Gwynn and Ruth are on vacation for a few weeks. So we’re bringing back a couple of our favourite Top Drawer topics to share with new readers and to nudge long-time followers. The last two blogs explored finding time to write and finding inspiration. This week Gwynn’s April 2016 post rounds out the message with tips for writing every day.
We’ve all heard the old maxim, “Write every day.” In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Whether you believe in the 10,000 hours concept, or simple BIC [Butt in Chair], there is no denying that being a writer means actually writing—real words—lots of them.
“Write every day” is the number one piece of advice given by successful writers—and they should know. But it’s often easier said than done.
So here are 7 ways to keep you writing every day:
Set aside writing time
If writing is important to you, it needs to be built into your routine in the same way that you build in any other important activity in your life. If you need to schedule writing time like dental appointments, piano lessons, or hockey practice, do it. Think of writing as your “job” and block out set times like you would if you were going to work.
Talk to your family and friends about how important your writing time is to you. More importantly, talk to yourself about honouring that time. Are you the one who gives up your creative time to do extra chores, or make way for what someone else wants to do? Ask yourself, “Would I take a day off work to do chores?”
The right time to write is different for everyone. You know when you are most creative. If you feel guilty taking “family time”, get up earlier, or reserve after-bedtime time for yourself.
Have a dedicated writing space
If you learn to play the piano, you invest in a piano. If you play hockey, you buy skates and sticks and all the rest of the hockey paraphernalia. Yet so many writers believe that perching on the end of the kitchen table and clearing up when someone else needs the space is okay. It’s not. Claim a writing space that is yours. It doesn’t have to be a whole room, but it shouldbe a place where you can be alone when you want to, and where youcan leave things in progress.
Get dressed and show up
While it’s comfy to write in your jammies, getting dressed to go to write lends a validity to the activity, like getting dressed to go to work. And as Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up”. If you can physically get your butt in the chair, then writing that first word is that much easier.
Know your writing style
Stephen King says he writes ten pages a day; Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Some writers set a fixed time—write for 3 hours. It doesn’t matter what writing goal you set for yourself, as long it is achievable, and doesn’t set you up for failure. Start small. Even 3 paragraphs done every day will get you further ahead than a full chapter not even attempted because it is too overwhelming.
Use prompts, timers or rituals
To make the transition from the practical world to your creative world, have a ritual: light a candle, play music, or make tea in a special pot. To get the words flowing, make use of writing prompts or timers or idea files. Anything that will get you started. Think of them as warm-up exercises.
From the picture at the top of this post, it looks like that writer channels Star Trek to get started. My writing ritual is to clear my desk, get a coffee and win three hands of solitaire. What’s yours? Share it in the comments below.
Gwynn and Ruth are on vacation for the next couple of weeks. So we’re bringing back a couple of our favourite Top Drawer topics to share with new readers and to nudge long-time followers. This week is Ruth’s May 2016 post on finding inspiration. So get out there this summer and give your muse a change of scenery too.
Ruth E. Walker
I recently delivered a workshop at a writers’ conference: From Inspiration to Publication. In 2.5 hours, I was supposed to shine a light on the path almost every writer dreams about: being published. Frankly, this path can never be illuminated in such a short time. In fact, I could plug in a dozen klieg lamps and have an infinite amount of workshop time, and I’d still leave the bulk of that path in shadows.
No two writers have identical paths
That’s because for each writer, the path to publication is individual and endless. And it is filled with missed opportunities, wrong turns and dead ends. But for successful writers “publication” is not a single event. It is a series of acceptances, right turns and new paths that keep them inspired through all the rejections and disappointments.
Successful writers keep shining their headlights down that path because they know two things:
getting published should not be a one-time goal, and
they only need to shine their light forward to keep going
For even the best writers, it is a frustrating journey.
It’s beyond discouraging to repeatedly receive rejections. So how to keep your muse motivated? Finding and then holding on to your inspiration can be key to keeping your light shining down the writer’s path.
So let’s get started.
Leave your comfort zone behind: a change of place, space or pace can allow inspiration to sneak up and surprise you; if you can’t change your environment (travel or try out writing in a coffee shop, for example) give freefall writing a try (timed writing with no editing, no stopping, no internal editor allowed.) You’ll be amazed with what happens when you let yourself go to follow the energy.
Visit a used bookstore and browse: old book titles, names of authors, a line from a book and even the smell of old paper can trigger ideas.
Find contests with deadlines: a contest theme can trigger plenty of writing or, even better, remind you that you have a story on file to fit that theme!
People watch with a notepad: keep to reportage (just the facts) to record the behaviour, clothing, dialogue that passes by. Pull it out and flip to a random page when you need to nudge your muse.
Visit graveyards and museums: imagine the stories behind all those dates and names (old gravestones and small local museums can be especially intriguing.)
Read outside your interests: essay collections, science journals, biographies, and so on will let you tap into a rich vein of interesting topics.
Get out into nature and leave technology behind. If the landscape doesn’t trigger your muse, being in the open air with only scenery to distract you just might be the space your creativity needs to surface.
Inspiration for writing can come from so many places that I could keep writing this post for weeks. But what these tips all have in common is encouragement to explore. Writers are the adventurers on the open seas of life: we travel in our imaginations and write all about it. If you keep your light pointed into the distance then you should always be ready to find your stories.
