Tag Archives: editing

January 2023: in praise of editors

From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady on the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.

Frederick Buechner, b. 1926

I had the pleasure of finalizing proofs for my story with Chelsea Lemon Fetzer, of Little Patuxent Review, in early January. Because of what she paid attention to, I discovered that my timeline was inconsistent, as was my use of bulleted lists. The first is a Big Deal for the flow of the story; the second is a Smaller Deal that would distract only the copyeditor-inclined among us. But both made me think harder about the story, the questions it raises, and how choices large and small impact its effectiveness.

And that thinking in turn led me to ponder all my other life editors. My friend who reminds me that my tendency to go from “not-too-hungry” to “gotta-eat-now” was present when we met each other, thirty+ years ago, so maybe that trait isn’t an indicator of oncoming type two diabetes. My ex-husband who reminds me that once upon a time, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about accurately measuring coffee and just drank whatever–so maybe I can rethink my current practice of ditching an espresso shot that is a few grams above what it should be. My young-adult children, whose continuing participation in family traditions show that I did some parenting well and perhaps I could stop beating myself up about my mistakes. My current partner, who points out that I drive myself literally nuts when I try to do more than one thing at once–so maybe I can consider not-baking a (literal or metaphorical) cake from scratch. My own journal entries, which reveal that I’ve struggled with consistently submitting stories for my entire wiring life, and so maybe it’s time to stop spending time resisting my resistance, acknowledge it’s a thing for me, and move on. Because the odds of getting to learn from editors of all types and stripes increases when I accept that I don’t know what I don’t know, open up, and engage anyway.

May it be so for you, too.

Giovanni Mannozi, “Death Seated on Political and Religious Trophies,” study for the ephemeral decoration for the funeral of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Which I interpret as: pay attention and give it a go, we’re all gonna die anyway.

How many words do you need for a story?

Rosie the running dog at rest

Rosie the running dog at rest

We have a new dog, Rosie, younger than our “old” dog, Penny. Rosie is a different variety of mutt: the more energetic variety. Rosie likes to herd Penny with nips to her withers, and wants to run run run run run.

Problem is, Rosie is more interested in the world at large than in us and the treats we offer, so we don’t let her off leash at this point. Penny, on the other hand, always returns to us if we remove her leash, after investigating tantalizing smells (near as I can tell, what most fascinates her are logs that serve as chipmunk mausoleums).

Last week I met a neighbor’s father in the woods during the morning dog walk. He doesn’t speak English; I don’t speak Chinese. He sized me up: one dog ambling, leash-free, the other leashed and, frankly, a bit angst-ridden. He gestured to Rosie and asked, with his face and his hands, why she wasn’t loose like Penny.

I responded, “Oh, she [I mimed running] spwhhht” (this made-up word represents sort of quick whistling windy sound made by a fast-running-away dog. I swear.).

Ah, he nodded, and he continued westerly whilst I went east.

I’ve returned to this exchange several times over the past several days, as I’ve revised, and tweaked, and tinkered with, and edited and revised again, a short story.

Which words do I need? Only the necessary ones.

I made up an exercise for myself during my latest effort at word-smithing: I subjected every single word in the story to what I now call the walk-in-the-woods test. Would I try to pantomime and make up new sounds to express what that word meant, if I were conveying my fiction to someone whose language I didn’t share? If so, it’s earned its place. If not? Delete, delete, delete.

Of course, a story written in English is intended to be read by those who understand the language, and there’s depth and nuance available to native speakers that even the best sound-effecting pantomime among us can’t touch.  But a story that doesn’t run at the heart of what I’m trying to say? It’s a miserable dog on the leash of a writer’s vanity.

Stories can show us all the places life teems invisible to those who walk fast and talk too much. Set your stories loose, and aim them at the best, most interesting part of your figurative forest, be that chipmunk mausoleums, the creek bottom, or gopher holes.