Month: July 2014
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You’re stuck. No, not stuck. That’s writer’s block. You’re just not sure where to go. Should your protagonist fight with their partner in the next scene? Or maybe they should go out for a drink with friends. That’s sounds hopeful. No, wait, better yet, maybe they go out alone, and have a chance encounter with somebody who tempts them. No, no, maybe the fight should come first. Damnit, there’s just so many options.
Maybe mapping out the story will work. Hang on …
- protagonist is unhappy with partner, so they … they …
Hmmm, back to the original problem. Maybe mapping out each alternative is the way to go …
- they fight
- the protagonist’s partner breaks down
- the protagonist storms out and, um … um …
That didn’t work. Let’s see what happens with another of the alternatives.
- the protagonist goes out with friends
- friends have conflicting opinions – some say the partner’s no good, others say to give the partner a chance and talk it out
- the protagonist is confused and, um, um …
Okay. That wasn’t so good either. Let’s try the last alternative …
- the protagonist goes out to a strange bar
- the protagonist has a few drinks, talks to the bartender
- a stranger approaches, tempts them and, um … um …
All your possibilities are equally weighted, and all of them just as equally taper away. You’re not feeling it, the path that you’re meant to be on. Everything disappears into a haze. It’s so frustrating! You know what happens well after that point, but just don’t know how to get there.
You bandy ideas around with friends, and they come up with some suggestions that fire your imagination. Yes, there are definite possibilities there. But once you sit down to write and pound out a few words, there’s just more haze. These suggestions don’t seem very good, after all. It’s back to plodding around.
A walk will do wonders – get away from the pressure of trying to find the words and ideas that get you back into your story. Some of your best ideas have come while walking, and then you’ve been impatient to get home and get stuck into it. But now, the same thing happens that happened when you talked to your friends. Possibilities that shot like flares in your head fade into nothing once you try to follow them.
Where to now? Where to?
As writers we all have our own techniques that serve us best. Some of us outline stories meticulously before we ever begin to write. Others write instinctively. Some fall in between. There’s no right or wrong way, there’s only the way that works for you.
Yet at one point or another, we can all reach a point where we’re unsure where to go next, and all our methods only confuse us more – usually wearying us of our story and the passion to write it. This is often when stories are abandoned: when there seems no clear way through, and we grow sick of looking.
There does remain one last avenue, though.
Sometimes, you just need to sit down and write those scenes you’re unsure about and see where they take you. Writing is a much more exhaustive exploration than any of the methods mentioned earlier, and can alert you to cracks which just might be your way through to where you want to get to. Find a crack and possibly find your way into a whole new world.
Of course, it mightn’t work out. You might write hundreds – or even thousands – of words that ultimately go nowhere. You might do this for several vague ideas for no reward. But sometimes, you have to. That’s all it comes down to. You have to write simply to find out for yourself whether something is going to work or not, because no other method is going to truly and unequivocally answer that question for you.
Think about that next time you’re unsure where to go.
Postscript: If you ever write something substantial (let’s say over 100 words) and it doesn’t work out, don’t delete it for all eternity. Cut it out and stick it in a separate file, which you can call ‘Extracts’ or ‘Excerpts’ or ‘Excisions’ or whatever. But collate those passages that don’t work. You never know, you might use them again, or they might give you an idea for a different project later on.
July 29, 2014
Writing is profiled as a solitary exercise. It’s the toiling labour of the lonely few, at the desk in front of a piece of paper or a glowing screen. Some writers take this all too literally, and cast themselves as lone soldiers. Which is fine, insofar that it benefits the natural process of that writer. But in a lot of other ways, it’s an unhealthy habit. Especially for emerging writers.
The growing presence of writing courses has worked against this idiom – new writers opt for the courses to improve their craft, and at the same time are grilled on the importance of workshopping and feedback as part of their education.
That said, it can be a very tall hurdle for many writers to take that step; to go from writing for themselves and keeping the words closely guarded, to sharing those words openly and freely without reservation. But any writers seeking to develop in the public spotlight will find themselves at that point, sooner or later.
The first step is to be comfortable with the idea of being a public writer. This is to be an author writing for any audience that doesn’t happen to be exclusively themselves – to write for reasons other than personal reflection and catharsis. It’s a small step for some, and a large leap for others.
The thought of an audience can be an intimidating thing for some writers, emerging or established. The idea that someone else might be reading your words – and might not like them – is a fear on par with public speaking or spiders.
The audience might change from project to project, but it should be a defining factor in the planning process. Age group; personality types; even whether it’s more suited for a particular gender. Don’t get bogged down in it, but take it into consideration for at least a brief moment. It won’t be a hard and fast rule and shouldn’t be too restrictive, but it allows you to see who you’re writing for.
And then you tell yourself that you can write for that audience. And believe it.
