Self Editing: It’s a Mindset

I follow a lot of writers on Twitter. Many of them post loads of writing advice–#writetips–some of which is useful and some of which is less so. One thing I see on an almost daily basis is: “You need an editor. You CANNOT edit your book by yourself; you’re too close to it.” This is particularly aimed at Independent or Self-Published authors. I have no special problem with the basic thrust of the statement. It’s an unpleasant truth that, while the rise of easy-to-use publishing platforms like Kindle and CreateSpace have both helped many authors make their work available and aided in de-stigmatizing the choice to self-publish, a high proportion of self-published works could benefit from editing. (If you want to read a fascinating article about this, look here.)

one-does not-simply-edit

However, I am a self-published author and I have never hired an editor. I have a number of reasons why I haven’t, the primary two being that I’m poor and that I have major trust issues. So when I see these posts about how an outside editor is absolutely necessary and you SIMPLY CANNOT do it yourself, I get nervous. I wonder if I’ve done the good job I think I have, or whether I’m deluding myself out of ego. Maybe my books aren’t really as good as all that, and all the positive reviews I’ve gotten are from people who don’t know any better. Never mind that two of my biggest fans are, themselves, professional editors and I’d think if my work called for criticism in that regard I’d certainly hear it. It’s easy for me to question my experience of reality and to think that what I believe to be the truth may not, in fact, be accurate.

So, last week, when this question came up, I took an informal poll of my readers. “Do I need to hire an outside editor?” I asked. Every single one who responded said NO. No, there’s the occasional typo, but every book has those. No, the editing in your books is professional quality. No, stop second-guessing yourself, you have an amazing sense of what needs to go where.

All of which reassured me, of course, and also made me wonder how it is that I do what I do. Because it is certainly true that many books I have read could have stood editing and many writers I know don’t feel up to doing it themselves. I don’t know how much of my ability to edit is learned skill and how much is inborn talent (or how much of the learned skill part comes from having to survive truly traumatizing events). But I told my friend, Jennie, I was thinking about a blog on the subject, and she told me she thought a lot of people might find it helpful. So, here it is.

Become-a-writer

In this post, I am going to assume a certain level of technical skill. I’m not going to address spelling and syntax and the difference between a verb and a noun. I get that lots of people are publishing books without seeming to have any grasp of these things. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the people who are doing this are not the ones who are going to be reading this blog with any kind of open mind. If you get consistent feedback that your writing lacks technical prowess, or that you need to revisit spelling and grammar, just go do it. Although I love language, I’m not a great teacher, and I have no interest in writing a blog devoted to remedial English.

Every writer needs to develop some editing skill. That should go without saying. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. I have been to far too many poetry readings where more than one person has graced the audience with lines their Muse granted them mere minutes before, and I’ve known far too many people who think the act of setting words down on a page means those words are golden. (My husband tells a story about a writing workshop where one woman, when the professor asked to see her work in progress, said, “I don’t show my work to anyone until it’s finished.” When the professor then asked to see some of her finished work, she said, “When it’s done, it’s done. No one can improve it.” The professor had some valid questions about why she’d signed up for the workshop in the first place.) So, step one is recognizing the value of the editing process. No matter how good your manuscript is, it can ALWAYS be better. I can pick up a book I published years ago and say, “Shit, I could have said that more clearly” or “Why did I use that word so much?” There’s always room to improve.

This is a delicate concept for most writers for a number of reasons. Many writers are in the habit of under-assessing their skills and privileging their flaws. A lot of this is probably due to the subjective nature of the publishing industry. In traditional forms of publishing, validation in the form of editor or agent attention is in great part a matter of luck: getting the “right” story in front of the “right” person at the “right” time. The writer has some control over this, but less than any of us would like. So we tend to reach for ways of controlling the outcome (because most people would rather believe they’re in control than admit any system is subjective and chaotic). One way we try to control the outcome is to blame the quality of the project, and rewrite over and over again, ad nauseam. Sometimes we get stuck writing the same introductory paragraph over and over, less because we’re trying to get it perfect than because we’re afraid to go on. And this can all too easily lead from “this project sucks” to “I suck.” It puts writers in the invidious position of needing a thing on a soul level (self expression through words) that makes them feel worse and worse about themselves the more they do it. Not unlike many addictions, as a matter of fact. A lot of writers I know dread and/or hate going back over their work because they can’t look at it without thinking how terrible it is, and how much they love this thing that they have no talent for, and “Why did I ever think I could write?” etcetera. Or they’re afraid that’s how they’re going to react, which amounts to the same thing. Incidentally, feeling insecure about the work and needing outside validation is one of the things that makes writers fall prey to shady business practices, bad contracts, and fraudulent publishing companies. I think that’s another blog.

Yes, it can feel like this.
Yes, it can feel like this.

So, after you give validity to the editing process, the second step is: “Let go of I Suck.” Whatever it takes to get those thoughts out of your head, do it. Call it thinking and return to the breath, if you happen to subscribe to some form of mindfulness meditation. Go outside and scream and jump up and down and call yourself names. Step back and do something else. Whatever you have to do, keep those thoughts out of your workspace, because if you let them in, they’ll contaminate everything. The more you think you suck, the more mistakes you’ll make and the more it will reinforce I Suck. So just don’t go there. If you don’t have a particular writing space, make a rule that when you pick up your laptop or notebook, “I Suck” doesn’t get to play. If you find yourself dwelling on it, put your laptop or notebook down and GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Once you’ve given “I Suck” the time of day, you’re ready to get down to the work. Different people have lots of different processes for editing a manuscript. Some say “never edit as you go along; just get the first draft down.” That doesn’t work as well for me, so I do it differently. You’ll find your own way. However you decide to do it–if you keep everything to yourself until the whole MS is complete or if you like to share chapters with a critique partner as you go along–this is a place where getting outside feedback is vital. Lots of other people have written about how to find a critique partner, so I’m not going to go into it here except to say it’s vital you enlist someone you can trust, and preferably someone who understands the genre you write in. Otherwise you run the risk of hearing that the monarchy in your Epic Fantasy can’t function the way it does because of the Medici AND I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Getting critique from someone who doesn’t have a clue does more harm than good.

