I recently reread The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau and I walked around the rest of the day thinking with an English accent.
This is the last paragraph of The Willow Cabin (it holds no spoilers):
In such a moment of solitude as this, she could feel accompanied by every joyful adventure that she had known, every person who she had loved. She brought into the empty room the crowd, of whom she was made.
The book was making me think about acquisitions. The two main women in the book talk about the “tyranny of property.” I am not like this — I like property for the most part.
Then later when I got online to do some writing, I (of course) tried to avoid work by scanning through my bookmarks and I started seeing the tyranny of my bookmarks.
I bookmark things out of greed; I love the acquisition. I have no time to ever look at 75% of them again. Instead I feel guilty every time I open my bookmarks file to find the one or two I use regularly but I can’t delete the rest. Tyranny indeed. When I get a new browser I rarely import the bookmarks. Then for a very brief time, I feel absolutely free of all those sites I mean to visit someday to read in earnest instead of just scan. But eventually it begins again. Someone sends me an article I want to read but don’t have time or the homeschool email list has a link to a nifty science site and there I am drowning in bookmarks again. It’s a terrible thing.
When the kids were small we used to have regular rounds of Twenty-Five Toss, which was when I’d take a cardboard box, place it in the middle of the hallway and tell them to find twenty-five things they wanted to throw away or donate. By the end of the day we’d have a box full of gum wrappers and outgrown socks and toys no longer needed. If we did this once a week through spring or summer we’d end the season with more space to think. Plus the kids like the alliteration.
Twenty-five is a reasonable number — big enough to make a dent but small enough that the kids won’t get overwhelmed. Plus a person can always cheat her way through it if she needs to and just throw away twenty-five magazine order cards and receipts and old envelopes instead of committing to an entire day digging through basement boxes.
So I think I’ll try this with my bookmarks over the course of the next week or so. And maybe if I get really ambitious, I’ll apply it to my iTunes library, which is about to take over my entire computer.
Now please do not bookmark or pin this article if it’s just going to end up tyrannizing you. Or do it and then make it the first of the twenty-five things you’re going to do away with to make your life more free and easy.
Of course we need copyeditors, even with spellcheck and grammar check and all the fancy whizbang add-ons to our word processing software but if you are a writer, you need an editor — someone to help you with content and flow and direction. You will need them even if you’ve gotten this far without them. You won’t get better unless you have one.
I know this for myself and I know this for other writers, too, because when I was wearing my professional editor hat (for various publications) I wasn’t just the person writing unfinished essays that I thought were already perfect; I was also receiving unfinished essays the authors already thought were perfect. I’m here to tell you that I am always wrong when I think my piece is just dandy and so were most of the writers submitting to me and you probably are, too.
If you are doing a lot of writing — even publishing a lot of writing – and you are not getting good edits, you should find someone to step in. You can pay someone or join a writing group or find a friend with a keenly critical eye but you should get someone to help you be a better writer because I’ll tell you, I think it hurts a lot of great writers to write a long time without some objective help.
Ok, I know there are geniuses among us (I am most certainly NOT one) and I also know that there are regular people who can dash off something brilliant once in a great while (I have had this happen — but it is a rare thing and I cherish it!) but most of us need help. We need new eyes, we need to rewrite — we need editors.
A good editor is a blessed thing. Someone who can see the structure hiding in your prose and help you tease it out is no small miracle. A good editor makes you a better writer. A good editor makes you read your final draft and marvel at its form and movement. A good editor will push and prod you to say what you think you’ve said but actually kept tucked somewhere up behind your brain. They will ask questions that the reader will ask. They will force you to state what you think is obvious but is really obscure.
A good editor’s suggestions may frustrate you or even make you cry but if they’re good, you can trust them. How will you know that you can trust them? Because after you are done being frustrated and after you’ve wiped away your tears you will realize they are right. You will look at the piece and wonder how in the world you ever thought it could be written any other way. You will realize that what you dismissed as “dumb suggestions” are actually a chance for you to answer your readers’ questions before they’ve even asked them.
