Good Editors Make a Respectable Writer Remarkable

“A good editor can make a respectable writer remarkable, just like a good parent helps a child become amazing.”―Justin Alcala

I have been working a great deal lately on editing fiction and memoirs. Both require a delicate touch from me as editor: in both, I strive to preserve the voice of the author.

The difficulty with this is that I must show them how to improve their writing while avoiding imposition of my voice in any way. This is where Microsoft Word’s Track Changes and Comments come in handy.

With the author’s permission granted, I make suggested changes to the text, always explaining my changes if I think the reason behind them might not be clear. This might be a grammar point, or it could be a change for impact, for emphasis. Anything I change or suggest is in their power to accept or reject.

Often, I make changes from passive to active voice, which is a concept that takes time to understand. The way I explain is that passive writing is “newspaper reporting” in which this happened and then that happened. More active writing will show what is happening in the moment, rather than reporting it in the past.

If necessary, I will make suggestions about character as well. All too frequently, authors have their characters do something or say something because they “need” them to do or say that to move the story along. But sometimes the author hasn’t clearly considered what the CHARACTER might want to say or do in that instance. Given their own voices, characters can surprise us with their reactions. Where we thought they might be acquiescent, they have another opinion. If, as writers, we allow the character to develop and grow with the story, it often impacts the story in marvelous ways that we had never considered, sometimes turning the book onto a completely different track.

I also discuss motivation, pointing out holes or lack of reason for characters to behave a specific way. Understanding the WHY behind a character’s actions or personality can improve the story and plot significantly, broadening the possibilities for that character within the story. Rather than answering, “I just see him that way,” an author can look deeper into the character and find his or her motivations, the driving force within him or her, which in turn can open up a wide range of story enhancements. I suggest that a character is not just evil because the author needs him to be evil, that is boring. And unimaginative. Rather, I encourage the author to create a backstory for the main characters, and even the supporting characters, so that the author can more fully understand how a character might act.

That is the way to surprise yourself as an author, and certainly to surprise your readers.

The author’s intent is to tell a compelling story, whether in fiction or memoir. To do that, the author must resist becoming predictable. As an author, you must seek the “other perspective,” whether character driven or in response to an event. Rather than walk blithely down a paved path, why not go in the same direction, arrive at the same point, by hopping on rocks in a river? Keep the reader guessing, or at least interested in the journey.

Those are the sort of suggestions I make as an editor. Each story, each memoir, is unique. I help authors to find the uniqueness in their story. Once we find that, the book is immediately more powerful.

That is the gift of a good editor.

Elements of Excellent Fiction

Fiction writing is a work of art. And, as will any art, it is a form that requires practice to master.

And, again, as with any art, there is no single way to write fiction. How we write depends on our personal experience, and on our goal in writing the piece. But for all fiction, there are guidelines.

Each story must involve characters. Whether we love them or hate them, no narrative is complete without characters. Journalism stories cite people involved in an event, but rarely do those characters come to life in those stories. In narrative writing, readers want to know the characters, so that they care about the outcome of the story.

As with any good story, conflict is vital in fiction writing. Think of the earliest stories you heard as a child: there was always an element of conflict. Think Snow White and her Stepmother, or Mowgli and Sher Khan, or Fern Gully and the evil corporation that threatened the animals’ existence. Without conflict, there is no story, only narrative.

The story connecting the events surrounding the conflict is called the plot. The plot is a series of events relating to the conflict, which leads to the final resolution of that conflict. The resolution is the climax of the story. Typically, the climax comes near the end of the story, leaving only room for final reflection.

When writing fiction (though, truthfully, in all writing), try to make your first line absolutely compelling. First lines should pull the reader into the story immediately. My favorite first line is: “Call me Ishmael,” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The first time I read that book, I read the first line and immediately put down the book and looked up the name Ishmael, knowing that the name was key to understanding the entire book. Now THAT’s fine writing!

Or take the opening line in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Or the opening line of Lawrence Hill’s book The Illegal: “Go home.”

Immediately, we are intrigued by these lines. We are compelled to read on. That is the power of an excellent opening line.

Start with a powerful opening line and go on to tell your story from there, peopling your story with living characters, good and evil, who face a conflict … and tell the truth of that experience. When a story rings true, even if it’s fiction, you have the reader in the palm of your hand.




