already knew the punchline was coming.
Then I told them the old Groucho Marx joke: “Outside of a dog, a book is your very best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
Groucho didn’t need to laugh either. He also knew his punchline was coming.
2) My other question is about P. 270, (I have your book open in front of me). About midway down, “What do you suppose happened here?” Then we’ll ask “And how could these needs have led somewhere else?” “How could my char have responded to their problems differently, given their fundamental driving forces?” “…a possibility, some way for them to wriggle out of their nightmare right before it happens. We’ll avoid thinking about the original solution to their dilemma. If we can’t avoid it, we’ll think about its opposite. Pose the question as if for the first time ever. . .And what if something else happened instead?” What I’m not clear on is, the story’s been outlined and plotted, we know our protag inside out and what’s driving her. So why add a something else? Wouldn’t that be another story altogether? I thought they acted according to who they are and that drives the plot. Why would she respond differently, after we’ve fleshed her out and know how she’s been driving the plot? If something else happened instead, that’s another plot, another story. Or is what you’re saying is to make that something else an even bigger complication?—Diana Rubino
This is a very good question, Diana.
Writers often bring me manuscripts for which they’ve developed plots according to advice and then been dismayed to discover that the Climax did not turn out to be as powerful as they’d hoped. This is mistakenly attributed to the act of plotting rather than pantsing. I have heard it even from presenters at writers conferences: “Don’t plot. It sucks the juice out of your story.”
This is wrong. Plotting does not suck the juice out of your story. Plotting is the juice of your story.
However, because novels are enormously long and the writing of them enormously complicated, it is almost guaranteed that the writer will, at some point, lose the thread and wind up writing a Climax that is not the most powerful Climax for this protagonist in this particular story.
That’s why the gods invented revision.
So when we’ve finished our first draft, we go back into the design phase and ask ourselves, “How close did I get to the story I intended to tell?”
We don’t really know our protagonist inside and out until we’ve walked alongside them scene-by-scene, word-for-word, through their entire novel. Characters are so complex. Their needs are so huge. Their dilemmas are so overwhelming! And 70,000 words are a whole lot of words to get down on paper.
So it is only at the very end that we know our protagonist well enough to ask, “Did I capture you truthfully?”
This is why we must both know our plot beforehand and still leave room for our imaginations to evolve over the course of the writing—because it takes both halves of the brain to create a great novel.
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Dear Victoria: I have questions about two things in Art & Craft of Writing Stories. I’m going to meet with my longtime crit partner Bonnie on Saturday to toss around some ideas for my next book and wanted to talk about your book. We do that a lot; I bring a writing book I’ve just read and we try to figure it out. 🙂 Now I can tell her you answered my questions!—Diana Rubino
1) “The protagonist must have two needs that are mutually exclusive.” I’ve never heard that before, and find it very interesting. I’ve learned that the protag must have a need, a goal, and that has to be thwarted, over and over. Does having two needs give the story or the protag more depth? In saying she needs to have two goals or needs, is that an external one and an internal one? To parallel the ext. and int. conflicts?—Diana
You haven’t heard it before because I developed this idea myself, through my work with editing clients and study of fiction. 🙂
Exactly—it gives the story more depth, but more than that it gives the writer greater clarity about what they’re doing and therefore greater control over the story.
Very often I see manuscripts in which the writer has followed normal writing advice to give their protagonist a need and then thwart it, but they do this by imposing on the protagonist some outside force that simply makes the protagonist a victim. This creates weak storytelling and undermines the reader’s investment, because we’re not interested in reading about victims. We’re interested in reading about fighters. We need to know what to do when life knocks us down, and we can’t learn that from victims.
This is all internal. An external conflict can be associated with one need for contrast between the two needs—need for a difficult loved one, or a challenging job, or actual survival—but this has no power unless the protagonist is personally invested in both needs, deep down inside. (Otherwise, they’d just walk away.)
Power is derived by showing your protagonist as both a sufferer and a fighter. Root both extremes of their conflict in their own character. Each time the protagonist meets one need—the one that creates their suffering—they create the other need—the need to fight suffering.
This focus upon the internal allows you to show through myriad aspects exactly how our strengths become our weaknesses and our weaknesses our strengths. And this keeps the reader intrigued page after page throughout an entire novel, because the reader is learning that there is no enemy as great as ourselves, there is no success so powerful as triumph over our own failings. Paradox is the key to all epiphany.
