Science via Magic—Meeting Jane Goodall

Earlier this week, I was thrilled to meet Jane Goodall. After her inspiring talk at the University of Rhode Island, I lined up with hundreds of others to have her sign a copy of her book, Reason for Hope, and have my photo taken with her. 

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But it was not the first time we had met.  

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Some people have asked me to tell how this came about, so here goes:

1.       It was 1992, I was living in Tokyo, and one day, I saw a flyer in the supermarket (this was before the Internet) saying that Jane Goodall was coming to speak. I was disappointed I couldn’t go.

2.       As well as teaching English, I babysat for expat families. A few days later, on the bookshelf in one home, I saw books by Goodall, all signed with personal messages.

3.       When the parents got home, I asked about the books and said Jane Goodall had always been my hero.

4.       “We’re friends with her. In fact, she’s coming to stay with us tomorrow. Would you like to meet her?”

It has always felt so magical that I was in just the right place at the right time. I went there for an extended afternoon tea, and Jane invited me to come back the next day. So, I did. She is even lovelier one-on-one than she appears on the screen.   

At that point in my life, I was struggling to find my way. Her generosity in helping me sort through some stuff and point myself in the general right direction was no less than life-changing. I came away from the experience clutching two promises, determined I’d fulfill them.

The first promise I fulfilled within a couple of years. I’ve been living it ever since, though it has certainly had its trials. But her example helped me give myself permission to follow my dream. (Back then, I thought I knew what my dream was, but felt I should probably do something more conventional first. I inexpertly expressed “conventional” as a degree in archaeology, living in Japan, then a stint in outdoor education, before I knuckled down and worked in restaurants while pursuing that long-desired career in kid-lit.)

But finding my way to keeping the second promise, which required further exploring the first promise, has taken me along winding paths, brushing past the obvious as I hurtled into various dead-ends. That was until earlier this year when I knew I was finally fulfilling it. (Isn’t it funny how something can be staring you in the face all along but be so difficult to truly grasp—until you’re suddenly ready?) To say I’ve been longing for some years to tell Jane how grateful I am—especially for the promises that have steered my life’s course—is an understatement. So, it seems quite magical that I should be given that rare chance and with such perfect timing.  

But I’m just one person affected by my experiences with her. Jane’s extraordinary empathy and spirit continue to touch so many apes—both the chimpanzees and us human apes. I hope you’ll watch her talk at URI.

Check out and consider supporting The Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots.

And my second promise? Well, I'll just say it has led me to my work on the SNOWBIRDS Transect research cruise, my illustration of Volcano Dreams by Janet Fox (coming next year from Web of Life Children’s Books), and my new science, art, and adventure blog

Thanks for reading.

And thank you, Jane.

New Year's Editing Special Discount

As I do every year, I am offering a 20% discount to celebrate the New Year. There are a limited number of spots, so I encourage you to take advantage of this big discount before they’re all taken!

•Includes picture books, chapter books, MG, YA, and material for adults including novels, memoirs, and nonfiction. Applies to my other services including critiques, book design and layout, and art direction. Does not apply to illustration.
•Contract must be signed and 50% deposit on quoted amount paid by Jan 15, 2017.
•You have until March 15, 2017 (or later if desired) to prepare/revise your manuscript. While you may submit your MS earlier than March 15, my work may not commence prior to that date. 
•All quotes will be based on the total word count and a sample of the work (full manuscript for picture books; the first 5-10 pages for longer manuscripts). 
•Any discrepancy between the contracted word count and/or the level of editing will be adjusted on the contract and the balance due adjusted accordingly at the time of submission. (For example, if you contracted for a 10,000-word manuscript, but your MS ends up being 8,000 words, your balance owing will be reduced. If you contracted for copyediting but then need developmental/substantive editing, your balance owed will be adjusted upwards accordingly.)
•Other conditions apply as per my regular contract, which I am happy to provide for perusal.

Please click on the Contact tab.

Regarding Class & Crit Groups

Last night was the final class of my picture book writing course, which is always a little bittersweet. You get attached to people’s stories and the personalities who created them. The final night always feels like my last opportunity to equip them with all they’ll need as they step from the safety of the class environment into the wider world of publishing. We talked about interpreting rejection letters and how to deal with their sting, and we watched the interview with Kate diCamillo embedded in my Rejection blog post.

This year, the course went from 8 weeks to 12, which pleased me to no end. I was thrilled to spend not just one but three weeks delving deeper into narrative structure—very well-spent time laying a solid foundation for a strong manuscript. Extra weeks also allowed me to try a number of new activities and exercises, which was great fun for me and, I hope, beneficial for them.

It was also quite wonderful to spend extra time with such an engaged, supportive, talented, and lovely group with a wide variety of stories. I will miss it. We also discussed things they felt they’d miss about the class environment, which we developed into a list of qualities we think are important in a critique group:

Most of those are likely self-explanatory, but “awareness of wider stuff” means learning more about the world and ourselves by exploring each other’s work, which is just what we set out to help children do, isn’t it? It was a really thoughtful addition to our list.