About Freefall Writing
Freefall writing was first coined as “Mitchell’s Messy Method” by W.O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen the Wind) when he taught creative writing at university. It became “freefall” over time. There are variations used by many creative writing teachers, but when Gwynn or I lead a freefall, these are our main points:
Be present (meditation before you start is helpful) and follow the energy
Write what comes up
Use the senses — taste, touch, smell, sound and sight
Be specific — not “the car” but “the fire engine red two-door convertible”
Keep writing even if all you can start to write is: I can’t write. This is dumb. Why am I doing this? –eventually, the tension will trigger new energy for you to follow
Resist the editor — don’t stop to “fix” things
Go Fearward — W.O. Mitchell’s best advice ever
Freefall prompt and exercise: Set your timer for 20 minutes. Close your eyes and allow yourself to be quiet and still. Count backwards slowly to zero from fifteen. When you get to zero, start your freefall writing with this opening sentence:
Gwynn and Ruth are on vacation for the next couple of weeks. So we’re bringing back a couple of our favourite Top Drawer topics to share with new readers and to nudge long-time followers. This week is Gwynn’s January 2016 post on writers’ procrastination. Come on. Admit it. Who hasn’t delayed getting BIC (Butt In Chair)?
When people ask me, “What’s the biggest barrier to finishing your novel?”, I tell them, “Lack of writing time.”
And indeed, the demands of life often—in fact, usually—trump the ability to set aside writing time. Yet when I look back at my life and the things I’ve accomplished, I realize that somehow I’ve always “made” time for the things I really wanted to do.
At various times I’ve wanted something badly enough that I’ve worked three jobs at once as well as studying part-time by correspondence; I’ve negotiated deals to allow me to fast track programs over three years rather than five; I’ve run several businesses at once, often going months without a day off, working till 2 a.m., or driving three hours one-way for a one-hour speaking opportunity.
So what does that say about my writing? If I can’t find the time to write, does it mean that I don’t want to write?
If I’m honest with myself, the answer is probably “yes”.
Yikes! How can that be? I love words and language. I love books. I love stories. And I have a story to tell, one that occupies my mind constantly, one that I think is important enough to be told. So how can the answer be yes?
It’s yes, because I’m afraid. It’s yes because the pressure I put on myself to write something meaningful is so great, that it is safer to not write anything at all. When I plan and dream and “write in my head”, I’m not opening myself up to judgement, to failure, to rejection, to mediocrity, or even to the pressure of success. I don’t have to risk anything.
Time is not the problem
So it’s not time that is my barrier; it’s the inability to risk, the fear of taking that step into the unknown, the unwillingness to “do it anyway”. It’s a hard thing to admit. It’s an even harder thing to overcome.
My logical mind knows this and has all kinds of practical things to do to combat procrastination, but the answer ultimately lies in my emotional mind. Until I am emotionally ready to write, there will never be enough time.
Name it to turn it
So what can I do? Tackle the real problem. Tackle my emotional fear.
In any recovery program, recognizing the problem is always the first step. In this case, I need to recognise that time is not the problem, but not writing is. Time is not the problem, but not allowing myself to write badly and thinking negatively about what I write is.
The first step
So, I will re-name my fears as affirmations and post them where I can read them often. This will help train my emotional self to think differently.
I can find time to write.
It doesn’t matter what I write, as long as I write often
I can always re-write, but just getting it down in first draft is the most important thing.
It’s a small first step, but an important one. I’m glad I’ve taken that small step. Wish me luck.
I’m sure I’m not the only one out there procrastinating and blaming it on lack of time. Anyone else have this problem? Post your experience and advice in the comments below.
In last week’s post based on Irene Livingston’s humorous poem, “I Cannot tell a Lilac”, I spoke primarily about light verse and nonsense rhyme, but along the way, mentioned a few other poetic forms connected with humorous poetry. Here’s a quick explanation again of the general forms, light verse and nonsense rhyme, followed by an alphabetical primer on 5 other specific humour forms.
Poetry on light-hearted or playful themes written primarily to amuse and entertain. Although the genre often uses elements of nonsense verse, like made up words and grammatical play, it is technically competent and possesses a sophisticated level of wit.
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Poetry that subverts language conventions and logical reasoning. Humour comes from its nonsensical nature, rather than wit or a punchline. Uses elements like rhythm and rhyme and is whimsical and humorous in tone. Although these poems are also known for the use of made-up words, these words are still used with recognizable grammar and syntax, and each nonsense word is a clear part of speech.
The Mungle pilgriffs far awoy Religeorge too thee worled. Sam fells on the waysock-side And somforbe on a gurled, With all her faulty bagnose!
Bouts-rimés (French: “rhymed ends”) originated from a literary game invented in the early 1600s. They are verses created when the poet receives a list of rhyming words from another person and uses them in a given order to produce a result that makes at least partial sense.
