Monday, September 30, 2013

To Edit or Not to Edit...

“I don’t strike out much. I write on... I do one draft. I do the editing in my head first. I very seldom change paragraphs and things around. I’ve heard that it’s very useful for people who do move things about to have a computer, but it wouldn’t suit me because I just write on.”
That quote is from Muriel Spark—-prolific, English author of biographies and novels, a great Dame who died in 2006 at the age of 88. What an organized mind she must have had to be able to edit before setting pencil to paper! She also maintained a stubborn writing process. She did all of her writing with specific pencils in notebooks she ordered specially from an Edinburgh stationer. If only we could all have such willpower and confidence.
I attended the Southern California Writers Conference this month, where I gave a workshop on editing. Not the kind you do in your head but the other kind. I like the setting of a workshop because it allows me to share ideas but I always come away with information for myself too. Writers have many different methods, unique strengths and weaknesses, and processes that range from disciplined to haphazard. But we were in agreement about the difficulties of editing. How do you gain the subjectivity you need to be ruthless with your own work? Where do you begin in the process, when the task seems so daunting? How can you cut big swaths of your most evocative and heartfelt scribbles?
I have no definite answers. It helps me to separate tasks and keep the writing far from the editing. During the process of writing, it often feels like I’m repeating the same imagery, the same phrases. It’s difficult to ascertain things like pace and progress. So I’m always pleased during a re-read when it seems to make any sense at all. Sometimes, I’m even very, very happy when I read for the first time. But that’s delusional and probably means I need to put it away for several months while I regain my grip on reality, right? Just this morning, I re-read something I wrote and while it had some glimmers of hope, I was apparently having a real issue with verb tense that day. She had done this or that, while he did it, and I felt the need to review some basic rules of grammar.
Not a good day for editing, today. Best to “write on.” Save the scrutiny for another day and just keep going.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

There’s a song being played on the “Hits” pop station I’m forced to listen to when my kids are along for the ride (almost always). It’s called “American Girl” and it’s sung by Bonnie McKee. The opening lyrics include this:
“We talked about our dreams and how we would show ‘em all,”
and it got me thinking about John Adams and the American Revolution (as these things do), and I wondered which “’em” McKee’s talking about. Who did a California-born white girl who attended a private school in Seattle and had her first recording contract at age 16 have to “show” anyway, and where did she get this antagonistic attitude? Obviously, in the case of Adams and his revolutionary counterparts, the initial “’em” was England, dominator and unfair taxer of tea, and later, “’em” would be France, the Netherlands—anyone who needed to be showed that we were, in fact, a country and perhaps an eventual power to be reckoned with.*

Later in "American Girl," McKee sings about “taking over the world”—again, I’m unclear exactly how she means this but I’m pretty sure it has to do with money and the Billboard charts. Are we all born with a chip on our shoulder, this distinctly American, underdog persona that manifests as a need to prove worth or dominance? This seems to be a common complaint by non-Americans, our sense of entitlement. Does it help to think that it comes from an insecure place?
I’ve also been watching several episodes of a new show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” An overt yet well-made advertisement for, each hour-long episode follows a celebrity as they discover information about their family tree. Because of my own experiences with searching for family, I’m always interested in this kind of stuff. I like the personal stories, like when Christina Applegate cleared up some family lore about her paternal grandmother and was able to share it with her father, who never knew his mother. But the more historical angles are interesting too, if you can stomach Cindy Crawford being a descendant of Charlemagne.

Several of the celebrities are motivated by a desire to find out something about themselves, some genealogical trace of their own characteristics, some explanation of their talents or inclinations. Kelly Clarkson’s great-great-great grandfather was a Union soldier who survived prison camp and eventually became a senator and she was certain that she inherited a tendency toward “standing up for what she believed” from him. Coming from a family of non-artists, actor Jim Parsons was ecstatic to find a grandfather (six or seven greats back) who was an architect to King Louis XV.

Can we credit non-tangibles to heredity, things like work ethic or artistic leanings? How true are certain stereotypes about nationalities? Are these feelings taught or genetically inherited? I really have no idea, but it's interesting to think about. And I’ve got a strong feeling John Adams would have something to say about it (after talking to Thomas Jefferson, no doubt).

*By way of explanation, I’m currently watching the 8-hour HBO miniseries on Adams and read the biography for my book club. So I pretty much have an Adams lens (WWAD) on everything right now.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Favorite Books on Editing: Mine and Yours

"I have been correcting the proofs of my poems. In the morning, after hard work, I took a comma out of one sentence…. In the afternoon I put it back again.”                – Oscar Wilde

I’ve been preparing material for a workshop on editing for the Southern California Writers' Conference (9/20/13-9/22/13, space still available here), and so, I’ve been doing some thinking and reading on the topic. Over the summer I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s On Writing, a well-respected if untraditional primer which is every bit as good as you’ve heard, and I've been rereading some favorites. All of this poking into the workman side of writing coincided with the arrival of a critique of one of my novels from a respected author; in a general sense, then, editing has been on my mind and recently, how it may or may not need to be applied to the work in question.

Editing is an acquired taste. Beginning writers are appalled by the very thought of it but after time, you learn to welcome and even look forward to the process. Your pedantic, word-loving self should appreciate taking a fine tooth comb to syntactic constructions and your English-major-study-of fiction self might relish all the talk of character development and thematic progression. Who you need to check at the door is your sensitive self. The one who tears up over lovely phrases and heartfelt projections, the one who clings, white-knuckled, to a side story that has nothing whatever to do with the central story because of time spent on research or deep thought or self-congratulation.

This is where workshops, books and advice come in handy. It helps to know we’re all in this together, doesn’t it? One thing I’d love to do in the workshop is share a list of resources. A few of my go-to guides are:

Revising Fiction by David Madden
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

...and several more, which you will have to attend the workshop to hear! I'd love if my fellow writers could comment and share your favorite books on writing and/or editing. What books have helped you along the way?  Is there a single guide on writing you couldn't live without? 
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka