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.