Blocked Writers and the Bloggers who Get Them

I don’t identify as a writer (such a risky, controversial lifestyle choice–what would my mother think?), but my editorial work and career path have proven to be surprisingly writing-intensive. I’m coming around to the idea, and learning–stop laughing–that writing is hard.

Now, as a professional who’s supposed to be a trusted judge of writing quality, with sage advice on developing manuscripts into saleable material, I feel an enormous pressure for my own writing to be consistently brilliant, deep, and “perfect.” Whether it’s an article, a blog post, or a manuscript critique, I often fret and obsess long past the point where such activity serves any useful function. The pursuit of this ideal defeats the purpose of writing itself. I believe (I know) that good writing has nothing to do with “correctness,” much less “perfection.” Writing strives to be an art, or a representation of speech, or a vehicle for the sharing of ideas. There is no room for “right” and “wrong” in that quest. They’re just distracting, enthusiasm-killing ideas.

Anyway, I get it. I get the bizarrely lost feeling of producing work with no guiding structure to conform it to, the queasy unease of arbitrarily calling it “done,” or “ready,” and the naked vulnerability of displaying it to someone else (indeed, to the entire internet), and I sympathize. But let’s find a way to deal with it and keep working.

Your work’s going to be imperfect as it first emerges from your brain, and it will always remain so, no matter how great it becomes. The trick is to find an acceptable place to stop obsessing over it and let it out into the world, where it may well be judged harshly or even, you know, mocked by former classmates. As you gain skill and experience as a writer, that place will become easier to identify and closer to what you’ll define as “ready.” For me, that means:

readiness, n. The state at which authorial cringes at word choice are over, and there is a minimal chance of Amazon-review postings by a miserable writer filled with regret at not recognizing a chance for a minor character to contribute more to the plot.

It is terrible to hear self-published authors complain that an older version of their book was unfairly critiqued and misunderstood, because “it’s so much better now”–utterly unprofessional. Bad. Don’t let that happen to you, and for the love of Whatever, don’t deliver your work to an editor or reviewer to read and then interrupt them with big changes and new ideas. That said,

Hand it in, student. Just post it, Katya. Submit already, dude. And as for the former classmates or whoever you’re sure are watching your every move, trust me: They’re terrified you’ll find their own fanfic LiveJournal or niche-market startup. It’s most likely safe to get over yourself and chill out.

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On finding yourself an editor

There’s no perfectly reliable way to find a book editor, but here’s a quick rundown on what you want. No, what’s good for you. I’ll tell you what you want:

Essential qualifications

  • Actual experience in book publishing. Not magazine writing, not student newspapers or college lit journals, and not even a brief internship. Look for real editorial experience at a real publishing house that produces real books. For money.
  • References or samples. This can be tricky, as most writer clients are terribly shy and protective of their work, which is protected by confidentiality. But a good editor should be able to scare up a happy client or two to return your email, or a few sample critiques with damning details removed.
  • A heavy pen and a sadistic streak. Seriously. If you’re paying someone to help you improve a project, get someone who’ll do it, not just rearrange your commas and return your manuscript with smiley faces. Demand brutal honesty, and nothing less.
  • A sparkling personality. Or a miserable, boring one, if that suits the tone of your memoir. Find someone you want to work with, who you trust, respect, and feel comfortable with. It’s going to get personal digging into the manuscript that your soul typed out.

Qualifications that can be misleading (nice, but insufficient on their own)

  • An English degree. Any level–you wouldn’t believe the quality of writing I’ve seen produced by MFAs. Because nothing they teach you in school has much to do with the actual modern publishing process or industry. There’s a hell of a lot more to this than deconstruction or punctuating subordinate clauses. If you’re trying to sell your writing in a non-academic (or even academic) market, your editor should be able to advise you with that, or at least edit to that end effectively.
  • Publication credits. Yes, a (legitimately) published author has proven that he can write. In that genre. This does not mean that he is qualified to critique your work. Writing and editing are two utterly different pursuits, with different purposes. Some people can do both, but a talent for one does not predict competency in the other. Also, any published author’s work has been edited more extensively than you’d think–by someone else.
  • A referral. If you’ve got a glowing referral from a writer friend, hooray, but consider that the author’s happiness with the editing won’t necessarily reflect on its quality. Ask to see the critique or revision, or at least think objectively about that writer’s work and experience. A lot of (new) writers would be overjoyed to get shoddy editing that tells them what they want to hear–that it’s great just as it is, so glad we caught those typos. There’s a lot to be said for cheerleading, but please don’t pay for it.  If your editor doesn’t find anything to get upset about, she’s likely unqualified or not trying or both.

So where to look? This is in beta, please write me with ideas and experiences!

