Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From Out of the Ordinary to Extraordinary

From Jules Verne to Gene Roddenberry, from J.R.R. Tolkien to J.K. Rowling, readers have been enticed, engaged, and enthralled by science fiction and fantasy. The imaginary worlds, incredible beings, and exotic plots that fill these popular genres transport the reader from his everyday experience to a place where he can consider familiar ideas anew. Ironically, yesterday’s fiction has on occasion become today’s reality. And to its credit, some recent fantasy has made readers out of youngsters who previously had not opened the cover of any book they were not forced to read. Why? Harry Potter, et al., were definitely out of the ordinary.

What if you aren't a fantasy or science fiction writer, and you choose to set your story in the real world? Does this mean you are out of the game when it comes to "out of the ordinary"? Absolutely not!

For this discussion, I'd like to focus on self-published and independently published books. Reason: Among the hundreds of thousands of such books that are published annually, great books are the exception rather than the rule. When a great one does come along, it is indeed out of the ordinary. Why aren't more of our books as good? Review Kathryn Craft’s recent post entitled “That Book Was Edited?” You may be amazed at the reason(s).

We writers know that editing improves our manuscripts. We self-edit, self-edit, self-edit. We join critique groups where we interact with strong writers and powerful critiquers. And we may hope this is enough, because editors are expensive. True, and to be sure, self-edits and critique groups can contribute significantly to the quality of our work. But they do not replace a professional editor.

First, no writer can stand back and objectively judge his/her work. Not one of us has that ability because we are too close to our story. We know all the details that never made it onto the page. We know every little intricacy of each scene, all the background information that supports our position, the real purpose of our book. And while our critiquers may recognize the holes in our work, they may not know how to fix them.

Second, rarely should a critiquer venture into the world of grammar and punctuation, unless it is so blatantly bad that it would make a fourth grader cringe. That’s not the purpose of critiquing. It is, however, the job of a competent copy editor.

Third, we have an unwritten obligation to our fellow writers who choose independent or self-publishing. Writing is primarily a solitary profession. That doesn’t make it a selfish one. When we publish a book that has not been edited by a competent professional, we contribute to the shoddy reputation that hangs like a black cloud over self-publishing, and we reinforce the stigma that still accompanies the name “vanity press.”

The ranks of the self-published, unimpressive a few years ago, have burgeoned into a huge crowd. And with numbers comes power. We have the power to change the reputation of self-publishing. We have the power to become writers of note. We have the power to make our work out of the ordinary—then to take it from out of the ordinary to extraordinary.

How do you make your story out of the ordinary even if it isn't fantasy or science fiction?

Linda Lane, editor of 4 award-winning books, works with writers and editors to bring credibility to independent and self-publishing. Her online workshops will be available mid-fall to offer serious writers and editors the opportunity to hone their skills and bring their work up to a standard that establishes independent and self-publishing as an honorable and professional industry.

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  1. I once read an interview with Janet Fitch (author of Oprah pick WHITE OLEANDER) that said she reworks her manuscripts until she senses that nothing she's written has been written before. She takes out all cliches, and works her metaphors and word choices until they seem born of that particular story. She is describing the work of a prose poet, really, and not all of us aspire to that literary height. But whether you give your extra attention to prose or to plot or characterization, I do believe she accurately describes the kind of effort a writer must make to bring their work out of the ordinary.

  2. What a good post, Linda. It really reinforces the need for editing, and I hope new authors who are considering the indie route via digital publishing keep this in mind. Sometimes I can't even do a blog post without making a typo or grammar error, and there is no way I would put a book up that I did not hire someone to edit.

  3. I'd never put up a piece of work that wasn't edited. I think the "sample" feature of e-books is vital, because there IS so much less-than-stellar writing. And not just the story, but the actual mechanics.

