Genius: The Relationship Between Editor and Writer

by Monica Shaughnessy

red-pen-1422017The movie Genius, starring Jude Law and Colin Firth, is catching buzz in writerly circles. It’s the story of famed editor, Max Perkins, and his protege, Thomas Wolfe. Okay, so the reviews aren’t great. Ironically, one reviewer said the movie was overly long and could’ve used an editor’s red pen itself. 🙂 But that’s not going to stop me from seeing it, and here’s why…

A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that a literary biopic “usually describes sensationalistic yarns that cover every aspect of an author’s personal life — his or her sexual hangups, drug addiction, legal and economic woes — but hardly ever his actual job, writing.” This movie breaks that mold, and I find this refreshing – poor reviews or not.

You see, writing IS a job. It’s not a silly daydream or a gift from Heaven or the residue of angel wings or even what’s at the bottom of a whisky bottle. It’s thinking. It’s showing up and putting your rear in the seat. It’s planning. It’s debating, sometimes with yourself, sometimes with your characters. And it’s hard work. A lot of people who don’t write (and a few who dabble) think it’s purely art. If only that were true. So a movie that focuses on the actual job of writing, a movie that lifts the curtain and shows the struggle and heartache and emotion and finesse that goes into spinning words into prosaic gold needs, in my mind, a round of applause.

But that’s only half the story, isn’t it?

Genius asks the thought-provoking question: Would Thomas Wolfe have become an American Icon without the help of his editor? Likely not.

Enter one Max Perkins. The man was no ordinary editor, though. He worked with both Fitzgerald and Hemingway (my idols). Standing toe-to-toe with literary giants is, I imagine, no easy feat. To do so, one has to possess gifts of equal or greater value. Before anyone calls me out and says, “Hey, if that Perkins guy was such a genius, why didn’t I read his book in high school English?” Well…because editing is a completely different skill.

A reporter for the Houston Chronicle writes, “Of all the creative gifts, the ability to edit — that is, to edit text — is the least heralded and the least understood.
Most people have never been edited, and those who benefit from it most tend to forget that the editing ever happened. But the ability to see a shape within a mess, to recognize a structure before it’s in place, to understand on a first read what is there that doesn’t belong and what belongs that isn’t there — this is no casual talent.”

Disclaimer: I am a developmental editor.

Am I biased? Heck, yeah. Nonetheless, the Chronicle reporter hits the nail on the head. An editor’s job (at least a developmental editor’s job) is to see inside a story and interpret what the writer meant to say. Once that’s done, the editor must gently shepherd the writer toward the stronger version of their story, a version the writer must actually agree is stronger. Now if you’ve never been edited before, you might be thinking, “The only version of my story I’m interested in is mine! I won’t have someone telling me how to write!”  To that I say, keep calm and carry on. If an agent accepts your manuscript, you’ll be edited then. If they sell it to a publishing house, it will be edited a second or third time. And if you go straight to self-publishing, readers themselves will tell you how you should’ve edited it. Rarely does a book succeed without input.

If you’re a reader, I encourage you to marvel at the unseen hand of an editor the next time you consume a flawlessly executed book. If you’re a writer just starting out, considering hiring an editor to take your prose and plot to the next level. It’s an eye-opening experience.

Am I a genius? Nah. I’ll leave that to Max Perkins.

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Have a Piece of Chocolate and Move On

By Ellen Leventhal
rejection

I know I’ve written about rejection before. But see, that’s the thing. It’s not something you think about once, get over, and move on to a field of daisies and puppies to write happily ever after.  Yes, after a rejection, eat chocolate, have some wine, and move on.  Definitely move on. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking that once you move on, you’ll never get that punch in the gut feeling again.

