Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Two Days of Literary Stuff

The past two days have been filled with literary stuff. On Thursday, I went to three Roanoke bookstores to talk to managers about about my essay in A Cup of Comfort for Writers and to see if they’d be interested in having me do a reading or signing. (I’d talked to two managers a few months ago; they said to come back when the book was out.) Two were out of town; the third wasn’t in. Luckily, I’d prepared press kits, which I left at each establishment. Thank goodness, the F & W publicist had given me cards of the book's cover, so I'd included those in my press kits. What really delighted me was that two of the stores already had copies of A Cup of Comfort for Writers on their shelves.

Later I met my buddy Nita at a Wi-Fi enabled Roanoke coffee shop for an afternoon of discussion about the good, the bad, and the ugly of writing. She’d brought some submissions from the slushpile of a literary mag her husband edits. She warned me they were bad, but—Oh My Gawd!—they were truly dreadful. We Googled the authors. One was living at a motel somewhere in NY state; another’s sleazy website revealed she had vanity-pubbed some, er, unusual stuff. (Note: My sense of decency and good taste—not to mention that this blog is read by a few underage readers—prevents me from quoting from the submissions.) We spent a pleasant afternoon gabbing and surfing the net for literary flotsam.

Thursday night, at Valley Writers, the critique of three poets’ work was stimulating. We nit-picked several details of work that was pretty good to begin with and had a stimulating discussion about what worked and what didn’t. Then Peggy read us a chapter about portents of death from her work-in-progress.

Friday morning’s email brought something delightful: a revised chapter of a novel-in-progress by a fellow Lake Writer—I’ll call him “Duke.” I’ve been "editing" his murder mystery for some time.

I need to digress here:
I’m not a real editor. I’ve met some of the criteria that HarperCollins editor Michael Stearns mentioned last month at Hollins—I’m a reader and lover of language who’s taken lots of writing workshops and studied the craft of writing—but I’ve never taken a publishing course or even worked in a bookstore.

Other reasons why I’m not an editor: My copy of the AP Stylebook is 12 years old; I don’t even own a copy of that editing bible, The Chicago Manual of Style. While I know a bit about MLA style, I’d have to look up specifics of APA and Chicago style. I’ve edited a bunch of junior high and middle school lit magazines—and even Fit to Print, the 1998 Sampler of the Valley Writers Club—but none of those are legit editing credits. I’ve never worked for any publishing house, certainly not one in New York. I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Editorial Freelancer’s Association (and my pitiful resume doesn’t come close to a real freelance editor’s resume.) I have limited experience with major publishers—my own books have been self-pubbed or vanity pubbed, my published articles are mostly in regional magazines, and the majority of the awards I’ve won have been primarily in state. In a literary sense, I don’t get out much.

So—what qualifies me to even look at another author’s work? A masters in English and 35 years of teaching experience on the middle school, high school, and college levels. A strong grasp of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and vocabulary. A good background in American and British literature. Modest publication success since 1993. Paying attention to what the professionals say at the several writers conferences I attend each year.

Because I’m not a real editor, I never charge to help with a writer’s work, and I only critique work that appeals to me. However, I am brutal when I critique. Writer-wannabes can’t take it, but those who want to be better writers keep struggling through several drafts and reading assignments. I’m also persnickety. Anyone who wants my critique of fiction has to read Lukeman’s The First Five Pages
. I won’t do a whole novel at once. I read it one chapter at a time. Each chapter has to be “right” before I move to the next one.

End of digression. After innumerable drafts, Duke finally got his first two chapters “right.” He eliminated most of the telling and started showing. He fleshed out the characters and omitted interminable description. He dropped the clichés, so I stopped cringing when I read his work. He learned how to control pace by the length of sentences. He cleaned up the narrative by eliminating his numerous digressions to “explain” something to the reader. He brought the reader—well, me—into the main character’s head. I started believing his story.

We worked on those first two chapters for months. Maybe a year. Anyhow, Friday morning he sent me his revised chapter twelve. Wow! The draft still has a few rough spots, but he’s got it. His dialogue rings true. His characters act like real people. Description now comes through the eyes of his characters. He doesn’t stop to explain once. Getting this revised chapter in the morning email made my day. I was delighted to see the results of all my nagging.

Just when I thought Friday couldn’t get any better, the afternoon email brought me an offer of a freelance job. After learning the requirements (and how much I’d be paid!) from the special projects editor who’d read some of my work and knew I lived near the lake, I accepted an assignment to write about people and events in the Smith Mountain Lake area. Even though I hate to write to deadlines, I can do this. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

Two days full of assorted literary stuff! I live for days like that.



Blogger Amy Hanek said...

Becky, that is great news! I am glad good (and much deserved) things are happening for you! For what newspaper or magazine will you freelance?
I loved hearing that I am not the only writer that struggles in this field (in showing, not telling). I am also fighting against my bad habits!

2:47 PM  
Blogger CountryDew said...

Sounds great, Becky. I think you have enough qualifications to be an editor. I own the Chicago Manual of Style and have a lot of it memorized - it's a good way to maintain consistency in punctuation, etc. and from that standpoint is quite helpful to any writer, so I highly recommend it.

7:18 PM  

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