Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Writer’s Middle Finger Part Six: (Communication is a writer's best friend.)

So wow. I skipped a year--2011--between Writer's Middle Finger posts. It was probably because I was traveling a lot. I did so many school visits and festivals in 2011 and 2012 that I barely knew my own name. (One of those events was ALA in New Orleans where VERA DIETZ--the book that "could still fail" in WMF #1 was awarded a Printz Honor.) And all of that travel was the most rewarding thing ever. I can't even tell you where I was in the career process at this point. I don't think it matters. This post deals with the editor-author relationship. Also, with arthritis (which has pretty much cleared up, so yay for that.) I guess if I go by my calendar, I was about to release ASK THE PASSENGERS, and was writing REALITY BOY. If I remember correctly, this miscommunication was about ANTS and I was a dumbass about it. But you'll find out why when you read this. 
WMF #7 is to come. 
And WMF #8 will be written one day soon. Fact: I have about 5 WMF #8s written already and in my downtime between VCFA work and my own writing I will find one to finish. If there is such a thing as downtime. It could be a fantasy. 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 

First published 10/19/12

Writer’s Middle Finger Part Six: (Communication Is a Writer's Best Friend.)

This is you. You are part of a machine. 
My middle finger is sore. I am pretty sure I am developing arthritis and that’s the first place it hit. My middle finger. On my right hand. It’s sore every single morning when I wake up.

What a timely metaphor for this post! What better way to start off the Writer’s Middle Finger Part Six. Because this post is about the long haul—the reality of an author’s career. The juggling, the ups and downs and the changes we go through as we grow into older-but-wiser writers.  

This is the sport.

Last year, my editor sent me an email after we’d discussed a recent editorial letter. In the email, she wrote, “Thanks for being such a great sport about revisions.” To which I replied, “I’m not a great sport. THIS IS THE SPORT.” I stand by that. Writing is a job. It’s not an easy job. It requires a skill set that grows as the job continues. Revision is a huge part of that skill set. It is the sport. And like athletes, we have to do our part to train, to compete with ourselves, and to learn every technique we can to improve. Revision, then, is the vehicle that many writers both adore and dread. It’s part mind-blowing learning experience/part soul-sucking responsibility.  

Stet: how we keep our middle finger in shape.

Because those around me are getting to know what a writer’s life is like through my experiences, they hear me talk about revision a lot. The #1 thing that civilians ask me these days is: So, do you have to do everything your editor tells you to do?

If you are a writer, you know the answer is no. If you are a writer, you know that there is a glorious word that looks like this: STET. But sometimes as writers, even if we’ve developed our skill set to a place where we think we have the job nailed, we forget this. Here’s a recent scenario:

I sent the finished first draft of a book to my (kind, intelligent and awesome) editor in February. Pretty nice first draft. I was happy with it, beginning to end. Editorial letter #1 arrived in April. No problem. It was long, but my editor is all about long letters—mostly because she is incredibly thorough in her explanations, which I find helpful.

Interrupting myself to say: Please, please do not equate long editorial letters to a lack of quality in your own work. Editors are all different. I have seen lamenting tweets and blog posts that go something like this: OMG! My ed letter is X pages long! That’s a page longer than last time! I must be getting worse. No no no no no. No. No. Okay? No.

Anyway. I returned the revised manuscript about 1.5 months later. Important fact that will bite me in the ass later in this story: I returned the manuscript with no detailed letter to outline why I did or didn’t take certain suggestions. I do not know why I did this. I think I was just confident with the revision and didn’t think anything needed to be said.

I knew I then had a month or more to work on the first draft of the next project. June was great. July was gearing up to be even greater. I was writing 4k words a day. But as July arrived, I saw the shadow creeping up behind me. I knew the second editorial letter was coming, so I wrote faster. I was like a human cup of espresso. Until it arrived.

Oh God.
Oh no.

Something was wrong with the second editorial letter. My editor didn’t seem to understand my book as much as I thought (assumed) she did. She had some great points about pacing, yes. She had some great points about secondary characters and all sorts of other stuff, but she seemed to be suggesting insane things for my beloved main character.

