Sojourns in Publishing

Writing. Editing. Designing. Producing. Printing. Reading.

Matthew Carter, designer of Verdana and Georgia

Matthew Carter, designer of Verdana and Georgia

I love both Verdana and Georgia. It’s fascinating to see the individual behind typeface design.

Before you start writing, do you know where the story’s going?

So, you have a fantastic idea for a story, but you’re feeling overwhelmed about where to start. An easy and simple first step is for you to define the story arc. A definable arc is needed to capture the audience’s interest; in the creation stage, it will help you write with direction. Generally, strong story arcs include the following elements:

  • Setting

  • Characters

  • The main character’s driving desire (what does the main character want?)

  • Developing problem (what prevents the main character from getting what they want?)

  • Conflict (the action of the character’s driving desire being challenged)

  • Escalation

  • Crisis

  • Resolution

  • Dénouement (final details that wrap up the loose ends of the story)

For example, in the modern version of the story of Cinderella, the arc could be defined as follows:

Setting

Family mansion

Characters

Cinderella, stepsisters, mice, cat, fairy godmother, Prince Charming

Characters’ driving desire

Wants to go to the ball

Developing problem

The stepsisters are jealous of Cinderella’s beauty and won’t let her go to the ball.

Conflict

The stepsisters tear apart the dress that Cinderella made for herself out of scraps.

Escalation

Cinderella despairs, but is helped by the fairy godmother and gets to the ball. The prince is enchanted by her and dances the night away with her until she must flee at midnight.

Crisis

Cinderella has fallen for the prince, but is restrained from being with him as she is a prisoner in her home, and is ashamed of her rags and lowly appearance.

Resolution

The prince sets out to find her, and by using the glass slipper she left behind, he confirms Cinderella’s true identity.

Dénouement

Cinderella goes to live in the castle with the prince and lives happily ever after, while the evil stepsisters are excluded from the grandeur of Cinderella’s new life.

Get back to basics—don’t browse Facebook or Twitter or even Google for inspiration. Walk away from the computer. Take a blank piece of paper, write out the story elements as listed in the left-hand column, and simply fill it in with the most basic details for now; it’ll help you break down your vision into smaller steps instead of overwhelming you with the big picture.

Thinking of becoming an editor?

 

 

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Photo by innoxiuss (Thinking at Hell’s gate) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Today I had a conversation online with someone who has a teacher’s degree and is interested in freelance editing to supplement their income. It sounds like a natural fit—and it very well could be—but it doesn’t automatically qualify one as an editor. It also doesn’t follow that anyone with strong grammar, reading, and writing skills can simply decide to be an editor and then become one in a matter of a few days or weeks.

Similarly, being a writer does not qualify one as an editor. Very few writers that I work with are able to edit their own work accurately and objectively, much less anyone else’s; it’s a completely different frame of mind. (I’ve had a very hard time writing creatively in the last year and a half that I’ve been editing full-time.)

My own experience—and I consider myself to be a relative neophyte—is that it’s an ongoing process that involves education, motivation, compulsion, inspiration, trial and error, humility, flexibility, teachability, and hard-won experience. I would add that it helps to have a love of language and communication, a desire to understand more than to be understood, and an inclination towards empathy, tact, and perfectionism.

If you’re brand-new to editing and want to explore the field, consider the following seven steps before building a website, designing a business card, and charging for services:

  • Start from scratch and build credibility. The quickest way to do this is to get some experience by performing pro-bono proofreads for people who will endorse you after the work is done. Not-for-profit organizations are a good place to start.
  • Acquire a solid dictionary and thesaurus (such as Cambridge or Oxford); you should also have a hard copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and/or the AP Stylebook on hand; there’s more to proofreading and editing than being strong in grammar and good at writing.
  • Subscribe to editing, literary agent, and publishing accounts on Twitter/Facebook; read the blogs of editors, your favourite writers, respected literary magazines (local, national, and international), and publishers (indie, vanity, and traditional).
  • Connect with a professional association such as the Editor’s Association of Canada. 
  • Consider an online course.
  • Start a blog and talk about publishing; write simple book reviews (they don’t need to be complicated) and interview authors.
  • Join Goodreads, if you haven’t already.

I don’t wish to imply that there are countless hoops to jump through before one is “allowed” to be an editor; there are no secret rituals, it’s not a rarefied society, and it’s not a holy calling. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be doing it. But in the same way that one is not a writer by virtue of owning a word processor, nor a graphic designer by owning a version of Photoshop, one is not an editor simply by dint of knowing basic grammar and how to read and spell.* It means, among many other things, having a good grasp of the technical aspects while being alive to the human aspect of language—and the humanity of the writer. When all that is in place, that’s when you can start thinking about becoming an editor.

 

* (But if you don’t know basic grammar or how to read or spell, you’re pretty much dead in the water.)

A good book at the right time.

