Editing: Brain Surgery for Writers

 

brain surgeonsIf you needed brain surgery, how much time would you invest in searching for the right brain surgeon? Knowing that outcomes vary, experience and dexterity matter, competence is paramount, and an incompetent practitioner can leave the patient in worse shape than when he began, I guess you’d spend as much time as it took to find the right person.

Writers in search of an editor need to exercise the same rigorous search, because editing, especially editing of fiction, is a sort of brain surgery. The editor operates in the gap between the book the writer envisioned and the one that actually made it onto the page. Thus the editor must see clearly not only the imperfect story on the page, but the story it wants to become, its ideal self. If the author has taken chances in the writing (as good writers tend to do) some of these will have succeeded and others will have failed. If cutting is inevitable, the surgery must be performed delicately – because the last thing any editor wants to do is to excise healthy tissue.

What I mean to do in this post is to talk about some of the decisions writers face with regard to editors: whether to hire an editor and if so, what sort of editor to hire; at what point in the process; how to recognize good ones and avoid bad ones. But I should begin, in the interest of fair disclosure, by saying that I myself am an editor and writing teacher as well as a novelist. You can, depending on your disposition, take that as an admission of vested interest or as an indication that I have had occasion to think seriously about the intersection of writing and editing.

Types of Editors

First off, we need to define terms. There are different types of editing. A novel acquired by one of the large commercial publishers typically undergoes four layers of editing by at least three different people.

Developmental editors look at the big-picture items: pacing, structure, characterization, style, point of view, theme. They track plot and subplots, consider the arcs of the major characters and the novel as a whole, examine the opening and ending of the novel as well as its structure.

red penLine editors examine the novel on a line to line basis. They look for continuity, logic, clarity, consistence in POV and tone. They will also address grammatical and style issues, though not to the extent that a copy editor does. In publishing houses, developmental and line editing are usually done by the acquiring editor and may be combined.

Copy editors focus closely on language. Their job is to rid the manuscript of any grammatical, spelling, usage and punctuation errors, as well as stylistic inconsistencies.

Proofreaders are the last line of defense, the final readers. They read typeset proofs to look for the same mistakes that copy editors do, including errors introduced by the typesetting process.

In this post, when I refer to editing, I’m talking primarily about developmental and line editing.

Should Writers Hire Editors?

Some should, some shouldn’t. It depends on the writer’s intentions. I believe that writers who intend to self-publish should, in fairness to themselves, their books and their potential readers, have their books edited. Few self-published writers can afford the four separate layers of scrutiny given to books published by commercial houses. But many editors offer combinations of developmental and line editing, and some offer copy editing as well, although ideally that should be done by someone other than the developmental editor. In editing, as in surgery, two pairs of eyes are better than one. If the writer at that point is confident in her ability to spot any deviations in the proof from the copyedited manuscript, she can do her own proofreading.

Having one’s manuscript edited is a learning experience. As writers grow more experienced, one thorough edit in addition to their own careful revisions may well suffice. But every writer has a tendency to make certain types of mistakes, everyone is blind to their own worst prose; and writers who publish without an editor do so at their own risk.

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Writers who aim to be commercially published have a different set of calculations. On the one hand, all four levels of editing are provided by the publisher at no expense to the writer, and the editors who provide the services are usually first-rate. Good editing is one of the great perks of being professionally published. On the other hand, the bar to acceptance is very high, and if the book is almost but not quite where it needs to be, a good editor can make the crucial difference.

I advise writers who are trying to make their careers in traditional publishing to do everything they can with their manuscripts before they consider hiring an editor. Writing is a craft that takes a great deal of practice to master. Learning to revise your own work is very much a part of that process. Writers can take classes, which I highly recommend, the more rigorous the better. They can join critique groups and seek out skilled, savvy beta readers; they can read books by great practitioners about their craft; they can study the work of writers they admire; and they can apply all that they have learned and are learning to their work in progress.

Foetus_in_the_Womb_detailA novel is not written in one go, and first drafts are still soft clay. I think it’s dangerous to turn an embryonic first draft or incomplete novel over to an editor. It should go through serious revision and refinement before that step is considered.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea for a writer to begin submitting that final draft to agents and seeing what sort of response she gets before deciding on hiring an editor. If the response is positive, she may never need to hire her own. If, on the other hand, she gets a significant number of rejections, it may be time to consider enlisting a freelance editor or manuscript evaluator (basically the same thing as a developmental editor), someone savvy and objective who can help her see the book as she could not see it herself.

Qualifications

Anyone can call himself an editor. He may as well call himself a “professional editor” too, while he’s at it; it sounds even better and means just as little. Anyone who’s ever corrected a child’s school essay is an editor, but not necessarily one who would be useful to an aspiring novelist. Academic degrees do not necessarily confer competence in the field of editing fiction. What qualities should a real editor have?

I’m going to respond to that from the point of view of a novelist whose books have been greatly enhanced by smart, sensitive editors. These are the things that I would look for in an editor.

Experience. This can come from several different areas. Some freelance editors have experience working for publishing houses, and if I were in need of an editor, I would take a good look at anyone who had edited for a major house. Those jobs are highly competitive and you have to be good to get them. Ive worked with editors from Simon & Schuster, Morrow, Doubleday, Atheneum and Viking, and I never had one who didn’t contribute significantly to the finished book. Be careful, though. I’ve seen editors who claim to have publishing experience… but when you check out the companies they worked for, you discover that they are merely fronts for the writer’s own self-published work.

