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The Editors’ Mile High Club

Journal with cup of soda and bag of ships on an airline trayI’ll admit it: the editor’s version of the Mile High Club just isn’t as sexy as the original. We try, what with all that sensual red ink and bumpy-looking notes from the turbulence, but it just doesn’t have the same kind of allure as bonking in the bathroom at 37,000 feet.

Still, editing on a plane is where most of my really great intellectual intercourse happens. Why is that? Here are some of my theories:

  • I’m stuck in one place. As a kid, I was way more effective when I did homework in the car on the way to whatever extracurricular my mom was toting me to that day, and I think this efficiency-from-confinement has carried on into adulthood. I can’t go clean something or walk the dog or any other form of constructive procrastination because I’m literally strapped down. Middle seats are especially effective.
  • Distractions are minimized. Wireless service becoming more widespread threatens to change this fact, but until they make it free (probably never since they all airline carriers seem one barrel of oil away from charging for carry on luggage), my sanctuary is safe. Though some passengers express curiosity about the large stack of paper binder-clipped in front of my, most are busy sleeping open-mouthed or reading the latest John Grisham novel.
  • When traveling, less is more. I edit fiction by hand, and there are times when the analogue way of doing things just plain pays off. I don’t have to watch my computer battery or buy those overpriced, poorly designed headsets for the in-flight movie. Plus, I can concurrently eat and edit on that little tray table; can you?
  • I find really great character details to pass on to my writers. You just see great stuff when it comes to traveling, like a woman eating a salad from Cinnabon or the smell of a middle-aged businessman obsessively crunching corn nuts washed down with tiny bottles of whiskey. Or the word “lavatory,” which only seems to be used on airplanes.

Writers have their favorite places and ways to write, and the same is true for editors (we’re not paper-pushing desk monkeys!). Many of these conditions can be achieved in other, less expensive settings (like when riding the bus or a sitting in doctor’s waiting room even if you don’t have an appointment), but for me, it’s still a sure shot to stick me on a plane with a manuscript.

Of course, a plane is not the strangest place I’ve ever chosen to work my editorial magic; editing in a bar is sure to set the stage for pick-up lines. Maybe there’s hope for sexing up the mysterious world of editing after all.

Why Editing Can Ruin (or Save) a Romance

Charcoal script "Editors are sexy" on wallWriters are world-renowned for their romantic whims and emotional dramatics, but editors are lovers too. Though we may grapple with the muses far less often or simply be saner than our creative counterparts, our craft can just as easily be the downfall (or the saving grace) of our romantic relationships.

How Editing Ruins Romance

Besides the fact that editing is far less romantically appealing than writing, there are other editorial character traits that can easily foil a relationship with a non-editing significant other:

  • Editors are trained to nit pick. Our job is to find every single problem in the copy set before us. We start out assuming errors exist, and it’s our job to find (and correct) them. We’re well intentioned in our pursuit (we want the best possible outcome), but when applied to a partner, our tendencies create frustration, dissatisfaction and feelings of inadequacy.
  • Editors strive for consistency. We do things by the book and sometimes even write the rules ourselves. It’s our job to make sure that copy fits, to the letter, a specific set of guidelines and expectations—the kind of standards you simply can’t apply to human beings themselves.
  • Editors are often better tellers than doers. While editors should also be writers in order to truly appreciate the full creative process, the fact is we’re simply better at editing than writing; we’re better at giving direction than executing it. A healthy romantic relationship, on the other hand, is a balance of discussion and implementation from both people.

How Editing Saves Romance

Though editing can be a murderer of love, good editors have another set of traits that just might save relationships from the clutches of constant criticism:

  • Editors can see potential. We buy into a writer as a creator, not necessarily based on his first creation. We understand that imperfection doesn’t mean unworthiness and that sometimes promising spirit, more than precise execution, should be an initial point of focus.
  • Editors appreciate the role of emotion in communication. When communicating what seems like purely factual information, it’s important to take feelings into consideration in both writing and non-writing relationships. There may be major plot problems in your author’s novel, but you consider the best way to communicate this because how the writer responds to your comments shapes the progress of the work, for better or worse.
  • Editors understand loyalty in the midst of difficulty. We come to our author relationships with the understanding that at some point there will probably be a melt down or at least some whining. Maybe they’ll yell at us or simply completely dismiss what we think is relevant guidance. We accept this and honor a commitment to the creative relationship.

Anyone who cares about their profession at all sees elements of their work habits creep into their relationships. Fortunately for editors (and those who love them), we’re not afraid to make revisions as necessary.

Battle of Words: Do Contests Make Better Writers?

When I was younger, I was one of the most competitive dorks around. In fact, my love of literature was a by-product of simply wanting to win a reading program called Accelerated Reader. The idea was the more I read (and the more advanced books I read), the more points I earned. I finished as AR champ of my elementary school. (I was subsequently teased for this throughout middle school).

That same competitive drive led me to win a few essay-writing contests as a young student as well. Both earned me word nerd bragging rights, but one earned me a little money as well. Then, as a high schooler, I wrote my way to funding my entire college education through scholarships that required an essay. So did competition make me a better writer in the long run?

