I just finished reading a novel that should have been good but ended up awful, largely because the author — a good poet and a pretty solid nonfiction writer — was new to fiction and made a lot of self-indulgent rookie mistakes. I don’t blame a rookie for being a rookie, but I definitely blame her editors for coddling a rookie whose success in other areas probably intimidated them.
I think the problems with the book bugged me more because I just spent several weeks revising and rewriting my own novel, and I’ve spent the past week or so helping a friend with his dissertation, so I am keenly aware of the perils of editing. It is an unfortunate reality that editing often involves tearing apart a project that’s been years in the making, examining the pieces, and handing them back to the writer to reassemble. That can be a painful process, and its success depends on a combination of trust and tough love: As an author, you have to trust your editor to critique your work with its ultimate success foremost in her mind, and as an editor, you have to care enough about your author to protect him from the consequences of publishing work before it’s ready, even if that means telling him things he may not enjoy hearing.
As the book I read this weekend illustrates all too well, even a big publishing house may not have the kind of gutsy, demanding editors a writer needs — which is where self-editing comes in. If you’re your own toughest critic, you can make your editors’ lives easier while compensating for any weaknesses they may have.
With that in mind, I’m starting a new weekly feature called “Hippie Writing Coach” — or, as my sophomores called it, “English class.”
Each Monday, from now until I get distracted by a shiny object, I’m going to post a short writing lesson. Some of the issues I address will be large-scale concerns, such as organizing a paper or developing a character; others will be little nitpicky issues, such as the difference between “your” and “you’re.” I’ll include samples (including some thoroughly embarrassing examples of my own work), advice on self-editing, and maybe an occasional writing prompt. I’ll entertain questions in the comments.
To get things off to a provocative start, tomorrow’s topic will be: sex scenes. Don’t act like you didn’t just bookmark me.