On the other hand, a good critique partner who knows your genre can be invaluable, especially if he or she has some pertinent esoteric knowledge about particular story items and props (e.g., handguns, sword fighting, herbalism, livestock). If your CP does have this kind of information, USE THE FUCK OUT OF IT. This is where the “Kill Your Darlings” thing I hate so much comes in. You cannot afford to be so attached to some cool scene that you ignore someone knowledgeable who tells you it can’t work that way. If a longbow hunter tells you your heroine would bleed out from an arrow to the lung long before she could drag herself to the trailhead, believe him. Use the information you have been given to bring the scene in line with reality. If you absolutely need your heroine to suffer lung damage, find another way to do it.

darlings

The person who reads your MS first is your ALPHA READER. I have a specific list of questions I want my Alpha Reader to keep in mind (I want my Betas to keep them in mind, too. In fact, I want everyone to keep them in mind). Here’s a handy little mnemonic for you. Think of the four “Cs”: Concept, Character, Clarity, Continuity. These are the questions I ask:

Does the CONCEPT make sense?

Can you tell the CHARACTERS apart and are they consistent?

Are you CLEAR on what is happening?

Is the sequence of events CONTINUOUS and logical?

All of these questions fall under the heading of “Content Editing,” and answering them should be your first step.  Because a writer is the god of his or her book, Concept can be pretty fluid: if you say something happened, it happened unless it defies the laws of physics, and even those can bend in fantastic realities. The most important thing to bear in mind is You MUST Support Your Concept. If your story hinges on a reality where objects fall up, you need to explain the places where this doesn’t happen. If everything else falls up, you can’t take for granted that your characters are excused from this law because they need to walk around on a planet’s surface. Explain it. Likewise, Characters need to be real and consistent. If your villain does something not villainous, give him a reason. If you have a large cast, try to give each character an individual voice and something that makes him or her stand out from the pack. Clarity becomes particularly important in action scenes and magical realms; your amazing system won’t serve your story if no one can understand it, and your heroine’s battle skills can become cumbersome if you don’t know how to get them across. And Continuity keeps your plot focused and allows the reader to suspend his or her disbelief enough to get lost in your world. For me, continuity errors are the thing most likely to throw me out of the experience. If you have stated your heroine is a virgin and she turns up pregnant without either having had sex or you providing a damn good reason how that could happen, your continuity is flawed. Likewise, a character you killed in chapter three should not appear in chapter twenty-three unless you explain how that happened.

I count fixing all of the four Cs as part of my first draft. In fact, I have the kind of mind that can’t make progress in later portions of the book unless all the earlier parts make sense, so there are times when I may write three or four versions of chapter four until I get one that works, and then bring the succeeding chapters in line before going on. Not everyone works this way. Some people have to keep going from beginning to end, and some people have to skip around. The important part is answering the questions.

editing llama

After you have a complete first draft, it’s time to look at your actual language use. Doing this requires a certain level of self-awareness and often a thesaurus. Go over your work, check for specific words you overuse, and highlight them. Common offenders are “was” and “that.” I also mark “just,” “could,” “back,” and the suffix “-ly.” Sometimes I mark other things as well. My protagonist likes to use a lot of qualifiers: “That was really gross” or “John is pretty awesome.” More often then not, you can drop the qualifier. If you overuse the verb “to be” (i.e., was, were), your manuscript gets a static feeling, so it’s good to examine how you might rewrite to include action-oriented verbs.

The reason I say this part takes a certain level of self-awareness is that you need to be able to distance yourself from the fact that you’re looking at SOMETHING YOU WROTE OMG enough to recognize repetitive word use. If you put yourself aside, you’ll be more able to see where you might improve, and this, in turn, will enable you to learn what to look for next time. But it’s always important to remember that repeating words or using static verbs says nothing about you and nothing about your skill. In other words, you STILL DO NOT SUCK. Everyone repeats words in early drafts. Everyone uses static verbs. Everyone uses qualifiers. We do it because that’s how we talk, and it pops into our heads, and IT’S EASY. Nothing wrong with that. The error would be in not learning, in not improving what can be improved. There is a vast difference between conversation between friends hanging out and literature. Learn what it is. (This can actually help you improve your use of voice, too.)

Once I reach this stage, I start sending chapters out to Beta readers, and the whole process repeats itself. If possible, I like to recruit several Betas of different backgrounds and areas of expertise, because each one of them will have different concerns. A paragraph that is clear to one person may not be to another. Of course, you can’t please everyone. Do your best to weigh the advice you get, take what you find valuable, and let the rest go.

