Editors rock!

In the second of two pieces about editors and editing, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog is once again pleased to welcome novelist Maddie Dawson as guest author of our latest post.

By Maddie Dawson

I thought I knew all about editing.


After all, I’d worked at a newspaper, The New Haven Register, for thirty years, handing in copy and then answering subsequent questions about the stories I wrote. The most memorable editing question came at two in the morning after I’d filed a story about a tragedy, the starving deaths of dozens of horses at a local farm that no one realized was going under. The complaint my editor had: “You didn’t explain why death is bad. Can you get someone to comment on that?”

Um, sure. But don’t we already know why death is bad? Could we just go with our gut feeling on this one?

As a freelancer for women’s magazines, I also was familiar with magazine editing. Those edits came from a different perspective: “Can you please interview a couple more sources? We’d like you to find a woman in her thirties who lives in the Midwest and who has breastfed twins and works preferably in a small office. It would also be good if she had brown hair and a mole on her nose. Oh, and also, find someone who has hired a wet nurse at one time or another and lives in a split-level ranch in Idaho and will probably divorce her husband by the end of the year.”

OK, so maybe they didn’t say precisely that, but trust me, it was close. I was always having to explain to editors that such people didn’t exist in the real world—or if they did, they weren’t in my Rolodex, and how would it be if I simply interviewed the sources I knew would have interesting things to say? “Well, if that’s the best you can do. . .” the editor would say.

Then I started writing books, and the real fun began.

I was sure I was ready for editing, ready for the teams of editors and copy-editors who would help me sharpen my prose, get to the true meat of my stories—and support my most confused and confusing efforts. At last I would have my own personal Maxwell Perkins! We would talk on the phone about plot points and adjectives! We would move commas around as though it were a team sport!

I signed with Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Crown Publishing, which is a division of Random House, and I wrote three novels with them before the imprint was shut down in a belt-tightening move by Random House. After that, I wrote two more novels for Crown.

Let me just say: I loved (and still love) my editors there! They are lovely, talented, smart women who were interested in my books and interested in me and my career, and we have had lots of great conversations over the years. Their job—and they were busy, busy, busy—was to discover authors, nurture their careers along by presenting their work and defending it to the very shadowy and scary Marketing Department, and then help to launch the book out in the world.

Although these editors sometimes needed me to shorten a scene or to tighten a chapter, we didn’t take the book apart scene by scene. Was it that there was no time for that, or that the books seemed good enough when they purchased them? Clearly they had a lot of authors they were working with—and although they were always willing to stop and take a phone call and discuss a character’s motivations, the edits they sent me were mostly suggestions about ending a scene with a cliff-hanging sentence (good advice!) or describing the character’s physical details sooner in the book (also very helpful!)

They hired copy editors to go over the nuts and bolts and semi-colons and commas of the books. These were the ones who tracked down discrepancies (thank you!) and made sure my characters kept their same names and hair color throughout the book and that they didn’t put on their coat and then three paragraphs later put on their sweater.mdcover

Then I signed my latest book with Lake Union, a division of Amazon Publishing, and found myself in a whole different world. There, not only did I have an acquisitions editor (the one who bought the book and deals with all the nuts and bolts with marketing and publishing—sort of like a general contractor who keeps tabs on my book as it moves through the system), but I also was given a developmental editor. She was a professional freelance editor who edits manuscripts full-time and doesn’t have anything to do with other aspects of the book’s publication.

She worked on the book for about a month. The manuscript, when I received it back with all its Track Changes, seemed to me to be ablaze with red lines connected to bubbles with questions in them. No page had seemingly escaped her careful scrutiny.

I have mercifully forgotten the precise number of changes and suggestions and comments she made (a number Microsoft Word so cheerfully pointed out to me). . .but trust me on this: it was in the thousands! Thousands, I tell you.

I had to take to my bed.

There was everything from formatting changes for me to accept or reject—to huge questions like, “Hmm, would she REALLY say that?” after a line of dialogue. Or, “I think this character caves too quickly in this scene. What if you don’t have her so eager to be friends right here? Maybe move to p. 156.”

In the letter that accompanied these massive changes and suggestions was high praise for the book. What?? She actually liked it, and yet she needed to see approximately 56,587 changes? There was also the assurance that this was MY book, and that I didn’t have to do anything. I could simply press a button that said REJECT CHANGES, and go back to my life.

