To collaborate or not to collaborate?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve always eschewed the idea of collaboration.

To me, writing a novel is such an intimate process of soul searching that I could not imagine sharing that process with another person. I suspect I am not alone with that feeling.

But last March during the Wordcrafters conference, Nancy Holder and I talked about her collaborative endeavors with her writing partner, Debbie Viguie. Together they have written many bestselling novels and their partnership thrives, despite differences in… well, we’re all different.


I’m not going to tell you how they do it, because I only drilled deeply enough into that concept to allow me to give it some serious thought. I did find out this: They always write forward, they never go backward. In other words, when Nancy writes a chapter and then Debbie edits/rewrites it, Nancy uses that version to alter, never going back to a previous version. She may return to a previous concept or scene, but never a previous version. So they are always writing forward.

I found this to be very interesting.

I know many people who collaborate on many things. One friend has had great successes with multiple collaborations, but he has also had problems that have shelved, perhaps even killed, projects with great potential. Such is the lesson to have some type of agreement in writing with among collaborators. And it is also a lesson to be very careful with whom you entrust your fledgling projects.

So now, inspired by Nancy and Debbie’s intriguing arrangement, I’m collaborating.

I have a writing partner for whom I have tremendous respect. We have known each other only a few years, but I’ve kept an eye on him, his work ethic, the way he conducts himself in business and at home, and decided that he was the one for me, if he was interested.

He was.

But here’s the thing. I bring strengths and weaknesses to this partnership, and so does he. We discussed them in depth before embarking upon the first cooperative project. One of my strengths is that I am fortunate enough to have more time to write. He has less time. One of my weaknesses is that I am impatient. So when I finish something and pass it off to him, I need to relax and let his draft come back to me in the time that he has to devote to it. I gladly give up time for quality. And he brings quality.


We collaborated on an initial project of little consequence, mostly to see how we work together. A shakedown cruise, if you will. It went very well. Since then, we have completed two substantial projects, with two more—including a very ambitious one—in the works.

I am ecstatic. I am writing more now than I have in years, and am enthusiastic about my new work and all the possibilities now opening up to both of us. I eagerly anticipate his feedback and he knocks me out with the things he adds (and takes away), and is always willing to negotiate certain points that are important to one or the other of us, and find solutions to sticky issues.

This isn’t a mere collaboration. I view this as a long-term writing partnership, and I believe he does as well. In this particular instance, our work is way more than the sum of its parts; our synergy has lit us both on fire.

But this was no casual encounter, no off-the-cuff invitation to write something together. Before I approached him, I thought long and hard, and we talked about it in depth before we agreed to embark upon such a venture. It is much like any other business partnership that is heavy on the creative element. Trust is of paramount importance.

Even though I’m currently involved in what I consider a very successful collaboration, still, when I think of the word “collaboration,” I shudder. Collaboration is not for me.

Except when it is.

What is good enough?

by Matthew Lowes

“This would be a good death … but not good enough.”
— Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

mona lisaLeonardo da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” This seems true to experience on some level, but it makes me wonder how the Mona Lisa or Virgin of the Rocks might have ended up if Leonardo hadn’t abandoned them when he did. Could they have ended up better? I don’t know. Could they have ended up worse? Most definitely. So it seems, knowing when to stop is just as critical as knowing how to proceed, or having the perseverance to continue.

A dose of perfectionism can be a blessing, to fuel an unrelenting drive to press forward with one’s craft and with improvements to a piece. But there comes a time in the life of a work of art when further changes could do more harm than good. This can be so clearly experienced in drawing, especially with ink, when a single line can be so quickly regretted. But writing is no different. Perfectionism is a curse, if in pursuit of the unattainable, it drives you past this point.

Recognizing the critical moment is not always easy, but its harbinger is a law of diminishing returns. When each change begins to take more and more consideration for smaller and smaller perceptible improvements, you’re getting close. At some point you must call it good enough, at least for now, and abandon it, as Leonardo would say. Time to submit it, show it, publish it, whatever, and move on to the next piece.