As Bryan Ferry says, “When you love someone, you get to know how the strong get weak and the rich get poor.”
Hi Victoria—You have really good information on your website. After looking around, I have a question. What exactly are the differences between developmental editing and substantive editing? Jake
Thank you for your kind words, Jake! There’s a really good reason I don’t use the term ‘substantive’ in discussing editing: it is the most confusing term used by editors to describe the different types of work we do.
When an editor talk about ‘substantive editing’ they can mean anything from developmental editing—designing and structuring a story or book—to line editing—polishing the prose.
Some editors mean one or the other.
Some mean both.
Just about the only thing they all agree on is that substantive editing is not copy editing—making the prose conform to the grammar and punctuation rules of the reader’s native language (different, for instance, in the US and UK)—or proofreading—checking for typos.
So I use ‘developmental editing’ when I address the way a story or book is put together.
And I use ‘line editing’ when I address the language.
I don’t use ‘substantive editing’ at all.
‘Substantive’ means, really, an independent identity. I don’t honestly know how that word got tangled up with editing terminology throughout the eras in traditional publishing.
By ‘substantive’ editors mean ‘substantial,’ in which the editor makes substantial changes and alterations. Some editors confine themselves to discussing each individual issue with the writer. Others work with the writer to arrange the story or book in the way that will convey to the reader most clearly and powerfully the writer’s vision and then polish the resulting manuscript for professional language.
It depends entirely upon the editor’s own definition.
The British editor Diana Athill even confesses in her marvelous memoir Stet that she was not above adding jokes.
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I’m doing something a little different today. I was contacted by a high school student interested in becoming a freelance independent editor. She sent me a list of interview questions for a presentation she’s doing on careers, and with her permission I’m going to answer them here, for the benefit of all readers young and old:
1. When did you realize that you want to be an editor and how did it come to be?
I’ve been editing since I was in high school in the 1970s. I was recruited by my teacher out of her Creative Writing class and became editor of my school newspaper after, I think, the first quarter. I kept that job for the rest of my high school education. So I was taught to edit others’ copy pretty young and as a matter-of-course rather than because I went after the job.
It was a terrific education, and I still use it today.
2. Can you list a few obstacles that you have overcome during your career?
I became a freelance independent editor when the telecommuting industry in Silicon Valley collapsed in 2008 during the economic crash. I lost my job, my income, my entire career.
My husband encouraged me to start a blog on fiction, because I talked about nothing else. I gave myself a formal, very intensive education in the proper development of character and plot by analyzing hundreds of novels, studying every single night. I blogged about aspects of writing fiction that I didn’t see anyone else blogging about. (At this point, my most-viewed post has over 100,000 views.)
And I charged very low rates when I began freelance independent editing, always working longer hours than I billed.
Perhaps the hardest part is that I always spend a little time with potential new clients trading emails so they can get to know me a bit before they hire me. They’re human beings, and they deserve to be treated like humans. However, I’ve been burned once or twice by despairing writers whose morale I restored, who then changed their minds about hiring me as soon as they felt better, and they simply disappeared. My calendar is always packed, so that’s time wasted that I could have spent with my clients. I just have to write it off to paying it forward.
3. What is your greatest failure and how did you deal with it?
For many years, I was a technical writer and editor for computer companies in Silicon Valley. It was good money. . .but you have to like computer technology.
I had majored in Computer Science in college, intending to become an engineer. But after the third year, I lost control of myself—stopped doing homework, stopped studying for exams, just spent my days sneaking into my local used-book store to open books and smell the wonderful, dry smell of old literature. I barely got out of college with an English Degree, my three years of computer study three years down the drain (and three more years’ student loans to pay back).
I never loved working in the tech industry. I always complained. If I’d been able to reconcile myself to Silicon Valley, I’d be making a much better living today.
But my heart is in fiction.
4. Tell me about your proudest achievement.
I built myself a new career in fiction as a freelance independent editor at a time when industry insiders were still telling aspiring writers, “You don’t need to hire an editor.” Now I see literary agents telling aspiring writers, “If you’ve hired an editor, tell us in your query.” It’s been a heck of a climb.
I keep at it, in spite of the obstacles, because I believe that storytelling keeps us sane. I started this work for the love of it, and I continue for the love of it. I’ve put out a ton of my knowledge on my blog and advice column free to anyone who needs it. I’m proud of that. And now I have clients whose novels have gone on to win critical acclaim and even become bestsellers. (You can find them in my sidebar.) That is a source of great pride for me. I feel like their mother.