John Keats produced “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” (1816) in a bouts-rimés competition with his friend Leigh Hunt. Here’s an excerpt:
The Poetry of earth is never dead: When all the birds are faint with the hot sun, And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead; That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead In summer luxury,—he has never done With his delights; for when tired out with fun He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
A Clerihew is a comic biographical verse invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley in 1905. Clerihews are written as four-line verses of two rhyming couplets, the first line almost invariably ending with the name of a person. A form of roasting, the humour comes from putting the listener’s sense of rhythm on edge with its purposeful varied line length and awkward rhyme as well as its off-the-mark treatment of the named subject. Here is an example by Edmund Bentley called “Cervantes”:
The people of Spain think Cervantes Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes: An opinion resented most bitterly By the people of Italy.
Epigrams in poetry (they appear also in prose formats) were originally meant as an inscriptions suitable for a monument, but now the term refers to any short, pithy verse especially if it is sharp and moralistic.
What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole, Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
These days, limericks are probably the best known form of humorous poetry. Limericks first appeared in medieval times, but were popularized in 1846 by Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense We all recognize the distinctive form and “punch-line” ending. They are often bawdy too.
In terms of form, a limerick consists of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme and must have seven to ten syllables and the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines are always shorter (five to seven syllables) and have to rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm.
There was a small boy of Quebec, Who was buried in snow to his neck; When they said. “Are you friz?” He replied, “Yes, I is— But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”
This form dates back to the a comic Latin verse form that incorporated common dialect words and gave them mock Latin endings for effect. The same technique is now applied to combinations of modern languages.
This sample from Charles G. Leland called “To a Friend Studying German” plays with English and German:
Vill’st dou learn die Deutsche Sprache? Den set it on your card Dat all de nouns have shenders, Und de shenders all are hard.
Although these forms produce verse that is light and makes us smile, I’m sure you can appreciate the work that goes into creating them. Fancy trying your hand? How about posting a limerick below about writing.
DID YOU KNOW
In addition to a bouts-rimés being a form of humorous verse, it is also a form of constraint poetry: poems written within strict conventions. Gwynn gave a workshop on “Playing with Constraints” in Ottawa for the Tree Seed Reading Series. If you would like to organize a poetry workshop for your group, check out our On-Demand Workshops options.
Now that the blooms are spent, I’ve been pruning my lilacs. I miss their heady scent and pendulous flowers, but each year when they are in blossom, I think of Canadian poet Irene Livingston’s poem “I Cannot Tell a Lilac.”. Ruth and I chose that poem as the first place winner in a contest for a poetry book collection called Open Window 111 (Hidden Brook Press 2002)—sadly now out of print.
I Cannot Tell a Lilac
I remember being intrigued by the playful title and hoped that the poem would not be overloaded with cliché references to the lilac blooms and scent we all know so well. But like the Stephen Leacock Poetry Prize winner that she is, Irene Livingston delivered surprise and delight!
The poem was fun, light-hearted. Livingstone played with semantics and form; she invented words. The poem danced to a happy bouncy rhythm; it had a quiet humour. The rhyme was subtle and skilled. None of it was forced. Everything from the images to the word choice was deliberate, but had the feeling of a careless, happy-go-lucky throwing together of thoughts and feelings. And at the end of it, I could smell the lilacs, see the ponderous blooms hanging low and feel the promise and warmth of spring. It remains one of my favourite poems.
Here are the first few lines of Livingston’s poem:
I’m cycling along so nicely, in brightfully
spritzing four o’clock sun-stream, when I suddenly
spy, with my little eye, a bushlet of fabulous lilacs
“Oh lilacs!” I cry to the halcyon Sunday street.
“Methinks I will toodle on up to the door,
give a light tap-tap and inquire as to
whether I might be permitted to snap off
some sprigs of vosnifferous, luminous blooms……
Is it Nonsense?
Words like “brightfully” and “vosnifferous” take me back to childhood nonsense poems that were fun to read but seemingly made no sense. Like: “”Hey diddle, diddle / The cat and the fiddle / The cow jumped over the moon…” and Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe
But “I Cannot Tell a Lilac” isn’t nonsense. It’s the story of a young child riding a bike through the neighbourhood and being so overcome by the lilacs that he wants to pick them… with funny results.
So if it’s not a “nonsense poem”, what is it? Nonsense rhymes and “I Cannot Tell a Lilac” are both forms of light verse, a genre that includes a myriad of “fun” verse forms from epigram and clerihew to boute-rimes and macaronics.
Encyclopædia Britannica, defines light verse as “poetry on trivial or playful themes that is written primarily to amuse and entertain and that often involves the use of nonsense and wordplay. [It’s] frequently distinguished by considerable technical competence, wit, sophistication, and elegance.”
Light Verse Grows Up
Light verse has been around since Greek and Roman times. The Greek Anthology contains many epigrams. The Roman poets Catullus and Horace used innuendo, wordplay and satire.
In Medieval times light verse took on a narrative form and was often bawdy and irreverent but with a moral undertone. The limerick also made its debut around this time as did fable stories like Pierre de Saint-Cloud’s 40,000-line Le Roman de Renart [Reynard the Fox] written in 1174.
In the 18th century, mock-epics joined the genre, like Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, and Lord Byron’s verse novel Don Juan. Light verse was still filled with innuendo and moral judgement, but took on a sardonic and casual tone.
