What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 2: Politics

red-pen2Editing. It’s so romantic. You will work with fiction authors to make their story a masterpiece. That IS what being an editor entails, right?

Aspiring editors are probably at least a little more down-to-earth than that. There’s a ton of content in today’s world, and most of it isn’t awesome fiction. In fact, most of it isn’t fiction at all. And fiction editors aren’t nearly in as much demand as ones with other areas of specialty—editors of web copy, B2B or B2C content, blogs, tech pubs, communications material, etc.

And here’s the other reality. Even if you’re the next Max Perkins, taking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work and molding it into a thing of stunning beauty to be remembered for decades to come, it’s not your show.

Here’s what I never learned about editing, part two: it’s all about your author, and diplomacy is more than essential—it determines the success of the project.

(Note: most of this probably doesn’t apply to journalism where there’s a style in place and you’re accountable to a boss to enforce rules.)

Being Edited Can Hurt

In some circumstance or another, surely you’ve been asked to change something you’ve written. Unless you’re of a heartier stock than I am, it hurts, even if you’re not particularly attached to the material. You took the time to sit down and choose those words, one by one, to explain something or to tell some kind of story. It’s a part of you. It’s difficult when someone essentially asks you to call the time you spent, even on just one sentence, a wash. I know this from being a writer myself. Criticism of creation, even valid criticism, can be hard to take.

Side note! Writers, don’t treat an edit like a marriage: going to bed angry is a great idea. Wait out that initial resistance to be critiqued. See if you feel it’s valid after you’ve gotten some space. You’ll wake up with perspective, and you’ll either be ready to accept some truths you couldn’t accept before (that’s me) or else you’ll know the editor and you are not a good fit.

Other side note! After getting used to it, being edited is like going to a writing spa. I throw a snarl of word bedlam at someone and it comes out all beautiful and sparkly, and I didn’t even have to do any work! I love being edited.

Your First Assignment with an Author

Of course, it’s helpful to feel out what the client is looking for with a discussion first. The problem is that most people looking for an editor think they’re done and just want a quick check, but they almost always need at least a few rewrites. As I said in an earlier post, if they think they need proofing, they probably need copyediting; if they think they need copyediting, they probably need global work. An editor almost always knows better what a piece needs than the author does. The author may have vision, but they’re too close up to fulfill it by themselves.

But the reality is, at least for freelancing, that the author is the boss, and they’re hiring you to do a job they dictate, not you. In a 9–5 situation, you might have more leverage if there isn’t a time crunch. But you have to manage relationships. Even if the piece you’re handed could be amazing if you could just reshape it with total freedom, don’t give into that temptation with a new author. Every word was chosen. Maybe it was chosen carefully, maybe not. But it always will serve you well to treat those words as if they’re precious.

The first time I edit anyone, even someone who knows their piece is going to need to be ripped apart and reassembled or maybe even completely rethought, I always note even just a little thing that the person has done right. That’s done with the idea that they can take that and build upon it the next time they write. I really think that’s one of the most important services an editor can possibly provide—rather than focusing on failings to be addressed, how can we amplify their best qualities as a writer?

Next to note is this: I always use a light hand the first time I edit anyone, especially if they specifically just ask you to look for typos or if they’ve just spent a lot of time polishing it and are exhausted. Sometimes, a recommendation to revisit the entire thing is inevitable. But if you can avoid it, reserve the “this would sound better if”-type advice to the comments section or in an email. Seeing work crossed out is rough, and it shouldn’t be done more than absolutely necessary the first time you work with someone. Even if you’re tracking changes and the author has the power to just click a button and reject what you’ve done, don’t overestimate the unspoken judgement and finality of going into a document, looking at a sentence that’s troublesome but has no grammar errors, and making it clear you reject what they did and can do it better. An author will learn to trust you if they like your advice, and you can eventually get to the point where you can just rephrase.

Bottom line: always assume an author will be extremely sensitive to edits until you know otherwise. It’s a hard thing for editors, especially those editors who are meticulous or—worse—are seeing potential go unrealized. But it’s (generally) more important that the author is happy with their piece than if you’re happy with their piece.

Not Causing a Scene

Have you ever finished a long project, sent out your work, and gotten an email in response that said, “Great start!” and then listed the 40 things that you needed to fix? You don’t want to that person unless you have to be—the one who will send back a piece with way more work to be done than even before the canvas was blank.

If an author trusts me, I’ll often go into the medium itself (WordPress, Constant Contact, InDesign, StackEdit) and make my changes without tracking. That way, they can have something that’s ready to go without needing to do any more work than they have to. People are busy. But the first time you edit someone, you want to track pretty much everything.* You want them to know your style of editing—what you recommend, what problems you’re catching. You also want them to feel empowered to accept or reject things.

If a piece needs a ton of work, I’ll often send them a marked up and a clean copy, attaching the clean copy first and calling it a suggested version or something. Most people will only review the clean copy and not even really look at the tracked one. If they like it, they’ll just send you a thumbs up. No one needs to do much work after that, and if they didn’t open up the tracked changes copy, they probably never even saw how much you did.

If you do this, make certain that you maintain the author’s voice. If they read something that seems like a completely different piece, they will dive into your changes, and you’ll be in for an ongoing email chain that’s bound to be varying degrees of awkward.

