The importance of an editor

Remember Brandi Chastain from the 1999 World Cup?

She's the soccer player who kicked the winning goal against China to win the gold medal for the Americans. After scoring the goal, she pulled off her jersey, exposing her sports bra and sending a sizable number of conservatives into amusing, ridiculous hysterics.  

Chastain was recently inducted into the San Francisco Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. Her induction included a plaque that featured her image.

Here is a side by side comparison of the statue and Chastain. No joke. 

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This makes no sense to me. 

How does anyone in charge of this award or Hall of Fame allow this ridiculous, hideous plaque to see the light of day?

This is why I love my editors. I'm blessed to work with at least half a dozen of them at the moment. I have an editor for my fiction, an editor for my nonfiction, and an editor my upcoming middle grade novel, as well as four different magazine editors at three different publications who I work with regularly.

On top of that, Elysha serves as an editor for my storytelling performances, and when I'm working with The Moth, I am blessed to work with producers who essentially work as editors while you are crafting your story.

On top of all of that, I have about a dozen friends who read my material before it even makes it to an editor, and these people are invaluable to me. Discerning, honest, and skilled, these friends make everything I write better. 

Creative people need editors. We need someone to say:

"That is not good."
"Those words stink."
"That story is boring."
"That ain't funny." 
"That idea is interesting but not right for this moment."
"This part makes you sound like a creep."
"No one cares that much about hermit crabs, so stop it." 

Someone needed to tell the artist who made that image of Brandi Chastain that he or she was clearly looking at a photograph of the wrong person. Or was drunk at the time of creation. Or needs to see an optometrist immediately. Or must secretly hate Brandi Chastain.

To Chastain's credit, her response to this atrocity was, "It's not the most flattering, but it’s nice.”

I would not have been so kind. 

Writing is already hard enough without this.

I'm trying to complete the revisions of my next adult novel, and it seems like at every turn, someone is hell bent on slowing my progress.

Last night it was the cats, Tobi and Pluto, choosing the space on the table directly in front of me to commence their battle.

How is a guy expected to get anything done with this to distract him?

My wife and kids slow me down. Gloriously so.

I loved this dedication by Joseph J. Rotman.  

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While it may seem like he's throwing some shade at his family, I suspect not. 

2017 was an exceptionally busy time for me. I completed three books (an adult novel, a middle grade novel, and a book of nonfiction), all within a single calendar year, which means I was sitting at the end of my dining room table a lot, pecking away at the keyboard. 

And yes, it's true. I could've finished the books much sooner if not for Elysha, Clara, and Charlie, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Thank goodness I didn't finish them sooner, because that would've meant missing out on so much that I love and cherish.

I suspect Rotman felt the same way.

Then again, Rotman is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has written 10 textbooks. This dedication can be found in An Introduction to Algebraic Topology.

He might not be the world's greatest romantic. 

You're a writer? A real writer?

The oddity of being a writer is this

You often find yourself constantly explaining that yes, it's true. You are in fact a published writer. A paid writer. A professional writer. A person whose career is to assemble words in an entertaining and informative order.

While eating large amounts of protein at a tailgate recently, my friend, Shep, joked about how you never know when something you say or do might end up in one of my books. 

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"Wait," the guy standing next to me said. "You really write books?"

"Yes," I said. 

"Real books?" he asked. "Like on Amazon?"

Happily, Shep came to my rescue. "Yes, he publishes books. He gets paid to write them. He writes for magazines and other stuff, too." 

I was happy for the assist. It's always awkward to justify your existence. Always a little embarrassing to be forced to validate your career. Sometimes I wish I had a business card that read: 

"Yes, I'm a writer. I've published four novels and have three more, plus a nonfiction book on storytelling, coming out in the next two years. My books have been translated into more than 25 languages, and one of them is an international bestseller. Three are optioned for film. I also write the humor column for a regional magazine and occasional for publications like Parents magazine. And I've been writing a daily blog for more than a decade. Also, I'm not rich. I'm not close to being rich."

Hand the card over and end the interrogation. 