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”
In the late 1800s Lewis Carroll introduced nonsense poems, like “The Jabberwocky” I mentioned earlier. W.S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads introduced absurdity like in this excerpt from “Captain Reece.”
Of all the ships upon the blue,
No ship contained a better crew
Than that of worthy CAPTAIN REECE,
Commanding of THE MANTELPIECE.
A feather bed had every man,
Warm slippers and hot-water can,
Brown Windsor from the captain’s store,
A valet, too, to every four…..
In the 1900s, poetic forms introduced by Dadaists, Futurists, and Surrealists, and the distinctive techniques of the Beat poets and e.e. cummings confused the boundaries between light verse and serious poetry. Flippant and irreverent tones were actually seriously intended. Poetry that began in an amusing way ended sometimes in bitterness or terror. What had been playfulness with grammar and syntax became forms of their own such as this excerpt from e.e.cumming’s poem “[2 little whos]”
(far from a grown
ful world of known)
who and who
(2 little ams
and over them this
aflame with dreams
Today, I believe the line between serious humorous poetry and light verse is firmly blurred. Wit and satire, absurdity and irreverence abound in both forms. But for me, in light verse, I still look for the elements I found originally in “I Cannot Tell a Lilac”:
a quiet understated humour
playing with semantics and form
a happy bouncy rhythm
subtle, skilled rhyme
evoking a feeling of entertainment and delight.
DID YOU KNOW
Irene Livinston won her Stephen Leacock Poetry Prize in 2001 at the Orillia International Poetry Festival. But did you know that the first winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour also honoured poetry (with a satirical twist) —Paul Hiebert’s novel Sarah Binks (1947), a fake biography of “The Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan”. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes the book as “a comic creation which derives from Canadian literature while simultaneously making a contribution to it.”
At a Spring Thaw retreat, one participant spent much of her time squirreled away in her room, papers spread across her bed, editor’s pen in hand. Poet and artist Ingrid Ruthig was completely focused on her manuscript and surfaced occasionally for meals and evening chats.
After the retreat, Ingrid continued to refine her manuscript. A poetry collection is meant to be far more than the sum of its parts. Not only does each poem have to stand on its own, but there needs to be an cohesive “whole” that pulls together the entire work and leaves readers changed.
As poet Emily Dickinson would have it: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
Right on, Emily.
Eventually, Ingrid’s manuscript was accepted by Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside. And the collection, This Being, was launched in 2016. And then, just last month, Ingrid was awarded the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. This League of Canadian Poets’ prize recognizes the best first book of poetry published in Canada, and This Being fits that bill completely.
We are thrilled for Ingrid. She’s an artist on many levels and brings an architect’s precision into everything she does: from curating collected works and shepherding insightful essays on Canadian poets, to designing exquisite chapbooks of her poetry and textwork, to preparing solo shows of her outstanding art — all of it, perfected before she releases it to the public.
So what drives a poet — this poet, in particular — to be committed to exactitude? And what happens to that clear direction when creativity pushes its inevitable way in? A recent interview on her publisher’s website intrigued us, so we’re sharing it with you today…
Congratulations, Ingrid. What was your initial reaction on hearing that your first collection of poetry,This Being, was awarded the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award?
I punched the air and whoohoo’d! And I knew for a fact, then, that patience can pay off.
You worked many years as an architect and have written a fair deal of criticism. How has this affected your writing of poems?
It is all related, I suppose, but it’s not easy to measure or describe – it’s a way of thinking, of approaching the task at hand, which is to order and resolve something that is, at first glance or in a sense, chaotic. By inclination and training, I’m used to connecting dots – I notice things on a number of levels and begin to sort, align, or discard them, paying as much attention to detail as context. Then I set out in one direction, following clues, trying to keep sight of the big picture or the intended plan, hoping I will arrive at some kind of resolution. Sooner or later the creative process takes over, and I have to give in to it. Without that willingness to relinquish a measure of control, there would be no discovery. And it’s at this stage that writing poems veers away from kinship with raising a building off paper and up out of the ground. In architecture, surprises are usually costly and unhappy ones!
The opening poem in the collection is “Ten Mile Point”, which starts at a stop on a journey – Manitoulin Island – with car doors flung open and “water far as you can see.” But as you turn the reader back to land, with its gift shop and model tepee and our commercialized habits we’re led to something gently epiphanous, that we are somehow standing at a brink. Why did you choose this poem to start the collection? (Click here to see the poem Ten Mile Point.)
Although the poem was written much earlier than others in the collection, it seems even more timely now. It’s a recognition of the most important moment – always and ever the present moment, because we can’t go back and change what has passed, and the future is impossible to grasp. So, here we are, teetering on the edge of a precipice, surrounded by all this apparently endless beauty which also sustains us, but rather than pay attention, we let ourselves be distracted by the shiny stuff. The land’s continuance, and ours as well, hinges on the choices we make from here on in, individually and collectively. This piece set the right tone for what follows – an invitation to the reader to look around and see where we’re standing at this moment in time. To see how we change, and can change. Hopefully in time.
In terms of change and its possibilities, what can you tell us about the title, This Being?
