Every story is different, and every time I start a story, the process is a little different than it was before. As I write, though, I find that certain truths keep cropping up again and again. One I’ve been reflecting on lately is how you should almost never go with your first idea.
I’m not talking about the whole idea. Usually this first idea introduces characters, locations, a basic conflict, and once you set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), a rough outline from beginning to end. It’s this first outline that, in my experience, should almost never be kept by the time you’re finished — especially the ending.
There’s the simple reason that stories evolve as they’re written. I often find that I have ideas for what my characters are like, and then they surprise me as I write them. They tell me more about themselves and how their stories will end. More often than not, I’ll be led in the right direction. Trust yourself as an author to know when the story is spiraling and when the story is falling into place. You’ll see it as a reader, just of your own work as opposed to others’ books.
Despite what movies like Stranger Than Fiction imply, though, writing isn’t all magic where the characters come to life and tell you everything you need to know. At the end of the day, you are the writer and you’re exerting control over your narrative. And I highly suggest using this control to steer yourself away from your first idea as you start to see new ideas popping up along the way.
I dwell on this because, more often than not, our first idea is based on something we’ve read before. It’s not necessarily something that’s clichéd (though it very well might be), and sometimes, something we’ve read before can work in a new narrative we’re crafting. But something we’ve read before is very likely something that someone else has read before too. There’s comfort in familiarity, but there’s more reward in being shocked. If you surprise yourself as you write, then chances are, your readers will be surprised too.
As an author, I find great satisfaction when I give a brief synopsis of a story, and someone guesses something entirely different from how it turns out. I get even more satisfaction when they guess my first idea — one that has since been changed. It tells me that they’ll likely experience the same journey I had while writing it, one that I hope is as satisfying for them as it was for me.
I would give examples from my work … but that would spoil the ending.
Another universal truth I’ve found with each story is having to contend with sloppy writing on the first draft. It gets a little better each time, but there are still times I’ll start a draft and end up with sentence fragments, clichéd metaphors, and crappy endings. Never finish with your first idea or your first draft!
A lot of readers for Please Give thought it would end differently — not the same as my first idea, but the same as my second idea and, ultimately, the idea I didn’t go with. See if the same happens to you: the book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
In all your work that I’ve read so far, your characters do best when they have someone to talk to — you rely on and use dialogue extremely effectively. I find that many first-time authors struggle with dialogue. Do you have any tips for them?
I do have some tips. I cut the question, though, because as I answered it, my answer became quite lengthy and I decided to share it via blog post.
I love writing dialogue. I love it so much that sometimes I have to watch myself if a manuscript starts to look more like a straight-up script. But writing dialogue helps me understand what my characters think, do, and feel more than any narration I write on the first attempt.
I think one reason dialogue is difficult is because the nature of speaking is so different from the nature of writing. You can think about how you speak and how you react to what’s spoken, but that’s all one sided. A conversation is between two, and writing is a solitary craft.
As such, I recommend one tactic that you can do in the privacy of your own home and one I find to be very helpful: talk to yourself and pretend that you’re speaking to someone else. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Do it out loud, even if it’s just muttering to yourself. Do it at home or somewhere alone so you can really let loose.
This is helpful because talking to yourself is what you do when you write dialogue. You’re creating a conversation between two (or more) people whose thoughts, feelings, motivations, and personalities are all in your head. By talking out loud to yourself, you’re practicing this in the more natural form of speaking instead of writing.
This also helps with what I think is the biggest hurdle to writing good dialogue: writing reactions as opposed to explanations. The clunkiest dialogue I’ve read (and written) is dialogue that narrates. I took an electronic media writing class in college, and one of our assignments was to write commercials. One of my professor’s cardinal rules was to never have the characters serve as the spokespeople. They should speak like normal people, and only the spokesperson — ie, the voiceover — should describe and sell the product.
This is applicable to fiction and dialogue. The narrator describes the story, but the characters live it. They live it by speaking within it like everyday people. And to speak like everyday people is to listen and react, not narrate and explain (well, not only explain — more on that later). No one likes talking to someone who only explains and never listens or responds to anyone but themselves. No one wants to read that someone either.
As such, I find that dialogue is always better when the next line is a direct build from the previous one, as opposed to just being the next step in advancing the story. I see lines of dialogue as stairs. Stairs build up, but rest on the edge of the previous one in order to climb. So do good lines of dialogue. This can come in the form of a question or clarifying statement, or some form of “Oh, I know — I do [blank] and this is how I do [blank] uniquely.” Sometimes I see an opportunity for jokes or tangents in response to a line, and add them even if they don’t advance the plot or reveal anything important. Not all dialogue has to. It does, however, need to sound natural (and it helps if it’s funny — even dramas or dark stories need good jokes).
Dialogue is at its least natural when it’s narrating — and this is where my final tip may be a little infuriating, because it will sound like I’m negating that observation. It’s the narrator’s job to explain things like setting, internal thoughts, and background. But sometimes, these things are better left to the characters to share via dialogue.
Now, I don’t think this should happen with prolonged explanations and backstory. It’s very, very easy for a character to start talking about their history and have them sound like a James Bond villain waxing on about their evil plans. If a character is going on and on, maybe consider giving that character their own section narrated from their point of view (whether first or third person). Such monologues can also be broken up by another character reacting — asking questions, saying what they think or what they would do, etc.
But no matter how it’s broken up, if a character’s background is being shared or revealed, it’s best to let them do it themselves. I find this applies whether or not a story is in first or third person. Narration should explain things about the protagonist (or, if switching focus/points of view, the person that is the focus in that section or chapter). But anyone else should speak for themselves.
I witnessed this particularly when writing Please Give. It’s told in first person, from Beth’s point of view. One of my most common revisions was to go back to a scene where Beth explained everything about everyone, and change it so that everyone else spoke for themselves instead. This made Beth seem more realistic, since she was no longer psychic and all-knowing about everyone else; and it also resulted in more realistic dialogue and narration.
