Some of my favorite editors OF ALL TIME

friendly friday friendly dog meme

Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So come closer and listen to what I’ve learned from experience: Editors are a writer’s best friend.

Not when they’re patting you on the back, because anybody can butter you up.

They’re your best friend when they take a red pen and blast through your complicated writing pets, when they check your wildest instincts and find order out of the natural chaos that comes from banging on the keyboard to create anything of length and importance.

So it’s wrong to say that every writer needs an editor.

You need more than one, if you want to get serious about any sort of real writing.

It’s like building a house. As a writer, you’re trying to do it all: draft the blueprints like an architect, pour the foundation, frame it, plumb it, siding, drywall, flooring, cabinets, painting–the whole thing.

Every step is important. And getting the right editors is like hiring great subcontractors.

My bias is to think of structure first, because if the blueprints are bad, it doesn’t matter how pretty the carpentry is, and how great the writing is line by line.

This is why every professional architect hires an engineer to do the math and make sure the foundation is strong enough to hold up the house, that the roof won’t blow off and your beams are big enough to handle the load.

So you need different editors for different things. The best possible professional editor for the structure, the blueprints. Then beta readers to look over the whole thing another time, looking for medium-size problems. A line editor to smooth things out and make it all pretty, and finally a proof-reader to take a microscope to the entire thing and make it as flawless as possible.

That sounds like a lot, and most pro editors can wear different hats. But I’m going to argue for dividing it up, because when you’ve been staring at the same thing for weeks, or months, you stop seeing things. A fresh pair of eyes is always smart.

Even though I’ve always had editors, starting way back in college when I was putting out newspapers, there’s a natural inclination for writers to screw this up, to see using editors as some kind of sign of weakness. The thinking goes like this: “Hey, I have (1) a master’s degree in creative writing or (2) have been cashing checks as a journalist for years or (3) am far too talented to need the crutch of a professional editor, which is for wannabes who can’t write their way out of a paper sack if you handed them a sharpened pencil.”

I’d did editing wrong by having friends and family beta read, or asking fellow writers who yes, wrote for money, but cashed checks for doing something completely different.

And it was a waste of time.

Here’s how I learned my lesson, and no, I am not making this up: On a whim, I posted a silly ad to sell my beater Hyundai and romance authors somehow found my little blog that started from that. Pro editor Theresa Stevens got there somehow and I started talking to her, and on a whim did her standard thing to edit the first 75 pages of a novel, the synopsis and query letter. Didn’t think anything of it and expected line edits, fixing dangling modifiers and such.

But she rocked.

I learned more, in the months of editing that entire novel, than I could’ve learned in ten years on my own. It’s like the difference between a pro baseball player trying to become a better hitter by spending six hours a day in batting practice, alone, versus one hour a day in hard practice with a world-class batting coach. I’d pick the batting coach, every time.

As somebody who used to lone-wolf it, let me say this: I was wrong.

And so on this Friendly Friday, I want to plant a big smooch on editors of the world, and encourage writers of all backgrounds and specialties to see editors in a different light. That having an editor isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength. That it says you’re crazy serious about what you do and not afraid of working with the best of the best rather than a cheerleading squad of yes-men who think your 947-word epic about elves with lightsabers riding dragons is the best thing ever.

That it’s not about you, and doing whatever you want, but about making the finest product you can give to readers.

So I want to give a shout out to Theresa the Stevens, who has taught me much, and Rebecca Dickson, my uncensored female doppleganger, and to great beta readers and editors like Alexandria SzemanJulia Rachel BarrettAnna Davis, Mayumi, Donna — because just like a single person can’t be expected to build a beautiful house alone, a smart writer gets help and advice from the smartest people possible.

Find one of those smart people with a red pen.

Hire them, hug them, listen to them, buy them flowers when you succeed. But use them, if you’re serious.

Writers: can you do it in FOUR WORDS?

That’s the acid test for every writer: four words.

If somebody in line with you for the Largest Latte Known to Man asks what you’re working on, can you explain it in four words?

How about eight words?

Because if you can’t, you’re not really done.

What if I told you ... how to get to Sesame Street?

