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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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.

 

You Might Need an Editor If…

by Monica Shaughnessy

I love Jeff Foxworthy. Since I grew up redneck, I always find his humor to be spot-on and terribly funny:

So when it came time for me to do this post, I just had to use a writerly version of his now-famous routine. Without further delay, I give you my list. If you see yourself on it, don’t cringe (okay, cringe a little), seek help instead. 🙂 If you see one of your friends on this list, send them a link to my post (if you dare).

You Might Need an Editor If…

  1. your picture book has nude scenes.
  2. your middle grade novel has more chapters than the bible
  3. you don’t get the whole apostrophe thing
  4. your critique group spends more time correcting your story than you did writing it
  5. the main character in your YA novel is a thirty-eight year old man with shingles
  6.  your historical novel takes place on a spaceship in the Kxplexnk Galaxy
  7. you think picking a POV is so last century
  8. your main character wants to kill YOU by the end of the book
  9. anyone has ever used your title and the words “steaming pile” in the same sentence
  10. you have a small problem with run-on sentences and by run-on I mean sentences that seem to have no end and make no sense and cause the reader to wonder when they are going to stop because the reader needs to go to the bathroom and waiting for that question mark has just become an exercise in bladder control…

Okay, apart from thinking this would be a funny blog post, I DO have an agenda. Of course I have an agenda!

Just last week, I opened a developmental editing business and am currently taking on clients. Because I’m new, I’m offering OBSCENELY low rates. As of this writing, I’m pricing my services at .005 per word for longer projects and $20 an hour for shorter projects / outline coaching. However, please be aware that my prices will rise as my client list grows. So check back with me to make sure what I’ve quoted is still valid.

My last middle grade client had this to say: “You have helped me see the novel in a whole new way. I LOVED that you broke the story line down for me, helping me to form a firm arc.” I’m hoping she’ll comment below about her experience with me. I also just finished a picture book project for another writer (review yet to come, but I know it’s positive!) and have another couple of middle grade projects lined up this summer. But I can still make time for YOUR project, dear reader.

So what can a developmental editor help you with?

  • a sagging middle
  • an uncertain beginning
  • an ending that lacks emotional punch
  • flat character arcs
  • missing or meandering subplots
  • a “messy” storyline

What can’t a developmental editor help you with?

  • grammatical errors
  • typos
  • sentence structure
  • word choice

If you’re thinking about getting help for your novel or picture book (I work on adult and children’s works–no erotica), then give me a shout in the comments below or email me at: contact@my first and last name.com (Use my actual first and last name! I never write my email address out, otherwise I get spammed too much by bots.) Even if you just want to ask a question about editing, fire away!