But of course I didn’t do that. After gnashing my teeth and informing my friends and family that I couldn’t ever see them again, I set to work. Day after day for three weeks, I sat at my dining room table in my bathrobe, going over the manuscript, weighing my editor’s suggestions, rewriting scenes, rethinking characters.

I probably took 98 percent of her suggestions, because when I thought about them, they made sense to me. She had a distance and a perspective on the book that I simply couldn’t have, being so close to it. She had studied the arc of my story—an arc I’d been constructing but not ever sure was working correctly—and she knew when it faltered and when it needed oomph, and when the reader needed some sparky scene to keep her from turning off the light and going to sleep.

I found myself living for those moments when I’d come across one of her comments that would say: “Oh my God! I love this scene!” or even “I’m weeping here!” When she told me she actually loved this book, I wanted to send her roses and caviar and perhaps ask her to come live with me in my house.

By the time the book went to its next stop—copyediting—it was in mostly good shape. The copyeditor did all the fact-checking that was needed, and when I went over those edits, I learned a few more things I was grateful hadn’t slipped through the cracks.

And then—voila! The Advanced Reading Copies (known as ARCs, or galleys) were printed up, right before the final proofreading took place. Although the ARCs are close to what the final book is like, in my case, there were still a couple of things that changed—nothing big, but things I added and took out as I went through the final proofreading stage.

Having my book be so thoroughly edited has been nothing short of amazing. It’s like having a partner, someone who is so much on your side, who cares enough about what you’re doing to argue with you, make hard suggestions, listen to your concerns—and ultimately help you figure out the best answer.

The other day, when the first copies of The Survivor’s Guide To Family Happiness landed in my driveway by way of the Fed Ex guy, I opened the box with excitement—and sat immediately down and started re-reading it. With pleasure.

Editor’s Note: The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson (Lake UnionPublishing, 384 pp.) will be published on October 25, 2016.

Published in: on September 30, 2016 at 12:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Maddie Dawson goes to writing class

MDThe Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to welcome back novelist Maddie Dawson—author most recently of The Opposite of Maybe, published by Broadway Books in April 2014—as a guest poster. She tells us what lessons a veteran author can learned in a highly regarded writing course:

Here are my usual steps when I’m writing a novel.

1. An idea shows up, usually when I’m driving 65 mph on the highway, or in the shower dripping wet, or falling asleep after a long, hard day.
2. I pull over, dry off, or get out of bed (whichever action is required) and seek a pen and paper and start to write the idea down.
3. Over the next few weeks, with the help of a main character, I write 50 pages, with no idea where I’m headed with this story.
4. Then I rewrite them. Again and again. Months pass.
5. I have a house full of little scrawled notes to myself, sometimes written in the middle of the night. Some say things like: “his mother’s banana bread, the full moon, frog statuary.” Believe me, I don’t know what any of this means.
6. I write 150 more pages. This takes months. (Every few days I rewrite page 1 again.)
7. I take long walks with friends and try to think of what comes next in the plot. I write out a haphazard outline. I change it 24 times.
8. One day, months (sometimes years later) and usually at 4:10 a.m., I finish the book.

OppSee? Eight easy breezy steps to novel-writing. “Pantsers” (that is, people who write by the seat of their pants) can relate. I actually wrote (and published) five novels this way. After each one, I vowed that I wasn’t cut out for this business, that I should check out schools that teach welding. Or car repair.

Meanwhile, my agent was telling me I should learn to write faster and faster. Publishers were interested in authors who could come up with a book a year–at least, she said. Chop! Chop! Some of my writer friends were actually writing two a year, and I knew for a fact these were people with children and cars and houses and dental appointments and a normal need for sleep.

Clearly, I wasn’t cut out for that kind of schedule for myself. But wouldn’t it possible, I wondered, to maybe find a shortcut through some of my steps—like step #4, “rewrite them, again and again”? Or maybe I could even take a closer look at step #3—specifically that phrase “with no idea where I’m headed with this story.”

And then I heard about John Truby and his amazing book, The Anatomy of Story. Truby, who is an internationally renowned screenwriting guru and who has enough Hollywood and New York credentials to take up theAnatofStory entire rest of this blog post, believes that writers can save themselves a whole lot of headaches by following some simple steps before ever putting pen to paper, or pixel to computer screen.