Good enough is not settling. It’s recognizing when something has reached its full potential given your current perception, understanding, and skill. It’s possible you may come back to a piece later, with more experience and greater skill, and see how further improvements can be made. And as long as you see clearly what can be done, that it is an improvement, and you have the skill, time, and inclination to do it, why not? But there’s nothing wrong with letting it be too, as it was in the moment when it was last abandoned. Nothing is perfect, and “there is no exquisite beauty … without some strangeness in the proportions.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

Uniquely Normal is not Broken: My Best Brain Hack, by Eric Witchey

Punk guy looking at himself in a shattered mirror in the city streets

Photo by Stefano Tinti. Licensed through iStockPhoto

Uniquely Normal is not Broken: My Best Brain Hack

Eric Witchey

We live in a one-size fits all self-help culture. If we buy into the belief that we are broken that underlies almost all self-help books and movements, then the fundamental message tends to be the same. To fix yourself, you have to really want to change! Then, there’s the list of things you should change and how you should change them. Currently, the old religious ideal of faith, which often meant trust us to tell you what to think and don’t ask questions we can’t answer, has been replaced with manifest abundance by believing completely. If we fail, we must not have believed completely enough. If we can’t make the self-help system work, shame on us. We need more discipline. We need more energy. We need more education. We need more empathy. We need more… We are broken.

Yeah. Okay. Let’s just start with the understanding that I am broken. If I’m broken, then I’m like everyone else. That means I’m not broken. I’m uniquely normal. I’m good with that.

This week, broken me lost track of time because I was busy teaching a corporate class, writing fiction, doing book production, and being very disciplined about writing fiction and distance skating every day. On top of that, one of my editors sent back her recommendations for a table of contents for a collection of my stories. That caused a minor upswing in mood that created a break in my productivity due to wine and good food. Then, an amazing artist and writer, Alan M. Clark, sent me the first peek at the cover art for my novel, Bull’s Labyrinth, which will finally come out soonish.

While I was distracted by wallowing in my bliss, Monday suddenly jumped out of the temporal bushes, and my automated calendar sent me a reminder that I had a Wednesday deadline for a blog I hadn’t even thought about.

I needed a topic now!


Human experiments on my friends!

I asked my friends on FaceBook what they wanted to read about this week.

My friends were great. They participated fully in my experiment. They responded with a good, solid list of topics interesting to writers. Several topics were even things I was interested in doing. In fact, I will get to all of the items on the list in later blogs. However, I chose brain hacks for writers for this week’s offering.

Well, that should be easy, I told myself. Just write a listicle of how-to production techniques. You know the kind of thing: “Five Things Every Writer Should Do before Breakfast.”

Unfortunately, the first attempt turned into an overly long description of the chemical relationship between L-dopa and dopamine and how dopamine levels influence the thought-to-action brain-body connection. Having no dopamine doesn’t stop you from being conscious, but it does result in being trapped in a motionless meat puppet. Watch Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams in their 1990 film, Awakenings. Great film, but I’ll warn you that it is not at all funny.

So, blog attempt #1 sucked. Nobody wants to hear about brain chemistry, organism adaptation to task, and how to build up that connection. Also, being conscious and trapped inside your body is a better topic for a story than a blog.

What people were really asking me for is a solution to their problems. At least, that’s what I told myself.

So, attempt #2 waxed philosophical about free will and how to reduce complex problems to smaller, more manageable problems then prioritize them into action steps.

Oh, just bullshit. Seriously, who doesn’t know that? Does it work? Sometimes. If it always worked, the self-help industry would just die. Think about it. If everyone who knows that trick actually succeeded in connecting their desires to their actions, who would buy a second self-help book or attend a second self-help seminar? Oprah, Dr. Oz, and Dr. Phil would be right out of business. Well, maybe not Oprah. She has a little more emotional depth and breadth of vision.

If you want procedural, emotional and self-discipline type self-help thinking, I recommend a combination of Julia Cameron and Stephen R. Covey. I do, heartily, recommend both rather than one or the other. Both have wonderful, valuable insights. Some might be useful to you. Some have been useful to me, but I don’t need to repeat what they have done.

Now, here I am in attempt #3. Brain hacks for writers. Yeah. Okay. Except, there’s a problem. You see, I don’t buy into the one-size-fits all self-help world. I’m more of a my-size-fits-me sort of guy.

You see, after 30 years of studying how writers write and how readers interpret the little black squiggles on the white background, I have come to the experimentally verified conclusion that my brain and yours are different.

I know. It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Worse than that, my life and yours are different.

Can you believe it? I mean, it actually turns out that based on their personal experience both Republican and Democrat pundits actually believe the stuff they say when they say it.

Similarly, if you face the blank page and your gut goes to jelly, you want to puke, and you end up cleaning the kitchen, you and I have something in common. However, the thing we have in common is neither cognitive physiology nor nurture trauma. In other words, my body is reacting to the fact that my brother liked to belittle me by creating sometimes elaborate scenarios in which he publicly humiliated me. You, on the other hand, may have attended a parochial school where writing was a punishment. While your body and mine are reacting the same way to the potential rejection and humiliation of failure on the page, we won’t respond to the same brain hack solutions.

In fact, some people’s experiences have caused them to need to write in order to prove they are better than other people. Some have adapted to the need to write in order to clarify their thoughts. Some need to write in order to get attention. Some need to write… and it goes on and on. It is unlikely that you and I write for exactly the same reasons or to fulfill the same needs in our lives.

Why do you need to write?

I have not one single clue.

However, I can say that my writing life turned a corner for the better after I was diagnosed with dysthymia with components of OCD. I won’t go into the physiology of my “disorder.” I’ll just say that the DSM diagnosis is a description of a set of symptoms rather than the actual physical underpinnings of that set of symptoms.

The important thing for brain hacking is that once I was diagnosed, I was able to begin exploring what was different about my brain from other brains. For example, I learned I also had dyslexia, for which I had found elaborate compensatory skills. Who knew I couldn’t do math in grade school because the numbers jumped around? Nobody ever tested me. I also learned that the ADHD I had been treated for as a child was considered a precursor to the problems I had as an adult. I learned that my addictions became a compulsion because of a need to medicate away pain. They became an obsession as a result of low dopamine. I learned the hard way that no amount of NA philosophy or community would change my physiology to allow me to be able to physically follow through on the choice to actually attend NA meetings on a regular basis (You just need to discipline yourself to attend. Call your sponsor. Give it over to your higher power.). You see, that advice could only work if I were physiologically capable of transferring my desire into the action of picking up the phone or going to the meeting. At the time, I couldn’t do that. Giving me that advice was, physiologically speaking, exactly the same as telling a quadriplegic they needed to choose to get up from their wheelchair and run. They can believe. They can want it with all their heart. They can try, but they are not going to run.

No, I’m not kidding or joking.

So, my recovery route was, initially, dependent on doctors and medication. Eventually, and with much hard work under the influence of good doctors and medication, the drugs were replaced by ten years of self-observation and supporting therapy that was specific to my brain.

It worked. I’ve been recreational drug-free for 25 years, and most days I manage my brain. A few weeks ago, I sold my 100th story. Not bad for a problem child, recovering addict.

Why do I put these things in my blog on brain hacks for writers? I put them here to show how uniquely normal I am and because the best brain hack I know I learned while in therapy. It has given me all my other brain hacks. It’s called meditation.

Read Jon Kabat-Zinn. His mindfulness movement does not begin with the idea that his readers are broken. He begins with the idea that only the reader can decide what the reader needs, and that comes from learning to sit still and pay attention to ourselves.

I’m not talking about our writer’s endless narrative of self-criticism.