And “sharing the crazy”? Well, maybe that’s the most important part. It is for me, anyway. Having real friends and a support team who truly understand why we started—and then continue—this inspiring, maddening, manic, rejection-filled, brilliant journey without us ever having to explain it or plead its case. Kindred folk who “get” it. Our people.

Did we miss anything from our list? What would you add or highlight?

I want to end by saying to my latest batch of Rizzies, thank you, it’s been such a pleasure. 

Working With a Freelance Editor—Part 2, the Process

If you missed Part 1 last week, it is here

You’ve chosen an editor, agreed to the level of service, signed the contract, and paid a deposit…

…What happens next?

Your editor is ready to get to work!

What do I need to do?

You need to supply the manuscript plus any other material requested by the editor such as a query letter or synopsis. Most editors work electronically, so you will likely email your document as an attachment. 

Most editors use Microsoft Word. It has advanced editing features that allow us to markup or redline the manuscript, so you can see exactly what we have cut, moved, or tweaked. It also allows us to highlight text and insert comments. (In rare circumstances, I’ve also had to wield a red pen and some traditional editing marks on an actual hard copy of a manuscript. Word makes it so much easier for everyone.)

Once you have emailed your manuscript as a Word document (or compatible RTF), take a deep breath! Then sit back and pat yourself on the back for finishing this draft, for having the courage to put it into editor’s hands, and for being a writer!   

Do I need to be available?

Do check your email now and then in case the editor is trying to get in touch with you. Communication delays can cause a slow-down. But as I said in Part 1, your editor may need little contact with you as they are working.

I sometimes ask the client a question while I’m editing, but I usually don’t. I do update the client on my progress at some point during the project and give them a brief, general idea of what issues I’m finding, so they know what to expect when I return the completed project. The client is always able to contact me during the process, and I respond quickly.

How does the editing process work?

I can’t speak for other editors, but unless it’s a children’s picture book, I don’t read the entire manuscript before I start editing. I'm going to describe the developmental + copyediting  process (which I call "full editing")

First pass—the tracked copy:

The first thing I do is format the manuscript correctly for submission to traditional publishers or literary agents (unless the client specifies differently). As well as making the manuscript look professional, it provides me with something standard and easy to read. You can imagine that, when you read all day long to catch errors, things like double-spaced text make a big difference.

Then I start to read. When I reach an “issue” or something that makes me pause, I determine the problem and then deal with it. “Dealing with it” could be inserting a comma where it’s needed, or it could mean pointing out that we’re on page five but haven’t met the protagonist yet. It could be correcting their/there/they’re, or it could be pointing out where the narration has head-hopped into another character’s POV. You get the picture—there’s a wide spectrum of potential issues that editors providing both developmental editing and copyediting watch out for.

I do both the developmental editing and the copyediting at the same time. But my approach varies a little for each manuscript. Some writers are great storytellers, but their grammatical skills are not as strong. Some writers are great with language but have trouble with their storytelling. So I might necessarily put more focus on copyediting and language on the first pass, or I might focus more on narrative and character development. It depends where the manuscript’s initial strengths lie.

But on my first pass, I always aim to capture my initial impressions, as if I were a reader picking it up from the shelf, so my comments on the first pass are spontaneous first reactions. I try not to overthink it.

Developmental comments:

The comments I embed in a manuscript could be about any number of things:

  • to explain why I have edited something
  • to suggest better wording choices

  • to highlight a technical issue such as an awkward shift in POV

  • to discuss a big picture issue such as one pertaining to narrative arc

  • to explain grammar

  • to provide links to helpful blog posts and instructional material

  • to say “This is great!”

  • etc.

I always aim to teach the writer as they go and may include instructional comments where needed.

Sometimes, when something is an issue but I haven’t quite determined why, I’ll simply bold a section of text and come back to it again on my next pass. Sometimes I highlight pivotal moments in the narrative in order to easily find them later. These are markers for me, and I’m sure other editors have different styles, triggers, and tricks that help them do their jobs.

The tracked (marked up, red-line) copy of the manuscript can look like a mess and be difficult for someone unfamiliar with tracked changes to read, but it will give you a sense of what was done.

Here is a fictitious page showing the tracking (copyediting and developmental editing) with embedded developmental comments.

"Fermentation" time: Once I have finished my first pass, I like to let the story sit for a few days. It’s amazing how many narrative issue I’ve worked out while walking my dog or packing the dishwasher. No doubt the writers among you have found that letting your project sit for a little while allows you to come back and see it with a fresh eye and greater perspective. 

Second (and subsequent) pass(es)the clean copy: When fermentation is complete, I take the edited manuscript, accept all the changes (so there is no longer any tracking), and save it as a new document called the “clean” copy.

Then I start all over again. At this stage, I do further copyediting, proofreading, and adding of developmental comments (as many times as needed) until the manuscript is fully proofed and I’m completely happy with any comments I’ve made.