And then, put your MS away. Go have a life. Okay, if you have another story beating at the gates of your brain, you can start something new. I like to get away from writing altogether for a while. Some people will let a MS rest for six months; I generally make it one or two. But letting your MS rest is an important part of the editing process, because it helps you get perspective. And you need the perspective because the last part of the editing process is forgetting you’re a writer and re-visiting the story as a reader.

editing-meme

I think most of us write what we’d like to read. And I think most of us have opinions on what we read: what works and what doesn’t, how a sentence should have gone, what words we would have used instead of the ones the author chose. Whether that 200-page underworld sequence was absolutely necessary, or whether she REALLY would have married him after all that. If you can learn to view your work through a reader’s eyes, editing becomes much, much easier. This is the part that proponents of the “It’s impossible to edit your own work” school of thought believe a writer can’t do, and I’m not going to kid you: It’s not a simple shift to make. You have to give up any ego investment in the story. Stop thinking it’s going to make you anything or get you anything. Whatever it is you think will change in your life because you’re a published writer–fame, money, escape, recognition, freedom–forget about it. This is the place where the story is an independent entity that works or doesn’t, that has to stand or fall on its own. It isn’t yours anymore. The fact that you wrote it no longer matters. It sweeps you up, or it doesn’t. Either way, it’s a moment in your life. If you like it, if you don’t, it doesn’t mean anything about you.

The secret to self-editing is being able to move at will between being a creator and a voyeur and having no attachment to either role. If you can develop that mindset, I guarantee you your work will improve. And keep improving. It will make your work better, it will make your process more pleasant, and it will make things like querying and marketing easier. Which is a good thing, because a writer’s life is hard enough. Anything that can relieve the stress and help you remember why you started writing in the first place is a thing to be cherished.

Writers: It’s Fine to Like Your Work

My friend, Olivia, posted this blog today about an experience common to writers: Thinking you suck.

It got me thinking about my own involvement with my work. As you know if you’ve read much of this blog, I’ve been writing almost since I can remember. Making up stories. Some have worked and some haven’t so much. Some I got bored with. Some I couldn’t pull off. Some I completed, but didn’t have the chops at the time to translate the grandiose idea to the page. Some turned out to have themes I honestly didn’t want to explore, but trying to ignore them or gloss over them made the work superficial. Some I wrote a lovely first half, put it aside for a while, and forget what was supposed to happen. But I can’t truly say I’ve ever thought my work sucked. Not really. Sure, I get nervous when I hear people are reading it or it’s out for review. I might wonder, “Oh shit, what if it sucks? What if all the good reviews are flukes and THIS ONE PERSON’S negative opinion is the true one?”

This is bullshit, by the way. Even a reviewer’s opinion is only an opinion. Not every book meets with approval from every reader. I’ve hated enough popular books to know this. Unfortunately, it’s common for everyone pursuing some kind of public art to have these kinds of questions. When I was doing my radio show, I could get ten calls from people who thought it was wonderful, and still the single caller who said, “I hate this music! Why are you even on the air?” was the one I remembered. The one who ruined my night.

Anyway.

The point I mean to make is, though there are things I haven’t finished and things that haven’t worked for various reasons, I have never actually in my heart of hearts believed my work categorically sucks. Yes, it can be frustrating. But I believe in my writing ability. I do not suck. My words do not suck. My use of language does not suck. My characters do not suck. Etcetera, ad infinitum.

I mentioned this to my friend, Jennie, and she said: “That’s because you’re a gift to the world of writers: you actually KNOW and can admit when your stuff is amazing.”

This made me angry. Not at Jennie, or at her words, but at the prevelant attitude that writers are supposed to hate themselves and their work until someone else tells them not to. I have been involved with a great many other arts, and in my experience it’s an attitude that you don’t have to deal with anywhere else. Not in music, not in theater, not in dance, not, in my limited experience, in visual arts. (Well, maybe in some types of dance. If you have really bad teachers.) But writers, who already tend to be vulnerable, introverted, and fearful of sharing their passion, are encouraged to hate themselves in the name of personal growth.

New Flash: Hating yourself does not in any way contribute to personal growth. It might give you an impetus to change. But once you’ve decided to do the work, it just gets in the way.

Right now I see this attitude contributing to the Self vs. Trad publishing wars. Militants in the Self camp are tired of “gatekeepers” deciding what does and does not constitute good writing–especially since a lot of Trad publishing seems to care less about writing quality that it does about trends that will sell and fitting within some arbitrary appropriate word count. Militants in the Trad camp are worried about their hard work being devalued if just anybody can do it, and point to the unfortunately large number of self-published books whose authors have not taken the time or paid the attention necessary to turning out a professional, finished product. (And in case you wonder, although I chose self-publishing, I am not in either camp. I’m very glad that writers have a wide variety of options these days and I think you should pick what works for you. I ALSO think you need to put your work under objective eyes before publishing it and spend as much time cleaning it up as you did writing it in the first place.)

So what causes this attitude? How is it we encourage writers to practice self-hate? Well, I see a couple of things. One is the way we tend to view writers, particularly novelists, as inhuman creatures who kind of pop into being, like Athena springing from the skull of Zeus. Unless a writer has a particularly interesting (and often tragic) life story, we forget them. In school–at least in my school–we studied literature, but we paid very little attention to the process that produces it. I can tell you about Freytag’s Analysis and how it applies to Virginia Woolf. I can’t tell you Virginia’s relationship with her characters, or how she discovered the road from Point A to Point B.