When I was twenty, I had a frothy dream that I’d discarded right when I was on the cusp of acting upon it. This dream haunted me over the ensuing years as I struggled within an unhappy, ill-advised marriage and the exhaustion of parenthood. What was the dream? Well, I’d wanted to move from Toronto to Montréal, live in an apartment that had a wrought-iron balcony, learn French, and live a fabulous Montréal life. Instead, I’d married too young and ended up in BC. I’d think of my old dream sometimes whilst drinking a glass of red wine, feeling maudlin and listening to Blue Rodeo’s Casino album as the rain pelted the windows.

Disoriented from the eventual death of my fourteen-year-old marriage, I journeyed from rural Vancouver Island to Toronto as I stumbled back to my hometown, seeking the impetuous version of myself that I’d left behind in 1990. The autumn of 2005 found me back in the city, but the young waif I’d been was nowhere to be found. She was gone for good.

My new friend Warren (a writer and bookseller in Ottawa whom I’d met in an online writer’s forum in the summer of 2006) listened patiently as I waxed poetic about my old dream of cobblestone streets and the inherent sexiness that permeated all things Montréal. He was such a good friend, in fact, that he took the train from Ottawa to Toronto one day and helped me load up my U-Haul for the drive east, only two days after Christmas. I was finally moving to Montréal, albeit sixteen years late.

Once in la belle province, I crashed temporarily in a cramped, roach-infested bachelor suite in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. It was so cold that my face hurt. My honeymoon with Montréal was turbulent, but I was in love with the city despite being broke, frozen, and clumsy at communicating in French.

Soon it was spring, and Warren attended an author’s brunch at the Black Tomato in Ottawa where he met Montréal writer Yves Beauchemin, author of Charles the Bold. He described how I’d finally followed my dream of moving to Montréal and had him sign a hardcover copy of this book—specifically for me—which he surprised me with shortly after. Suffice it to say that Warren found Montréal exceptionally sexy during that visit.

I devoured Beauchemin’s book and identified with the protagonist, Charles, who was born in 1966, just three years before me. Through the story, I saw Montréal in a new light, one that made more sense than my soft-focus, music video fantasies of old. It was then that I first learned what “two solitudes” meant, and it defined the next few years of my life.

A month after reading Charles the Bold, I moved out of anglophone Notre-Dame-de-Grâce to francophone Villeray, where I finally had my wrought-iron balcony. My French improved, and I walked to and from the Marché Jean-Talon on a daily basis. Four months later, Warren relocated from Ottawa to Montréal; by then we’d fallen in love and moved in together, exploring the city and loving it all exactly as it was. We froze together; we took the Métro together; we bought baguettes and fromage from the marché together; we took French classes at an employment centre in Little Burgundy together—though, admittedly, he alone was the one who shovelled the snow from our wrought-iron balcony and winding staircase.

A year later, we were engaged to be married; two years after that, we exchanged vows on a beach on Vancouver Island, where we now live relatively snow-free.

Three Errors That Spell Check Will Never Fix

Day 54/365

(Image courtesy Roxanne Cooke, Flickr Creative Commons)

Aside from the most obvious need for editing—that is, correction of spelling, grammar, and punctuation—there are a multitude of reasons for having a professional editor handle your manuscript. Lack of clarity, confusion over when to show and when to tell, and wrong information show themselves in virtually every manuscript I’ve handled. Below are a few examples inspired by projects I’ve worked on:

Lack of clarity:
The author may mean one thing but inadvertently say another:

Living near Woodbine Racetrack attracted some rough characters. 

The narrator lived near the Woodbine Racetrack and was exposed to some “rough characters”, but it certainly wasn’t his presence that drew rough characters to the neighbourhood; it was the racetrack itself (and the gambling that went on there) that attracted rough characters. Therefore, the sentence was changed to:

The Woodbine Racetrack attracted some rough characters to the neighbourhood.

Confusion over when to show and when to tell:
Sometimes an author will write dialogue when it should be narrative; at other times, the author may explain that the characters are speaking instead of showing it:

She phoned him and told him to meet her at the motel. He told her that he’d be there at noon. Then he told her that he’d be wearing a red carnation. She told him that sounded good, and that she’d be wearing a blue dress.

Now, it could be argued that it depends on the style of the storytelling, the context, and any other number of things, but with the above example, I wanted to try it out as dialogue. Which sounds better to you?

She picked up the phone and called him.

“Meet me at the motel,” she said.

“Okay, I’ll be there at noon,” he said. “I’ll be wearing a red carnation.”

“That sounds good. I’ll be wearing a blue dress.”

Wrong Information:
In a story set in 1990, the characters had smartphones, used lightweight laptops, and did detective work by searching information on Google. No, it wasn’t speculative fiction; these were anachronisms. The use of communication devices was important to the story, so with some research, feedback, and collaboration, the anachronisms were adjusted for improved accuracy.