Some food for thought: Until an editor has reached the end of the story, she can’t properly edit its beginning. It’s one of several reasons a single pass is never enough.

Here is a clean copy. Comments or explanations about things I have taken care of have been removed, the copyediting changes have been accepted and further copyediting done. The text has been proofed, plus there are extra developmental comments.  

Critique, critique notes, and reports: Developmental editors often provide additional feedback in the form of a full critique/report or detailed critique notes. Mine also include writing instruction relevant to the client’s needs. If you contract for a critique or additional notes, clarify with your editor what you can expect to receive. At minimum, a critique will likely discuss the big picture and give you an overview of the main issues.

What will I receive?

Most editors who also provide copyediting will return two copies of your manuscript:

  • a tracked (marked up/redline) copy of your original manuscript
  • a clean, fully edited copy
  • plus a critique or critique notes, if you have contracted for them

If you have supplied other material for editing, such as a synopsis or query letter, then you should receive tacked and clean copies of those also.

Book Editing Associates clients also receive a feedback form, so they can provide direct feedback to the Network Coordinator.

Again, not all editors have an identical process, so make sure you know what to expect before you sign the contract.

Can I ask questions afterwards?

Yes, absolutely! An editor should be happy to provide answers to reasonable requests for clarification. However, don’t expect the editor to reread your revised manuscript; there should be a clause in the contract that says whether the contract includes any reading or editing of revisions.

Why can’t you do the copyediting and proofreading portion of the contract after I’ve revised?

I answer this question as someone who is both a developmental editor and a copyeditor. Be aware that some developmental editors do not provide copyediting, and if you work with one, consider hiring a separate copyeditor later in the process. 

For me, there is no clear line between some aspects of heavy copyediting and light developmental editing. It’s just easiest and best for my process to do both at once. This yields the strongest project for the client. In fact, when I quote for developmental editing and copyediting, I don’t charge extra for the copyediting and proofreading. It’s just part of my developmental editing process.

Also, there are no guarantees your book will be ready for final copyediting and proofing (that is, almost ready to publish) after one revision. And it’s not something an editor can know in advance.

When you're ready, we can always set up a new contract for these services.

Why can’t you quote for multiple rounds of editing in one contract?

Every writer is different. Every writer revises differently. It’s impossible for an editor to know how many rounds of editing you’ll need to achieve a submission-ready or publication-ready manuscript. We could quote you for four and find you only need two, or vice versa. 

After your revision, you may choose to contract with the editor again for another round of editing, which the vast majority of my clients do. Clients return for subsequent rounds of full editing (developmental editing + copyediting) then copyediting/proofing when the manuscript is nearing publication-readiness.

Will my book be ready-to-publish when I get it back?

It depends, and ultimately, you’re in charge of when you upload (if you’re self-publishing) or when you submit (if you’re seeking traditional publication). But one of the biggest mistakes writers—particularly newer writers—make is a lack of revision. Consider:

  • Are you a beginner writer, or is it early in your writing journey, and is this your first round of editing? Probably you’ll need to keep learning and revising before your book is ready for publication.
  • Have you been revising your book for some time, and is it at the final proofreading stage according to your editor? Then yes, your book is most likely publication- or submission-ready. If not, your editor should inform you and suggest your next steps.

I think I can safely speak for other dedicated developmental editors when I say we are absolutely on your side. We know you are giving us a piece of yourself that has filled you with the breath of inspiration, which you have fawned over, hated, then loved again, sacrificed for, and labored to give birth to. We get it. (Many of us are writers, too.) We love words. We love stories. We love books and art. And we are devoted to helping you bring your vision to be the best that it can possibly be. That’s just what we do.

Do you have any questions I haven’t answered? Please feel free to post them in the comments!

How to Be a Healthy, Happy Freelancer/Writer

When people find out I work from home and I'm my own boss, their almost invariable reaction is: “I’d never get anything done.”

My response is: “Sure you would—if you wanted to pay your bills.”

The questioner smiles and nods but then says something along the lines of: “But I’m not that disciplined. I’d sleep in then sit around in pajamas watching TV all day.”

Other questions include: “How do manage your time? How do you stay focused? What does a typical day look like for you? How do you stay sane?” And most popular of all: “As a wife and mother, writer/illustrator/editor, how on earth do you get it all done?” I’m amazed at just how often I receive these questions and with how much longing they’re asked. Many people dream of working from home, or of being a full-time writer, but just have no idea how to make it work for them time, discipline, and sanity-wise.

Whether you’re a freelancer with your own business, a full-time writer or illustrator, or a creative person trying to get your project completed beyond the 9 to 5, staying in focus, on target, and in balance can be very tough, especially when the demands of home life including family, chores, and various distractions are all so close at hand.

So, I’m going to answer these questions and provide some tools in the hope that showing what works for me will help you develop systems, balance, and success in your freelance or creative life. (While these tools work for the freelancer, many also translate well to the writer or illustrator trying to make progress with limited time—I know all too well what that’s like.)