  • The EFA will take anyone–no qualifications; you just sign up and pay a membership fee. Not recommended.
  • Vanity presses may provide “editing,” but it’ll just be proofing. They have little or no stake in your book selling and a lot of incentive to get you to just publish and not revise. Find a professional who’ll give you actual feedback.
  • ACES has a job board, and a lot of members do book editing on the side, but this organization is primarily for news copy editors. Anyone can join this one as well, so be cautious. I believe they’re about to offer a certification program with Media Bistro–anyone have any experience with that job board?
  • Book Editing Associates actually looks promising. They seem to be very selective about their members. I’m probably going to apply to join them when I do this full-time; they only accept completely independent editors.
  • Elance is a surprisingly awesome site, and it’s more than a job board. Disclaimer: I just joined it this morning and I’m still kind of dazzled by their level of organization and services. Elance is a super-safe way to hire a freelancer, since they provide escrow and arbitration. As always, vet your applicants per the lists above.
  • Contact a publishing house that does what you write and ask if anyone on the editorial staff freelances. Be careful not to abuse this, but it’s actually a really good way to find qualified if starving professionals.

And for pete’s sake, run screaming from scammers who tell you that any publisher requires that your submission be professionally edited, or that an editing service can guarantee that your book will sell.

Run away, and alert the scamwatchers.

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First Page Clinic: Forget the hero/nemesis/love interest, we have pointy ears.

SM: Untitled

My attention was focused on the two customers in front of me when he walked in and sent the old string of bells at the door chiming.

Tighten this up; it’s not instantly obvious where our attention should be pointed, which isn’t okay in your first line. If “the two customers in front of me” aren’t crucial to the scene, I’d try using something else to convey the narrator’s distraction. Doesn’t have to be concrete. More importantly,–I shoulda said this first–you left the gate telling us something we’d like to observe and conclude for ourselves as readers. How can you show that she’s preoccupied by something?

After a brief glance at him Perfect place for a beat, a little physical action to punctuate the scene. No brief glances, ew.  I turned my attention back to my two potential customers It’s cool to introduce them here; leave em out of the beginning, continuing my sales pitch about a cell phone and allowing my employee to greet the newcomer. The two humans across the counter from me were in their early twenties and retropunks by the look of it Tell us what they looked like, not the narrator’s judgment, which would explain what they were doing in my antique shop Wordy.  The one on my right had a mop Cliché. Think of something fresher of lime green hair — cut short on the sides and long on top — that fell forward into her eyes as she bent her head over the phone, the myriad God I hate myriad. Everyone quit saying myriad of silver hoops traveling up her right earlobe gleaming in the shop lights.  Too much action on the part of the earrings. Gleaming’s enough; let something with feet travel. The guy standing next to her had a long magenta ponytail pulled back with a strip of yellow leather, and each of his nails was painted a different fluorescent color.  They both wore the tight bright clothing that was classic to their subculture. The guy even had on real denim pants.

These two last lines don’t jibe. It’s okay that we don’t understand who or what the narrator is quite yet, but be consistent. “Classic to their subculture” is a formal, scientific observation. “Even had on real denim pants” is a more normal reaction. It’s cool for the character to be capable of both, but give us a minute to meet her.

The ponytail pulled his hair back tightly Whoop! Whoop! Adverb to smite!, showing off the pointed tips of his ears which were a little too short and angular, a telltale sign of implants.  I saw him glance I don’t hate glance as much as myriad, but it’s usually a pretty ickystupidboring way for a character to look at a thing several times at my own ears, and I could almost see his thoughts on his face What did his face do? as he tried  to decide if my tips were real or if I just had a really good mod surgeon. Oo. Interesting. I want a mod surgeon and so will your audience.

So. All this description? It’s okay, but it stops the action cold, assuming the character we really care about is Door Chime Dude. If you’re into these “retropunks,” and I bet you are, make them pay for their presence, and do it in a way that doesn’t interrupt your story. I might write a scene with them, a conversation, to start off with, and Door Chime Dude can interrupt.

*This is all one super-long paragraph. Try breaking it up to make it less formidable, at least as a book opener.

I’d keep reading, but mostly out of curiosity. Needs a lot of rewriting. Better justify those ears.

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Lines on agents

If you start writing in one category are you pigeonholed into that one for the majority of your career?

Don’t worry about that. Lead with your best writing, and if you wind up with an agent who can’t follow you into the other genres you ultimately explore, they’ll be able to recommend someone else for you at that point. That said, it is important to categorize your work when presenting it to agents (and editors). They’re going to have to sell it too.

Should you send your one page only after you have the body of work completed or after you have 3-5 chapters completed?

You mean your query? Don’t submit fiction to agents until it’s completed. (Nonfiction is different.)