My internal narrative goes like this on bad days, “Oh, for the f of J, Eric, pull your head out of your ass and get to work. Well, shit, here you are cleaning the damn oven. It could have been dirty for another day or even another six months. Just stop it. You should be working on that effing novella. Come on! What kind of wimp are you that you can’t even put down a sponge, turn, around and walk upstairs to put just one damn line on the page?”

This kind of thing can go on for hours and hours, sapping the joy out of everything I do because I’m not doing the thing I should be doing.

What a terrible word—should.

And, my friends, this is what drives the “you are broken” self-help industry. Call it guilt. Call it shame. Call it original sin. Call it whatever you want, but should is the filler of guru pockets and the killer of creativity.

So, if my brain/body experience is unique to me, how do I overcome the unique obstacles created by my brain?

Inventory. That’s pretty much my only real writer’s brain hack.

I pay attention to what I am doing instead of what I should be doing. I know what I want to do. I know what I want my quota to be. I know what my annual, monthly, weekly, and daily goals are. All of that is well and good, but if my stress goes up, my dopamine goes down. The more down it goes, the less likely I am to do anything that corresponds to my own thoughts and desires. The more I get into the should cycle, the more stress I create and the worse my control becomes—less directed action leads to more shoulding leads to less directed action. Beating myself up will only make it worse. When it gets really bad, I can end up playing obsessive hours, and occasionally days, of some computer game in order to escape from my own looping, self-destructive thoughts.

Eventually, I return my focus to my breath. I meditate.

That’s the simplest, most powerful brain hack I know. If I can, and I can’t always, and that’s fine, I stop and pay attention to my breathing—to the feel of my diaphragm shifting and stretching and contracting to move air in and out of my chest. I focus my mind on that simple, life-giving thing, and I let whatever thoughts come to mind come to mind. I acknowledge them and the emotions that drive them, and I let them go and return my focus to my breath.

Out of this one simple exercise has come many moments of understanding about how the metal-edged ruler of my childhood grade school classes influenced my love of and resistance to writing, about how my brother’s behavior influenced my need to hide from potential humiliating experiences by not writing, about how my mother’s attempt to run off to marry a priest influenced my behavior, about how and why some topics come quickly and others don’t, about my relationship to story, about my relationship to my sense of self and my place in culture and human history, about….

Yes, this is a simple exercise. It is, at its heart, Zen meditation. It is not in any way about emptying the mind. It is about focusing on the breathing. We have to breathe anyway, so we always have the tools we need with us. We simply will not, at least under any circumstances we survive, stop breathing. So, just pay attention to the breath. Focus on the diaphragm’s movement and the flow of air. Just let the thoughts that come to mind come. Note that the thoughts are there then return the focus to the breath.

That’s the whole thing. That’s the hack. Nothing else. It’s not about forcing the focus. It’s not about emptying the mind of thought. It’s not about making something happen. It’s just about paying attention to the breath, acknowledging the inevitable thoughts that shift our focus away from the breath, and returning our focus to the breath.

Sometimes, I can just take a few breaths and instantly overcome whatever limitation faces me. Sometimes, the reasons for my own limitations come in bits and pieces over years. That kind of self-discovery and understanding can’t be forced. All we can do is pay attention and repeat the practice over and over and over. We can do it walking, riding a bike, eating, playing an instrument, or while doing pretty much anything we do. It really is that simple. If it gets complicated, we’ve made it complicated, and that’s something to acknowledge before returning to the breath. We can forget to pay attention for days, weeks, or years. Then, when we remember again, the breath is there. We can just pick up again where we left off.

So, my diagnosis set me on the path of self-observation. After my initial experiences with more intrusive medications, my self-management practice stabilized into meditation and methylphenidate (Ritalin). I take the drug as little as possible, but I have found my breath while fishing, while running, while biking, while skating, while driving, while sitting in an easy chair, and while laying on my back in a room full of meditating people. My breath is always with me. I have made a habit of never leaving home without it.

From this one, simple practice, I have discovered that, for me and only for me, I can celebrate success if I practice fiction for five minutes a day. If I do five minutes of conscious practice each day, I win! I am always allowed to do more, but my daily success comes from sitting down and practicing some technique for five minutes.

You see, my obstacles have always manifested themselves on the way to putting my butt in the chair and beginning to type. Once I start typing, I’m fine.

I built my brain hack to match my issues. I discovered that I have very specific performance anxiety triggers. I found them. I built my hack so that I’m not performing. I’m only practicing. Sitting happens. Typing happens. Breathing happens. I’m also still discovering layers of triggers. The discovery doesn’t stop even if we design a hack that works.

What do I practice? Any technique I can describe and execute. I have dozens of how-to books to pick skills from. I keep my own running list of techniques I need to practice. I keep a list of random prompts. I pick one technique and three random prompts. I write for five minutes, trying to get the prompts into a story that demonstrates the technique. I don’t plan to succeed. In fact, I plan to have fun failing. However, my practice of returning to technique basics and having fun has resulted in stories that account for at least 50 of my sales. Of course, as soon as I start thinking of the practice as a story, it stops being a practice. Then, I need a new set of personal hacks. Those hacks are a topic for another post.

So it goes. Oh, the silly ways our brains sabotage us. . .

Other brain hacks include writing with other writers around me. Sometimes, changing locations is the trick. If I observe that the kitchen is getting wear marks on the counter because I’m cleaning it too often (I wish), then it’s time to go and write someplace where there is no kitchen to clean. My local city library has quiet rooms. Several of my local coffee shops have first-come-first-served conference rooms.

If I observe myself surfing the web for hours and hours, I go to a wifi free zone and shift to pen and paper for a while.

If I find I am bored with my own writing, I find another writer (or creative non-writer) to talk to about creative effort.

My absolute favorite people are the ones that can riff silly on any topic. Stories are often born from silly. My chosen brother Mitch Luckett, my biological brother, Nick, and another chosen brother, artist and writer Alan M. Clark, are great for that. Another chosen brother, Barry Buchannan, who is an infrastructure systems analyst, is also refreshingly good at it. Something new and fun always comes from conversations with these people. I go to my sister, Leonore, for wonderful, fun, imaginative explorations of body, mind, and spirit. I guess the short version of this hack is to go out, smile, be silly, and talk to people who have agile minds and a good sense of humor. Let the child within out to play.

As one friend of mine, Devon Monk, once told me, “It’s very important to get out and ride an elephant now and then.” New experiences feed the fire of heart and mind. Personally, I find that travel opens up my channels of creative energy. While travelling, abroad or just to the grocery store, I keep running lists of things I see, hear, smell, feel, taste, and consider. I especially keep lists of things that trigger emotional responses.

In fact, I have running lists of “Things that make me cry from joy,” “Things that make me laugh out loud,” “Things that make me tear up from sadness,” and “Things that make me wish for…”

You get the idea.

In the end, all these brain hacks, from getting up early and going straight to the keys before my dreaming mind has submerged to setting dead minimum time quotas that aren’t about quality or page and word counts, have come one-by-one from returning to my breath—my breath.

I cannot, and will never be able to, gain the correct and complete insight into your personal genetics, family history, physiological reactivity, and complex self-protections that will allow me to diagnose cause and prescribe management skills. Only you can do that for yourself. Even a really good therapist will only facilitate your discovery of your own needs and skills, so I do have to say that I really appreciate the good therapists I have known.

So, pay attention and engage in constant, restless, ceaseless human experimentation on you. I will be there beside you, at least in spirit, celebrating your realizations and the hacks you create for yourself, but I will have no expectation that your hacks and mine will match up. Even if they do match in form and execution, it is very likely that they work for us each in very different ways for very different reasons.