A title, in my view, is like a key that unlocks the door of the book. This one rose slowly to the surface and insisted on staying put. Those two words brought together weave a mystery, and the meaning remains fluid. While it points at humans as beings, it also points to the act of being, of understanding we’re only able to exist in the present, and there’s no living in the past or future. So much about us, about our habits, doesn’t change. Nevertheless we remain fluid as we move from moment to moment. In fact, we’re always changing. And in those small, sometimes imperceptible alterations lies the possibility that we might yet become something better.
Is that the ultimate goal of poetry, to help us become something better?
W.H. Auden, who is quoted excessively from his tribute poem to Yeats, wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Of those who read poetry, many, including me, will disagree – it can strike a chord and resonate long after the book is closed; it reveals things we’ve become blind to; it settles or unsettles by mirroring shared human experience; it stirs thought and emotion. It changes the reader. If we look again at Auden’s poem, it goes on to say “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” Maybe that’s as close to an answer as any. A poem offers a different way of being. It’s an open mouth providing a way to speak and the words for what’s next to impossible to say, even if it’s only a trace of what we really mean. Yet, we keep trying.
DID YOU KNOW?
Revered American renaissance poet Emily Dickinson (1830 to 1886) was known for her reclusiveness, remaining much of her later years in her bedroom and refusing most visitors. Maybe the reception her poems received from publishers contributed to her solitary lifestyle.
Fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime. That’s probably because nobody really knew what to do with her poetry at the time. The ones that got published were edited to fit what constituted “true poetry” at the time (you know: pure end rhymes, regular stanzas, no darn dashes…)
She probably just gave up in frustration. And can you blame her?
What would Emily make of how her poetry is viewed today? Her work is studied in schools and universities throughout the United States and beyond, and you can’t pick up a decent anthology of English language poetry without a Dickinson poem or two in there. The renowned critic, Harold Bloom, cites Dickinson as one of 26 central writers of Western civilization. Her poems and her strange, solitary life have inspired music, plays and feature films.
Is there a lesson here? Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry, her way. The world wasn’t ready. Eventually, the world woke up. Patience, as Ingrid Ruthig notes, can pay off.
The lesson for you: stay true to your creative vision and your voice. Hope that others get it but if they don’t, that doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly what the world needs.
Last week, I wrote about the role of an editor when working on your manuscript. Editors France Peck and Sherry Hinman shared some ideas on the qualities of an editor that writers should look for.
But what about your role? Do writers have any responsibility in this delicate dance between what you thought you’d written and what the editor discovered?
Yup. And it doesn’t include arguing every little point you think the editor missed or misunderstood. I was once in a critique group with a writer who argued every bit of feedback offered by his colleagues. He felt he was arguing others’ “opinions”. He argued even when those opinions were clearly shared by the majority (“All the characters sound the same in dialogue”; “The pacing is slow in the beginning.”; “Who is the protagonist?”, “What’s at stake for the protagonist?” etc., etc.) No one, apparently, understood his work.
I remember thinking, Oh dear. How will he ever work with an editor? To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t yet.
Does an editor need to like your manuscript?
Nope. But an editor should understand and support the heart of your manuscript — what you want your manuscript to do, who to reach, etc. A good editor values your intent. And a good editor will let you know if liking your story matters to how they work on it.
Some years ago, I edited a self-help book for men by an American writer. I totally understood his intent and applauded him for it. But in the editing, I discovered that he was quoting some facts and figures that didn’t quite add up. I asked him for his sources. He had none.
So I sent him back to the drawing board and he returned with new facts and figures that did add up. With sources. Reliable sources that offered even better support to his thesis.
I didn’t entirely agree with his thesis. But his heart was in the right place. And I was pleased I could help him enhance his message with solid facts.
Is there any benefit to self-editing if you’re hiring an editor?
So, think of it this way: Would you hand in an essay for marks that you haven’t checked for errors? Of course not. So why would you treat your writing like something that doesn’t really matter? Own your words, writer. And make them the best possible.
There are so many things a writer can do to self-edit a draft manuscript. Here’s a partial list:
Use proper manuscript format: double-space, 1-inch margins, pagination
Read your work aloud; your ear will catch errors your eyes will often miss
Use a ruler to separate sentences for a line-by-line reading; look intensely at each line
Try the FIND feature in word processing to look for problem words/phrases; frequent misspellings, typos, etc.
Use FIND again to find passive verbs (was/is/were, etc.); replace with active verbs when you can
Pay attention to your known “issues”; for me, it’s numbers and I always have to triple check
Why would an editor want to work with you?
Consider my former writing critique colleague. Working well with an editor means you need to actually consider the editor’s notes. Obviously, spelling errors, typos, awkward phrasing — these are clear areas that need fixing. But what about that comment that the spectacular chapter with the choreographed hand-to-hand combat scene is…too long!?! And, in fact, may be unnecessary to the plot. Well, what does that editor know about a great romance with a combat twist anyway?
Step away from the “no” and think for a minute. The editor may have something. Or not.
I had an editor suggest that I had the Canadian army being gassed in WWI too early in the war. I went back to my notes. Nope. My research supported my scene: April 22 – 24,1915. But how I handled it was wrong. I got defensive. Rather like a “know-it-all”, in fact. That editor was hired by an agent to review/recommend my novel. The agent ended up rejecting my manuscript.