I read the book and then I went to New York and took his weekend course last May—three glorious days of listening and learning about structure and why it’s not such a bad thing to know what you’re doing before you set out…and how, once you do even the simple step of coming up with a premise before you begin, you can save yourself months of rewriting while your characters run amok through your story, taking over with insignificant plot points, ordering you around like you’re their servant, and generally making projects take waaaay longer than they ever should.

A premise, says Truby, is simply a one-sentence statement that tells what the story is about and includes what action is going to take place to get from the beginning to the end. It gives a sense of the beginning, the main character, and then the outcome. That’s it.

You want an example? Of course you do. Here’s one from Truby himself, for The Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.”

Simple, yes? But, he says, 90 percent of stories fail because the writer hasn’t thought this out in advance. (I am raising my hand here.)

Your premise is your inspiration; it’s the reason you wanted to write the book in the first place. Often it includes the “twist” that makes your story unique. And once you have that premise, Truby says, you can sit down and explore all the scenes that are going to go into your story—making sure, of course, to leave out the ones that don’t contribute one bit to your original premise.

He suggests taking weeks and even months to come up with precisely the right premise, because your ability to write this book depends upon it. Once you’ve nailed the premise, then you’re going to be able to move forward, figuring out who your characters are, what they desire and what they need, what the central conflict is, what the story challenges and problems are, how the character is going to change, and what difficult choices your main character is going to have to make.

He suggests that after you have all that figured out, you write a list of scenes that are going to take place to lead to the resolution of your premise.

And all this is before you begin writing in earnest. In other words, by the time you are starting to write your book, you have thought through all the little hang-ups in the plot, all the places that would otherwise be knocking you to the ground with despair, keeping you up in the middle of the night trying to wriggle your way out of plot details you’ve created but can’t figure out how to solve.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re imagining that all the joy and surprise of writing will be drained away if you know these things in advance, that the whole reason you love writing is for those hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments when your character shocks you with some revelation you didn’t see coming.

But I’m here to tell you, as a former “pantser,” this is not true. There are still surprises as you write your scenes. There are still moments that undo you, as they will undo your readers. There are twists and turns and changes that take place that will take your breath away. But they are all contained in your premise. They are all part of your vision for this book.

A plot is a character experiencing a desire which changes and morphs as the book goes on. You will constantly be readjusting the desire that your character feels as he or she moves through the story. The desire changes as you go, you know. You will find yourself still changing around scenes and thinking about what works better, but you will know where you are going, and that is a wonderful, liberating feeling.

But there was one more thing I learned from the Truby workshop, something that I hadn’t really ever thought about before, and that I think is perhaps the most important element of his workshop.

He tells writers to “write the book that will change your life.”

This is no small thing. But the book you write tells the world something of who you are, how you think the world operates, how you think human beings should behave. It is nothing short of your vision and your prescription for living.

Think about it.

And when you write that book, Truby says—and when you get to the end of it, it chances are it will speak to other readers as well.

And if, for some reason, it doesn’t sell? Well, then at least you’ve changed your life—and that’s no small thing.

Now that Maddie Dawson, author of  The Opposite of Maybe (2014) and The Stuff That Never Happened (2010), is no longer a pantser, she is hoping her new novel-in-progress, Until You Called Me, will be on a much faster schedule.

Published in: on August 18, 2014 at 2:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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When to reread your work-in-progress

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is delighted to welcome back Connecticut-shoreline author Maddie Dawson, whose novel The Stuff That Never Happened (right) is now out in paperback. A year ago, Maddie gave us insights on creating characters (“Living with Fictional People,” July 27, 2010). In this exclusive new post, she offers her thoughts about reading your own work-in-progress and asks eight other accomplished writers for theirs.

By Maddie Dawson

People think—okay, my friend Sue thinks—that authors have the best jobs of all, because they just sit around keeping themselves entertained reading their own manuscripts.


If she were to peek into my life during writing time (and I will not invite her, or anyone, in to witness that) she would instead see somebody pacing, then obsessively typing for ten minutes, then pacing some more, then checking emails, pacing, typing even more obsessively, drinking iced tea, typing, making more iced tea, and then perhaps scrolling back through the day’s pages, followed sometimes by falling on the floor, moaning and groaning, or else doing a little happy dance because things have gone better than expected.

