• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Maybe You Want To Give Me Kisses Sweet

Two manuscripts came in last week on stretchers. One needed a heart transplant, the other a new leg. It took hours of surgery, but they are both doing well. People ask if I still edit. I can’t not edit. I think we all read with pencils in our hands. Isn’t that the job?

I’ve been editing writers for 25 years. A lot of the work is routine by now, easy to spot, easy to fix. Sometimes the diagnosis is more difficult. You can have a very well written book that doesn’t move you. You can have a beautiful mess. You can get a beautiful mess into shape. But how do you add feeling? 

Editing is also about trust. It’s a dance. You have to feel that your partner won’t drop you. Will catch you. Sees the forest, sees the trees. Sees the birds. Sees the maggots. You know I love to hear stories about worst experiences, but I’d really love to hear about the best thing you learned from an editor or reader.

14 Responses

  1. Love Love Love your blog! I had the pleasure of having my debut novel release this fall. It’s doing great! I’m a little stunned but enjoying the journey. Part of that journey was working with my amazing editor. What a joy it was to work with her. She taught me so many things about character arcs and story structure and not to have my character go to the bathroom too often. LOL.If you read the book, you’ll understand. But, the most important thing Barbara taught me was to relax through it as much as possible. To listen to her, consider her suggestions, trust that she is correct and go from there. That really helped, because sometimes an author truly cannot see the forrest for the trees. My novel has just been named one of the top five Christian Fiction titles of 2009 by Library Journal. Pretty sweet and I believe because I listened to my editor. You have to listen. Thank you for this great blog!

  2. The advice that I seem to use more than anything else is:
    Write your first instinct for a character or scene, then change it, because it’s probably lazy writing. We travel the path of least resistance.
    I’ve also received lots of good advice on this blog!

  3. The only editing I got on my book was a proofreader’s line edit: I had to get rid of my British spellings (although to me, “traveller” doesn’t look right with just one L) but I argued to keep my capitalizatons of the seasons: we capitalize the days of the weeks and the months, why not the seasons?

    Nobody at the publishing house asked me to change a single word, sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Either because (A) I am such an AWESOME writer or (B) because nobody ever bothered to read the whole book, or (C) because it is beneath an editor to fiddle with a graphic-memoirish manuscript. Good thing I’m not a deep thinker: I’m going with (A).

  4. By the way, Betsy, I read your blog before I check my email. Am I going to get a heart or a leg message from you?

  5. “I want to know more,” is usually the response I get from the readers in my writing group, and now, from my agent. Seems I am on the beautiful mess side of your equation, a sparseness that needs fleshing out.

    Not yet to the publishing gate and grateful for wisdom your blog provides. And, you make me laugh. Not many do.

    • I can’t resist the urge to nitpick, CJ. My understanding of beautiful mess was that it’s the opposite case from yours. The mess is when there’s way too much of the good things and she has to clear a lot of it out: the subtractors. You’re an adder. I think.

  6. I’m an editor, not a writer, but one of the best editorial moments I had came with a writer who liked to talk through revisions before working them out on paper. One of her best books with me sprang from a single question: “What if she isn’t dead?”

    The author took it and ran with it, in wonderful directions I could not have anticipated and certainly couldn’t have dictated.

  7. From one of my first readers, maybe four years ago:

    “I want to feel it in my gut. Make me feel it.”

    I still use that as one of my writing mantras.

  8. “i’m interested in…” is the best comment i’ve heard. good to know my writing isn’t boring. oh, it may be as messy as an unmade bed but it isn’t boring. if someone isn’t interested in my writing it’s the death knell for that piece.

    signed, a fucking writer

  9. Well, I probably shouldn’t have had my very best friend in the world be the first reader for my memoir, but she read it and left me a message on my phone that filled up my memory, raving about it. What a thrill to have finally let my work out of the house after working on it in isolation for so long, have someone else read it, and find that she loved it. Now whether she was just blinded by our friendship, that was a different thing, but hearing that was quite a thrill!

  10. As one making the transition from a career as a writer of TV-movies to a writer of prose, I always find something to interest, educate and enlighten me here. Thank you.

  11. Joan Walsh had edited me a lot at Salon and knew what got me into trouble. We were working on a long piece for several weeks, and she wanted strong opinion in there, but a few times I got carried away evicserating a few assholes who deserved it, but . . . we were better off letting their dickishness speak for itself.

    Just as we were wrapping up, Joan got called away on something, and the assoc editor did the final edit. He said that Joan had left one message for me: If you felt the urge of moral indignation coming on, resist.

    He wasn’t sure why she had said that, but she said I’d know what she meant. Haha. I did.

    By then, I didn’t need it on that story, but it stuck with me. What I heard was a broader message, and it really helped me on Columbine, because I kept it in the front of my brain as I got started, and found my tone. What I heard was: “Quiet. Keep it quiet. This story is loud already. No need for you to shout.”

    I tried it that way, and found that the more softly I spoke, the louder the story felt.

    It was that experience with Joan that solidified that for me. Like a lot of good advice, she wasn’t the first to tell me, she was the first to make it sink all the way in. My mentor in writing school, Lucia Berlin, had talked to me about that a lot. I had tried many times to quiet down, but never quite got there–didn’t trust being quiet, I guess.

    I kind of think that because Joan had already got me to be quiet on that story, when I heard the advice, it was almost more like an attaboy: “Look, you kept quiet, and look how well it turned out.” I was able to look at it, and realize it had worked, which built the confidence I’d never had about it before.

  12. Your blog fuckin’ rocks. Period.

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