A lot of writers moonlight as editors, myself included. The advantage of having a writer for an editor is hands-on experience: they’ve wrestled their own novels into shape, and they know the tricks of the trade. The disadvantage is that these editors can be tempted to impose their own taste and style on the work to a greater extent than editors who are not writers: one reason that a sample edit is essential. (More on that below.) Writers who offer editing services should have solid achievements in their own fields; otherwise, you have to wonder how can they help you succeed if they couldn’t help themselves. For the same reason, I would never hire a writer to edit a novel if I didn’t know and admire his own fiction.

A solid track record.  Everyone has to start somewhere, but you don’t want anyone cutting their teeth on your book. Editors should be happy to provide you with a client list. I would want to see that some of those clients at least had been published commercially. If the editor specializes in a particular genre, and you write in a different genre, that is at the very least a matter to be discussed. Many fiction editors don’t specialize, however, because while conventions may differ, good writing is good writing.

ArethaRespect. A good editor enters into what you are trying to do and helps you get closer, rather than trying to squash your work into preordained parameters. Part of respect is honesty. The editor has to be frank about what’s working and what isn’t. Soft-peddling problems to spare the writer’s feelings does that writer a great disservice.

Communication. The best editors are natural teachers; but every editor should be willing and able to explain the reasons for his recommendations. Honesty is important, but so is reasonable tact and the ability to point out what does work well, so writers can build on it.

Mad_scientist_02_by_LemondjinnEducation. A degree in English is a useful credential for a copy editor, but has no bearing on that person’s ability to do developmental editing. I would look favorably at an editor with an MFA from a good writing program. Someone who has studied writing seriously can be a very discerning critic. But I’d also want to see evidence of practical experience and/or achievements. Otherwise, it could be like hiring an astrophysicist to fix your toaster.

Regardless of academic degrees, a good editor is widely read and conversant with the literature of the day, including the best genre writers. A wide frame of reference is a necessary prerequisite of the job. Editors also need a solid knowledge of the publishing industry, to be able to help writers who aspire to break through.

How to Recognize Good Editors…

1. They possess the qualifications listed above. I realize that this is a tall order, and that by the time you finish eliminating all the editors who don’t measure up, you may be left with only me. This is purely coincidental. *

Kidding, of course. There are many editors out there, and some of them are excellent. Others aren’t. That list of qualifications can be a useful tool in looking beyond the hype on a website.

2. They come recommended by or have worked with writers whose work you admire.

3. They are willing to provide a sample edit for a nominal fee.

4. They are discriminating. The hard truth is that some books are too rough to edit. They need to be substantially rewritten, which is not an editor’s job. Even when the writing is creditable, there’s also a question of fit. Not every editor is right for a particular writer. Good editors know this and do not take on all comers. The sample edit is an essential way to assess how writer and editor would work together. I never take on an editing job unless I’ve first done the sample edit offered on my website, and I would be wary of editors with set rates who accept work blindly.

5. The sample edit knocks your socks off. It may sting a bit at first, because there’s a part of every writer that wants to hear nothing but praise. But there’s another part of every serious writer that strives constantly for better tools and more facility with the craft. Once the sting wears off, a good edit should enunciate things about the work that the writer sensed but couldn’t articulate, as well as showing a way forward. Of all the criteria, the sample edit is the most important in choosing an editor.

… And How to Avoid Bad Ones

1. They don’t meet the qualifications listed above.

2. They make inflated claims. Anyone who promises that with his help, his clients will go on to sell their work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. There are no certainties in publishing.Free Clipart Illustrations at http://www.ClipartOf.com/

3. They solicit you. Good editors tend to be backed up with work. Anyone who solicits you is suspect.

4. They don’t offer to provide a reasonably priced sample edit, but press instead for a larger commitment.

 

I hope  you find this useful and welcome your comments. I wish I could append a list of recommended editors. I do know several who are excellent for nonfiction, and I’ve referred writers to them; but unless I’ve worked with a fiction editor myself, or seen their work, I don’t feel comfortable referring novelists. I invite readers who have worked with first-rate freelance editors to share that in the comments section, as well as any other experience you might have had with freelance editors.

 

As I mentioned above, I do some editing myself when I’m not in the midst of writing a book; but my special offer is valid for any fiction writer who cares to take it up.

I also teach writing workshops several times a year. These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

For more on this topic, see What to Do When You’ve “Finished” Your Novel and Good Writers Are Good Editors.

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I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

Rejection: Good for the Writer’s Soul?

 

There’s a schism in the writing world. Messianic advocates of self-publishing tout its benefits; skeptical opponents counter with the lack of all the services provided by preacherpublishers. As a novelist, blogger, and former literary agent, I’ve read countless iterations of both positions, which keep changing as self-publishing evolves. Just a few years ago, publishing and self-publishing were separate worlds; now they’re developing a symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the other. Success in self-publishing can lead to multi-book contracts with major publishers; while many published authors, formerly sidelined as “midlist” authors, are reviving their careers and making good money through self-publishing. A new species is emerging: hybrid writers with a foot in each camp.

As the tools available to self-publishers continue to develop, they may overcome many of the industry’s current deficits. But the greatest drawback to self-publishing is one that can never be overcome, because it is intrinsic to the enterprise: the lack of rejection.

Before the advent of simple, do-it-yourself e-publishing, when publishers ruled the planet, rejection was an inescapable part of the writer’s existence. Most published novelists were turned down many times, often on multiple books, before breaking into print. Most “first” novels passed through a gauntlet of rejection by agents and publishers before finding a home.  No one got through unscathed.

Rejection isn’t some sort of japish frat hazing we can all laugh about later. It hurts badly and over time has a cumulative effect on the writer’s psyche. Many give up. Depression is common. John Kennedy O’Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, due in part to repeated rejections of his novel, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, which was published years later and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Some writers go a little crazy, or a lot. I wrote about one such writer in A DANGEROUS FICTION, but it happens in real life, too. Last year, a West Coast literary agent was stalked and attacked by a disgruntled writer.

Connoisseurs of rejection, aka writers, know that not all rejections are the same. They fall into three basic categories:

crazyHomicidal. One publisher called Nabokov’s  Lolita “overwhelmingly nauseating” and recommended that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years. Another predicted that Mailer’s The Deer Park would “set publishing back 25 years.” When Hunter Thompson was responsible for evaluating submissions to Rolling Stone magazine, he wrote one rejection letter that started with “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill here again. If I had the time, I’d come out there and drive a fucking wooden stake into your forehead,” and went downhill from there.

Unhelpful.  These include form letters (“We regret that your work does not quite suit our list…”) and, cruelest of all, silence.

 “Close but no cigar.” These “good rejections” come with useful notes from the agent or editor and sometimes an invitation to revise and resubmit. They’re a sign that the work is almost but not quite where it needs to be.

Rejection hurts. The more you’ve put into a book, the more it hurts. And yet I suspect that rejection is the cod liver oil of the writer’s diet. It tastes vile but can have salutary effects.

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First, insomuch as it acts as a spur to revision, rejection is a functional part of the artistic process.  Good writers are always just a hair’s breadth away from becoming better writers, and the necessity to go back time and again at a piece of writing can be precisely the impetus that’s needed.  I had the rare opportunity, early in my career, of sitting down with an editor who had rejected my second novel, CAFÉ NEVO, and learning exactly why. It was the first real editorial feedback I’d ever had, and though the meeting didn’t last long—half an hour or so–the conversation opened my eyes. I rewrote the novel. It  sold it to another publisher and received wonderful reviews and praise from writers like Alan Sillitoe, Madeleine L’Engle and Alice Hoffman–none of which would have happened without the input  of the editor who’d rejected it.

The lure of self-publishing can abort this process, to the detriment of both writers and readers. When J.K. Rowling started writing the Harry Potter novels, self-publishing was not an option. She spent five years planning the series and writing the first book. A literary agent made editorial suggestions, which she implemented. The revised book was rejected by a dozen publishers until Bloomsbury bought it for £1500, at which point it underwent further editing. The book so many millions of readers came to love, which launched a series and an empire, was a much improved version of the draft Rowling had finished years earlier. What would have happened, how much would have been lost, if she’d self-published her first draft straight to Kindle?

tigerSecond, the gatekeepers so despised by self-publishing advocates serve an essential role in the publishing ecology. Acting as super-predators, literary agents and editors thin the herd of writers, eliminating those who lack ability and/or stamina— both are needed—and toughening the hides of the survivors.  “Talent is helpful in writing,” Jessamyn West wrote, “but guts are absolutely essential.”

The_philosopherThird, not all novels need to be published. Writing’s like any craft: it takes talent, time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and there’s usually a period of apprenticeship. Most published writers have an early unpublished manuscript or two tucked away in a drawer, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. The brilliant writer Edward Whittemore completed seven novels before selling one: not an apprenticeship one would wish on any writer, but it demonstrates the devotion bordering on obsession that characterizes the breed.

One might argue that self-published writers have had their share of rejection; that’s why they self–publish. That’s not entirely true, since some writers are self-publishing by choice. Most first-time novelists, though, have indeed tried and failed to find publishers. If rejection is an unpleasant but salutary part of the writer’s journey, why hasn’t it worked its magic on them?

The answer is that there are limits to what rejection and revision can do. A fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach, but you’ve got to have the pumpkin. A person can pour heart and soul into a novel and still end up with something only a mother could pumpkinread. As anyone who has ever sloshed through an agent’s slush pile will tell you, most first novels can’t be salvaged. If it pleases those authors to self-publish electronically, at least no trees will be killed in the process, and no one will stand between their books and potential readers.

The fundamental problem with self-publishing is not that bad books are published, but that good ones are published prematurely: books that could have been better, even great, if the writer had worked harder on them, for years if necessary, until they were good enough to sell, and then worked on them some more with the help of a first-class editorial team.  Self-publishing offers instant gratification. You write a book, and a month or two later it’s in your hands or on your screen. The process of selling to a mainstream publisher takes much longer, risks rejection, and often requires multiple revisions, but the result is a better book. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

Well, that and sales, too. As the holidays roar down on us, I will join in the chorus of heavenly pitches and mention that books make the very best presents; and I happen to have a few out there for the readers on your list. I’d also like to thank the San Francisco Book Review for their early present: a wonderful 5-star review of A DANGEROUS FICTION that called it “a terrific mystery novel, told with warmth and snarky wit.”

Looking For Friends In All the Wrong Places

 

In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud was asked a question about her novel, THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, that she didn’t like. Would you, the interviewer asked, want to be friends with your protagonist, Nora?

