It's "NaNoEdMo," and I'm grumpy. NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month) is a new spin-off of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a movement which has gotten tens of thousands of aspiring writers onto their rear ends in front of their computers, creating 50,000-word novels in the month of November. Participants also often get together to discuss writing, their novels, and more. I'm a huge fan of NaNoWriMo, and many of my friends participate.
Before I go on, please remember that I really want your responses and comments. We had a pretty lively Forum discussion last month; let's keep it up.
NaNoEdMo, March, is now the month those writers are encouraged to polish and edit their novel drafts, instead of letting all that hard November work languish on a disk somewhere. A fine idea, but not the NaNoEdMo I wanted. Just as the writers flourish in a synchronous effort and an exchange of ideas, tips, and tricks, I had an idea that editors could do the same thing. If you think about it, editing is actually a more solitary craft than writing: writers' groups are common, but have you ever heard of an editors' group? Other than a few tiny online communities, I know of no organized forums in which editors can actually compare styles, approaches, values, and preferences. Aside from a few often-expensive publishing programs here and there, I know of no place other than in the trenches that editors can learn their craft.
So I had this idea that we editors could team up one-on-one with NaNoWriMo volunteers, and also gather in groups to compare our experiences. However, the NaNoWriMo folks had other ideas, and that's their prerogative.
This leaves me thinking about editing. The other thing that brings editing into the foreground for me is that Potlatch 14 is coming up this weekend, and I have four short story manuscripts in my bookbag to critique for the writers' workshop. I am not, especially by the standards of this field, an experienced critiquer—many of our finest writers and editors have critiqued literally thousands of stories in their time, whereas my total is probably measured in dozens.
Every time I sit down to work on a critique, I find myself thinking somewhat formlessly about how critiquing is different from editing, which again is different from working with a writer, which is different from judging a fiction award. So I thought I'd use this column as a way to formulate those random thoughts. Be patient with me: I'm working out what I think as I go.
I make the underlying assumption that more people want to be writers than editors and thus more people are interested in the writer's perspective on editing than the editor's perspective on editing. So the remainder of this is written, by an editor, from the perspective of "you" the writer.
Let's begin with a piece of fiction. Perhaps you wrote it. For these purposes, let's say that it's a finished first draft. It's no longer notes, or an outline, or idea sketches. You have a manuscript with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you are happy enough for the moment to type "The End" after the last sentence. Stories written for your own pleasure, or for a group of friends, or for lots of reasons other than publication are great. This hypothetical story, however, was written with the hope of having it published.
Let's also assume that you are not a fan of Robert Heinlein's second rule of writing ("Never rewrite what you write"). If you are, you've already put a stamp on it and sent it out the door, and the rest of this column is irrelevant.
Re-examining Your Own Work
You can (and many writers do) put the story away—for an hour, a day, a week, however long it takes you to get a little distance—and then go back and read it yourself, trying to distance yourself in some way from the writing of it. Approaching it as a reader, you will almost certainly see things you want to fix or change: typographical errors, punctuation mistakes, perhaps plot points or characterization issues. Very likely, this reading will spur you to do a second draft. Depending on what you noticed, the second draft could be hugely different from the first, or it could just be a more polished version. Maybe you repeat this exercise again with the same story, or not. Some writers get caught up in ever-further polishing a story and never take it to the next phase. Some put their work away for a year or more, or never pull it out again. On the opposite end of the spectrum, maybe you like your own rewrite so much that you start sending it out to publishers.
Part of my grumpiness with NaNoEdMo is that while I absolutely respect this process, I don't think of it as "editing." Editing is something someone else does; rewriting is what the author does. Says me.
Family and Friends
A lot of writers take their somewhat polished first draft to an outside reader. Many, especially inexperienced writers and people who don't know other writers, go to close friends and family members. This person may or may not be a reader herself, may or may not read the genre in which your book or story is set, and is usually not sophisticated in the ways of publishing. This reader will like your story. A lot. You went to her because you like her and she likes you. She will read with her high opinion of you in mind, and without the experience that can help her look at the text without interposing her sense of you between the words and their reaction. Nor is she likely to have much skill or experience in offering constructive criticism. In my opinion, this kind of feedback is extremely good for collecting the encouragement to take your story further. The trap is that this reader's warm feedback may convince you that the story is ready for prime time, whether or not folks who don't already love you will agree.
