Posts Tagged ‘editing’

It’s a very simple equation, one I’m sure others have come across elsewhere, but it struck me with an arrow of truth last week. If there is a problem with the publishing industry as it stands it comes down to the disconnect between the motivations of the writer and the publisher.

I came about this a roundabout way. I happened onto a marketer’s blog post discussing what made Steve Jobs, and by extension Apple, so successful. The crux came from a quote from Jobs at the end of his recent biography:

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.”

Many companies have this upside down, or if they start as innovators they quickly switch over to a profit-first mentality to maintain their position. The idea is that if you innovate, people will come, and profits will grow, allowing you to innovate further. This lead me reconsider what I felt about Steve Jobs last year when he died, how I had come to think of him as the Edison of this century. But that’s not exactly a good analogy, because where Edison may have refined existing patents he is credited with creating the technology that is still with us. Jobs did not invent nor is he credited with inventing the computer, the phone, the television, or the music playback device. He didn’t even invent the MP3 file technology that the iPod uses to store and playback music. What he did was take what was familiar and ask the question: How can I make this consumer product more friendly, inviting, fun, and turn it into a brand people can trust?

Essentially, Jobs is the Disney of our age, not the Edison.

Walt Disney did not invent movies, animation, or the amusement park. Hell, he didn’t even create new characters or stories to tell in his animation once he started making feature films. What he did was insist on instilling passion into great products that people would enjoy. He may have been a tyrant to his employees, as has been reported, but he was no petty dictator. He pushed his people to innovate and his legacy of creation continues nearly fifty years after his death. People don’t often remember (or know these days) that he mortgaged his personal property and his entire company to create Disneyland. Had that gamble failed it’s difficult to imagine what would have happened, but Disney was passionate and he was certain that if his people were motivated to make something great, then success was assured.

In reading about the history of publishing in America over the years I have come to believe there may have been a time when publishers were more in line with Jobs and Disney than the corporate entities they have become. There was a time when author and editor were both striving for something great, that profit was not the determining factor. Editors built stables of authors and nurtured talent because they believed in them, and in return that quality generated profits. Today, the profit-first model prevails, and a movie-tie-in complete with residual merchandising trumps the notion that quality is a motivating factor.

Are writers similarly motivated by profit in creating a work, or are they more interested in the quality of storytelling first? This gets tricky, as writers are now expected to market their works and to nail that sales pitch before anyone will bother to look at it. In many craft books there are instructions for plotting a narrative arc only after the summary has been honed as a guide stone. Lord help the writer who can’t rattle off their elevator speech at a convention even before they’ve finished their first draft!

It’s reductionist to insist that all writers, publishers, and editors behave as a unified front, but its hard not to wonder if all parties have lost their way.

“Traditional” publishing (or “Legacy” publishers, if you buy into Amazon’s propaganda machine) will most likely need to revert back to their old ways in order to survive. Editors will need to operate free from the chains of corporate acquisitions and, more importantly, spend more time personally guiding talented people toward great ideas. The motivation to publish books will then fall back in line with the writer’s motivation.

Great books will be written and published when both parties can’t imagine doing anything less; the profits will sort themselves by-the-by.


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So the first draft of the middle grade novel is done and the results are back: it needs work.  Well, duh.  No, that isn’t what my advisor said.  She didn’t say it needed work either.  What she did was give me a very thorough rundown of where she saw problems and some general reactions to things.

Like the fact that all the girl characters are mean.  Oops.  That wasn’t my intention.  Even since finishing this draft I’ve learned a few things about writing mean characters (make them likable, or nice, so their acts of badness are really striking; make nice characters capable of irrational acts of meanness) so I know I have some work to do there.  And even this one character who I conceived of as the main catalyst for a lot of trouble has rendered herself unnecessary, so out she goes.

Which means some heavy rewrites.  But, like I said, I consider that part of the process. I co-opted an old quote (by Edison?  Huh.  Deja vu, I feel like I’ve blogged about this already) and said that writing is 10% vision and 90% revision. So as good as it feels to be done with the draft — just to have a completed draft at all! — I know I’m in for the hard work.  I’ve gone down the mine shaft, it’s time to work the seam.

Which is why I did nothing this weekend.  Hey, it’s a holiday weekend.  Except for that wicked virus that took me out of commission a while back  I had been writing seven days a week.  If ever there was a time to recharge for the next phase, this weekend was perfectly timed.

So I made apple butter.

I found this wickedly easy and awesome recipe for pear butter and was going to make it, but we didn’t have the pears.  What we did have was a lot of apples.  A lot of bruised apples.  My youngest went apple picking with some friends last weekend with the hope that they would make caramel apples but that plan fizzled.  And since the apples were picked and lugged by girls they took a bit of bruising.