Starting your workday right—setting yourself up for success: First of all, I strongly recommend that you do NOT sleep in or sit around in pajamas all day. Treat your freelance or work-from-home job like any other and rise and prepare in time to get to work on time. (What that time is for you you’ll need to work out based on your natural rhythms and what else goes on in your day. I will talk about that in a moment.)

While I don’t go to work in heels and a pencil skirt, I do walk the dog, bathe, dress, groom, eat a healthy breakfast, and arrive at my desk by 7:30 each day. This routine and attention to self-care and healthy living just set up the right mental attitude, and you’ll feel better about yourself as the day progresses, I guarantee.

Systems: One of the great things about working freelance is the freedom and malleability of one’s day (though many freelancers I know work even longer hours than those who “go” to work). But just as systems are important to a multi-person business or corporation, they are equally important to the freelancer who wants to get anything done and grow a successful business—or get that novel written. I truly believe that for the freelancer, systems are the key to living a productive, healthy, balanced, and successful freelance life.

So where do you even start? I’d begin by mapping a typical day.

Your day, like mine, can probably be divided into distinct sections. Here’s how I divide mine based on when I rise, family needs, other stuff I need to get done, etc. in order to work out my optimum periods for working. (I define “free time” in this case as any time that isn’t taken by the needs of others.)

  • Pre 6:30: free
  • 6:30-7:30: family morning routine
  • 7:30-1:30: free
  • 1:45-5: free-ish—my daughter is home so there are frequent distractions
  • 5-9: family phone calls, dinner prep, family time, etc.
  • 9-bedtime: free

As you see, I have four distinct periods of “free time,” and Prime Time—my optimum, distraction-free work period—is between 7:30 and 1:30 because I’m an early to bed, early to rise sort of person. Therefore, I schedule all matters that require a “distraction-free” environment within those hours. During Prime Time, my phone is off, I use social media blockers (see below), and I accomplish the bulk of my work.

Take this opportunity to map out the distinct sections of your day and define your Prime Time(s). Try to make sure you have a 7 to 8 hour period (or two blocks half that length), no matter what time of day in which they fall. (Are you an owl, rather than a chicken? I have some freelancer friends who start late and work until 1 or 2 AM, and you may find that is perfect for you, too.)

Mapping your day into distinct time periods for specific purposes will help you stay in balance. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But when you work from home, your environment is never truly distraction-free. There is always something to be done: chores, errands, phone calls, and so many other distractions (such as family and social media) and all with no boss watching over you, cracking the whip.

So now we know when we can work, how do we stay both on target and in focus?

The List: The first task on my agenda each morning (and the last before I finish for the day) is making The List. Everything I need to achieve that day goes on The List. EVERYTHING (except things I obviously do each day such as bathing and cooking dinner). A typical day's list might include:

  • Walk Phoebe (my dog)
  • Reply... (and I individually list each email I have to respond to. I add to this the moment an email arrives.)
  • Workout
  • 10,000 steps
  • Finish and return Client Project A
  • Call my mum
  • Reach point Y on Client Project B
  • Pay bill Z
  • Post office and bank
  • Clothes washing
  • Write blog post
  • Make progress C on My Creative Project X
  • Etc.

Once I have a clear idea of what I need to achieve today, I can prioritize and start to chip away at it. The List, as well as providing a clear outline, helps provide accountability—it’s much harder to “forget” or ignore something that’s written on a to-do list in your clear line of sight.

The other benefits of using a list:

  • Clarity
  • Organization
  • A sense of achievement
  • A record of what you did on a certain day, which can be helpful to refer to later

I start my list the night before, and I write it in a lined journal (one journal lasts the whole year), but explore what method works for you. The moment I realize I cannot complete a task today, I begin my list for tomorrow.

The list also gives me a feeling of freedom. I know what I have to get done, but no one tells me what order to do it in. It almost becomes like a puzzle, a game of logic and skill I play with myself—how to fit it all in.

Email: It is my policy to answer email rapidly. Partly, that’s the nature of my competitive job—you snooze, you lose that potential client—but it carries through to all other emails as well. First thing each day, I check my inbox, delete what I can, file to specific folders anything I need to keep, and add those that need to be answered to my daily list. Then I answer as many of those emails as I can. An empty inbox is a happy inbox. 

  • Eliminate non-essential emails promptly
  • Prioritize emails
  • Answer email promptly. Your clients will not only appreciate it, you will feel less burdened by a growing pile of unanswered messages.
  • File emails as soon as you’ve answered them
  • Sure, all of this sounds completely obvious, but how many people do you know who aren’t stressed out by an overflowing inbox? It’s simple in practice—if you practice it.

Keeping up with the clerical work: I don’t have a secretary or an accounts department. The moment I receive payment from a client, no matter what I'm doing, I confirm receipt with the client, update my income sheets, and direct the money to where it needs to go (commissions, savings, working account). Don’t wait until tomorrow. Do it now. It’s too easy for such things to snowball otherwise.

