Sunday, April 13, 2008

Editor's Recommendation

You don't know what you don't know. It's that premise that drives what may become the new gold standard for books about writing: Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore.

As a freelance editor, I hope every one of my clients reads this book before hiring me. I see writers trip over the same hurdles time and again--stylistic tics, POV writing that is too stiff to carry the characters' emotional development, and plots that unfold chunkily, if they unfold at all. Editors do their best work when presented with a close-to-publishable draft. Those dozens of hours of work are never wasted, but they are far better spent teasing out a novel's themes and bringing out the full strength of a writer's voice. Grammatical mistakes and common writing challenges are comparatively easy to address on one's own.

I have surveyed many books about the craft, and find that they fall into one of two categories: (1) They condescend to the writer, and are therefore not worth reading; or (2) they address the writer as a legitimate student and creator. Of these latter books, what distinguishes Manuscript Makeover is its thoroughness and its intuitive organization. It contains many checklists, but it's more than a mechanical how-to manual on self-editing. It covers literally every problem I've ever encountered in a client's manuscript, from style to story structure, and gives the writer ways to fix them. It also contains a helpful redux on query letters and marketing, condensed from Lyon's more comprehensive books about manuscript submission.

From now on, it sits on my shelf next to William Zinsser's On Writing Well and Strunk & White's Elements of Style. Whether you are just beginning to fill your shelves or already have filled them with some published titles of your own, Manuscript Makeover should be an essential book in your collection.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Heavy Novel

As I pack my suitcase and write the final e-mails before taking off for Rockaway Beach, I can hardly get my car loaded fast enough. Five days away from e-mail. Five days with no phone, no chance of dashing off for a few extra groceries, no responsibilities but writing. On these retreats, I get so much writing done. I have been writing a novel for five years and am producing what will likely be the final draft, thanks to a burst of clarity in February. I never thought the pieces would come together so well, and to finish it, finally finish it, all I need is the time to write.

A long time ago I read in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way that the subconscious already knows the story. All the writer needs is to get free of the blocks, and write. The idea didn't inspire me at the time, but it lodged in my head somewhere. I carried it with me all these years, through high school, college, moving, the years in Portland -- kind of like that funny-looking tool that somebody gives you for Christmas. You never think you need it, but it looks potentially useful, and it travels from junk closet to junk closet. Something like that. Anyway, the idea returned to me in February, when I realized I knew my novel's story all along.

I told a good friend this morning, our novels are already complete. They are in our subconscious, and they are very, very heavy. Our responsibility is to get enough sleep, make time to write, and allow our minds to play. Our work is to be energetic enough to haul up our novel, bucketful by bucketful.