Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What I Learned from Leafkin 2010

Editing the anthology was intense. Why? Because I had to be picky about craft. I like concentrating on structure--evaluating what works for the characters, plot, how a story is built. That includes having an intuitive knowledge of 1) the storytelling process and 2) an eye for what the author "intends." 3) discussing with the author about the effectiveness of the prose.

What craft is important to hone?

Sentence structure. Authors need to know how the audience's eye travel's over the page. They need to understand what information is retained, and what fails. Sentences need to be structured so that this information is delivered to fullest effect, while maintaining "voice."

However, I tend to believe C.E Murphy when she says: "practice, practice, practice" on an old Magical Words post.

Does this mean writers should overhaul sentence structure to be "certain" they communicate with their audience? No. I've been there, I've followed the wrong advice. I'm still piecing myself back together from that fiasco.

It means authors should be aware of how the audience reads the work. If something is important, cater to the audience's eye. Not all the time. Not so much you sacrifice your characters. But IMO a writer must be honest to character and self, and then communicate to readers. Communicate both.

Sentence structure, then paragraph structure, dialogue...these build plot, and keep the reader interested. If a writer isn't interested in addressing these things, they aren't seeking publication.

When I read something submitted to Leafkin, I assume polish. The story is expected to have been critiqued for: Word Choice, Sentence structure, Plot, Character, Passive sentences, adverbs, effectiveness. Does this mean I "trust" the "assumed" critiquers, and do not mark the mistakes I see? No. It means I expect a thicker skin. I do not mark things to be deleted out of meanness. I mark them because they aren't working to build the story. Does that necessarily mean the author needs to get rid of it? No. Make it work? Yes. Follow my exact suggestion? No.

I assume the writer will read over the edits and call or e-mail. This hasn't happened in every instance. I expect at least a nod. We don't have a terribly large pool of writers in this project. I always include: "call or e-mail me with questions when you receive this." And I include my phone number, just in case. If a person does not respond, I expect they agree with all my suggested alterations. How do I know they did or didn't? E-mail. A phone call.

If they called and said: "This is what I'm trying to do here...."
I might say, "All right. Didn't work. This is what you communicated....x, y,z."
Author, "Oh. What if I did a?"
me: "That might work, give it a shot."
Did I make the suggestion? No. But in order to make stories "live up to their potential," authors need to be willing to admit their weaknesses and mistakes.
This requires dialogue. Dialogue requires two willing participants.

In my life, I am easy to get a hold of. I live in the social media sphere. I'm always on Facebook and I haunt Twitter. I blog, I check my e-mail as much as 4 times a day. And my phone is (almost) always on me. I return calls. I have it set up so that if people leave me a message on my phone, Google voice sends me a text message and an e-mail. If I missed something (I'm human) I think people should drop me a line.

Still I was surprised how much time it took to note "little errors" like passive sentences, unclear wording, adverbs (which can be very unclear in short stories, I found), contradictory actions and wording, etc. When the stories had a strong plot, which I could trust the writer to be moving forward, this was easier for me. But when there was either excess information (not applicable to the plot) or far too little information (so I could not get a feel of character or author intent), this task became picky and time-consuming.

So my advice (to myself and others) based on this experience:

1st step--do you repeat words or phrasing? If you over use anything, even something so small as "the" or "of" :purge it. At least as much as you are able.

2nd step--do any of your characters, or multiple characters, repeat the same movement/tone of voice? If so, synonyms are your friends, use them.

3rd step--"it," "looked," "noticed," and adverbs? Purge as much as possible. How does a person notice? "I noticed him watching me." This is vague, especially if the scene is tense. "I turned around and met his stare. His smile reached his eyes, informing me he still plotted mischief. Was I factored into his scheme? What conclusions did he draw with that evaluation? Certainly, I knew, that smile always followed a realization. A decision. Most often ones that neglected me." Longer? Yes. Tied the action into internal dialogue? Yes. Plot? present? Tension? Yes.

4th step--to be and to have: is, was, were, weren't, had, has, have...these were all overused, across the board. So purge. If a sentence reads: "She had to run to catch the the thief." Look at the placement of the words, run and catch...important to the sentence's meaning are both at the center of the sentence. If this concept is integral to your story, make certain the important bits are either at the beginning or ending of the sentence. "She ran after the thief. He turned a corner, stumbled into a gutter, and she caught him." "Run" at the beginning. "Thief" at the end of a sentence, and "caught" at the end. Yes, she couldn't have caught him if he hadn't "stumbled into a gutter," but that part isn't as important as indication of the pursuit, and his being caught. And! The to be's and to have's! "-Ed" really, really is enough indication of tense. Do you want to never use these verbs? No. But they do lead to passive sentences and a lot of clarity issues.

Can this change your "voice?" I don't think so. I think voice and craft are carried by manipulation (and conscious deviation from) the rules. When the rules never entered one's mind when revising a story, and I can read that on the page, I switch into a "teacher mode." Spot and inform the author of the rules.

Why? This entire project is meant as a learning experience. What does it take to publish? What makes a good story? What makes a good edit? What are each writer's strengths and weaknesses? Etc. Most publications won't take the time to inform authors about the rules their breaking, or take the time for the author to say: "Yeah, I know, did it work?" And sometimes, it does. L.H. Reid did a very good job with a strong omniscient POV. But sometimes it doesn't. And the author has to be committed to the experience, and the lesson, in order to derive anything from the journey.

That is the advantage of doing this project as a Writers' Group. :P



  1. Such great advice! When plowing through that first draft, I don't look for that stuff. But in revision? You bet!

  2. You are right about the dialogue needing two participants. As a member of a writer's group, its hard to help an author that only wants to argue why they're right and not listen to how it might be better.

    I'm checking my ms. now for repeated gestures...thanks for the tip!