Editing

How does one go about editing a page?  Is there a rule book somewhere?  A definitive guide?  As an editor I love, love, love to pull stories apart to marvel at the strong points and fix the weak ones. But as a writer, I don't want some stranger to mess up my story.  It's my story after all, not hers.  When I am across the table from the writer, the manuscript between us, the air definitely changes when I pull out my red pen and begin to dissect the strings claiming to thread the story together.  The writer sucks the air right out of the room and stops breathing for a few brief moments, waiting to hear if the manuscript passed or failed.  Waiting to hear if he passed or failed. 

I try to remind him that it's all about the page.  The words on the page have to do their job, they have to speak for themselves.  They have to make sense.  But the writer doesn't really hear me.  He just wants his grade, pass or fail.  This makes me crazy.  It isn't about passing or failing.  It is about improving.  Editing is about finding what's working and what isn't.  It's grabbing hold of the nucleus idea, the one that snuck up on you at 2:00 a.m. and caused a cold sweat, and cultivating it into a full blown book.

Understandably, writers are devastated when their manuscript is so marked up it appears to be bleeding.  Maybe it is.  Maybe it needs to.  Seasoned writers know that a good editor is what makes their book or article successful.  However, It still hurts the seasoned writer to hear there is six more months of work when she thought she was done.  It is not an easy process. But, it is necessary.

I don't like to be the bearer of bad news.  I feel terrible when I have to tell a writer they are not as far along as they thought.  But, it is exciting to see how far they have come.  They've written a story!  And a really good one at that.  The hardest part for me is seeing a manuscript on my desk and knowing that if I tell too much of the truth, the writer will quit.  Now it is my turn to be devastated.  I experience great anxiety knowing that a writer feels bruised and wounded after I evaluate their work.

There has to be a give and take from both parties.  I as the editor need to acknowledge there is a real person holding the mansucript in her hands.  The writer has to understand that the story needs to stand on its own legs.  Editing is not about an editor saying to the writer, "Oh, you are so wonderful because you spent three years writing this book!"  Editing is about nurturing the idea; it is pealing back the layers to look for supporting evidence, scraping away the fat and dead skin to see what really shines beneath.

Editing is a love-hate job.  I love to work on a story; I hate to hurt people's feelings.  But guess what?  The publishing world can be cruel.  There are rules to follow, elements of fiction or non-fiction to employ, and sweat to be shed if one wants to be published.  That's just the way it is.  Because in the end, it doesn't matter how long you've worked on your story, or how many relatives think you are the best writer in the family.  In the end, it's all about the page. 

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Show and Tell

I remember that in my pre-school and elementary years, show-and-tell was pretty darn exciting.  This was the day we were allowed to bring a special toy from home to show to the class and then tell why it was so special.  All eyes were on the student in the front of the class, examining the toy and making our own decisions about how special it was.  We were completely focused on the object itself.  It was tangible; right in front of our eyes.  One by one, we judged each other’s treasures.

Now I know that everyday is show-and-tell day and it is no longer my favorite toy on display but me, myself and I.  Whether I like it or not, I am showing my inner-world through my actions.  If I am tired, it shows.  If I am hungry, it shows.  If I am troubled, it shows.  Very few people are able to completely conceal what is going on beneath the surface and I am not one of them.  The behavior we convey is tangible evidence of our happiness, anxiety, depression, or whatever.  Body language shows the level of comfort in one’s skin.  It is fairly easy to see what kind of day a person is having just by watching them move around, just by looking in their eyes.

I might try to hide what is going on inside by telling an inquisitor that I’m fine, when I’m really the opposite.  When I was pregnant, people used to ask me how I was feeling.  Most of the time I would say, “Great! I”m doing fine!”  But sometimes, to those closer to my inner-cirlcle, I would say, “Do you want the pat answer or the truth?  The truth is that I feel like a whale.  My back hurts, my legs hurt, my feet are swollen, and I’m tired of this.”  I probably didn’t have to go to the effort of lying by saying that I was great.  One look at my eyes or the way I heaved myself out of a chair or the constant gasping for breath would have been enough evidence to convey the latter answer.  My actions were showing much more than my words were telling.

On the page, show-and-tell gets a little more complicated.  As writers we decide on a minute-by-minute basis what to show and what to tell.  We think that we can control what lands on the page by tailoring what we tell.  What ends up happening is contradictory; by telling surface information, ‘I’m fine,’ we show that we are not engaged in the writing, or that we are hiding valuable details from the reader.  We also show an inability to be honest and present.  We tell that a character, a student, is nervous by saying, ‘she is nervous.’  We show that she is nervous by writing her as fidgety, breathing heavier or quicker than normal, crossing and un-crossing her legs, staring at the clock on the wall that seems to be ticking slower and slower, sweating, etc.

The student stands in front of the class and holds up a toy.  She tells the class it is brand new.  She tells them, “I love playing with it.  It is my favorite toy in the whole world.  My parents spent a lot of money on it.  You can’t play with it because it is fragile.”  What they class sees and believes, however, is the complete opposite.  Her voice shakes as she speaks.  Her knees rattle.  She doesn’t smile.  Her voice is low and unsure.  Her eyes look at the ground.  The toy is obviously old.  The class doesn’t believe her words because they can see otherwise.  The truth is that she has never had a new toy in her life.  How will you, or your character, be judged?  By the words you tell or by the actions you show?

The True Story of Humpty Dumpty

This is a story written by my 9 year old son, Vince.  Everything is exactly as he typed it at school.

