Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"The End" Is Just the Beginning, Part I of Four: Two writers talk about editing, critique, and craft

Sharon Wildwind & Elizabeth Zelvin

Where, when, and how did you first learn about editing?

Liz: I literally learned to edit at my mother’s knee. She graduated from law school in 1924, when it was hard for women lawyers to get a job, and eventually made a niche for herself as a legal writer and editor at a major publisher. She left to raise a family, but went back to work as a home-based freelancer when I was 10. In those days, the publisher would pay extra for the author to create her own index. She would type each index item on, yep, an index card, a white 3x5, and I would alphabetize them for her, laying them out on the dining room table like a deck of cards for solitaire. My mother did a contributed book, an encyclopedia of real estate appraisal (a topic on which she knew nothing when she started), that became a long-term bestseller, paying royalties for decades. She left nothing to chance with the real estate experts who were her contributing authors. She sent each of them a well-planned outline, hounded them to stick to it and turn in their manuscripts on time, and in many cases then rewrote each chapter from scratch.

Sharon: I had one technical writing course back in dim mists of university, and I did business writing for a number of years. That gave me a good grounding in the nuts and bolts. My fiction editing was strictly on-the-job training, exchanging on-line critiques with a number of people. Of course, I have the requisite Strunk and White on my reference shelf, along with both of Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s books—The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed and The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed—and most recently a second-hand copy of Eats Shoots and Leaves.

At what point do you invite critique on a manuscript?

Sharon: As soon as I get the itch to share. I send out my first chapter, to a select group, as soon as possible. My accompanying questions are “Did the story grab you? If so, on what page? Why or why not? Where do you hope the story is heading?

My husband reads every word of every draft as soon as it comes out of the printer. We’ve agreed that he’ll make general comments, like “This is a funny chapter,” or “There’s not a lot of tension here. You might want to rethink it,” unless I ask him specific questions. Poor man, by the end of the book he can’t remember what’s been included and what dropped, which I suppose is a good thing, because when the advanced reading copy arrives, he’s as surprised as anyone.

I also ask for critique when I’m about a third of the way through the first draft; when I’ve included technical information in an area outside of my personal experience; or when I’m stuck and the plot seems dead. Finally, I have a small group of dear friends and gentle people from whom I pick one to read the entire next-to-final draft before I do the final tidying.

Liz: I don’t show anybody the first draft. I don’t outline, so I’m telling myself the story, creating plot and characters as I go, and I can’t afford to feel inhibited or self-conscious. When I have the whole novel on the computer, I print it out and read it through with pen in hand. I put the first set of revisions on the computer, print it out again, and then either make more revisions or ask a trusted critique partner to take a look.

The only time I broke the full-first-draft rule was recently, when I sent Sharon (my gold standard for critique!) 60 pages of a manuscript I didn’t think was working. She didn’t think it was necessarily hopeless, and she had some excellent suggestions. But she asked a great question: “If your publisher went bankrupt tomorrow, would you still want to write this story?” The answer was “No,” so I put it aside and started a different story.

On Thursday July 9: Part II, on spelling, grammar, and the use of language


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Very interesting post! I like the way you've both introduced the idea that editing skills are learned. Revision comes much easier with practice and your backgrounds provided plenty of it.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Stay tuned, Elizabeth. This is the first of four posts in the Wildwind-Zelvin dialogue. The next will appear on Thursday, and the last two next Tuesday (Sharon's day on PDD) and Thursday (my day).

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I do believe editing is a learned skill. It might be like learning music, though goodness knows this is one tone-deaf person offering the analogy, but after a while I can detect a tone and rhythm in a person's writing. When those falter, that's the part that needs some editing

Sandra Parshall said...

Great conversation, Liz and Sharon. I look forward to reading the rest.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, I agree it's learned, but I suspect it's also like spelling in that some people grok it (if you read during the Sixties, you'll remember that wonderful verb) and others don't. Typos tend to leap out at me as I read.

Vicki Lane said...

Good post! I'm learning to self edit by remembering what bugged or pleased my editor (and a meticulous line editor she is) in the past. I also reread Chris Roerden's DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION now and then to remind myself to watch out for some bad habits.