This was especially true in Chapter 2, where Beth is at a staff meeting and listens to three nonprofit presidents — Mary Chau, Justin Moore, and Sally Wood — give presentations. In the first draft, Mary and Justin didn’t speak much on paper. Beth narrated their backgrounds and their organization’s backgrounds, leaving very little space for their own words. In turn, Beth’s narration both explained their history and her thoughts on them. This was clunky and didn’t read realistically at all. It read like an article or a blog post summarizing a presentation.
But narration shouldn’t be a summary, and dialogue helps it to not be one. This was the case with Sally, who spoke more even in the first couple drafts. She spoke for herself, and Beth’s narration was mostly in response to what she was saying — a reaction as opposed to an explanation. It flowed much better, and I realized that in order for the chapter as a whole to flow better, I needed to extend the same courtesy to Mary and Justin.
So, I went back and let them say what Beth previously described. They spoke about just enough history to sound like a presentation, as opposed to narration in a book (much like you want your make-up to look like you’re not wearing any, you want your dialogue to read like it wasn’t written). And rather than serve to explain, Beth’s narration broke up these lengthy speeches with her responses and thoughts — which in turn served to clarify and fill in the context for what they had to say. Because she had reactions as opposed to explanations, the scene read more realistically to me — and it did so because these explanations became a form of dialogue between Beth and the people speaking.
Dialogue is an effective tool, and one that many writers seem to fear the most. I think this comes from thinking too hard about what should be said or how what’s said fits into the narration as opposed to the narrative. At the end of the day, dialogue should fit into a conversation, not the narration. So let your characters loose — let them speak, let them react, and let them converse until it’s time for the narration to come back in. You can always go back and whittle the conservation down in a second or third (or eighth) draft.
(It’s weird writing a headline about myself in the third person, but not as weird as writing “A Q&A with Me”)
Last week, I posted a Q&A with my editor, Evelyn Duffy. In addition to answering my questions, she turned the virtual mic around and asked some questions of me. Read on to learn more about what it was like writing my first book, how I navigate through both the writing and publishing parts of the process, and how comic strips and sitcoms influence my literary work.
Evelyn: What is your writing process? How has it varied or stayed the same from your short stories to your novels?
Sonora: It’s a simple step, and yet some days, it’s the hardest one to take: I make myself write something every day. Even if it’s just a sentence, or a note, or a revision, I need to engage with a piece every day to keep the momentum going. I can’t count the number of times I put off actual writing because I thought I had nothing, and then when I made myself do it, I got something — something that often surprised me. The story needs to get out of my head in order to form fully, and I need to write it to get it out of my head.
I work better with set, numeric goals — a specific end date, a number to reach, etc. When writing a novel, I set a goal of 1000 words a day. When writing a short story, I aim for 500 to 1000 words. I often surpass these goals — at its peak, I was writing closer to 2000-3000 words a day for my novel, Please Give — but there are also plenty of days I fall short. This is okay. What’s more important to me than a word count is engagement with my work.
Evelyn: What is your revision process? Who do you share your work with pre-publication, and how do you decide? Can you tell us how you incorporate an editor, beta readers, friends and family, and/or your cover artist?
Sonora: Whether a novel or a short story, I always wait until I have a draft I’m mostly satisfied with before sharing it with others. I do this because I don’t want to give someone something to read that I still have a lot of issues with. I want to send it to others when I’ve reached the point where I can’t do more without hearing from someone else. I often say to people reading it that what the story needs now is another set of eyes. My stories usually reach this point after three or four passes on my own.
Beta readers usually give me general thoughts and some copy-edits. My editor is very thorough, with longer assessments on what is and isn’t working in the story, and what I need to draw out or revise. I highly recommend that self-published authors get both beta readers and an editor. You need that span of feedback to really make your story pop.
Evelyn: Please Give is your first novel, but not your first book. What are some of the differences you’ve found between writing a novel and a collection of short stories? Are there any that took you by surprise?
Sonora: The biggest difference was what each piece started as when I wrote the first words. Even when the story was vastly different, I knew Please Give would be a novel. However, I didn’t write the short stories in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales with the intention to publish them together. When I decided to publish them together, I was pleasantly surprised by how closely connected they turned out to be. Funny enough, that theme was connection: each of the protagonists in the four stories has a goal of making a connection with someone else, and each get different results.
Evelyn: I understand your knowledge of the nonprofit world of Washington D.C. influenced Please Give. Can you talk a little about that?
Sonora: I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for almost ten years. I interned for an animal welfare organization while I was in graduate school, and have worked for two foundations and an advocacy organization since entering the workforce full-time.
Some may think that working for a nonprofit means your 9-to-5 is saving puppies, or going to protests, or traveling the globe to help save the world. For some nonprofit workers, that’s the case; but for many of us, it’s going to the office, sitting in meetings, writing drafts, doing busy work, going to more meetings, fielding phone calls, and going to one or two more meetings before you leave for the day. If you think that sounds like any other office, you’re right.
In every nonprofit office I’ve worked in, though, staff have cared deeply about the organization’s mission. There’s also an overall sense of camaraderie — one that isn’t exclusive to nonprofit offices, of course, but one that I think is heightened by the nature of the field. This can be both a good and bad thing. It’s good because you’re part of a team focused on a goal rooted in service, and everyone wants to work together to achieve that. But it can be bad if that common goal is used to try and justify things that wouldn’t be okay in any office, with the excuse that it’s the mission or the greater good that’s more important. This isn’t exclusive to nonprofit offices, but like camaraderie, I think this is heightened in a mission-based office. Why should we complain about things like pressure to work too hard, or frequently missed deadlines, or excessive micromanagement, or lack of promotions or benefits, when The Mission is there and we have so many more important things to think about? But you can care deeply about the greater good and still want better in your office, because it’s still an office and it’s still okay to ask for better in your work environment. I hope that anyone working or thinking of working in the nonprofit sector remembers this.