ClaireMessudByLuigiNovi1Messud exploded. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? … If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

Reactions followed swiftly.  A panel of writers was assembled by the New Yorker and asked to weigh in on the issues raised by Messud’s comments. Let us assume that the tactful tone of their opinions was uninfluenced by the fact that Messud’s husband, James Wood, is the literary critic for the New Yorker. Jonathan Franzen’s admirably brief remarks began, “I hate the concept of likability,” which will come as no shock to those who remember Franzen declining Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement on the grounds that her viewers were not the right readers for his book.

Margaret Atwood allied herself firmly with Claire Messud. “Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters.… We love to watch bad people do awful things in fictions, that we would not like if they did those things to us in real life. The energy that drives any fictional plot comes from the darker forces, whether they be external (opponents of the heroine or hero) or internal (components of their selves).”

Donald Antrim seemed to suggest that concern over a character’s likeability arises from the author’s personal insecurity and need for approval.  “The author maneuvering for love is commonplace and ordinary, and the work of fiction that seductively asserts the brilliance or importance or easy affability of its creator is an insubstantial thing. I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down.”

jennifer_weiner_042011Next, in an article on Slate, best-selling author Jennifer Weiner weighed in on the side of likability, as one whose characters are often accused of same. She delivered short, devastating critiques of Messud’s latest novel and a memoir by Donald Antrim, along with a cringe-making quote from another Messud interview. “Don’t go around asking the question, ‘Is this character likable?’ and expect that to be compatible with serious literary endeavors,” Messud declared. “That’s not what it’s about. If you want self-help that’s going to make you feel good, or you want the Ya Ya sisterhood, fantastic, that’s a great thing to read, I have no complaints about that. But it’s not compatible with serious endeavor.” Weiner went on to deconstruct these words as “the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.”

crayonsHer argument is against what she calls the “imagined popular/literary dichotomy.” The dismissive attitude of some female literary writers toward their more commercial sisters is not only pompous and self-aggrandizing, it also distracts from the real problems women writers face getting critical attention and respect. When publishers adopt the same attitude, the result is a narrowing of the field for all writers. “Authors are placed on one side or another of that pop/lit divide, and prohibited from using all the crayons in the box. They’re stuck with their particular color palette: pretty pastels if they write commercial fiction, and darker browns and grays to be considered literature.”

So where do I stand on all this? With one foot firmly in each camp, as it happens.

I agree with Weiner about the fallacy of the commercial/literary divide. My own books have been categorized variously as literary fiction, women’s fiction, and mystery. Those labels don’t define me as a writer; they’re just publishing shorthand for the convenience of booksellers and reviewers. Those of my novels critics deemed “literary fiction” are no better written than the ones called  mysteries. A poet is no less a poet for experimenting with different forms. Neither is a novelist. There is no dichotomy between literature and popular fiction; rather, there is a continuum calibrated not by genre but by the quality of the writing.

SerenaOn the other hand, I agree with Messud and Atwood that the demand of some readers for likable characters is problematic for writers with a harder edge. I found Gillian Flynn’s GONE, GIRL to be a brilliantly crafted novel and totally compelling read. It sold like hotcakes, too, so millions of people must have agreed with this assessment. But on Goodreads and many other online forums, one criticism came up with surprising frequency: “I didn’t like any of the characters.” Well, duh! Flynn’s protagonist was a psychopath, the equivalent of a Tom Ripley. So was Ron Rash’s Serena, who for pure evil could spit in the eye of Hannibal Lector.  You’re not supposed to like such characters; you’re supposed to watch in fascinated horror as they operate. Their difference from us—rule-abiding, housebroken, socialized us—is sort of the point of books like that.

But there are all sorts of books, and it’s nonsense to say that great literature is incompatible with likable characters. Elizabeth Bennett, anyone? Jo March? The Glass family? It takes a jaundiced soul to dismiss a protagonist like Huck Finn on the grounds of excessive likability.Huck Finn

It also disturbs me when writers instruct readers on how to read. Readers and writers occupy separate spheres. Reading and interpreting is the reader’s domain, writing is the author’s. As much as I appreciate my readers and value their feedback, I follow my own muse while writing. Writers who don’t want to be told what to write or how to write it  should extend the same courtesy to readers, including reviewers and interviewers.

As it happens, I was interviewed by Publishers Weekly about my novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, within a week or so of Messud’s interview. The questions were not, perhaps, what I would have chosen, but unless we go around interviewing ourselves, they never are. I answered courteously and as thoughtfully as I could, which I’ve always seen as part of the job. I could be wrong—snarkiness gets more attention—but it’s my own form of noblesse oblige.

Finally,  I would respectfully suggest that it’s better to let others praise one’s work as a “serious literary endeavor” than to do so oneself.

 

Thanks for reading! I post on my own irregular schedule, so the best way to stay up to date is to subscribe to the blog via RSS feed or email—links to the left.

Also, I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now available on Audible.com.

Diana Gabaldon Interview Part 2

I promised you the second half of my interview with Diana Gabaldon, the internationally bestselling author of the Outlander series, and you shall have it in just a moment. First, though, I have some exciting news of my own to share, and a confession to make.

The confession is this: I used to envy Diana. Not her work—I love her books, but they are hers and I have my own. No, what I envied was the fact that they were all in print, all the time. Readers who aren’t also writers may not realize how rare that is. Publishing is a bottom-line business, and shelf space is valuable; books that don’t sell very well are quickly replaced by new books. Just a few years ago, there were only a handful of living writers whose entire body of work could be found on the shelves of bookstores, even virtual ones. For the rest, the most one could hope for was to have a new book in hardcover while the one before it was still available in paperback. Once the stores started returning copies, the books were essentially dead, except for copies circulating in libraries and used-book stores. They’d be remaindered and declared officially out of print. Writers could then get their rights back, but there was nothing much they could do with them.

