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Where in the hell did a year go?

Tonight, for the first time since Nov. 17, 2009, I made fresh progress on a new novel. Eight hundred and fifty-nine words’ worth, if you must know, and that’s a pretty good single-session output for me. I’d be lying if I said I had planned to let it sit so long, and I’d also be lying if I said I feel like I wasted the time in between. Twenty-ten was spent pushing hard on 600 Hours of Edward, rounding The Summer Son into shape (and finding a publisher for it), essays, short stories and the like. I did not want for work, though I probably could have gotten by on a little less rest.

Just the same, after writing and selling two novels in twenty months, to have let twelve more slip by me with no measurable progress on a third seems … unlikely. And yet, that’s just what happened. Now that the thing is moving again, I’ll hope to stay atop it until I see it through. As to its working title or storyline, I’d like to hold that close for a little while longer yet. Ideas are like newborn puppies; the fewer hands that touch them, the better.

Yesterday’s post of a Toastmasters speech reminds me that I have another one in my back pocket, a (purportedly) humorous one called “Noble Misfits of the Work Force.” It is presented here for your edification:

If there’s a singular reason I’ve survived twenty-two years as a professional journalist – aside from being of questionable character and having no other marketable skill, I mean – it’s the people. Journalists, by and large, are the noble misfits of the professional class. Most of them – emphasis on “most” – are smart enough to be tremendously successful in any other line of work: high finance, the arts, street peddling. Instead, they choose journalism. Why? A million reasons, and some of them actually brush up against the idea of digging out the truth and exposing corruption. (Me, I chose it because I wanted a profession that let me sleep in until noon and made me just enough money to remain well-stocked in pizza and compact discs. I’m glad that this crowd is sufficiently unhip that I don’t have to explain an antiquity like “compact disc.”)

Suffice to say that the profession attracts people who skate on the other side of the ice. People who march to the beat of a different drum. People who view life through a different lens. People who overuse metaphors. Some of my older colleagues contend that the heyday for the noble misfit was actually several decades ago, that the most colorful days of journalism ended when newspapers added HR departments and began frowning on those who carried flasks in their desk drawers. Poppycock, I say! The times no doubt have demanded that alterations be made, but I find that the flask fits perfectly fine in my overcoat.

It’s been my pleasure to know some of these irascible characters in my career, and today, I would like to introduce you to a few of them:

THE TWISTED WIRE EDITOR

A wire editor, my friends, is someone who gathers the news from the various cooperatives – the Associated Press, etc. – and condenses that huge pile of offerings into a daily report inside your newspaper. When you’re a wire editor, you quickly become numb to man’s ghastly capacity for unmentionable cruelty. Whether it’s police brutality in Poughkeepsie, shootings in Saratoga, murder-suicide in Milwaukee or beheadings in Birmingham, a wire editor reads it all.

One of my colleagues in San Jose, Calif., who held this job would meticulously harvest the lead paragraphs of stories of mayhem and transplant them onto a take he kept squirreled away in his personal queue. There, he would perform a bit of mad-genius surgery to the snippet of story, removing the name of the perpetrator and inserting a new one:

Mother Teresa’s.

Thus, someone reading this take would come across items like this:

“SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Police say that Mother Teresa was arrested Friday after a traffic stop and search that revealed she was carrying three tons of marijuana in the trailer of her semi-truck.”

“ELKO, Nev. – Mother Teresa was taken into custody Wednesday after a four-hour armed conflict in which two police officers were shot, one critically.”

“JORDAN, Mont. – Mother Teresa is being held on $15,000 bail after being arrested and charged in the poaching of seven elk.”

We don’t know why this wire editor did this. (In truth, we don’t know why he’s still walking around as a free man.) But the point is, he was perfectly at home in a newsroom. Celebrated, even.

THE RECALCITRANT SPORTS EDITOR

I didn’t witness this, but I have it on good authority that it went down this way.

It’s a Friday night in 1968, and the sports desk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is humming along at a brisk pace when the elevator pings and two men who don’t belong in a newsroom step off. (When you work in a newsroom, you develop a sixth sense for interlopers. They have personal hygiene. Their socks match. That sort of thing.) They make a beeline for Charles Clines, who was working that night, and say, “Is Charles Clines working tonight?”

Charlie, as he was known, says, “I’m not sure. Let me check the schedule.” He walks to the opposite wall, puts his finger on the schedule, and says, “Nope. He’s off tonight.” The two men thank him and head back to the elevator. Unfortunately for Charlie, his coworkers launch a long, cascading laugh, and the two men pivot and walk back into the newsroom, past the sports desk, on their way to the managing editor’s office. Charlie, figuring he’s done for but showing the can-do spirit of a desperate fugitive, dashes into a side office, shuts the door and turns off the light.

It’s all for naught. The managing editor and the two men show up, unlock the office door, and place Charlie in handcuffs. The men were cops, and the reason they came for Charlie is that he hadn’t paid his parking tickets. Ever. He was paraded through the newsroom and received a standing ovation.

(The reason I know this story? Charlie is my stepfather.)

FINALLY, A LOVE LETTER TO THE PEOPLE WE COVER

The first two examples I cited were people inside the newsroom. But at least half the fun of the profession lies in who you get to know outside the office.

Down in central Texas sits a town that’s spelled M-E-X-I-A. It’s famously mispronounced even by longtime Texans; it’s not MEX-ia, but MA-HEY-UH. Back when Grant Teaff coached the football team at Baylor, he made a recruiting visit to that town and, as the story goes, he stopped off at a local restaurant for a bite to eat.

“Ma’am,” he says to the woman behind the counter, “I always get this wrong. Could you tell me again, real slow, where I am?”

The woman looks at him and says, “DAI-REE QUEEEEEN.”

Finally, here’s one that actually happened to me:

Early in my career, maybe 1990 or 1991, I’m covering the Texas Golden Gloves at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth. One of the championship fights comes down to a Dallas fighter against a Fort Worth fighter. Given the pro-Fort Worth bias of the crowd, the Dallas fighter is lustily booed, both as he enters the ring and throughout the fight. Despite facing this hostility, the Dallas fighter ends up winning in a knockout.

I hightail it back to the interview area and catch him as his gloves are being cut off.

“So,” I say, “did the boos motivate you?”

He flashes with anger, balls up his fists and says, “Naw, man, I don’t drink.”

Too bad. I had this flask, right there in my overcoat …

My new novel, The Summer Son, comes out in January. Certainly, there is a lot of seemingly interminable waiting — to see the cover (finally did), to get proofs, to hear from marketing, etc. All perfectly normal, and frankly, my publishing story has unfolded at lightning speed compared with most. I’m not good at patience, but it’s something I’ve had to learn to develop. If you think writing and publishing books might be for you, learn to live with the waiting.

Behind the scenes, though, I’ve been plenty busy. Starting January 24th and continuing for two weeks, I’ll be on a virtual tour to promote the book, doing guest spots on a series of blogs related to books, writing, culture, etc. So for the past week or so, I’ve been writing that material — posts on building characters, finding a publisher, real-life inspirations for fiction, fathers and sons, writing in Montana. I’m about halfway through that stack of work, and still other appearances will be in a Q&A format, so I’m awaiting questions from my kind hosts.

The goal, for me, is to have my plate largely cleared by mid-October, three months before The Summer Son is released. Then, I’m bearing down to finish the first draft of the next novel, so the cycle can begin again. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

Here’s an interesting story from the Washington Post. It seems that more and more simple errors are sneaking into print, and readers are noticing. It’s not hard to figure out why. The story notes that the newspaper’s stable of copy editors has been whittled from 75 to 43 in the past few years, even as the duties beyond pure copy-editing have increased.

In my day (er, night) job — you know, the one that pays the preponderance of my bills — I work as a newspaper copy editor. I’ve long considered it a sound policy not to discuss one’s employer on a personal blog, and I’m not about to abandon that wise course now. Instead, I’d like to discuss editing in the big picture, across all forms of publishing. I guarantee you, what’s happening at the Washington Post is not an isolated case.

When I originally self-published my first novel nearly a year ago, I was — outside of my wife — the only person who had laid eyes on the words, and I’m afraid that deficiency was easy to spot. When the first book landed in my hands, I immediately spotted dozens of errors — dropped words, backward quote marks, dangling modifiers, etc. Because the book was print-on-demand, I was able to upload a new interior file and fix those. Then came the new book and a new round of errors. I must have done this five or six times.