Was it because the book wasn’t for her or was it because I was a bit of a jerk with the editor? I’ll never know. But it was something I’ve always remembered and have always worked hard at not reacting to critique but instead, listening, considering and then responding as appropriate.
Good editors are a writer’s gift
I will always thank George Down of The Book Band who edited my novel Living Underground. He was patient with a first-time author, giving me both phone time and endless emails to answer questions or clarify comments. He was encouraging in a quiet and consistent way. And he was so helpful with issues around the German language and culture that helped strengthen my character, Sigmund.
And I will ever be grateful to Peter Carver of Red Deer Press for his wonderful comments on the early draft of my current WIP: The Last Battlewipe. His reading and feedback of my manuscript was part of the first prize I won at the 2014 Muskoka Novel Marathon for my Young Adult novel. Peter’s questions and comments have been a beacon as I’ve worked to make my crazy illogical planet make some kind of sense.
When I edit others, I am committed to honouring the words. Technically, I am looking for errors and logic glitches, dropped threads and underdeveloped plots and characters. But emotionally, I’m looking to enhance the words and bring the story’s heart out to where readers can see and feel it too.
It’s only through a relationship with the writer that this editor can get a sense of that heart. And that’s the best part of any editing assignment.
Did You Know?
The first point in self-editing Ruth refers to is proper manuscript format. Is it the same for all manuscripts? Not by a long shot. A manuscript for a poetry collection is not the same as for a non-fiction or fiction manuscript.
Writer’s Digest has a great resource for fiction manuscripts, defining some basic standards. These standards can be applied to non-fiction manuscripts as well. With poetry, the form of the poem is not meant to conform to standard paragraphing, for obvious reasons. But the importance of proofreading and clean copy applies to everyone.
Jacob took one look at our dying tree and agreed, it had to come down.
As cottagers, we’re always in that delicate balance between celebrating the beauty of nature and needing to keep it manageable. On two acres of riverside property, we have a lovely mix of conifers (majestic white pine, balsam, spruce and fir trees) and deciduous (delicate birch, maples, black cherry, poplar, beech and a few I-Don’t-Know-Whats.) Safety is always a consideration, as in “If that 30′ spruce fell on the cottage, it wouldn’t be pretty.”
So bringing in Jacob Outram and his tree service was the right thing to do. The spruce had to go.
Jacob wasn’t finished. He listened to us and our concerns about another tree. And then, like the certified arborist he is, Jacob walked the property.
“This will need trimming on one side so if it falls, the weight is away from the building.” Check.
“One half of this birch is dead. It’s next to the gazebo. The dead part has to go.” Check.
“Those branches are over the roof. Winter snow weighs them down, right?” Check.
“This one is losing its needles on the lower branches from lack of light. Trim here and it will be fine.” Check.
By the time he was finished, our one dead tree wasn’t the only one slated for removal or trimming. And as he pointed out the issue with each one, I thought how is it he saw so much of what we didn’t? Then one second later, I thought, Jacob is my tree editor!
Trim Trees, Tighten Text
Think about it. We love our forest (manuscript) so much and look at it so often that we failed to notice pressing issues (spelling, grammar, plot, pacing) and future issues (reader expectations, marketability) that Jacob (editor) saw with his fresh eyes and professional experience. His assessment (feedback) gave us insights to our surrounding forest. And while we will pay for his expertise and work, I don’t begrudge a cent of it. We’ll sleep better at night.
A good editor does for your manuscript what a good arborist is doing for my cottage property. We found Jacob through recommendations. But how do you know when an editor is the right one for you?
“For many people, the qualities that first spring to mind are things like meticulousness and perfectionism, being detail-oriented and able to memorize spellings and grammar rules, having the kind of eye that jumps to the error on the page. While those are certainly desirable qualities for the copyeditors and proofreaders of the world, they carry with them the sharp, unpleasant whiff of negativity.
Good editors must recognize the risks of being forever in critique-and-correction mode, and must balance that orientation with healthy doses of understanding, patience, diplomacy and—yes—empathy.
In the Editors Canada document Professional Editorial Standards, the “hard” skills and practices for each level are always accompanied by softer skills related to communication and judgment. All the knowledge and critical skills in the world won’t help an editor who takes an “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach to a project. We must be collaborators, not antagonists.
The editor as midwife has become a favourite metaphor in Canadian editing circles. We are there to advise and prepare, to smooth and reassure, to massage and adjust, so that authors can deliver the healthiest, most nearly perfect offspring that they’re capable of producing.”
Frances gave a Writescape workshop a few years ago on editing and it was a smashing success. It might be a good time to invite her back.
Editing Skills Checklist
Next, I turned to a local colleague and professional editor, Sherry Hinman of The Write Angle, for her opinion on what skills a good editor needs. Sherry works with a variety of writers and corporate clients, and she says:
Editing skills do relate to the kind of job an editor is working on. No matter what the task, there are Seven Must Haves for any editor:
Author/Editor relationship: The connection between you and the editor should feel respectful and collaborative. (This one’s #1 for good reason.)
Knowledge of the process: The editor should have a good understanding of the steps involved in editing your project, and preferably beyond that.
Style guides: The editor should have access to a variety of style guides and know how to use them.
Technology: The editor should be able to explain what program(s) will be used to edit your project (editing is almost always done on screen) and how you will exchange versions of your document.
Types of editing: The editor should be able to speak easily about the different types of editing (though not necessarily offer services in them all) and to describe what each type includes.
Understanding of your needs: The editor should know what type(s) of editing your project requires and either offer to edit your work or suggest you seek an editor that offers that type of editing.
References: The editor should be prepared to provide references, preferably from clients with similar projects.
So writer, now you have some ideas about what to expect from a professional editor and what you need to look for. But have you thought about what you, as the writer, need to offer an editor?
Hold that thought. I’ll be exploring your role in all that next week.
Did You Know?
Writescape’s Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema have happily served as editors for both fiction and non-fiction writers. They honed their editing skills as senior editors/writers for the Ontario government and as founding editors for the Canadian literary journal, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview
It’s been their pleasure to work with writers at all stages of the editing process: from a general reader’s report and feedback to copyediting, and intensive, substantive editing. They are also excellent coaches for writers who need support on their way to a polished manuscript.
Both Gwynn and Ruth benefited from having an excellent editor at various times in their writing lives.
This time last year, I wrote about my annual experience at Durham Integrated Arts Camp, an 8-day arts-infused camp for Grades 7 – 12 students. Run by my local school board, DIAC is held at a private camp fairly close to my cottage.
I love going there. I teach an elective “Creative Words” where my students are encouraged to leave behind grammar and spelling worries and just focus on writing their words, their way. I tell them, “This is school but our focus together is on being creative with words. Exploring the craft of writing. Stretching our pens into richer territory as writers. Not worrying about the three-point paragraph.”
I had 54 students split over three periods — and each day, we played with words. Exercises, experimentation and sharing work with each other. Partnered or in small groups, they would read selected excerpts to one another. I wanted them to gain confidence in reading their work aloud and offering each other feedback.
Every day, we ended with at least one timed freefall writing exercise. Freefall, originated by the great W.O. Mitchell (Mitchell’s Messy Method), means they follow the energy, don’t stop writing, don’t fix anything and even if they can’t think of what to write, that is exactly what they write.
I can’t think of what to write. I don’t know why Ruth is making me do this. I can’t stand it when people make me do stuff like this. Just like when…
And before they know it, they’re writing about something that catches their imagination. It’s great to watch them drop deeper and deeper into the zone of writing in freefall.
But there was one student who caught my attention.
Day One, he came into our old workshop building and sat himself as far as possible from all the others. Arms crossed, hood up and over his head and cowl raised to cover his mouth was a clear signal to the rest of us: I am not comfortable. And I’m not at all sure about this.
I’ve met this boy before. Well, not him exactly, but others who seemed like him. As a visiting artist at an alternative high school, many students would greet me in just this way. I was hopeful that my eventual success with them would help me here.
During the first freefall, I saw that he wrote very little. So I asked him quietly if I could help. “I can’t write without paying attention to grammar and spelling. It matters to me,” he said.
Spelling and grammar matter?!? I could have kissed him right there and then. But besides getting me fired for being completely inappropriate, it would have freaked him out. So I said “Write in whatever way works for you. I say it doesn’t matter about spelling and grammar to free people up but if it matters to you, then go ahead, pay attention to it. Remember: your words, your way.”
Day Two. Hood and cowl off. Still sitting separate but not as far away. Seems to be writing more.
Day Three. He comes into class, smiling over something someone had just said to him. Sits next to another student. I thought to myself, when this boy smiles, the room lights up. Cliché, I know. But it is exactly what I thought. Because it was true.
And here’s the best part of this day. It came time for sharing. By now, a few students volunteer to read to the whole room.
And he raises his hand. “I’ll read,” he says. Stands. Speaks his truth as captured on the page by his pen. Three seconds of silence as he sits back down and the room erupts in table thumping and cheers, and so many comments, we ran overtime. And his smile? Surely the glow illuminated the whole camp.
His Art, His Way
That glorious moment. That alone would have been enough to fuel my workshopping heart for years to come. But it was at Talent Night on Day Four that I learned as strong as his voice is on the page, there is another art that will claim his soul.
Imagine. A full set of drums, glistening red sides, gleaming cymbals and so on, on an otherwise bare stage. And my grammar-and-spelling camper sits at those drums, illuminated by the single spotlight. Nearly 450 campers in the audience, along with various instructors and staff. I recall thinking to myself “Oh, he drums. Hmm. That explains the excellent rhythm in his reading…”
The background music starts up. Something jazzy, if I recall. A moment spent thinking, well, isn’t this a nice surprise — he likes music with some depth, maturity…and then his drumsticks dive into the call and answer of the music. And the music, quite frankly, ceases to matter.
Well, you may then have an inkling of what we experienced in that auditorium. His sticks flew, so fast, so hard, so exquisitely staccato that when one splintered off, part of it cartwheeling into the air, the cheers rose to the ceiling and came back down again. He didn’t stop for a nanosecond. His joy. His passion. His complete immersion in the zone was for us to watch and marvel at. This was no Grade 8 boy taking his first tentative steps on stage. This was a musician on the path to mastery and we were his witnesses.