That’s when the process starts. The words come out – quickly or slowly – and they arrange themselves in a particular sequence, designed to appeal to that audience. Sooner or later, a piece of writing will take shape. And the chosen audience needs to read it. You owe it to yourself to see whether it worked – whether that sequence of words is successful. Seek appropriate publications. Solicit opinions and feedback. Workshop. Build upon your original drafts. And through it all, take pride – both in your work and in your efforts to reach out to your audience. Be open to the needs of your audience and refine your work accordingly.
Because then your working process has become communal, and you’re engaging with a wider public. And that can be a very difficult thing to do if you’re not used to it. But that’s okay. Take it slow to begin with if you need to, and test your work on a couple of test readers. Build from that until it becomes a natural, organic part of your developmental process.
The lone solider mentality can have its benefits to the creative process – for one thing, it’s a powerful catalyst for self-expression through a medium such as writing. But it also prevents you from achieving engagement with your audience. And if that audience isn’t just you, then you need to be brave and trust both in your own work and in your audience. You need to trust your readers to both receive the work with an open mind, and actively want to engage with you about that work, whether it be praise or otherwise. It might be tough at first, but it gets easier. And if you can take the bad comments with the good, then it will only improve you as a writer.
Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen
July 24, 2014
Last week, we looked at what an editor does not do for you. This week we look at what an editor does do for you, or at least should – I write should because boundaries may vary with editors. But this is what we (at Busybird) consider the principle guidelines for our editors, and what we instruct our assistant editors and interns.
Something important to note here is that editing’s not just about the practical duties required, i.e. editing the text. Good editing goes beyond that. The text is a reflection of the author, so in being an editor, the editor also needs to understand the author they’re working with, and what they’re trying to accomplish.
So let’s begin …
An editor does develop a relationship with their author
How do they do that? Wine them? Dine them? Well, I’ve had clients who have wanted to sit down for a coffee, or a meal, to get a feel for me and my outlook. Sometimes, this isn’t possible. You can have clients from remote regions, interstate, or even internationally.
The best way of developing a relationship with an author is by demonstrating that you’re listening to them, and that you’re there to help them get the best out of their work. This is important for both parties. The author needs to understand what the editor is going to bring to their work, whilst the editor needs to understand – beyond the text itself – where the author’s coming from.
An editor does get inside the voice of the author
Every author has a voice that is unique to them and it’s paramount that the editor appreciates this. We’ve seen editors who’ve highlighted passages and offered perfectly valid suggestions – suggestions that are great, but when you look at the highlighted passages, you see that’s fine also, but the editor’s wanted to do it their way.
So an editor needs to respect the way the author’s doing things. Additionally, an editor has to come from the same place as the author, even if the author is writing in a style, prose, voice that the editor might not usually familiarise themselves with.
For example, if we have a paragraph such as
- Bob jogged into the forest and down the beaten track. Wind rustled through the leaves of the pines.
we should recognise the author’s style is simple. Therefore, it’s not a worthwhile suggestion to do something like:
- Perhaps consider adding more description. E.g. ‘Bob jogged into the majesty of the forest and down a sinuous track that had been beaten by decades of wearied woodland travellers. A cruel, biting wind rustled through the shy leaves of towering pines that reached unassailably into the sky.
That is not recognising the voice of the author. That’s asking the author to become somebody else. The editor should try to get on the same wavelength as the author, and suggestions should be in the same voice.
An editor should correct spelling, punctuation, typos, grammar, etc.
Structural editing won’t always involve this step, since work returning from a structural edit is going to be revised (by the author), which would likely introduce a whole raft of new errors.
But if you’re receiving a copyedit, an editor should not only provide these services, but also educate you on any habitual errors you’re committing. Some authors don’t care about being educated, preferring to leave that to the editor, but I always think it’s worth the effort because, in the long run, it can save the author the expense of having an editor needing to work longer because there’s more things to fix, not to mention the editor the time of having to make these same corrections.
An editor should introduce consistency throughout the text
Was it ‘colour’ on page 3, but ‘color’ on page 20? Did the author refer to the state as ‘State’ on page 2, but ‘state’ on page 9? Is one heading written as ‘This Is The Heading Here’ and another ‘This is the heading there’? They’re just little things, but authors can be inconsistent. An editor needs to be aware of stylistic conventions within a document and either standardise them, or query the author as to which they prefer.
An editor provides suggestions on improving content
If it is a structural edit, an editor should look at things like plot, characterisations, pacing, the way the story is structured, etc. Does it take too long to get into it? Is it repetitive? There are so many facets that constitute a story, and an editor should examine whether they all function in conjunction with one another; whether they’re overdeveloped or underdeveloped; and what work’s required.
