Thursday, December 11, 2008

Author Marvin D. Wilson

Marvin Wilson describes himself as a “Maverick non-religious dogma-free spiritualist Zen Christian.” I would describe him as a family man -- he's been married thirty-two years, has three grown children and five grandchildren. He lives in central Michigan and is a full time writer as well as a young adult mentor at his church, Shiloh’s Lighthouse Ministries, where he also is the CFO for the ministry and runs a free food pantry and free clothing distribution center.

I don't know of many fiction writers like Marvin. He enjoys delivering spiritual messages in books that are humorous, oftentimes irreverent, always engaging and thought-provoking, sometimes sexy and even ribald, through the spinning of an entertaining tale. And if all that sounds like a crazy pot of blazing hot chili, then you've probably read his blog, Free Spirit, or met his protagonist, Owen Fiddler.

Marvin is doing a virtual world-wide tour that he calls the OWEN FIDDLER EXPERIENCE CHRISTMAS CYBER TOUR 2008. For his stop here, I asked him to write about his experience working with an editor. I should have known better. He now says I asked him "to write a piece on what a novice author goes through the first time he or she has to deal with a real editor and gets rudely awakened to the fact that their precious 'polished' manuscript is a diamond so far in the rough it looks and reads barely better than a dirty soapstone."

Out of all the diffferent descriptions of Marvin, the word I would use is friend. I hope you enjoy meeting him as much as I enjoy knowing him. I now turn Straight From Hel over to Marvin D. Wilson, author of Owen Fiddler and I Romanced The Stone.

What? You Don’t Think My Manuscript is Perfect?

I don’t consider myself a novice author anymore. Hardly a household name yet, far from it, but at least I’m out of the gates now with two books published, a contract for a third, and three more WIP’s that I am confident will be published. I have established relationships with some publishing houses now, so the arduous and intimidating task of getting that first manuscript accepted as a complete unknown author is behind me in my writing career. Thank god for small miracles. Now, getting in with the big boys, landing, say, a Simon & Schuster contract, a Wal-Mart deal hook-up, those glorious days are still way ahead. There’s always the next hurdle, ever the next major challenge, in the quest for name recognition and success in the book writing business. But let me get to point.

Helen asked me, as part of this Owen Fiddler Christmas Cyber Tour 2008 (OFECCT08), to write an article about some of my experiences coming up as an unknown novice author, particularly with respect to what it was like, for the first time or two, running into professional, brutally candid, accept-nothing-less-than-the-best editors.

Man, they can be rough. This is not an industry for the thin skinned. Easily deflated egos will get popped in a minute. A bad review posted for the whole galaxy to see can be crucifying. If you are considering becoming an author and are of tender sensibilities, I suggest you try some other industry to break into. Maybe be a shepherd or something. Forest ranger might work for you. I’ve been told there is good money in farming bamboo. But if your mind is made up, and this is definitely what you want to do, then prepare yourself for the first time you have to deal with-

The Exacting, Task Mastering, Couldn’t-Care-Less-About-Your-Feelings Editor!

Shaking in your boots? You should be. Kind of kidding, of course, but it is a rather rude awakening to discover that your precious manuscript, containing in it all your carefully crafted witty and creative “babies,” and your “unique style” of writing is considered by your editor as sometimes rather sophomoric, in places downright amateurish, and fraught throughout with instances of unacceptable grammar. Not to mention tense issues, time-line discrepancies, plot inconsistencies, shallow character development, poor paragraph structure, the list can go on and on.

Sigh, your little precious that you slaved for months over, self-edited three times from start to finish, spell-checked a bazillion times, had your best friend and a family member read, both of whom told you it was without a doubt the next Great American Novel, yes this jewel you have produced is, to the editor, little more than possibly (and I hate this phrase) “a diamond in the rough.”

