Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Editing Can Mean "Nudging," and that's just fine

Part 5 in the continuing series: “Why the World Still Needs Editors”

Perhaps one of the best synonyms for the word editor is nudge (noun). Really good editors push writers out of their comfort zones. These kinds of editors are excellent nudges. Another synonym might be boot to the behind, but nudge sounds much more polite, doesn’t it?

Case in point: I worked with the staff at Ellis Island’s library to research the text and illustrations for my newest book. I got to know Barry (Moreno) and Jeff (Dosik), longtime librarians at the Bob Hope Memorial Library. They led me to great sources, shared anecdotes (thanks, Jeff, for telling me about the one man who said he swam to Jersey City from Ellis Island!), and eventually commented on the work-in-progress.

My editor naturally suggested that I ask one of the librarians to “blurb” my book.

Oh, dear, I thought. How could I ask them to do this? Wouldn’t that be too forward, too, well…not me?

Fortunately my editor persisted. In this case “persisted” means “sent more email nudges.” She kept asking, politely, until I got out of my comfort zone.

I asked Barry Moreno (author of The Encyclopedia of Ellis Island and many other books on the subject) if he might comment on my book. And what he sent was wonderful—just perfect for the back cover of the book.

So, thanks Mr. Moreno for the lovely blurb and double-thanks to Carolyn Yoder, a fine nudge/editor, for making me do what I didn’t want to do.

For another take on the value of stepping out of your tried-and-true routines, I recommend looking at Laura Purdie Salas’s most recent blog post. She’s always full of insights.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The World Still Needs Editors, even when they’re wrong…

Reason #4 in the continuing series of Why the World Still Needs Editors:

Along the way, most writers have received editorial letters with advice that’s just plain wrong. But even when advice is misguided, it can help you tell your story.

Case in point: Riding to Washington (published by Sleeping Bear Press and beautifully illustrated by my friend Dave Geister) is a picture book about a young white girl who experiences segregation while traveling by bus with a “mixed” crowd on the way to attend the March on Washington in 1963. It’s based on stories my father (a white home builder in Southern Indiana) told me about the trip he and my grandpa made from Indianapolis to DC in that summer of ’63.

While I was submitting the manuscript, one editor asked if I’d be willing to change the girl’s race.

I didn’t consider it for a nanosecond, and the manuscript was soon accepted by Aimee Jackson, now of Book Bridge Press.

The lesson here: When you know it’s as it should be, stick with your guns. The editor’s request to change the character’s skin color was useful. I’m not particularly introspective or deep. I hadn’t given this detail of the story lots of thought before. I’d just been writing something based on my father’s stories.

But the editor’s question made me absolutely sure of one thing: the girl was as she was meant to be, for this particular story.

Conversely, when an editor’s letter lands on your desk and is full of questions offering food for thought—and inspiration for more and better writing—listen and find the answers. (See my previous post for a slew of excellent questions—all right on target.)

Answer or not answer….The choice is yours. Experience tells me my stories are better for listening to the questions.

Monday, February 20, 2012

We need editors because…They ask the right questions

Reason #3 in the continuing series: Why the World Still Needs Editors

Ask the average person what an editor does and they’ll say something like this: “That’s who fixes mistakes and the misspelled words and puts all the commas and periods in the right places.”

They’re right, on a certain level. They’ve just described copyediting, proofreading, and fact-checking—all of which I’ve touched on in earlier posts. But truly great editors do much more: they ask the right questions.

If you’ve ever submitted a manuscript and gotten back (with the rejection) a personal letter with suggestions, you may have seen this kind of editing. Or if you’ve been lucky enough to sell the manuscript you’ve sweated over for years, you may then have gotten a four-page email packed to bursting with this kind of editing.

Call it developmental editing or substantive editing, but it boils down to knowing what questions to ask and how to phrase them. Wendy Loggia, at Delacorte Press, is especially talented at phrasing such questions. Here are just a few excerpts from the letter she sent to me after she acquired my middle grade historical novel Chig and the Second Spread:

The passage of time…sometimes it flies….I’m wondering—can you work on creating a more consistent passage of time?

Can Ed [Chig’s nemesis] become a more fully developed character instead of a stock bully?

Is there an escape from the dreary life of the Depression? Does Chig's family listen to the radio?

Is there a way to make the climax more of a climax?

Don’t these questions make you want to start typing away at a new, improved story? That’s just one more reason why the world still needs editors.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why do we need editors? They're our extra set of eyes...

Reason #2 in the continuing series: Why the World Still Needs Editors

Awhile back, I took a copyediting course at UC-Berkeley. It was a great practical class on how to spot problems in a manuscript and how to fix them. For one exercise, the teacher showed a photograph of the rear end of a Honda. This was back before the distinctive H logo, back when they still spelled the brand out.

The teacher didn’t give the photo any introduction, she just put it up and let us look. And it was amazing how much time passed before we realized that HONDA on this car was spelled HODNA.

Someone rearranged the letters. We, however, were so programmed by expectation that we couldn’t immediately see the rearrangement.

It was a light-bulb moment. Our teacher went on to explain that any word in all capital letters is inherently less legible than words in lowercase, but she was likely just trying to make us feel better.

The more important realization was that our eyes see what they expect to see, unless and until we train them not to. That’s just one more reason why it’s so crucial to have an editor or proofreader.

Long into the editorial process for my newest book Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices—more than a year after I’d written the text, months after the last edit, and weeks after the first pass on typeset pages—one of the editors at Boyds Mills Press noticed a typo. It was my HODNA.

Without that editor’s fresh and well-trained eye, readers would be wondering if I meant something really, really deep when I wrote:

Suddenly, without evening knowing it, I slip off to sleep.

Um, shouldn’t that be “even”???

The editor was kind enough to think I was being arty: “I can see perhaps personifying evening, but I don't know.”

Nope, I was just seeing what I expected to see. Which is one more reason why we all need editors, especially if we drive HODNAs.

For a few more reasons why the world still needs editors, take a look at the last few posts--and posts to come. Any reasons you'd like to share? Drop me an email.

Friday, February 10, 2012

We need editors...Because the Danube doesn’t freeze in winter

Reason #1 in the continuing series: Why the World Still Needs Editors

Writers of fiction tend to love their work. I, for one, enjoy the rush of creativity that comes when I’m working on a good story. Sometimes, however, my creativity gets the better of me. In fact, sometimes I’m so creative I’m downright wrong.

A case in point: The Danube River does not freeze over in the winter. Yes, you heard it here first.

That fact, of course, didn’t stop me from writing a short fictional narrative for my forthcoming book Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices about an immigrant boy and an aid worker (both from Hungary) who were blithely convinced that the river routinely iced over.

In my defense, having lived in Minnesota for nearly a quarter century, I’ve come to assume that everything freezes over everywhere. Also, I was pairing this narrative with a historical photo of immigrant boys in detention, lying on the cold hard ground and playing marbles. I needed something cold and hard in my fiction to match the image and to match the isolation the boy would feel on Ellis Island.

The original went like this, with the aid worker telling the boy, “When I came here, I was like you. Hard as ice. Didn’t want to trust a soul. But even the ice on the Danube melts. Or did it stay all hard and cold this spring?” He answers, “No, no! It melted in April, just like usual. . . .”

Sounds great, right? Only, midway through checking the pages for the book, just before it went to the printer, an editor sent an email:

p.57—Danube freezing ok?

All it took was a quick check to find out that, in fact, a frozen Danube is a once-in-a-lifetime event. I like the revision more than the original—and not just because it’s accurate and plausible:

Have you seen Danube, early in the spring?
When the water seems as gray and cold as the ground you’re on now?

Most of all, I like that an editor saved me from putting too much faith in my own creativity, bringing me down to earth and making the book better at the same time.

Thank you, editors of the world!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Does the World Really Still Need Editors?

As a writer, I have a love-hate relationship with editors as a group. I love it when they accept my work for publication, and I hate it when they don’t.

 At times, I’ve though about self-publishing—particularly when it seems that all the editors in the world ignore the wonderfulness and specialness of my (many) unpublished manuscripts. In this era of spell-check and grammar-check, self-published best-sellers, and six-figure, multi-book deals for novice writers, is an editor really necessary?

Um, well, yes.

Working with the editorial staff of Calkins Creek (Carolyn Yoder) and others at Boyds Mills Press on my most recent book, Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices, has given me renewed respect and appreciation for what editors do.

They saved me from so many OOPS moments that I’m thinking Governor Rick Perry should have hired them to advise on his ill-fated presidential campaign.

This post is the first in a series exploring the role of editors.

I’ll share my own experiences with Hope and Tears. I’m also hoping you’ll send me other reasons why the world just might need editors—anything from egregious typos you’ve seen to personal experiences you’ve had receiving (and absorbing) editorial advice.

So, the doors are wide open for your suggestions. And look here for future posts that will try to answer the question, Does the world still need editors?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Dear Reader...

Recently, a friend bought a copy of one of my books as a gift and asked me to write a letter to her daughter to go along with it. I was happy to write the letter (which you’ll find below).

Who wouldn’t want to write to an eager reader?

Along the way, I realized something valuable. Writing this letter helped me identify why I wanted to write the book in the first place.

Now, I’m thinking: Why wait for someone to ask? I should be writing letters to my (real or imagined) readers for every book I write. This one letter led to a whole slew of ideas:

  • It probably wouldn’t hurt to write a Dear Reader letter while I’m still in the middle of a draft—and another one after I’ve sent the final proofs off to the editor.
  • Because some of my books appeal to readers both young and old, it would also be a good exercise for me to write separate letters to the different audiences.
  • Since so many of my books are used in the classroom, I should even come up with a letter (or, better yet, a bulleted list) for teachers on how to share the book in class.
  • And, lastly, pulling together ideas for the letter is a wonderful (not too stressful) way to get ready for author events in both schools and bookstores.

Really, writing a Dear Reader letter is a great exercise for any writer. So, without further ado, here’s my letter to Hannah. (Happy Birthday!)