This and the next several possibilities are not editing passes either, but "critiquing" passes. I'll clarify the distinction when we get to editing.
The First Reader
So what's the next step? Some writers have a "first reader," a specific individual whose opinions they trust. That reader is almost always an experienced reader, may or may not have any professional connection with the publishing world, and ideally has both an affinity for your work and the integrity and skill to critique it with or without that affinity.
Perhaps the most important thing about a first reader is that you make the selection with great care. Try a few on different stories, and see who's right for you. Most people appreciate being asked, though some will be too busy to agree. In general, you want someone who is in sympathy with your overall writing style, direction, and goals, and thus is working with you rather than against you. At the same time, you want someone who will tell you the truth, who will "call bullshit" if he finds places where you are being lazy, and whose level and style of critiquing suits you. You may or may not want a highly detailed line-by-line critique from a first reader; you may want someone who concentrates on the areas where you're weakest. You may bring specific concerns to the table. A well-matched first reader can make an enormous difference in a manuscript.
The Peer Critique Group
Online and in person, more and more writers turn to a peer group of critiquers to look at their work in progress. Peer groups have functions before a story is written: they can get you to write, either by encouragement or by setting deadlines. They give you the opportunity to critique other people's work, a terrific way to learn about fiction structure, characterization, plot, pacing, style, and the multitude of other skills that go into writing.
They also give you the opportunity to receive critiques from a variety of people, none of them as personalized to you and your specific needs as a first reader might be. One thing to remember about a writers' group may seem obvious: everyone there is a writer. They all have their own vested interest in the craft, their own personalized preferences. They're actively working on their own writing: that's why they're in the group. It's going to be difficult for them to separate out your writing from their writing.
Writers' groups vary hugely in style. Some are intentionally brutal, taking the position that to be a writer you have to learn to take criticism. Others can be extraordinarily supportive. Too brutal can break your spirit; too supportive can be like having an entire writers' group made up of the family member readers described above. You need to find a group that matches your style, suits your needs. Ideally, a group holds together long enough to learn enough about each others' writing goals, styles, and predilections to personalize their critiques.
One thing to remember about any session in which your work is critiqued by more than one or two people is, "They will disagree." When everyone in the group has had a chance to comment on your story, you'll inevitably be left with diametrically opposed comments. ("The scene with the cab driver and the chocolate alien is the best thing in the story." "I would have loved it if you'd only deleted the scene with the chocolate alien and the cab driver.") Tolerance of ambiguity is an essential skill for anyone who takes a piece of writing to a group for comments. Along with that tolerance, you will need to develop your own sense of which criticisms to accept and which to leave behind, just because they're wrong for the story you wanted to tell.
In the SF field we have lots of examples of writing groups which have spurred each other on to publication: Steven Brust, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Pamela Dean, Kara Dalkey, and more all come out of the Scribblies in Minneapolis. Bruce Sterling, Lew Shiner, Howard Waldrop, and more all came out of the Turkey City Writers' Group in Austin (now a professional group), which has also formalized one of the best lists of writing and science fiction traps and mistakes ever written. Over the decades, successful professional writers of one cohort or another have organized their own ongoing writers' groups: Milford in the 1960s (which was the genesis for Clarion, discussed below), Sycamore Hill in the 1990s. Most participants would agree that this helped their work in many ways.
The Writers' Workshop or Semiprofessional Critique
In this setting, you submit a story to a writers' workshop, you are assigned to a small group, and a professional writer or editor critiques your story along with the other members of your group, while you critique theirs.
This is rather like a traveling writers' group, with the addition of the professional critique. In general, it is a one-time setting, commonly at a convention or other special-interest gathering. The other participants will likely not know anything about you or anything you have written. Nor will you know anything about the other members of your group. You probably won't get a chance to pick the professional you work with.
So it's a luck-of-the-draw situation, which at a minimum will give you some breadth of experience in critiquing and being critiqued. You might get something extremely valuable; you might come away wondering what planet they were all from. And you might want to sell to people from that planet someday . . . .
The ultimate writers' workshop experience is the total immersion experience best known in the science fiction field through Clarion, and available in other places as well. Clarion has been going on in one form or another since 1972, and is a six-week-long workshop in which participants work with six different professionals (usually five or six writers and an editor) over the weeks, attempt to write one story a week, and receive critiques from all fellow workshop participants and each professional, as well as private sessions with the professionals and a lot of discussion of the business of writing.
Many of the field's finest and most successful writers (some of them even the same people!) have attended Clarion, taught Clarion, and supported Clarion. Workshop participants tend to form very close friendships which last for years. And a great deal of writing wisdom and lore is transmitted.
To return to the initial subject of this column, so far I haven't said a word about editing. In my opinion, critiquing is subtly different from editing. In a critique, a reader offers a personal (perhaps professionally well-informed, perhaps entirely individual) analysis of what works and doesn't work in a piece of writing. It may be detailed and specific, or very general; in either event, its function is as an offering to the writer: take what you want from this and leave the rest.
Good editing is also an offering to the writer, in the sense that good (acquisition) editors don't buy something and then demand that the writer make changes the writer isn't willing to make before the piece is published. Nonetheless, no matter how much volition the writer has about accepting editorial changes, I believe that editing is by its nature more prescriptive than critiquing. A critiquer is in effect saying, "I would like this story better if you deleted the chocolate alien." A good editor is saying, "The chocolate alien is a problem with this story which interferes with how good the story could be." If the editor is in an acquisitions role (i.e., has the option of buying or not buying your story), she may well also be saying, "If you can't take out the chocolate alien, then we can't work together on this story."
A critiquer is expected to critique any story that comes to the group, though his critique may consist of, "I just don't care for this kind of story." An editor chooses what to look at, what to engage with, and an acquisitions editor chooses what to buy.
Developmental editors are pretty thin on the ground in professional publishing these days: publishing is a lean business. Some nonfiction houses still employ full-time and freelance development editors (I work with a couple in my day job), but fiction development is either done by overburdened acquisitions editors or, more commonly, not at all.
The proof that developmental editing is a real niche is that when publishers gave it up, some writers started looking for it anyway. A developmental editor (often called a "novel doctor"), whether paid by a publisher or by a writer, theoretically brings a level of expertise in his craft to your manuscript. A good DE will be interested in the professional/financial goals of the author and also the goals of the piece of fiction. You are no more obligated to follow the advice of a DE than you are to follow the advice of a critiquer; at the same time, you entered into the relationship with the DE at a level of trust in his professionalism and the skills and experience he brings to the manuscript. And if money is changing hands, especially if it's coming out of your pocket, that also affects how you will listen and respond to advice.
The acquisitions editor works for a publication and is, or is not, going to buy that lovingly workshopped and carefully edited piece of fiction. Her first concern is neither you nor your story, but her publication and her audience. Her primary awareness is focused on what works for her market, which may or may not be what she personally likes best. She can only afford to put time into development if she really believes that the finished result will be a story that pleases the readers she is selling to. She will probably be at least as concerned with "extraneous" facts like your sales record and your self-promotion skills as she is with the story itself. She may have no time or inclination whatsoever to "edit" in the sense discussed in this article. The late great Betty Ballantine always said, "If you're good enough to sell to Betty Ballantine, you don't need editing." Think of the acquisitions editor as a stand-in and gatekeeper for the final purchasing reader: to keep her position as editor of her publication, she must represent that reader's concerns, no matter what they are, at an acute level of perception and awareness.
This column doesn't present a neat wrap-up. My hope was to offer you a sense of the various kinds of feedback and attention a story can get, what they have to offer you as a writer, and why you might or might not want to choose any of these steps.
I'm curious to hear your stories about how various critiquing and editing relationships have worked for you, from any aspect of the interaction. And if you have any ideas on how to make editing (as opposed to or in conjunction with critiquing) a more discussed, examined, and shared craft, please let me know.
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