Simply put, contests led me to read and write across broader topics and in greater depth.

For me, the prospect of being named the best was a huge motivator. At the same time, I wasn’t motivated by the prospect of winning with absolutely everything I did. For instance, as a member of the top choir group in my high school, I was required to compete in certain singing contests every year. I hated this. I didn’t mind competing as a group, but I hated doing it as a soloist.

I was good; I was trained by a professional opera singer, and I had a solid voice that could easily stand on its own. But still, I hated being subjected to contests, even if I was only judged independently.

I sang because it was fun and made me feel good, and turning it into something to be judged made it less enjoyable work for me. I didn’t have aspirations of attending music school or winning American Idol; I just wanted to be able to belt it in the shower.

I’m not sure how to reconcile these two experiences because, like singing, I get a lot of inherent enjoyment from writing. I’m not the only one with this sense of tension.

One of my writers recently vented some frustration about these contests. He was irritated that it seemed that he had to have some short story publications (isn’t that really just a contest?) under his belt before literary agents would consider representing his novel. Since the two forms are drastically different, he found it absurd that the former credential was linked to the latter potential.

So it is: when I read through the slush pile as a lowly editorial intern, I was trained to look for credentials accompanying author submission cover letters. And those who had been published before were considered more seriously.

Unfortunately, I think this reveals a typical human tendency: the domino effect of credentials. The first to buy into an idea is the critical tipping point, and each successive validation makes the next all the more likely.

But that doesn’t make it good writing.

Just because a piece is published or praised doesn’t mean it’s actually worth its salt; it just means someone bought in. Many times it means they bought in purely because they knew others would too (i.e. the market potential of writing).

Likewise, just because a piece of writing is rejected doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means it’s not the right fit. Or won’t sell. Or comes at the wrong time. Or the acquisitions editor was having a shitty day. None of those factors have anything to do with the actual quality of the writing, and yet they often determine how many pairs of eyes ever read it.

Thus, with the exception of purely peer-reviewed contests, I generally think the main purpose of writing competitions is merely that of discipline for the all too often unstructured writing life. Writers should look for contests that stretch their skills in form, topic, deadline.

(And why the hell have I never come across an editing competition?! I’ve taken editing tests, and I think they’re fun – someone should put up some prize money for that!)

Bottom line: If you win a contest or publication, put the accolade in your encouragement folder and the money in your dwindling bank account, then sit down and write something better.

If you’re feeling particularly ballsy, hop into the fray that is the 80th annual Writer’s Digest contest. The deadline is June 1 and the top prize is $3,000 and a trip to their conference in NYC (read: one-on-one time with editors and agents).

Mommy Me: An Editor’s Take on Parenting

In the April/May 2011 issue of Bust magazine, Liv Tyler said this when asked about the job of mothering as a creative endeavor:

Well, [kids] just come out who they are! You’re so quick to judge parents. To judge humans on how they were raised, to judge parents for what they did. But you see when you become a parent yourself, children are really born with this innate sense of themselves. They come out that way from day one. It’s interesting to figure that out: how to nurture and guide them but also to allow them to be who they are. To see in them what they are naturally good at and interested in and encourage them in those ways.

I’ve always thought of writers as the mothers in the doula analogy, but reading this interview made me think to myself, “Hmm, cultivating existing talents? Sounds like an editor. Maybe I can be a good mom after all.”

I love this perspective on parenting because it isn’t the narcissistic brand of trying to turn your children into stars of something of your choosing. Everyone has seen the parent trying to live vicariously through their children, and rarely is it something we’d like to replicate.

AJ blows a nice snot bubble before diving into the sand pit to make a great mess of himself.

My parents allowed me to express my own interests, then worked to help open doors for me in that direction. For example, I loved playing sports as a kid. So they signed me up for gymnastics, swimming, soccer, softball, taekwondo – anything I’d go for, which was usually something that included physical contact. (What can I say? I was a rough tomboy.)

The heart of Liv Tyler’s parenting perspective is great: “nurture and guide them but also allow them to be who they are.”

My two and a half year old nephew AJ has a Mom that understands this idea. One day when we were having a picnic lunch at the park, he was fascinated by the volleyball pit and squatted down to feel the warm sand. He picked up a handful and we both knew where this was going: his hair.

He happily continued to drop sand in his hair, and his Mom just let him have at it. Why not? Nothing a bath wouldn’t fix, and he was having a great time playing Sand Man. This is not a life-shaping experience, but it’s an attitude that’s reflected in the general parenting mindset of AJ’s Mom.

Over controlling parents end up with children that resent them just like over controlling editors end up with writers that shut them out. Does that mean all hands off? Of course not.

The best parents – from the viewpoint of someone who’s only ever been a child, not had them – are partners with their kids. They are there to support, give advice, console, defend, engage, correct. They can see the world from their child’s point of view, but also have the bigger picture perspective to help guide them.

Walking the Walk: A Short Story for Your Consideration

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of editors being experienced writers. In an effort to sanctify that claim, I’ve decided to post one of my own short stories, Egg Hunting.