Here’s where my skill set exploded. Kaboom. Reduced to brain shrapnel. It’s like that moment when your husband of 20 years asks you if you want relish on your hot dog when you have never in 20 years eaten relish on your hot dogs. (Okay, we don’t eat hot dogs, but you get it.) It’s that moment when you feel severely misunderstood. Lost. Alone. Think boats without paddles. With rapids.

I tried to continue writing the first draft of the new book for two days, but I really only thought about the letter and came to this conclusion: I didn’t think I could make the book my editor seemed to want.

My editor is probably the smartest, savviest, coolest person I know. We work well together. She gets me. She gets my books. I didn’t want to disappoint her. I didn’t want to write STET that much. I didn’t want her to think I was ungrateful for all of her thoughts and ideas. I didn’t want her to think I was somehow becoming “difficult.” Maybe she’s right. Maybe she wants me to be more commercial or more normal and less weird. Maybe she doesn’t like my middle-finger Dirk-and-Sally-free writing anymore. Shit. Shit shit shit.

Why did I think this would get easier?
Photo cred: My kid.

I lost motivation. On the new book. On the revision book. On pretty much everything. I didn’t even want to swim. I drank more than usual. (Don’t worry. It wasn’t that much.) I read and re-read the letter. I tried to figure out how to say yes to all of her suggestions and still keep the story I'd written. I tried to figure out what I would say to her when we finally talked about the whole thing. I had to postpone our first conversation because I didn’t have anything to say. I was blank. Completely frozen. I am really good at finding solutions. It’s my thing. It is the sport. I enjoy it. But I couldn’t find solutions this time. I didn’t know what to do.

My agent suggested that I write a letter detailing why many of the suggestions weren’t working for me. (Oh look. What a smart idea. My agent is a genius. I am a writer. He asked me to write something about what I was feeling.)

That letter cleared everything up. My editor understood my main character better. She understood why I couldn’t do many of the things she suggested. She told me to go ahead and ignore huge parts of the editorial letter, which I have to admit was hard for me because I don’t like ignoring things—especially another person’s hard work. In the end, we laughed about the misunderstanding. I lamented that the whole thing could have been avoided had I not caused the problem in the first place.

By now, if you’re reading carefully, you know what the problem was. Remember that very important fact up there? The fact that I hadn’t sent a detailed letter to my editor with the first revision? Yeah. All this brain shrapnel and freaking out and frozenness was because I didn’t communicate. Me. The master communicator. Did. Not. Communicate. And communication, especially during revision, is a very important part of the writer’s skill set.

Hindsight: It’s like candy corn for breakfast. (Really awesome, but seasonal.)

As I write this, I am involved with many different types of publishing professionals. I can tell you this for nothing: The ones who communicate honestly and effectively are my favorites. 

Why my middle finger is sore

In real life, my middle finger is probably sore from using my computer away from my roller ball mouse more often these days. Or maybe I’m just hitting that age where body parts get sore.

Metaphorically, I am happy to report that my middle-finger books—soon to number four published—have been increasingly well-received, with reviewers often noting that they are different or original. No, I am not driving a swanky car yet, but I didn’t get into this to drive a swanky car. I got into this to make snowflakes, and I am making them and they are beautiful and I love my job, even though sometimes I forget how to do it properly. I wouldn’t love my job if I wasn’t able to write what I want to write.

My middle finger is not an angry middle finger. I don’t want yours to be either. Not when you point it at made-up writing rules, or when you point it at yourself, or when you point it at the internet, or when you point it at an editorial letter. This middle finger business isn’t about being pissed off. It’s about knowing what you want as a writer. It’s about blocking out all the noise. It’s about being true to yourself.

My middle finger is very very sore today. When one of my kids has a sore finger, they want a Band-Aid or ice or something to make it stop hurting. Me? I’ve never been so happy about a minor discomfort. It’s a constant reminder that it’s working.

If you didn't get the snowflake reference or the Dirk and Sally sentence, you can find links to Writer's Middle Finger posts 1-5 by clicking on this link.

No comments: