Write/edit/revise/repeat

First of all, May the Fourth be with you!

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Yes, my droid wears a top hat. He is fancy.

Second, it’s been a busy month.

I wanted to revise my MG novel-in-progress so that I could submit the revised version for a critique at the upcoming NJSCBWI conference. My beta readers had given me great feedback, I’d done some more research, and I knew a whole lot of things I needed to add. Meantime, I also had my usual daily and weekly deadlines for the various editing and writing projects that make up my day job. So I worked on those projects during the day, then revised the novel at night. All month.

This was a fairly doable thing. It was a matter of mindset, and minding the time. I’d spend mornings on one article or editing gig, break for lunch, switch gears to another project, then switch gears again at night and work on the novel. Working on one thing continuously for all that time might have gotten exasperating, but flipping to different projects kept me sharp.

I don’t think multitasking actually exists, at least the way people think of when they use the term. But I think you can finish anything if you work on it an hour (or two) at a time.

I made all my deadlines, including the submission date for SCBWI, and then I spent a day remembering what TV looks like.

And then I flipped back to the first draft of another novel-in-progress. But now I get to take my time a little more.

Bringing the news offline

I’d share some of the articles I’ve been writing lately, but I can’t.

Or more precisely, won’t.

Here’s the deal. One of my regular gigs is writing and editing (and setting up photos and working with reporters and helping keep things moving) at this local newspaper. You’ll note there are no articles posted on the website. There never are. The paper is print-only. And I’m glad.

Back in the ’90s, when newspapers decided they needed websites, the orders came down to put all articles on the website. For free. And I thought, “But why would anyone buy the paper if they can read the whole thing for free online?” Alas, I was a lowly copy editor and who cared what I thought.

So we put everything online. For free. Even though newspaper circulation had already been slipping downward for a while, and Generations X (that’s me), Y, Z, Z-plus and whatever else they’re going with these days didn’t have the daily newspaper habit their parents and grandparents did. Even though Craigslist and eBay came along to corner the market on classifieds. Even though advertising started to slip and the cost of newsprint went up. (This article in The Atlantic is a good summation.)

So newspapers lost money, and fired staffers to save money, and lost more money, and got thinner and thinner, with less and less news in them.

The past couple years have been good for the bigger papers, bringing a surge in digital subscriptions. But as the Pew Research Center points out, the industry overall is still suffering.

Now, I’m a book-nerd. Most of my goals for the future involve writing books and working with authors on their books. But I also love newspapers, and have ever since I joined (and later ran) my college newspaper. Newspapers, with a few exceptions, are still the best place to find good journalism. But I’ve been watching colleagues lose their jobs for some time now, and I’ve grown increasingly worried that good journalism is going to disappear with them.

So I was delighted when a colleague of mine announced he was launching his own local paper and looking for freelancers.

Every time I interview someone for an article, about the town food pantry’s plans for outreach or the changes to this year’s arts festival or the expansion of the Middlesex Greenway, they tell me how great the paper is and how glad they are to have a local paper. At the end of one recent interview—which happened to be at a church—the monsignor even blessed me, which was a first. I will definitely take my blessings where I can get them.

And none of these articles is online, because my colleague wants people to buy the paper. Not read it for free.

And frankly, I do too. I want this paper to keep going, because I think this level of local news is what’s missing from most papers now—they don’t have the staff, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the time, etc. I think this is how newspapers survive and thrive: By staying local, and by consistently charging for content. Because I don’t work for free, and neither should anyone else who writes, edits, takes photos, or does graphic design for a living.

So if you want to see what I’ve been working on lately, I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the paper. But trust me: It’s worth it.

Typos matter

I cringe at “speciality.” I groan at “reigning them in.” And when I see “traveling though the town,” I want to throw things.

I see errors like this constantly: in newspapers, in published books, on restaurant menus, on product packages, in the tickers across the screen on news channels, even on storefront signs. I can’t switch off my editor’s eye, so I get regular reminders that people don’t write or type as well as they think they do. (Or that they need to hire an editor.)

Does it matter? Of course it matters. For one thing, people might judge you by your typos. Check out this study by University of Michigan researchers that found people reacted more negatively to emails with errors in them. A good part of my job consists of emailing people about being interviewed for an article or setting up a photo for that article, or else emailing writers about possible editing work. These people don’t know me; all they have to go on is my email, and if that email contains misspellings or poor grammar, they have less reason to take me seriously.

For another, errors and unclear language can cause unnecessary confusion and even cost money. Just ask the dairy drivers in Maine who won a labor dispute case over the lack of an Oxford comma.