Phone calls: If I have phone calls with clients, I schedule them within a two hour period in the morning or after Prime Time. Otherwise, I don’t answer my phone, which the nature of my business allows. The goal is to maximize uninterrupted, low-distraction time.

Staying focused during Prime Time: I use a Pomodoro style timer on my Internet browser called Strict Workflow, though a simple Internet search will provide many other free plugins for your browser. The Pomodoro method dictates 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break.  

It’s important to get up and move around during that 5 minutes to give both body and mind a break. Use this time for boiling the kettle, transferring the washing to the dryer, unpacking the dishwasher, talking to your pet, jumping jacks etc.—anything that moves your body and frees your mind a little. You'll be amazed by how many pesky chores you can knock off your list in this time.

Social media: In my industry, social media is very important for network building and info-sharing. It’s also great for eliminating the isolation that can come from working alone. I have a large number of friends in the publishing industry who also work from home, and we enjoy our visits to the “virtual water cooler” throughout the day. But social media can quickly become a terrible time-suck. There are plug-ins like I just mentioned that block the social media and other websites for the amount of time you specify—which is marvelous.

Deadlines: Nothing much to say here except, “Make them and keep them.” Your clients or your creative project will thank you, and you’ll be much happier, too.

Distraction Time: Since my child is home by 2 PM, the energy changes in the afternoon, so I segue to activities I can tackle successfully in short bursts, those that don’t suffer from interruptions. I get a lot of the household chores done during this time, phone calls, more emails, and I also use this time to think about the projects I’m working on—I often have bursts of inspiration about how to solve peoples' narrative issues at this time, for example, so I am frequently back at my desk during this afternoon period, feverishly jotting down notes on how John Doe's narrative arc could be strengthened by this or that or editing ever more pages. I also work on my own creative projects then. It is a much less structured part of my day, but equally productive. What activities can you schedule for your own Distraction Time in order to feel productive and successful? Dividing your workday into Prime Time and Distraction Time will create a much less stressful workday.

Staying motivated: It’s not always easy to stay motivated in any job, but here’s my trick for staying fresh: I like to have several projects underway at any given time. This allows me to segue to something else before I get stale and keeps the deadlines turning over on time without real stress. It also allows my subconscious to solve some of the issues in other projects, without having to force it. Oh, and walking the dog—there’s nothing like a burst of fresh air and a tail wagging in front of you to keep you fresh and happy.

Staying Healthy: Health professionals recommend that we each take 10,000 steps a day in order to stay healthy. For anyone with a sedentary job, this can be quite challenging to achieve, but for the freelancer it is totally doable if you plan accordingly and then take action. There are many pedometer apps to choose from that will keep track of your steps.

If the weather isn’t cooperating and you’re really pressed for time, your Pomodoro timer is your friend. In your 5 minute break, you can add 1000, 2000, or even more steps by walking around the house, walking up and down the steps, running in place, etc. If you’re into using time as effectively as possible in order to maximize your creative downtime, why not use this 5 minute break to do some dishes, put on another load of washing, move your body, and give your mind a break? You’ll be amazed by how many steps you add to your daily regimen and how much you get done. And if you’ve already whittled down the number of chores by the time you get to the end of Prime Time, you’ll find you have more time for your own creative pursuits—or for getting some “real” exercise such as going for a brisk walk or to the gym, etc.

Also, while I’m on the subject of staying healthy as a freelancer, I recommend making ahead a pot of healthy, protein-packed soup or casserole that you only need to heat and eat, and do eat at whatever you specify as lunchtime and snack time each day. It will help you avoid the urge to snack on less healthy items—but it’s even better if you just don’t keep those in your “office.”

Downtime: And in the evening? Any freelancer who wants to be successful has to be flexible enough to answer the occasional evening email; however, family time and downtime are vital. What I do do is start The List for the next day, but otherwise I try to avoid the office.

But for many of us who are trying to get a book written, our “downtime” may be the only time we have to write or to make progress on that project close to our heart.

Use little bits of downtime wisely. As you do the chores, keep a notebook or memo recorder at hand; inspiration often strikes at such times. If it’s takeaway night, offer to go get it and use the wait time to jot down ideas or sketch out new illustrations. And if downtime is the only time you have to work on your creative projects, learn to set boundaries. It’s Ok for you to occasionally request some time to work and shut everyone out.

Balance: My systems will not work for everyone and, clearly, your schedule will differ from mine, but day mapping, a list, and tools such as productivity timers/social media blockers will increase your output, just as remembering to move, eating healthily, and staying connected with friends and family will keep you mentally and physically healthy and far less stressed.

It’s all about balance. Good luck!

 

Portfolio Proceedings

Post updated on 11.16.15

This is a new portfolio piece I've just finished. I used this month's SVS 3rd Thursday Critiques prompt:

"As Charly walked deeper into the forest, he heard singing and dancing. He peeked out from behind a huge tree and saw..." 