For traditionally published authors, and those attempting to be one, the rejection letter is sometimes a literary form of “It’s not you, it’s me.” It usually reads something like this: “Although you have a wonderful way of telling a story, it’s just not right for our list. We hope your manuscript finds a home.”  (That always makes me think of hundreds of poor manuscripts huddled together under a street light; homeless and cold.) Sometimes that’s true. Different agents and editors are looking for different things. And sometimes it’s timing. I once got a beautiful rejection telling me that they liked my writing, but they just published a book with a very similar theme, and they are a small press….blah, blah, blah. You know, it’s not you, it’s us. But then there are also the ones that pretty much tell you that you are a fool to have submitted because your work is way below their standards, and you might as well throw your computer away because you are a hopeless hack. OK, I may have overreacted and read that into my last rejection, but you get the idea.

So how about if you indie publish? No rejections? Right and wrong.  Although there may not be actual rejections, you still need a thick skin. Most critique groups have caring, diplomatic members who will point out issues in your manuscript without making you cringe. Critique groups are wonderful for finding things you missed because you are too close to the project. But sometimes an editor may not be as diplomatic. And what about when you pay someone to critique your work and then get a less than stellar review? You may take their criticisms as a form of rejection. Again, drink wine, eat chocolate, and fix the manuscript. You still may feel like you have been punched in the gut, but at least you have a chance to revise. So do it.

Now, what about the indie writer who doesn’t get his work critiqued or edited? Well, maybe they won’t face the same type of rejection, but most likely, their book won’t do well. But those writers are for a whole different blog post. Indie writers need to go through all the same steps as traditionally published writers. When they don’t, they make the rest of us look bad. More on that another day.

We all face some type of rejection. It’s not just about writing.  How do you handle it? I’d love to hear because I’m running low on chocolate and wine.

 

 

Happy Leap Day/ List Day

time management threeBy Ellen Leventhal

The writer’s life and time management. Unfortunately, these two don’t always go together well. At least not for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in my wish for more hours in the day. Does anyone else end their days staring at the ceiling, ticking off all the tasks you did NOT get done that day? Please tell me it’s not just me!

So how happy am I that there is a full extra day this month? VERY happy. Surely, I will use this day to check things off my list. There aren’t that many things, right? I can do this! Here we go:

  1. Send poetry to that magazine.
  2. Dig out the email that tells me the name of the magazine.
  3. Type out texts of picture books to work on pacing.
  4. Go to the library and check-out said picture books.
  5. Begin work on that new website I’ve been talking about for years.
  6. Find someone to help me do that.
  7. Walk around the block. Sitting all day is bad for you.
  8. Finish three critiques.
  9. Call Comcast so I can get online to pull up the stories to critique.
  10. Re-write that short story in picture book format.
  11. Re-write that picture book manuscript into short story format.
  12. Have lunch!
  13. Stop at the Galleria after lunch to pick up those cute clothes for grandkids.
  14. Text daughters-in-law and double check sizes.
  15. Reply to store’s request for more books. Yes, the reissue of that book will be out by summer.
  16. Nag anyone who is responsible for getting the new book out.
  17. Have dinner.
  18. Climb into bed and tick off every item I did not accomplish. Sigh….

Sometimes it’s time management issues. Sometimes it’s computer issues. And sometimes life interferes with the best laid plans. But I will take this extra day for something. Even if it means counting my blessings because, although the book deals aren’t rolling in, a lot of other great things are.

Happy Leap Day, everyone! Use it to do what makes your happy.

 

 

Imaginary friends and writing

by Mandy Broughton

friends-forever-1438818-1280x960.jpg

My daughter had an imaginary friend. My daughter treated her as a real friend. So real that it was six months before I realized she didn’t exist. Imagine my surprise when I asked the preschool teachers to point out Olivia to me and they told me, “there’s no Olivia in this class.” Turns out there wasn’t an Olivia in any classes at the school. I know, I checked.

Best friends. Olivia was quite the trouble-maker. I’d hear all about these wild parties my daughter and Olivia would throw while I slept blissfully through the night. I said more than once I was glad Olivia was good at cleaning up the house after a wild night of partying.

Olivia’s mom was quite the rebel too. I was informed one day that Olivia’s mom was thrown in jail for speeding. I found myself arguing with a three year old on whether or not her imaginary friend’s mother was thrown in jail for speeding. Sheesh!