"Interrogation" is not an exaggeration. I can't tell you how many times I tell someone that I'm a writer (or Elysha tells someone that I'm a writer) and we are immediately bombarded with questions about the validity of my claim. Questions that include:

  1. Do you sell books at fairs and farmer's markets and stuff?
  2. Are they just e-books that you make on your own? 
  3. Do you publish with an actual book company?
  4. Where can I get your books?
  5. Can I find your books in actual stores? Libraries? Amazon?
  6. Do you actually make money on your books?
  7. How come I've never heard of you?

And the shockingly common:

Do you sell your books out of the back of your car? 

I suppose there are other professions that get similar questions. If I was a professional baseball player, actor, sculpture, or musician, I might be asked to justify my career, too. 

But why?

If asked what you do for a living, and your answer is, "I'm in a band," you should not be required to provide a tax return in order to prove that you make money playing your guitar and singing backup vocals in your folk-metal fusion quartet.

Or that yes, people buy my naked lady sculptures for their gardens. Or yes, I am paid to perform Shakespeare onstage. Or yes, I'm the backup catcher for the Rochester Redwings of the International League.  

I suppose that because their are no amateur attorneys or accountants or astronauts, it is presumed that these people earn a living from these pursuits, and thus proof of income is not required. 

After all, I've performed in local theater and never been paid. And my son came home yesterday with a sculpture of a mouse that has yet to receive any offers from collectors. And yes, there was a time when I was writing and not earning any money for my efforts. 

Still, when someone asks what I do for a living, and I say writer, it would be nice if people would assume that "earning a living" means "Yes, I get paid to write stuff."

It's a wonder I get anything done

I was writing this morning. It was quite early. The sun had yet to rise. Words were flowing. Paragraphs were forming. Things were good. 

Then my daughter, Clara, age 8, appeared at the table. Early. The sun still wasn't up. 

Her very first words of the day to me were these:

Clara: "I know Hawaii became a state in 1959. Right?"

Me: "I guess so?"

I had no idea. Maybe? Why are we talking about this at 5:42 AM?

Clara: "And before that, Hawaii was a United States territory. Right?"

Me: "Yes. Definitely."

I knew that one. 

Clara: "But my American Girl book says that Hawaii was the only state in America to enforce laws about people staying in the state, on the island, during World War II. And they were the only state had blackouts from 6:00 PM until 6:00 AM, too. So the Japanese couldn't see them." 

Me: "Okay..."

Clara (rolling her eyes): "But World War II happened in the 1940's, Dad. If Hawaii wasn't a state until 1959, why does the book say that Hawaii was the only state doing those things during World War II? It wasn't a state during World War II."

My response was perhaps a little less than what she hoped,  

Me: "It's not even six o'clock yet, Clara."

Not great. I know. Her response was better. 

Clara: "That's not an answer, Daddy."

And there you have it. The end to the writing that morning. 

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Writing a novel is hard enough already. I don't need these additional challenges.

All this before 7:00 AM.

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I love them dearly, but I've got TWO deadlines for TWO different books creeping up on me, and quiet time in my home is impossible to find. Instead, I'm listening to the kids spell "Nebraska" backwards and puzzle out the four states that begin with the word "New."

It's cute, but less so at 6:45 AM.  

Also, thanks to the cat, the E key on my keyboard is partially detached from constantly coming loose as I type.

If I leave my laptop open overnight, he pops the keys out of my keyboard. I'm usually able to snap them back into place, but not the E. The plastic hook that keeps the key down in place snapped in half.   

Of course.   

Not the Z. Not the 9. Not the semicolon.

No, the one key that is permanently broken is the key I strike the most. 

The damn E.

I sometimes think the universe wants this writing thing to be as absolutely difficult as possible.

Feline barrier to creativity

I'm desperately trying to wrap up the first draft of a new novel and a round of edits on a nonfiction book on storytelling.

Both are due in my editors' hands shortly. 

This makes it a lot less cute and a lot more annoying when Pluto sits beside my computer and starts swatting and grabbing my fingers for reasons I will never understand. 

I've got enough standing in my way of the completion of these books already. The last thing I need is my cat bringing progress to a halt.