You can absolutely be a good writer and still commit typos, or be a terrible writer who spells and punctuates everything correctly. (I’ve dealt with both.) But if the entire point of writing is to communicate with other people, shouldn’t you want to do that as clearly and as accurately as possible—for your readers’ sake, as well as yours?

If nothing else, you’ll have my undying gratitude.

Vacation and idea generation

The family went on vacation last week to … let’s say it was warmer there, with lots of mouse ears? It was a fine time. But January is also StoryStorm, the annual story idea marathon hosted by Tara Lazar that features inspirational posts plus a few prizes (see here for details), which I’ve been participating in for several years. No worries, I thought. I’ll bring my notebook with me, along with my manuscript-in-progress. I’ll get work done on the plane. I’ll think creative thoughts while waiting on line for rides. It’ll be a productive, fabulous time.

Except not.

Turns out I’d underestimated the buildup of mental noise after a day full of lines/rides/crowds/shopping/keeping wandering kids from disappearing/shows/way too much food. At the end of the day, the only thing I was capable of was zoning out at the hotel while watching “Star vs. the Forces of Evil.”

I had no story ideas. My brain was blank for a week.

I’d forgotten the most essential element of creativity: the quiet calm space to escape into your own head for a while. If you’re running around, your mind can’t wander.

On the other hand, sometimes a break from creativity is what you need to recharge. Now that we’re back, I’m steadily catching up and about to cross the finish line.

And I did get some work done on my manuscript. So that’s a win!

Why I freelance

At the end of October, I had eye surgery. I was supposed to be resting afterward.

I did, sort of, until I got a developmental editing project, a bunch of articles to write and edit, a few rush-job editing projects, a health care communications project …

And in the middle of all that, I finished a rough draft of my novel-in-progress.

So, November was busy. My eye hasn’t exploded, fortunately.

I’d always rather be busy than unbusy, so I’m not complaining (but don’t tell my ophthalmologist what I was up to). Theoretically things have slowed down for the moment, but sometimes the freelance life means not knowing what your day is going to look like until you switch on the computer that morning.

Turns out I like that freeform sort of flow, since I can also, say, duck out to volunteer at my daughter’s holiday boutique (she demanded I look the other way while she was shopping for me) or take my son to Cub Scouts, while still meeting deadlines. Or run over to the farm during CSA season to pick up our share of produce. Or meet a friend for lunch and a write-in. None of that was possible when I was stuck in an office for eight-plus hours a day, then stuck in traffic for another hour-plus, so I do appreciate the freedom. (Especially considering how many hours I also spent last month sitting at the eye doctor’s office.)

It’s not the life for everyone—you have no co-workers to gossip with/about, and if you’re having computer problems you can’t exactly call the IT department—but I concentrate better when it’s quiet. This sounds like a paradox, considering I spent 20 years in noisy newsrooms, but I got pretty good at tuning out the phone chatter, TVs perpetually blaring news updates, and other assorted white noise; now, I don’t have to. I can just focus.

So I’m not sure yet what December is going to be like, but it’ll be fun to find out.

What I’m reading: I’ve gotten slightly obsessed with “Giant Days,” the off-the-wall, goofball story of three friends and roommates trying to survive both college and romance troubles, which is both hilarious and beautifully illustrated. (Side note: Apparently I’m going to read every comic book Boom! Box publishes because that’s how it is.)

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I don’t let the kids read this one, because there’s a fair amount of sex- and drug-related humor—the characters are in college, remember—and even though the dialogue does an amazing job of hinting at what everyone is talking about without ever being graphic or explicit, I’d rather wait until the kids are closer to YA-level age. Still, so few TV shows, movies or books really get at the sort of confusion, questioning, and small steps toward adulthood that happen in college; this comic comes pretty close. And bonus, it’s set in England, so you get to imagine all the dialogue with British accents.

And I just finished “Posted” by John David Anderson, which unsurprisingly is amazing, because “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” was also amazing and made me cry. Anderson is great at detailed, lyrical storytelling that somehow still sounds like it’s coming from a tweenage boy.

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It’s about what happens at one middle school after phones are banned and kids grab sticky notes to send messages to each other instead, and how even that low-tech system spins wildly out of control when kids start to use the notes for attacks and insults. It’s also about how a change in social status can wreck a solid-seeming friendship. Plus plenty of Dungeons & Dragons jokes for this former D&D player. My one note, and it’s a minor note, is that when Frost, the main character, describes himself as “part of the chorus” in the beginning, it’s a little too accurate; he’s a thoughtful observer of everything happening around him, but he isn’t exactly driving the action until close to the end, and the main drama centers around two other characters. Still, the book is well worth reading, especially for kids who’ve had their own experiences with bullying, online, offline, or through mean little notes.