Experience Necessary

At UCSD where I teach fiction writing, I meet many people who want to become writers, but who fear that they’ve gotten started too late in life. They might be former Superior Court judges, physics profs, academic secretaries, telephone linesmen, or “simply” mothers and housewives. Each feels that they “wasted time” before turning to writing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our life experiences inform our writing. Those people who leave high school and decide to “become a writer” are at a disadvantage: they don’t yet know life. It is the people you meet, the situations you encounter and survive, the temptations you face and overcome or give in to, the love you give and receive–all of these become the grist for your mill, the substance from which you create fiction.

Writing instructors teach that you should “write what you know,” but I find that limiting, in terms of subject matter. If you’ve never been a beekeeper, does this mean that you can’t write about beekeeping? Of course not. With the Internet, research is right at your fingertips. But what will give life to your research? Your knowledge of people, of relationships, of trials and tribulations. Beekeeping may be a subject in your book, but it alone won’t carry a story. It’s what you add to the beekeeping knowledge that will make your book come alive, and register as true in your readers’ minds.

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about a female long-haul trucker. Have I done been a long-haul trucker? Never. But I can research the nitty-gritty details, and then populate the book with people I’ve known, personalities I’ve encountered, life situations that a trucker might face, and create a believable story based on my lived experiences. I may not have driven a truck, but I know the challenges a woman faces in a man’s world; I’ve known the fear, uncertainty, anger, and triumph that result from meeting those challenges. My experience will lend credence to the story.

The Superior Court judge doesn’t have to write legal stories. The world is wide open to him. What he’ll bring to the task is his understanding of humankind, of the human heart, and the power of love, lust, and the desire for filthy lucre. He might write a story set in the Pyrenees, a love story between a salesman and a barmaid. What does he know about any of that? What he doesn’t know, he can research. What he does know, about life, love, and longing, will make his writing masterful.

No experience in life is wasted when it comes to writing. All experience can be saved in your tool box, to be brought forth as needed.

Writing with the Senses

I just saw “Inception,” a movie that cannot be easily described with mere words. As such, I realize that I should use it as an example in my next writing class at UCSD Extension: Writing with the Senses.

The movie was a feast for the senses of sight and hearing. The other senses had to be left to the imagination: smell, touch, and taste. Visually, the movie was stunning, and overwhelming. How does one adequately describe the streets of Paris rolling up and over one’s head, so that the slate roof tiles of one stone building lay atop another and cars made ninety-degree turns UP as the avenue bent? or how two characters battled in a zero-gravity hallway, scrambling for handholds as they maneuvered for chokeholds? It can be done, but it won’t be easy…finding the exact words to build the vision in the reader’s mind.

That’s the power of writing with the senses. Learning to use words to bring sight, sound, taste, smells, and touch to the reader’s mind, to create images that will elicit sensory memory in the reader. My workshop at UCSD will be only two meetings, but long enough for the students to get a taste of what it means to write with the senses.

Character Descriptions (pt. 2)

When you describe a character (age, height, weight, hair color, ethnicity, clothing, etc.), you are creating a characterization. The characterization is all the surface information that is know about a person (in addition to the above: schooling, social class, employment, etc.).

But the True Character is defined by the choices the character makes under pressure. For example, you can describe a successful businessman who is happily married, has children who are doing well in school and in sports, and who has a world of opportunity still opening before him. You describe him as the kind of guy any team would want on their side, the man you would choose for a neighbor, the fellow who would be selected as the jury foreman.

But what happens to this man when his world falls apart: one of his children is kidnapped, for example. Will he remain calm, focused, in control? or will he fall apart? make rash decisions? put others in harm’s way to help the one?

It is moments like these that define True Character.

When you are creating the characters for your book, start with plot…know who must do what in the story to give it drama, or humor, or suspense. Then people the book, but don’t create cookie-cutter characters, stereotypes…unless you plan to stand those stereotypes on their heads.

Do the unexpected with your characters. Remember the mother-in-law who lives with the successful businessman? The character you may have thought was just filler, rounding out the background for this stand-up guy who even lets his wife’s mother live with them? What if, as he begins to fall apart, she steps forward to lead the way, providing the strong shoulder and clear thinking required in the circumstances?

By the end of the story, we should know the True Character of each of your cast, and none of the primary characters should remain as they started. All must change. That is story. That is character development.