Because I really want to bring home what a good editor can do for you, I got permission from Brain Child Mag to share the pdf of an essay I pitched to them with their edits. I believe that Tracy Mayor and Stephanie Wilkinson did the edits on this one. You can download the original essay I submitted here, then the marked up copy here (both in pdf format), and finally go read the finished piece, Textured (you can print the final essay from their web site if you want to do a side by side).
You can see how the piece remained itself but was refined through their questions and suggestions. You can see how the structure was tightened and became more focused. I’ll tell you that I did cry after I got the edits because I thought I already nailed it but I took some time away from it and I called a wonderful writer friend and then I sat down and rewrote it. It’s ok to fuss and flutter and whine when you get feedback and you’re tired and grumpy and sick to death of the piece you thought was done already (as long as you don’t whine to the editor) and it’s fine to have some back and forth to clarify (I think between this first go-through and the final I did ask some questions about their questions) but if you trust your editor (and I implicitly trust the editors of Brain Child) then eventually you need to sit with what they’re asking and figure out how to answer it.
Now here I have to give a shout out for the best editor I’ve ever had, my friend Rebecca Steinitz. I’ve been fortunate to have her eyes for a number of different projects and she is always always always right when she gives me feedback. Always. She can slice through my meandering and find a point I didn’t even know I had. She can eyeball a piece and immediately see what’s superfluous. She does not sugarcoat her feedback but she is always kind. And being a writer herself she knows that writing is its own special kind of hell so she will appreciate the work you put into a piece even as she hands it back and tells you to do it over.
If you don’t have a Becca in your life or can’t afford to hire her but want to become a better writer, I highly encourage you to find a great crit group (and I know how hard that is to come by but keep trying!) or start submitting your work to places where you will have an editor. It’s all fine and dandy to cash those paychecks from, say, Demand Studios or Examiner.com but if you want to be a better writer you can’t stay there. (I’d even argue that sticking around too long someplace where you’re not edited will eventually hurt you by making you lazy and trite.) You may not get paid at Literary Mama but you will get a committed editor and a nice clip, which may help you more in the long run.
Because we all of us — every last one — need an editor.
Note: This post did not have an editor. It would be much better if it did.
I’m over at the Huffington Post today:
Over lunch the other day, I asked my 5-year old daughter what I should write in this essay.
“I’m going to write about your adoption,” I told her. “What do you want people to know?”
“I want them to know that adoption is hard,” she answered right away. “I want them to know it’s hard being away from your real, real mommy.”
via Rebecca Walker: This Is My Daughter’s Mother: Dawn Friedman’s Happy Family.
When I was a teenager and first getting my feminism on, I used to have a test for movies and books. Where am I? Where am I in this story? Who could I get to be? Asking myself this helped me identify why reading some books (Philip Roth, Jerzy Kosinski) left me feeling so … empty/scared/lonely/depressed/angry. Because very often the who I could be (the woman or women in the book) were empty stereotypes. Those stereotypes left me feeling worse than if I hadn’t been there at all. In other words, having women’s roles limited by sexist stereotyping felt worse to me than reading a book where women didn’t even appear. Because I could read a book, say, The Chocolate War and know that the lack of women was about the focus of the book and not about the unimportance of me and women like me in all of our technicolor detail.
It’s not that I’m arguing for a complete lack of representation but I am saying that token representation can feel just as bad if not worse. Because I would read those books and think, “Is this all I am to men? Is this all they see of me? Is all the scope I’m allowed to be?”
I sometimes still use this tool to point sexism out to, say, my husband who doesn’t have a lifetime of evaluating media under his belt. For me, understanding the limited range of my imaginary role-models helped me not to take that subtext on as my own. Seeing that my empty feelings after one of those books or movies had to do with the limited imagination of the artist let me reject it.
