Friday, 14 October 2011

The Yucky Stuff

Twitter is awesome. I’ve never met so many writers in my life, and I love feeling part of a wide, global community. Through Twitter, I’ve learned that a.) I’m not the only one who worries about fictional people, and b.) I’m not the only one who struggles with the love/hate dance of storytelling. It’s a great feeling, and I hope to learn more from the experience.

Lately, however, I’ve been seeing a tweet that has me puzzled:  

“I’ve finished writing. Now I need an editor.”

Before going further, I want to say that editors are great. If you’ve been thinking of saving up your nickels and dimes to hire one, do it. But the impression I’ve been getting is not one of:

“I’ve written, edited, and combed through my writing a bazillion times. I’ve done all I can do with it, now I need another opinion.”

Instead, I get the sneaking suspicion (and I hope I’m wrong), that “I need an editor” really means:  

I’m done with the fun, now I need someone to handle the yucky stuff.”

If you fall into the first category, then I’d like to pat you on the back (because I don’t have beer money) and congratulate you on a job well done. You ran the race, you crossed the finish line. Bravo. However, if you fall into the second category, then I’m afraid I’ll have to brandish my Mighty Baton of Justice and lay the smackdown. (Note: I also considered calling it my Daisy of Doom, but it just didn’t have the same ring).

Readers of my past essays know I used to have a terrible editing phobia. Paralyzing, really. The very thought of it gave me stomach cramps. Let me put it another way: I’ve finished two novels, and yet I’ve written eight. How’s that for fear? I could write the first draft no problem. It was the second and third drafts that terrified me. I couldn’t even conceive of a fourth draft. A fourth draft might as well have been the seventh level of hell.  

But I couldn’t keep running away from the problem. After all, a first draft has only one function: to sit on a shelf and never be read by anyone. And one of the reasons we write is to share our ideas with others.

But you can’t share a first draft. Remember what Hemingway said: “All first drafts are shit.” You can’t present your friends and family with shit. You certainly can’t send it to a publisher (if nothing else, the smell would alert customs). So what’s the answer?

You sir, or madam, must hit the books. Hard. Yes, I’m talking about grammar. No, the grammar check on your computer isn’t enough (in fact, it often makes it worse). No, you can’t just “wing it” and hope no one notices. No, your disregard for grammar is not some avant-garde attempt at a new style of writing.

“But in your last essay you talked about writing as fun. Have you changed your mind, you crotchety old coot?”

No, I haven’t. But you have to learn the rules before you can bend them.

Look, I know how you feel. Writers like to play. We don’t like to study. But trust a phobic on this one. If you start to study, something amazing will happen: 

Your sentences will start to make sense. 

What a revelation! At least it was for me. I always thought grammar was the literary equivalent of “The Man” trying to keep me down. No no no. Grammar is freedom.

Do you have to learn every grammar rule in the book? No. That would take the rest of your life. You need to learn enough to write clear and clean. Luckily, we are a generation of writers with the Internet. If you’re stuck, look it up. There are many great grammar sites out there (I’ll post a link at the bottom).

Learn as you write. But do learn it.  

“I still don’t see why I can’t hire someone to do it for me.”

Thwack with the Mighty Baton of Justice! Dude, if you don’t study, you and your writing will never evolve. And if you aren’t committed to evolution, then why the hell are you doing this in the first place? To impress your friends? To land a date with that cute librarian? To chase after some foolish notion of immortality? These are all terrible reasons to write (except for maybe the cute librarian one).

If you’ve chosen this journey, then you need to tread the wide flat path and the thorny underbrush. And if you love it enough, you’ll endure the scrapes and bruises. But if you’re not willing to donate the years (yes, years) to this craft, then save yourself the headache and do something else. Seriously. Stop writing this instant because you’ve already failed.

Do I think you can do it? Yes, I do. Persistence is a powerful tool. It’s the real ‘Secret’. Forget about finding a short cut--there isn’t one, and you wouldn’t want it anyway. Many lotto winners are miserable. Most trust fund babies grow into coked up flunkies. They didn’t earn their success, and they know it.

I’m not there yet, but I’m willing to study and push and suffer those slings and arrows until I’ve made it. Are you? Then stop hoping that someone else will make you a great writer. 

Yes, you do need an editor. Luckily, the best one is free. 

My favourite 'how-to' writing books (in order of awesomeness): 

'On Writing' by Stephen King
'The Elements of Style' by Strunk & White
'Self-Editing for Fiction Writers' by Renni Brown and Dave King
'Zen and the Art of Writing' by Ray Bradbury
'If You Want to Write' by Brenda Ueland
'Word Painting' by Rebecca McClanahan
'Getting Into Character' by Brandilyn Collins

My favourite on-line grammar site: Grammar Girl