Digging Deep








When you’re shoveling shit, it gets tiring.

I sifted through some work I did about four months ago before I started my big book edit for Grand Central. It was soul-deadening. I had been writing and writing, trying to build up a good word count.

All that matters is that I get started, I thought. I just need to get words on the page.

Not so. Words on the page are no good in and of themselves. Those words have to be inspired, not forced. I’ve been reading Robert Olen Butler, and hell, he agrees with me!

Back to the drawing board.

The Search for Freedom


So, Saturday night was looking like it was going to be spectacularly dull. Mr. O was snoring next to me (having flown in on the red eye from London the day before) and all three kids were at sleepovers.TV time. Yay! No fighting about the remote.

I  flipped around desultorily, and nothing held my interest for more than ten seconds. Until I found Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington, and then The Boxer, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson (incidentally, the wife of Alessandro Nivola who will be at THE MUSE AND THE MARKETPLACE conference this year… Christ, hold on, wait… let me catch my breath, I’m having heart palpitations…).

Obviously, these movies are about different people living in different eras with a different set up of very fucked up circumstances to overcome. But what struck me the most was how both stories shared the very same insights: In the search for freedom comes the quest for power and that inevitably leads to corruption and corrosive jealousy.

What stimulates your imagination? What’s your favorite movie?

Office Space

This is not my office. I wish it were.

My office is sandwiched between the main hallway in my house and the bathroom. It is above the kitchen. Nothing happens in this house without me hearing it. I can hear the rabbit thumping in his cage upstairs. I can hear the mailman padding up the driveway. I can hear my husband sniff in the kitchen.

This is not a good thing. My husband has been working from home the past nine months. When he comes to use the bathroom, I sit at my computer and smoke starts pouring out of my ears. Why? Because my brain is on fire. I am so mad.

A good, strong one-minute-pee has me distracted for at least five to ten additional minutes. That doesn’t SOUND so bad, but it is bad. It is really bad. Those ten minutes put me back, like, A MILLION HOURS. I have to fight to get back to where I was before the sound of water on water took me from where I was and put me squarely in a place where I can’t think of ANYTHING but “Christ, how many cups of coffee did you have this morning?”

I have always written right in the middle of chaos. Babies crying, to-do lists multiplying, house getting dirtier by the second, errands undone. Writing is so important to me, I do it even when when I shouldn’t be doing it. The sheets on the kids’ beds are not clean. They may eat breakfast for dinner tonight. I don’t remember the name of their coaches. But I get my work done, they are happy and loved, and it all works out pretty well. How about you?

Things have changed over the years. I have become so easily distractible that I marvel at what I was able to achieve earlier in my career. If the sound of someone peeing pisses me off so much, how was it I wrote multiple books while toddlers were fighting and clocks ticked nosily and that voice in my head told me I was hungry? Am I just getting older? Am I less immersed in my work? Am I looking for distractions?

Humble, Helpful and Honest

Years ago, I got a random postcard in the mail from a San Francisco editor named Tom Jenks.  I had just ‘fired’ my agent (who was a charlatan, but taught me some invaluable lessons) and was in the need of some nurturing, but also some prodding. I applied to take Tom’s four-day course in Boston. This involved some serious money, but I was in good company. I took the plunge.

First, Tom asked to see an excerpt of my novel, which I had only just started writing. I was impressed that I couldn’t just waltz in there, checkbook in hand. Nice.

Then he called me on the phone to discuss my 20-pages. Again, nice. A big deal editor–someone who edited Raymond Carver!–was taking the time to call me. That made me feel legit. No money had exchanged hands yet.

And finally, he offered a cursory critique: lovely writing, but he was worried I was “holding the story too closely to the individual character’s perspective.” Intriguing. What did he mean? He suggested reading a Joyce Carol Oates short story.