* The exception is when you don’t want to send someone back an intimidating, potentially psychologically damaging document covered in red. If there’s a common comma error, I’ll track the first change, note the error in a comment, and say that the rest of the instances have been changed without the distraction of markup. Then I’ll just toggle track changes on and off as needed.

Preparing to Defend…

Your edits are your castle and your knowledge is your moat. Make sure you have a good one, with alligators and possibly harmful bacteria.

We were all misinformed to varying degrees about the rules of English language in grade school. For some people, that’s the last and only encounter they had with grammar. They will use their zombie rules as an excuse to go swimming in your moat.

Be friendly, and make it clear that you’ll do whatever incorrect thing they like. It’s their piece, not yours. But make your castle unapproachable for any author who values “the right way.”

…But Don’t Be a Pedant!

That being said, this isn’t math class. In school, there’s often one right answer. In the real world, there isn’t–even when there is. Let me explain.

Don’t insist on the right way if it hinders communication or if your author says, “I understand it’s wrong, but I like it better the way it is.” Save your battles for things you feel will strongly harm a piece if it isn’t addressed. Nine-tenths of people aren’t going to notice if job titles are capitalized when they shouldn’t be. But if your client is using “supercede” instead of “supersede” and insisting on keeping an incorrect spelling, that’s pretty embarrassing for them and may hurt their attempt to be a voice of authority. You should probably point them at a source that explains that they’re wrong rather than just say, “Whatever you want!”

Conclusion

Authors are the bosses. Choosing to be an editor means that you’re caring for someone else’s baby. Don’t hand the baby back with a new arm and different colored hair unless that arm had gangrene and that hair was, um, plagiarized (a toupee? A baby toupee?). Once you have a relationship with the author and you know they want your full treatment, writing can more of a partnership. But you have to earn trust.

Be an awesome editor—be a flexible editor—be an editor people know will make them sound fantastic. But most importantly, be an editor that treats people’s work as if it has value, not like it’s just trash to be crossed out at will.

After all, if you can really do that much better, perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong profession…

Bonus

Kill Your Darlings,” a blog post about being edited by the very amusing Geraldine from The Everywherest

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The Trouble With Literary Device Abuse

My sincerest apologies for this prolonged absence. I’m still around and still excited to talk to you about books, I promise.

I was overwhelmed with work for a bit there, and there was little time for reading, let alone blogging about reading. But I did manage to polish off Michael Cunningham’s The Hours about a month ago. 

I’m a little distanced from it now for an overview, but I’m not so distanced that I don’t have things to say about it. This should have been the perfect book for me, folk. It’s got Virgina Woolf. It’s got rage against the cult of domesticity/feminine mystique mindset. It’s got introspection and character-heavy (and non-plot-heavy) writing. Heck, would have recommended this book to me.

So, my personal opinion is that this set of ingredients, which should have formed the most delectable layer cake, was totally wrecked by the wrong chef. (Also, you will be burned out by all cake metaphors by the end of the book, and I don’t know how I even stomached making that one. More on that later). I feel awful saying it. To have devoted so much of himself to a very women-centered, introspective, and deep-feeling book, I’m sure Cunningham is a wonderful man. But The Hours contains some of the most exasperating (professional) writing I think I’ve ever encountered.

Anyway, I looked at what I thought about The Hours and extrapolated to get a list of literary device abuses. These misuses apply to a lot of writing I see.

I Will Never Get Back The Hours I Spent Reading This Book (But Some Don’t Want Them Back)

The Hours CoverQuickly, let me say this: as I was reading The Hours, I thought that surely I must be batty to dislike it, and that was pretty much confirmed. A number of judges thought this worthy of a Pulitzer. I started googling reviews and scholarly articles on the book, and it did nothing to convince me that I’m sane. The overwhelming consensus is that this book is excellent, with me all alone on the sea-salty island of curmudgeon.

So take this all at face value–I personally felt these things, and most other people didn’t. But my minority opinion shall not be silenced, and by that, I mean I have a blog that’s pretty much an Amanda brainstuff soliloquy. I will be the one person to say, albeit nervously, that my thoughts that this was bad writing were reaffirmed on every page as I read.

By bad, I mean excessive. Obnoxiously thorough examination of every thought in a character’s head. Concerted efforts to make everything “deep.” Pushing symbolism past the point of being meaningful and into the realm of bang-you-over-the-head insulting. And that leads us to…

Literary Device Abuse 1: Symbolism

There’s a section where a housewife is cooking her husband a cake, and the author makes it clear that this cake is a reflection of how she felt in her role–imperfect, trying too hard, a failure. Cool. I like symbolism. But this one is drawn out to the point of being rage-inducing. Chapter after chapter is about this cake, I kid you not. The author would veer into another subject, and then there would be a paragraph that started, “She thought of the cake at home” or something and I would think “STOP.”

In fact, I was looking through my notes in the Kindle book as they pertain to this. It moves from “Ug” to “Please stop” to “AHEM, metaphor, are you getting this meeettaaaaphooooooor” to, finally, a big fat “ENOUGH WITH THE [censored] CAKE.” This is what I mean by the writing being exasperating.

This is not the only instance of literary device abuse.

