Friday, March 12, 2010

Learning to Edit Your Own Writing

Painters carefully choose what to include, what to edit out. I learned this when I studied still life. You may see ten things but you focus on three because it makes the painting stronger.
Same is true in writing. It's called editing. Do you know how to edit your own writing?

Can you easily see what needs to stay, what needs to go? Can you tell when your tendencies, the places you go "unconscious" in your own work, take over, making the writing less strong and the writer more stubborn? In the final revision, do you have the detachment to let go of what's not working, even if you love it more than your first-born child?

Editing is a craft. Trained editors are truly craftspeople in their work. When a writer is able to self-edit, that becomes an art and a craft. Art, because what emerges is often transformative to both writer and reader. Craft, because it requires practice, discipline, and appreciation for how it improves your work.

My training as an editor came in the trenches of a small press in the midwest where I worked for eighteen years, and as I freelanced for other publishers throughout the U.S. as a book doctor. I learned the craft of editing different genres--what adult literary fiction demands, compared to a children's book, compared to a mystery or self-help or memoir. At the small press, a team of four very experienced editors suffered through my early years, as I learned ways to enhance, not erase, the original voice of the writer and bring out what the manuscript could be.

As I learned to edit other people's manuscripts, I noticed my own writing improving. I began to publish more: essays, a short story here and there, my first books. I didn't really connect my editing training with my writing success until a publisher asked me if I worked as an editor, by any chance. "I can always tell someone with editing background," she said. "The writing they send me is so clean."

Wow, I thought. Learning to edit means learning to write?

Self-Editing Toolkit

I began to put together a toolkit of techniques I used in editing, which might apply to my writing. This included my tendencies to expand or contract as a writer, where I went unconscious (usually during a highly emotional moment in the writing) and skipped over important details, where I was overwriting, where my love of sparseness got in the way of conveying a setting, where I explained too much of what was really obvious, where the pacing slowed too much or sped up and lost a reader.

This toolkit was really valuable. In my workshops, I began teaching special sections on editing. I wanted to give writers a new understanding of their own "unconscious areas" and a new appreciation for editing tools as the solution.

One of the favorite writing exercises, one that draws big "ah-ha's" from the class, is called Expansion/Contraction. It reveals, in very short time, where we get too expansive with our words, covering huge territory, and the reader loses track of the point. And where we are so careful with each sentence, crafting it so sparsely, that the story drops big pieces. It's different for each writer. This week's writing exercise shares part 1 of Expansion/Contraction.

Next Sunday, March 28, I'll be teaching Self-Editing for Writers, the one-day workshop I developed from what I learned. I teach this workshop twice a year. It's going to be at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., and it costs $78. There's still room. If you are serious about learning editing techniques, you may enjoy this workshop. More information below.

This Week's Writing Exercise

1. Choose a paragraph of your writing. Read it aloud to yourself and find the one sentence that really is the essence of the paragraph for you--be it action, character, information, or setting. Now rework that one sentence until you have condensed the paragraph effectively. The writing won't be better; don't try to get that. It's just going to help you see where your paragraph's main punch might be.

2. Now do the opposite. Take that one sentence and expand it to two paragraphs.

3. Which was easier for you? Practice again, with another paragraph, whichever was harder. This tells you a bit about your tendencies as a writer--are you more comfortable expanding or contracting?

Self-Editing for Book Writers
A fast-paced, hands-on workshop to explore how to edit your own work, refining it from draft to final revision. We'll cover the art of pacing, line and structural editing, substantive editing (filling holes), and much more. You'll leave with a new perspective on your work and a toolbox full of essential techniques for getting a manuscript ready for publication or submission to agents and publishers. Bring 2 double-spaced pages of your manuscript or story/essay draft to use in the exercises. For all genres and skill levels.

At the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Ave South, Minneapolis, MN,
To register, please call the Loft at 612-379-8999.
Day: Sunday
Date: March 28
Time: 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.