I decided to research children and imaginary friends. I never had any. As a child, I was perfectly content to sit and read in my room all day. Friends–real or imaginary–would disturb that peace.

Imaginary friends are what we would expect from highly creative people. Active imagination. Intelligent. Creative. Verbal. What I did not expect was that many adults had imaginary friends. What?! Are these people in need of a mental health professional? Maybe, but mostly they are creative adults. And it turns out many of those creative adults are authors.

As a writer, I know I have proper characterization when I dream about my characters. I can hear what they say in certain situations. I know how they’d act when problems arise. Fictional characters should not be shooting gallery ducks forced to respond in a certain way when a crisis occurs.* Characters should be organic, growing as the story progresses. They should feel more real than some real-life celebrities we watch and follow in the news.

As a writer, have you ever needed a character to act a certain way and she just wouldn’t? She’s supposed to be angry but she’s acting all quirky and sarcastic on the page. Or two characters start flirting with each other and they’re not supposed to even like each other. Happens to me all the time. My characters have taken over the pages of my manuscripts. And many of them are completely unrepentant for derailing my plot. I guess I’ve developed imaginary friends as an adult. Maybe I’m a late bloomer.

So tell me, dear writers, how do you know when you’ve achieved proper characterization? Do you hear voices in your head? Do you dream about them? Do you mock-up a fake Facebook page and imagine what they’d post? I mostly argue with mine.

Back to work on this first work week of the New Year. I hope the New Year brings plenty of good books, lots of writing, and great friendships–real and imaginary!

Oh, and I can’t forget, as a longtime, die-hard University of Houston Cougar alumni and fan… oDPuclxr.jpgCongratulations on winning the Peach Bowl. GO COOGS!

 

*My editor once told me my characters were like shooting gallery ducks, they were cardboard and went back and forth like I was shooting at them.

 

Be A Sports Blogger . . . Or Just Pretend

By Ellen Rothberg

As a starry-eyed seventh grader, back in the late 1960s, I had aspirations of being a reporter for the New York Times. Lofty goal, some might say, but I was in the IGC (Intellectually Gifted Children) class in elementary school; I made the 2 year SP class (Special Program? Special People? Stupid People? I never could remember what the acronym stood for) in Junior High; and almost, that’s right, ALMOST, received the very coveted (at least by me) English Student of the Junior High School Graduating Class of 1970 Award. I believe I was the first (ok, maybe second) runner up to this award. I think that the student who won wrote a very poignant, heart wrenching story about her pet parakeet. I, on the other hand, wrote a blazingly, far superior story about my precious pet turtle, Koo-koo-ka-choo (my brother was a huge Simon & Garfunkel fan). As usual, I am straying from the real story.

While a student in Junior High, I served as a reporter for the school paper, hence the strong desire to work for the Times. I didn’t particularly love reading the Times. I was more of a Daily News girl, especially when it came to picking a current events story and summarizing it. I was gifted, but not terrifically motivated and those Times pieces could get rather lengthy. Anyway, I wrote one story for the George Gershwin Junior High School paper about an extremely young and cool teacher, but by far, my best work was a sports story about a basketball game. I came across that story recently and, I have to say, it was really well-written, but, considering I must have been about 12 or 13 when I wrote it, I’m not sure it was all me! Apparently the teacher in charge of the paper must have been heavy handed with the editing hat! I know this to be true because while I love basketball to this day, I don’t thin k I knew all that tricky terminology back then. I don’t even know for sure if the same moves were popular in 1970. So, armed with the knowledge that I was over-edited as a student, how would I approach the idea of having my own sports blog? Hmmmmm.

I would start off by coming up with a very catchy title for my blog, like, Just Girl It! Or, how about, Pick and Roll Report. Or, maybe, And One Woman? OK, so maybe I am not going to start a career now as a basketball blogger, but surely I should be able to take credit for having written an awesome story about a junior high school basketball game? I wonder if I can find that teacher and ask him if he really did over-edit me? I wonder if he is dead? Continue reading