Another thing is, writers might be great poets or story-tellers, but it doesn’t mean they know the first thing about communicating as human beings. One of the most traumatic things that I have experienced in my writing process took place at the Naropa Summer Writing Program, which I attended in 1986. At the time I was writing poetry almost exclusively, partly because that was the focus of the program and partly because college level creative writing at the time meant writing poetry. The End. (Aside: I never, ever, have taken a course that explains in clear, concise detail how to write fiction, much less genre fiction. Analysis, yes. How To Do It, no.) So, I was in a workshop with a famous and rather brilliant poet, and I was asked to share what I was working on. I did, and the famous and brilliant poet reamed me up one side and down the other for presenting such garbage and wasting his time, and why the fuck did I think I could write, and on and on and on. I was in tears. Afterward, almost everyone else in the class came to me privately to say the guy was out of line and my poetry was actually rather lovely. But that incident sticks with me. With the perspective of time, I have come to think a couple of things: This brilliant and famous poet was AN ABUSIVE ASSHOLE who got off on screaming at people with less power than he had. And possibly, just possibly, he had no idea how to talk to another person or how to give effective critique. To say, “You know, this theme is interesting, but you should look at tweaking the phrasing here and using a more powerful word here.”

This is something I’ve learned over the years. I’ve mentioned it before, and I will no doubt do so again: People. Please. Learn to give effective feedback. Any writer worth his or her salt should understand that the world is not black and white. “You suck” and “You’re great!” do not constitute anything I need to listen to.

Because some writers don’t actually communicate well, we get nauseating little sound bites of technique advice. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Yes, my all-time least favorite thing ever: Kill Your Darlings!

darlings

When I first heard this, I thought it meant you should kill characters you’re attached to because it will be good drama. (FACT: When I started writing the Caitlin Ross books, I thought, “I’m going to have to kill Timber at some point, aren’t I? Because it would be good drama.” I have since gotten over this. Timber will continue to go through immense shit from time to time, but I’m not going to kill him.)

Later, I learned that “Kill Your Darlings” means you should eliminate any paragraph or phrase you’re attached to.

Hmmmm.

Okay, I will admit there is something to this. My favorite poetry prof, Ken Mikolowski, said it like this: “If you have a poem with one excellent, shining line, you should probably axe that line because it will stick out like a sore thumb. Instead of it shining, it will bring down the whole rest of the work by comparison.” Irish singer Niamh Parsons spoke of voices blending in a choral situation: “You don’t want one or two people going off into ornamentation, even though they might do it in a solo piece. In a choir, the whole sound is what matters.”

Your novel is a choir, with many voices blending to create a smooth whole. So yeah, a single, shining line, a line you love, that you think is so awesome, might have to go to preserve the whole.

However. I see a lot of writers doing THIS:

“Kill my darlings, kill my darlings, Ima axe everything I think is good because I DON’T KNOW WHAT GOOD REALLY IS AND I SUCK!”

Back up. What was that? Okay, yeah: we all fall victim to hyperbole and the occasional purple prose. Especially those of us writing Epic Fantasy. It goes with the territory. But there’s a huge difference between being able to recognize when you’ve taken a description or a turn of phrase too far and actually sucking. “I suck” is a value judgment. It isn’t helpful, and it only makes you feel bad. “This doesn’t work here” is something else entirely.

When you get right down to it, I am a terrifyingly practical person and I like practical solutions. I am always going to ask what works and what doesn’t. This is a question more writers need to learn to ask in a way that doesn’t make them throw up. Does it work? Why or why not? If it doesn’t, how can I fix it? And you know what? If it works, it’s totally all right to like it. Be proud of it, even. You’ve done something not everyone can do, and that’s a good feeling! You’re allowed to feel good about your passion! Society often sets us–people in general–up to dismiss ourselves. We don’t want to appear stuck up or, gods forbid, “Get the Big Head.” But in the words of Sherlock Holmes,

“My dear Watson, I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.”

Or in the much shorter phrase attributed to Apollo: “Know thyself.”

It’s good to evaluate and discern. It’s good to be able to apply a critical eye to your work, to find and fix the flaws. But flaws don’t mean you suck. Being critical doesn’t mean you suck. They just mean you’re not done.

Writers: Start practicing liking your work. It’s okay. It’s even beneficial. Once you get rid of that load of baggage weighing you down, think of all the places you might go!

Your First Draft Does Not Suck

There’s this maxim prominent in writer circles. If you’re a writer, or if you have much to do with writers, you’ve seen it or heard it. You may even have said it or posted it. It’s one of those catchy, four-word phrases meant to give pause, to get you thinking. To condense a whole world of meaning into an easy sound bite.

I gave it away in the post title, but in case you aren’t following me it’s this one: Your First Draft Sucks. Alternately, Your First Draft ALWAYS sucks.

This is my reaction when I hear or see those words:

Elrond's_armor_-_halfbody
DIE, ORC SCUM!

Look, I understand the intent. We all know people who are so enamored of the idea of themselves as writers and the process of putting words on a page as sacred that they refuse to apply any critical thinking to their work. It may be we’ve all been that person at one time or another. Maybe we churned out fifty to a hundred thousand words and were so proud of the achievement that we wanted to share it with the world. Maybe we were too close to the work to see the flaws. Maybe we didn’t have the education and experience to judge. Maybe we lived a life where we didn’t have access to a good critique partner or community of supportive writers. Or maybe we were scared of self-examination. Whatever; I can see how people might feel the need to remind folks that critical thinking and self-editing are part of the writing process. The problem is, saying “Your First Draft Sucks” does nothing to address the issues, and it can be downright harmful.