Literary Device Abuse 2: Pretzeling Yourself to Describe a Character

What I mean by “pretzeling” is that an author bends in all sorts of weird ways so they* can include a description of a character without a paragraph that’s something like, “John was medium height with brown hair and bushy eyebrows, and he liked long walks on the beach and ice cream.” The classic (and awful) way of trying to more naturally integrate character description is to have them look in a mirror. I do think there are creative, unusual ways to do this that can work, and I’m not saying no one should try. They just should fix it if they fail.

In The Hours, there’s no looking in a mirror to describe oneself. But there is a character that has been living with someone for many years, and to describe that person she’d lived with, Cunningham says, “for a moment–less than a moment–she sees Sally as she would if they were strangers. Sally is a pale, gray-haired woman…” etc. Ug, this is so obvious and gimmicky! It’s just a hair better then the mirror tactic, and it’s not natural at all. You don’t have to see someone as if they are a stranger to know what color hair they have.

I think this could have been better done with something like “Sally’s gray hair, the harsh features–all were as familiar to Clarissa as her own face, yet an unspoken distance between them made her feel almost like a stranger” or something like that. You can integrate description in natural ways.

I didn’t find character development and description done right all throughout the The Hours. All of the tactics used to develop characters seemed obvious, not just the tactics used to describe them physically. There was a scene where Virgina’s relatives come over, and they find a dying bird. “Oh boy,” I thought. “Here comes a character-development device.” You could just sense it. Reader, we are about to enter a character’s brain and learn over the next three pages of inner monologue (see device three) that Virginia thinks things, deep, life/death things, because of this bird. Sigh. Indeed, that then happened. Color me unsurprised.

Literary Device Abuse 3: Inner Monologue

The dialogue in this book was excellent. It was minimal, curt, and left a ton to the imagination. Unfortunately, there was about a 1:10 ratio of dialogue pages to inner monologue pages, and the inner monologues contained so many literary sins.

First, everyone’s inner monologue was exactly the same voice. A depressed, self-consumed, prone-to-overthinking voice.

Second, we got to hear many characters’ inner monologues, even the ones that barely show up in the book. That’s a problem when combined with the first sin of them all having the same voice. It’s also a problem because it gives the reader whiplash. We are in and out of way too many heads. I picture the reader as a spirit being plunged in and out of brain after brain, eventually needing to reach for the Dramamine.

Third, god, inner monologue: there’s just so much of it, and it’s so, so tiring. There would start to be a scene–someone would walk into a room to say hi to the occupant there. But as they entered, they would need to pause for two pages and have big thoughts. Then comes the hello. This is not only exasperating, it’s hard for a reader to reconcile with real time. No one would walk in the room, think quietly to themselves for five minutes, and then greet the person on the couch.

Fourth, inner monologue will quickly send you into the danger zone of telling and not showing. An author needs to be careful not to diffuse a potentially powerful scene with a “Character realized she felt sad and depressed.” I found The Hours to be brutally tell-y and almost never show-y.

Conclusion: I am a Bummer

I feel bad, getting so negative on so universally loved book. I loved the idea behind it, and I especially loved the cultural message behind it. But I just could not deal with the writing. I thought about sharing my notes from the book, but just the sample I shared with you is probably enough. Most of them are like that. There is a lot of cussing. It was a tiring, eye-rolling read, despite the subject matter being serious and, to me, invigorating.

Anyway, if you loved The Hours, please crucify me in the comments. Just kidding. Please don’t. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

*I am taking a cue from all the style guides changing over to the singular “they,” and now writing is like one big sigh of relief, not having to re-read and look for spots that should unnaturally say “his or her.” You should try it.

On Ellipses as Throat Clearing

Salutations, literos and literas. Welcome to another edition of your favorite show, Stuff Amanda Hates! If you ask the husband, this show is on all day every day at our house, so enjoy a little piece of our life today.

So, here’s something that’s likely a familiar device:

“Can you tell me what happened before the…the incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some…unpleasantness”

Ellipses here act as euphemism alerts, being perfectly substitutable with throat clearing. Not so bad, right? Especially awesome when portraying mafia bosses or uncomfortable co-workers.

Gangster Looking Threatening

“If you don’t pay up, see, your pet hamster, he may have a little…accident.”

This technique exists for a reason in writing. The intricacies of our everyday dialogue are easy to take for granted until you try to replicate them in speech. With an ellipsis, the author want to convey maybe an awkward “ahem” as the speaker looks for a word that will soften the blow that would come from a more representative description. Or perhaps the author wants to portray a pause as a character struggles to define something that defies being boiled down to language. It might even just be used to emphasize the word that comes after the ellipsis. In any case, the ellipsis is a tool that allows authors to paint an in-text picture of what real, spoken or internal dialogue looks like.

Or does it?

(Hint: NO. Though I suppose that’s a more of an answer than a hint.)

It took listening to an audiobook for me to realize this isn’t realistic at all. We’re listening to Hyperion, which is a fabulous book. It’s completely unjust of me to nit pick the one thing I haven’t liked about it, so please don’t be dissuaded. But Hyperion is chalk full of this use of ellipses, especially in the section we’re listening to now—Brawne Lamia’s story, if you’re familiar. It’s used in the first paragraph (“merely…beautiful”).  It’s used 30 times in the first 12 pages of the section. I stopped counting after 30.