I began with a detailed under-drawing:

And then I colored the piece digitally. I first tried out this (unfinished) daylight scene before switching gears and settling on the night scene: 

Which direction do you prefer? 

Update: Turns out I won the challenge by SVS and so I was thrilled to receive an online critique of the piece, which can be viewed here, along with critiques of the two other winners' pieces: 

I then tweaked my piece, and here is the result. I'm much happier with it now!


The Liberation of the "Shitty First Draft"

Years of editing have taught me a great deal about writing, and I’m very grateful for it. But an editor’s path can be a tricky one when it comes to writing her own book. As so many of you who are inclined toward self-editing will know, it’s so easy to get mired in the morass of perfecting each paragraph in chapters one to three, when you really know you should be leaping with abandon though the narrative.

Anne Lamott, in Bird By Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life (what’s not to love with a title like that?), speaks of the importance of allowing yourself to write “shitty first drafts”:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep       you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.  

Possibly you, like me, have more than one manuscript that has been well and truly stymied before the halfway mark by agonizing over individual scenes (or, more often, sentences) before you have the basic plot down. If one is lucky enough to feel the rush of love that comes with a new project, one should keep going and not fuss it to death a few steps in. There will be time enough for revision and the subtleties of each phrase later on. Plenty of time to fill in the richer details. Loads of time, in fact, as revision should be at least nine tenths of writing a book. (If you love revision and editing, as I do, that’s great news. But if you’re past the honeymoon phase with your project, or if you never really fell in love in the first place, you’d still be well advised to forge ahead and not edit. You’re already on the edge of a soul-sucking quagmire.)

I'm finding it's very freeing to allow yourself to write stuff that sounds awful (rather like this sentence). I’m taking my own advice on this project I started a few weeks ago, and I’m writing mad wonderful garbage. At least, if I were to read it as an editor, I’d think, “Oh dear, we do have quite a bit of work to do here, possibly starting with the basics of sentence construction, but there’s something special about the story.” But I’m not editing; I’m just getting scraps of scenes down. I’m letting characters say what they want to say even if it’s repetitive or nonsensical right now. I’m catching incomplete impressions, jotting unfinished and ridiculous sentences, and I’m ignoring my spellchecker until the end of each writing session. I’m letting the story reveal itself as I forge about it without stopping—and lo and behold, it is.  

The only time I’m returning to a paragraph is when something additional or better occurs to me in a flash of inspiration as I pass by it. I must admit there have been a few sentences that I have tweaked, but only—and this is the kicker—ONLY when a better way to say something comes to me as part of this naturally energized process, that is, only within the pure flow of inspiration. If I catch myself starting to fuss, I stop and move away from the paragraph or scene. Among other strategies and even more strategies I’ve discussed before, try simply scrolling through the manuscript or through your notes until something else catches your attention. Turn your focus to another scene altogether, whichever tugs you hardest, and then start writing forward afresh. 

Your draft might sound like muck, but you’ll be finding your way across the narrative terrain, though possibly chaotically. Sure, you might arrive muddy, disheveled, feathers askew, but you’ll be creating a map, almost by default, which you can later refine and revise. You’ll know the basic way, relatively quickly, and with MUCH more FUN. It doesn't mean you won’t write some dead-ends on your map along the way, because there will be some, of course. 

Move on through that mucky, messy, probably non-linear first draft, before the energy and the will to make the journey flee. Before you lose sight of what you really wanted to write about. Before the maps for possible plot-lines are so thick around you, you cannot see your way past them. Before you're afraid to even try. Don’t get bogged down planning the trip and what you might need along the way, or whether you even know where your story is going. Start somewhere (wherever you are is just fine), and just get on your way. Because it’s extraordinary how you tend to get where you want to go, if you keep your gaze fixed on the horizon, stare less at the stuff by the wayside... and just start writing.

Originally posted on cleverbirdy.blogspot.com on 10.29.13 

The Path to Publication

Recently, a writer asked me to be honest about whether he should continue to pursue writing or not. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question. It always catches me very off guard, but it does make me want to say what follows:

I’m really not the one you should be asking. 

It would be the height of arrogance and stupidity for me—or anyone else—to suggest someone not pursue writing. We all start somewhere, and we all have quite a learning curve. Everybody. If we write, it’s because we are writers. And so we must write (or paint or sculpt or garden or whatever) or shrivel up and die a bitter, strangled creative/spiritual death.

But should we ‘pursue’ it…which I assume really means ‘pursue publication’?

When I was a younger, less experienced editor (and probably thought I knew more than I did, as is natural), I worked with a gentleman who was determined to be an author. He was incredibly eager, earnest, and gung-ho, but he just seemed to be starting in a difficult place. His work seemed a bit… well, unpublishable. But he just wanted to keep trying, no matter what the critique.

And so he did.

