Category Archives: editing

2

Inspiration/Perspiration

I have ideas for novels all the time. ALL THE TIME. And especially when I’m cruising around the internet over my morning cup of coffee. Like this article about a 13-year-old falconress in Mongolia – I instantly thought, she would make for an amazing YA heroine. Or this article about a summer job pulling a rickshaw (comedic coming-of-age, right?), or this one about an asteroid hitting earth (A dystopia, but set in the past, not the future!).

But have I written any of these (obviously brilliant) books? Heck no! Because writing a book takes more than an exciting story idea – it takes a great idea, and a basic understanding of grammar, and a talent for putting words together. But most importantly, it takes plain old fashioned discipline. You have to come back to your manuscript day after day, week after week, until you’ve told the whole story, and then you have to keep working on the pages you wrote until you’ve made every sentence as good as it can be. And then you share your book with other people, and you turn their criticism into another revision. And all that (hopefully) happens before it even gets to your agent and editor for their feedback.

So for every book you see on the shelf, that’s hours and hours of patient, focused labor happening between the this would make an amazing book! moment and the first copy going home from a bookstore. That’s hours spent writing instead of sleeping, writing on vacations, writing in between doctor’s appointments or graduate classes, writing in airports or parking lots or coffee shops. Writing through writer’s block and hand cramps and carpal tunnel syndrome!

So if you like books – and of course you do, otherwise why would you be reading this blog? – then hug a writer today! Or buy them a cup of coffee, because they can probably use the caffeine.

Where do you find inspiration? 

 

1

When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

14

Happy Sisyphus

We here at DGLM are big believers in helping authors develop their work.  That means that  all of us spend a significant amount of time reading, evaluating, and editing proposals and manuscripts so that we can get them in shape for submission.  Oftentimes, for myriad reasons, our input extends beyond the selling stage and we get involved in the editorial process after the book is sold.   In other words, we spend a lot of time observing the creative process in all its (painful) glory.

Revising seems to be most people’s Achilles heel.  I’ve seen even the most confident, successful, unflappable, hardworking authors melt into puddles of insecurity, denial, and rage at the thought of tackling a revision of a work they’re convinced is perfection (or as good as it gets).  For every author who loves to roll up his/her sleeves and get to work polishing, adding, restructuring, and (perish the thought) cutting, there are dozens, nay, hundreds who are thrown into existential despair at the thought of revising.

Which is why this piece in the Atlantic is so wonderful.  From Khaled Hosseini’s fatalistic “it’ll never be as good as you imagined” to Fay Weldon’s “F—k it! Just start again!” I love the advice and the insights into the writing process, so much of which involves watching the rock rolling downhill after you’ve used every ounce of strength to get it to the top, pausing a moment to feel sorry for yourself, and then taking a big breath and starting the uphill climb again. 

I agree with Hosseini that perfection can’t be attained, that all you can do is the best you possibly can and hope that your work strikes a chord and means something to someone.  But, to get the thing as good as it can be requires a lot of rewriting, reconceptualizing, reevaluating, all the re’s, including restarting after you think you’re finished.  And, in order to do that you need to be mentally and creatively tough.  Just because it’s not perfect yet doesn’t mean it’s not good or it can’t be.

What are your thoughts on revising?  Is it as horrific a process as many authors make it out to be or is there zen in the art of taking your work apart and putting it back together?

 

5

An author and editor chat

Like any relationship, the one between an author and his or her editor is nuanced and complex. We work in an industry that has a great deal of turnover on the editorial side and there are times when a multi-published author might have several editors within a house during their tenure. I actually have a client on my list that has done three books, and has had five editors!

So when I saw this interview on Slate with author Sarah Dessen and her longtime editor Regina Hayes (eleven books and counting), I thought it was pretty cool and worth sharing. I like Hayes’s thought on her role in the editing process: “To provide a fresh eye on the overarching story and to ask a lot of questions.” Since writing is a solo sport, it can become challenging to keep perspective on your work, and having another reader can be a really important part of the process. It doesn’t have to be a professional editor, although certainly if there is that opportunity it can be advantageous, but any number of beta readers who are good at reading and responding with constructive criticism can be helpful.

I also appreciated Dessen’s simple but important advice about writing: “Cutting is easy. Stretching is really hard. And just a bit of backstory can change everything.” In particular I’m in agreement on the part about backstory. You never want to be stuck asking why a character is motivated to act a certain way because something from their past has been left out of the story.

I’ve had the same intern the last few summers, and learned early  on in our working together that although she’s young, she has a good critical eye for material. Finding someone whose taste you can trust is a priceless commodity, and a good productive author/editor relationship is one to cherish. We’d like to hear your own stories of working with an editor and what that experience was like for you. Please share!