The sheer amount of times it’s used here is made much more obvious by listening to real humans read the text and “act” through the ellipses. And it’s here that I realized that the ellipses aren’t doing anything to make dialogue reflect real conversation patterns at all. Take this:

“It’s like that. Memories that feel…hollow.”

Read that aloud, like you’re a voice actor. Give the amount of pause you would if you were reading a script. You can hear how it’s supposed to be said, right? You’ve probably watched T.V. shows or movies that act as your instructor. Think of Spock from Star Trek. Then, think about how you’d talk to your friends about a memory that felt empty. Even if you were struggling to come up with a word, would you just leave a long, empty pause in there as you thought of the word? You would say, “the memories feel kind of, I don’t know, empty” or something similar.

Now, I’m not at all saying authors should write in all manner of vocal pauses in an attempt to make their conversations as real as possible. You edit out the cruft of everyday speech. But I’ll tell you what you probably shouldn’t do either is write in a supposed-speech-mimic device that’s actually something only employed by actors, i.e., people who have fake conversations.

Listening to the voice actors in the audiobook speak to another with these prolonged pauses struck me as unnatural at best and melodramatic at worst. I can’t think of many instances where it wouldn’t be better to apply italics for emphasis or a phrase like “I don’t know” or “[character] paused to think” to indicate struggle. Check it out my earlier examples.

“Can you tell me what happened before the, er, incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some”—he raised his eyebrows—”unpleasantness.”

And it’s not even necessarily that this way is more natural. It’s just less obviously unnatural, and it’s way easier reading. It’s an opportunity to be more descriptive and ignore the temptation to be lazy with language. Meanwhile, ellipses to indicate pause also draw attention to themselves and interrupt the text. Don’t take readers out of the moment!

Now, I’m not completely against the ellipses as “ahem” or “insert deeply thoughtful pause here.” You might prefer it to the tactics above, and that’s fine. Also, there are cases that I think really call for it. Take this, out of the same section in Hyperion, when Brawne has been asked to call another character by his first name:

“Yeah, M…ah, Johnny, most of my work falls under that category”

I’d say that the ellipsis is right choice to portray this corrected speech in writing. But know that it in no way represents real speech patterns. If you feel like it does, pay attention to whether or not you’re hearing it being said in your inner actor’s voice. The pause doesn’t represent a part of real speech patterns. It represents overdramatization.

Like its friends the exclamation point, the cliche, and other potentially obnoxious devices, the ellipsis should be used very, very sparingly—if at all.

Unrelated: Shameless Self-Promotion

Hey, all. A happy announcement! I’m officially self-employed. That puts so many important things in my grasp: location independence, the ability to pursue work that best uses my skills, and, importantly, the ability to Christmas shop while nine-to-five-ers are at work. (Just kidding, of course. As a member of this pleasantly civilized world where crowds are avoidable, I will be doing all my shopping on the internet.)

Wait until the cats find out how many road trips they’re about to go on. They will be thrilled.

You may have noticed that some of the tabs on the top of my blog have been changing. That’s in preparation for this move to full-time contracting.

So here’s a bit about me, if you’re not familiar. I’m primarily an editor by trade, but I’m doing writing and design work, too. My real dream is a kind of intersection of this blog and my editing skills—I love to study what makes writing powerful, and I’d like to apply what I’ve learned to people’s writing. In other words, I’m a decent writing coach, and I’d like to do more to help people develop skills that will put their writing game at the next level.

So what does this have to do with you? Well, if you or anyone you know have need for anyone with the skills I’ve talked about here, please check out my offerings/credentials on the tabs above and reach out to me at muledyaj at gmail dot com.

Also, please send soothing thoughts to the cats, who have no idea how many road trips they’re about to go on.

Scared-Cat-Photos_1

Creating Character Depth Through Confounding

The other day, I had lunch with a colleague, and he described an idea. He wanted to write a book with his wife, but with a fun twist. He would write one chapter, his wife would write the next, and so on, back and forth. Neither would get to see what the other wrote until it was his/her turn to take over the book.

Beautiful sugar skull woman illustration. Day of dead vector illustration.That got us talking about the genre of the progressive novel. If you haven’t heard of things like round robin writing and the exquisite corpse (see left for what I picture when I say that), well, they’re essentially vehicles for people to collaborate on a story or work of art.

Check them out. They’re fun, and as I’m seeing, they can be useful projects to use as inspiration in solo writing later. But first, creative writing class.

Confound It!

Our lunch conversation led to me remember one of my creative writing workshops. This one was called “Confound It!” or something like that. I might just be making that up. Whatever. If I am, I’m doing a good job because it sounds cool.

It was a collaborative writing exercise in which everyone would write a paragraph, pair up with someone, and switch papers. You would read your partner’s paragraph and write their next one. Except you weren’t supposed to be nice. Your goal was to confound your partner. You were to give them a paragraph that utterly changed the course of what they were writing and forced them to try to recover from whatever disasters you created.

So in “Confound It!,” paragraph one goes like this:

A young man sits and has a heart-to-heart with his estranged, dying father. They hash out old demons from the young man’s childhood. The son finally had the courage to tell his father he had felt abandoned by the old man his whole life.