The explosion of ebooks has changed all that. Now it costs nothing for publishers to keep every book they’ve ever published in print perpetually, so long as they own the rights. And writers who have regained the rights to their old work can reissue it with an ebook publisher or on their own: the literary equivalent to the elixir of life.  One year ago, Simon & Schuster published ebook editions of my last three books, SUSPICION, HINDSIGHT, and ROWING IN EDEN, and since then I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them out in the world, making friends and finding readers.

And now for the news I promised. Two of my earliest books, CAFÉ NEVO and SAVING GRACE, have just come out in e-book editions with E-Reads. Print editions will be available within a week. I’m quite proud of those books, and when they first came out other people seemed to like them too. Saving-Grace510x680p

cafe-nevo-510x680pKirkus called CAFÉ NEVO “An inspired, passionate work of fiction…a near-magical novel,” and Madeleine L’Engle praised it as “a wonderful novel…with richly developed characters acting and interacting…the café and its clients will long remain in memory.”

Library Journal wrote of SAVING GRACE: “Readers are quickly enmeshed and will be staying up all hours to see what happens next…what BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES tried to be.”

I know you’re all waiting for MOBY, as I am. In the interim, may I commend SAVING GRACE and CAFÉ NEVO to your attention?

And now, back to my interview with the delightful Diana Gabaldon, whom I no longer envy but admire as much as ever. If you haven’t already read Part 1, you can find it here. In Part 2, the second half of the interview,  Diana talks about her life as an international literary star, her relationship with her fans, the book industry’s attitude toward women writers, and lots, lots more. Enjoy!

Q: I read some time ago about certain fanatical GAME OF THRONES readers who were furious that George Martin doesn’t churn the books out faster, ignoring any possible link between quality, time and effort.  They seemed to feel he was holding the books hostage and could release them in the blink of an eye if he chose.  The Outlander series inspires equal devotion among its readers. Have you ever had to deal with overzealous or irrational fans?

A: Deal with them?   Well, they’re there, certainly.  Most people have no idea how writers work, and many of them seem to feel that a writer is a sort of artistic Pez dispenser:  all the stories are stacked up inside, one on top of the other, and all you have to do is bonk the writer on the head hard enough to make them spit one out.

(In re which, James Patterson and his marketing machine have done a lot to promote this injurious notion.   For the record, folks—when the cover says, “by JAMES PATTERSON and someotherperson”,  it was someotherperson who wrote the book.  Don’t believe me?  Google “James Patterson ghost writer.”)

That is, of course, not how it works. <cough>  I explain, periodically, how it does work, and most of my readers are intelligent, well-meaning people who are happy to direct new readers to the places where I’ve explained my working methods.

dianagabaldonBut as for dealing with people who clamor for the next book, all I can be is honest.  I.e., it’s my name on the front of the book, and with luck, said book will be out there for a long time.  Ergo, it’s going to be as good as I can make it before I send it to the publisher.

 

Barbara: Would you like to have lived in the world you created?

Diana: To a point. <g>  That point stopping well short of life-threatening disease, warfare, injury, extremes of temperature or gross poverty.

Barbara: Lord John Gray is one of my favorite characters of your invention. What made you choose a gay man in particular as a series character?

Diana: Well, that was an accident. Some years ago, I was invited to write a short story for a British anthology: historical crime stories.  “Well,” I said to the editor, “it would be an interesting technical challenge, to see whether I can write anything under 300,000 words.  Sure, why not?”

The obvious first question was—what or whom to write about?  I didn’t want to use the main characters from the OUTLANDER series for this story, because—owing to the peculiar way I write—if I were to incorporate some significant event in this story (and it would need to be, to be a good story)—that would make the event a stumbling block in the growth of the next novel.

“But,” I said to myself, “there’s Lord John, isn’t there?”  Lord John Grey is an important character in the OUTLANDER series, but he isn’t onstage all the time.  And when he isn’t…well, plainly he’s off leading his life and having adventures elsewhere, and I could write about any of those adventures without causing complications for future novels.   Beyond that obvious advantage, Lord John is a fascinating character.  He’s what I call a “mushroom”—one of those unplanned people who pops up out of nowhere and walks off with any scene he’s in—and he talks to me easily (and wittily).

He’s also a gay man, in a time when to be homosexual was a capital offense, and Lord John has more than most to lose by discovery.  He belongs to a noble family, he’s an officer in His Majesty’s Army, and loves both his family and his regiment; to have his private life discovered would damage—if not destroy—both.   Consequently, he lives constantly with conflict, which makes him both deeply entertaining and easy to write about.  So I wrote the short story—titled, “Lord John and the Hell-Fire Club”—for the British anthology.

Well, it was a good story; people liked it.  But just as word was spreading into the US about it, the anthology went out of print (it was called PAST POISONS, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, for those bibliophiles who are curious).  People kept asking me about the story, though, and I thought, “Well, I enjoyed writing it—maybe I should write two or three more short pieces about Lord John, just as time an inspiration allow…and when I have a handful, we could publish them as a book, and all the Lord John fans could get the stories easily.”