The true story of Humpty Dumpty

Here is the real story of Humpty Dumpty.  One day Humpty Dumpty was playing with his friend Bill.  “Lets go do back flips on that wall over there.”  Said humpty.  Bill said “ok”.

Then Humpty and Bill got on the wall and saw egg man.  Egg man has the power to shoot hard boiled eggs out of his hands.  So all three of them started to do back flips.  Egg man wanted to play a trick on humpty.

So when Humpty Dumpty was doing a back flip Egg man started to do rapid fire eggs at Humpty .  Then Humpty fell off the wall!  So Bill called the king on his cell phone and said, “Humpty fell off the wall again” so the king said, “Again, that’s the tenth time!”  So all the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men came down to see.  Then they looked at him and said, “We ran out of bandages from the last fall.  So I guess we should bring him to the King and see what he says to do.”

So all the kings’ horses and all the Kings men brought humpty Dumpty to the king.

“O my gosh!” Said the King.  “He is in a million pieces…literally.  “So what should we do?” asked the kings men.  “I guess we will have scrambled eggs for breakfast” said the king very sadly.      -Vincent Schiro

Hide and Seek

I find it quite frustrating when I approach the page and my mind suddenly goes blank.  Especially when just hours, or minutes before, I narrated a beautiful and compelling tale in my mind while driving or cleaning up the kitchen.  But it never fails; I’ll say to myself, “Ooh, that was good, I need to write that down,” and then I’ll dash to my keyboard, only to forget everything as soon as my eyes catch a glimpse of the empty space waiting to be filled.  The pressure!  Of course, it must be poetic, concrete, use the elements of fiction…

The expectation of excellence the page demands is different than the freedom of excellence in my head.  When I”m driving, the story in my head is free to just be, free to explore the wonderous caverns of my soul and how that soul navigates around other peoples’ souls.  I’m free to be me.  The sound of my own voice is comforting; like a mother’s heard inside the womb.  But once I approach the page, there are rules to abide by, elements to employ, an expectation from the awaiting readers.  There is a container to fit into, a thesis to follow, characters to craft within certain guidelines.  The story that just minutes earlier flowed freely, is now hidden in the depths and I must seek and seek to no avail.

The story always changes when I make it tangible on the page; the black letters punching away into the vast whiteness.  It is a translation from one medium to another, from one cavern to the other; only, the original spot, where the story was created, is where the story runs freely through meadow in its truest form.  If I compare the two stories side by side, the one in my head and the one on the page, they might look like relatives but never twins.  The translation is always wrong, never organic, and certainly not accurate.

Why can’t I ever get my story straight?  Is it that I’m keeping the best part hidden for rediscovery, or is it that I don’t want it to be seen at all?  Or, is it that I’m so overwhelmed by the rules of the page that I can’t trust the original story to fit neatly into the new container?  The process of translation may just be too rigourous for the delicate threads basting the new seams of the story hiding in the shadows of my mind.  When I seek to pull it out into the sun, will I be emabarrassed?  Will it be dumb?  Will it be strong enough to resist the restraints of the page?

My voice is different on the page; guarded.  There is an audience now.  It sounds odd to me, the story that is now out in the open, the narrating voice seeming to come from someone else.  Now it is the page’s turn to discover what is hidden, what needs to be uncovered, to play hide-and-seek.  Will it discover me?

Are You the Unreliable Narrator?

I’ve come to realize that when people tell stories about themselves, they lie through their teeth.  Most of the time it isn’t intentional.  It just happens. This is especially true when writers decide to pen their story, either through a memoir or an autobiography.  A woman will start out by saying she has been through a terrible ordeal and wants to write about it to save other women from the same type of tragedy.  She speaks freely of the horrible details. Once the pen is hand, however, things change.  She suddenly becomes self conscious, feeling as if she is disrobbing in a room full of strangers.  Not wanting to be that vulnerable, she keeps her private parts covered.  The parts she leaves exposed are carefully corrected with makeup, masked with see through garments such as chifon, or adorned with sparkly jewelry.  This is the unreliable narrator.

I’ve come across several such stories in the past few days.  Well intentioned writers have spilled their guts but have kept their souls under lock and key.  One story that I read over the weekend was written by an adult male.  In one chapter, he tells what happened at the age of eight.   The major flaw with the account is that he imposes his adult mindset onto his eight year old self.  He recounts the event with his adult eyes and has his young self solving the problem with his now adult attitude.  The reader can see right past this contradiction and the unreliable narrator is in full swing.  We can no longer trust what the narrator tells us because he is filtering and changing the actual events.  After being shoved off a cliff and plunging into icy water by his father, the eight year old would not say, “screw it, I’ll just make the best of it, I’ll just learn to swim right here and now.”  Instead, the eight year old would probably be wondering why his father betrayed his safety and broke his trust in such a cruel and cold way.

To tell your story in proper fashion, there must be growth.  The reader must see evidence of growth.  Therefore, the writer must re-visit the thought processes that caused the mistakes in the first place.  The writer must be willing to be in seen, or have those close to him seen, in a bad light at first.  Then, as the story continues, the writer (hopefully) learns from his bad decisions and begins to make better choices, thus learning from his mistakes and growing into the person he is today.  This cannot happen, however, if the writer isn’t honest about the starting point of betrayal, insecurity, abandonment, or whatever has caused the imbalance.

Forrest Gump is a classic unreliable narrator.  We can see what he cannot.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are covering your tracks when choosing which emotions to show and which to keep hidden.  The page has a way of acting like a window and your reader will see much more than you do.