When I sent my first manuscript, I Romanced the Stone, in to the publisher’s editor, it came back so marked up I thought I had just flunked a third grade grammar test. The pages were redder even than my embarrassed face. I got over it, taking a few deep breaths and calming down, and then submitted my bruised psyche to a level-headed consideration of all her “suggestions.” (editors euphemize their bullying with that word – hmph)

Turned it out it wasn’t all that bad. I was only making a few kinds of mistakes, but repeatedly. Commas (way too many and in the wrong places), run-on sentences, tense issues, and too many passive voices were her primary complaints. Nothing major. She even wrote a nice note at the bottom that she really like the story, thought I had a strong writing voice, and was looking forward to working with me and seeing this book polished and ready for publication. I boned up a bit on the correct use of commas, fixed the tense problems, studied up on passive voices and how to re-write to eliminate them, and after two more back-and-forth’s with her we had a finished product we were both happy with.

That was my first experience. Thought I had it down, then. I thought I knew how to produce a polished manuscript that would meet the discriminating requirements of any good editor.


When I was putting the final touches on my second manuscript, Owen Fiddler, getting it ready to send in after already having been accepted for publication by Cambridge Books, I solicited the services of a professional editor to give it one final (I thought) good going over. Her name is Peggy Ullman Bell. She is an award-winning multi-published author in the historical fiction genre, and I had thought we were friends. I’m joking with the italics, we were and are still very good friends. But when that gal puts her editing hat on, friendship goes out the window, pal. “You are going to write for me. We’ll be friends again, later, when this is over, capish?”

She took it to an entire different and elevated level. “Get rid of all those exclamation points. All of them. You are over-writing. Do not ever use a cliché. You’re just being lazy. Where’s your creativity? Write. Amaze me. Eliminate every adjective – any word that ends with “ly.” That’s just bad writing. Powerful prose with impact uses strictly nouns and verbs. Eliminate all adjectives and adverbs. Limit your dialog tags to simply ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ No exceptions. If I can’t tell what emotion the words are being said in without you informing me in the dialog tag, you’re not writing very well. What are you trying to get across in this scene? It’s way too vague. Very poor imagery. Write. This character is only ten years old in this scene. You write his dialog like he has a high school education. You expect readers to find this believable? It’s crap. You can do better than this. And stop showing off your vocabulary. If a smaller word works just as well as a big word, use the smaller one. And how many times are you going to use the word ‘horrible?’ Do a word search and use your thesaurus, for god’s sake.”

See what I mean? Not only that, we argued over my “style.” I was breaking grammar rules all over the place, taking liberties with the English language as though I had earned that right as a multiple best-selling author, calling it my style. She said my “style” was in most cases just bad writing. Learn to write within the rules, grow into a writer who can express yourself correctly, then maybe as you mature you can break rules now and then as part of your style when you are doing it knowingly for emphasis.

She picked apart every chapter and every scene within that chapter. She would not tolerate anything less than the best from me, and she knew I could write well, so I couldn’t fool her at all.

I remember one scene in particular. It was a fight scene between Owen as a youngster and his pals who were having a game of marbles. The scene was just kind of laying there on the page. She sent it back, informing me that I needed to write it again and put some pizzazz into it. The scene as it was “stunk,” is I believe the term she used. I did a quick rewrite, thought it quite a bit better and e-mailed it back to her. She was livid with me. She informed me that I need not keep her on as my editor if I was going to send her such lazy perfunctory writing. “I want to feel it. I want to hear it. Action. Short sentences. Fast pace. Punch me in the gut. Smack me over the head. Find the angry slam bang buttons and push them. Write this scene with some power, will you? You’re making me furious.”

Another memorable one was a funeral scene. She said, “Booooooring. Make me cry, please? You’re just telling me what happens. La dee frikkin da. Show it to me. Make me feel the anguish and pain. Where are the smells and sounds? What are people feeling? I mean really feeling? I should have tears in my eyes and I don’t. Bring it! FIND THE EMOTIONAL HOT BUTTONS IN THIS SCENE AND PUSH THE HELL OUT OF THEM!”

As you can read, she is a tough love kind of mentor. And I love her for it. I learned more about crafting good, solid, correctly written and powerful prose in two months working with her than in any other stretch of time in my writing career. Worth every bruise to the ego and delayed submission I suffered a thousand times over.

