Friday, May 22, 2015

Five Lessons My Editor Taught Me About Writing (and Why My Life Is Not Wasted Waiting So Long to Learn Them).

I set out to write my soon-to-be published novel over 13 years ago when I moved to New England after my mother's second husband passed away.  With no income to speak of, and no friends, I aimed to write a novel after my foray into screen and television writing in California (where I grew up)  foundered.  Don't get me wrong. I've had a great career in movies, television, and even an off Broadway play--just none of it is attributed to me, although my fingerprints are everywhere, even on television series that you are watching today.

But the Play button must be pushed. Life goes on. 

I met my editor, Phyllis, before I knew that I would be using her as an editor. She had written a large cover-article in the Portsmouth Herald about the writing duo my mother and I had become after I realized that we could fill a big void in the area by helping people with their resumes. New England is expensive and the majority of jobs are low-wage.  Most can't afford to pay $400 for a resume, so we provide an alternative.  Phyllis did such a wonderful job that she restored my faith in journalism. Everything was written well.  The only problem? The Portsmouth Herald didn't put the information of where people could contact us! It wasn't Phyllis's fault and she felt terrible about it.  But I was still grateful for her work then, for reasons I'm sharing now. 

The Black community here has known for some time that I have been writing this novel; and when I was invited to speak about my process, Phyllis was there, listening intently. I was grateful she took the time to attend. I was not a keynote speaker, mind you, as there were more illustrious, accomplished writers who had more to say than I.  After I had read an excerpt, Phyllis approached me, lauding the visuals of the scene that I had written.  That was great news for me; I was buoyed by her comments, she being a legitimate writer, in my eyes.

Years earlier, I had finished my novel, when it was much longer and not as "finished," but had an offer from a publisher to publish it--without his having even finished reading it.  I could be on my 8th novel by now, of course. Maybe it was my low self-esteem, but I didn't trust that the novel was ready, and declined.  That publisher has since moved on to greener pastures. Still, I was right in my decision. 

I needed someone who could help me make the novel better.

I wanted to publish something about which I can be proud, and just speaking the Queen's English wasn't enough. I know that I sound fairly educated when I write, but that wasn't my goal. I wanted to tell a story: an intricate story with layers, about real personalities that we all know exist--not stereotypes, especially when it came to my Black protagonist, Dr. Lula Logan. When another esteemed critic gave me feedback about my novel's shortcomings in 2007, I went back to the drawing board and "re-thunk" everything.  I returned to Phyllis when I thought I was ready, and asked her, last year, to edit my novel.  And this is what she taught me:

1. Recording what you see is not writing.

I am visual.  When my characters speak to me, I see them. I see their gestures, like a camera closes in on a subject in a film. I had verbatim descriptions of what my characters were doing. If someone picked up a glass, I explained how they did it, when they sipped, and how they set it down again.  If they refilled the glass, I talked about how they did it.  Mind you, there was likely a conversation going on during the pantomime of action, but the description of the visuals tended to get in the way of the story.

2.  Just because the sentence is written doesn't mean it's the final sentence.

Because I write what I see, I didn't realize that, notwithstanding putting ink on paper, I still wasn't writing. My sentences were complete, but still very "incomplete," because I was being too graphic. Sometimes the reader needs a more holistic view of what the writer is trying to say.  For me, I never detached myself from what I had written to actually study the sentence--to make it better.  The only time I did that kind of introspection was while writing descriptions.

3.  Narration by itself is useless if it doesn't advance the story.

The most humbling part of my editing experience was realizing that one paragraph that I had spent hours crafting would end up on the cutting-room floor because it didn't advance the story.  My story is about rural America, whose pace is necessarily slower than that of the big city.  I live in a rural state, so I know of what I speak. There is much beauty to living in a rural area, one being that one can take more time to appreciate the bucolic atmosphere that it affords--but it can be incongruent when you're trying to build suspense. So, gone are the paragraphs describing the countryside that I spent time in Louisiana studying to lend authenticity to my novel. That part hurt the most, I believe. But when I took out those paragraphs that she crossed out in pencil, I had to admit that the story moved more quickly. When writing suspense, the author wants to create anticipation,  not wanting the reader to skip whole pages in order to cut to the chase.