And I don’t care that you’ve spent the last seven years locked away in a French monastery, slaving away 25 hours a day, eight days a week to perfect (a) The Great American Novel, Even Though It Was Written in France, (b) the movie script that will turn Hollywood on its ear and stop it from spending $250 million apiece on Michael Bay explosion-fests involving robots that transform into cars or whatever  or (c) a punk-rock masterpiece with song after song with lyrics so beautiful, and rebelliously ugly, that anyone who listens to it quits working for The Man and buys an electric Fender so they can learn the only three chords you need to know to become AN INSANE ROCK GOD.

So let’s get down to it. If you haven’t already, read these posts to get all educated and such, even though it is technically cheating — because today, there is a quiz.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

THE MOTHER OF ALL LOGLINE QUIZZES

Loglines, which, if you weren’t paying attention, are short little summaries of movies and books and such.

There are two ways to score this quiz, the first involving length and the second quality.

Four words or less gets you an A, five words is a B and so forth.

Quality is subject, but even if your logline is insanely brilliant, anything over eight words gets a big fat F, and F that glows in the dark and follows you around for a week like a bad cold or a moldy metaphor, which is like a simile, but different.

Sidenote: If you are a Literary Muffin of Stud, go ahead and share your brilliant answers in the comments. Then we’ll talk smack.

Sidenote on the side of that sidenote: If you are a shy lurker, as 99.9 percent of writers are, print this and scribble your answers, then share your brilliant answers somewhere, with somebody. Because it’s time you stopped being a shy lurker writer type. YOUR HEAD WILL NOT EXPLODE. Maybe you’ll even make a friend over the Series of Tubes and such, fall in love, get married and move to a former dairy farm in Vermont or whatever. These things have happened.

Quiz Part 1) Write a logline for your favorite movie, but turn the villain into the hero without changing the story.

Example

STAR WARS:  Wise ruler fights to stop murderous rebels, who keep blowing up invaluable public property.

Shot the length rule to bits there. Let’s shorten it to five words.

STAR WARS: Wrinkled leader battles murderous rebels.

There we go. I like it. Could have nailed four words if we smited “wrinkled,” but I don’t care.

Bonus, because we hit five words and give ourselves an A++ and such: Palpatine’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.

Quiz Part 2) Take your current project — movie, novel, performance art piece involving a dance number that expresses your feelings about unemployment — and write a logline making fun of it.

Go ahead. Have at it.

It’s more fun than you’d expect.

Quiz Part 3) Write five fresh loglines by twisting or rewriting stupid books and movies that had promise, then took all that promise and blew it to pieces with The 12-gauge of Utter Stupidity.

Examples

MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: Man wins war against robot enslavers.

Six words. It’s a better plot, because not Keanu “Whoah” Reeves doesn’t sacrifice his life to play virus cleaner for the robots, therefore protecting the status quo and ensuring a cycle of endless war and nuttiness. His death actually changes things with this logline. But six words is still too long.

MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: Man frees mankind from robots.

Five words. Too many “mans” in there. Where’s Trinity and such? But it’s better.

ONE SHOT: Tom Cruise is a foot too short to play Reacher.

Yes, I am a bad man. The trailer still looks awful. Couldn’t they find some short actors to play the thugs who Tom Cruise beats up? It looks like junior high bullies hassling a second-grader for his lunch money.

ONE DAY: Man meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back.

That’s the standard plot for every romantic comedy ever, but it’s also 1,398 times better than the actual plot of ONE DAY where man meets girl, man loses girl, man loses girl again, man finally marries girl, girl gets RANDOMLY PANCAKED BY A TRUCK, man is sad, roll credits.

TRANSFORMERS 3: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON OR WHATEVER: Magic robots leave Earth, because why would magic robots need our lame technology and such anyway? Also, Megan Fox buys a pair of pants.

I’m cheating again, though it is fun. Alright, TRANSFORMERS 3: Robot war obliterates Earth.

Much better. Also, it’s right up the alley of Michael Bay, who loves nothing more than blowing up stuff anyway.

Why critique groups MUST DIE

Every writer gets the notion — from college, from movies, from the Series of Tubes — that they should be in a critique group.

This notion is seven separate types of wrong.

It’s time for critique groups to go the way of the rotary phone — to make way for something better, faster and stronger.

Peoples of the interwebs: critique groups are obsolete

A critique group is useful for certain things:

(a) university professors who want students to break into groups and leave him alone for the next 45 minutes,

(b) writers who really, really like to read their work aloud,

(c) literary snobs who like to say silly pretentious things about the work of others, and

(d) happy writers who like to socialize with fellow writers and talk smack about the craft while drinking bourbon.

Sidenote: Yes, your particular critique group is wonderful, and you couldn’t live without it. No worries. I’m not driving to your house with the Anti-Critique Group Secret Police to disband it or anything. Also, your critique group’s amazing bylaws and secret handshakes mitigate all the typical disadvantages of plain old boring critique groups that are not nearly as awesome. 

Reason No. 1: Critique groups take far too much time

During college, sure, you’ve got time to sit in a group, read chapters aloud and debate what Susie really meant by having the protagonist drink a bottle of ketchup in Chapter 2.

Once you graduate from college, get a job, get married, buy a house and have little pookies, THERE IS NO TIME for this type of nonsense. Do I have three hours to drive to somebody’s house, listen to chapters read aloud, then talk about what I remember of those words and drive home? No. I have ten flipping minutes to write silly blog posts.

People who write for monies, full time, do not gather around a table to read their text aloud while fellow writers and editors listen carefully and ponder the words. It does not happen.

Reason No. 2: Editing as a group is dangerous and slow

Anything written by a committee will stink up the joint, right? Writing is a solitary act.

Editing is, too. You write a thing, then you give it to an editor.

Typically, there are different levels of editing: at a newspaper, you ship your text to the city editor, who gives it the first whack and focuses on the big picture. Later, the draft goes to the copy desk for a different type of editing, more of a polish and proofing.

Also, editing is best done on a keyboard, or with a red pen. Not out loud in a social group, where peer pressure and weird dynamics can screw up a draft in two seconds flat.

Reason No. 3: Critique groups can’t handle most things we write today

Short stories and novels. That’s what critique groups are really built to handle.

And they do a bad job on novels. Why? Because reading a novel in tiny chunks every week will (a) take forever and (b) turn the focus onto pretty words rather than structure and story. You need to see the entire airplane before you can say, with authority, whether it’ll fly or not. Peeking at tiny pieces of it all year doesn’t work.

Traditional critique groups are bullocks when it comes to editing blog posts, speeches, opeds, screenplays, newspaper stories, magazine features, obituaries and haikus. That’s right, haikus. YOU CAN’T HANDLE THEM.

Reason No. 4: Because I say so

That’s it.

I could put some bullets beneath here, if you want to make it official. Here you go:

  • Because
  • I
  • Say
  • So.

Let’s invent something new

Now, there is a place for some kind of thing that’s LIKE a critique group, except better, faster and stronger.

Everybody needs an editor. And the more important a thing is, the more you should hire a professional editor who actually does this stuff for a living. But for a whole bunch of things that we write — including silly blog posts — hiring a pro would be a waste of money and time.

So let’s invent a new Writing Monster that’s better, faster and stronger.

Better

The Writing Monster should be flexible, able to handle the editing of any kind of writing, whether it’s a little blog post, a speech, a short story or a screenplay.

It should also expose people to new ideas and new ways of looking at writing, and inspire us to rip the pages out of stupid pretentious books.

And it should expose us to different types of writers and editors, not just fellow writers who have the same exact skills and writerly prejudices.

Faster

The Writer Monster Thing should use this thing we call the Series of Tubes and travel at the speed of light rather than the Speed of Steve’s Subaru as you carpool to Jane’s house for the critique group and hope that she didn’t make that bean salad again.

Stronger

The Writing Monster should be strong and resilient, living in the cloud and forging connections with writers and editors anywhere, like the Borg’s hive mind collective.

BTW: Resistance is futile.

The Writing Monster will NOT die because Steve moved to Idaho or Jane discovered that she hates Tyler’s novel and, to be honest, his stinking guts.

Also, the Writing Monster will focus more on short, important things like concepts, pitches and structure. Things that take up less than a page. (Kristen the Lamb is onto something with her Concept Critique Group idea.)

The alternative is spending every week for the next year dissecting Steve’s 125,000-word epic about vampire elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs and Jane’s memoir about growing up on a potato farm in Idaho.