Evelyn: As I wrote to you when I edited your book, the protagonist of Please Give is refreshing and complex. Beth has a clear, distinct voice. She owns her unique hobbies and interests, and is sexually confident. She has no physical hang-ups and isn’t trying to define herself based on a relationship with a man. At the same time, she’s also one of the most anxious characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. What went into writing her? Is she the same character now, after multiple drafts and revisions, that she was when she started?
Sonora: When I started Please Give, I was thinking less about Beth and more about where she worked. Her observations on her job — ones that were much snarkier in the initial drafts — were more my own than hers. While I never intended Please Give to be a memoir, a story that was inspired by my own experiences was going to start with a blurred line of where my story ceased and Beth’s began. This line became more defined as I gave Beth her own world. As her story opened up to me, she did too; and I was better able to step back and write about her instead of me.
A lot of what you like about her are things I see in women, yet don’t see enough of in fictional women. For instance, 95% of the books I read have women say something about eating too much and getting fat, no matter their size or their self-esteem. I find myself thinking, can’t I just read one frickin’ book where a woman eats a burger and doesn’t say “Oh no, I’m going to get fat”? Same goes for Beth’s sexual confidence. I wasn’t interested in yet another story where a woman is either super awkward or weird about sex (sure it’s real, but it’s not the only reality of sexual women); sleeps around with the hope that maybe this guy will want to commit (because we can’t have a woman who dates to date — she must be looking for a husband or a long-term boyfriend, and the men must always be the ones who are reluctant to commit); or else sleeps around because she has emotional baggage that drives her libido, giving her a reason other than her own gratification. Beth has sex because she enjoys it, and it’s something she both likes and knows she’s good at. I want to read more about women like that.
At the same time, Beth is very anxious. She fears offending others and polarizing them; and also fears that she’s not actually deserving of the things she wants. This is most apparent in her office, but it seeps into how she interacts with her friends and her dates (outside of sex, at least). This combination of anxiety and confidence creates its own special brand of despair. Beth very much wants more, and wants this because she knows what she’s capable of — and yet, she still wonders if she can actually do what she wants to do. This leads to a battle in her head between what she thinks, what she thinks others think, and what she thinks she should think to make everyone happy.
It’s exhausting to go through these motions — and they’re motions I’m very familiar with. Even though Beth is her own character, I wrote her inner workings with a clear understanding of them because I go through similar thinking almost every day. It’s a train of thought that can make you feel very lonely. I tend to internalize these anxieties because I hold to the times I’ve opened up about them and been told to just get over it or that I was being ridiculous. While such anxieties aren’t fixed overnight, it helps when I hear from others that they know how it is, or feel that way too, or at the very least understand. This applies to books as well as people, characters as well as friends. I started writing Beth and her story so I could tell a good story. But I hope that by including something personal to me — something hard to share, but necessary — that I can do my own part to let others who go through this know that they’re not alone.
Evelyn: As the author, what is your favorite thing about Please Give? As a reader, do you think it would be different?
Sonora: One of the reasons I loved writing Please Give was because it made me happy to inhabit its world and spend time with its characters. I found several of the scenes hilarious, and would laugh to myself as I wrote them or said the dialogue out loud to myself. It seems odd to say that, given it’s about a woman anxiously navigating through her own head to get through her day-to-day. But I’ve found that my own rough day-to-day’s, ones that can be very rough when my anxious thoughts are getting the better of me, are improved when I find something funny about them. I can make them better with a joke, or a snarky observation, or talking to an understanding friend and making light of everything we’re going through. So while the book isn’t a laughfest from beginning to end, it’s also not a pit of despair. Many things happen in the world of the book, things that sometimes feel like nothing but downs after the ups; but all can perhaps still feel okay because of a good joke and some good people to share it all with. I felt that way while engaging with the book and its characters, and I hope that readers will feel the same.
Evelyn: “All the Pieces Coming Together” is a sexy, funny, dangerous short story, and one of the most unique I’ve read in 10 years of editing. How long did it take you to write? What gave you the idea? Who do you hope will read it, and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?
Sonora: “All the Pieces Coming Together” was the first short story I wrote when I got back into writing in 2016. I’d nursed the idea for a year or so beforehand, focused mainly on one of the first lines: “It’s the perfect place to hide a body. The trouble is, there isn’t anybody to hide.” I found the idea of a wannabe serial killer finding a hiding spot so perfect that no one was around to kill to be darkly hilarious. I wrote down a few notes, including the line, his course of action, and the first part of the ending. Everything else fell into place as I wrote it. Once I started writing the story, it took me a little over a month to complete. I hope people with morbid senses of humor read it, or perhaps people who don’t think they’re into horror or dark comedy. It delves into themes of control and making things just so, something I think we’ve all gone through in less morbid ways (well, hopefully less morbid ways).
Evelyn: Both Please Give and The Crow’s Gift have gorgeous cover art. What can you tell us about your cover artist?
Sonora: Both of my books’ covers, the cover for “All the Pieces Coming Together,” and the illustrations in The Crow’s Gift were done by the immensely-talented Doug Puller. He is an illustrator and graphic designer, and I highly recommend him. You can see examples of his work on his website.
I am also collaborating with Doug on a graphic novel. It’s called Wretched Heroes, and will be released as a multi-volume series. We expect Volume 1: The Man in Rags to be released later this year. You can learn more about it on Facebook.
Evelyn: You’ve mentioned that you attend meetups and classes in the D.C. area related to writing and publishing. What about them did you find helped you? You’ve also learned a lot in a relatively short period of time about self-publishing and promoting your work online. What are your suggestions for someone who has a book finished and wants to self-publish but isn’t sure how to get started?