4.  Using too many adjectives mitigates what you're trying to achieve.

"Hot and muggy". "Ecstatic and jubilated". These aren't phrases I actually used, but you get the point. One must have confidence in one's language. By using more than one adjective to describe an object, what I was actually showing was indecision. Own your words. Just choose them wisely. Again, I was seeing, not thinking. Now, I will ponder which word to use, using more introspection than just throwing a word out there that describes what I see.

5.  Too many points of view spoil the story. 

I'm cinematic.  I tend to show and tell.  But as an author, I tended to not only show and tell, but I would give you some insights into the characters' thoughts  That's not a problem if you have a few characters.  But, as Phyllis commented, my novel rivals "Gone with the Wind" in its plethora of personalities. This might be the problem of having listened to the one critic who told me that I needed more back story for my characters, and, being the literal person that I am, by golly, I did that.  Showing the points of view of every person can get crowded.  We can't read the minds of every person we encounter, so I learned that I have to be more careful about entering the minds of every peripheral character in the story.

It will take me another month or two to finish this novel, because I still have some thinking to do. Phyllis cautioned me that some characters have too much screen time, as it were, and I have to figure out what to do about that without sacrificing the plot. I'm trying to weave characters together who have nearly incestuous relationships, in a rural town where lives constantly intersect.  In small towns, that's what happens, and I can attest to it, over and over again.

Just recently, I attended my squash "daughter," Ellie Hayes,' graduation (UNH) dinner and was leaving early to return to my editing. While saying my goodbyes, I realized that I had met the woman at the other end of the table, as we had played squash together in Portland, Maine.  Her husband was the man sitting next to me at the dinner table. Again, coincidentally, he was becoming a Unitarian Universalist the next day (I am Unitarian), at a church whose pastor had visited our Fellowship in New Hampshire a year or two ago, and who had given the most thoughtful and beautiful speech I had ever heard, which had reduced me to quiet tears.  It's a small world.  It's that world that I wanted to write about, albeit removed in place--for me--to  Louisiana, instead of New Hampshire (In the first draft of my novel, New Hampshire did figure prominently, but I followed the advice of someone who told me to keep the mystery in one locale).

Phyllis' novel, Snow Fence Road, about small town life in coastal Maine, convinced me that she had the chops to tackle my subject.  Apparently, my novel is quite a bit more complex than hers, however, and she admitted that it was a challenge to edit it. Based upon what I've learned from her edits, not only was she up to the task, but she taught me how never again make another editor go through the pains she so willingly undertook on my behalf.

This novel will have a sequel, but thanks to Phyllis, it won't take years to write it. 



Claudia said...

From your piece, I am learning more that may be helpful as I continue to write. Thanks. It is heartening to me that I'm not the only person who has been working on a novel for over a decade, in fact for at least 12 years, and that you are completing yours! I'm also getting a glimpse into Phyllis as a novel editor.

kaybee said...

Phyllis is a good editor and writer. I worked with her at the Exeter News-Letter in the last century.
Kathy Bailey

VL Towler said...

Thanks Claudia and Kaybee. You know what they say about when the pupil is ready. I'm glad Phyllis showed up in my life. Her ability to express her views without being overbearing or judgmental is what makes it so easy for me to listen. She states her case and let's you decide. Even when I haven't want to agree with her, I've had to reassess things in the quiet of my own thoughts, and admit that her views were valid.

Charlotte Pierce said...

I get this: "When my characters speak to me, I see them. I see their gestures, like a camera closes in on a subject in a film." I'm a publisher, not writer, for this and other reasons (I go overboard on research).

Great to read your blog and to have you as a member at! Let me know how the half-price membership signup process goes.

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