Writers are a vulnerable bunch. Whether by intent or predisposition, we, like most others who pursue an art form, feel things deeply. It takes a gigantic amount of courage to translate deeply felt realities into words and put them onto a page, and that’s not even considering the amount of courage it takes to share your work with others. I know there are those who–at least ostensibly–seem t0 take up writing because of the idea that it’s a glamorous life that will result in immediate fame and fortune, with little work involved. But 1. that’s a myth, and 2. for every writer I know who subscribes to the myth, I can count half a dozen who sweat blood over their work and are afraid to show it to anyone. Because, deep inside, there is always the question: Is this any good? Have I expressed my deeply held reality in a way that will convey it to other people? Or am I pretending to have skill at something I’m no good at? Is this thing I want out of my grasp? Unrealistic? Should I give up on my dream?

Yeah, telling these folks that they suck isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s kind of like this:

internet-cyber-bully-children-390x220
And telling us to grow a thicker skin isn’t great, either.

When I see or hear “Your First Draft Sucks,” it tells me way more about the person saying it than it does about anyone to whom they’re talking. I ask, “Why do you need to repeat this? What’s so threatening to you about other people’s first drafts? Why do you need to perpetuate this idea that all writers–especially beginning writers–think of themselves as ‘special snowflakes’ (ODIOUS TERM) with the golden semen of angels pouring from their pens?”

I also think, “Here is a person who does not know how to give constructive criticism, or who can’t be bothered to.”

The first rule of constructive criticism is: Be Specific. Please explain to me, what is specific about telling a writer her first draft sucks? I read a lot of manuscripts, and though quite a few of them have problems (sometimes numerous problems), I can say with certainty that none of them categorically sucked, first draft or not. Even in manuscripts that I’ve found amateurish and cliche-ridden, there have been gems. Characters that leap off the page, scenes that make me laugh, or cry. Beautiful words and original ideas. Why in the world would I want to risk having a new writer scrap all that by telling her, “Your first draft sucks?”

Hey, you know, if you don’t want to deal with all that, fine. Don’t be an Alpha reader or a Critique Partner. Say, “I’m sorry, I don’t read manuscripts.” Don’t put your issue on the writer. Especially don’t use your status as an established writer to intimidate someone new to the craft, or spout bullshit aphorisms out of some weird intent to make yourself look knowledgeable. Because what it looks like is this:

bully
Listen to me or else!

One last thing: When you say something like “Your First Draft Sucks” as if it’s a universal truth, you are assuming that everyone’s process is alike and everyone’s first draft looks the same. They aren’t. Not everyone sits down and writes straight through a story to the end (oh yeah–that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. Another useless standard.). My writing process looks a lot like this: Write first chapter. Think about it for a couple weeks. Write a few more chapters. Decide that I don’t like what’s going on in Chapter Three and I didn’t touch on something important in Chapter Five. Go back and fix those. Continue through the first act. Think about it some more. Realize I need to do something in second act that I didn’t lead up to, so go back through act one and stick in foreshadowing. Write some more chapters. Discover a character vital to the outcome of the story doesn’t exist. Create character and if necessary go back and insert him into previous chapters so his appearance doesn’t come out of nowhere.

The thing is, by the time I have a First Draft folder containing an entire book from beginning to end, I’ve already done the work to make it hold together, with a consistent, comprehensible plot containing a clear beginning, middle, and end. Sure, there’s work yet to do. But my first draft does not suck. Some of this is because of the way I work, and some of this is because I’ve been writing forty years, and some is because I have a highly organized mind that doesn’t veer off on strange tangents. Whatever the reason, your sound bite doesn’t apply to me. And it doesn’t apply to most others.

So let’s stop perpetuating this one, okay? Writers have enough grief to cope with. We don’t need it from each other.

Respecting the Work, Respecting Ourselves

A couple weeks ago I ran across this blog post: “Do Writers Really Have to Learn All that Yucky Grammar?” Now, I am what is commonly known as a Grammar Nazi, but I count myself a Grammar Lover. I dig language. I dig how it works and how it’s put together. More than that, I find it easy. It resonates for me. I don’t always have an explanation for the way things work on the tip of my tongue, but I have a natural gift and I almost always get it right.

I understand that not everyone has the same advantage, not even everyone who writes. When I Beta other writers’ manuscripts, I find a lot of mistakes, and that’s fine. That’s part of why you get feedback–so someone else can point out things you might have missed from being too close to your work. So you correct them and move on, or if you don’t understand the issue you might ask about the problem or look it up and learn to avoid it next time. It goes with the territory.

But I don’t get people who claim a writer’s identity, who object to learning the basics of the trade. So when I read the above-mentioned article my gut reaction–the same gut reaction I have when I read any article along the same lines–was: Why is this even necessary? Why does this have to be said over and over again?

puzzled-expression
Are you really going to make me explain this again?

I have a long history with the arts and humanities. I’ve done visual arts. I’ve studied music since I can remember, play a variety of instruments, and have been in several bands. In college, I majored in Dance (and Psychology), and I’ve held starring roles in numerous theatrical productions. But my first love has always been writing. I’ve seen it as my calling since second grade, when Mrs. Stahl told Julie Johnson that she should be an author and I piped up, “No, I’M going to be an author!” And I have never seen any of the arts treated with the same bizarre combination of reverence and disrespect that people bandy around when the subject of writing comes up.

In the disrespect corner are the people who say things like, “My family always tell me I write such great letters, I think I should write a book.” The acquaintances who greet the news that you’re a writer with, “Hey, if you need any help editing let me know!” There’s the lady in town who writes poetry in the bathtub, reads it that night at the local coffee house, and receives any suggestion that her work might be made cleaner as an affront. The relative who tells you, “I’ve got a great idea for you to write about in your spare time…” I’d also include those individuals who refuse to learn proper spelling and grammar, as well as those people who submit unpolished manuscripts and query agents without following their guidelines. These things are so common that there are a couple memes circulating about them. And at first, you greet them with sighs and eye-rolling, but as time goes on and you hear them over and over again, they make you want to bash your head repeatedly into the nearest wall.