So I did that.  I began writing the second Lord John story after returning from a book-tour, as a way of easing back into my writing routine, and continued working on it, picking away with one hand whilst picking up the threads of my novel with the other…and six months later, I’d just about finished it.  Well, at this point, I left for another book-tour, in the UK, and stopped in New York on the way, to have lunch with my two literary agents.

I was telling them all about what I’d been doing, and casually mentioned that I’d nearly finished the second Lord John short story.  “Oh?” said they.  “How long’s this one?”

“Well, I knew you’d ask,” I said.  “So I checked last night.  It’s about 85,000 words; I need maybe another 5000 to wrap it up.”

The agents looked at each other, then looked at me, and with one voice said, “That’s the size normal books are!”

“I thought it was a short story,” I said.

“Well, it’s not,” they said—and proceeded to take it off and sell it all over the place.  Publishers were thrilled.  “It’s a Gabaldon book we weren’t expecting—and it’s short!  Can she do that again?” they asked eagerly.  To which my agents—being Very Good agents—replied, “Of course she can,” and emerged with a contract for three Lord John Grey novels.

scottish-prisoner-3wide-200x300Now, the Lord John books and novellas are in fact an integral part of the larger OUTLANDER series.  However, they’re focused (not unreasonably) on the character of John Grey, and—Lord John not being a time-traveler—tend not to include time-travel as an element.  They’re structured more or less as historical mystery, but do (like anything else I write) include the occasional supernatural bit or other off-the-wall elements.  (Yes, they do have sex, though I don’t consider that really unusual, myself.)  And they do reference events, characters (particularly Jamie Fraser) and situations from the OUTLANDER novels.

In terms of chronology, the Lord John books fall during the period covered in VOYAGER, while Jamie Fraser was a prisoner at Helwater.  So if you’re wondering where to read the Lord John books in conjunction with the larger series—you can read them anytime after VOYAGER.

In terms of further chronology:  As well as the three Lord John novels under contract, I’ve also written several novellas for various anthologies.  Three novellas (two previously published and one written specifically for the volume) are included in a book titled LORD JOHN AND THE HAND OF DEVILS, while two further novellas have appeared or will shortly appear in anthologies.   The original short story (“Hell-Fire Club”) preceded the first novel, and—just to be confusing—the novellas fall between the novels.

The books and novellas do stand alone, and can be read separately in any order.  If you do want to read them in strict order, though, here it is:

“Hell-Fire Club” [short story. Originally published in PAST POISONS, ed. Maxim Jakubowski.  Collected in HAND OF DEVILS]

LORD JOHN AND THE PRIVATE MATTER [novel]

“Lord John and the Succubus” [novella, originally published in LEGENDS II: Short novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy, edited by Robert Silverberg.  Collected in HAND OF DEVILS]

LORD JOHN AND THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE [novel]

“Lord John and the Haunted Soldier” [novella.  Published only in HAND OF DEVILS]

LORD JOHN AND THE HAND OF DEVILS [book-length collections of three novellas: “Hell-Fire Club,” “Succubus,” and “Haunted Soldier”]

“Lord John and the Custom of the Army” [novella, originally published in WARRIORS, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.]

LORD JOHN AND THE SCOTTISH PRISONER [novel.  This one is actually a hybrid, as it’s half John, half Jamie.]Gabaldon-Outlander-220x322b

“Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” [novella.  Published in DOWN THESE STRANGE STREETS, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois,  2011.]

NB:  “The Custom of the Army” and “A Plague of Zombies” are both available (in the US and Canada) as standalone ebooks (as are a couple of other non-Lord John novellas).

Barbara: Was his sexuality or your portrayal of it an issue for any of your publishers, domestic or foreign?

Diana: I think some of the foreign publishers may have boggled slightly at it, but no one’s ever said anything directly to me about it, no.

Barbara: The upside of great literary success is plain to see: millions of books sold, legions of devoted fans, awards, invitations to the White House, the opportunity to inhabit a wider world full of interesting accomplished people. Is there a downside?

Diana: The major drawback is the sheer amount of travel and appearances (both in person and online) associated with being very popular in a lot of different places.  I really like to talk to readers and sign books—but I could do without the enormously time-consuming (and energy-sapping) travel involved in getting to them.

Then there are the constant demands for “content”—updates to websites, phone interviews, interviews for blogs <g>, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  (though I know how to deal with Twitter and Facebook; I spend an average of 10-15 minutes a day on each, and that’s It.  I have no Friends <g>, and I don’t follow anybody).

And there are the readers who think they’re entitled to dictate when and what a favorite writer writes, and yap at me in public about why am I writing all this Other Stuff, when THEY only want Jamie and Claire?  And why am I gallivanting all over the place, when I should be home WORKING?   These people are, of course, sadly mistaken about the importance of their opinions, but can be a little annoying.  Luckily most of my readers are very intelligent and have beautiful manners.

Barbara: What do you know now about writing that would have helped you when you first started out?

Diana: I’m not sure I actually know anything more about writing now than I did when I started—though I like to hope that I improve with experience.  Most of the novel (sic) things I do, in terms of ambitious structure, time-juggling, and playing with literary devices, are things that are the result of experience; I couldn’t have done them when I was first writing, whether I knew about them or not.

Barbara: What do you know now about publishing that you wish you’d known earlier?

