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Q&A from the Clubhouse

Posted by on Aug 13, 2021 in Blog Posts, Featured, Writing Advice | 0 comments

Wow! Last evening was so fun and energizing–I admit I was a little unsure how a live chat app would work, but we had many wonderful people join us with some pertinent questions and insights. And talking to people out loud was very energizing; I just hope I didn’t talk too fast.

I was mostly listening and talking rather than taking notes, but I jotted down a few questions and suggestions I remember from last night to share, both to help those of us who were there to remember and to spread the ideas to those who couldn’t make it:

Sensitivity editing – I hadn’t mentioned this in my run-down of the different types of editors and editing, but Nicki reminded me of their important role: a sensitivity reader is there to be consulted when you are writing characters who face very different circumstances and experiences from your own (examples include a white author writing a character of color, straight or cis authors writing LGBT+ characters, or able-bodied authors writing disabled characters–and of course people and characters have multiple identities at once, so more than one may apply). They read either the entire story or the specific scenes about the character who shares their identity and offer suggestions to represent that identity respectfully and accurately. No group of people is a monolith, so they can’t be expected to speak for everyone like them, but sensitivity editors can give you insight you wouldn’t otherwise have. Sensitivity editors help you with the content of the story rather than grammar or style. At the same time, line editors such as myself have a responsibility to point out to authors when they’re veering into stereotypes or insensitive language, but we can’t offer as much insight as a sensitivity reader, especially when we don’t share their background.

How to deepen POV: Based on my comment in my notes that I often encourage authors to deepen their characters’ POVs in later drafts, someone asked just how to do that! There’s no one way, but tips include:

  1. Stick with the character–don’t head hop, and don’t describe things the character can’t see or know (this can be subtle: “Her eyes flashed with anger” is a minor POV slip because people can’t really see what their own eyes are doing. “Her cheeks burned hot with anger” is deeper in POV than “Her face turned red with anger.”).
  2. Reduce the number of filter words you use–rather than telling us the character is thinking something, show us what they’re thinking. I love this article for its helpful examples:
  3. Use the character’s word choice, not just in dialouge but also action and description: if you’re writing YA, your character is more likely to “consider the problem” than “ponder the quandry”. A 19th century diplomat is more likely to “be hard put to contain his annoyance” than “want to punch that sucker in his piehole”. Or if your character speaks or thinks in a way unlike how one might expect, that’s an important detail of their characterization, too! But it should be consistent. If your scrappy diplomat goes from being hard put to punching pieholes in different scenes, it should be clear what about each scene brings out his more formal side, vs the side we thought he left behind when he left the gutters of New York to disguise himself as a distinguished Harvard man’s son. (I seem to be composing a novel idea in my examples here…I’ll get back to you on this one, maybe!)
  4. Understand how POV works–Here are some authors writing on levels of POV, narrative distance and especially how & why to use Deep POV:

I took a 2-hour class on POV at the Writer’s Center of Bethesda and it was maybe the single most transformative 2 hours of my writing education. If you can’t make it to an in-person class (to be fair, who can these pandemic days?), an hour or so reading the articles above, plus a few hours of writing practice, will also pay off.

Clarifying POV: One author writing a book with 3 first-person narrators asked for suggestions on how to clarify who was speaking in each chapter. I wound up recommending exactly the technique she’s using, which is to put each narrator’s name as a subheader for their chapters. Some literary fiction omits the subheaders and leaves the reader to figure out the narrator through context clues (if we know a character lives in a particular town, and the scene takes place on the main street of that town, we’ll assume it’s that character), but this is more “work” for the reader–part of the fun of literary fiction can be that work, of course. But I wouldn’t be afraid of subheaders. If you’re giving away too much information in subheaders or chapter titles, a beta reader or editor can always point it out to you and suggest changes. But clarity helps–as an editor reading your work, it’s easier for me to point out what you don’t need to say than to add what you do.

Words to watch out for: Nicki recommended my blog article “12 Words to (Almost Always) Cut“. While we spoke about ways to prepare your manuscript before editing, I also remembered but didn’t get the chance to mention this post I wrote a few years back, which has lots of advice that still holds up. Plus this recommended pre-editing reading list.

Memoir: A memoir writer asked for tips and common pitfalls of memoir manuscripts. Here, I think the biggest pitfall for many writers can be that memoir is so personal: keep in mind that an editor making suggestions to improve the manuscript is not criticizing your real life, but instead seeking ways to make the story of that life even better. I think it helps for the editor and the author to think of the protagonist of the memoir as someone different from the author. In the bestselling expose I will one day write (I just need to figure out what to expose), the Therese Arkenberg on the page will be a literary character who shares experiences with me but is not identical to me. Someone can call that Therese flat or her motives unclear without saying I’m boring and irrational. (Though I admit my motive for writing that expose is unclear, given my lack of anything to expose. Keep tuned…)

Relatedly, memoir is especially subject to the “Curse of knowledge“: you know how your life happened, so it can be hard for you to get in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know that and figure out exactly what you need to tell them for events to be vivid and make sense. A common suggestion I have for memoirs is to add more detail, to create scenes instead of summaries, and to add dialogue. You may not remember exactly what was said, but getting the gist of it across is still helpful to readers (and it should be generally understood you’re relying on memory, which can be imperfect–handling family and friends who remember things differently may be a whole ‘nother topic).