15

Which or that and other gripes about grammar

The question of “which” versus “that” came up when I drafted my last blog post and the person editing my post took a stab at which one she thought it should be but then suggested I double check. Here’s the sentence: Aimee Bender, the talented author of most recently The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, has this enlightening piece in the latest O Magazine that talks about her decision to create a writing contract with a friend that would allow for each of them to maintain certain very specific writing rules complete with confirmation e-mails that each had stuck to their previously agreed-to commitments.

What do you think it is? I was happy to come upon this article about the subject in a recent writersdigest.com piece, and I thought it was a useful topic to cover since it’s a common challenge to get right, and like the questioner, I think many people do feel the two words are interchangeable. The explanation given here by Brian Klems is clear and anecdotal, making it easy to digest. Based on his advice, I’d say we got it right in my blog post (thanks, Rachel!).

I started digging around to read more about common grammatical mistakes, and came across this fun and snarky piece from litreactor.com that highlights the 20 most common grammatical errors (or word usage mistakes, as many of them are, and happy to say Which and That is right at the top). And I’d like to add to the list “I” and “me” — how often do you hear someone say “Between you and I” which should be “Between you and me”?

What’s your biggest grammar pet peeve? Is there a grammatical faux pas that drives you crazy? Oh, there are so many. Please share with us some of your favorite grammar gripes.

6

Writing Work-Out

It’s important, in writing (and I suppose in life in general) to know what your weaknesses are. Deep down, we all know what those might be, whether or not we ever own up to them, in public at least. Right off the bat, I know that my biggest weakness in writing—and I mean all writing, whether it be text messages, this blog, notebooks, let alone anything creative I might ever try my hand at—is writing too. darn. much.

Sometimes flowery, elegant, heavily detailed prose is perfectly acceptable, even necessary. That’s true for sure, and that’s certainly the type of writing that comes to mind first when I hear the critique that I have overwritten anything. But stereotypical, stodgy overdone prose isn’t the only kind of writing that needs to be pared back. Extraneous explanation, overuse of adjectives, adverbs, nouns and even verbs can take power and coherency away from a paragraph, essay or book.

The other day, I happened upon this handy little internet application: The Writer’s Diet.

While not completely infallible, it’s a great tool for getting a sense of just how many unnecessary words are muddling up your message. As a test, I ran some query letters through and wouldn’t you know, the letters that I had originally found most effective, enticing and intriguing were the ones that passed the test of leanness. The letters that I had less interest in were the more “heart attack” prone of my queries. Obviously, this isn’t going to be true across the board, but for me, it’s helped. I restrain myself a lot on this blog, you know, and I still tend to go on and on at odd times. It’s a habit I’m trying to break, and I think my writing is improving because of it.

Is this something that’s helpful to you? Test it out! See where you fall. What sort of bandaids have you discovered for your own writing weaknesses?

 

P.S. I ran this blog entry through the Writer’s Diet Test, and it definitely came up a little flabby…I’m working on it, guys!

10

The long…and the long of it

For a literature major it’s somewhat shameful to have to confess that I find really long books  daunting.  From the Steve Jobs biography to the Game of Thrones series (both of which are on my “what I want to read next” list) page counts north of 400 pages give me pause.  So many words, so little time.

Inveterate bookworm that I’ve always been, I remember the days when nothing was as exciting as having a giant doorstop of a book at hand and a school vacation (or even a sick day) providing unfettered hours of reading.  Now, with manuscripts, proposals, blogs, articles, e-mails and all the other content fighting for attention, a really long book produces something akin to apprehension, maybe anxiety.  Which is why I found Marc Wortman’s piece in The Daily Beast so interesting.

Of course, I’ve always been aware of the economics of publishing long books—we have, on occasion, advised authors to trim unwieldy manuscripts with the warning that editors are sometimes scared of fat tomes and not just because they take so much time to edit but because they are more expensive to produce.  Wortman’s argument that e-book pricing is encouraging authors to write more and publishers to cut less is, therefore, intriguing and not altogether surprising.

Dickens and other serial writers of the 19th century got paid for content, so more was definitely more.  Now, according to Wortman, publishers want to charge more for e-books and feel they can justify doing so by offering longer books.    Interesting theory.   Not sure there’s sufficient evidence to support it, but I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s some truth to it.

How do you all feel about long books?  And, does it make a difference whether you’re reading them in print or on your e-reader?

11

An editor and publisher who gets the job done right.

Some of you might know Amy Einhorn by name, especially if you work in book publishing. But even if you don’t, you certainly know some of the books she’s helped to bring to market. Most notably and successfully The Help, a compelling but challenging first novel by Kathryn Stockett that was famously (and embarrassingly in retrospect) rejected by 60 agents and publishers. The book has gone on to sell over 10 million copies! It was the first novel ever published by Amy Einhorn Books.