So in closing, I would admonish any novice authors reading this to be not daunted by your first encounter or two with editors who don’t just you let get by with what you have written as “good enough,” and who could care less if your feelings are hurt when it comes to making your manuscript the best it can be. A good editor doesn’t care a wit about your feelings. They want your book to be the best it can be. That’s what you have in common, and that is what the focus of the professional relationship should be. In fact, I would advise you to seek out one or two such editors and keep them in your database ready for use when it is getting ready for submissions time. Not every publishing house has excellent top notch editors. The small pubs (and they are almost always the only ones that will accept first-time novice authors) often are making do with what they can afford. Might not be much. You may well want to employ your own editor to ensure that your manuscript and finished book measures up to the excellence that is out there.

Oh, and I recommend these two books. On Writing, by Stephen King, and The Frugal Editor, by Carolyn Howard Johnson. They are of immense help in educating yourself on how write and self-edit it in a way that will have your manuscript ready to go to that top-flight professional editor in such a shape that you won’t have to go through quite the ordeals I did. It’s not only good to know how to write in the best form possible and be good at self-editing; it saves you time and money on professional editing costs. Not to mention the money you’ll save on migraine meds and valium.

Thank you Marvin!

Now, that post should definitely inspire some comments -- which is good because Marvin is gving away copies of his book, Owen Fiddler. You can check out his tour page for information on how to get one, but commenting is one of the ways!

And just in case you think Marvin spends all his time editing, here are some links to other things he's doing:

He has a book trailer for Owen Fiddler. He twitters as Paize Fiddler. You can find him on MySpace. And he, of course, blogs at Free Spirit. Plus, Owen Fiddler has its very own website.

And tomorrow, he'll be stopping at Emma Larkins wonderful blog, Emerging Author.


  1. Almost every author I know hates getting stock rejection letters, which are the most common. You don't know what you've done wrong, so you don't know what to do about it.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Really enjoyed this post! Been following the whole Owen tour and every stop is different. I'm not a writer but Marv's piece on dealing with editors is too funny - lol but probably good for other writers also.

    Nice blog, Helen!

  3. Thank you for sharing this for the benefit of new/other authors. So many people jump into the process having no real understanding about how things work. The result is they are devastated when they get to points like this.

    Again, thanks for the honesty.

    Cheryl Pickett

  4. Morgan, you've got a great point. Rejection letters are so hard to take because, first of all, they're "rejections," but, second of all, they give you no clue what you've done wrong. Now, I know agents don't have the time to explain their reasoning to every writer, and that's where the freelance editor can step in and explain things to the author and work with them.

  5. Great post. I'm a BIG Marvaholic - LOL. Love the way he used humor in your editor piece request.

  6. Peggy Ullman Bell12/11/2008 9:33 AM

    "Straight from hell" Huh? Good place to talk about my editing style, Marv old friend. Even though I don't believe in the place, you make me sound like it's where my editor self came from. Remember, Luv, if I'm a demon editor, I'm just passing on what I learned from my own tough editor.[bless her]

    Anyone who can put over 60k sequential words on paper and have them make sense deserves to have their characters jump off the page and tap their readers where they live.

    A fine writer once told me, "If you can make a reader smell coffee on page one they'll be with you to the end."

  7. "If you can make a reader smell coffee on page one they'll be with you to the end." -- I love that! I need to type it up and put it on my bulletin board.

    I think Marvin made you sound like a fabulous editor. You don't let him get away with anything less than his best.

  8. OMG...I'm in DEEP trouble. Marv is now MY editor and I am NOT looking forward to any of it.

    I see where our friendship is heading during this long process.

  9. Cheryl, thank you so much for letting me know about this. I'm sure Google Alerts would have gotten it but you made me feel cared for. LOL. And, Owen, I'm so glad you appreciat The Frugal Editor. It is my baby and it kind of gets neglects, being second book in the HowToDoItFrugally series--sort of in the shadow of The Frugal Book Promoter. Yet, I know it can be as valuable for the welfare of a book as The Frugal Book Promoter. In terms of query letters, I don't think there is anything out there that can compare. But that's just me, LOL.

    I loved learning more about Marvin D. Wilson. He's a pretty neat and, I've notice, talented guy. (-:

  10. I do remember that first editing with Barbara. it was a rude awakening I am sure but the book came out much stronger for it.