    Yet, mistakes will slip by. I've been reading a book with a character cooking chile instead of chili, and turning the conversation down another tact instead of tack. In another book, it was universal anecdote instead of antidote. Minor slips, but spell check won't catch them, and while they're not enough to ruin a read, they will slow it down.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Brava, Linda. I have been arguing this position now in the indie author community so much that the letters on my key-caps are rubbed off. We do ourselves and each other a disservice when we put out substandard, unfinished, unedited work. On the other hand, I am always oddly comforted by the wisdom of the late, great writer, Theodore Sturgeon. When confronted by a reporter who suggested that 90% of science fiction was crap, Sturgeon replied, "Ninety percent of everything is crap!" Sturgeons Law, a fundamental law of the universe, applies to indie writing, too.

  5. Nice addition, Kathryn. I confess. I am one of those writers who admire authors like Janet Fitch or Ursula LeGuin, writers whose flawless word choice and fluid turn of phrase are to be savored, writers whose words and sentences are like fine wine with a long, rich finish. I do admit that I reach for those heights in my own writing, at least at times, even if most of the time my reach falls short. For us lesser mortals of the writing world, the inspiration of LeGuin or Geraldins Brooks can at least lead us from the temptation of cliches, which we all can so easily fall prey to, particularly in the flush of early drafts.

  6. Larry: Your comment is beautifully written. It's funny: I like good commercial fiction as much as the next person, but as soon as I close the back cover I'm off to the next. They inspire consumption.

    More literary works I tend to digest a while before moving on--and those are the ones that inspire me to get back to my own writing.

  7. Most writers, I think, edit and edit and edit. And they still miss things. Even after you set it aside and wait weeks before you tackle it again, you can miss things. One thing that might give writers some comfort is that even editors who write need an editor to go over their work.

  8. A thought-provoking discussion. It is such a good point about writers being too close to the story to ever be truly objective. And I loved what Kathryn Craft said about Janet Fitch and using words so they seem "born of that particular story".

  9. The comments are wonderful– thank you all so much. This is a great example of how an article is enhanced and completed by the input of our editors and visitors.

    A special thanks to you, Kathryn, for sharing that interview with Janet Fitch. It brought a powerful and thought-provoking depth to the topic.

    Larry, keep "arguing" for better quality and a stronger sense of responsibility from the indie publishing arm of what was once a proud and honorable industry. I am currently working on a project to establish guidelines for editors, the underutilized (and sometimes questionably qualified) guardians of excellence in today's new publishing world.

  10. Please excuse my interruption of the blog premise, but I need help. My current writing begins with what I believe to be a nice hook...the protag is choking a person. This intro moves forward for approx. 1K words or so. Then...the storyteller takes the reader back to the events leading up to this choking scene. Writers, I've read somewhere, have a term or phrase that describes this technique or method, other than flashback. My question is: what is the name of this technique? Yes, I realize that many writers dislike any 'flashback' in a storyline, nevertheless, I'm befuddled on how to do otherwise given my loving the hook so much.

    Help, and thanks. BTW, I have your Blood Red Pencil blog plugged into my GoogleReader and never miss a entry. Some I've secured to the reader so they will always be there. Your group is a wealth of resource, varied and nicely presented. Thanks Again. --gg

  11. Garry:
    A book opening that is meant to intrigue, but included out of sequence, is called a "prologue."

  12. Another term we use occasionally is "retrospect." This typically refers to a current event that is followed by what leads up to it - which may take the reader months or even years into the past. Later, the writer will no doubt want to pull the reader back to the present and on into the conclusion.

  13. @Kathryn Craft - my understanding of the use of 'prologue,' whereby the writer inserts backstory prior to the original piece. The prologue is separate from the remaining piece inserted in front matter. Surely if my description includes the term prologue, many will think as I do and understand backstory/introduction material/needed info relative to reading the major work.

    @Linda Lane - The term 'retrospect' interest's me as how you have defined in your comment. "This typically refers to a current event that is followed by what leads up to it - which may take the reader months or even years into the past..." pretty much describes the style that I wish to include.

    Here's another term I've found: "analepsis" meaning - is (method) an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point the story has reached.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. Both comments were indeed helpful. Now I'm wondering if the method or technique should even be employed, but carried forward from that opening hook - and then much of backstory described in narrative from that point. Hmmm, not sure.

    Any help out there would be appreciated. garrymgraves at g mail dot com. THANKS AGAIN.

  14. Thanks for this post! i really enjoyed reading it!!!


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