As an adult, as most adults do I suspect, I don’t see a bruised piece of produce as an untouchable.  Granted, if I’m shopping for it in the store I’d rather buy unblemished – it doesn’t cost any different.  But once it’s home, it’s mine.  The girls will look askance at a banana that has some minor dark spots on it, even if you open it up and show a perfectly edible, creamy banana inside. They react to such offerings as if being fed live insects.  Kids.

But cored, sliced and tossed into a crock pot for 24 hours, smoothed out with an immersion blender, and spread on a bagel with cream cheese and those left-for-dead apples are suddenly manna from heaven.

As I was cleaning up the crock this morning I told Suze that if I had known it was this easy to make apple butter I would have been making it for years. It even has me temporarily inspired to rethink canning (that and the economy turning us all into homesteaders within the next couple of months) so the diversion from the writing wasn’t a loss of any kind.  Not that I needed any excuses; I can always find an excuse.

Technical details:  So the recipe above is for pear butter, but it was similar to other recipes for apple butter, so I followed it.  I didn’t have mace, it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.  I used agave syrup instead of sugar because it’s a natural sweetener with the lowest glicemic index of any sweetener, and I just don’t want to be feeding kids lots of extra sugar.  I ended up with a nice, dark brown apple butter that tastes great.  I think I’m going to hit the farmers market this week (last week of the season!) and see about getting me some pears.  And maybe some glass jars with clamp-down lids.

Writing?  Revisions?  Huh?

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As written:

This cautionary food-obsessed tale of boys with eating disorders … undercuts its serious message with forced  humor.

As published:

In this cautionary tale about food-obsessed boys with eating disorders (the author) uses humor and a light touch to explore a serious, but little discussed issue.

Editing for clarity, okay, but there’s a world of difference between forced humor and a light touch.

This was part of a review for a book I deliberately chose not to cover at my other blog because it came on the heels of another book that I felt suffered from a similar problem: unrealistic boy characters written for girl readers.  On the surface the book in question has an interesting premise – boys with eating disorders in a food-obsessed environment – but everything the boys did, the way they approached the problem and solved it, rang false.  The boys behaved, well, like girl stereotypes in the bodies of boy stereotypes.  I know I’m being broad here, I really don’t want to review the book.  It is enough to say that it has joined the ever growing list I am accumulating of books written about boys, by women, that either condescend to appeal to boys or present boys unrealistically in ways girl readers (and female authors and editors) prefer to see boy characters.

The book was not funny, and it tried to hard to make things funny.  That is what made the humor forced.  The attempts at humor became a distraction, and it undercut the seriousness of the subject by making it part of the failed humor.

Now, I don’t know what to make of this, as written:

It’s cloned Tyrannosaurus Rex versus nanobot-mutated mad scientist when two secret British military experiments escape from their labs headed for a showdown in central London.  With the wisdom of an old Kraken, and the power harnessed through a magic bracelet, it falls to a pair of teens to help Tim the dinosaur succeed. Action-packed absurdity saves the day.

Becoming this:

Secret British military experiment Tim (stands for “tyrannosaur: improved model) escapes from the lab to save the world from a nanobot-mutated mad scientist. It falls to a pair of teens with an unlikely mentor and a magic bracelet to tip the scales in Tim’s favor. Action-packed absurdity saves the day in this strongly plotted tale of epic proportions.

Okay, so I was going for an over-the-top narrative style, but you know what, it’s relevant.  The book is over the top itself.  The idea of a book having a T-Rex and a mutant mad scientist and a Kraken (a 6000 year old Kraken at that!) and teens with a magic bracelet… I mean, come on!

I guess the message is loud and clear: No personality in reviews;  Keep it simple; If you cannot be honest, be polite.

Also: the editor gets the last word, but your name goes on the finished product.

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I overnighted the workshop piece, the short story “erosion,” last Thursday morning with the promise of a 3 PM delivery on Friday. That’s what I paid for. So why didn’t it get one state over until Tuesday? Five frickin’ days for overnight delivery? I could have walked there in less time!

But the manuscript doesn’t look right. According to the lovely ladies in the program office it doesn’t look like it’s double-spaced. There are 26 lines per page instead of the average 22 that most manuscripts come in at. It either needs to be edited or submitted to workshop missing its ending.


Can I blame Microsoft for a moment? Their 12 point fonts actually vary quite a bit from one another. Some seem to be measured across while others are measured vertically. And can I get technical? Their rendering of some fonts includes some extra play with the x-height and leading that wouldn’t pass muster in a type foundry. As a consequence not all double-spaced lines are created equal among fonts.

It shouldn’t matter to me, I dumped Microsoft long before I got the Mac. I’m a fan of open source and find my quality of life is quite high without being slave to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Except that the rest of the professional world can’t seem to handle non-conformity. My 20 manuscript pages of NeoOffice, when opened as a Word doc, suddenly balloons to 22 pages. Actually, once I corrected the margins for the conversion I ended up with nearly 25 pages. (If I’d gone Courier instead of Times Roman it would have come in at 28 pages!)