Sonora: I’ve been going to Write2Publish classes, which meet once a month at my local library. An assortment of writers attend the classes, and they are led by Robin Sullivan, whose husband, Michael J. Sullivan, is a popular fantasy author. She is his business manager. The classes are focused on the business end of writing — how to market your book, query-sending strategies, tips for which publishing avenue to pursue, and more. The classes have been extremely helpful in guiding my foray into self-publishing, while also giving me a primer of what to expect if I ever decide to pursue traditional publishing.
Much of what I’ve learned about self-publishing has come from a combination of writing blogs and these classes. When Robin shares her tips, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially if you are handling all of your own marketing. While I have an eye for marketing, I am a writer first and foremost; and everyone will tell you that the author’s job is to write. Thus, it sometimes feels like I’m always going to come up short meeting every recommendation people like Robin make to ensure self-publishing success — and subsequently come up short in getting my books into the hands of readers. However, one of the nice things about books is that they don’t get just one chance to be read. Think about your favorite author. You probably didn’t hear about their first book — you probably heard about them after their third or fourth. Books stick around, and can gain traction over time.
I think it’s important to remember, then, that while doing it all is helpful, so is doing some of it. Your self-publishing prospects aren’t D.O.A. if you don’t have a full website, social media presence, Google Analytics report, multiple reviews, and well-placed promotion on blogs and in newspapers all before launch day. Maybe aim for two of those things, and the two that come most naturally to you. I’ve had a Twitter presence for years, and while I still use it to talk about non-writing things like hockey and beer, I also use it to talk about my writing. I also started a writing blog where I talk about my projects as well as general writing thoughts. That blog eventually became my website. I’d like to do more to market my work, and when I have some more pieces to promote, perhaps I will. But for now, I have a website and a social media presence, which is a great first step to getting my work out there.
Evelyn: Generally speaking, you draw a lot from film and pop culture. You also read voraciously. Who or what are your greatest influences?
Sonora: I really enjoy both humorous and dark stories, such as Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs and essays. I read Running with Scissors in high school and loved every word. Burroughs has a knack for drawing you into such darkness and sadness but with a laugh and a wink throughout; and his sense of humor is incredibly biting. My favorite authors (with my favorite book by each in parentheses) include John Irving (A Widow for One Year), Anita Shreve (Fortune’s Rocks), Rainbow Rowell (Landline), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), and Thomas Hardy (Far From the Madding Crowd). I also read a lot of comic strips growing up, which were very influential on my writing and my humor — in no small part because of the way the dialogue flows. I spent many an afternoon reading Foxtrot and Calvin and Hobbes; and owned many Archie anthologies.
Sitcoms have also had a big influence on my writing. Growing up, my favorite shows were The Golden Girls, The Nanny,That ’70s Show, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m also a big fan of sitcoms without laugh tracks. The speed and naturalness at which the jokes come is just so good in the right hands. They’re an excellent primer on how to write good, convincing, and funny dialogue in stories. Some of my favorites include 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Master of None.
Most of my favorite stories are about generally everyday people going through generally everyday things; or else things out of the ordinary being shared as if they were an everyday occurrence, because to that person, it is their everyday. Even a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it a point to emphasize the averageness of Joel and Mike (and now Jonah) in the face of their circumstances. These stories showed me people I’d know, telling jokes and going through things I could at least see myself going through, even if I didn’t actually go through them. Those are the stories I like writing the most.
I am also a horror fan, in case anyone was wondering how my love of Golden Girls and Archie resulted in a story like “All the Pieces Coming Together” (though Riverdale would lend itself well to that). I’ve been a Tim Burton fan since I was a kid, and of course read Stephen King. I am also a big fan of Neil Gaiman and the way he builds worlds and turns a phrase. He makes the darkest corners of the imagination beautiful, even when they’re deeply unsettling.
Evelyn: What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started writing?
Sonora: I’ve read so many author interviews where they say the final version of their book was almost nothing like it was when they started. I read an interview or two like these as I was just getting started on Please Give, and thought, “Well, my story isn’t changing. It’s going to stay exactly the same, and I’m going to follow everything I outlined or noted exactly.”
What a joke. It changed drastically, and many times. I kept some things intact — Beth’s job, for instance; and Beth as the protagonist, and most of the main characters. But at one point, I had a speaking cast of thirty. I still remember a character about whom Beth said, “I don’t know why she was there. She had no reason to be.” One of those magic moments where your characters talk to you and you should listen. Beth was also running an advice blog in an early draft, which will make you laugh very hard when you learn more about Beth and how she feels about sharing her opinions.
But Please Give changed a lot — it even changed titles — and changed even more when I got it back from being edited. It changed despite my naive, stubborn self thinking my novel would be the first rough draft that stayed the same into final form beyond copy clean-up. It’s that stubbornness that makes me wish I’d known how much a story can change sooner. While I want to go into my stories with some sense of what will happen, I also don’t want to go in so sure of how it will go that I’ll get stuck and write myself into a corner. I came around on what did and didn’t need to change in Please Give, but there were pieces I definitely hung onto longer than necessary so I could follow a notion I had of what the story was before I even wrote it. It’s better to write and see where it goes — and if you see it going somewhere else, follow it. More often than not, you’ll be lead in the right direction.
Evelyn: I know you have several other irons in the fire. Would you like to tell us about some of your upcoming books and short story collections?
Sonora: While Please Give was out for edits, I wrote several short stories. I’m publishing five of them in a new collection, tentatively titled Wither and Other Tales. Many of them are on the darker side, like the stories in The Crow’s Gift. It’s currently being edited and revised, and I plan to release it in September.
I’m also hard at work on my next novel. Right now, it’s called Without Condition. It follows a woman named Cara, who tempers her mounting fears and frustrations in less-than-savory ways; and her mother Delores, who’s proud of the way she handles herself. It explores the idea of unconditional love, but in a dark and twisted way. It also explores how Cara reconciles with who she really is — a piece she hides from everyone but her mother, because her mother loves her no matter what — and how that reconciliation affects Cara when she meets and falls for a man named Jackson. It’s dark, bemused, and tender — my favorite kind of story.