Paragraph two goes like this:

Not far from the hospital, the abominable snowman, like the young man, was tired of a lifetime of rejection. So, using methods not described in this paragraph, he procured a cache of enriched uranium, and now we’re in the midst of a nuclear winter only he–and for some unspecified scientific reason, also flamingos–could survive.

Paragraph three goes like this:

Dude, come on.

Or maybe it goes like this:

Even the flamingos rejected the abominable snowman, and he learned that extracting revenge through violence was never going to fix the pain he felt inside. The young man at least died, albeit in a mushroom cloud, with a clear conscious after attempting to reconcile through conversation.

This is also kind of the plot of Frankenstein. See, I’m not a very good creative writer even when I’m plagiarizing.

But Confounding Yourself…

The last few Pulitzer-journey books that have graced my bedside table have reminded me of this exercise. These authors’ technique isn’t collaborative in nature, though. Thier goal seems to be to confound themselves. They carefully set up character development in one chapter and then completely undo their work in the next. But this isn’t bad writing. Or rather, it’s bad writing like a fox. (I’m not very good with simile, either.)

The first book that reveals this technique is Olive Kitteridge. In chapter one, we see a harpy wife nagging her sweet, mild mannered husband, berating him in front of guests and drowning him in a sea of “I cook for you, I clean for you, and what thanks do I get?” Olive is extremely unlikeable in this chapter. But in the very next chapter, author Strout undoes all that hard character work–or rather, she complicates it. Olive is a strong woman who knows exactly when people are in trouble. There’s a man in a truck who’s contemplating suicide, and Olive sees him and invites herself into the car. Even though he’s largely silent, she perceives what’s going on. What’s more, she deals with it in just the right way. She’s solemn and strong and doesn’t sugarcoat things. There are few words exchanged, but her curt observations about the world and his family were exactly what he needed to hear to feel less alone. We see that Olive has a soul, and it’s a soul capable of reaching out to others in a deep way. We can also sense that Olive has scars herself.

The author keeps this up. Olive vacillates between being awful and understandable and human and cruel, depending on the chapter. And, the way Strout does it, you don’t feel like it’s that the character isn’t well formed. As I said in my overview on the book, it seems like she’s known every character in the book for years.*

I’m reading the 2008 winner now, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s happening here, too. Oscar and Lola’s mother, Beli, is pure evil in the second chapter. She’s abusive and manipulative in ways that turn your stomach. And when Lola understands she’ll never be perfect enough to make her mother’s abuse stop–and, besides, she doesn’t have the energy to try–the house gets dangerously hostile. Lola has to run. Junot Diaz, the author, has clearly made this character the villain of the book.

Just kidding! He doubles back on chapter two’s character work in the very next chapter. There, we meet Beli as a child, and we understand that she’s a broken little orphan, shattered by the world and with the same impulses we saw in her daughter in chapter two–the need to run. In fact, the author uses the unusual technique of calling her “our” Beli, burdening the reader with responsibility for who she becomes, forcing kinship with her in an insidious way.

When I think of what the authors are doing here, it could very easily backfire. The characters could appear inconsistent, confusing, ungraspable. But when handled right, this act of confounding themselves helps authors use each twist to turn the screw deeper into the wall, anchoring the character as an individual with complexities that reflect real humans. It’s a fascinating technique.

 

*Guys. Guys. I thought of the best pickup line for Elizabeth Strout. I forgot to put it in my overview post.

Setting: Bar
Me: Hey girl. Are you Zeus, because your characters spring from your head fully formed
Strout: ~Asks bartender for the check, excuses herself~

I’m not good at pickup lines, either.

Olive Kitteridge: Overview

Nothing like a two-week jaunt, especially with a few transatlantic flights thrown it, to give you the chance to catch up on some reading. I polished off three books on my beautiful trip to France, the first being Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (which I talk about here). The second book I polished off is part of my Pulitzer journey: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, winner of the 2009 literature prize.

Coincidentally, a few days after finishing it, I saw that a show of the same name was taking the Emmys by storm. I had no idea they had made it into a show. Has anyone seen it? Opinions? (And what’s up with them making a show from A Visit From the Goon Squad? I’m over here tapping my foot, staring at my watch…)

Anyway, if they keep to the book at all, it’s bound to be a wonderful show. Olive Kitteridge was a sober, minimalist book, but don’t let that keep you away. It’s excellent in every way.

Tl;dr Synopsis

 

Speaking of A Visit From the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge is hybrid novel and series of short stories in which every chapter is tied to the last one via characters, without strict regard to chronology or continuity. But that’s really where similarities between the two Pulitzer winners end.

Olive Kitteridge takes place in a small Maine town, focusing on the residents there. It’s a beautiful book full of snapshots. Each chapter is a snippet of a life. You’ll encounter recurring characters in the chapters, especially Olive herself; she is involved in some way in nearly all of the stories. You’ll, in some ways, follow Olive from middle age to her twilight years and watch how she deals with the disappointments of everyday life. (Hint: with grizzle.) In other ways, you’ll just watch pieces of the townsfolks’ lives pass you by. You’ll be plopped in the middle of their story and in some ways be left to wonder how they got to where they were before you met them and what will happen to them later. That information usually never comes, but Strout manages to make this lack of information okay by resolving each chapter in a satisfying way.