We are not broken. We are a complex manifestation of a biological, and perhaps spiritual, experiment that began billions of years ago. We are exactly what we should be. We are exactly where we should be. We are story tellers. Tell a story. That’s all we need to do. That, and breathe.

Now, I let these thoughts go and return my focus to my breath.


The Monte Carlo Process, by Eric M. Witchey


Monte Carlo Process, by Eric M. Witchey

This week, I’m teaching fiction writing classes, so I’m thinking teacher thoughts. I’m also thinking about the Manhattan Project.

Yes, these things are connected.

During the Manhattan Project, according to Sam Kean’s The Missing Spoon, a wonderful book about the development of the periodic table, row upon row of women called “computers” were given pieces of large equations to solve. The experiments to which the equations belonged were theoretical constructs created by physicists. The fragments were functions as variables to larger, more complex calculations. In order to solve for a large number of possibilities, one variable would be changed in order to derive an outcome. This way, without modern computing, a thousand almost identical calculations could be tested for outcomes. Of course, the outcome they were looking for was a boom. Most results were useless, but the results that contributed to a boom were cataloged.

And what does this have to do with writing?

Any writer who has been at it long enough to become bored with what they do on any given day will, eventually, find themselves engaged in their own Monte Carlo process. The Monte Carlo process is different from mere trial and error. It is a test of a known construct with one minor modification.

In writing, on the simplest level, it is changing a character’s hair color. Suppose a young black woman, lean and willowy, grew up in a small steel mill town in Ohio during the rust bust of the 80s. She was part of a second generation Kentucky Coal family who had moved to the steel economy to support the war effort in the 40s. Her grandmother was a wilder, a sort of hedge witch, and her grandfather was a fallen, but not really a bad, angel. Of course, nobody in her family believed he was anything but a travelling salesman. Let’s call our young lady Sirona just for fun because that’ll get you some teasing in public schools (FYI: Sirona is a Celtic goddess of healing).

Obviously, we can go on and on about the life of our young lady. However, this is enough to illustrate the Monte Carlo process.

We take all the characteristics we have come up with for this young woman, and we write a few scenes from her developmental life. In each scene, we are testing her characteristics to see how they influence her behavior and the behavior of others. We might write her fist day at grade school. We might write her first kiss. We might write her earliest memory of the kitchen in the home in which she grew up. We might write a scene in which she is defending a bullied child, a cat, a dog, or even a tree. We might write a scene in which she is trying desperately to get out of the house for reasons we don’t yet know. We might even write a scene in which young Sirona heals someone or something. If I were doing it, I’d likely also play with scenes in which she encounters her long missing grandfather or has to deal with her thoroughly insane grandmother. I do like to play with insane people who turn out to be the only people who really understand the world.

I digress.

So, all of these scene tests are about discovering who our young woman will be on the page. None of them are scenes we plan to keep. None of them are scene we expect to be in the story in which she will be playing a role. They are just little writer games that we engage in to keep our own ennui at bay.

The above is all normal, but now we add the Monte Carlo process. Having actually done the above and not just wondered about convincing ourselves that we thought about it and therefore understand it, we change one thing about our young woman.

Just for fun, let’s make her hair a brilliant, fluorescent, natural, pale purple—not dyed. Actually, red will do, but I figured I’d get a little more extreme because of the witch and angel connection I discovered while writing the last couple paragraphs.

Now, we rewrite the same scenes. If, as is the idea, we allow the change to have an influence over the dynamics of the characters in the scenes, we will get a different set of behaviors from both the secondary players and Sirona. By doing this little trick, we come to understand both who she was before we changed her hair and who she might be once we have changed her hair. By changing only one variable at a time, we develop a sense of how she can become a more, or less, extreme influence on any story into which we might place her.

And, as with the Manhattan Project, the ultimate goal is a boom.

Every time a characteristic gives a more dynamic result on the page, we keep it.