Short stories are my favorite form of creative writing because of their density – by definition, you have a small amount of space in which to write something meaningful but not overdone for the form. While some of those who read this blog have already seen and commented on this short, I’m always open to suggestions for further improvement. In fact, I’m considering entering this story in the American Short(er) Fiction Prize contest, so go ahead, rip into it.

 

Egg Hunting

“There’s an egg in the deep end.”

“What?”

“I said there’s—“

“No, I heard you. What do you mean, there’s an egg in the deep end? Like a diving egg? Big deal.”

“No, I think like a for real egg. Look, it’s in lane three. Get in there and bring it up, Nate.”

I was wearing my obligatory red swim trunks but since this was the used-sparingly adult lap lane, I hadn’t actually anticipated getting wet. I knew arguing with Michelle, the manager for the resort’s miniature water park, was pointless so I reluctantly pulled off my T-shirt with one hand. I tried not to think about the fact that my back was textured like the popcorn ceiling of a cheap motel as I stepped up to the edge of the pool where the concrete was still wet from the waves made by the
Michelle’s morning workout.

There were ducks that lived around the pool during the summer months, enjoying the open water on days when the pool was closed for weather. But the idea that one of them had somehow rolled an egg into the pool, much less laid an egg in the pool, was absurd. I thought.

I leaned over the edge of the pool, letting my rough knuckles dip into the warm, odorously chlorinated water. I bent over more, the way you’d never dare in a prison bathroom, then dove into the deep end – a mere six and half feet – and felt the water push my hair back as I opened my eyes to look for the egg.

I floated along the bottom of the pool for a few seconds, feeling the grit that had collected after being washed off the feet of the leathery cougars that gracelessly hopped into the pool every 30 minutes or so between bake sessions. The egg was conveniently sitting vertically on the blue strip separating lanes two and three, and I used both palms to scoop it up and bring it gently to the surface. I swam towards the dark figure that was Michelle standing at the side of the pool, arms folded across her small breasts. Her skin was as dark and smooth as the back of a Polaroid picture. She’d moved here with her family from Mali, a landlocked country in the middle of the Western Sahara desert, and I found the irony of her occupation hard to ignore. She swam dozens of laps as easily as she could walk them on land and catered to the every whim of richly pampered tourists.

My now clear vision confirmed what my sense of weight and balance had suggested: the egg was cracked open and apparently hollow. I handed the egg to Michelle before pulling myself up on the side. My trunks snagged a bit on the rough concrete, and I moved my calloused feet to avoid the dead June bugs floating on the water’s surface. I wiped my face with wet hands and looked towards Michelle, who was handling the egg carefully but with a confused expression.

“Is it hollow? Do you think the yolk’s in the pool?” I asked, preparing for a quick hyper-chlorination cleaning so as to minimally interrupt the critically important swim time of the over-worked, over-paid guests.

“No, it looks like there’s a baby duck in there,” she replied. Surely she wasn’t serious. “Really, come look – it’s like a tiny embryo.”

I stood up and stood bicep-to-shoulder with her. The cracked opening of the egg didn’t look like the result of a simple fall from the nest, but more like the result of birth-pecking, or whatever the technical 4-H term is. But that didn’t make sense with the tiny body inside – it was the vague shape of some form of avian creature with a beak likely to hold a tongue no bigger than a hangnail.

“What should we do with it?” asked Michelle, putting me in charge for the first time in our miserable manager-managee relationship.

“What do you mean, what should we do with it? It’s not like we can send it off for testing. You want to give it to your mama duck?” I knew I’d be pushing a button with this comment. Despite Michelle’s almost entire lack of likeability, she had a soft spot for one of the ducks that camped out in the bushes around the pool. She had decided to name the mother duck “Red Roan” because of its color.

She looked at me with contempt, roughly handed me the almost-hollow egg, and walked away. I looked again at the tiny wings with wet feathers, the eyes that were disproportionately large compared to the rest of the features. Not seeing another option, I turned towards the iron fence that surrounded the pool, presumably to keep out skinny-dipping teenagers who hadn’t paid to be there, and tossed the egg over. Not gently set it outside the bars of the fence – fucking catapulted that thing as far as it would go.

Michelle didn’t seem concerned with the pool’s sanitary status, so I picked up my guard tube and followed her towards the entrance, where the morning’s first bather was walking in sporting one of those control-top bathing suites with a mini skirt – the only time a skirt that short would be considered modest. Last time I saw her at the pool the thing ballooned out around her already doublewide ass as she walked laps in the shallow end.

“Is the pool open now?” she asked. She tucked a strand of thin black hair behind her ear when she said it and adjusted her Gucci sunglasses above her glistening forehead. I wondered if her sun block was designer too.

“Yes, ma’am,” I responded with the appropriate level of cheerful deference. But I reevaluated my reluctance to take the morning shift when I looked over her padded shoulder to spot a blonde in a skimpy string bikini walking in. Distracted, I waved the weighty woman towards the beach entry end of the pool. “Go ahead and get in whenever you’re ready. Water’s great today.”