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.
My fortune cookie last night had some good advice for life in general, but also for writers in the midst of their drafts. Drafts are often stubborn and take a while to really get going, which can be discouraging for many of us who are trying to write them. However, the words below are a good motivator to keep going:
It’s advice I’m certainly doing my best to remember as I continue my second book. I’m at almost 70,000 words and maybe 2/3 done. I’m excited and nervous all at once, and there are days I’m poking at my draft like someone poking at a bush and ducking in fear as a snake rustles out. But it’s getting written, and it will end — and hopefully, it will end well.
I love finding fortunes that help with writing. I found this one and this one last year, and still carry them with me in my purse or my pocket every day.
I also keep calendar postings like this one and this one on my cork board at work as well as folded up in my writing notebook. It’s like having a portable vision board. At the very least, it’s nice to have quiet reminders by my side wherever I go.
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’ve been working steadily on my next book for the past week. It’s up to over 25,000 words, and the story seems to shape itself more with every day’s work (it also tends to shapeshift, but that’s all part of the process).
Despite this progress, it’s been hard to plow through because I’m reconciling with this being a first draft. Having completed a novel and several short stories, I figured I’d be familiar with the feeling of stumbling around an apartment looking for the light switch that comes with trying to write a first draft. I’ve even written about that feeling before.
Yet each day I open my document, start writing, and wonder why I can’t just magically have a complete story, one with all my questions answered and one without any bracket notes or paragraphs that basically summarize everything as opposed to narrating. It has all the things I see when I revisit my old drafts of Please Give. I know the words will eventually shape into the story I want. But my impatient self wonders, why can’t I have this now? I’ve done this before — I should be able to do this immediately.
But the truth is, I haven’t done this before — not with this story, at least. I think that’s what I forget when I get discouraged at my words feeling clunky or incomplete. It’s brand new to me, and I need to familiarize myself with the apartment and memorize its corners before I can just walk through and flick on the light.
I came across a quote on Twitter that helped put things in perspective for me, and helped me feel a little less discouraged at the state of writing my draft:
This is a perfect summary of the feeling I get when I write a first draft, that I’m tossing things haphazardly into Word and nothing’s making sense. But it will — and one can’t build the castle without piling in the sand first.
I want to close with my own interpretation of that feeling, inspired by one of my favorite TV shows, The Golden Girls:
Went through LRT during this morning’s writing session. I always feel like I’m writing one of Rose Nylund’s longer, more tangent-filled St. Olaf stories when I write a first draft; especially a chapter detailing things in the characters’ pasts. #AmWriting
Well, the wait is over! I received three more rejections over the past two weeks — one from the same journal that made my first binder entry, one from a contest, and one from a different journal entirely. The collection is growing!
I swear I’m not being sarcastic. Yes, I type with my tongue in my cheek; but I’m also not typing with bitterness or anger. Rejection is part of the process, and getting a rejection letter means I tried putting my work out there, out for someone to read it. Yes, someone to read it and turn it down, but that’s better than no one reading it at all.
To anyone reading who’s afraid to submit your work for fear of rejection, I encourage you to face that fear and hit Submit. The worst that’ll happen is negligence, like the story I submitted almost four months ago and has remained unopened by the journal I sent it to (Submittable, which many journals use now for submissions, lets you see whether it was just received or if it’s in progress/being read); and even that’s not so bad.
At best, your work will be accepted!
But at somewhere between worst and best, it will probably be rejected, at least the first few times. That’s okay, that’s part of the process, and the rejection won’t be laden with insults or tell you to quit writing forever. Three submissions have been sent back to me with assertions they enjoyed reading each story, notes on the volume of submissions, a polite decline (usually in the form of “It wasn’t right for this journal”), and requests to send more work in the future. That’s it. No pain at all — just a drive to try, try again.
Keep writing, and keep submitting. Remember: every author you love was rejected at some point. Every single one. Getting rejected puts you in good company.
Now, I’m off to print another letter for the binder.
I’ve been writing since I was little. A lot of my drive to write came from encouragement from my teachers. One thing I heard from grade to grade, and class to class, was the following observation: “You write a lot of dialogue.”
While never framed as a critique outright, I took it as an observation of something I should scale back. There are books, and there are scripts. I prefer to write books (or short stories). While I adore a good screenplay, it’s ultimately a writing medium that I don’t feel is my forte – beyond my knack for a good back-and-forth.
Unlearning my interpretation of my teachers’ observations has been one of the trickier parts of getting back into writing over the past two years. As I write first drafts — always a tough experience — I find myself stopping when I fill a page with a back-and-forth between characters. “It’s a book, not a script,” I tell myself. Then I keep writing – and keep writing dialogue. Cursed habits!
Or maybe they’re not so cursed. Over the past two years, I’ve heard more and more from people who encourage my dialogue habit. The most common refrain is one I’ve discovered firsthand: it’s one of the best ways to show and not tell. This seems odd, since characters speaking a truth is somewhat like telling. But in my own writing, I find that telling sounds more natural when it’s shared in conversation, as opposed to spelled out in narration.
This was my most common revision in Please Give, a trickier story to navigate the “show not tell” fields because it’s written in first person. My first drafts often had the narrator, Beth, possess amazing psychic powers about what the other characters were thinking. If she wasn’t psychic, then she was a lengthy narrator, going on and on about people’s histories and what was what. Sometimes that worked in narration (well, TBD — I’m waiting to hear back from my editor), but most of the time, it was long-winded, clunky, and unnatural. All those adjectives were erased when I converted explanatory narration into dialogue. Why should Beth speak for these people? She – and I, and the reader – can talk to them.
Further, having the characters talk revealed more things to me while writing than I thought possible when trying to speak for them as a narrator. This is true of both my first-person and third-person stories. Conversation can reveal many layers of depth, in ways that narration sometimes can’t.
My editor gave me some sound advice that I’d like to close with. When reading one of my stories, she found it didn’t flow as well as the others. It was also a story with less dialogue than I usually include. She said she realized while reading it that my characters need someone to talk to. I’ve often repeated that to myself when I get stuck on a dialogue-heavy story, because when I move past my doubts and make my characters to speak, I find that she’s right.
I would encourage any of you struggling with dialogue to consider if your characters need the same. Write a bunch of one-liners. Get them to talk to each other. Get them to talk to you. Even if you go back and take out superfluous lines, or add some narration to make it less script-like, or even feel odd writing so many lines, it may end up being the practice that helps your story come further to life.
The following was the entry on my desk calendar the other day. It came at a great time, as I was hesitating to continue some projects because I didn’t think they were perfect or ready enough to continue or finish. In a quick post to get the weekend started, I wanted to share it with all of you. I hope you spend your weekend – or any day, really – completing your pieces! Writing something is always better than nothing.