Authors have a dickens of a time reading and rereading their own words because—well, perhaps because nothing is ever quite as perfect in the execution as it was when it bloomed inside our heads, or perhaps because by the time we get to the end of a book, we have read its passages so many times that oftentimes the words feel all used up and dried out.

That being said, we’re also enchanted with reading our work as we go. We have to do it to keep the story moving, of course, but we can’t do it too often lest we get bored with the book before it fully ripens. A dilemma, to be sure.

So I asked some well-known authors just how they handle the when-to-reread problem, and they gave me a fascinating look into their own particular process.

Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You:

I reread all the plonking time. My process (I’m very superstitious) is that I have to have a first chapter I love before I can go on because a good first chapter keeps me from junking the novel as I venture deeper into the jungle of it. I often spend six months just on the first chapter alone, writing and rewriting and rereading. Once I’m past that, it’s a little different. I have to keep moving forward in my first draft, so I assign myself sections or chapters to push through, but I always reread.

Not only do I reread, but I trick myself into seeing what I’ve written with fresh eyes by writing it in a different font! Sometimes I’ll read it aloud. Sometimes I’ll paste it into a textbox on email and read it there! But in early drafts I won’t stay on one section more than a week before I just push on. My goal is to get the book written. And by the way, I usually do about ten to fifteen drafts and I reread and reread every single one of them.

Meredith Maran, author of My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, (nonfiction) and whose debut novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, comes out next year:

Fiction and nonfiction are so different for me. With my novel, it wasn’t so much a matter of rereading as much as rewriting. I wrote the first precious five pages and then I showed them to 100,000 people. It was like, “I wrote five pages of a novel! Can you believe it?” I actually felt it was so important to get a good start on it, and then I was able to keep going. Every time I reread it, I changed it so completely.

Katharine Weber, author of The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities:

When I am writing a novel, each day my first act of writing is rereading the entire sections or chapter that I’m working on, which might be as much as 20 or 30 pages, before I start to write new sentences. It’s a way of finding the rhythm and language of what I have written to that point. It feels like running alongside and then jumping onto a moving train.           

 Hallie Ephron, author of Come and Find Me:

Do I reread my manuscript? I do it all the time and at every step along the way. It’s my favorite thing to do instead of writing first drafts! After I’ve typed “The End” for the first time—and what a glorious moment that is!—I set the manuscript aside for a few weeks so when I pick it up again, I’m reading with fresh eyes. The next time I read it through, I want to be thinking like a reader, not a writer. To do that, I have to make myself put away the “blue pencil” and NOT line edit as I read. Because now I want to see the big picture and understand what’s working and what’s not. Excising of nits and warts will come in a final read-through, and with most works in progress, it will take many weeks to get to that point.

Kristan Higgins, author of the New York Times and USA Today bestseller, My One and Only:

I read what I wrote the day before, fix it as best I can in that moment, then trudge onward. When I’ve completed the first draft, I read it all the way through, mark it up with red pen, slashing, hacking, burning. Then one more time for a polish, and it’s off to the agent.

Ann Hood, author of the bestseller The Red Thread:

My policy is that when I sit down to write, I read aloud whatever I wrote the day before. Otherwise, I read the pages either when I hit an obstacle or every hundred pages or so.

Lucy Burdette, author of the upcoming An Appetite for Murder:

Rereading is my go-to procrastination technique—which happens more often than I wish it did! I almost always start the day rereading a part of what I wrote the day before—it reminds me where I was and where I should be headed. All told, I would guess I’ve read each paragraph ten or more times—but not the book as a whole. When I finally get some semblance of a draft done, I like to let it sit for a couple of weeks so I can come back with fresh eyes.

Alice Mattison, author of Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, and of When We Argued All Night, which will be released in 2012:

 When a story or novel is done, I read it two or three times, rewriting, show it to friends, then rewrite, read once more, rewrite again. . . . I print out everything and scribble on paper. It helps to put it aside between bouts for a few days or weeks.  The best revising I ever did was on a group of stories. I didn’t look at them—because I was writing a novel—for three years.  When I finally read them, it was as if someone else had written them.  I didn’t even remember the endings, and revised easily and radically.

Published in: on August 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm  Comments (8)  
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