Still, he's cute. Huh?

Teachers: Writers never write one thing at a time. Stop ruining children.

When asked how to combat writer's block, my answer is always the same:

If you have writer's block, you don't have enough writing projects. 

My list of writing projects currently includes:

  1. A novel under contract
  2. A nonfiction book under contract
  3. A middle grade novel under contract
  4. A piece for Parents magazine
  5. A piece for Seasons magazine
  6. A picture book
  7. A letter to my father
  8. A daily blog post
  9. A screenplay

How could I possibly suffer from writer's block with this many projects underway. Stuck on one? Move to another.

While teaching a group of about 30 middle and high school students this summer, one of the students asked if it would be okay if she started something new.

"Of course," I said. "But why are you asking me for permission?"

The young lady explained that her teachers insist that she and her classmates finish one writing project before moving onto the next. 

"That's crazy," I said. 

"My teacher does the same thing," another student said.

"Me, too," said another.

My head hit the desk. More than three-quarters of the students reported suffering from similar restrictions, which is, of course, stupid.

I know many writers, but I have yet to meet a single one who is only working on one project. While my list of projects is admittedly longer than most, every writer has at least one project on the side, oftentimes in another genre. 

I can't imagine telling a writer who is suddenly excited about a new idea to finish their current project before trying something new. That is truly one of the stupidest teaching decisions I can imagine. 

There's nothing wrong with deadlines.

"I need that essay done by the end of the month."
"You must hand in three poems by Wednesday."
"Your research paper is due at the end of March."

But to expect that students will work on that one project until the due date is an outstanding way to kill any love that students will develop for writing. It places classroom management ahead of creativity, choice, executive functioning, and an authentic writing process.

I've said it before:

Not enough teachers write. Teachers require students to write persuasive essays, even though most teachers haven't written a persuasive essay in a decade or more. Teachers require students to write fiction, even though most teachers haven't written fiction since they were children. Teachers expect students to write research papers, when those teachers last wrote their own research paper in college.

When it comes to writing, we have an army of educators who are teaching something they never do. Even worse, in many cases, it's something they don't like to do. 

If you never do it in real life, can you expect to teach it to novices?

If teachers were writing, they would understand the need to have multiple projects in a writer's life. They would understand the insatiable excitement of a new idea. The need to turn away from a project when enthusiasm wanes. The ability for writers to manage more than one writing project at a time.  

I felt so much sympathy for the two dozen or so students who said that they would returning to classrooms in the fall where they could only write one thing at a time. I told them to rise up. Declare their writing independence. Insist that their needs be met. Demand to be treated like writers. 

I also gave them my phone number. "If your rebellion fails, tell your teacher to call me. I'll see what I can do." 

I'm expecting a lot of phone calls.

Commitment, persistence, and practice can look a lot like talent. Don't be fooled.

I love this video so much.

I love this guy so much. If I owned a company - any company - and was hiring, this is the person who I would hire. 

So much of life comes down to grit. Persistence. Commitment. Tenaciousness. Practice. Yet so few often seem to be willing to put in the time.

I write novels. Though some may argue this requires a certain degree of talent, I would argue that the most important attribute I possess is the willingness to commit my ass to a chair for a long period of time.

Truthfully, I believe that it's been my willingness to sit in a relentless, non-precious, non-idealized way for an incredibly long period of time that has led me to my writing career. 

I started writing in late November of 1988 when I was 17 years-old, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I have written every single day of my life since then.

I have not missed a day.

Wedding day. Birth of my children. Death of my mother. Pneumonias. Honeymoon. Vacation. Concussions. Homelessness.

I have not missed a day. 

When I was younger, I wrote in journals. I wrote letters. Short stories, Newsletters. Poems. Zines. Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Comics. My classmate's term papers (my first paid writing gig). 

In 1990 I began blogging on an early version of the Internet known as a Bulletin Board System.

In 2004 I took a graduate level class on blogging and began blogging regularly, first at a blog entitled Perpetual Perpetuity, and then Conform Me Not, and now here. Since 2004, I have not missed a day.  

