Editing Book Camp – and Beyond
by Valerie Nieman
by Valerie Nieman
I spent many years as a reporter at a small daily, staring into the blinking green cursor of a weary terminal, with the clock ticking toward deadline and an editor with coffee breath hovering at my shoulder. Then I became that editor.
I bless journalism for training me to write. Not just report. If you come out of journalism, you know there is no room for writer’s block, no allowance for an off day. You will get the story down – whether you have to start at the beginning or the end or the middle. “Finish what you write” is good advice from Rudy Rucker and others.
And daily journalism is likewise good practice for editing. This is the world of the quick and the ruthless – cut repetition, cut passive voice, cut padded phrases. Use one word in place of three. Kill those darling chubby babies, the beautiful sentences that distract from the real task of communicating.
I quit being a journalist several years ago, but the editing discipline I learned at the city desk remains part of my writing life. So here goes, nine guides to editing lore accumulated at the city desk and my writing.
I’ll begin with the one luxury not allowed in the daily J-grind, but one that I recommend: Let the work cool. Like iron, it needs to temper before being subjected to the heat of reworking. Come at the work with fresh eyes. Recently I had a poem accepted by a handsome little magazine. I had written it years before, and had edited and reedited several times. It had been out of my hands for some months. When the editor sent the galleys for review, I wondered, why had he made so many changes? A little steamed, I went for my original submission – and found that the meddling editor was, in fact, me. To pause your itchy fingers, send your work to trusted readers for their insights. You’ll be ready for them after this cooling-off period.
Don’t edit as you go. If you are a slow and meticulous writer, that’s a tough thing to ask, but it’s more important to get the work out. “Get black on white,” in the words of Guy de Maupassant.
Don’t tinker. Look at your work structurally first – you don’t start the interior decorating of a new home until the roof is solid. One wise saying I’ve gathered is, “Don’t polish a mess.” That is, don’t line-edit a piece that doesn’t hold together.
Cut 10 percent. Period. You can do it, and you’d be surprised how much it improves the pace and direction of the writing. A good test: Find a contest for a short story no longer than 2,500 words, and trim an existing story that is 15 percent longer. It will be clearer and better for the pruning.
Look at the beginning and ending. This is where you want the most punch and power. Have you been throat-clearing on the way in, or summing up the way out? What happens if you cut off that first paragraph or scene? Sometimes you will find you were working your way in, learning the story.
Refine. Once the structure is tight and the pace solid, start looking at the paragraph and sentence level. Are your sentences repetitive in form or length? Are you plagued by passive construction or “backing in”? Be rigorous about transitions and consistency in point of view, time, and tense.
Listen to your dialog. Do as playwrights do and have a staged reading of crucial scenes. Does the dialog flow realistically? Returning to the page, does your dialog have too many tags? Do you use action and description to keep the reader in the moment, rather than relying on he said/she said? And are you consistent in how you signal dialog?
Your characters are important. So treat them that way. Does the plot unwind based on what your characters want and the obstacles in their way? On the lighter side, make sure they don’t change hair color as they develop. Use care in their naming –Sarah, Sandra, Sally are quickly confused. Consider what names say about your character in terms of age, race, ethnicity, the dreams of their parents and how they fulfill or defeat a moniker such as “Zenobia.”
Valerie Nieman’s third novel, Blood Clay, was published this past spring by Press 53. She is the author of a collection of short stories, Fidelities, from West Virginia University Press, and a poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake. Her fiction has appeared in many journals including The Kenyon Review, Green Mountains Review, Arts & Letters, and the recent anthology Degrees of Elevation. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, New Letters, Blackbird, 5 A.M., and West Branch, as well as two chapbooks and several anthologies. She has received an NEA creative writing fellowship and the Greg Grummer Prize in poetry. A native of Western New York State, she graduated from West Virginia University and the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte. She teaches writing at N.C. A&T State University and is the poetry editor for Prime Number.
Blood Clay is a profoundly moving and beautifully written novel about a community torn apart by tragedy. Valerie Nieman is a writer of remarkable talent, and she has given us a book that, once read, will be hard for any reader to forget .— Ron Rash, author of Serena
WINSTON-SALEM, NC, May 6, 2011—Press 53 announces a new novel by award-winning poet and writer Valerie Nieman. Blood Clay delves into the ways in which we each claim home, testing those invisible lines that connect people and places and the territory of memory.
“Blood Clay has it all,” writes Elizabeth Stuckey-French. “The novel’s audacious and gripping plot begins with a shotgun-blast of a scene in which a horrible dog attack sends reverberations through a small North Carolina town and the rest of the book. Val Nieman has written what is destined to become a classic novel of Southern life.”
The novel, called by Jane Alison “both a tense, plot-driven story about complicated issues of race and guilt, and a meditation on solitude, history, and ways of living,” centers on Tracey Gaines, who has moved to rural Saul County to escape the wreckage of a divorce, becoming a teacher at an alternative school. She devotes herself to renovating an old farmhouse but finds she can’t as easily build connections in this new place. When the tragedy splits the community, she finds an ally in Dave Fordham, a native son who struck out for new opportunities, only to face his own trauma and a forced return home.
“I grew up in rural New York State, homesteaded a hill farm in West Virginia, then started a new life in the Piedmont. I know how difficult it can be to establish oneself in a settled community,” said Nieman. “Working for more than two decades as a small-town journalist, I covered deaths and trials, stories of human connection and disconnection. Those events have informed my writing ever since.”
The author of a collection of short stories, Fidelities, and two earlier novels, she has received an NEA creative writing fellowship, two Elizabeth Simpson Smith prizes in fiction, and the Greg Grummer Prize in poetry. She is a graduate of West Virginia University and the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte. Nieman teaches writing at NC A&T State University in Greensboro, NC, and is the poetry editor for Prime Number magazine.
A study guide has been prepared for classroom use and discussion groups, and Nieman will schedule visits to book clubs and classes in the region, or do Skype chats upon request. Her book tour schedule is available at http://www.valnieman.com/ as well as Authors Round the South and Book Tour. You can catch updates by following valnieman on Twitter or Facebook.
if you enjoyed this post, feel free to leave a comment