Editing is hard.

Don't let anyone else tell you different. It's really hard. You've got to walk that fine line, that razor's edge, between the writer's vision, and your own. You can see the writer's blindspots, but they can sometimes see yours.

Writers have just done something remarkable, and it is the rare writer who is fully open to having that word-baby torn apart by the jackals of judgment and style. But without that gnashing and bleeding, the book is likely to have some problems. Hopefully the writer acknowledges it can be made better, and hopefully the editor will not scar the writer's unique feel with their own personal style. It's a hard, hard balance to strike.

I am presently engaged in the process of editing a work of nonfiction. Structure may be what determines success. I may have to write or encourage the writing of an acrostic poem for greater coherence. How often can one say that?


Dear Fictician: What's so bad about adverbs?

Dear Fictician,

Why do adverbs have such a bad wrap? They're words, after all.

Ardently Defending Adverbs

Dear Confused,

First of all, fun fact: it's a 'bad rap,' the etymology hailing from a poorly cobbled song, rather than a spoiled sandwich.

The thing about adverbs is that verbs are the most perfect form of writing. Verbs are active and carry character and plot forward. Starving oneself from adverbs encourages the writer to use more specific and efficient verbs. Using those precise and cutting verbs is important; it discourages the passive, the over-dependence on IS/WAS/WERE.

The writing is cleaner. It breathes. And really, if you need adverbs to supplement dialogue, your reader may be snoring. This is telling:

"I hope you're right," she said anxiously.
"I am," he said confidently.
"This wine," a waiter rudely pushed a bottle between them. "Is a fine 2005."

See? Nothing is added. We're told something about their mindsets which could be pretty well inferred even if this riveting scene were presented in script form. Minimalism may be best. The alternative is showing, and it is quite possible to show too much:

"I hope you're right," she said, wringing her napkin as if it were the neck of a remarkably resilient chicken.
"I am." He patted her twitching hands with his meaty palm.
"This wine," a waiter dropped the bottle between them. It shattered. "Was a fine 2005."

Anyway, Ardently, writing is an imperfect medium in all forms. Adverbs are just extra boring. And you don't want to be boring, do you?


The Importance of Solitude

Being a writer is easy. All you have to do is show zero inclination to get a real job, make sarcastic and/or pretentious comments every half hour, and drink a lot. People will believe you. 

The act of writing is another kettle of fish. 

And I do mean kettle of fish. Seriously. Your head is the kettle, and inside that cast-iron skull of yours, all the influences of the schools are swimming around, disturbing your creative waters, and slamming the sides of your kettle-skull. They leave your vision doubled and your balance shaken, those schools. You have to off them, those pernicious literary influences and threatening concepts of style and conceit. 

Fortunately, if shooting fish in a barrel is cheating, killing them is even easier in a kettle. Simply turn on the heat.  The fish? Their eyes will turn to cute little x's, and the school will drift to the top. You'll be left with a roiling boil of inspiration. 

Now all you have to do is find a quiet place to write. Turn your WiFi off. Hide from the people you live with, or, if you are rolling in money, plant yourself in a coffee shop. You can pay for your new, noisy, boisterous office space with cup after cup of coffee and espresso. The bonus to this approach is that you won't sleep for days. And the hours between 1-4 are the best hours for creativity. Your critical defenses are down, your thinking is sloppy and loose, but focused enough to put words on a page. The beauty of these late hours, is that everyone else - unless you're in college - will be asleep. Then the only distracting demons you have to face are your own internet withdrawal symptoms.  Good luck with that.


Writing Query Letters

A proper writer should have a set of query letters available at all times. I'm working on it. I tried to draft a letter, but I kept having to start over. What approach would you take?

Drafting a Query Letter: 

1. Dear Sir, Ma'am or N/A, 
Enclosed is a short chapter-by-chapter discription of my Writing Project. Don't worry, I didn't include the last part; I wouldn't want to spoil the end for you. 

2. Dear Agent Orange, 
I may have to warn you that Agents Pink, Chartruse, and Mustard have reviewed this document and deemed it best that the contents stay classified. However, it is unfathomable, in my society, to withhold a document of this much aplomb and pretension. 

3. Dear Agent, 
I am a blogger; please restrain your enthusiasm. 

4. Dear Agent, 
I am a William and Mary graduate. The fact that I have this expensive paper must impel you to read the story.  

5. Dear Agent, 
I would like you to read my story because it is good. If not, please consider reading it because I'm cute and cut a good figure, so when I go on the interviewing segment people will be sure to buy my book. I am also open to publicity stunts and social networking. 

6. Dear Agent, 
Do you want to experience the occult or pop-cult? If you, like me, believe you don't have to choose, this project is for you. Synthesis, Tarot, references from books.
Together, we can nail that key Literary and Cultural Studies demographic!

7. Dear Agent, 
I deeply enjoyed meeting you at that conference, that one time. As I recall we had a lot to talk about, and we laughed and laughed when we found that the cafe offered drinks called a Holden Coffield. And for the after party, I believe you ordered a Rum-Tum-Tugger, and then you went wild, lifting up girls shirts, blowing raspberries, and calling yourself the tum-tum-mugger. 