Mary is also offering this workshop:
How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book

Spend two intensive days getting to know your book—what it is about, how to structure it, how to plan to finish it! You’ll learn a step-by-step plan, including flexible timelines, chapter grids, storyboarding, and other techniques. You’ll look at ways to flow chapters, find holes in your material that need filling, organize research and concepts, construct plots, and bring your book into manifestation. You’ll also learn what editors and agents look for and gain essential tips on editing and evaluating your book in all its stages. Designed for nonfiction authors who have a book concept or a work in progress, and for novelists who need a fresh look at their material. Bring an SASE to Saturday’s class and up to fifteen double-spaced pages of work, and the instructor will mail you feedback.
At the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Ave South, Minneapolis, MN
To register, please call the Loft at 612-379-8999.
Fee: $146 for both days
Day: Friday & Saturday
Date: March 26 & 27
Time: 10:00am–4:30pm (both days)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book-Writing Map Workshop--March 26/27 at the Loft Literary Center. Register now while there's still room.

Find out why writers have called it "the best writing workshop I've ever attended!" Fee: $146 for 2 information-packed days. Transform your book, finish it, get it published. To register, call the Loft at 612-379-8999. Loft Literary Center is in Minneapolis.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Discouragement as a Springboard into Higher Creativity

It was a discouraging week for one of my writing classes. We delved into a new level of information about books, and many writers crashed.

I was deluged with emails after a few days--"Help!" "I'm lost/stuck/floundering." "Not sure I really want to write a book after all." Big discouragement.

Discouragement means losing heart, losing perspective, and it happens to all us writers, no matter how often we've been published. It's a terrible moment when your work looks like dog meat, when you can't imagine how you're going to move forward, when you read other (wonderful) writers and sigh with the impossibility of being that good.

I got a couple of chapters back from a good editor in early January. I had thought these newly revised chapters were almost there. But my editor friend had much to suggest--and this was our third call-and-response session (I call out, she responds with edits). She's so good, she sees so well what needs work, that although I felt the discouragement keenly for at least the length of a long car ride home after our meeting, I knew better than to give up.

So I set about finding what was truth for me in her suggestions, and what she might be seeing that were my own blind spots and therefore invisible to me?

Make a List

The first thing I do with feedback that discourages or overwhelms me is make a list. List-makers for generations, my family instilled in me the beauty of list-making as a way of getting perspective. When faced with an onerous task, my mother made lists. Revising for the twentieth time is certainly onerous, so when I got home I took a sheet of paper and listed my editor's main suggestions.

It helped. A lot. As I listed them--the global changes, the smaller changes--I felt myself move into a different viewpoint. I saw how 90 percent of her suggestions actually made the chapter flow much more smoothly for a reader.

My stomach felt better too.

Perspective--Learning about Your Personal Learning Curve

Next, I put the chapter away for a week. I wanted to spend a little time away from the editing and get perspective (that word again) on my personal learning curve. Where was I in the process of this manuscript? I'd worked on it for four years, it had been through group and individual feedback, and I thought I was really there. But she was telling me that from a reader's point of view, things were still jumbly.

After a week I looked at it. My God, she's right, I thought. The temptation to get newly discouraged rose fast. Why hadn't I seen those things myself!

I reminded myself that blind spots are blind to us until we get perspective. Then we see what we didn't see before. Seeing new levels is a sign of growth, and growth is a good thing. She'd pointed out what was not visible to me before, and now it was visible. Lucky to have someone to help me see blind spots in my writing. Lucky too that she'd given me practical steps to fix them.

I went back to my list and began making the changes that made sense to me. Some of them were so big they caused tremors throughout the chapter--lots had to be rearranged. But I reminded myself that this was all good, this was all growth, and I wanted the chapter to be the very best it could be.

How This Process Makes Us Better Writers

After I corrected my chapter, I printed it out, got some Coconut Bliss, and let the chapter rest for an hour while I stared out the window and went into heaven with my bowl of ice cream. Then I read it aloud. Wow, was it better! So much better, I was amazed.

I felt grateful now, not discouraged. And curious--would this learning translate into changed skill? Would my attempt at the next chapter come out better because of what I'd just learned?

This is the goal--you gain skill from good editing, from good feedback. Yes, there's discouragement, losing heart, but there's also skill--if you keep on keepin' on.

End of story: The next chapter was indeed much better. When I went back to work on its revision, I saw much of the same problems as my editor friend had caught. Blind, but now I see. And I did see, a lot more, which means my skills as a writer had increased via this path of discouragement.

This Week's Writing Exercise

If you can get some feedback on your writing this week, do. Then try one of the techniques above. Make a list. Set the writing aside. Have some ice cream.

See if your learning curve isn't a springboard into higher creativity, in disguise.