Mine Field and Gold Mine: Why You Should Read Your Primal Posts

Since my imagination seems to be in a bit of a dry patch when it comes to blogging these days, I decided to explore the wonderful world of reruns. The hope is to recycle some of my original posts that may have escaped general notice the first time around. Luckily (?), plenty of the Internet paid absolutely no attention to me for quite some time, so I’ve got a bumper crop of possibilities at my personal website. But my ongoing trip down blog-memory lane is not what this post is about. As often happens, my exploration in one direction led me some place unexpected.

Reading my first attempts at blogging reminded me of some wisdom I picked up somewhere, way back when, before I had a website (you know, a couple of years ago). Like most good advice, it was simple: the wise one said that all bloggers need to make a habit of reading their old posts and correcting/updating them as needed.

The wise one was right. I know this because, to date, I have completely and utterly failed to take the wise one’s advice. And my oldest posts reflect that. If you, like me, have gotten into the habit of publishing one of these things and then pretty much forgetting about it, then you, like me, might be surprised by what you find in the dustier corners of your archives.

It’s sometimes feels like a different person wrote them.

At first, I thought to share some of my choicest new-blogger gems here. But then it occurred to me that I would just be highlighting what is essentially mediocre writing worsened by bad editing. It occurred to me that might not be the wisest course of action for a freelance writer and editor to take. Though, if you hurry, you can still probably catch lots of the typos and bad grammar I haven’t gotten to yet. I am, after all, still the same procrastinating person I was before. And there are quite a few of those old posts. This process is definitely going to take some time.

But it’s proving beneficial on two fronts: I’m not only hiding my shame, I’m also discovering the various ways my writing has improved. (Yes, I like to think what you’re currently reading represents an improvement.) The biggest example of my writer-ly maturation has been seeing how my voice has matured.

So go back and read your primal blog posts, you might be glad you did. At the very least, you’ll probably catch a few of the typos you missed.

Motivation and Voice

I’ve been having this conversation in one way or another since grad school. It comes through in different ways and at different times, but it’s always the same theme. Most recently, I had it at the Writing Barn’s Full Novel Revision Workshop – which felt like a tiny slice of grad school, so I guess that makes sense. Most times in this conversation more experienced writers talk to less experienced ones about the need to be ready to hear good advice.

Since I was often the less experienced half of the discussion, I would nod right along like I knew what they meant. Even better, I wrote down everything everybody said at conferences and classes and then promptly forgot most of it. I let the information wash right through me and into my notebook without sticking. And my work showed it.

Writers can generally be divided into two categories: those who care about creating the best work they can and those who write to show how clever they are. Sorry if that sounds harsh. But I’m really not judging. Well, except maybe myself.

For me, this vanity-writing stage was a necessary step along the path to becoming … well, a real writer. I had to work through why I write. For decades I had used my creativity to basically show off. Ever since that first little poster board diorama I made in Sunday school and peopled with costumed plastic spoons, I’ve been telling stories and dealing out one-liners in the hopes of being deemed clever.

Needless to say, I didn’t exactly enjoy learning this about myself. But it shamed me into not putting my ego so blatantly onto the page.

It’s still there, don’t get me wrong. A little piece of me will probably always get crushed every time I learn I haven’t, in fact, created a chunk of prose all humanity must surely agree is perfect. But it’s a much littler piece now. And it’s morphed into a sort of spiritual lizard’s tail that breaks off before any permanent self-esteem damage can occur.

I fear that last metaphor may have pushed this post into the realm of accidental irony, so I’ll get back to the point. Put simply, a writer’s attitude toward writing translates quite blatantly to the page. The ‘why’ matters.

In fact, I think a writer’s motivation for creating comes through (or not) in that indefinable concept known as voice. I’ve based my conclusions purely on self-observation, so I’m hardly being scientific here. But I can tell you that I only began to find my voice after years of receiving honest and supportive (if sometimes heartbreaking) feedback and advice. This includes all that literary wisdom I ignored, by the way. Because somewhere deep inside I guess I always knew those great writers and readers were right. Why else did I keep seeking them out?

Or maybe I’m just I’m bullheaded and clueless.

Either way, it all gelled at some point, and I stopped taking notes and started listening. I started to apply what I was learning to both myself and my work. And that included an honest assessment of the ‘why’ of my own writing. Did I want to keep clinging to my need for praise, or did I want to create the best work I was capable of?

Okay, fine. I decided I wanted both. Just not in the same proportions as before. Now I write (and revise) to make the story better, not to showcase my clever wordplay. And that shift in motivation — along with a lot of time at the keyboard — has allowed my voice to emerge.

At least I hope it has. I’ve gotten a little nervous about the whole unintentional irony thing again.


What Kind of Editing Do You Need? Definitions Edition


Last post I blithely tossed around a handful of terms for the editing services Yellow Bird provides. I may have put the freelance editing process into the right order, but, because of space considerations, I didn’t fully describe what each type of editing entails. So, without further ado, allow me to present What Kind of Editing Do You Need, Part the Second.

Let’s start at the wide end, with content editing and developmental editing. What’s the difference between the two? I like to think of it in terms of editorial invasiveness.

If you’re looking for an editor to douse your manuscript in red ink, you probably want content editing. Your content editor will pore over every sentence in the book, making hundreds (sometimes thousands) of edits directly into the text to improve the content, flow, and style. Line edits are usually made using the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word, and broader comments about the text are inserted into the margins. This service touches on everything from big-picture commentary (character development, plot, pacing, etc.) to nitty-gritty sentence-level details. Unlike copy editing, which is primarily focused on fixing errors, content editing is inherently subjective and influenced by the style of the particular editor.

Follow this link to see how your pages will probably look when you get them back from a content edit. It can be daunting to see that much red ink on your baby like that. I won’t lie; it’s not for the faint of heart! More importantly, it’s not for the writer who hasn’t already taken her manuscript as far possible with critique partners and beta readers. Get your novel as clean as you can before you pay for this service. You don’t want to hire a pro to do what you can do for yourself, especially when you’re paying, on average, $6-10/ page.

If you’re not ready (or can’t afford) the rigors of a full content edit on your manuscript, developmental editing offers the same thorough, high-level feedback without all the line-edits. Yellow Bird offers two different types of developmental editing, depending on how you prefer to receive feedback:

With Developmental Editing Type A, your editor reads your full manuscript and compiles feedback in an extensive editorial letter, usually ranging from 6-8 single-spaced pages. This editorial letter covers feedback on a range of issues, including: pacing; flow of narrative; transitions; voice; plot; structure; dialogue; character development; audience; potential market. Obviously, this format necessitates a primarily big-picture focus. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get highly specific notes. My editorial letters are always heavily peppered with cited page numbers and quoted bits of manuscript text.

With Developmental Editing Type B, your feedback comes in the margins of the manuscript instead of an editorial letter. Specifically, your editor will read your draft, highlight passages that need attention, and insert a variety of comments in the margins plus “end-notes” after each chapter. The comments in the margins are usually specific to that page, whereas the end-notes summarize feedback for the whole chapter.

Either way you go, developmental editing does not provide actual rewrites. The revising remains completely up to you. But don’t think that means you’ll get off easy! Your editor will still put your manuscript through the wringer, believe me.

The last editing option I want to touch on here is the manuscript critique, which can be thought of as “Developmental Editing Lite.” With a manuscript critique, your editorial letter will likely be shorter (3-5 single-spaced pages) because your editor won’t go into as much depth or detail. If you are primarily just looking for an editor to help you see the big-picture (voice, plot holes, character arcs, etc.) a manuscript critique is usually sufficient. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for extremely thorough and detailed feedback, then developmental editing or content editing is probably a better choice.

Regardless of which editing service you choose, the end goal remains the same: to prepare your manuscript for the next step in its process, whether that’s another round of revisions or pursuit of publication.

Well, I’ve run out of room. So you’ll just have to wait until next time to read about the thrilling and nuanced world of copy editing and proofreading.

YA Novelist Brian Yansky on Writing for Boys, Part 2

[Below is part two of my recent email interview with YA sci-fi novelist, Brian Yansky. Here’s a link to the interview’s first part. My conversation with Brian is part of a larger series on teen male aliteracy, all of which can be found on the Yellow Bird Blog.]

BPW: I recently read a great essay by author Matt de la Pena about how becoming an active reader can change a man’s life, young or old. In our emails leading up to this interview you mentioned how reading “saved you” when you were young. How so?

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BY: I didn’t start reading a lot until I was seventeen. Before that I was, to put it mildly, unfocused. I was close to flunking out of school. I knew the local police much too well, and they knew me.  But when I started reading and writing (I started writing a diary because of the reading), I found a different kind of excitement from the kind that had been getting me into so much trouble. Reading and writing became healthy obsessions. They gave me focus. They gave me hope.

BPW: Andy Sherrod describes some basic differences between boy books and girl books. These have to do with the personality of the hero, the types of and settings for conflicts the hero must face, the narrative voice, and the use of factual information in the story. Your most recent novel,Homicidal Aliens and Other Disappointments, fits pretty neatly into all of Sherrod’s defining characteristics for a boy book. How did you come to specialize in writing for a young, male audience? Did you make a conscious choice?

BY: Well, like a lot of YA writers, I thought my first book was for adults. I found an agent who thought so too and tried to sell it. Several publishing houses liked it, but it didn’t sell. Then my wife and [YA novelist]Cynthia Leitich-Smith both encouraged me to think of it as a YA novel. I revised it a little but not much. It sold, almost immediately, as a YA.

I love writing YA characters. That age has so many possibilities. There’s a freshness to the world and experience and at the same time a naivety in some instances. It’s also a time of great change. There’s school and friends and first love and a lot of firsts. It’s just an interesting time, ripe with dramatic possibilities. It comes down to this: I’m excited and thrilled by writing characters this age. You should write what excites and thrills you.

BPWHomicidal Aliens ends with a major victory for the protagonist but leaves one antagonist unaccounted for. Does this mean a third book is in the works? If so, can you give a little taste of what future annoyances readers can expect for Jesse? If not, what’s next on your writing horizon?

BY: My next novel is not a sequel. Alas, no more alien books.  My next novel is called UTOPIA, IOWA, and will come out in early 2015. I just finished the final edits with my editor. It’s about this character who sees ghosts, but this is not the big deal to him because everyone on his mother’s side of the family sees ghosts. However, it becomes a big deal when a girl in his school is murdered, and she starts insisting he find out who killed her. I hope my main character, a–surprise,surprise– seventeen-year-old male, has a strong and interesting voice.

[If Yansky’s past heroes are any indication, his newest protagonist will indeed have a unique and memorable voice. Many thanks to Brian Yansky for his great answers here and for all of his great books. Earlier in this series, I asked Andy Sherrod for his boy book top ten. So it only seemed fair to ask the same of Brian. Here are his boy book recommendations:]

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Chaos Walking by Patrick Ness
Unwind by Neil Shusterman
Godless by Pete Hautman
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The Great Green Heist by Varian Johnson (due out 2014)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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YA Novelist Brian Yansky on Writing for Boys

Brian Yansky writes YA novels and teaches writing at Austin Community College. In his books he tells the stories of teenaged boys. I first met Brian at the 2012Austin SCBWI Annual Conference. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to get to know him a little better and read two of his sci-fi novels, Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences, and Homicidal Aliens and Other Disappointments. In addition to his full-time jobs writing novels and teaching at ACC, Brian sometimes teaches short format classes for The Writers’ League of Texas. Not to gush, but I can tell you from firsthand experience it’s worth the money to take one of these (usually half day) courses, because he teaches as well as he writes.

In many ways, Brian is the perfect example of a writer who is daring to buck some of the YA publishing trends I’ve been talking about in my ongoing series on the topic of teen, male aliteracy.

I posted a review of Homicidal Aliens on my personal blog late last week.

Here’s Part One of my recent email interview with him:

BPW: In Homicidal Aliens, just as in Alien Invasion before that, your first person narrator Jesse sounds exactly like who he is, a male teenager. Your language has a genuine plainness to it that’s highly effective. It’s also in keeping with what Andy Sherrod identifies as one of the defining characteristics of a boy book: the intense emotions the characters are feeling are undercut by your narrative voice. Is there a “real” Jesse whose voice you borrowed from? Either way, can you talk about developing your distinctly teen, male voice?

BY: First, thanks for saying that. I do want every character to have a distinct voice, and I struggle to make my characters sound the age they are. It may help that I suffer from arrested development, and a part of me still sometimes reacts like a teenage boy: “I have to do that? You mean I have to do that now?” So I do get in touch with my inner teenager when I write my young adult novels. I suppose the voice is some mix of my memories of myself and my friends at that age, my imagination, and my observation of teenagers – both in real life (one of the benefits of teaching at Austin Community College) and in the novels I read, movies and TV I see, songs I hear. The way a voice comes is a bit of a mystery, but as I’m building a character – adding specifics about how a character sees his world and what he does in it – the voice becomes clearer and clearer in my mind.

BPW: You successfully write for a teen audience. Do you have teen beta readers?

BY: I don’t.

BPW: Is it because you choose not to? Or is it more a matter of limited access?

BY: There are probably a few writers who do have teen readers, but none of my writer buddies do.  Every writer is different though. I just do my best to be true to the character. Then I have a critique group, who all write YA and Middle Grade, read my work. Then my agent, who sells mostly YA and MG. Then my editor at Candlewick. So if there are places where the voice seems inauthentic, I get feedback. But, honestly, I rely mostly on my ear and, as I said before, a combination of observation, imagination, and memory.

Look for the rest of my conversation with YA novelist Brian Yansky in two weeks, and find out how discovering reading as a teenager changed his life.