Monday, January 25, 2010


There are two types of editing, the grammatical-based editing, and the structural-based. Grammatical editing concerns itself with the alleged rules of the language. I say alleged because I have yet to get three editors in a room and have them all agree on anything. What’s more, I’ve found that the better the writer, the more they tend to bend and out-right break the rules.

When I was in art school learning to paint, a landscape master watched me dragging my brush neatly back and forth as I blocked in a sky. He took the brush from me saying, “You’re an artist not a house painter.” And with that began smashing the brush against the illustration board pushing against the bristles creating a vivid image of clouds. He handed back my now mangled sable with a grin.

Creating usually requires breaking rules, and stepping outside the norm often can convey an idea far more brilliantly than tradition. Of course, there are limits. Push the envelope too far and instead of making an idea clearer, you can lose your audience completely.

Grammatical editing, while frustrating due to its arcane intricacies that can make two English masters mimic philosophers arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, is less painful to a writer than structural editing. And while grammatical editing can be done by anyone with an eye for detail and a solid understanding of the language, structural takes a logical mind, an understanding of the story, and a high level of trust.

Recently I have edited a few novels written by other authors—and I am talking structural here, the kind of changes that can freak out a young writer. Things like: You need to remove that character, cut that whole chapter, re-write half your book. It is not something to be taken lightly, and I often think that no one should attempt it, or even present a negative review of a novel, unless they have first experienced what it is like to receive one.

I’ve spent decades in the art field where having people destroy my creations was a matter of course, and as such I am not as easily damaged as many. Yet books can be very personal things and like a doctor handling a physical with a new patient, it needs to be done with great care, understanding and respect. On the other hand, it is irresponsible to lie and send the patient out thinking they are healthy enough to go skiing only to die of a heart attack trying the black diamond run.

That said, aspiring writers need to be careful as well. People willing to give honest feedback are precious. Most friends and family will only smile politely and say, “Wow! Great! You’re wonderful. Best thing I’ve ever read. No kidding. I have no idea why you’re not published yet! Really, that many rejections? There’s just no pleasing some people.” With that kind of help, the rejection pile will just keep getting taller.

The problem often is that writers either take criticism as insults or become possessive of their creation, falling in love with it. Working on a book for a long time can cause it to become a bit legendary in the mind of the writer so that suggestions to alter any of it strikes them as sacrilegious. I’ve actually fallen under this trap from time to time. This series contains books I wrote years ago and the idea of altering what has so deeply solidified in my mind as what happened, is abhorrent—like deciding one day that history would be better if we just took WWI out of it. It is hard to judge such things objectively. It takes practice.

The trick is never to take offense and to realize that most critics of pre-published works are trying to help. (Post published critics are trying to help too, but their focus is on helping the reader, as they should.) And they are just as frightened of hurting your feelings as you are of having your feelings hurt. I won’t lie. Having a person tell you what you created isn’t good, is unpleasant. As painful as that is, keep in mind, having hundreds of people tell you your work sucks, is much worse. This is why individuals willing to risk hurting your feelings to help you improve, are gems that should be treasured. The best way to do that is to never show offense and to always thank them. Better yet, be enthusiastic about how wonderful they are at ripping your heart to shreds. A bit of unpleasant preventative medicine can save lives in the long run.

I am lucky in having Robin. She has no qualms about pointing out my faults, but I know it is never spiteful. I get irritated, certainly. When she explains none too gently that I need to rewrite five chapters from scratch because one infinitesimal inconsistency exists in the plot web that no one noticed until that moment when she caught it—it can make me defensive. Again, luckily Robin knows when I argue with her, I’m not mad at her so much as sorting out the implications of this tragedy. Usually, I get mad, but suppress it as best I can. I rant—although I try and do it alone explaining to the painting on the wall, or my dog how wrong she is. Once I am positive I have conclusively proven my point, at least to the dogs approval, I will sit down and look at the chapters in question. Having expelled all my frustration by proving my superior intellect to the canine world, I can better evaluate the issue. Nine times out of ten Robin is right, and once I let myself look at her suggestion fairly, I can see that. It takes a little while, but soon I don’t even remember that WWI is missing.

In case you are wondering why I’m writing this—it’s that time of year again. The Emerald Storm, that I thought was ready to roll, is in pieces on the front lawn. Robin is standing there with a wrench in one hand and grease all over her face looking up at me with those innocent eyes and saying…”What?”

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