We kept working together, multiple drafts of first one book  and then another, both of us learning much along the way. Beneath the unpublishable veneer of what he was doing, there was something wonderful and inspired and rich in what he thought and felt and cared about. But it was just all coming out in ways that were not working at all. In truth, I didn’t think his chances of ever getting published were very good. I was almost certain he wouldn’t, in fact, even though I wanted it for him. But he loved it and wanted it for himself, and that’s all he saw in front of him (or so it seemed to me). So no matter what, he just kept on.

I don’t know what ups and downs he went through on his private journey as a writer, but I guess they’re the ups and downs we all go through. The self-doubt and the frustration, the elation and late nights. All I saw was his consistent drive, the revising, the eagerness, the upbeat attitude, the desire, the focus, and the pleasant, grateful willingness to listen intently, to learn every single thing he could. When he was ready he let go of ideas he’d tried and which he now understood weren't working. He tried new things that incorporated new knowledge. He was willing and ego-free and hardworking.

And he quickly proved me wrong. He grew. His work became good, then really good (in my humble opinion). It was amazing and wonderful to watch. He soon did what I had not managed to do at that point: he found a publisher who wanted his book, signed the contract, and produced a very saleable story with a lovely heart and appealing vehicle. I’ve never seen a writer with such a short journey to (traditional) publication. (Sure, it took years, but not even close to double digits like most of us.) 

He might well have wondered if he’d ever be a published writer. He never discussed that with me. Yet he knew he would, no matter how long or how hard the journey. He was the only one he needed to ask. 

Do you use Word’s ‘embedded comments’ feature? It’s a tool I use every day when I am editing, but I also find it extremely handy when I am writing.

I often want to leave a note to myself about a character or a plot idea or some back-story, but not stop to find the place where it fits or break the flow of the section I’m writing. Sometimes it’s a possible rewording I might like for the sentence I’m working on, or just some added info about the scene that I haven’t yet found the right spot for. So being able to quickly throw in an embedded comment with that extra information is a very nifty thing.

Don’t know how to use them? It’s easy:

In Word 2007, select review from the tool bar:

Select the text or place where you’d like to put the embedded comment:               

 

And then select ‘New Comment’ from the toolbar:

And the comment will be inserted on your text, as well as the comment box opening up to the left (or below if you have your options set up that way). Then just type your comment in:

Comments can easily be removed by selecting ‘delete’:

Even if you don’t have this version of Word, the process is pretty much identical once you have located the editing/review functions on your tool bar.

It makes my writing life so much easier, and I hope you will find it helpful, too! 

Point of View, Yes, POV!

Well, I’m doing it. I’m throwing my two cents worth into the ring labeled “POV.” It’s something I’ve considered blogging about for a long time, as it’s one of the biggest, gangliest, toothiest, hairiest, wartiest, most frequent, and most significant technical issues I come across when I am editing and teaching. Some of what I am going to say is absolutely personal opinion, but it’s a studied personal opinion, developed over years of being a kid and a reader, a lifetime of reading kids’ books, and many years of editing and teaching.

Ok. So. I rarely feel that an omniscient POV works in books for kids. I am personally not a fan of omniscient POV’s in books for kids. (Note that: books for kids. Bold. Italics. Underline. Fiction for adults is another matter entirely.) BUT, there are notable exceptions.

Reading as the kid I used to be (which is partially how I approach all kidlit) and reading as an avid adult reader of kidlit (as I am now), plus reading as an editor (which I get paid to do), I almost invariably feel a greater connection with the protagonist of a story when scenes in which he/she is present are written in either first person or limited third person. I think I’m far from alone in this, and I’m certain this is why you really don’t see omniscient POV’s all that often in kidlit today, even in fantasy.

POV? Huh? Limited whatsit? Ok, let’s back up a bit.

Point of View, POV for short and when scribbled in the margins of manuscripts, is the technical term for describing who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is. This person, if a character in the story, is called the viewpoint character. The only other person it can be is the author.     ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

First Person:  “I” is the viewpoint character. All information comes through “I”’s perspective. We can only know what "I" thinks, feels, sees, hears, etc. We infer what other characters think through what they say, how they behave, and through what “I” thinks about them.

Limited Third Person: “he” or “she” is the view point character and tells the story. Only what they think, feel, perceive etc. is told.  We infer what other characters think through what they say, how they behave, and through what “he” or “she” thinks/observes about them.

Tactically, limited third is identical to first person. It has exactly the same essential limitation: that nothing can be seen, known, or told except what the narrator sees, knows, and tells. That limitation concentrates the voice and gives apparent authenticity. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

Omniscient: Numerous viewpoint characters. Writer can tell us what anyone is thinking/feeling and interpret that behavior. Sometimes narrator has a strong voice.

Sometimes the omniscient narrator has a strong voice… in fact, unless the narrator has a strong voice, I really don’t feel an omniscient POV works. Yes, that’s my opinion.

In fact, I think POV shifts are fraught with danger and must be done with skill and complete awareness—if at all.

It’s also very easy to slip outside the viewpoint character’s POV without realizing or to hover half-in and half-out—to not be deep enough inside that POV. ALL INFORMATION (unless using omniscient) must come through the viewpoint character’s emotional, physical, cultural, psychological etc. filters. Yep, in my opinion.