I started writing at the age of 17. I published my first novel at the age of 39.

Talent? It took me 22 years of constant, consistent, relentless daily practice before any publisher was interested in my work. Maybe I'm a talented writer, or maybe I simply forged myself through hard work into someone who looks like a talented writer.  

I wrote on an island. Under a tree. In the middle of a parking lot.

I arrived at the dentist office at 1:40 PM for a 2:00 PM appointment. With a book due in less than a week, I was anxious to return to the manuscript. 

The dentist has a television in the waiting room, so rather than trying to write with a talking head yammering in the background, I took a seat beneath a small tree on an island in the center of the parking lot and worked for 15 minutes.

I finished a chapter and revised the end of another. 

I mention this for two reasons:

1. I meet a lot of people who claim that they can only write under certain conditions:

  • Only in Starbucks 
  • Only in two hour increments
  • Only with a cappuccino
  • Only in the morning
  • Only with ink and paper
  • Only while listening to jazz

I have yet to meet a published writer who suffers from any of these limitations. I also like to remind these tragically limited writers that soldiers wrote poetry, letters, and novels in the trenches of World War I while wearing gas masks. 

John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Field" after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

Thank goodness he didn't need a cappuccino to write one of the great poems of the twentieth century.  

2. I mention this because the question I am asked most often is "How do you manage to get so much done?" While I have many, many answers to this question, yesterday's writing session on the island of a parking lot is a good example of one of those answers:

I don't waste a minute. Rather than being precious about my time, I believe my time to be precious. Instead of waiting for ideal conditions to complete tasks and accomplish goals, I take what I can get, when I can get it. Time is our greatest commodity, so I don't wait a minute of it.  

Thinking is a part of the writing process, damn it

I was teaching storytelling last week at Miss Porter's School.

I sent the girls off for an hour to write and craft their stories, and when they returned, I asked them how they did. 

"Not good at all," one of the girls said. 

When I asked why, she explained that she spent the first 30 minutes just sitting there, trying to find the best way to start the story. 

"Did you finally figure it out?" I asked.

"Yeah."

"And how did that go?" I asked.

"Great," she replied. "The second half hour was great. I think I've got a good first draft. I kind of like it a lot."

"So then why did you say your hour didn't go well?" I asked.

"Well," she said. "I wasted that first 30 minutes."

"No, you didn't," I said. "Writers think. Storytellers think. Thinkers think. It's part of the process. It sounds to me like you did fantastic. You used that hour perfectly. Why would you think otherwise?"

The girl and her fellow classmates explained that just sitting and thinking without any doing is not tolerated by most of their teachers back home.

"You can't ever just sit and do nothing," one girl said.

Another told me that she is expected to "Think at the end of her pen," which apparently means that you must be writing even when all you'd like to do is take some time and organize your thoughts. Or brainstorm. Or just let your mind wanter a bit. It's an insane insistence that words be applied to a page at all times, absent of any mental preparation or inspiration. 

"What idiot told you that thinking isn't a part of the writing process?" I demanded, instantly hoping she wouldn't say, "My mother."

She didn't. Instead, she said, "A lot of teachers." 

This makes me crazy.

Please note: none of these students were actual Miss Porter's students. They were potentially future Miss Porter's students, but all had yet to enroll. They came from all over the country and the world, so this is not the unfortunate philosophy of any one school. Girls from Africa and Europe were nodding in agreement at the notion that "just thinking" is not allowed.

Can you imagine: Thinking is not allowed. Thinking is not a part of the writing process. Thinking is a waste of time.

Here is the real problem: 

Not enough teachers write. Teachers require students to write persuasive essays, even though most teachers haven't written a persuasive essay in a decade or more. Teachers require students to write fiction, even though most teachers haven't written fiction since they were children. Teachers expect students to write research papers, when those teachers last wrote their own research paper in college.

When it comes to writing, we have an army of educators who are teaching something they never do. Even worse, in many cases, it's something they don't like to do. This would be akin to me trying to teach someone to play croquet or cook jambalaya or practice discretion.

If I never do it in real life, how am I expected to teach it to novices?

