A guest post by Victoria Mixon of A. Victoria Mixon, Editor.
Many years ago, when I was a starving writer wrestling day and night with the phenomenal angel of the fiction craft, I got thrown on my back a lot. I’d lie there wheezing until I could breathe again, then I’d gamely hop back up and go at it again.
Wrestle! Wham. Breathe. Up. Wrestle! Wham. Breathe. This went on for a really long time.
So now that I’m a professional indie editor, I know what’s going on at your house. And there are things I’ve learned about this craft that could make this wrestling match a whole lot easier on you. These are my secrets, the things you should know:
- 1. You need far more discipline and profound human compassion than you think.
You guys. You bring me your precious manuscripts, written in ink from the opening of your own veins, these symbolic versions of the very real and tragic heartbreaks you yourself have survived, and you tell me, “Don’t be gentle. Lay it on me. I can take it.”
Fortunately for you, I’m the wimpiest writer ever in history, so I just ignore you. I know that every mild criticism is a slam to the writer’s solar plexus and every compliment is a faint voice mumbling unintelligibly in the distance.
Only when you’ve gotten a hefty dose of compassion for you, the writer, can you hoist up your suspenders and set about the Herculean task of applying the discipline and ruthlessness your manuscript needs. There are always piles, mountains, avalanches of it. If I simply laid the discipline on you first, you’d be humiliated—silenced.
This is why I’m not just an editor. I’m a writing therapist. Half my job is being really good at handling manuscripts, and the other half is being really good at handling writers.
- Writing fiction isn’t expressing yourself, it’s creating an experience for your reader.
And yet we all write because we love it. Right? I’m not sitting here at my desk thinking about you. I’m actually sitting here thinking about me, about the fact that I know something important and I want you to get a kick out of learning it from me.
Which leads me inevitably to admit that the reader is the only one in this relationship who counts. I might very well have something you need, but if you don’t want it I’ve done all this work for nothing. Not only that, but you’re not here just for what I know, you’re here for the experience of learning it, and even more than that you’re here for the indescribable magic that happens when you find yourself sandwiched between what you’re learning and how you feel about learning it.
That’s the magic that changes a reader’s life. And the writer’s job is working that magic.
- No one can properly line edit their own writing.
This point sucks, but it’s a simple fact, so we might as well all get used to it, the same way we’re used to dentists, freeways, and working for a living. I would far rather be independently wealthy on a chateau patio overlooking the 1920s Mediterranean coast, words like pearls falling in perfect order from my quill, bouncing over my feet and across the worn flagstones.
But that’s simply not going to happen.
Instead, I’m going to write as clearly and succinctly and vividly as I know how, and then I’m going to hand it off to someone else—my writer husband, my writer friend, or the editor of whatever publication or blog I’m writing for—to be line edited. They’ll catch the awkward phrasing and constructs that make a reader stumble over my words. They’ll smooth the rhythm I’ve worked so hard to achieve (and, hopefully, catch most of my typos.)
They’ll see my words the way a reader sees them. And that’s professional polish.
- The publishing industry is not Cinderella, and neither are you.
Or, to paraphrase Dylan: they ain’t a-going nowhere.
I know everyone’s breathing down your neck, exhorting you with the authority of wild-eyed fanatics to hustle your fanny out there and get your novel published. I know this is why you ask for blunt criticism and hope to skimp on the line editing, why it’s so daunting to be told this work is, more than anything, about magic.
But honestly. . .what’s going to happen if you don’t get published PDQ? Are the publishers all going to turn into pumpkins at midnight?
No. And neither are you. Novels have been written and published for over four hundred years. They will continue being published a good four hundred years from now. I spent thirty years delving into this craft in the privacy of one cozy little workspace after another, across three states and half a dozen countries, one desk in a closet and another on a minuscule Hawaiian lanai overlooking the endless ocean. You have time to immerse yourself in this craft for a very, very long time indeed before you need to start looking over your shoulder to see if the end is gaining on you.
- Your manuscript is in much worse shape than you believe it is, but you have vastly more potential as a brilliant writer than you can imagine.
Now, you may have seen my recent moment of online glory in which I was immortalized in the Huffington Post for being dissed by my agent. That story was absolutely true. Every single manuscript that comes to me is the best, brightest, most word-perfect work of which its author feels capable, and every single one of them has aspects for which an agent with a caustic tongue could get them into the Post.
But that’s okay. I learned how to fix all that stuff.
Even more importantly, every single manuscript that comes to me has its moments of ineffable glory: a facility with words, specific telling details that snap scenes into three dimensions, plot twists and developments that carry me right out of myself, laser-like snippets of dialog and amazing character insights, things that make me sit up, make me laugh, torque my heart exactly the way a reader’s heart needs to be torqued.
These moments are the stuff of which brilliant fiction is made.
- Your job is to go beyond the limits of possibility.
Of course, the biggest thing I know that you don’t is that writing fiction is an impossible labor. Great art is never as transcendental as its creator has in mind.
Readers might be happy enough with less than transcendental (but not much). Publishers and agents might be as happy as they’re ever going to get. (It’s hard to tell.) But once you’ve seen your vision and known what it’s like to capture even a fragment of that iridescent substance for your own in words, you will never again be satisfied.
So you keep at it—the impossible. Even though you know it’s impossible. That’s what you, great writers, and immortal protagonists all have in common.
- Fiction isn’t really about reading or writing, it’s about living.
Finally, not the biggest thing I know that you don’t, but the most important: there’s no such thing as either “escapist” or “literary” fiction. There is only storytelling to which all of us, readers and writers alike, go over and over again, to find out what life is, learn the basic skills we need to survive it, and discover the unspeakable beauty and subtlety and significance that makes it worth living.
You don’t have to be a writer. You simply do this work because we human beings need it done.
Victoria Mixon spends her time blogging for the vast tribe of aspiring great writers in the blogosphere and editing their work with her suspenders hoisted up. She is the co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators and author of the recently-released The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual.