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editing

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Writing by Committee

I worked with a client recently whom I shall call Phil. He had a complete manuscript of a memoir and had been sending out pitches to agents for several months to no avail. He has some bites off his query, but each time he sent requested chapters, he received a rejection. He came to me to learn why.

I reviewed the query, the rejections, and the table of contents for the book, as well as the samples chapters, and the problem was glaringly obvious: the book was very well nicely in the query, beautifully presented in the TOC, and yet the sample chapters were a wreck – disjoined, uneven, with no narrative drive.

I reported my findings to Phil and said that it was rare to see such a disconnect in a proposal. I wondered what had happened that his sample chapters were so weak compared to the description of the book.

“They were written by a committee,” he said, and then proceeded to describe all the people who had weighed in on the manuscript, including professional editors, workshop leaders, fellow writing students, writing group friends, family members, and even a neighbor or two. He had taken advice from so many people at so many different times that he had completely lost sight of his story.

I had to laugh, because last week, I posted a blog that included some lines from my own work in progress. I received emails from some readers who loved what I did, and emails from others who suggested I had, in fact, made the passage worse. If I tried to please both camps, I would probably end up with something that pleased no one – least of all me.

Many of us are so desperate for validation (Is my idea any good? Do you get it? Do you like it? Should I keep doing this? Am I crazy?) that we tend to lose our heads a bit when it comes to asking people to read our work.  We’re grateful when anyone shows interest or is willing to read pages, and so we spread it around to whoever agrees to pay attention. The knee-jerk reaction is to believe whatever it is they say, to automatically incorporate their ideas into your work, and to give up your power to the committee.

I thought I’d take a moment to say, “Don’t.”

Don’t pass your work around without intention.

Don’t take any advice that comes your way.

Good advice is not about what someone likes or doesn’t like, or what they think you should do or not do to improve the work. Ed Catmull explains good advice in his book Creativity Inc.:

 

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

 

Most important of all, don’t lose sight of your own heart. When you get advice, weigh it against what you think. Does it ring true to you? Does it strike a nerve? Can you see how incorporating it will make your work more clear, more logical, and more whole? If yes, then by all means, take the advice.

But if the answer is no, ignore it. You have no obligation to change your work according to the whims of your readers.

Your obligation should always be first and foremost to the book you are writing. Do what’s right for the work.

One of the reasons I am proud of my Author Accelerator program is that it gives writers what is so often lacking in their arsenal of tools: a trained editor who is paying attention to their work on a regular basis. I think this is one of the best ways not only to improve your work, but to strengthen your editorial muscle, which is to say your understanding of how narrative works, and WHY.

Someone who has built up that kind of muscle is going to know that writing by committee never produced excellent work.

 

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What a Stonemason Can Teach Us About the Creative Process

Now that the New Year is upon us, I have made a commitment to my own work – to finishing the novel that I started under Lisa Cron’s Story Genius tutelage. I made a weak commitment at the end of 2015 and did not see it through so now I have to get serious. Towards that end, I did two things to make my vows stick:

1.)  I promised my agent I would get her 100 consecutive pages of the new book by February.

2.)  I promised my mastermind partner that I would post every day in our shared chat how many minutes a day I worked on the project.

In other words -- accountability squared. Nowhere to hide.

Why minutes per day and not pages?

Because creativity is not always about production, progress, or moving forward. Many times you have to go backwards to go forwards. Many times you have to throw out the last three weeks of work.  I wanted a process that honored this.

Also, sometimes I have only worked 6 or 8 or 14 minutes a day, and you can’t normally write a good page in that period of time. But you CAN organize files. You CAN scan a paragraph to see what it needs. You CAN think about a character, do a bit of research, evaluate how a scene is working, move a chunk from here to there.

It’s only day 15, but here’s the thing: minutes add up. Progress is absolutely being made. Pages are being generated, the story is being told. And the most important thing that has been generated is momentum. I’m doing it.  Yesterday, in fact, I came back three times to the project, for a total of about 90 minutes. I couldn’t stay away. I wanted more minutes.