Strout captures the essence of a rural small town perfectly. This seems like a book set oddly in the past, as if the town is still stuck in the thirties even as it’s clear that at least some of the book takes place post-9/11. When teenagers Tim and Nina storm on the scene with their phones and parties and modern vernacular, it seems as if they are aliens from the future come to throw the book completely out of whack, which is exactly how I imagine every person in the Maine town would feel about such people. These are simple folks who live simple lives, and the appropriately simple writing emphasizes that. Yet Strout still deals with the complexity of the human experience–depression, disappointment, humiliation, and even sometimes joy–without short-changing it in Olive Kitteridge.

Writing Style

Olive Kitteridge, as I said above, is quite somber. It takes a bare-minimalist, Hemingway-like approach to writing that really works for Strout. (Can I say, too, how many wonderful women writers they’re awarding Pulitzers to?) The author does a great job of showing and not telling. Melissa Bank from NPR says it well when she says, “The writing is so perfect you don’t even notice it…it’s less like reading a story than experiencing it firsthand.”

A short example is from one of the times we first meet Olive. A couple is over for dinner, and the very sweet, somewhat dopey, and rather abused Henry Kitteridge knocks something over at the table and Olive berates him in a way that makes you cringe for the houseguests. Strout knows she doesn’t have to say anything about how awkward anyone there felt. You can just feel it from the events alone, and there’s the added bonus of starting to see what it’s like to be around Olive.

I think one of the key examples of the simplicity of the story is later on, on the day of Olive’s son’s wedding. Olive has made herself a dress from scratch for the occasion–a bright print dress that she’s very pleased with. She looks at it several times with pride. Then, later, when she’s tired and goes to her son’s bedroom to lie down, she overhears her new daughter-in-law and other girls talking about how embarrassed for Olive they were that she could wear the dress in public. The author doesn’t do what many other authors might: talk about Olive’s anger or her self-loathing or sadness, or even something as subtle as heat rising to Olive’s face. Instead, the author stays fairly far out of the narrative other than to describe Olive’s delicious act of taking a permanent marker, finding one of the daughter-in-law’s cream sweaters near the bottom of a folded pile, and putting a bold mark across it, and folding it back into the pile. That’s pretty much all you get, and it’s more than enough.

Olive Kitteridge deals head-on with a lot of tragedy and loneliness, but it’s written in the least sentimental way possible. It lends the book a rawness and authenticity that’s striking. This is a book that stays with you, and it doesn’t use any cheap tactics to burrow its way into your heart.

Characters

The sheer number of characters you meet is rather daunting. Check the Wikipedia list. I count 94. You only hear about many of them once, though, and there isn’t a lot of pressure to remember them or confusion when they come back into the picture. It’s your own, personal little Easter egg if you remember, for instance, that the Daisy who nurses anorexic Nina is the same Daisy that Henry Kitteridge greats at church in the beginning of the novel. It’s a lot like how you can watch a random Law and Order episode and it really doesn’t matter much if you’ve been keeping up with the personal lives of the detectives. (Unless, of course, it’s SVU, which has devolved into a bit of a soap opera. Today’s blog post is turning into “Amanda’s Thoughts: T.V. Edition.” I’ll try to get back on track.)

The characters are all individuals. No one is going to be confused with the other, and you get the feeling that all 94 of these people are fully-formed individuals that the author has fleshed out before writing the novel. It’s amazing.

The characters are not necessarily likable. They waver back and forth. I changed my mind every chapter about how I felt about the Kitteridges. Sometimes I thought Henry was so sweet, sometimes I thought he was an absolute idiot, then I would feel bad about that and think he was sweet again. It’s really a lot how real relationships go, with a kind of ebb and flow to how you feel about the person as both of you grow and change and have interactions.   

Highlights

You know, I found the first chapter to be a little jarring. There’s a serious feeling of being dropped out of a plane into the middle of a story, and you feel a little bit like someone may have torn out the first few pages of your book and you’re missing something. But looking back, I think the first chapter was my favorite. Olive sure isn’t cast in a good light in the beginning, but that first chapter is full of wonderful nostalgia and human connection and longing and remembrance. Oh, and you’ll learn more about Olive and feel for her later. The things she says in the beginning come from a place that you’ll understand, and you’ll be given the freedom to respect her, I think. See, I’m talking about these people like they’re real. They feel real.

Another highlight is all the chapters that portray people in love. Look for the chapter on Daisy and Harmon, for instance. There’s some sadness in it, but I mostly think it’s a beautifully hopeful chapter. There aren’t many of those, but the ones that exist are an experience akin to stuffing your face with Noodles & Co.’s mac and cheese. They feel indulgent and comforting. The book closes on that kind of note, and it’s pretty great.

Who Should Read this Book

I hate to say this because this book really is a masterpiece. But I don’t think it’s for everyone. It’s heavy. There are few moments of happiness in Olive Kitteridge, and the ones that exist are tinged with something undefinable that makes your heart ache. I think this is undercover one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. I say undercover because it isn’t like the reader’s constantly dealing with death after death after brutal heartbreak, etc. Olive Kitteridge mostly just deals with insidious disappointments that quietly accumulate day by day. When faced with it like this, in digestible book format, forced to acknowledge it over a few sittings, it’s hard not to feel like life itself isn’t something quite sad altogether.

