Before we begin what I hope will be a rather lengthy and fruitful headlong dive into craft issues, may I have a drumroll, please? Long-time Author! Author! reader Arleen Williams’ memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim, has just been published by Blue Feather Press!
Congratulations, Arleen! Here’s the book’s official blurb:
The Green River murders were headline news throughout the 1980s. By the time the perpetrator was sentenced in 2003, at least 48 young women had met an untimely death at his hands. What started as as string of local killings in Seattle became a national nightmare before it was over. In homes all across America, television news programs and newspapers large and small carried feature stories about the ever-growing list of victims.
Now imagine that during this time, someone you love — your baby sister, a beautiful young woman of 19 –suddenly goes missing. The police are at best unhelpful, and at worst, seemingly uninterested in what’s happened to her. And then comes word you hoped you’d never receive: your youngest sister’s remains have been found. She is yet another victim of the Green River killer. With amazing candor, Arleen Williams tells the story of her family’s journey, before and after the Green River killer murdered her sister Maureen and left her body in a stretch of wilderness off the west side of Highway 18.
As insightful as it is heart-wrenching, The Thirty-Ninth Victim gives you a window into the family dynamics that contributed to this life-altering tragedy. This is a memoir unlike any other. The author set out to tell Maureen’s story, but in doing so, she tells bits and pieces of every family’s story. You cannot read this profoundly personal and cataclysmic tale and come away unchanged, nor will you ever view your own family in quite the same way. You will applaud Ms. Williams’s courage in sharing this recounting of her family’s trauma through one of the most atrocious streaks of serial killings in American history. And like the family, you will never forget The Thirty-Ninth Victim.
I’m always thrilled when one of our community makes the leap into print, but in this case, I’m particularly tickled. I read an early draft of Arleen’s memoir a couple of years ago — and even as recently as last week, driving past the lovely forested hills east of Seattle, where poor Maureen’s remains were discovered, I still got chills, remembering some of the scenes in this book about the intense fragility of human life and collective memory.
What struck me most about this memoir is that, unlike so many books about particularly horrific crimes, the victim here comes alive on the page. Not as yet another in an almost unimaginably long list of murdered women (so long, in fact, that it sparked the nationwide Take Back the Night rallies) or as merely an object to be acted upon with violence, but as a vibrant light suddenly snuffed. And as part of a family so deeply attached to its own self-image as normal that even a daughter’s disappearance is allowed to disrupt it.
Chilling stuff. And powerful.
So please join me in giving Arleen a great big round of applause for pushing an unusually brave piece of writing to publication. THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM is now available on Amazon or at a slightly lower price on Blue Feather’s website.
That was invigorating, wasn’t it? Makes you just long to chat about editing your own manuscript, eh?
No? Okay, let’s warm up first by talking about a controversial subject amongst manuscript editors: editing for style.
As a freelance editor, I can tell you: much of what an editor does is fairly straightforward; the average manuscript abounds in non-standard usage, grammar, and spelling that would not, to put it kindly, make the soul of Noah Webster sip his lemonade happily in literary heaven.
Any editor would make these kinds of changes in almost exactly the same way; these matters are relatively non-negotiable.
I’m talking about good editors, of course — not the ones who neither like prose nor know how to fix its problems. (Don’t even get me started about the ones who aren’t well enough read to be editing in the first place. Because I am a very tactful individual — no, really — I shall eschew mention of the not-very-experienced editor who, in handling a certain memoir at an imprint that shall remain nameless — even though it went out of business last year when its parent company was bought out by a larger concern — spied the name Aristotle in the text and scrawled “Who?” in the margin.)
Contrary to popular opinion, though, editing for style, in either someone else’s manuscript or one’s own, is significantly slipperier than the good-writing-is-good-writing aphorism-pushers would have you believe.
Why? Well, every editor — just like every writer, every agent, and every reader in North America — was taught something slightly different about what makes a paragraph well-written.
And not only do we all THINK we are right about our particular favorites — we all actually ARE right about it. Style is very much a matter of taste. Obviously, certain tastes prevail at any given time in any given genre, but that does not mean that every reader in the genre will like the same stylistic choice.
Do I hear some grumbling out there? “Wait just a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you cry, the ones who have taken a whole lot of writing classes, attended more than your share of writers’ conferences, or wrote your way through an MFA. “I’ve always been taught that good writing is good writing, period. My teacher/mentor/that guy who ostensibly had a background that justified his yammering at me for an hour at a literary conference told me that there’s actually not a whole lot of variation amongst different styles of good writing, just what each particular market will embrace. Good writing, I have always been given to understand, is good writing, across venues.”
Ah, that old bugbear — yes, grumbling readers, you are quite correct to point out that experts thither and yon are indeed prone to saying things like this. The mere ubiquity of a saying, however, is not necessarily proof of its truth.
If you doubt this, I sentence you to a couple of hours contemplating all of the disparate things, people, and concepts tagged with “That’s hot!” over the last couple of years.
This is one of those translation issues, yet another instance where industry truisms are subject to misinterpretation if one listens to the actual words being said. What publishing professionals actually mean when they say that good writing is good writing is twofold: every format demands CLEAR writing, and standard format is standard format across venues.
In that respect, yes, good writing is good writing: standard manuscript format demands specific structures, norms for spelling and grammar, preferred typefaces; clear writing that says what the writer wants it to say AND is easily comprehended by others on a first read.
Go back and read that last paragraph again, because it’s awfully important: these, dearly beloved, are the minimum standards for professional writing.
If a manuscript does not adhere to this standard, it will invariably have problems making its way through an agency, publishing house, literary contest, or good English program. Thus, mastering these basics is the necessary first condition to producing a marketable manuscript.