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No, really. This is less painful

On the reverence side of things, you get a weird conglomeration of stuff. The hushed awe some people show you upon learning you’re a writer, as if you’ve announced you just dropped in from Alpha Centauri, or perhaps discovered a cure for cancer. The massive advances that some A-list writers get. Book fandom turns popular writers into rock stars. Readers obsess over the fates of their favorite characters and line up for signings and treat the winners of the Hugo or the Edgar the way other people treat Oscar winners. Prominent authors become spokespersons for political causes and their names become household words. All of it contributes to this feeling that writers are a race apart, with talents that set them far above the average Joe. And I don’t know how other writers react to the intersection of reverence and disrespect, but in me it causes a kind of cognitive dissonance, a feeling that my ability to use words to convey a coherent story is a kind of superpower, but it doesn’t really count because anyone could do the same if she felt like it. Anyone at all could sit down at a computer, or with paper and pen, and write a hundred thousand words, and transform herself into the next Stephen King by breakfast next Sunday. Because writing is, after all, an easy way to make a quick buck.

I’m  not sure where this idea comes from, and I think about it a lot. Maybe it’s because in the First World we’re all (allegedly) taught to write in school. Most people experience words on a daily basis in one way or another. We write emails and Facebook status updates. We see words on cereal boxes and street signs. They’re not mysterious, like the ability to dance or act or play an instrument. Society’s focus on literacy for everyone has made them accessible, and don’t mistake me, I think that’s a good thing. I think words are great, and do good things, and people should have access to them. But being able to send a witty letter to Mom or tweet your emotional state in one hundred and forty characters does not equate to being able to write a novel, or even a short story.

The thing is, while most people learn some form of literacy, a great many of those people don’t absorb the annoying details. Grammar, unless you’re me or share my fascination for language, is neither easy nor fun. Neither is spelling. No more so  is the logic of structuring a coherent plot, or many of the things that turn a string of semi-related words into a novel that someone might actually want to read. And so people don’t learn them, or if they learn them, they often forget them as soon as the test is over.

There’s also this idea in some circles that the picayune details don’t matter as long as a person expresses herself honestly. I remember back when I was in high school hearing about some Urban District where an English teacher was having great success getting kids to write by telling them not to worry about spelling or grammar or any of the rules; just get the words down. Needless to say, this approach sent my English-teacher mother through the ceiling, but I do see the value in it. My own husband, who is also an English teacher, sometimes has to resort to it just to get his students to do the work. And I’ve seen it used to good purpose in groups like Writing Down the Bones, where the point is to overcome the fear of writing and the debilitating tendency to self-censor. Just write. Worry later. I say it to myself when I’m working on a first draft. Just write.

The problem comes when people get so enamoured of the idea of self as writer that they forget that Just Write is the starting place. The process of writing gets entangled with the ego to the point where any criticism, any suggestion that you might perhaps want to subject your work to a little critical analysis or perhaps learn how to construct a sentence in a more effective way is seen as a personal attack. And I get it, really I do. The act of writing, or creating with words, is intensely personal. Taking what’s in your heart and putting it on the page for everyone to see is scary. But isn’t that a good reason to make it as tight and coherent as possible? “Well yeah,” you might say. “But what about the idea that my words have intrinsic value? That I, as a person, have intrinsic value? If you’re telling me I can do better doesn’t that mean you think what I’ve done so far is shitty? Who are you to judge? My books are my children!”

To this I really must ask: “Do you really refuse to bathe or toilet train your children because they weren’t born with those skills?”

I’ve seen this conversation a lot in the self-publishing community, which is fairly well divided between those who believe in working at their craft and making it the best it can be and those who think that uploading whatever words come off the tops of their heads to Amazon and calling it a book is just fine. (You can probably guess where I stand on this debate.) It’s the kind of thing that leads people to write articles demanding that those who self-publish shouldn’t call themselves authors. And it certainly isn’t helped by the fact that it’s demonstrably true that going the traditional route (or subjecting your work to gatekeepers, depending on your slant) does not always result in a superior product.

But, you know,  as it says in the article that prompted me to write this: you wouldn’t want to take your car to a mechanic who didn’t have a full range of tools at his disposal. Deciding you’re a novelist because you write good letters is like deciding you’re a brain surgeon because you were good at Operation in your youth. The two aren’t the same. And there’s another side to studied ignorance of your craft that directly contributes to some of the stuff that annoys writers most: When you don’t respect what you do enough to do it well, other people won’t respect it either. So they’ll continue to misunderstand what being a writer means, and continue to make those comments we find so hard to hear. Like these things:

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And the next time I hear any of these, someone’s going to get punched in the mouth.

Everyone might have a story to tell, but not everyone needs to write a novel (which is my problem with events like NaNoWriMo, but that’s probably a different blog). It’s not an easy way to the big bucks. It’s hard work with less return, on a monetary level, than most people would like to think. If you manage to finish your first draft, there are edits, and sending your work out to critique partners; shit, there’s the whole business of finding a good critique partner before you even share your work at all. And then, more edits and, if you decide to go the traditional route, there are queries and synopses to write, which is an art all of its own. And more edits. And all that is no guarantee that a publisher will pick up your book, or that the public will buy it.