No story is complete without a good edit. I often reference my editor when I talk about my work. Her name is Evelyn Duffy (pictured, right). She edited both The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales and Please Give; and is currently working on the short stories I plan to include Wither and Other Tales. Evelyn was kind enough to take part in a Q&A with me. Read on for editing advice, writing advice, and why you should consider proofing your tattoo.
Sonora: You’ve edited a wide variety of authors and genres. Do you find yourself switching hats when switching from short story to novel, fiction to nonfiction, stories to plays? Can you describe such a switch? What’s it like editing each? What’s universal about editing each?
Evelyn: There are a lot of universals. Good writing is nearly always character-driven, with fully-imagined individuals living full lives, whether or not we see much of them on the page. (If you think nonfiction has to be an exception to this, I encourage you to reevaluate.) Structure is crucial, no matter what you’re writing. I think structure is harder to get right at first in a short story or a play. From an editing perspective, it’s easier to tell when and where these go wrong. A novel’s structure may not be fully clear until quite a way into it.
Dialogue matters, always, but in different ways. In novels, short stories, and nonfiction, there should almost always be more and better-written dialogue; in plays, there can nearly always be less, replaced with trust in one’s actors to communicate through physical movement on the stage. Nonfiction is a big umbrella; if you’re writing the annual finance report for the Association of American Lichen Enthusiasts, you won’t have many opportunities to integrate scenes, narrative structure, dialogue, or themes — but if you’re crafting a longform article with the hope of publishing somewhere like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, these are crucial starting points.
One timeless universal is that every piece of writing can be improved: what is good can be made great, what is great can be made wonderful, and what is wonderful can be read by its author 15 times and still have a typo in the first line.
Sonora: How do authors typically find you? Do you accept unsolicited queries? How do you decide which clients to take on?
Evelyn: I am typically reached through my website at www.OpenBoatEditing.com. I work with many repeat clients and find that new ones often reach me via their recommendation, which I deeply appreciate. Another way new clients reach me is through my profile at the Editorial Freelancers Association, a wonderful organization I’m proud to be a member of.
Sonora: Your website shows that you have edited four New York Times best-selling nonfiction books, numerous fiction and nonfiction books, a journal article, academic papers, and a play. You’ve also worked on many other projects not listed online. Are you open to editing other pieces of writing, such as screenplays or comic books? Is there anything you would not edit under any circumstances?
Evelyn: I’m open to editing pretty much anything, I think. (In fact, I’ve worked on several screenplays and really enjoy them.) Due to time constraints, I haven’t been able to do much academic work or many book proposals in recent years.
I don’t feel particularly qualified to edit poetry, unless someone is looking for a straight proofread — but even then, poetry has such freedom to invent that I’d be more comfortable with the author asking an editor who is a fellow poet to look at it.
Sonora: How have the editing services you’ve offered changed over the years? What do you offer now?
Evelyn: My editing practice has evolved into one that focuses on keeping an author’s book-length manuscript for four to six weeks and providing a thorough critique and set of line edits.
I also offer proofreading for businesses and corporations (publications, websites, etc.) and have a wedding-related sideline called The Proofread Bride.
Sonora: In addition to copy edits and comments, you provide a memo to your clients that outlines in-depth changes and feedback. What inspired you to incorporate this into your work? Is this common practice amongst editors? What do you most want your clients to gain from this memo?
Evelyn: When I first began freelancing, I started out purely as a proofreader/line editor. As time went by, I found I increasingly had thoughts that weren’t accommodated by Track Changes or a list of line edits, so the memo began as a way of merely organizing the extra thoughts that emerged. As time went by and my skills and experience expanded, I began to enjoy this part more and began to make thematic elements and structure my focus.
These days the memo has evolved into anything between two and ten pages and tends to emerge as a love letter of sorts to the book I’ve spent the past four to six weeks with — what works well, what can be tweaked, and what needs large structural revision. I always encourage clients to read the memo before the line edits, and my hope is that the larger thoughts in it will sit with them and marinate as they revise.
Sonora: I like to write to you as I incorporate your edits, and keep you in-the-loop on my progress. Do you usually hear from authors after they receive your edits?
Evelyn: Yes, authors often go back-and-forth with me throughout the publication process, especially those pursuing self-publication, asking follow-up questions and sharing thoughts as they go. I always love to at least find out if they go ahead with it!
Sonora: If a client seems worried or discouraged, how do you go about encouraging them?
Evelyn: In every memo I write, I encourage the author to follow up with me with anything they have questions about or want to discuss further. I’m happy to delve into anything that concerns them — a question about one of my suggestions, doubts about moving forward with the book, or how to approach publishing.
Sonora: You make it a point to tell me that your edits are suggestions, and up to me on whether or not I should include them. Do you find that your clients usually accept most, if not all, of your edits? Has there ever been a time when your client refused most or all of them? Did they discuss this with you, or were you left wondering?
Evelyn: Generally on the big things — character questions and plot issues and thematic points — I find it’s less of a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, and more that an author is so close to their own work that they couldn’t see something was unclear, or hadn’t noticed they’d developed a theme and then dropped it 25 pages before the book ends, etc. In the case of the latter (which happens often), it’s an open-ended option of eliminating the things that produced that theme or drawing it to its natural conclusion — I may not necessarily recommend either, but I do bring their attention to the theme and fact that it’s unresolved and walk them through their options.
On smaller things, line edits and such, I don’t usually find out until the book is published, and by then I probably don’t remember what I recommended! But in some cases I’m sure the authors choose not to implement my changes. I suspect a few get line-edit fatigue — I can be quite thorough — and others may simply disagree. All this does is reinforce the point you reference: all of my edits are merely suggestions, and it is up to the author which ones to accept or reject. I remind every author I work with of this every time I work with them, even the ones I’ve collaborated closely with for over a decade. It is my Prime Directive, so to speak, and it bears repetition.