I notice that a lot of writers who are new to the creative process feel a certain panic around how messy it is. A book that comes out seamless, chronological, neat and whole is a hot mess while it is being made – and oftentimes, the whole time is being made.

When I approach my project for my minutes per day, I feel the unsettledness of it in my stomach. I approach with a certain amount of worry – and even dread. Something has to be untangled and solved, and ugh, the only person who can do it is me.

But here’s another thing: the untangling is fun.  Putting your mind to the task is very satisfying.

I know that this is also true about all creative endeavors. It’s a large part of the reason people are drawn to make things.

I recently heard a riveting interview on NPR about Jamie Masefield, a renowned jazz mandolin player, who became certified as a drywall stonemason – a process that includes a 7-hour long test.

The finished walls are gorgeous – smooth, fluid, rhythmic, perfect in their organic-ness. (Take a peek at Jamie’s walls here.)

But the process? It literally starts with a pile of stones. Total chaos.

And while you are building, you have to both think fast and think about the long- term goal of making something as timeless as anything humans can make. “It takes creativity and discipline,” writes NPR correspondent Angela Evancie. And, I would add, a tolerance for chaos.

Masefield compares the work to playing jazz. Evancie writes:

“It's tempting to think that Masefield inhabits two totally different creative worlds. However, he says jazz and masonry have something fundamental in common, and points to a musical practice known as "playing changes.

`When we're playing changes, we're soloing over those harmonic changes in that particular tune — and so you're very quickly making decisions about what you're going to play," he says. "When I'm doing stonework, I often feel like we're in the midst of playing changes, because every stone you place needs some consideration. But you can't dwell on it all day long.’”

Jazz. Improvisation. Building a stone wall. Writing a novel or a memoir or a non-fiction book. It’s all fundamentally the same thing.

I have a pile of words. I have an infinite variety of ways I can put them together. I want to make something that has an impact, and that lasts. I can let that reality paralyze me, or I can move forward, one word at a time.

I thought I would share one stone that I put in place yesterday – the fruits of the luxurious 90 minutes I spent.

I started with this exchange between a woman whose lover lies dying and the nurse in the hospital ICU. The nurse asks if the woman is the patient’s wife.

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

The exchange did what I wanted it to do, which was establish that my character’s decision to not marry this man (and to protect herself from the pain of love) was now going to cost her – big time. But the more I read it, the more I felt that it was flat. It didn’t have any rhythm or beauty. It didn’t elevate the moment in any way. So I went back to it and added a phrase:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word.  
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

But that addition only made me see that what I had here was an opportunity to let the reader into my character’s mind – to let the reader see what friend meant, what love meant, what this particular man meant. So I added to it:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

This was better. This was beginning to please me – but I saw opportunity for going deeper. How was this man the center of her life? How was love different than friendship? If I didn’t put it on the page, no one would know. I would be leaving the opportunity unused. So again I went in and added more:

 “I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine. Henry was the first person I wanted to tell good news and bad, the first person whose advice I sought out, the only person I could be with when I was furious or sick or elated. He was the only person I could travel with, the only one I could sit next to in silence while reading, the only one I ever wanted to go home with after a party, no matter how many beautiful, witty and clever people I’d spoken to that night. I hadn’t gone to the movies without Henry for 15 years, because he would laugh out loud while it was running, spend just the right amount of time analyzing it afterwards, and at night just before we fell asleep, he’d say something profound and moving about what the movie had taught him about life or love or guilt or regret.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

 

There are parts of that sentence that are clunky and can be made better, but I love where I got in the 90 minutes I spent on it. It feels effective. It feels solid.

At the end of his interview, Masefield beautifully explains the goal of such work:

"At the end of every day of doing stonework, I can look back and hopefully say, 'That looks good, and that's what we've done today, and that's going to last a really long time.' It's similar in music. If you're lucky enough to play some really great music one day, you can look back and say, 'Well, we've got that.' That's recorded, or the audience has heard that. Hopefully that's had an effect on them in some way that they're taking home with them.”

 

 

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