By the time I turned the manuscript over to Riverbend Publishing for the book’s re-emergence as 600 Hours of Edward, I had read it innumerable times and rooted out every possible error, or so I thought. But the publisher found a few, and then I found a few more in the proofing stage, and finally we had a completed book.

The first time I opened it, I found another error.

Do you see what I’m getting at? It’s damned hard to come up with a pristine manuscript. Harder still when editors are removed from the equation.

Unfortunately, that’s what is happening across a broad swath of the publishing world. Houses, even the biggest ones, have cut deeply into their editing ranks, for reasons of expedience and expense. Maxwell Perkins, were he alive today, would probably be an acquisition editor, focused chiefly on getting the books into the publishing house and not so much on honing them into word-perfect shape. Many of the traditional editing chores now fall to literary agents, and while they’re often fully capable of doing that work, they already have other vital and time-consuming chores, such as persuading the acquisition editors to bring the work aboard. So, then, the onus falls to the writer to get it right in the first place, and while there are many ways in which we can improve our craft and our self-editing, we can’t possibly give ourselves the same benefit we would get from an intensive edit by a professional.

So how do we bridge the gap? A few ideas:

1. Be damned good in the first place.

2. Failing No. 1, become a better self-editor. Read well-edited material and take note of what it does well (precise word choice, economy, structure, etc.). Take advantage of the myriad (and free) editing tips that can be mined on the Web. Our friends at The Blood-Red Pencil regularly offer excellent editing advice.

3. Join a writing group. Even if your colleagues can’t offer detailed copy editing, they can give you big-picture reactions to your stories and essays.

4. Trade sweat equity with a buddy. He reads and edits your stuff. You read and edit his.

5. If you can afford it and think you’ll benefit from it, engage the services of a professional editor. I’m happy to recommend one: My friend Leon Unruh at Birchbark Press does unfailingly excellent work at a competitive price.

We owe it to readers to give them the best experience we can with our books. That’s our bond: In exchange for their money and their time, we offer the best story we could write, with as few flaws as possible.

Sorry for the light posting around here of late. ‘Tis the season, you know. The simple fact is, there just hasn’t been much to say, even as there’s been so much to do.

Thanks to my friends at Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids, that has changed today. A couple of weeks ago, the organization’s director, Roger Holt, and volunteer Connie VonBergen interviewed me about 600 Hours of Edward. The result can be seen here. It’s a half-hour video. PLUK does terrific work, and I’m honored that the folks there have taken such an intense interest in my novel.

(I’m also thankful, in a way, for video evidence that I need to drag myself to a gym, posthaste. I joked to Roger and Connie that they looked like mountaineers about to climb me. Yikes!)

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve also taken another editing run at my second (as yet unpublished) novel. It’s been sitting on a shelf for a few months, and that distance really gave me an opportunity to reset, refocus and go at the manuscript aggressively. The story arc didn’t change, but I whacked away at some undergrowth of exposition.

Now, I’m going to sit back and watch the rest of 2009 unspool. It’s been a wonderful year in many ways — certainly better than 2008, which is the worst on record for me — and I’m eager to see what 2010 brings. First thing out of the gate: a Jan. 2 signing at Barnes & Nobles in Billings. More details here.

Happy holidays!

In all the excitement about the Riverbend news, I didn’t spend much time with my new manuscript last week. And when I say that I didn’t spend much time, I mean, of course, that I didn’t spend any time. I’m one man. Cut me a break.

Yesterday, on the golf course, Gone to Milford drifted back into my mind, and it came with a solution to a nettlesome problem I’ve been struggling with for two drafts now: how to imbue the story from the start with the appropriate level of foreboding. The story, in total, unwinds some very difficult relationships, but not in a traditional separation-and-reconciliation sort of way. That’s the extent of what I’ll say. If you want to know the rest, read the book when it emerges.

The story starts at the end. What I struggled with was where at the end I should begin. What follows are the original beginning and the one I amended it to earlier today:

The early version

UPDATE: Based on initial feedback and my own evolving thoughts, I went back and did some tweaking and came up with a new, expanded beginning.

Here it is.

Which one, if either, makes Does this make you want to read more? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments section.

I’ll be interested to hear the responses.

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