The spontaneous standing ovation from his peers invited another glorious smile. More than acceptance, all of us in that auditorium were connected with the artist and he knew it. Many of us know what we saw that night. Years from now, we can say we were there when…
And how does this creative writing teacher feel about a young man’s clear gift as a writer being second fiddle to his drum kit? Fantastic. Who know what other gifts he’s harbouring? I’ll be back next year to see what I can discover.
Did You Know?
So many artists didn’t start out knowing they were meant to work in a particular medium. Or they were obligated to follow family footsteps while their hearts really belonged elsewhere. And some artists have more than one career.
The great American poet, William Carlos Williams was, for much of his life, Chief of Pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital. Vincent van Gogh tried being a missionary, teacher and art dealer before he discovered art school at age 27; ten years later, he committed suicide but left behind a remarkable legacy of iconic art.
Some writers take time to achieve publication. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye) and ahead-of-her-time rule-breaker George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) both published their first books at age 40. Much beloved Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel) was 33 when his first children’s book arrived on the shelves.
And some writers take a long time to find their voice. Anna Sewell was 57 years old when her first and only novel, Black Beauty was published. She died the following year but lived long enough to see the book’s initial success.
Whether you’re a teenager with a brilliant writing career mapped out or nearing retirement and thinking about that novel you always wanted to write, remember this great advice I got from an agent recently. “Age doesn’t matter very much in the publishing world. It’s the quality and marketability of the writing that matters.”
As often happens in life, birth and death go hand in hand. Last week I wrote about the birth of my baby granddaughter, Elle, and all the wonderment and creative promise that comes with that.
But our family has also been touched these past weeks with the news of terminal cancer. Many of us in this situation feel the helplessness of not knowing what to do or what to say.
And then an email from an oral story-teller I know told me about a “storyteller-in-residence” at Baycrest Health Sciences.
For the past three years, Dan Yashinsky has been telling and listening to stories at Baycrest as part of their “storycare” program. He explained in an article for The Toronto Star that: “Storycare means creating times and places in the hospital for people to tell, hear, imagine, and remember stories.”
His article explained that storytelling encourages imaginative responses even from dementia patients who have forgotten the names of their loved ones; that suspenseful wondertales can help patients with severe depression “regain their desire to discover what happens next — in the story, and in their own lives.”
He recalls that Yukon Elder Angela Sidney once told him, “I have no money to leave my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth.” For patients in palliative care and their families, telling their life stories can be a comforting and enriching experience.
When I was a young woman, it seemed to me that biographies and to a lesser degree, autobiographies, were the only source of “life stories.” And to make it into book form, the subject life had to be a famous one: great achievement, great adversity, great discovery and such. Today, I have noticed that memoir stories abound. Stories still of great achievement, great adversity and great discovery, but stories from “ordinary” people. The kind of people I might know. The kind of lives I can recognize.
What I like about this trend is the underlying inference that everybody’s life matters. That we all have something to offer. And that in each life I read about I find echoes of my own. This connection through story can, at different times, inspire, comfort, educate, amuse, awe or humble me. It’s all good.
The Power of Story
An article in The New York Times says “Telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our lives.” The article tells of a study on the positive effects of storytelling on people with high blood pressure. Dr. Thomas K. Houston, lead author of the study said, “That natural tendency may have the potential to alter behaviour and improve health.”
The International Storytelling Centre (ISC) based in Tennessee, agrees with that power of story, and not just for health, but for attaining any goal because it is the most effective way to communicate both with others and with ourselves.
ISC began a movement to revive oral story telling over forty years ago. The cornerstone of their belief is that “People crave, remember and honour stories.” They say, “We are an organization dedicated to inspiring and empowering people across the world to accomplish goals and make a difference by discovering, capturing, and sharing their stories.”
Tell your story
Many cultures have a rich and active oral storytelling tradition, and increasingly oral storytelling groups are forming the world over. Each year, March 20 marks World Storytelling Day, a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. World Storytelling Day began in Sweden in 1991 and Canada joined the event in 2003.
On this day, people tell and listen to stories in many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night. This event has been important in forging links between storytellers and in drawing attention to the art of storytelling.
Isak Dinesen said, “To be a person is to have a story to tell.” So throw off any thoughts of “my story isn’t worth telling.” It is. In writing or orally, tell your story as only you can tell it.
And when I next visit the hospital, I think I might ask, “Tell me about…”
First nations Storytelling. Storytelling is a traditional method used to teach about cultural beliefs, values, customs, rituals, history, practices, relationships, and ways of life. First Nations storytelling is a foundation for holistic learning, relationship building, and experiential learning.
Oration, singing and storytelling are a source of both of delight and solace within the Maori culture. ‘Healing Through Storytelling’ is a grief support programme created with Maori and delivered alongside Maori authors.
Healing Story Alliance explores and promotes the use of storytelling in healing. Our goal as a special interest group of the National Storytelling Network is to build a resource for the use of story in the healing arts and professions.
Nicole Stewart started thelive storytelling series Oral Fixation(An Obsession with True Life Tales). She has produced 19 shows, each with a different theme and featuring regular Dallas folks reading aloud their stories