Talking to writers

For the first time, I set up shop at a writers conference as an editor-for-hire, claiming a table at the recent New Jersey Romance Writers’ Trade Expo. And it was fun.

I wasn’t able to attend the actual conference (next year!) but looking over the schedule, I was struck by how similar the workshops were to what I’d seen at other conferences: focusing on plot and characterization, marketing your work, learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry. And the other conferences I’ve attended have been either general/all genres, or kidlit-specific.

I opted for candy over swag, per the suggestion of Jennifer Lawler, whose developmental editing classes I’ve been taking through the Editorial Freelancers Association (I highly recommend her classes, and she’s fun to follow on Twitter, too: @JenniferLawler). But I decided to have some fun with it and set out three bowls: regular candy, nut-free candy, and sugar-free candy, with the sign “An editor checks the details.” It got a couple of laughs, which was what I wanted. (For the record, no one took the sugar-free candy.) I had leftovers, but conveniently it’s Halloween, and we get a crowd of trick-or-treaters.

I did worry that I would be sitting there the whole time staring nervously into space, but a steady stream of people stopped to say hello and take my info. And it struck me all over again how universal the conference experience is for writers. I asked everyone how the conference had gone for them, and I got the expected range of answers. One attendee pitched a few manuscripts and had gotten five requests, which is amazing. Another was at her first conference ever and had developed a bit of a deer-in-headlights look; I told her to go relax and take in everything she’d learned. I loved hearing about everyone’s successes, what they were working on, what they were doing next.

The whole experience was a useful reminder that we’re all learning the same things, no matter what we write, and no one is going to understand the process better than another writer.

It was a nice time, and I do appreciate the NJRW for having me. I hope the attendees have success stories to share next year, and I hope to be there to hear them.

Notes from an editor

A newsroom colleague asked me once why I would want to run a newspaper. “To make it better,” I said. He nodded respectfully.

I’m not much interested in running newspapers these days (though I do still write for them on occasion), but I think my answer still applies to editing in general. Why be an editor? To make something better.

I’ve been editing professionally for a long time—copy editing, proofreading, and now moving into developmental editing. I’ve edited breaking news on deadline, fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, movie reviews, and obituaries. I get equally annoyed by typos in books, on restaurant menus, on shoebox packaging, and in TV news crawls. (Every single news channel has typos. This is a bipartisan aggravation.) I analyze while reading. It’s a habit.

I’ve worked with a lot of writers, and in my experience, these are the elements crucial to the success of the writer-editor relationship.

Trust. Though that trust can be unnerving. Frequently I’d tell a reporter I’d tweaked parts of their article and offer to show them the changes, and they’d just shrug and say, “I trust you.” Then I’d neurotically wonder whether I should make them read the tweaks anyway.

They trusted me because they knew I wanted to help them produce their best work. They knew I wasn’t going to change things that didn’t need changing or throw in words they would never use (every writer has a “stable” of words they use most often; if you add words that don’t blend with the rest because they’re too flowery or esoteric, you’ve muddied the voice). They knew I was keeping their viewpoint in mind. And they knew I was neurotic enough to make them read the changes.

Understanding. It’s not just doing your job well—it’s understanding how the other person does their job. When editing a newspaper or magazine article, I knew the reporter had spent hours, sometimes days, collecting enough research to put an article together, and even more hours figuring out the puzzle of arranging the article. When I’ve beta read or critiqued fiction, I’ve kept in mind how much work went into planning out the elements of plot, character, voice, and theme. I respect what it took for the writer to complete their work, and I respect that changing that work might not be easy.

At the same time, the best writers I’ve worked with understood that it took time for me to do my job and that I couldn’t just skim something, run spell check, and call it done.

Knowledge. If I’m not familiar with the writer’s subject matter, I’ll take the time to get familiar, because I think research is fun. (Yes, I’m nerdy. And?) I know what it feels like when the person editing or critiquing your work hasn’t done their homework. During a writers conference held at my college, the critiquer admitted that he wasn’t familiar with science fiction, and proceeded to mumble his way through some vague commentary on my short story. Was my story any good? Probably not. But the critiquer didn’t offer any suggestions for making it better, and I felt out of place for even asking.

I don’t think there’s any shame in looking up something you don’t know, whether it’s about a specific subject or about the conventions of a particular genre. If I don’t have that knowledge, I can’t help the writer.