I was hooked. He had:

  1. treated my efforts with respect
  2. created an honest connection between us
  3. given me some free advice
  4. didn’t seem overly motivated by being paid
  5. lured me with the promise of getting even more interesting advice

I had a lot of work to do and a lot to learn, still, but his friendly and assured critique motivated me immensely. In the years since I’ve been doing collaborative writing and editing, I always follow a similar model. I am (fairly) generous with my time upfront; remain unattached to whether the client signs up for my services or not; offer something of value right away; and always allow that mine is but one viewpoint.

Nathan Bransford wrote a post on what to keep in mind when editing other people’s work that I think hits the nail right on the head. Perfect. So did Natalie Whipple. I would add: Just because you’ve been asked to edit someone’s work doesn’t mean you’ve got God-like powers. Stay humble and helpful and honest.

The Heavy

One thing that always gets me when I critique manuscripts is having to be the one to explain to new writers that, no, their work isn’t ready to go out into the world yet.

I remember those early days all too well. You think your work is ready, and it’s not. There’s not really any way for you to know because you don’t yet have the persective. The years of labor. The intense study of the industry. The insights from fellow writers, editors and agents.

Early on, you are an outsider looking in and it’s easy to think–hope, pray–that your work is “good enough” when in reality, it’s nowhere near. It can be devastating to hear from a professional that you were wrong in your self assessment.

It often falls to me to let the writer know that I cannot fast track them into the publishing industry.

First, more work needs to be done. Probably YEARS of work. That does not mean the story is no good or that the writing sucks. It just means that the story and the writing are not yet good enough.

Second, I am probably unlikely to recommend your work to my agent. This is not me just being mean or pompous. (I’m thrilled to pieces when I like something enough to pass it along to my agent. That’s a truly exciting moment, and I’ve done it happily a handful of times.) It’s because your work has to be really, really good for me to risk my reputation on it. I can’t pass anything on to my agent unless I stand behind it 110%. I have to LOVE it.

I used to be astonished that agents and editors only need to read a few pages to tell whether something is good or not. Now I myself can tell in just a few pages, too.

What I do believe strongly, though, is that mine is only one opinion in a sea of opinions. Do not take my word as God’s Truth. Shop around. Get another editor. See if two professionals have similar responses to your work.

So I am incredibly careful in my critiques. I give as much praise as I can because I do not want to spoil anyone’s dream. And almost everyone’s work gets better over time, with a lot of blood sweat and tears. But you can’t avoid the blood sweat and tears. At least, us measly mortals can’t.

Yet I am also honest. I always point out what is confusing, or boring, or sloppy, too broad or too narrow. And no, I don’t use those words. I tell the truth, with kindness.

Billable Hours

I am a single-minded editing freak. I can’t help myself. It’s an obsession. Also, it makes me happy.

So when I get emails from readers pointing out typos in my books, I take it personally. The fact that that typo got in there is my fault, one way or another. A friendly reader recently emailed highlighting a typo in THE SECRET POWER OF MIDDLE CHILDREN, and asked if there were other mistakes she should know about before she continued reading her expensive hardcover copy.

Um. Yes. There are. Additional typos. Sorry.

It’s pretty amazing that those suckers find their way in there given how many beady eyes peruse each manuscript:

  1. the writer
  2. the agent
  3. often, but not always, a freelance editor
  4. the purchasing editor
  5. the line editor and/or copy editor
  6. the writer, at least twice again
  7. proofreader(s)

I read each manuscript about ten times. I will catch an extra space, a repetitious word, the wrong bullet, that stray semi-colon. But, damn those tenacious suckers! Entire words in the wrong place. A date mixed up. Spelling mistakes are rare, but other errors slip through anyway.

When I am editing a client’s work, I mull over word choice for hours on end. Long after I’ve been paid, I still put in hour after hour, worrying about getting the bio just right, or polishing the flap copy, or tweaking the press release. I’m done; it’s not my book; my hours are up. Often I’ve already been paid. But this work is still a refection on me. I really want to get it right.

I can’t help it. I’m freaky that way.