While this process is a tool that does help in the development of character, it’s most likely that a working writer will not have time, or the inclination to spend the time, unless they are engaged in the writer’s equivalent of doodling. However, many of us do doodle in words. Additionally, many of us find ourselves teaching characterization, and one of the difficult things to get students to internalize is the fact that every aspect of character influences their relationship to the world around them. Something as simple as hair color changes the experience of the character in their world. One variable changed can mean the difference between meh and boom.

During one seminar I did for a bunch of truly creative middle school students, the kids had come up with a young woman troubled by family dynamics. Meh.

She was rebelling. Double meh.

She wanted a tattoo. Yeah, whatever.

She was expected to go into the family business. Yawn.

The business was a mortuary. What?

And all she really wanted in the world was to become a chocolatier.


At night, she snuck out of her room in the funeral home in order to go to an abandon grade school where she had set up a little kitchen. There, she secretly made chocolate animals…

I love working with kids. They have no sense of how things “should be.”

So, back to the Monte Carlo process. Imagine you are teaching 15 creative people characterization and story development. As a group you come up with a set of character attributes that cover a range of physical, psychological, and social values. Each person has the same set of values, and each person is given the same set of circumstances in which they must place their character. In fact, you can give them a very constrained set of scene goals and outcomes. However, they must interpret setting through character, and they must come up with the conflicts and emotional changes in the scenes. Then, you change one variable for each and every writer.

They write.

The outcomes of the scenes might be the same, but if the writer has grasped the rippling nature of the change to one variable, the path to that outcome is very likely to be different in each and every scene. If it is not different from the paths the other writers took in their scenes, then the variable was not understood as an influence on who the character is and how they relate to the world.

Fifteen writers writing the same scene while only one variable has changed can provide the group with a huge leap in insight into how details really are critical to understanding character and how they behave on the page.


Facing The External Editor Or How To Make A Writer Cry Like A Wet Kitten

By Christina Lay

There once was a time long, long ago when I felt pretty sure on my feet regarding this whole craft of writing thing. After all, my friends loved my stories and told me how great a writer I was. And I sold stuff, so obviously editors thought I was pretty great too.

Then I made my first book sale to a small but professional publisher. I awaited my first round of editing with confident excitement. I knew my punctuation skills were lacking somewhat, but I’d been writing for forty years, selling short stories for twenty and I figured the manuscript would only need a light going over. I’d revised and edited it so carefully before submitting it, after all. I’d done my best and it was pretty darn good.

Pregnant pause.


A year and three projects later, not much has changed. Third book, new editor, same writer. When I open the file and see that there are 2,234 insertions, deletions, formatting changes and comments to deal with, I am still a bit taken aback. This editor must be insane, I think. A comma nazi. A speaker of some obscure dialect.

True, about a thousand of those insertions and deletions have to do with my shaky grasp of commas, ellipses, the overuse of italics, my tendency to write really long paragraphs and so on. On the first go around, I tear through those comments, mindlessly accepting every punctuation and formatting change and (reluctantly) attempting to learn something in the process.

I suppose there are writers out there somewhere who have a firm grasp on all the rules of grammar and punctuation, who can diagram a sentence like a superhero, who outline their novels in advance and perhaps even know what they did and how they did it.  Maybe they fix several hundred of those problems before they submit it for publication. (For well-thought out advice on the self-editing process, I recommend you check out Matt Lowe’s excellent post here.)

Being more of a jump-of-a-cliff-and-write-myself-out-of-the-resulting-predicament sort of writer, for me editing involves facing up to a lot of not entirely thought out plot twists, inexplicable character motivations and odd internal dialogue that has little to do with the story.  This is when the real work starts.

On the second run through the edited file, I move on to the deeper issues, the ones that require concentrated thought, the kind of thought that makes my brain hurt and my feet to spontaneously carry me to the fridge. From simple word repetitions to point of view violations to awkward construction to floating body parts, passive voice, faulty simultaneous action and the dreaded ambiguous pronoun – all kindly pointed out by my sharp-eyed editor- these issues force me to deconstruct sentences, question purpose, recreate rhythm, delete, delete, delete and work the hell out of my dictionary.  Then comes the hard part.  In the third round I address those confusing passages that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to- which is convey meaning, tell the story, create excitement, elicit emotion, conjure empathy.  Damn.