Ultimately, the writer needs to remember that the editor is looking out for their best interests, and the editor needs to remember the writer is the one whose name is on the story. Egos need to stay out of the process. If the writer and editor work together, they will make the work better.

In research mode

I like research. Geeky to say but true. I like having perpetually new reasons to learn more about the world around me. Sometimes that means a trip to the library, and sometimes it means a road trip.

For my day job recently, I wrote a magazine article about historic buildings saved from demolition when they were repurposed as performance venues — good for historic preservation and the local arts scene. (You can read it here.) My research was a combination of interviews and in-person visits, so I could get a sense of what these sites were like. In other words, multiple road trips to parts of the state I don’t often visit. Two things about New Jersey you probably didn’t know: It has a number of centuries-old buildings (one of the original 13 colonies, after all), and most of the state is much prettier than whatever you saw while stuck in traffic on the Turnpike or while hustling through Newark Airport. Lovely scenery plus learning about historic architecture equals a win.

Meanwhile, I am doing research for a novel-in-progress involving abandoned amusement parks and rereadings of “Beowulf.” It will all make sense in the final draft (theoretically), though reading “Beowulf” is a pleasure in its own right for the beautiful language.

Inevitably, I overdo it; I have more knowledge than I could possibly need for whatever I’m working on. But that’s a good thing. Better to thoroughly know your subject than to patchwork-guess your way through. You never know when that newfound knowledge will be useful in a different setting.

I don’t know what I’ll be researching next, but I can’t wait to find out.

Recapping NJSCBWI17

I love this conference. It’s so friendly and informative. I see friends, I walk away with story and revision ideas, I get to admire amazing artwork and I get to buy people’s books. Entirely a win-win.

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What I bought at the conference. Missing: Robin Newman’s “The Case of the Poached Egg.” My son poached it.

OK, also I love that there are so many great kidlit resources in my own state. That is highly convenient and proof that New Jersey is a superior place to live. Don’t believe the jokes.

Conference workshops included in-depth discussions on creating characters of a different race or ethnicity (short answer: you absolutely can, just do the research and avoid tropes); on using white space and text placement to pace the emotion in a picture book; on solving problems in a story by looking elsewhere in the text for the answer; on being your true (and gracious!) self on social media; on how to build your story’s world without info-dumping; and on why you shouldn’t be afraid to talk to your agent.

I enjoyed Gabriela Pereira’s workshop on middle grade and YA novels so much, I went and bought her “DIY MFA” book conveniently just as she was walking into the book fair area. It’s nice to be able to tell someone, “Hey, I’m buying your book, thanks for your help!”

Really the best part of the conference is being around other creative people, all of whom are trying to accomplish the same thing you’re trying to accomplish, all of whom care deeply about quality children’s literature. People have a way of cheering each other on that I think might not be typical of other corners of the publishing world.

It was also entertaining to share a hotel with — I think — two weddings and two proms in one weekend. (Side note: Prom dresses are so much more sophisticated than when I was in high school. Slightly jealous.) A bridesmaid was overheard asking if she was allowed to have some of our coffee. I hope she went for it — we had plenty!

And now on to rereading my notes and revising manuscripts.

Creativity outside the comfort zone

“Sure, I’ll do an art class with you,” I told my friend. I wasn’t expecting any actual art to come out of it, but hey, why not.

I hadn’t taken a proper art class since college. (Paint and Wine with my husband on Valentine’s Day doesn’t count. Though it was fun.) I was an art minor. There might be some germ of a molecule of art talent in there somewhere, but I knew words were my thing. That was especially obvious when I looked at my classmates’ work; if I was playing cute little melodies, art-wise, they had full orchestras going. So I had no great expectations for my art classes, but I enjoyed them. Then I graduated from college and stopped making art.

A month ago, my friend said she’d always wanted to take an art class but hadn’t done it. I shrugged and signed up with her.

It was a pastels class — a medium I’d used twice, maybe — and the instructor was great about sketching out the way to copy the chosen picture, piece by piece, with suggestions on color and type of line. And with such guidance, I got this: IMG_2372 (1)

Which isn’t bad!

The thing is, I dropped art in the first place because I was a writer, and I thought I should focus on writing. But practicing any form of creativity makes you better at being creative. Making art, or music, or writing in a different form or style might even jog you out of a creative rut, helping you to see something with a fresh eye (hey, see what I did there?).

I still don’t see myself as an artist. But remembering that I could make art, aside from the various works-in-progress in my notebooks, was actually pretty empowering.

My friend and I had a fine time and are already discussing which class to take next. I can’t wait.