Let me say right off that as a writer, I didn’t like The Time Traveler’s Wife. I thought it was a lumpy story full of unnecessary detail that detracted from the narrative. I felt that the complex structure of the plot didn’t make up for the unfinished main characters, stilted dialogue or self-indulgent trivialities. I wanted to like it but I didn’t. I felt about it the same way I felt about Mr. Holland’s Opus; I cried at the sad parts even while cursing the master manipulation at work. I knew I was being strung along but gave into my base emotions anyway.
Still, you can’t argue with numbers and the sales attest to the skill of the author. People loved this book. Writers whose opinions I admire loved this book. Readers who read with a discerning eye loved this book. Besides which, Becca has done a good job in reminding me always that to sit down and write a book is an endeavor worthy of admiration in and of itself. So there’s that.
Thing is, The Time Traveler’s Wife is also really racist and that I can’t forgive.
Two of the characters of color have supporting roles. (And by supporting, I mean they literally support the main characters. Hero Henry gets one and heroine Clare gets the other.)
Clare’s supporting character is Nell, who cooks for Clare’s wealthy family. “Nell is like cordon bleu meets Detroit; she’s how Aretha Franklin would be if she was Julia Child.” That’s how Clare introduces us to her. The first time Henry meets Nell she is “sticking her broad, snub-nosed face out of the dining room, grinning” to see Clare coming home for the holidays. And this is how Nell talks:
“What you’re smellin’ is a Thompson’s Turkey … Don’t look so dubious, boy. Underneath that crust is the best eatin’ turkey on Planet Earth. … That’s your Christmas dinner, son; you want to pick one out? … Awright, then. Now scat so I can get on, here.”
In other words, Nell is that stereotype of the black servant — talented beyond reason and sassy to boot. Plus her employers are like family as evidenced by the lack of her own family life and apparent contentment with this. She’s working on Christmas, mind you.
“In the midst of it all stands Nell with her back to me, singing ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ and waggling her large hips, waving a baster at a young black girl who points at me mutely. Nell turns around and smiles a huge gap-toothed smile and then says, ‘What are you doin’ in my kitchen, Mister Boyfriend?”
Just put a red kerchief on her head and call her mammy. I mean, seriously.
Let’s move on to Kimy. Kimy is Henry’s parents’ landlord and his mother-figure after his mom dies. Kimy is also Korean. We know this because Henry tells you, “Mrs. Kim (Kimy, my nickname for her) was my buddy, my crazy Korean card-playing babysitter.”
Kimy, like Nell, is wise and warm in the way that only ethnic stereotypes can be.
She appraises me. Kimy has piercing black eyes, which seem to see the very back of my brain. Her flat Korean face conceals all emotion unless she wants you to see it.
And like Nell, she’s got dialogue to match:
Okay. Yeah, I go in once, ’cause I worry about him. He’s got trash everywhere; we’re gonna get bugs if he keep this up. He’s got nothing in that fridge but beer and lemons. He’s got so much clothes on the bed I don’t think he sleeps in it. I don’t know what he’s doing. I never seen him this bad since when your mom died.
There’s another supporting character of color and she’s an African American woman who is also sassy (of course) and exotic. “Her voice is like butter” and “her laugh is caramel.” “The light from the street turns her burnt-umber skin blue and then purple. She looks like a glamorous martian.”
Now you gotta ask — there aren’t a lot of characters who aren’t white in this book. What literary device is she using when she chooses to make these three of color? You can’t argue it’s just happenstance — the book is too meticulously plotted. What is she trying to convey? In what way is she using their ethnicity and is it necessary to the plot or is it — as stereotypes are — lazy.
It makes me wonder, how could the book have been better if she left the stereotypes out? What if she created characters of color that weren’t one-dimensional? How would that have changed and deepened the book? How did using stereotypes hurt her story?
(Also, since this book is really hard to dig around in, you can use the google version to make it easier.)