5. What interests you the most about editing?
The writers. I identify very strongly with them, you know. I was for decades an unknown aspiring writer, so stone-broke that I couldn’t afford classes or conferences, writing alone and on my own for much of that time because we didn’t yet have the Internet and the plethora of writing forums that we have today. For decades.
So I have a deep emotional investment in seeing my clients succeed at their dreams. These people become my friends. Their novels become my own projects. As the writers learn and expand and deepen their understanding of this art and craft, I feel enormous satisfaction in their progress.
I never tire of the wonder of this accomplishment.
6. What would you say is your average workload?
It varies quite a lot. Last year I worked fulltime, 40 hours a week, and still had more business than I could handle. In the years before that, I averaged around 25-30 hours a week. This year has been an odd one. My workload fluctuates wildly right now from month to month. The industry is changing—the freelance independent editing industry is changing.
7. Do you work independently or in a group?
I’m an independent. I always have been as a fiction editor. I have trained a junior editor to take on developmental editing jobs I don’t have time for, I love him, and he does a wonderful job. However, it’s my business.
What you see in my blog and books is what you get.
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Fanfiction. Yes, I write it. Harry Potter fanfiction, to be exact. I find it a great way to practice. I’ve heard so many arguments about copyright infringement, but honestly, I myself would be flattered. As long as others don’t sell my characters off as their own, I can see nothing wrong with it. It’s free publicity and probably brings in money for the writer. Even more than that, I love the idea that my work would be the inspiration that starts a whole new group on the path to become writers, that it could change them, that it could make them think so much and see so much in it. Isn’t that what we look for, after all?
So, my question to you is: what do you think about the controversy? I’m simply a eighteen-year-old girl about to graduate high school, yet you’re a published author with a successful writing blog. What are your thoughts, being on the other end?—Isabella
Congratulations, Isabella, on beginning your writing career young! It sounds as though you’re committed to your craft and very thoughtful about the current writing industry.
Copyright infringement is an entirely legal issue. Some things an author can legally copyright, and if they choose to do so then other writers break the law when they violate that copyright. This can lead to lawsuits, which the author holding the copyright will win.
Other things an author cannot legally copyright. These things must be trademarked if the author does not want to share them.
Copyright is designed to protect an author’s intellectual property: the effort they put into inventing characters, settings, fictional worlds. This effort is very hard work, and writing fiction traditionally pays so little that when an author has worked that hard on their material they often feel quite proprietary about their creative results.
I can sympathize. My colleague, Roz Morris, has compared copyright infringement to being tied up while your house is burgled.
However, is the publicity of fanfiction good for the original author? Does it promote that author’s income? Should authors take fanfiction as a compliment rather than a violation?
This is an individual decision for each author. None of us can make that decision for another.
Since the rise of the blogosphere and self-publishing, many professional writers have tackled the question of whether copyright contributes to or detracts from an author’s career. These people have created something called Creative Commons, which is a form of copyright that allows re-use of an author’s material so long as the author is credited as the creator.
So, for instance, if JK Rowling uses Creative Commons as her copyright, you could publish your Harry Potter fanfiction with the written caveat that it is based upon characters and situations created by JK Rowling. Unfortunately, I suspect that Rowling and her publisher do not use Creative Commons, which would preclude you from publishing fanfiction based upon her creations. (I’m afraid Rowling really doesn’t need any of us helping her publicize her work.)
Many other less-famous authors, though, do use Creative Commons. These are the authors you’ll want to seek out. The self-publishing industry is absolutely chock full of unknown authors who might very well be glad of any publicity they could get.
The key is respect for the author’s legal right to their own material.
If I were you, I’d search for self-published fiction copyrighted under Creative Commons and then contact the authors directly. Make friends with them. Compliment them on their terrific material. Show them that you understand the hard work they’ve put into creating their characters and fictional worlds and that you respect their right to own them. Chances are that you’ll very quickly acquire not only fresh material for your fanfiction but—more importantly—a network of writing friends interested in the same genres as you.
Then you can all move forward in promoting and publicizing each other’s work through your collective creativity. . .which is the ideal solution for everyone.