This is a process that takes many hours over the course of several days. I become completely immersed in the world of the book, which I am now convinced sucks beyond any hope of redemption. A friend commented that this process sounds tedious. I mean, come one, 2,234 corrections? Oddly enough, and by odd, I mean I must be a masochist, I’m never once bored during this process. This is my craft, my chosen boulder, my art. Besides, I’m too damn scared to get bored.

For the deeper I go, the harder the challenges presented, the more the fear kicks in. Fear that I won’t be able to do it. I won’t be able to fix it. It’s too broken. I’ve reached the level of my competence and cannot go higher – not in the ten days I have to get that steaming pile of hideous pages back to the editor! I lie awake at night full of dread, full of self-doubt and the crippling realization that I don’t have the slightest clue of how to write a good novel.

But they bought it, right? So there must be something redeemable about it. Possibly even, something good.

Sitting at the keyboard, taking the editing process one comment, one syntax error, one failed metaphor at a time, I know I can write. I know I can do this. Working with an editor pushes me beyond my comfort zone, beyond what I can do by myself. It forces me to be better than I am.

When I finally hit send and collapse into a puddle of depleted goo, I know that miraculously I have done better than my best. And with luck and determination, the next book will be even better.

The Scope of Editing

by Matthew Lowes

The basic idea of editing is simple: delete, add, or change in such a way to improve a piece of writing. However, the scope of editing is vast, touching upon every aspect of writing and rewriting, and every level of a manuscript, from the lowly word to the grand structures of plot, characterization, setting, and theme. Up to and including throwing everything out and starting over, nothing is off limits; everything is subject to potential scrutiny.

Editing is often broken up into content editing and line editing, to separate the contents of the story from the mechanics of the writing. This is a practical division for first and final passes, but ultimately mechanics and content are inextricably linked. So between those first and final passes, I think of editing as a more holistic process, which happens at various levels of the text, always keeping in mind my ultimate ends for the story. Here are the levels broken down and my thoughts regarding them.

Words: Use active verbs and specific nouns. Destroy adverbs whenever possible! Look for other personal problem words. Check spelling and/or meaning of questionable words. The sound and meaning of choice words creates the mood, the setting, the characters and themes, and many of the things considered content at a higher level.

Sentences: Identify overwriting and redundancy in content or meaning, and correct it with deletes and rewriting. Check grammar, punctuation, and clarity. Use sentence structures to convey meaning. For example, short simple sentences can suggest rapid action or clarity of thought, while longer sentences can suggest ponderous action or complexity of thought at the sentence level or a higher level.

Paragraphs: Check for clarity and purpose. Tend to paragraph breaks and formatting for dialogue. Again, correct any overwriting and redundancies. Refine words and sentences, until each paragraph flows with poetic quality. Paragraphs should lead the reader ever onward, beginning, developing and culminating movements on the scene and story level.

Scenes: Make sure each scene has a purpose within the story, rooted in conflicts that burrow down to level of sentences and words. Ideally every scene should advance the plot and develop the characters. The point of view and setting should be clear, with reference to key sensory details. For extra credit, sow the seeds of overarching themes and foreshadow future events happening at the story level.

Story: Does the structure of the story create the desired effect? Is there a clear protagonist and antagonist? A beginning, a middle, and an end? What is the conflict at the heart of the story and how is it resolved? How do the characters change as a result of the story’s events? Does the pacing and order of scenes serve the story? And finally, does it all add up? Seek out and correct inconsistencies, errors, contradictions, and omissions at every level, all the way down to the level of the words used for everything, for times, colors, textures, smells, and the names of people, places and things … down to the very atoms that make up the fictitious reality.