There are lots of ways to be creative with words. My husband (the English teacher, remember) creates beautiful and lavish worlds. I envy his ability to do so; he has one of the most original and creative minds I have ever encountered. Sometimes I tell him he really ought to do something with those worlds he creates. His response, inevitably, is “Oh, I don’t want to do all that work.” And that’s fine. Not writing a novel doesn’t make him any less original or creative.

I’m lucky. I have to edit far less than most other writers and I never fall prey to the tendency writers often display of looking back on early drafts and thinking they’re shit. Most of the time I can go over my work and know that, even if the words I’ve written aren’t the right words, they’re good words all the same. A novelist friend of mine recently told me, “The words you pull out of your ass are better than the ones I’ve gone over a dozen times.” But the reason for this is that I have spent forty years loving language, studying my craft, and learning to organize my thoughts so I can churn out 2000 words on short notice and have them make sense. (As some proof of this, I offer the fact that this post appears as it came out of my head, with only one edit to add the sentence about books as compared to children, because I thought of that when I woke up this morning.)

If, after all this, you still feel that novel pushing against your breastbone, write it. But please do yourself a favor and get the tools to make your book the best book it can possibly be. Study grammar. Learn how to spell. Read the work of other writers and ask yourself what does and doesn’t work, and how you’d do it differently.

Teaching other people to respect the process of writing starts with respecting it ourselves.

How We Talk About Writing Matters

Nothing—and I mean nothing—flips my switch like people posting misinformation, bad advice, and intellectual fallacies under the hashtag #writetip.

If you follow me, you probably already get that I am not fond of rules. When it comes to writing, I’m a stickler for grammar and beautiful use of language, but when it comes to style, I can enjoy a lot as long as you pay attention to the first two. And that’s why most lists of “Rules of Writing” drive me nuts. They address—or hope to address—issues of style, not technique. And they seem to promote the idea that there’s some secret formula, some Über-style that will make agents and editors alike gasp in admiration and admit the writer to the hallowed halls of publication.

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Another thing that puts my knickers in a twist is people parroting back these lists of rules who demonstrate no comprehension of what they actually mean or where they might have come from. When I see lists making sweeping generalizations about what you should and should not include in your manuscript, my immediate reaction is to ask, “Who made you the authority?” Because I notice these tweets seldom come from successful authors I respect, or for that matter have even heard of.

 Yesterday this popped up in my Twitter feed:

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Of course, it got me going right from the start. I take exception to anyone telling me point blank what to delete from my manuscript. Some of those words and expressions may be overused by some writers. But there is no word or expression that is by nature “wrong,” or “bad” or “unnecessary.”

 Usually I ignore this stuff, because it just raises my blood pressure. Yesterday, I chose to address the person posting. I asked, “So, you don’t see any distinction between an action that is ongoing and one that has just begun?”

 Her response: “Well, sure, in the right context. But as a general rule it’s passive voice.”

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After I retrieved my jaw from my lap, I gently informed the poster that none of those items constituted passive voice and explained what passive voice actually means.  Her response: “I was speaking voice, not grammar. It’s static passive voice, but still, a majority of times, it needs to go.” I told her passive voice is a grammatical concern, not a stylistic one. Her response: “I think most people knew what I meant though. While technically, you’re correct, most people use the other term.”

Here I refrained from screaming, “THEN MOST PEOPLE ARE WRONG!!!”

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Later this happened:

annoying tweet 2

Do you see what’s going on here? I mean, aside from the backpedaling and justification. Really, people, how hard is it to admit you made a mistake and correct yourself? If you’re fighting about this, how do you take critique of your work? How are you ever going to cope with that hoped-for editor???

But that’s not my point. My point is the original poster did not have the language to talk about writing, and instead of acquiring it fell back on “I like to think most people know what I mean.”

What kind of attitude is that for a person who claims the use of words and language as her BUSINESS?

We are writers. Words are our medium. How we talk about what we do MAKES A DIFFERENCE. We need to pay attention, not only to the language in our stories, but the Meta-Language of writing, i.e., the words and terms we use to talk about what we do. There is absolutely no point in sharing rules about how to write if you don’t have any clarity of terms. These terms not only give us a common ground to discuss what we do, but also create an intelligible platform for sharing our work and ideas about our work with others. Without a common meta-language, we cannot even know what we value and what we don’t. We cannot talk about style versus technique. And we certainly cannot expect anyone to intuit what we mean. I don’t care if you felt limited by Twitter’s 140 character restriction. If you can’t express yourself clearly, you have no business trying to tell others how to express themselves.

You know, I get that language changes. Things are acceptable in writing now that were not acceptable when I was a kid in middle school. You can split infinitives. You can use “alright” instead of “all right,” something I was taught is never correct. You can say “Everyone has their hat” instead of “everyone has his hat.” Lots of these things still drive me batshit and I avoid them like the plague, but that’s just me. As I said earlier, I’m a stickler for grammar and technique. And the waters get muddy where technique and style collide.

But the evolution of language in popular culture is not the point here. Yes, colloquialisms may change, but the professional language of writers talking about writing does not. When I talk with a professor or an editor about “passive voice” it means the grammatical construct whereby the subject of the sentence receives the action. It is distinct and separate from a static stylistic choice and we all know that because the meta-language is consistent.

Our words are our tools. A builder might own both a brick hammer and a framing hammer, but he wouldn’t use the brick hammer to frame a house. We have lots of words in our toolbag, and we need to use the words that say what we mean. If you don’t know them, learn them. Refusing to do so makes all writers look bad.

And if you don’t care about that, think about this: it makes you look like a moron.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading this mystery series about a samurai detective in feudal Japan. I like it a lot. It’s well-written and engaging, and the author has really done her research into the details of Bushido and life in Japan in the 17th century.