The good editor should also explain why they’ve cited passages and, if possible, make suggestions. A comment of, ‘This character doesn’t work’ doesn’t help the author at all. How does the character not work? Are they too two-dimensional? Are they unmotivated? What exactly is it about them that doesn’t work? Explain it.
If possible, a good editor should suggest how to fix it. E.g. ‘It’s hard to believe this character would take this violent course of action. Perhaps consider earlier establishing that they do have violent tendencies – maybe in that encounter with their neighbour, there might be a flare of suppressed anger.’
And it should be just a suggestion. A comment such as, ‘It’s hard to believe this character would take this violent course of action. Fix it’ is confrontational and tyrannical, and most authors – like most people – don’t want to be ordered around like disobedient children. It’s the best way to antagonise an author.
An editor does not comment for the sake of commenting
Some might think this belongs in last week’s list of things not to do. No, this is something editors need to do.
Empty margins scare some editors. It makes them think that the author will think they’re not doing their job if nothing’s marked up or commented on, so they comment for the sake of commenting, to mark the emptiness in the margins and prove they’re doing their job.
A good editor should recognise when not to comment. It’s a strong and confident editor who learns that they do need to respect that there are times nothing needs to be done.
An editor does alert an author of copyright issues they may be aware of
This might seem contrary to last week’s advice, but if an editor does recognise something’s been quoted or reproduced from external material, an editor should alert the author they will need to seek permission. Of course, they mightn’t recognise foreign material, so sometimes a simple heads up that this process is required is nice, too.
Editing’s often a thankless, anonymous job. You can name bestselling and/or famous authors, but can you name their editors? How many editors can you name overall? The answer, for most, will be none.
The good editor is a shepherd. They’re not out to harm what they’re shepherding, but get it to its destination in the best condition possible.
July 22, 2014
But I wouldn’t be a head editor of a collection without airing some gripe from the process, would I? As blasé as it is, there is something that occurred to me while reading some of the page seventeen submissions – something that I’d like to highlight here.
For all the writers reading this – whether you’re short story writers or poets – it might even be an exercise of sorts. Look back on the most recent additions to your folio of work – say, the last year or two worth. Have a quick read-through, and consider what each piece is about. Look at the plot, the characters used, the settings, the consistent style and the use of wordplay.
How many of those qualities are near-identical across the majority of your pieces? And, moreover, did you know those patterns existed in your work?
A writer’s comfort zone is a sacred place. It’s the type of content that comes most naturally, and resonates with the writer’s own emotions and state of mind most clearly.
When reviewing the short stories and poems submitted to page seventeen, I noticed the work of writers I have read before, as well as multiple submissions by a single author, that stuck a note of familiarity in its content. I obviously can’t be too specific, but in these cases where I could compare several works from the same author, I often noticed that they would:
- Use a wordplay gimmick in almost exactly the same way across two or more works.
- Write a story with a noticeably similar premise or centrepiece scene – a domestic dispute, an awkward encounter, etc – which doesn’t separate itself enough from previous embodiments.
- Replicate a previous piece’s use of structure, style or themes, based on its success in the past.
It should be stressed that none of these works are bad. Some of them are great. And if it’s the approach or style that got you published in the past, of course it makes sense to stick to a winning formula. But unfortunately, the diminishing returns are inevitable. And if I noticed the patterns, then other readers (and editors) will notice them as well – if they haven’t already.
Does this sound like you? Then remember that, technically, you’re not doing anything wrong. But your growth as a writer will be stymied if you don’t take some risks in your work. If it seems like your last batch of work was all about domestic turmoil, or featured essentially the same lead character with cosmetic changes, then make an effort to break that rut. If it seems that your current work is being modelled off a previous success, you can still work with a winning formula but don’t allow your work to regress into a folio full of echoes.
If you’re not sure how to start edging out of your comfort zone, one straightforward way is the game of ‘Wikipedia Roulette’. Set a limit – maybe 5 article jumps – and use the ‘random article’ function on Wikipedia. Then you have to use one of the articles within that set limit as a basis for character, theme or setting in a new story or poem. Alternatively, you might seek out magazines or competitions with set themes outside your normal modus operandi, and use that as a challenge as well as a unique publishing opportunity.
Everyone has patterns and habits that they fall into, often without realising it. It may not be damaging the quality of your work, but unchecked these patterns may drag your new work down until it is a shade of the freshness and originality that made your earlier work engaging in the first place.
Whether you’ve identified these patterns in your work or not, the sentiment is the same: your strongest pattern should be the tendency to broaden your horizons with genres, settings and characters that fall outside your comfort zone. (And workshop all of it – even the hokey attempt at romance. There’s no point pushing your boundaries if you don’t learn anything from the experience.) Not every resulting work will be a success, but they will all contribute to your learning process as a writer.
Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen
July 17, 2014
Lots of authors have misconceptions about the role of an editor. This can lead to issues when an author thinks an editor hasn’t fulfilled one (or more) of their duties or, conversely, when they might’ve overstepped their bounds. It’s important to be clear on an editor’s responsibilities, and their boundaries.
This week, we look at what an editor does not do for you.
An editor is not out to harm your work
Seriously, why would we? Your writing is a reflection of our employer or our services, which are then a reflection of our business. Sabotaging you would be sabotaging ourselves. Our goal is to make your work the best it can be, which in turn makes us look the best we can be. So why would we harm your work? We would harm ourselves.
The editor/author relationship is a symbiotic process. An editor’s suggestions are made with the intent of improving your work. If they have misunderstood something, or don’t get something, explain it to them. A good editor is not arbitrary. They will always explain why they’ve made the suggestion they have, and their suggestions will be in the vein of what you’re attempting to do.
And that, in itself, is the most important thing to remember – a good editor suggests, not demands, and they definitely don’t simply overwrite you.
An editor will not rewrite you or write for you
Our editors are instructed that under no circumstances are they to go into the author’s work, and rewrite them (unless it’s to correct spelling or a typo or something of that nature). We will cite (and highlight) passages that might have issues and suggest examples of how to repair them.
This is an important point. If your work contains a clunky sentence, or an overwritten paragraph that could be diluted to a sentence, don’t send it to us in the belief that we’ll fix it by doing the actual writing for you. Whilst subeditors at newspapers might have this role, fiction and nonfiction editors at publishers and journals do not.
It is neither our job to rewrite you, nor to write for you, and if you have an editor performing this duty for you, then they’re actually ghostwriting.
An editor will not solve all your issues
If you’ve written something and you think it could do with some work, as well as a spellcheck but, hey, it’s pretty okay as it is so maybe, just maybe, it’ll win over the reader at the other end, and they’ll address any and all issues, well, you’re kidding yourself and deserve a punch in the nose.
Regular readers to this blog will know how often we advocate revision. Don’t send your work out until you have gotten the very best out of it. It’s not an editor’s job to fix everything for you because you’re too lazy or disinterested to address it yourself, or because you think it’s brilliant enough as it is, so it’ll win your reader over.
Believe me, one of an editor’s greatest frustrations is recognising an author’s been haphazard about their work because of the misguided belief we’ll correct everything on our end. In all likelihood (likelierhood), you’ll just piss us off.
An editor will not check your permissions
If you’ve written a novel and quoted song lyrics, or written a nonfiction book and quoted extracts from other books, you need to get permission to use that material. Permissions are a minefield. Generally, when you quote a small amount, you should be okay (as long as it’s properly accredited). Should. But the copyright holder of that material (the author or the publisher of the material) may take issue, particularly if the material is intellectual property synonymous with them (or their branding).
An editor might flag such material or point out that you should seek permission to use it, but it’s up to you to get permission to use that material (approaching the author or the publisher – many publishers have permissions departments, or permissions forms downloadable from their websites).
This is not us abrogating responsibility either. Even if you submitted to a multinational publisher, they are going to request that you get all the permissions for any material you’ve quoted. They won’t do it for you. And there’s a chance if you’ve unwittingly quoted something without accrediting it, your editor or publisher won’t even recognise it as foreign material.
An editor will not always recognise plagiarism within your work
If you’re writing a book on important historical figures and for the chapter on, say, Paul Revere, you simply copy and paste the entry from Wikipedia, changing a word here and there, then are later sued for breach of copyright, don’t blame the editor for not warning you about your plagiarism. You should know you’re plagiarising without needing to have it pointed out to you.
For example, there is a sentence in the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere that reads:
- Revere’s father died in 1754, when Paul was legally too young to officially be the master of the family silver shop.
Don’t think doing this
- In 1754, Revere’s father died, when Paul was legally too young to officially be the master of the family silver shop.
satisfies the demands of legal propriety. You’re not in Year 7 English, writing a report where you can juggle a word or two and nobody is the wiser. Your work is (in this digital age) intended for a global audience, so there’s a good chance somebody’s going to pick up the plagiarism. Plagiarism like this is blatant and illegal, and (as with the case of the permissions above) an editor will not always recognise that the writing has simply been copied from an external source.
Don’t plagiarise. It’s never acceptable, and juggling a word or two in a passage doesn’t constitute originality.
An editor is not at your beck and call
Believe it or not, editors will usually not be working exclusively on your piece. They might be juggling an assortment of jobs. Show some understanding for your editor. Don’t think you’re their only client, you’re their reason for existing, and that when you need something, they have nothing else on so they can attend your needs immediately and exclusively.
That is a basic checklist. If you have any queries, feel free to leave a comment or shoot us an email.
Next week, we look at what an editor does do for you.