So. If you’re a beach-reader who prefers lighthearted stuff and mainly uses books as a happy escape (no judgement here on that), this book might not be for you.

But if you’re okay with heavier stuff, it’s worth it to experience the craft of this book. The writing is executed in a way that stuns me. Strout does everything right. If I were teaching creative writing, which I am utterly unqualified to do, this book would be on my required reading list. It’s an example of writing at its best. And, despite the sadness, I really loved reading it. The book is gorgeous.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

Wow, I think I already got it all out of my system.

If you can, you should at least try to read this. The writing stands in a category by itself, and the stories are gripping. It’s an experience that I think you should have, if it suits you.

 

On Editing, Part Three: How to Become an Editor

Proofreading red pencil with various errors on paper

This has been a series of posts on disconnects. So far, the series has covered the disconnect between the editing people need and what they think they need and the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what an editor needs to make per hour. This last post is on the disconnect between English courses at school and editing in the real world, and it’s all the things I wish I would have known a few years ago.

A few months ago, I was having a drink with a fellow language-lover. We were catching up on where each other was at in her life, and she asked, “So, how does one go to school to be an editor, exactly?” The implication, I suppose, was that step one (I went to school) led to step two (I’m an editor). It’s not an unreasonable thing to assume.

I thought for a second and said, “Um…one doesn’t.”

That isn’t to say one can’t, necessarily. The college I went to offered two English major tracks: writing and literature. I chose the literature track (which, by the way, demanded just as much writing as the other track). At no point was there offered any class on advanced grammar, linguistics, or the skill of editing.

Now, larger and differently-focused schools may offer editing classes, especially if they’re well known for their journalism programs. Of course, being an editor in the journalism world often actually means you’re writing. But you can seek out schools with editing courses.

For some, though, that’s not the most practical course of action to take. Editing and advanced grammar classes are not very easy to come by, I’ve found. And even then, they’re courses, not degrees.

You do need a degree, of course. English is best, but you might be able to squeak in with a communications, journalism or marketing degree. But this isn’t the way you will learn how to be an editor. A degree is your way into the door of a company.

If you want to be an editor, your training is in your own hands. Here’s how you really learn how to be an editor.

Learn Your Grammar

The first thing you want to do is become more grammar-savvy than the layman. You probably already are, if you’re thinking about going into this field. But you need to strategize around defense, especially if you’re just starting out. Assume someone is going to call you on every edit you make. If you know the rules, you can make many of these changes with confidence.

Figure our your parts of speech, your dependent and independent clauses, and your active and passive verbs. Learn to speak the language of grammarians. It will help you begin to understand how sentences work, and when those secrets are unlocked, sentences will become putty in your hands. Instead of thinking, “There’s just something awkward about this,” you’ll think, “Oh, of course this sentence sounding sing-song-y. It has five prepositional phrases in a row.”

Here’s where you start: at the 90s-tastic but still very useful website Garden of Phrases. Start on page one and take the quiz. Then select “quizzes” from the dropdown and start taking them all. It’s a brutal wake-up call. But you need to know what you don’t know.

From there, learn to diagram sentences. I got this workbook: I don’t know if I’m crazy about it, but lots of people are. Don’t get too hung up in mastering 100% of the details right away, like I did. Just plow through it.

Also, become zen about Murphry’s Law, if you write as well. There will be at least five errors in every post I make about grammar and editing. I try not to post garbage or anything, but if I actually strived for 100% perfection in everything I wrote, no one would ever hear a peep from me. I would just be sitting in front of the keyboard, shaking in terror. Don’t get so worked up about the rules that you can’t function, but know them.

Learn Your Style Guides

Following a style guide is what makes sure all things in the text are harmonious. These guides deal with issues that aren’t usually a matter of grammar, and they aren’t dictating what’s universally right or wrong. You can write a date as 9/5/15 or you can write it as September 5th, 2015. Neither are wrong. But you shouldn’t use both styles in one text. That’s where style guides come in.

The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook are your two must-know guides. Learn the key differences between these two, and you’ll be in good shape. As a starter kit, buy a copy of each guide that’s one edition old–you’ll save money, and you can quickly find out what’s been updated in the new versions with a Google search. And for light reading, check out AP vs Chicago for the essential differences. It kills me that this blog is inactive because it’s been a marvelous resource to me over the years. Plus, the author is a delight.

You can check out my own in-house style guide I made for a company (and you can tell me about any grammar errors you find). Some of the decisions I made about style itself was because I was swimming upstream against legacy, but there is some advice in there you might find interesting.

Here are some books on general style that are beneficial and/or fun to read. They are not by any means holy grail resources, since so much of style is personal preference. (Except Steven Pinker’s book. Everything in there is gold.)

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss–A little prescriptivist and “thou shalt” for my taste, but I’m better for reading it

Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh–and I can probably blindly recommend anything else he’s written. I loved this book and am dying to read his others. Bill is an editor for the Washington Post, and he is hilarious and brilliant. I don’t agree with every little thing he says in this book, but I love all of it anyway. He also does live chats called Grammar Geekery the first Thursday of every month, where he’s answered tons of my questions. But even if you don’t need answers, you should lurk just to watch his on-point, delightful snark at work.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White—Dated, troubling in many cases, perpetuates zombie rules, but, well, you have to at least have read it. You can’t be the editor that isn’t at least able to argue about Strunk and White.