  11. Appreciating all the kind comments today! Hey Pegs - you know I love ya (smile) And Katrina not to worry, our friendship will survive the storm that lies ahead - lol. Kat writes VERY well & I'm looking forward to working with her manuscripts. This post idea came about when I left a rather long comment on this subject and my bloggy buddy Helen emailed me to let me know I had cracked her up. So when she agreed to a stop on the Owen tour we both thought expanding the comment into a feature length post would be way cool. Glad it is being well received.

    Oh and Helen I agree - that coffee comment is going on my wall too!

  12. You're lucky to have had Peggy as your editor, Marv. Some writers resist changes so long that they never make it in the publishing business. As a former editor, I can tell you that it's not an easy job. I still have emotional scars from the novice writers who thought their "babies" were perfect and that editors are sadistic morons.

    Very good post, Marv and Helen, BTW.

  13. Thank you, Hel and Marvin, for a delightful read. I enjoyed Marvin's comments. I've been on both sides of the editor situation, as the author wondering what I did wrong and the editor trying to muck my way through pages of, uh, well, muck.

    I enjoyed the laughs with the truth wrapped inside.


  14. Excellent addition to the tour, Marvin and Helen! Loved the piece on dealing with editors - it was funny and painful and OH so true...

  15. Great post...the truth always hurts. I'm not sure who jumps out more at me, Marvin or Peggy. Two treasures.

  16. Peg hasn't done any edits for me yet, but her writing is good. I've reviewed 1.5 of her books. She wrote one that was good, but I couldn't get into it. I gave her an honest answer that it confused me. Not her fault, just not a style I'm used to.

    Carolyn, your frugal book series is very good. I'd gladly do a review on any of them. As for Marv, I'll review any of his books, and I'll take him on as a host for his books anytime. Besides, I have other kritters that can do interviews. Anyone brave enough to try 'em?

  17. There you have it, folks. A challenge!

  18. Was laughing all the way through the editor comments. I wonder if all editors use the same book of phrases "to encourage better writing?" Sounds like you found a great editor Marvin - maybe even as good as the former mermaid:-)

  19. Nice tour stop, you two. Marv, you need to put some of Peggy's comments over at The Blood Red Pencil. Editors like that are worth every dime you pay, if you follow their advice.

    And you're right, this is no business for sissies. It's as bad as being a fine artist, where everyone is a critic and your work, the target.


  20. Yikes!

    I consider myself admonished *hangs head*

    You've given me even more stuff to think about, Marvin. And Helen, great prompt for a blog tour!

  21. I like editors (and any teachers actually) like Peggy-although she got my dander up when she read my book and questioned the fact that the berries being eaten weren't normally in season at the same time. I happened to know that and wanted it writen that way--but that is an example of how thorough this woman is--details that almost everyone else would mis.

  22. Darn it-it posted before I was finished :-(

    I have a question Marv. You mentioned your tendency toward run-on sentences--I'm the exact opposite--my editor went about nuts over my sentence fragments. I told her that is how I talk--and I write like I talk. My question is--do you find it is the same for you? Meaning, do you talk in long run-on sentences? I'm curious as to whether we all tend to write like we speak.

  23. Hi Joyce. Hopefully, Marvin will stop by and answer your question. But I thought I would address it too.

    I think we write the way we think and talk, but also the way we hear our characters speaking in our head. Each character has his or her own way of putting words together, cadence, sentence structure, even usage of words. You'd like each character to be identifiable by their voice. It's not easy to do, since what we hear in our heads or when we read our work aloud is not what the reader hears when they read. They don't hear inflection and emphasis because all they have to go on is words on paper, not that character's voice speaking in their head they way the writer heard him.

  24. I'm a little late, but I agree with Helen re: Joyce's query re: run on & fragment sentences. As the author telling a story you have your voice which should be written correctly but also "you." And the same goes for your characters. When they are talking it must sound like "them."

    Dani, good idea - I will compose a piece for BRP with stuff I learned about good prose writing from Peggy and put it up on the dashboard -probably soon after the dust settles from this tour.

    Helen, this was a most memorable stop and your post was VERY well done and well received! Thanks so much to you and ALL the people who stopped in.

  25. Marvin,
    Just thought I'd tell you that I re-read your post this morning. And it still makes me laugh.

    And I firmly believe that's because it's a wonderful essay ... and not because I'm an editor.



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