Can you continue to send one pages of your other work to the same author representative (AR)?

Don’t continue to bombard the same agent (or editor) with additional work if they weren’t taken with the first sample. Exception: after a while, during which you improved significantly as a writer and your future work is much better, preferably as a result of feedback from agents or editors.

How does the conversation of a willing AR usually run between the author and author representative? 1) lump sum of money to retain the AR?

HELL NO. No No bad. Professional agent organizations like the Association of Author’s Representatives prohibit their members from charging up-front fees for good reason. No retainers. No reading fees. Never.

Is it wise to have a lawyer in addition to an author representative to make sure the AR isn’t taking advantage of a naive new-to-the-business author?

Getting a lawyer to review your contracts is always wise, but expensive. Do it if you can find a cheap artists’ legal clinic in your area. If you go your own, ask a potential agent about their sales record, training, and connections. Commission on a book sale shouldn’t exceed 15%, but that can be higher for foreign and other subsidiary sales. You know what, I’m going to write up a sample agent contract for you guys. And a publishing one. I’ll link them here when they’re up.

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First Page Clinic: death isn’t this boring, I promise

CB: Confessions of a Pillar of Salt

I’ve been dead for ten minutes of my life. Punch this up. For such an interesting intro, it lacks oomph. Instead of a dark, cryptic “I know what it feels like to die,” this sounds more like “I had mono in college.”

First time I died was a week before my second birthday. I’d start this sentence with “the.” Give us at least a line or two to get oriented before such casual narration. Otherwise it starts off reading like an email. I stood on a chair mashing my nose against a bug-screen, with glass panes of what? open to let in crisp spring Oregon air wordy, and watched birds flit around rose bushes overlooking Portland’s skyline a story below. My cunt of a mom Is her cuntness going to be something I wish I’d figured out for myself? Probably. Still totally reading, though. clattered cutlery in the kitchen, ignoring me as she blared NPR. It was during Larry from Ord, Nebraska’s gravely diatribe on how feminists ripped the moral fabric of America that the fabric of my mesh ripped. Maybe my career as a pilot was birthed in those moments of being airborne. Paramedics found me snagged halfway down the hill in blackberry brambles, strapped my battered body to a rescue board, and hiked up. I died near the hill’s ridge. I was dead for four minutes before they brought back. Cool, but this last line’s more disappointing than suspenseful. Instead of “I was dead for four minutes,” try giving us something

Second time I died I was in sixth grade. My body cooked itself to kill invading pneumoniatic  spirochetes. The hospital’s solution to the fever was simple: neck-deep in a bathtub filled of ice. Not large square cubes but a slurry of industrial crushed-ice slushy hash, digested by an ice machine’s internal whirling blades.  Nurses saturated my bloodstream with aspirin until they knew my brain’s proteins wouldn’t coagulate and curl like cooked egg whites. Ugh. Right on. It hurt to inhale: my condensed breath skimmed [what] as ragged curling ghosts of steam melting my encasing ice. I hyperventilated until I passed out. Then my heart said ‘screw it’ and quit. Don’t use single quotes for no reason. If you’re just quoting your pissed-off heart, use doubles. After the nurses revived me, I’d been dead for three minutes. Again, there’s something missing, and not in a what-happens-next way, but in a do-I-trust-this guy-with-his -story one.

I’d keep reading, though.

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The dotted line

Regarding freelance editing, do you offer a contract between yourself, the freelance editor, and your clients, the one seeking editorial assistance?

Of course. If it’s around $300 or less, I don’t usually bother with a contract but will always draw one up if my client wants it–never work with anyone who resists putting their fees, services, and delivery in writing for you. Here’s a pretty comprehensive checklist of other issues to keep in mind when hiring an independent editor.

[Also,] there is a contest that I initially debated entering, [redacted]. Upon my above colleague’s advice, I took the risk. Is this type of contest a scam in your opinion?

I was terrified of clicking the link you sent, expecting to see a hefty entry fee or a Who’s Who scam. Don’t worry about that “contest,” though–it’s a cute first-lines blog contest with an interesting prize and no risk. Hell of an idea; I might borrow it. Watch out for fee-based contests promising publication to the winners (and free contests offering publication for a fee)–those are the ones that need vetting.

Generally, though, if there’s nothing to lose, there’s nothing to worry about.

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Word of the Day


Ugh. As if the useless, empty, ink-wasting verb “seem” weren’t bad enough, they went and put an adverbial marker on its ugly butt and now it pops up in lazily-composed novels. Listen, something “seeming” a certain way either happens in your readers’ heads or it doesn’t; you can’t put the idea there.

Do a word search right now and destroy any and all instances of that sucker. You’ll be glad you did. Then go about replacing them all with writing that shows your readers what you tried to tell them.


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