Diana: Just who has the power in various situations.  For example, it took me eight years of hassling with Barnes and Noble in an attempt to make them move my novels out of the Romance section—until I finally got fed up and wrote a rude letter to Steve Riggio, then the CEO.  Twenty-four hours later, I got a call from the B&N VP of Marketing, telling me they were moving the books to Fiction, where they’d belonged all along.  Had I know that Mr. Riggio was the only person in that company who could change the diktat on where books went, I’d have started with him.

Barbara: Do you think women writers are taken as seriously as men by the literary/critical establishment?

Diana: Of course not.

Barbara: What’s the most common misconception readers have about you? (Here’s your chance to correct it!)

Diana: Well, they all seem to think I’m much taller than I actually am, and they can’t pronounce my name, but neither of those misapprehensions is actually offensive. <g>  (For the record:  I’m five-foot-two-and-a-half.  And my name has two pronunciations, both accurate:  If you’re speaking Spanish (it is a Spanish name, and it is my own, not my husband’s), it’s pronounced “gaah-vahl-DOHN” (rhymes with stone).  If you’re speaking English, it’s “GAH-bull-dohn” (still rhymes with stone).

That’s it, folks. Thank you, Diana!

Looking for something good to read between Outlander titles? Diana Gabaldon recommends A DANGEROUS FICTION: “A terrific read! A thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing.”

Diana Gabaldon Interview, Part I

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the award-winning, #1 NYT-bestselling OUTLANDER novels, described by Salon magazine as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting “Scrooge McDuck” comics.” The series is published in 26 countries and 23 languages, with more than nineteen million copies in print worldwide and a miniseries in the works.

dianagabaldon

I’ve known Diana for fifteen years or so, ever since we met on the Compuserve Book and Author forum. For several years we both served as presenters at the Surrey International Writers Conference and had the opportunity to hang out in real life. Everyone who’s read her work knows Diana is a spellbinding storyteller. What you may not know, unless you’ve met her, is that she’s as delightful a person as she is a writer. She does a great deal for others that never gets talked about or reported, and I’m not going to out her here, except to say that she ministers to those who most need it and she goes out of her way to help fellow writers, as I know from personal experience.  (See Diana’s comment on my forthcoming thriller, A DANGEROUS FICTION.)

Back when that book was just beginning its journey into print, I asked some friends to brainstorm titles. Diana came up with  “In Cold Ink.” In the end it didn’t quite fit as the book’s title, but I loved it so much I adopted it as the name of my blog, making Diana its godmother.  Now she has graciously paid us a visit and bestowed an interview, which I’m delighted to share with you here in several parts. In this first segment, we talk about Diana’s origins as a writer, her taxonomy of character types, and her own writing process. Along the way she punctures a few misconceptions.

Q: Were you a great reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

A: Yes.  My mother taught me to read at the age of three; I can’t remember not being able to read.  I do remember turning up on the first day of kindergarten, flipping critically through DICK AND JANE and dropping it, remarking, “That’s a stupid book.  Is there anything else to  read?”   (I was not a tactful child.)child reading

I read—and still do read—just about anything.   I read my way through the entire children’s section of the Flagstaff Public Library by the third grade, at which point I went on to the adult section (my mother having assured the librarian—who was Very Dubious about this—that I could take out anything I wanted to).   Among the things I read repeatedly, though, were ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, the Oz books, all the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, the entire series of biographies of famous people for children, and any Walt Disney comic I could get my hands on.

Q: Do you recall a specific moment when you realized that you’d like to write stories yourself?

A:  Yeah.  I was about eight, and coming back in the car from a family outing to the cinder hills near Flagstaff (we often went out there on Sundays when the weather was nice).  It was summer and the daily thunderstorm was shaping up overhead.  I remember  looking up into the clouds and talking to God—I wasn’t praying, just talking to Him—and saying, “I want to write books.  I think I’m supposed to write books.”  Mind—at this point, the notion of WRITING A BOOK was the most far-fetched, impossible thing I could imagine.  I might as well have said, “I think I want to fly to Mars.”

I didn’t have the slightest idea how books were written, let alone how they got onto the library shelves (didn’t know people got paid for writing books, either; when I found that out, it seemed like an amazing bonus).

Anyway, God said (more or less), “Yes, that’s right.  You should.”

Q: First novels are often autobiographical in some fashion or another. You haven’t got a drop of Scottish blood in you, you were never a nurse and you haven’t (as far as I know) time-traveled. Is there anything in OUTLANDER that did draw upon your own life experience and/or passions?

Gabaldon-Outlander-220x322A: If you write an honest book, most of it is you, regardless of setting, time period, or the external aspects of your characters. And the idiotic assumption that one can only write about one’s own life experience—if widely adopted—would have prevented most of the world’s great books being written.  (Not saying you’re an idiot, mind you <g>.)  It’s just that that stupid, “Write what you know” axiom has been propagated so much that people don’t stop to question it, and thus don’t realize that it’s backward.  It’s not that you should limit yourself to using your own life as material; it’s that you shouldn’t write what you don’t know—but you can find out anything you need to know.

There’s also this little item called “imagination,” which I think is given remarkably short shrift these days.   As a novelist, I can be Anybody.  Anytime, Any place, in any condition of body or mind.   Why should I just be me?  How boring.

(Not even going to touch the equally prevalent attitude that a writer should for some reason be strongly drawn to write about his or her ethnic background—but only if s/he isn’t white.  People keep pestering me to “write about your heritage,” by which they mean the New Mexican/Hispanic side.  Why don’t they pester me to write about the English or German side, assuming I wanted to write about my heritage in the first place, which I don’t?)

But returning to what you actually asked <g>:  Sure.  Owing to a series of academic accidents, I taught classes in Human Anatomy and Physiology in several different institutions, including Temple University’s School of Nursing.   Now, this had nothing whatever to do with my own scientific interests, background, or research specialties—they just paid me for doing it.  But the material was undeniably interesting—and it gave me the broad but shallow grasp of clinical medicine that is the core of Claire’s work as a healer and physician.

Now, I was a field ecologist for some time.  Which means I naturally look at what’s going on around me when I’m outdoors.  I know what the basic features of a given ecosystem type are—which means that whether I’m looking at the Scottish Highlands or the North Carolina mountains, I know that there will birds species doing X, and plant species that fill Y niche, and so on.   Beyond that, it’s just a matter of looking up the specific plants and animals, and that’s a matter of very simple research.

I’m sixty-one.  I’ve been in love, been married, borne children, had people near me die.  Naturally bits and pieces of all these experiences filter through into the books I write.  Be strange if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?

Q: You have many readers who are passionate about your books and personally invested in the characters. Putting all modesty aside, why do you think readers connect so deeply with your characters?

A: I do write honest books, so far as it lies in my power to do so.  People recognize reality (in terms of character and situation and emotion) when they see it, and it’s natural for them to empathize with people they see as real.

(The Washington Post recently asked me for “a few sentences” describing what I did for Valentine’s Day, for a column in which such bits from a dozen (female) authors were quoted.  Most of the other participants went on about going out for a romantic dinner with their husband and toasting each other with pink champagne, or…well…take this one:

“I love seeing the glowing pyres of fat, deep red-red roses in full cry, displays of pink Champagne and boxes of chocolates that spring up all over London, and hope that a glorious bunch might find its way to me. Yet, if I was giving roses to a man on this particular day (and why not, for all sensual men love them), I’d buy flame orange, rich yellow or creamy, pink-tinged white; and pretend — because I’m old fashioned — that it was merely joie de vivre, or exuberance, or entirely accidental….”  

And then there was what I said (the absolute un—er—varnished <g> truth:

“We’re having the saltillo tile floors resealed. This means having to move all the furniture, send the dogs to my son’s house for a sleepover, and walk around in our socks for two days. Our bed is disassembled and hidden in the closet, so I’m sleeping in a daughter’s room, and my husband is nesting somewhere in the living room (where all the furniture is). On the other hand, romance is not dead; he gave me a bathrobe and a card with a singing bug, and I gave him a jar of white anchovy filets and a tube of wasabi paste.”

Now, clearly one would like to escape now and then and wallow in thoughts of accidental roses…but which author do you think you might feel more connected with, on the basis of these brief snips?)

Q: It’s hard for readers to imagine characters in their embryonic state, when we experience them as fully-developed, complicated human beings. But characters don’t spring to life that way. Can you talk a bit about how you go about growing characters from stick figures into people?

A: But I don’t do that.  I know there are a lot of popular assumptions about how writers work, and the notion that one decides that a specific character is needed, equips him or her with a name, and then sets to work collecting pictures of actors and drawing up index cards with the character’s taste in peanut-butter is certainly one of them.  It’s possible that some writers really do do that, and God help them, if so—whatever works, you know?

For me, characters are pretty organic.   I don’t plot a story and insert characters; the story exists because these particular people have needs and desires and motivations, and finding themselves in a particular situation, act upon them.

You hear about “plot-driven” stories vs. “character-driven” stories (and why always “versus,” I wonder?  There’s nothing antithetical between plot and character)—but in fact, the plot is simply what the characters do.  They may do what they do in part because of the situation and circumstances in which they find themselves—but they do what they do mostly because they are who they are.

For me, characters tend to fall into one of three main types: mushrooms, onions, and hard nuts.  (That’s not a description of their personalities, btw, but rather of the way in which I work with them, and them with me.)

Mushrooms are the delightful people who spring into life unexpectedly and walk right off with any scene they’re in.  Lord John Grey is a mushroom, as is Mr. mushroomWilloughby, the Chinese poet with a notable foot fetish, and Mrs. Figg, Lord John’s redoubtable housekeeper (“Mrs. Figg was smoothly spherical, gleamingly black, and inclined to glide silently up behind one like a menacing ball-bearing.”).  They talk to me freely, and I never have to stop and wonder what they’d do in any given situation—they just do it.

onionOnions are the ones whose innermost essence I apprehend immediately—but the longer I work with them, the more layers they develop, and thus the more well-rounded and pungent they become.  Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall are both onions.

Hard nuts are pretty much what they sound like.  These are the people who  “come with” a story by default, rather than developing organically  by popping out of the mental compost.  Historical figures, for instance, who were necessarily there, and have to be animated in a satisfying way, or people who exist only because another character was pregnant, leaving me with an unknown child to deal with.  These, I just research (for the historical people) or live with (for the unknowns), and gradually, I begin to have a sense of them.  But as with everyone else, they truly “develop” only in the context of their own situation and circumstance.

End of Part 1.

Go to Part 2.

In part 2 of the interview, Diana goes on to talk about her relationship with her readers, some controversial choices, and the demands that literary success imposes on the writer’s personal life. Sign up for the blog’s email or RSS feed so you won’t miss it!

Thanks, Diana!

 

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.   Diana Gabaldon called A DANGEROUS FICTION “a terrific read–A thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing,”  and NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.