Calculated Cuts

For some reason I can’t quite remember, I decided to count all my books. Of course, it was only ever going to be a rough estimate. I’m convinced the books move around when they so desire, just like the Rollright Stones, so you never get a true accounting. Still, I gave it my best shot. It was upward of 2000 on the first and second floors, but not counting the attic. In this book count, I didn’t count the electronic books. There are a few thousand more of those.

Now some of these belong to my husband who has a formidable science fiction collection. His collection includes many classics and some books that are truly awful. I, on the other hands, have a lot of mysteries. I’ve given away many of the ones I’ve already read, and some that are part of a series, I’ve borrowed from the library. When I used to fly a lot for work, I’d buy a book in a series, read it on the plane and at the hotel, then leave it behind for someone else.

It occurred to me during this exercise of counting books that a lot of the ones in my house I had never read, and some I had only scanned. So for the new year and here around my 70th birthday, I have decided it’s time to start making my way through the paper books at least, then consider giving away any that aren’t necessary references. So far I’m on my seventh gardening book.

I had no idea I had so many gardening books. I’m learning a lot, and kind of wonder why I hadn’t read these sooner. It could have saved me a lot of time, effort, and failure. One of the books that has really impressed me is Pruning Made Easy. These books have taught me that pruning isn’t just keeping the size of your plants under control, it’s increasing their productivity. You gotta cut to be kind. And you know where this is going, don’t you? Yep, editing writing has much the same effect. Not just cutting down on the hyperbole but making everything more direct and concise.

Now, I have to qualify this cutting down with the qualifier: I have been known to write like a scientist–just the facts without description, discussion, explanation, and all the other stuff that makes reading a story interesting. The trick in both pruning and editing is not to cut the good stuff or too much, but just the stuff that needs to be cut. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a good editor is worth their weight in whatever you’re willing to pay. The same can be said for a good tree surgeon.

So I’ve been pruning my blueberries (I was wondering why their yield had dropped so much), and anything else that can be pruned this time of year. I’ve been offering my services to a friend as a proof reader (he pays in barbecue). I’ve been doing some writing that I am editing as I go and again after it rests for a bit. I’m doing some indoor gardening and lots and lots of reading.

After the gardening books, on to the horse books. That may not be until well into spring. Did I mention I have a lot of gardening books?

Image: Tools by Marilyn Evans

Put Down the Computer, Step Away From the Novel

One of the hardest things for me to do is to stop editing. I want to mess with the book and mess with it and mess with it until everything is despair and woe. At some point, I’ve got to put down the computer and step away from the novel. When I put distance between me and the story, I can see it objectively and recognize what the heck is wrong–sometimes. If I’m lucky, I’ve got weeks to do other things before I have to pick it up again and view it through fresh eyes. At that point, all the typos, plot confusion, really bad turns of phrase, and so forth jump right out and assault me so I can defend myself in a fit of justifiable murder. In an even better world, my readers can review the story and share with me what I have completely botched.

I’m not one of those writers who believes every word I type is golden. I can usually tell when what’s on the screen is crap, but sometimes I just can’t figure out how to uncrap it. Bless my readers, they usually can, or at least they can point me in the general direction of improvement. When I’m all smug and sure what I’ve written is as good as I can possibly make it, a few weeks cooling off time and a re-read or a sheaf of suggestions from friends are all I need to show me I have a long way to go.

So what to do while waiting for my brain to reset? I’ve got a garden and the ongoing war with the squirrels to keep me occupied, as well as the mystery of what can possibly be eating the eggplant bushes (they are in the nightshade family–why aren’t there poisoned culprits littering the yard?) I’ve got other books to mess about with, some coming along nicely, and some disasters that will in their turn get sent to the story ICU. There is my late uncle’s estate that is a bit of a confused mess and requiring some attention. There are the various book promotion activities to keep me busy and out of trouble including a recent reading at Aquarius in Westport and the upcoming ConQuest sci-fi/fantasy convention.

I’m quite looking forward to ConQuest, not only because I get to do a reading of Beloved Lives, but also because I’m on some panels. One is about Edgar Allan Poe, whom I adore and admire; it should be fantastic. Another panel is about post apocalyptic fiction–one of my favorites. I’ll be doing some other fun stuff as well as and getting to see all kinds of good folk.

If you find yourself at loose ends Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (May 25-27), mosey on down to the Sheraton Hotel at Crown Center in Kansas City, and join me. I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time. And say, “Hi” of you see me.

Home

Image: Where I’ll be doing my reading at ConQuest (just kidding–that’s the theater at Pompeii). By Marilyn Evans

 

J. D. Salinger Got Edited

For a time, I had the privilege of serving as editor of a little magazine called The Rune. I pretty much had no idea what I was doing, but I seldom let that slow me down. The previous editor, Lane Lambert, taught me a lot and kept me from making too big a mess of it. Because we were always looking for good content, we were happy to accept some pretty rough stuff if the authors were willing to make recommended changes to improve their material. Over time, I watched some beginners become much better writers and, in at least one case, a very nearly great writer. But there was this one guy–you know the type–who was too good to be edited.

This fellow had previously published a piece in another magazine, and he submitted that same article to The Rune. The content was pretty good, but the writing needed work. When I recommended some changes, he was incensed. It had been good enough to be published as it was before, he insisted. How dare I suggest changes? He eventually withdrew his submission relieving us of having to commit to publishing something that wasn’t up to our standards.

One of the comments I’ve gotten about my novel is that the editing is really good. My guess is these reviewers are used to self-published books. My book is as well edited as it is because I had an editor.

If you’re going to be a good writer, you need an editor. You may be lucky enough to be able to do it for yourself, but that’s not the way to bet. My friends are willing to help, but they know me too well. Folks who don’t know me won’t always understand what I’m trying to say and will need more detail or clearer explanations to get my drift.

A good editor doesn’t get so caught up in the story that they slide over the typos and dropped words, and can see inconsistencies in the plot line. An great editor can tell you One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest should be told from the Chief’s point of view.

Shannon O’Cork wrote in How to Write Mysteries, “Only amateurs and gods write their words in concrete.” She almost had it right. Some of the other people who write their words in concrete are bad and mediocre writers, or writers who would be without editing. The worst crap I’ve ever read was written by a really good author who got so big and famous that no one dared to edit her work any more. Everybody needs to be edited. J. D. Salinger got edited.

If you find that everyone loves everything you write, without any changes or revisions, please, become my editor, because I can’t do that. I know I’m not a god, and I hope I’m past being an amateur.

Image: Words written in concrete. Cardiff Castle, Wales. By Marilyn Evans.