Again, there are all sorts of reasons to find a trustworthy editor; having someone who isn’t your coworker, your daughter, your spouse, or your online sweetheart is important if you want the benefit of objective, helpful feedback. Your effort, creativity, and success are worth it.

Words Are Just the Delivery System.

Sometimes when editing a manuscript, I am struck by the intimate things that the author shares, either intentionally or unintentionally. Either way, the writer always reveals something about themselves that they didn’t intend. For me, it can be like seeing someone while they’re sleeping, or with their fly down, or their slip showing. It can be like watching someone when they don’t know they’re being watched, and witnessing them do something kind—or unkind—to a stranger on the street, or a waiter, or someone in traffic.

With every manuscript, I get a sense for the individual behind the words. Sometimes it’s cloudy, and at other times it’s clear. Aside from the technical aspect of the work, I’m always exposed to the personality and thought processes of another human being. It can be quite personal, even if we never see one another face to face or speak on the phone.

My current manuscript is a memoir, and the elderly gentleman who has written it seems to have no idea of how kind-hearted, charming, and lovely he is. He’s simply recollecting his life with gratitude and love, and I’m honoured to be able to work with his words—but not because he’s an incredibly eloquent or skilled writer; he actually needs a good deal of editorial support to deliver his message clearly. What makes this a pleasure to work with has everything to do with the beautiful spirit that’s shining through the writing. The words are just the delivery system.

On Getting Naked in Public

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“Nude Behind the Curtain” by Antoine Joseph Wiertz

Catharsis through writing is a wonderful, therapeutic activity; I cannot emphasize its value enough. You don’t even have to be a “good” writer to engage in this activity; everyone has the right to write. There are some things in my own life that I’ve only been able to work through by writing, and I’d be quite offended if anyone ever suggested that I shouldn’t.

However, from editing a good number of memoirs, I’ve come to believe the following:

  • Just because the story is important to you does not mean that it’s important to everyone else. Does it have to be the next triumphant or heart-wrenching tale that flies off the bookstore shelves, or must it lead to television/radio interviews? Will you be crestfallen if that doesn’t happen? If so, why?
  • If you’re motivated to publish your memoir specifically to have an audience be outraged on your behalf, or to punish those who have wronged you, prepare for the very real possibility that you will be disappointed in the response you receive from the public.
  • Purging yourself of terrible memories through writing can indeed be legitimate therapy, but if you find that you’re repeating yourself—especially if it’s rehashing and reinforcing decades-old pains and selective memories—it may be unhealthy for you (not to mention your editor and your audience).  There really is a time to just let go.

Don’t get me wrong—I firmly believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of both hearing and being heard; it’s a fundamentally human need. I fully endorse writing dark, messy, nasty, angry, frightening, violent, and even petty content. But when sharing this with the world, please consider the possibility that there’s a difference between telling a story that leads the reader somewhere and merely venting your spleen for the sake of pissing acid everywhere. It may sound cynical and unfeeling, but the reality is that just because something terrible happened in the writer’s life does not mean that an audience will care.

Lest anyone feel I’m discouraging them from ever letting their memoir see the light of day, let me reiterate that I do believe in the importance of writing and publishing our stories, both for the author’s sake and for the sake of the audience. If you wish to share your memoir with any audience, small or large, consider the following three steps:

  • Take some time to sit quietly and journal your reasons for writing the manuscript, who your target audience is, and why you think they will be receptive to your story. This doesn’t mean that you have to justify it to yourself or anyone else—it’s simply a grounding exercise.
  • When your manuscript is finished, proofread it and fix any spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.
  • Have a few trustworthy individuals read it (friends, your writer’s group, or a professional editor) with the request to offer honest and constructive criticism without having to worry about wounding the author’s fragile ego.

Author Paulo Coehlo said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public.” There’s getting naked (being vulnerable), and then there’s pure exhibitionism for the sake of attention alone. The choice, of course, is yours.

When getting naked in public, it’s a good idea to be clear about your motives, because people will look, and they will respond.

Transience

July saunters lazily towards August, perfectly ripe with the season, and well past the fresh exhilaration of June. Today, there’s a languid, sultry feel in the air, and it whispers with quiet insistence to savour that which is all too fleeting.Image

Don’t Abuse Quotation Marks!

Using quotation marks in your narrative should usually be restricted to depicting dialogue, or to attribute an unusually special significance—and even in the case of special significance, it should be used very sparingly, lest the quotations lose their power from overuse. 

When I read a manuscript where quotation marks are over-used, I get the impression that the author is someone who uses air quotes a great deal when speaking.

Words are words. They have their own significance, and that significance is strong enough to stand on its own, if it’s the correct word. The power should be inherent in that carefully-chosen word. Let it be what it is without having to dress it up.

Alcuin Society’s 41 best-looking books of 2012

Alcuin Society’s 41 best-looking books of 2012

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