Period, unless you are a celebrity on some other basis. And even then, chances are good that your publishing house will assign you a ghost who is VERY proficient in the basics.
Why am I bringing up this distinction at the beginning of a series on self-editing your work, you ask? Because unless a manuscript is clearly-written, perfectly formatted, and free of technical problems, revising for style is not going to render it publishable.
Want some time to go back and read that last sentence again? Go ahead; I’ll wait.
As a professional book doctor, I would STRONGLY recommend that any aspiring writer contemplating large-scale revisions perform a basic-level clarity-and-grammar editorial sweep through the manuscript FIRST.
Yes, I’m fully aware that this level of revision will be no fun whatsoever. Do it anyway, not only because it needs to be done if you ever intend to sell the book in question, but also because cleaning up the non-negotiable points will clear the decks for higher level revisions.
THEN you can begin to think about style.
And promptly fall into a quagmire, at least if you happen to be a person who likes to follow the current trends of writing advice.
What constitutes good style is quite subjective. This is why, in case you were curious, you can walk virtually into any good writing program and hear at least a couple of people arguing over whether good writing can be taught.
Writers quibble a lot amongst themselves over this. I have always thought that this question was formulated incorrectly: it really should be whether style can be taught, or whether talent can be learned.
Certainly, the mechanics and forms of the base level of good writing can be taught, or at any rate learned: it is hard to imagine someone absolutely new to the craft spontaneously electing to set up a manuscript in accordance with standard format. Its strictures are rather counter-intuitive, aren’t they, to those of us who read published books from time to time? And any good listener willing to take critique can learn to be, if not a clear writer, at least a clearer writer.
Which brings us right back to the good old basics.
While the basic level of good writing may not seem particularly ambitious — not worth, say, the years of alternated stomach-churning submission stress and nail-biting waiting to bring to publication — it is a truism of the industry that the VAST majority of submissions agencies and publishing houses receive do not rise even to this level.
Again, you might want to take a second gander at that last sentence.
I cannot stress this enough: no amount of personal flair or innovative insight will permit a technically problematic manuscript to clear the minimum standards hurdle. Agency screening guidelines, contest judging rules, and editorial expectations are almost invariably set up to prevent it.
That massive moan you just heard, new readers, the sound so like all of the banshees of the world complaining about their respective stomach aches, was my long-time readership anticipating my dragging them yet again through the logic behind standard manuscript format.
Actually, I’m going to spare you that march through grimness for the time being (but if you have even the smallest doubt on the subject, please run, don’t walk, to the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category in the list at right). For now, suffice it to say that I tend to harp on the basics because, frankly, the basics, not matters of style, are where most manuscripts meet their Waterloos.
This was not always true. In the not-so-distant past, when agents were not required equipment for fiction and editors were able to spend more of their time on editing and less on acquisition, it was not uncommon for the Writer With Promise’s first work to be taken on, with the intention that over time, the editor would work with the author to help that promise ripen into something beautiful.
These days, however, agents and editors both see enough technically perfect manuscripts in their submission piles that the decision to reject the technically imperfect ones is considered a no-brainer. Today’s Writer With Promise, then, needs to be producing impeccable basics before s/he can get a serious read for style.
Hmm, where have I heard that before?
I wish this were more widely known, or at any rate that if agents and editors MUST use form letters, they would have a version that reads, “Your style is promising, but unfortunately, this manuscript has too many technical errors for us to be able to consider it as is. Please consider getting a whole lot of good feedback or taking a professional formatting class, revising it, and sending it to us again.”
But that’s not writers are told, is it? No, we hear “this manuscript does not meet our needs at this time,” or “I just didn’t fall in love with it enough to take it on.”
Leaving many an aspiring writer to wonder: what do these generic phrases mean with respect to MY manuscript? Was it rejected because it had typos, due to running afoul of a common agency screeners’ pet peeve, or because Millicent the screener did not like the style?
Left with this kind of ambiguity, the average writer will almost invariably conclude that the problem was stylistic. Yet until she has done a basic clarity/format/grammar edit, how can she be sure?
More to the point, how can she possibly even begin to guess what she should change in order to make her work more marketable?
In practice, she typically can’t: most writers will just send out the same manuscript every time an agent or editor requests it. Or, if it gets rejected several times, they might tweak their submissions stylistically and send it out again, without correcting the technical problems that got them rejected in the first place.
Anyone but me sensing a vicious cycle here?
Here is my hope for all writers: if we are going to be rejected, let it be because an agent, editor, or browser in a bookshop legitimately doesn’t like our style. Not because the margins are the wrong size, or we’ve used a bizarre typeface, or we really didn’t understand how a NF book proposal should be put together, but because each of our voices is so strong that it comes down to whether the individual reader LIKES it or not.
Because at that point, my friends, we will all be marketing our work like professionals, building our individual stylistic choices upon a firm foundation of clarity, literacy, and a thorough understanding of how the industry works.
Don’t make me take that metaphor any further. I’m fully capable of constructing that metaphorical house right up to the rafters.
All of which was a lengthy preamble for this: starting tomorrow, I’m going to start talking about how to diagnose and make stylistic changes to your manuscript. Throughout, I shall be focusing mostly upon novels, but much of the techniques will be applicable to creative nonfiction and memoir as well.
But fair warning: I shall be operating on the assumption that the manuscript you are looking to revise is already crystal-clear, perfectly formatted, and free of technical errors — because if you want to make a living as a writer, you need to begin thinking of that level of polish as the BEGINNING of the revision process, not its end.
Yeah, I know: I have high standards for your work. Aren’t your ideas worth it? Believe me, on this point, I am cruel only to be kind; I would much, much rather be announcing the publication of your first book than consoling you after a rejection.
I’m funny that way.
Congratulations again, Arleen, and everybody, keep up the good work!