Sure, I could read a book about these topics, but would that really qualify me to teach any of those things?

Even worse, teachers learn how to teach writing from people who don't actually write, and if their instructors do  write, they often only write books on how to teach writing.

See the insanity?

When I am asked by teachers, parents, and administrators how to improve their writing instruction, my answer is always simple, obvious, and annoying:

Write.
When you assign a writing assignment to your students, write it yourself as well.
Let your students see you writing.
Share your writing with your students.
Become the writer you expect your students to be.

When teachers (and parents) actively engage in the writing process, they begin to understand the writing process. They better predict where and when writers will stumble. They more accurately distinguish between effective and ineffective lessons and assignments. They understand the importance of choice and audience to a writer. 

They know that thinking is a critical process of the writing process. They understand that sitting in front of the blank page, staring for long periods of time, is something that writers do.    

Only a person who doesn't write would think that thinking is not a part of the writing process.
Only a teacher who doesn't write would make a student believe that thinking is a waste of time. 

Increased degree of difficulty is not appreciated

Writing a novel is hard enough. I really don't need this added nonsense. 

My less-than-private, not-so-well-appointed office

That same year, The Hartford Courant did a feature on me that included my writing space, which was and still is the end of the dining room table. 

Not much has changed since then.

I'm still on the end of the dining room table. Charlie is much larger now and more mobile, making him even more capable of distracting me with pleas to build railroad tracks, wrestle, or play "Star Whores." I've migrated from Windows to Mac. The bottom shelf of my bookcase is now filled with games and puzzles. 

But that's about it. Unless I leave the house to write in the library or McDonald's, I sit in the center of my home, head down, oftentimes with headphones blaring rock 'n roll to drown out the noise.

Those lovely, well lit, perfectly appointed writers' spaces featured in the New York Times?

I wish I could say I don't need a space of my own to work, but in truth, I want one so badly.

I dream of the day when I can have a door to close off the rest of the world. A simple door that would allow me to focus and concentrate on the work and not on the 10,000 other things going on around me.   

Until then, I get by.

I wake up at 4:30 so I can have a couple hours of silence. 

I hunker with headphones and mental blinders and write.  

I sit in quiet libraries and white-noise filled McDonald's and any other place I can find and work like hell so I can get home. 

But someday, maybe, I will simply shut a door in my home and work like those writers featured in the New York Times. 

Won't that be a blessed day indeed.

Say no to "more details."

Parents and teachers often tell students to "add more details" when commenting on student writing. 

It's one of the least helpful things that you can say to a writer. 

Have you ever finished a novel or essay or memoir and wished that the author had included "more details?"

Teachers and parents say this to students because so many of them are not writers and do not seriously engage in the writing process. As a result, they simply don't know what to say in the same way I could say nothing to a apprentice carpenter or a beginning skier.

If you don't engage in the craft, you will have little to say about the craft. 

So rather than talking about craft, parents and teachers see quantity as quality. They believe - with all their heart - that an argument that be effectively made in 250 words is automatically made more effective if written with 500 or 1,000 words. 

It makes me insane.  

To this end, young writers should remember this:

Don't seek quantity. Seek quality. Rather than waxing on for paragraphs about a person or place, find the two or three words or phrases that capture the essence of the person or place, and leave it at that.

The best writers don't choose the most words. They choose the right words.  

Got kids? Here's how to turn them into writers.

As a teacher and a writer, I often give parents advice on helping their children to become effective writers who (more importantly) love to write.

My advice is simple:

Be the best audience possible for your child’s work. If he or she wants to read something to you, drop everything. Allow the chicken to burn in the frying pan. Allow the phone to ring off the hook. Give your child your full and complete attention. When a child reads something that they have written to someone who they love and respect, it is the most important thing happening in the world at that moment. Treat is as such.  

Don’t look at the piece. Don’t even touch the piece. Any comment made about the piece should never be about handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and the like. By never seeing the actual text, you innate, insatiable parental need to comment on these things will be properly stifled. Your child does not want to hear about your thoughts on punctuation or the neatness of their printing. No writer does. Your child has given birth to something from the heart and mind. Treat it with reverence. Speak about how it makes you feel. Rave about the ideas and images. Talk about the word choices that you loved. Compliment the title. Ask for more. Forget the rest.

Remember: Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. Even final drafts are not meant to be perfect. That’s why editors exist. Go online and look at the rough drafts of EB White’s Charlotte’s Web. They’re almost illegible. Who cares? Writing is messy.  

Once your child has finished reading the piece, offer three positive statements about the writing. Compliments. Nothing more. Only after you have said three positive things may you offer a suggestion. Maintain this 3:1 compliment/criticism ratio always. Use the word “could” instead of “should” when commenting.

If your child asks how to spell a word, spell it. Sending a child to the dictionary to find the spelling of a word is an act of cruelty and a surefire way to make writing less fun. You probably so this because it was the way that your parents and teachers treated you, but it didn’t help you one bit. It only turned writing into a chore. If you were to ask a colleague how to spell a word, you wouldn’t expect to be sent to the dictionary. That would be rude, The same holds true for your child.

Also, the dictionary was not designed for this purpose. It’s an alphabetical list of definitions and other information about words, but is wasn’t meant for spelling. Just watch a first grader look for the word “phone” in the F section of the dictionary and you will quickly realize how inefficient and pointless this process is.

When it comes to writing, the most important job for parents and teachers is to ensure that kids learn to love to write. If a child enjoys putting words on a page, even if those words are poorly spelled, slightly illegible, and not entirely comprehensible, that’s okay. The skills and strategies for effective writing will come in time, though direct instruction, lots of practice, and a little osmosis. The challenge – the mountain to climb – is getting a child to love writing. Make that your primary objective. Make that your only objective. Do everything you can to ensure that your child loves the writing process. Once you and your child achieve that summit, the rest will fall into place.

I promise.

Except for the handwriting. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do about that. Just be grateful that we live in a world where most of the writing is done on a computer. 

The 5 Stages of an Author's Reaction to Editorial Notes

I just completed what might be the final edits to my next novel, The Other Mother. After turning in the manuscript to my editor, she returned it to me with editorial suggestions.

I considered the suggestions carefully, agreed with more than 90% of them, and made the changes. After reviewing my revisions, my editor returned it to me with another round of suggestions, and I repeated the process.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

I think we might finally be done. 

The revision process is a good one. It always makes a book better. Typically, the suggestions made by my editor cut away the chaff, help to strengthen themes, and bring greater clarity to character and scenes.

But it's also a process fraught with emotion. I don't always agree with my editor's suggestions. Occasionally I am baffled by her ideas. Confused by her thoughts. Annoyed by her comments Every now and then, I am appalled at what she has recommended. 

I've broken this emotional response down into 5 stages.   

Gratitude: My editor has saved me from a lifetime of embarrassment. I am so stupid. A truly terrible writer. An imposter. I can't believe that she still wants to publish this book. I can't believe that she's still willing to talk to me. I have the best editor on the planet. 

Contentment: A good suggestion. A solid choice on my editor's part. So happy to have her on my side. 

Ambivalence: Fine. I mean, it could go either way, but fine. I can make that change. I'm a fairly agreeable soul. 

Acquiescence: No way. It ain't happening. I mean... if she really feels strongly about this one, I might be able to find a way to agree. Or at least meet her somewhere in the middle. I don't love the idea, but it's not like she's asking me to cut off my hand. Still, I think my way is better.

 Refusal: Does she have any idea how long I spent crafting that sentence? That paragraph? What chapter? There is no way in hell I am changing a single word of that section. She must've been drunk when she was editing this page.

Happily, about 95% of all of my editors suggestions fall into one of the first three stages.  

But that final 5% can really hurt. 

The three worst things ever

Sometimes characters in my books speak words and think things that I would never speak or think myself. 

Other times characters say words and think things that are directly from my heart and soul. In these cases, these characters are speaking on my behalf.  

In Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Budo lists the three things he hates most in the world.

His list is my list.  

1. Waiting
2. Not knowing
3. Not existing