Also, watch those filter words in memoir–you don’t need to say “I remember” or “I think back and…”. We know you’re doing that because it’s the premise of a memoir ;D.

I didn’t get to this in the chat, but this morning I want to add: another important challenge for memoir is to determine the focus. “My entire life up to now” can sometimes be a bit much, leaving the reader lost and uncertain of the overall message or significance of sharing your experiences. Memoir is the art of focusing and finding a meaningful story in the sometimes chaotic events of a life. This doesn’t mean it has a neat moral wrapped in a bow. But it will generally have a core theme or resonant ideas (maybe that resonant idea is “bad things happen to good people for no good reason”, but then the takeaway will be how those good people handle those bad things; even such a story can have a moral of sorts, in that it encourages readers to show more compassion because you never know what someone’s going through. And the important thing is that the takeaway is true.)

Query letters – the single most important page you’ll ever write for the future of your book, but all it has to do is convince the reader (literary agent or acquisitions editor) to pick up your manuscript and start reading. Try not to psych yourself out ;D. Do your research (Janet Friedman the Query Letter Shark has wonderful resources on her website), have friends and editors read the query — especially get tips from someone who hasn’t read the novel, since they’ll be a close match to your target audience, who also hasn’t read the novel and needs to learn why they’ll love it just from the letter. Though it can also be helpful to have someone read the query who also knows the book cover to cover, so they can point out “I think it’s important to mention the heroine’s secret second family, it really clarifies her motives and why it’s so important to her to keep her identity disguised” and so on.

If you can only afford one round of editing, which type should it be: developmental, proofreading, line editing? A very pertinent question from one caller. My answer is “line editing”: this will catch most grammar errors (not all – typos seem to inevitably slip through, even in big-press books with multiple rounds of proofreading and copyediting, but I’ve found readers are forgiving of those if the book is overall solid. A stat I’ve heard some copyeditors suggest is 96% of errors caught). Additionally, line editing can help with points of style, pace, character consistency, and clarity of motive and description. It won’t get as much into content as, well, content editing, but you can often get some developmental editing suggestions from beta readers or a writers’ group. If your betas & co-writers are fans of the genre, they’ll have a good sense of what works, what might betray readers’ expectations (if the lovers are parted forever at the end of the book, it’s not a genre romance!), what’s cliche or overdone, and what’s fresh and new. But the nitpickery around where the commas go, how to cite a website, if you could spend 2 sentences describing the room instead of 3 paragraphs, whether “president” is capitalized, if it’s “accept” or “except” (to say nothing of “lie” or “lay”!), if you used “verdant” on the prior page and it’s repetitive, and the eye for consistency on if you’re writing “okay” or “OK”–that’s where a line editor can help. I went to school to learn where the commas go!

Self-publishing or traditional – which would I advise for a new writer? I work with excellent clients who do both or either, and either can be good choices. That said, for someone new to writing and publishing, I think going with a traditional publisher offers lots of benefits, most importantly the expertise of an entire team of full-time publishing professionals to help you with (more) editing, cover art, and marketing. Self-publishing is a full-time job outside of actually writing the book. (It has benefits too–you can often publish on a faster schedule and earn a greater share of royalties per book sold–but traditionally published books can sell more copies, for bigger earnings overall, and there’s something to be said for taking your time to make a product as good as possible, especially with the help of experts, especially for a newer writer). So: if you love being a publisher, self-publishing can be a good choice. But if you love being a writer, and only a writer, traditional publishing can be more supportive of that.

I didn’t mention this because I think in the age of easy print-on-demand and ebook publishing it’s rarer to fall prey to vanity publishers, but: beware of vanities. Publish America was an infamous scam publisher in the day. Your publisher should pay you for your writing; you don’t pay them (if you do pay them, they’re a service provider, not a publisher. That’s a different kind of relationship, and you shouldn’t trust anyone misrepresenting it). Another tip: the publisher’s website should be oriented toward readers, getting them eager to buy the books, not toward getting writers to publish with them (an exception may be very new publishers still building their catalog, but to be honest, it’s often best to let a publisher release a few books before yours so you can judge how well they do by them).

Lastly: How can you hire me? I discuss my policies and editing services on this page of this website; also, you can fill out this Editing Project Google Form with some information about your book to get more a specific estimate of budget and schedule and even free sample feedback on the first 1,000 words.

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