That’s nearly five pages out of the manuscript I had to cut.  That’s after the previous edits my advisor suggested.

This is beyond tweaking. I know it’s not a perfect manuscript, and once it goes through the workshop it might get completely overhauled, but what I originally sent had already been whittled down. I wasn’t condensing sentences, I was completely eliminating story details, bits that added humor or background. I fully expect some of these areas to show up as “I think you could insert something here” comments in July.

As I said when I submitted it last, running that razor’s edge between cutting and gutting.

So I downed the sweet tea, powered up, and went ruthless. I had to find those extra bits, average one sentence a page, hack out anything that didn’t speak directly to the story. Bit by bit, nearly 1000 words vanished into the electronic ether. In fighting trim, loose around the margins, it’s still 20 pages on my end but with enough wiggle room to conform to the damn Microsoft Word box comfortably.

I hope. So far I haven’t heard that it’s still too long.

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My brain likes to worry things, to mull, to take it’s time sorting through the vast card catalogs to find just the right references, sources, ideas. In this instantaneous age the card catalog image is totally appropriate as sometimes things get lodged there for a long time before the right bi-sociative moment comes along. Suze calls it my “sticky brain” because of all the little things that seem to be stuck there forever.

Like the fact that I vividly can recall cigarette commercials and their jingles from television ads. Those ads went off he air by law in 1971. Yeah, television is a dangerous place for my brain to be hanging out.

One thought has been lingering like a low-grade fever lately, and it has to do with my writing process. That mysterious process creatives have that they can never answer to anyone’s (much less their own) satisfaction about where ideas come from, how they are shaped, created, molded. When you look at something and see the finished work all that’s visible is what the artist/writer/composer didn’t remove. A sculpture is the part of the stone left behind. A painting has only the top-most layers visible. A book all the words that survived the line edits.

What I’ve been thinking about is the raw material, the first form the manuscript takes as the brain attempts to render ideas and images and feelings into formal sentences and plot structure. Painters may build directly on their canvas, building layer upon layer, but the original cartoons are buried beneath the paint. Similarly, while we can visit a previous draft of a writer important enough to have their papers preserved, what we see in the final form is usually all we get. We can examine for what is visible — plot and character and theme — but we cannot see its original form from the final version.

I once heard writer Jamaica Kincaid explain that she could not commit a word to page until she was sure of its order and placement, that she wrote front-to-back manuscripts and rarely did more than one complete draft with few edits. All her drafts, all her pre-writing and mistakes, missteps and floundering, all that took place in her head!

Boy, that’s not me.

What is me is the guy who has to get it down on paper to see what sort of shape it is to begin with. Then I have to compare it with the original schematics to see what went wrong along the way and decide which parts to keep and which to get rid of. Sometimes whole chapters disappear, or are collapsed into another place, or get shuffled around. Sometimes paragraphs are rewritten and rewritten until they finally take a shape that feels right. Occasionally I get it mostly right the first time, and that’s when I fool myself into believing I’m a real writer.

But I was thinking recently about drawing, and about cartoons, and eventually made my way back to an interview I read a long time ago with Art Spiegelman, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel Maus. I was surprised when reading it that this master of visual economy had to work as hard as he did to find the line, to make the line as strong and as simple as he did. After making a layout sketch (essentially an outline) he would build up the images in each panel using a yellow colored pencil. This would give him the freedom to block the scene, place the key components, and play loosely with their relative size and placement. Then he would go back in with an orange pencil. Then a brown pencil. Building until he reached a point where he felt he could lay down the black ink that would set the final drawing in place. Each time he changed colors he tightened the line, found the right weight, added the key detail, or dropped extraneous information from a previous layer. In essence, he was line editing.

Ah, more than a play on words.

Spiegelman knew the strength of his lines would hold the visual key, the way a sentence holds the informational component necessary for the story at large. It was in this process, and the messiness of those earlier layers, that I understood not so much what I was doing but what my problem has been with process.

You see, I have always hated my early drafts. My first drafts especially leave me feeling as if I am only fooling myself. Even as bits and pieces tumble into place and give me temporary hope, I am always left wanting to ditch the unfinished manuscript until such time I can come back and do it right. But I have been in total denial about the fact that the “right” draft can only come about through the layering. I cannot have the expectation that the yellow-line draft is going to convey exactly what I want in the final version. I shouldn’t pre-judge these awkward and fledgling sentences desperately trying to make it on their own before their eyes are open, before they can support their own weight.

So I need to remember this over the weekend as I plow through new pages and try to haul my ideas back toward the outline. I need to remember this isn’t going to an editor, it’s going to an advisor who is helping me see where the lines are weakest and where they are strongest.

I think I need to find a yellow pencil and tape it to the keyboard as a reminder.

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