8. Deer Agent, 
It must be tough for you to find good writers when your clients lack opposable thumbs.

9. Dear Gentleman-Agent, 
I presume there is an old boy's club that meets every friday at five for happy hour. I know you all sip martinis with olives and discuss the query letters you have received during the week. I know, old boy, that some nasty character started a rumor about me being a pushy broad who won't fit into the industry.  

10. Dear Agent, 
Please answer, this time, damn it! Why don't you agents ever answer? If I don't recieve a response in a timely manner, you can bet I will not hesitate to follow in the footsteps of my heroine on page 37. Just you wait!

11. Dear Agent, 
Enclosed is my 500 page treatise on the inverse relationship between speed and frequency of typing and length of fingernails. 


The Importance of Good Names (Anything but Ernest)

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare's Juliet asks. "That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

However, when Lisa Simpson raises this point to Bart, he counters: "Not if you call them Stench Blossoms."

Bart wins with the more poignant point. This should not surprise, since the wisdom frequently touted as Shakespeare's actually comes from his angsty teenage character who voluntarily put herself in a deathlike coma and fillets herself when her equally angsty lover in too-tight tights follows suit. These are the starring lovers of cross-eyed wisdom.

No matter what you're writing, the names do matter. This is Rule 18: Think hard, but not too hard about the names of people and places in your fiction.

If you do not think much about your character names, you may end up with very generic names (Like Jeff, Jake, Anne, etc.), which imply very generic characters. If you try too hard to make the names unique, especially by adding y's, (a la Ravyn, Estrogyna, Satyra) then no matter what dialogue you give them, the reader will know that they are pale with too much eye liner and a secret wish to become vampires. Try to make the names cute, like Page Turner, or Sherry Creamer, then you're in danger of heading into parable or stripper territory.

If you think too much about a system names, you may find yourself clever, but the reader may not catch on or care. For instance, if you name the characters in alphabetical order, alternating male and females, using only names on hurricane lists, well, that's all well and good. But really, does that add anything to anyone's experience?*

Character names are not the only ones you must think about. If you write fantasy or horror, your invented creations must have names that are appropriately horrifying or fantastical. Unless you are writing a comedy or an epic poem, try to avoid alliteration and other dumb poetic devices.

Also avoid giving creatures names that are hard to say. For instance, a creature that is a combination of snake and spider has a lot of scare potential. (See top of the post.) Many people have phobias of snakes, and many have phobias of spiders, as both are natural arch-nemeses in evolutionary history. By combining them, you hit twice as many phobics with night terrors in one fell swoop! Genius! However, if you give it a stupid name, the creature will be far less effective on that part of the population which lacks phobia. Let's say we call the creature an Asp-spider. This would be a poor choice of a name. Asp Spider. Say it ten times fast, I dare you. You will find yourself stuttering or whispering psst, like you and the critter are old friends who go way back, sharing secrets. You can't be afraid of it. You will end up thinking that the creature is silly and the writer is dumb.

*If your book is targeted solely at meteorologists, then use all the hurricane names you want, just make sure you don't make a mistake, or they will have an 80% chance of catching errors.


The consequences of stupid character description

Every once in a while, an author makes a seemingly conscious decision to use piss-poor language to describe a central character. Occasionally the description is evocative enough that the author decides it is all that is needed, and he may even use it more than once. However, poor language can become a crutch. This should be avoided.

This brings us to Rule 39: Do not beat the reader over the head with descriptions that say next to nothing.

Rule 39 is prominently violated by the dearly departed fantasy author, Robert Jordan, in his 13 book epic Wheel of Time series. The following is a collection of descriptions of character Lan Mandragoran, drawn from multiple books throughout the series. Citations compliments of Google books.

From the Wheel of Time series:
  • The Eye of the World (book 1):
“That face was made from stony planes and angles, weathered but unlined despite the gray in his hair” (46).
  • The Great Hunt (book 2):
A narrow band of braided leather held the Warder's long hair back from his face, a face that seemed made from stony planes and angles, a face unlined as if to belie the tinge of gray at his temples” (2)
  • The Dragon Reborn (book 3):
“The flames cast flickering shadows across the Warder's face, making it seem more carved from stone even than it normally did, all hard planes and angles” (27).
  • The Shadow Rising (book 4):
A braided leather cord held Lan's dark hair, gray-streaked at the temples. His face looked to have been carved from rock, all hard planes and angles, and his sword rode his hip like part of his body” (92).
  • The Fires of Heaven (book 5):
“Which was to say as still and calm as his face, all stony planes and angles in the moonlight, and with an air of being on the brink of sudden movement that made the Aiel appear placid in comparison” (165).
  • A Crown of Swords (book 7):
Brilliant blue eyes regarded her intently from beneath lowered brows, in a face all planes and angles that might have been carved from stone” (237).
  • And from the Eye of the World series, From the Two Rivers:
“That face was made from stony planes and angles, weathered but unlined despite the gray in his hair” (30).

Taken individually or together, these descriptions lead to only one possible mental image:

This is a composite sketch from the many descriptions of the character. What could Lan be, but a face all planes and angles? Twin-tailed plane for lips? A plane for a nose? Biplanes for eyes, perhaps? As for the angles, his description does not reveal the true degree measurements, so the true angles are unknown. There is a gray tinge in his hair, and his face is kind of like stone. The character, as described, may have difficulty passing through society without notice.