Sonora: Writers need readers, especially before a book is published. What are your thoughts on beta readers? What sets you, an editor, apart from a beta reader or even just a reader? Do you think all authors should seek out beta readers?
Evelyn: The best beta readers are talented and dedicated people — but they’re hard to come by, because being a beta reader is rarely a great experience. Being a book’s first reader can be a challenge. When an author hires me to edit and critique their book, one of the things they’re buying is professional distance. I have not only the freedom but the duty to give an author my complete, most candid opinion, where a beta reader might feel constrained by any number of factors — time, friendship, awkwardness, etc. Even when I edit for friends and others I know well, entering into the professional relationship of author and editor allows for a freer exchange of ideas. There are certainly beta readers who provide this, but again, they’re rare — and, in my view, wearing dual hats of beta reader and editor.
As an editor my goal for every manuscript is different, but generally speaking it can be summed up this way: an editor should aim to help get the manuscript to a point where they’d gladly read it for free. A beta reader (or, ideally, two or three) should read it after the editor and give the author a sense of broader audience reaction. It’s all about getting as many pairs of eyes on the finished product as the author can stand.
Sonora: What do you think of self-publishing versus traditional publishing? Do you recommend one path over the other to aspiring authors?
Evelyn: They both have their merits, and their low points. I tailor my advice to individual authors, but generally I’d say follow all the publishing opportunities you find, do lots of research and consult with other authors, and be realistic about your prospects and expectations.
Sonora: How do you think your own writing experience influences your editing? How does it influence your interactions with authors? With other editors?
Evelyn: It makes me deeply sympathetic toward writers who stumble into the traps every writer stumbles into, especially in early drafts. To be slightly facetious with a serious story, I refer you to the tale of the man who fell in a hole:
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books? Does the writing you read for fun influence your editing at all? If so, how?
Evelyn: My favorite book of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’m also a huge fan of John Irving (it’s not a big leap from Dickens to Irving) and Margaret Atwood (particularly her short stories).
Wolf Hall is a book I return to again and again. Like the rest of the internet I’m waiting for The Winds of Winter. I also really enjoy YA books, especially Philip Pullman. When it comes to nonfiction, Mary Roach is a favorite. The two nonfiction books I’ve read most recently that have really stayed with me are Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz and Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.
Favorite playwrights are Neil Simon, David Mamet and Eugene O’Neill. Since it’s 2018 and we’re living in a golden age of television, I’ll add Aaron Sorkin and David Simon in the same breath.
I think the most straightforward way what I read recreationally influences how I edit comes up whenever I’m asked to edit something that is already phenomenal by the time it comes to me, or when the author is someone I admire. It’s good to remember that all the writers I named above have had editors, and surely appreciated their catches and contributions.
Sonora: What advice would you give to aspiring editors?
Evelyn: My advice for aspiring editors is — at first — the same as it would be for aspiring writers: read constantly, and read widely. Where it differs is this: try to actively read things that don’t interest you. If you’re indifferent to football, read the sports pages. If you hate ballet, read reviews. If statistics put you to sleep, read scientific journal articles. If you’re a Twitter junkie, take up War and Peace or Moby Dick. It’s crucial to be able to form objective opinions and put yourself in the shoes of other readers when editing, rather than basing your advice on your personal reaction to what you like and dislike.
Also, find a community. Editing, especially freelancing, can be a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be. I recommend checking out the EFA and ACES for camaraderie, referrals, conferences, classes, and other resources.
Sonora: Are there things people tend not to have edited that they definitely should? What would you like to see people ask for an edit of more often?
Evelyn: Tattoos! In fact, I will give anyone who sees this an on-the-house, thanks-for-being-smart-about-life review of their English-language text for a planned tattoo. (If it’s already tattooed on you, sorry — it’s too late for me.) Contact me through email, and include “Tattoo Edit – Sonora Writes” in the subject line. (Note from Sonora: as someone with twelve tattoos and counting, I second this advice.)
Other than that, I started a whole separate side business because of the rampant typos in wedding stationery. There’s a lot of paper involved in weddings — save the dates, invitations, menus, signage, programs, thank you notes — and a lot of opportunities for expensive typos.
Check out Ask the Author, where Evelyn interviews me! Thanks for reading, everyone.
I’m still in the depths of revising Please Give. For the past couple weeks, that’s all I’ve worked on. The other projects I’ve begun are all waiting for me — a good thing, because otherwise I won’t finish the current one.
Waiting to work on other things has been an exercise in patience, but the process of revising makes that exercise easier. I’ve enjoyed seeing how the book has changed from when I sent it to my editor to what it looks like now (though I am trying to not read my revisions until I’m done with all of them and can read anew from beginning to end — another exercise in patience). It makes the story feel fresh, new, and most importantly, better.
I hesitate to say it feels complete, because it doesn’t. It doesn’t due to the simple fact that I still have a few chapters left. But more so, it doesn’t feel that way because I don’t know if it will ever feel 100% complete.
Many authors say that a book is done when one accepts that what’s there is enough. I understand that feeling, more so with the book than my short stories. With the short stories, their brevity helped me know when each was done. I have flashes of that with the book. For instance, in the first draft, I intended to write another section after what became the closing line. However, I felt an urge to just stop there once I wrote it. And sure enough, my editor said it was a great closing line.
But there are moments in between the beginning and end where I still wonder if there’s another way to word a scene, or a way to expand a scene further, or even change it a little to set some other pieces in place. Revising the book has been an exercise in knowing when those changes are warranted, and when those changes are just me keeping myself enmeshed in a story I absolutely love writing. It’s crucial to know the difference, because as much fun as it is to write a story, it will feel even better when it’s done.
One of my favorite movies is Wonder Boys. There’s a scene towards the end where Grady’s book-in-progress, a typed 1000+ page tome that he’s spent years working on, goes flying into the wind and the water, lost forever because it was his only copy (a testament to the importance of backing up your files). He’s asked what the story was about, and he says he doesn’t know. He’s asked why he spent so many years writing the story when he didn’t even know the plot. He says, “I couldn’t stop.”
While I have not typed 1000+ pages, nor spent years doing it, nor did so without a plot in mind, I know how that feels — and how that feeling can ultimately be a trap. Don’t let your stories fly into the figurative wind and water under the guise of fine-tuning and making it perfect. Write your story, revise your story, and then complete it — by stopping. There are people out there waiting to read your book who’ll be glad that you did.
I returned from my vacation yesterday. I’m ready to get back to the grind, but I still find myself thinking of all the places we visited in Halifax and Prince Edward Island. The views were beautiful in both sun and rain. I loved the red sand beaches, green cliffs, lighthouses, and wildflower fields (yes, I’ll post pictures).
I also had a small adventure that reminded me of a credo I oft repeat, and will do so here: back up your files. Even if you’re not a writer, back them up, and back them up in multiple places. If you write in a journal, make photo copies. If you type your stories, save them to various firmware, and also the cloud if you can. Back them up every which way, because you never know when one of the pieces holding your stories could be lost.
I emphasize this point because my somewhat tedious back-up practice was the only thing that kept me from melting into panic my first day in Halifax. I rode a taxi from the airport to our hotel, and realized fifteen minutes after the taxi left that I’d left my messenger bag in the cab. It held my iPhone charger, two books, and a cross-stitched bookmark I’d made a few years ago. It also held my laptop, which has all of my stories and associated files.
I’d kept my taxi receipt (I also recommend keeping receipts whenever possible, even if it’s just for a few days), but none of the numbers on the paper were a phone number. We called the airport, but they didn’t recognize the cab company name, and had trouble locating the car I’d been in. As the hours ticked by, and one day became the next, I resigned myself to the fact that my laptop was lost. My laptop was lost, but my files weren’t — because I’d backed everything up before I left.
So, I repeat — back up your files. Save them to firmware. Save them to the cloud. Email them to yourself, or even a trusted friend. But back them up. It takes five minutes, and saves you a lot of heartache when one source of your files disappears.
I am happy to report that my messenger bag’s Nova Scotia adventure has a happy ending. Once I got in touch with the ground transportation manager at Halifax Airport, she volunteered to check the security cameras; and within fifteen minutes, she found my taxi driver. The driver had found the bag and kept it safe, thinking I’d call him — he didn’t realize that I didn’t have his phone number. So, he brought it back to the airport, and I picked it up on my way home yesterday between my connecting flight from Halifax to Montreal.
Everyone at the airport was very kind, even when I spoke to them with the intense panic I get when I’m trying to solve something (it’s a polite panic, but it’s intense all the same). They also remembered me when I called, even if I hadn’t spoken to that person previously. “Oh, are you the woman who left her bag in the taxi?” “Oh, you’re the woman who lost the Bob Marley bag!” (Another tip — travel with a unique bag that makes you readily identified by airport officials)
Both the airport officials and the hotel concierge were exceedingly kind. I only found the number of the relevant airport official because a wonderful concierge at the Prince George Hotel did an intense round of searches for the right number to call, even when the first few tries came up short. His manager remarked that he had the wrong profession — he should’ve been a detective. He went out of his way to help me, the airport officials went out of their way to help me find the bag, and the taxi driver — whose name I wish I had, so I could thank him — was nice enough to keep my bag safe for the two days he had it before the airport official located the taxi. When I got my bag back, everything was fine. I had my files, I had my books and bookmark and laptop, and I had a sense of happiness knowing there were many people who wanted to help one tourist find her lost bag.
As happy as the ending is, it’s also a lucky one. So, one last time: back up your files!
As promised above, here are some pictures from the trip. I highly recommend visiting both Halifax and Prince Edward Island. Take a drive to see the lighthouses, spend some time on the wharf, walk barefoot on the red sand beaches, and take a moment to pause and look at the fields and cliffs.
July just seemed to vanish, didn’t it? Time has flown this summer, but that time has been filled with good things overall.
I’m still working away on the projects I mentioned before. Most of the work has been what is getting closer and closer to being my next novel. It’s over 60,000 words now, and still doesn’t include half of what I think should be in there. That’s where self-editing comes in, of course — as well as the knowledge that something can always be cut.
The hardest thing for me to remember is to wait to do that cutting until after the writing’s done. I’ve made some cuts, but true to advice I see all over the writing universe, bogging myself down in cuts, edits, and perfection while still writing only makes it more difficult to finish. I find myself having to repeat this mantra: Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.
It’s a good mantra for both writing and publishing. As I prepare to publish my short stories, I find myself getting bogged down in the details, proofing over and over and trying to account for every way it could be viewed so that it will only look perfect. However, as most articles on self-publishing will tell you, there’s only so much that can be done, especially once the file is in an individual e-reader. I suppose this is why writers prefer to let their pieces go once published. They can’t think about all those details if they want to accomplish their main goal: writing and sharing a good story.
I do look forward to sharing stories with you, especially The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales. It’s still on track to be published on September 5th. I leave you with a picture of a fitting group that has taken up residence near my apartment complex over the past summer. I hear them every morning, and while they’re simply looking for shelter and food, I use their presence as a reminder to keep moving forward on The Crow’s Gift.
Like many writers, I prefer to sequester myself in a room and write alone. It’s the best way to punch out a longer passage and really gather my thoughts. It’s also useful if I want to do the odder aspects of working through the writing process, like talking out the dialogue or acting out the motions. My one-woman performances of my stories are something to behold.
Some say that writing alone is the only way to write, or at least, the only way to write well. It’s preferred, for sure. I also think it’s unrealistic, especially when so many of us write on the side. As such, I think the emphasis on writing alone limits potential writers from getting into the craft. If we emphasize solitude and writing nooks, the fabled desk lit only by sunlight as the author hides from the world she writes about, we’re only giving her one way to write. I think that’s a disservice.