I feel that:

  • When your main character is present, everything should be seen through his or her or its limited third person POV. Or first person, of course. Other POVs are acceptable in scenes when your protagonist is not present, but there should be far less of them.

Why?

  • To go from protagonist’s POV to those of secondary characters is actually “head-hopping."
  • We may never manage to fully and completely connect with your protagonist. You may relegate your protagonist (whom the reader expects to know inside and out) to a minor character at times.
  • POV changes and many characters’ POVs may make an your story unnecessarily frantic or confusing at times. Your young reader may have trouble keeping track.
  • When you step outside your character and refer to them as the girl for example, that also has the effect of taking us even further outside her POV, away from her experience, as he doesn’t think of himself as “the girl.” She would think of himself (in third person) as “she” or by her name.
  • As a (young) reader, I don’t want to go right into an antagonists’ POV. I don’t want or need to go into minor character’s POVs, and if I do, I may be confused about their importance to the story.
  • I want to stay in the head of the protagonist (when he/she’s in the scene), and that’s where my greatest empathy wants to lie. I want that chance to feel empathy for the protagonist, but it takes contact and consistency of POV (when he/she is in the scene) for me to care about him/her. I want to experience the story through the hero, so I can be the hero for a little while.
  • If you go into the mind of another character when your protagonist is in the scene, you distance me from your protagonist. You don’t give me a chance to see the world, other characters, and the action through your protagonist’s eyes, so I lose that connection with him/her. Just as he/she has to do, I want to be able and should be able to infer what other characters are thinking and feeling by the way they act. If their feelings and thoughts are ambiguous, that forces an even greater empathy with your protagonist, as we are fully immersed in his/her experience—even if his/her experience is one of confusion or lack of full knowledge. We get the chance to be a confused, troubled young person/animal-person/alien creature/etc. under great duress.
  • By extension, I would rather view an antagonist from an external view and make up my own mind about what he/she is thinking and feeling by the way he/she behaves, just as the hero has to do.
  • As a (young) reader I don’t care what most adults think and I don’t want to be inside their boring grown-up heads. I am interested in the concerns of kids my own age. I don’t care very much about politics or grown-up relationship stuff like that unless it’s all part of an exciting plot, which is presented very clearly to me in a way I can conceptualize through my young perspective, without too much boring background or stuff about the weird, boring stuff adults do, talk, and think about. Again, that means don’t let me inside adult heads. I care more about what kids (especially the protagonist) are thinking and feeling.     

In my opinion, this is one of the things that makes Harry Potter so incredibly successful. Rowling (after some interesting POV stuff as she establishes character and voice in the first book) is a master of POV. And she does extraordinary amounts by staying exclusively in Harry’s limited third person POV (except when he is not present in a scene…and that’s quite rare, but she handles the POV change in a separate chapter). We never go into Hermione’s head or Ron’s, but we know what they’re thinking and feeling through Harry’s experience of them. And we especially don’t go into Snape’s or Voldemort’s heads…but that does not limit our understanding or experience of them in any way. It does, in fact, enhance it while keeping the tension between protagonist and antagonist high. 

For a very successful example of limited third person with two protagonists, take a look at the first in The 39 Clues series, The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan. The two characters are a brother and sister and their two POV’s are handled in separate alternating chapters.

If you stay in your protagonist’s POV when he is present in a scene, that means we cannot know what your other characters are thinking or feeling unless they show us by what they say in dialogue, or by what they do physically: facial expressions, movements, reactions etc.

In scenes in which your protagonist is not present, then you might take a more third person omniscient approach, but really I’d aim to avoid what’s called ‘head-hopping,’ even in those scenes, and mainly just show (yes, show, not tell) us how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking by what they say in dialogue and how they act.

Omniscient POVs are VERY tricky to do well, and they’re something you don’t see that often, really. There are some books with omniscient narrators on the market and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a fairly well known example, and then there’s Kate DiCamillo’s brilliant The Tale of Despereaux—at least those are the two which spring readily to my mind. One thing you’ll notice about those books is that the narrator has a very strong and distinctive voice.

If a writer wants to develop an omniscient POV, then they would be (again, in my opinion) advised to develop a stronger narrator’s/storyteller’s voice, but they should be be wary.

Will an added voice detract from the story and style? Is it something that the story doesn’t actually need? Is there already quite enough going on (including a lot of characters and subplot points to keep track of), without needing an additional speaker’s voice into the mix?

I recently posted on my Facebook page an article about head-hopping (http://www.floggingthequill.com/flogging_the_quill/2004/12/an_executive_ed.html) and I expressed my feelings about successful omniscient in children’s fiction, which some very well-known editors and agents immediately went on to share on their pages, agreeing heartily that head-hoping has no place in kidlit. So, as you see, it’s widely felt.

Here are some links about POV in general:

Now, I expect a bit of spirited debate about this. What do you think?