Besides, “omit needless words” is an editorial mantra that should stand for all time. If nothing else, that phrase redeems much of the stylistic quackery.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda—Ben’s another great editor to keep tabs on, and this book will help you better understand the parts of speech and where they can go wrong.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker—A forward-thinking, beautifully written piece from a linguist who really understands how the written word works. I’ll be honest; I haven’t finished it yet. I’ve been too busy. But it’s so far been my absolute favorite book on style. Pinker is in the descriptivist camp, and with his ideas come great freedom to believe writing is improving as we communicate more and more. (See here for a description of prescriptivist vs descriptivist schools of thought. Hint: descriptivists are always on the right side of history.) He is a fan of deflating self-important academic/business writing in order to communicate with simplicity and elegance.

Follow Thought Leaders and Have Reliable Sources

Subscribe to the blog Lingua Franca, and keep your eye on people like Ben Yagoda and Geoffrey Pullman. Follow the marvelous Tom Freeman at the Stroppy Editor, though keep in mind that he’s operating under a slightly different set of rules due to geographic location. (And if you’re not American, beg pardon—it’s actually Americans who are operating under the different rules, of course.) I also subscribe to Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre’s You Don’t Say, although you may want to avoid his blog if you have a low tolerance for politics. Keep tabs on the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) even if you don’t join. You can tweet to the editors at the Wichita Eagle @grammarmonkeys if you have any questions about grammar and editing. It’s an awesome service.

But most of all, if you have questions, learn where to go for answers you trust. If I can’t find answers in my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or if I know my question is purely grammar-related, I go to straight to the English Language Stack Exchange, where a meritocracy and a community of field experts guarantees a good answer. Search for your question before you ask. The community is a little hostile if they think you’re being lazy. But it’s my favorite resource, and it’s never steered me wrong. It also deals with really complex questions.

There are other good resources. Purdue’s OWL is not comprehensive, but it’s very useful and reliable. If you go to Google with a question, and anything shows up with the address “grammar.ccc.commnet.edu” attached to it, it’s going to be trustworthy—that’s the site with the Garden of Phrases. Things from Jane Strauss’ Grammar Book tend to be correct, as well, although I’d be wary of that site being out of the loop for too long. It’s also worth saying Grammar Girl is totally worth the hype. If she’s addressed your question, she’s got it right. Sometimes, but not always, academic resources can be helpful. Look for .edu as a tag at the end of the URL. But the correctness of .edu sites is not a given.

Also, if you have two editorial choices you’re wavering between, check out Google NGrams. It searches Google Books for your terms. That means you’re not necessarily looking up the right answer, but you are seeing at usage over time and trends. It’s useful for a lot of things. For instance, I can see that I’m not making the best decision by choosing to leave the space out of “copyeditor.”

Capture

Lastly, I hope it goes without saying that you never, never go to forums like Yahoo Answers. That’s where all truth goes to die.

Start Editing, Even if You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Offer to edit people’s blogs for free. Contact a small non-profit you love and offer to proofread their newsletter. Become an editor on your school newspaper or offer to do a little proofreading for your town’s community center. When you start, research the answer to absolutely EVERY question you have—never guess—and keep a list of your answers.

What really prepared me to be an editor had nothing to do with my coursework. It was tutoring at my writing center. Our writing center was no joke. I had four months of intensive training. I learned so much about research, argument structure, thesis-building, checking for coherency, writing for readers, how to self-edit, you name it. That was the true foundation to me becoming more than someone who just had a “feel” for what is right/wrong or clear/awkward. It was what bridged the gap between me just being a good second pair of eyes on text to being what is a real-deal editor. If you have an opportunity like this, take it. If you don’t have the opportunity for training like this, well, let me know. I was thinking of maybe starting a program that can do for others what this writing center did for me.

Have a Real Editor Look at Your Resume

Don’t have your mom read your resume. Don’t give it to college advisor. I mean, you can also do that. But if you’re applying to be an editor for the first time, you’ve got to get that resume in front of an actual editor. There are things you don’t know you’re doing wrong that can bump you off the radar if someone who knows what he/she’s doing is narrowing the field of applicants. I just looked at the resume I sent out as a fresh grad and I was horrified to see I had separated dates (as in “worked here September of 2010 through June of 2012”) with a hyphen instead of an n-dash. That might not seem like a big deal. But if I were hiring an assistant editor now and was looking through a pile of resumes, and all I’m looking for is a reason to throw some of them out, that hyphen tells me, “Oh. This person is too much of a newbie or doesn’t pay enough attention to detail to know that this isn’t how you treat dates.” Then I toss it to the side.

Get a real editor’s eyes on your resume. At least make sure the door doesn’t close prematurely.

I’m pleased to announce this part is pretty easy. I’m a real editor, and I’m happy to take a look at your resume if you’re starting out. No charge. I’m currently trying to build up good karma so I can go do something awful later and not be reincarnated as a cicada.