For years I have been writing, but looking back on what I have written I’ve come to realize I finish very little of what I start. I want to stop that and to finish a work. I feel a big part of this is not-plotting and, despite knowing what I want for the ending, never knowing how to bridge that gap between beginning and end. Whenever I try to plot, I end up either not following it or realizing halfway through that it is something the characters would not do. Is there any advice you can give me on how to plot properly? I have been reading several writer’s websites, but I can’t seem to find any concrete steps in how to properly plot—and finish—a novel. If you have any advice or can suggest any readings, I would greatly appreciate it. Sincerely, Annie H.
Yes, Annie, I can teach you how to plot properly. When you sometimes find yourself unable to follow a plot—when your characters simply will not do what you thought they would do—it’s because all good plotting grows out of character. So only when you entirely understand your characters and already know that they will do when their backs are against a wall can you begin plotting a story that will remain true to those characters.
However, because a novel is such a very long work of fiction, the in-depth details of plotting an entire book can be quite complex, especially when you take into account protagonist(s), genre, and your hoped-for readership.
I try to cover a wide variety of writing issues here on this advice column and my blog, although of course each novel is unique and requires its own unique details in the design. So please feel free to begin by browsing my website. There is years’ worth of information here. You can search for “plot” and “character” both here on my advice column and on my blog, and you should find useful advice.
I also have two books on writing, organized according to what I consider the three fundamentals of fiction: character, plot, and prose—The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual. My books are the cheapest avenue to learning the basics of what I know about plotting and character. I teach writing through the simplest concepts possible, as I worked for years in the tech sector writing simple explanations for complex computer concepts and procedures. And besides, my brain leans toward simple answers.
Additionally, if you’re a young writer, you may want to do a search for “young” here on my advice column, as I’ve addressed specifically the issue of writing a lot of fiction without finishing it—I like to consider that work “committing random acts of literature.”
“The freshest and
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—Helen Gallagher, Seattle P-I
Your remarks on Twitter seem to say that you love editing as much, if not more, than writing. What is it about editing that you like? For me, the alarming part about working with an editor is that my judgement as to too much sex, too much violence, too much exposition is something I’m having difficulty with. When an editor told me that a character would not act “that way” in the real world it gave me great pause. In my mind the actions of characters are based on my real life experiences, and I find that some people do act “that way.” Feminism, religion and sexual orientation are all issues I’ve discussed in editing. But I seem to be on a railroad of editors until I find the conductor that fits me.—John Johnson
I do indeed love editing. I also love writing. And I love reading wonderful stories. Fiction and storytelling make up my entire professional and leisure worlds.
Your experience of being on “a railroad of editors” is not at all uncommon these days. I hear of this problem frequently from new clients. This is because far too many of those marketing themselves now as ‘editors’ are not editors. They are peer critiquers who have been on forums for years and see the decline of editing in publishing houses and corresponding rise of independent editing as a lucrative cash cow.
This is why I always caution aspiring writers to do their due diligence in selecting an editor. I do expect anybody who charges aspiring writers for editing to have the experience cited and to be able to prove it through their blog and books.
In addition to a broad and deep knowledge of storytelling through the written word, an editor must be able to represent to the aspiring writer the reader’s sensitivity to taboo material, such as sex and violence. This is one area in which the writer must fictionalize real life in order to communicate it to the reader properly, taking into account the reader’s preconceived sensitivity to taboo material.
Exposition is almost always summary of story better shown through scenes. Unless exposition is, in fact, essential ‘exposure’ or illumination of subtext, it should be cut or transformed into scenes. This is the basis of Henry James’ injunction: “Show, don’t tell.”
And an editor must also be able to represent to the aspiring writer the perspective of the average reader in their target market.
Feminism is definitely a part of modern Western society—sexism, like so many other prejudices, is a cultural dinosaur, and equality between the genders something that readers know to be perfectly normal. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? Outside of Christian fiction, the average American reader is not looking for religious bias—they expect their religious beliefs to be treated as their own business. Likewise, the average American reader has a fairly balanced perception of homosexuality and heterosexuality in our modern society. The old hysterical bigotry against anything but stereotypical love between adults has thankfully vanished, along with widespread illiteracy and belief in ghosts.
Proper editing is never about the editor’s personal preferences. This is the underlying principle of our work. It is always about the editor’s ability to guide the aspiring writer in communicating a story to the reader effortlessly, through the myriad techniques of our art and craft.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .
ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .
TERISA GREEN, represented by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .
GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans' fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .
LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star, which agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .
JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff's abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.