But she has one habit that bothers me quite a bit. On almost every page, she uses an intransitive verb for a transitive verb. Things like “Thunder rumbled the sky,” and “Tension tingled the air.” It makes me cringe. Every. Time.

I can understand why she might have done this. As writers, we’re encouraged to “use active language” to engage readers and keep the story moving. The problem is, not all “active” verbs are equal. You simply cannot substitute any old verb for any other verb you like better, because it has a more “active” sound.

Transitive and intransitive, people. Both can be “active.” But they do different things.

Transitive verbs take objects. “The boy threw the ball.” “I broke my coffee mug.” The verb indicates that a change in state has occurred. Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, do not take objects. “I walked down the street.” “She appeared in the doorway.” They are often followed by prepositional phrases, and they have less to do with a change in state than with describing an ongoing process. Both transitive and intransitive verbs can be either active or passive in voice, and both can tell the reader that something is happening. But a transitive verb tells you about something happening to something else. An intransitive verb just tells you what took place.

The author of those mysteries could have corrected the sentences in the two examples I gave simply by adding a few words. She could have said, “Thunder rumbled through the sky” and “Tension tingled in the air.” Yeah, okay–that last one is a bit of a stretch. I personally would turn it around to say, “The air tingled with tension.” My point is, both tingling and rumbling are ongoing states of being. They don’t depict a change.

The thing is, there are so many transitive verbs the author could have used. She could have said, “Thunder shattered the sky.” Perfectly good transitive verb chock full of imagery. Or, “Tension electrified the air.” I can’t imagine why she would have made the choices she made unless she didn’t know the difference. She may not; I’m not sure she’s a native English speaker. But I would have hoped an editor would catch that kind of thing before the books went to print.

This subject carries over into another pet peeve of mine: Please, people, learn the difference between “lie” and “lay.” When I hear educated people saying things like “I’m going to go lay down,” it hurts my brain.”Lay/Laid/Laid” is a transitive verb. As I made clear above, transitive verbs take objects. “The chicken lays an egg. She laid one yesterday, and she had laid one the day before that.” “Lie/Lay/Lain” is the intransitive verb. “I lie down in the grass, I lay there yesterday and I had lain there for years.” I do understand the confusion that comes from common misuse combined with the fact that the present tense of the transitive verb is the same as the past tense of the intransitive. But I do expect people who love words and writing to get it right.

Just to reiterate: Transitive verbs take objects. Intransitive verbs don’t, and, more importantly, can’t. It’s that simple.

The Passive Voice: A Brief Tutorial

A few years ago, I participated in an on-line writing group. I’m not generally a joiner, but I thought I’d give it a go. And I did get some advice from various members that helped me hone my writing, so that’s a good thing.

Anyway, the first time I submitted a chapter to the group, one of the other members sent it back with all instances of the word “was” highlighted. She told me, “You should eliminate the passive from your work.” I started looking at what she had marked, and I noticed that I did, indeed, use the word “was” a lot, and that it seemed to slow down the flow of the narrative. I also noticed that very few instances of that word represented true usage of the passive voice.

 Five years later, I still mark instances of “was” (along with “that” and “just” and “really”) in my first drafts. And they’re still very rarely the passive voice. But the antipathy toward passive voice lives on. I’ve seen a number of internet discussions on it. The thing is, very few people seem to know what the passive voice is. I think this may be because “the rules” cause them to avoid it, and you can’t understand something you’re avoiding. Unfortunately, if you don’t understand something, you can’t properly avoid it, either. So here is my brief tutorial on the Passive Voice.

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Passive Voice means the subject of your sentence receives the action. It puts the agency outside your character (or whatever you happen to be talking about). Recently one acquaintance remarked that she uses Bart Simpson saying “mistakes were made” as an example, because it shows him not claiming responsibility. Well, that is the Passive Voice, but ownership or lack of it isn’t the reason. The reason it’s passive is that the subject of the sentence (mistakes) had something done to them (were made). Bart could have owned the action by saying “Mistakes were made by me,” and the construction would still be passive.

 The mere existence of the simple past tense of the verb “to be” is not necessarily indicative of the Passive Voice. You need to take the agency away as well. It’s true, you may want to look at an overabundance of that particular verb form, because “was” is static. It’s experiential, and while a character’s experiences are an important part of writing, they don’t always move the story. Replacing them can lead to more picturesque writing. Compare, “the tree was in the meadow” with “the tree towered over the grasses and wildflowers in the meadow.” With the second, you’ve placed the tree in the same place, but you’ve made it do something other than just stand there. You’ve also given yourself the opportunity to paint a better picture of the setting (adding the grasses and the wildflowers in contrast to the tree).

 Here’s where some confusion comes in. In that example, the second sentence is indeed more “active.” However, it was never “passive” in terms of voice. Nothing happened to the tree. If I had said, “the tree was struck by lightning,” then the tree would have received the action, and the construction would be passive.

 I like to make a distinction between “passive” and “static.” Lots of things are static that are not passive. Descriptive language like similes and metaphors is most often static. “The moon was like a big cheese on the horizon,” or “The cat was a monster.” Sometimes you can eliminate the static language and sometimes you can’t. It’s up to you whether you want to.

Personally, I don’t have it in for the Passive Voice. There are times you might want to use it. If your protagonist gets swept away by a flood, she might very well be feeling a lack of agency which you want to promote. Or, you could turn it around and say, “The flood swept her away.” It just depends on what you want to convey. Just remember, if your characters continually lack agency, they might not be very interesting.

 The End.