This interview with Amy from a recent New York Observer gets to the heart of why she’s so good at what she does. And I think there’s something to be taken away from her approach to publishing. She doesn’t just tell her authors to market and promote their books. She does it too. She takes each of her books and pushes them gently into the market, overseeing all aspects of editorial, production, design, marketing and publicity.

While it’s an impossible business to master, and there is no question that luck and timing play a big role in an author’s success, there is definitely some strategy at work here too.

Amy’s imprint has more hits than misses, and reading about how she does it you can understand why. She has a small, eponymous imprint with the resources of a big house behind her. It’s that rare combination of little gal and big gun that has the potential turn books into bestsellers. That combined with her good instincts and loving touch makes for each book to get its share of support and attention. It’s like raising kids. You have to treat each one differently and play to their strengths. There is no one size fits all model for parenting, and that same can be said for selling books. It makes me think about how many good books are out there that don’t get the right kind of support to nurture them along and wind up selling poorly.

I love the anecdote in the piece about a manuscript full of Post-its — this is so old-school, and I also admire writer Emily Witt’s observation about Einhorn’s “commitment to thorough editing and a lot of exuberant salesmanship.” These are things that still matter. A lot.

I know Amy personally (we have 7 daughters between us!) and professionally (we had a book together when she was at Warner, and I would so love to sell her something for Amy Einhorn Books), and I like her very much. I think it would be hard to not like Amy. She’s got that kind of personality that just bubbles with positive enthusiasm and it’s infectious. She’s genuinely curious, interested, engaged, and she makes you feel like you could talk with her endlessly. Come to think of it, with her gift of the gab, she would have been a good agent too!

So, while there is a lot of talk about publishers getting things wrong, I think this piece about a really smart and savvy publisher is worth a read and offers a bit of inspiration to start the year. Good things can happen in book publishing, and with the help (just caught the pun!) of people like Amy Einhorn, sometimes they even do.

5

Time spent

Whenever I’m asked what I do for a living, invariably my response is followed by questions. For starters, most seem to be pretty unsure of exactly what it is I do. I’ve been called an editor more times than I care to admit, which…while sort of true, is only sort of true. But in my time as an agent, there are a few questions that I have heard repeatedly along the way. It always starts with: so what does an agent do? Then I usually get asked whether I’m nervous about the “new rumor” someone’s heard that publishing is all but extinct. The last question, and segue to my topic this week, is almost always: do you write your own material as well as sell books?

And it always throws me for a loop.

There are undoubtedly plenty of people who work in publishing who also write on the side, but I have to admit that writing was never something I felt I was good at—it was always the reading and editing that I enjoyed.  But that’s just me.

Regardless, it always made me think of my own situation, and now leads me to wonder about YOUR situation. What I want to know from you, our readers, is this: do you spend more time writing or do you spend more time reading?

1

Reining in the red pen.

Strangely, I’m thinking today about natural disasters. What with the baby earthquake of Tuesday afternoon and the impending hurricane disaster, it’s an odd choice, but such are the inner workings of my mind. In any case, destruction is on the brain. In between putting an extra pitcher of water in the fridge, and checking to make sure the flashlight has batteries and that there are matches for the candles (all while dubiously looking out at the blue skies and bright sun shining this morning), I remembered about the essay I told my friend I would read and edit for him over the weekend.

Destruction of another sort, editing an essay, manuscript or any other piece of writing (especially for a friend) is always a tricky balance, at least for me. Oftentimes, I’ll love an idea or angle, but the writing is just so muddled that while I understand it because it’s been explained to me verbally, the sentences themselves just don’t make sense. Or the eloquence isn’t there—there’s not enough personality or individualism to the words; they could have been written by anyone.  It’s taken a few years of practice to train myself not to get carried away just rewriting the whole darn thing. I would start out well, correcting punctuation and grammar, suggesting a subtle word change or elaboration, but once I became comfortable with a piece, the writing would start to look curiously like my own.

Of course, I had to stop myself, because it isn’t my work. If it was, I would probably have someone else look at it and value their opinion, but I’d want the actual narrative to be mine. Where to draw the line, though? When someone asks you to read a draft—whether it’s something academic or personal, how do you rein in your input? Suggesting a reworking of a paragraph, giving the hint of an idea; these are perfectly acceptable creative edits, but in college I had to learn to restrain myself from taking a friend’s muddled essay—with the kernel of a great idea!—and just tearing it apart and inserting paragraphs of my own.

Is this something you are guilty of? How have you learned to overcome it and what sort of techniques do you use to subtly suggest new and better (in your opinion) phrases and structure to a friend?

Luckily, with this new essay to edit, I’ll have plenty to do if this supposed hurricane barricades me inside this weekend and who knows, maybe inspiration will strike in the face of disaster.