There are many times throughout the day that the story I’m working on pricks at my fingertips. I have access to my spare bedroom where I type on the bed because the desk is full writing corner during few of those times. When I was first starting to write, I’d make myself wait until I could both be alone and be alone for a solid chunk of time. I thought that’d be best for me and for the work, since that’s what others encouraged.
In waiting for the best space to write, though, I found my stress increasing. I’d try to remember things for later, along with everything else I had to think about throughout the day. I’d finally get to my writing corner, and I’d be juggling everything and trying to decide what to write down first, and how to get it down during my Designated Writing Time. This didn’t seem like the productive hour(s) of seclusion that was deemed best for writing — especially on the days where I just didn’t have that chunk of several hours.
I did, however, have minutes — pieces of time here and there that could be filled with smaller bursts of writing. So, I began to write in bursts. A free moment between work tasks, riding the train on my commute, waiting in line at Starbucks, flying on a plane surrounded by passengers — if I had a moment, and I had something to write, I’d write it. If I ran out of time to finish the passage, I’d either stop or leave myself a bracket note. It wasn’t the ideal of having a carved set of time in a carved piece of space, but then again, I think any moment where one can write is an ideal one. I think it’d be a better service to writers, especially writers today, if we emphasized that over finding the perfect time and space.
I’m not saying one should never write alone, or never try to find time to write alone. One absolutely should — and, if living with someone else, asking for that time alone is healthy and should be encouraged. But writing alone isn’t the only way, and may not necessarily be the best way. At the end of the day, the best way to write is to write. It’s about it happening at all, not where or for how long.
I’m an excellent planner. I remember dates, remember information, and love to be prepared for a project ahead of time. I bring that planning to my writing as well, right?
Writing is better than planning to write. However, I can’t write everything I’m thinking of at once. I usually keep stories in my head until I’m ready to write them, and at most, write a couple quick sentences and a title so I don’t forget the idea as I devote my head space to other projects. Writing down an idea is almost like giving yourself a pensieve — the idea waits for you while your thoughts tend to other things.
Still, even when my thoughts are focused on one story, I often can’t write fast enough to stop my thoughts from swimming in my head. When I have thoughts on chapters I’m not yet writing, I start to write notes. My notes are usually quick asides, but quickly become passages and dialogue, which is why I prefer to just write the story as opposed to notes.
When a story is bigger, though, those thoughts become dedicated to more than just the beginning, middle, and end. Dates get involved. There are sequences. I need to remember what order things occur in, or when it makes the most sense for something to happen.
And that’s when I realize I need to do something I can’t stand to do: outlining.
I don’t like it. It feels like I’m clamping down the story before it even has a chance to breathe. It’s too perfunctory. I think to myself, “How can an outline help me write? Only writing can do that.” And then I write. And then I stop, because I’m caught up in the details of how the story should occur.
When a story reaches a point where my swirling thoughts on what will occur, and when it will occur, preclude the writing, that’s when I know it’s time. This happened with Please Give, and today, it happened with my novel-in-progress (over 50,000 words now, yay!). I found myself juggling timelines and thinking, “Wait, should this happen here? What month is it?” — and thinking that more than thinking about what to write next. So, I forced myself to write an outline. And sure enough, I felt better afterward, like the weight of a thousand swirling thoughts had been lifted off my shoulders and into a Google doc.
Everyone outlines their own way. My personal favorite is also how I like to plan: in dates. I consult a calendar and write a quick list of what will happen, and designate it by the date. An exact day is preferred, but I’ll write Week Of or Month Of if it’s a general course of action.These dates don’t make it into the book unless relevant to bring up, and are also subject to change — one of the ways I make myself outline is writing a note at the top assuring me that these can change as the story evolves. But outlining by date helps me as a writer to envision the action. It’s how I plan my own days, after all, so it makes sense that it would help me plan the fictional days my characters go through.
The advice above, from Richard Rhodes, was a sentence that rang in my head last winter. I’ve been writing off and on for years, usually in ebbs and flows. In later years, that writing became fragments. I finished two short stories in college, but usually, if I picked up a pen in my twenties (or, let’s be real, tapped on a keyboard), it was always to write beginnings of stories or chapters that never became novels.
A lot of the work left unfinished was due to time, but a lot of it was also due to insecurity. I didn’t think I could write something if I didn’t have a clear, direct story in mind from beginning to end. And the times I had that, I found the story growing beyond my set outline’s control once I started typing. The forms these words took scared me, as they were going beyond what I’d planned in terms of thought and time to create. I set the pen aside (read: minimized the Word document and surfed the Internet).
Still, the desire to write never really left. I started doing daily writing about whatever crossed my mind, just to get something down. This was good practice, but I mostly wrote random thoughts about my day; and soon, I ran out of topics. I did a little story writing during that time, but once again, they stayed resigned to either outlines or something started but not finished.
Last winter, in 2016, I came across the quote at the top, about how a page a day would produce a book in one year. It was a simple thought, one so simple that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it. I thought of some of the stories I’d wanted to write, and written notes for over the years. Maybe I could write a page a day, a simple minimum, and see where those pages went.
A year and some change later, I came across that quote again, in the tweet I posted above. Since then, I’ve written a book. And eight short stories. And have both a novella and another novel in the works. I work on them every day, aiming for a page, but often going further. Even when I have to make myself type one sentence just to say I’ve written, I do it. Because each piece written is another step towards a whole story.
As they say: Keep Writing. Your story will form itself. Your words will find their place in a story. And any time spent forming that story is time both well-spent and, one day at a time, will be rewarded — be it a page, a paragraph, or a line. As the full quote goes:
If you’re afraid you can’t write, the answer is to write. Every sentence you construct adds weight to the balance pan. If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond your fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where their connection leads. A page a day is a book a year. ~Richard Rhodes