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I just spent a valuable morning in a workshop given by Maralys Wills at the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego. One of the sections was called Plotting Made Easy, a bit nostalgic for me because my first SCWC conference (2002 or 2003) introduced me to Writing for Story, which restates Aristotle’s Poetics — the original 2300-year-old primer on plot.

Toward the end of the workshop Ms. Wills made some comments about memoirs that I hadn’t heard before — not unexpected, because I usually stick to writing fiction and opinion. First, creatively-re imagined dialogue is considered OK in memoirs, and second, time reorganization of life’s events for the sake of the memoir’s plot seems to be acceptable, as well. I’m a little suspicious of both, especially recreated dialogue. I normally wouldn’t be too concerned about the issue, but I’m in a critique situation where I see these devices in use by memoir authors. And it’s been making me cringe.

I don’t want to buck a trend gratuitously, so I have to ask myself: what would make these devices work for me? In both cases, I think, it is a matter of credibility. Do I trust the author’s perspective? Has the author set up their narrative in such a way that I can buy into what they are about to tell me? Are they trustworthy story tellers?

They must earn the right to recreate dialogue if they want to keep me as a reader. They must either convince me that they have  total recall, or establish an initial rapport with me that allows me to feel their recollections are authentic, though perhaps not literal. They must have made me ready to accept that these words represented as dialogue, just like a novel, are in fact the essence of what happened. But establishing the trust so the reader accepts the intent of the dialogue comes first, not later as a foot note. If they don’t create this rapport, I’m inclined to mutter something about how can you the author remember what someone said thirty years after the fact! Once I start questioning the author’s intent, I’ve mentally exited your story. You’ve lost me as a reader. You, the writer, don’t want a reader to go there.

The issue of events-out-of-sequence is more complicated. This device can fulfill special authorial intent as well as reader expectation, and it’s one that the reader may not even be aware of. Using this device may allow for improving the plot of the memoir. Real life does not normally lend itself to a convenient, obvious plot arc where something like the hero’s journey unfolds in a clean and satisfying sequence (goal setting, quest, setbacks, achievement and/or failure, then resolution.) But the writer may want to present their personal story that way, and the reader may find such a sequence more satisfying to consume than simply hearing a series of trials and successes (random, episodic plotting.) To make it work in the way familiar to novelists, and tragedians since the Greeks, the memoirist may want to arrange the narrative by bunching events together that did not necessarily happen in sequence. To pull this off, you first need the reader’s trust. If you don’t have it, the reader will again be muttering to themselves — only more so — because they will feel manipulated, even tricked. And you, the memoirist, don’t want to go there.

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Assuming you’ve come down out of the clouds and accept the proposition that your novel needs work, who is qualified to take that second look at your literary masterpiece? I prefer to turn the question on its side and ask who should you listen to?

Even the semi-sentient has an opinion. So the art is to choose your critic. And choose them wisely. Those nice people at your read-and-critique group can be the worst. Sally-of-the-higher-calling, Poetics in her backpack, and Joe-of-the-active-verb can grind your work into pabulum that the innocent-you who conceived the story may no longer recognize.

This is a different equation altogether from the role of the editor employed by the publisher who has paid money for your story. The story belongs to the publisher. It’s theirs. And the collaborative work you do with the editor (who is their agent) is to move the product along their assembly line in conformity with their view of the marketplace. It ain’t your story anymore.

There is another category of editors who promise to steer your manuscript toward acceptability by an agent or publisher. What they are offering is a bit like plastic surgery. “Make me look like J. K. Rowling!” Or Stephen King, or Dan Brown,  or whoever your literary god may be. Do you want to go there?

This last category of editors is found in abundance at writers conferences — never promising success, but implying  dolthood if you don’t hire them. If I were to venture a guess on who profits most from these conclaves, these people would be at the top of the list. They are selling the prospect of fame.

I don’t think there is any magic in the editing process:

Learn to self edit by critiquing other writers. It’s amazing how complaining about someone else’s purple prose suddenly makes you see your own.

Hook up with others who are like-minded. As you write better, the company you keep tends to be more knowledgeable, as well. (Yes, this is the classic observer-alters-the-observed type of thing. Natural selection at its best.)

Stay away from how-to books on writing until you have enough confidence in your own writing to resist their One True Way.

Any writer’s most valuable tool is their intuition. It’s like a child. Learn to teach it. Learn to trust it. Protect it.

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I help administer the novels critiquing list (Novels-L) at the Internet Writing Workshop. A member recently started a discussion about the difference between a critique and an edit. This was my response:

There is no difference between a critique and an edit, though the edit may well be punctuated with dollar signs. Novels-L is NOT a commercial venue, so I guess we only critique. This is a volunteer cooperative. We teach each other. We may exchange insights, but no money changes hands. Personally, I see our group as the modern-day equivalent of the literary salon.

I’m very skeptical of anyone offering their services as an editor. This is not to say they are all bad — far from it — but there is such a high percentage of unqualified people that it gives the good ones a bad name. Publishing houses have editors who get a product ready for market. The house’s resources have been allocated and the editor’s job is much like a station on a factory assembly line, working toward a finished product.

Free-lance editors are another breed. What is the goal of hiring one? Apart from any questions about a prospective editor’s competence, the writer has to ask: why am I doing this? Some people in search of an editor may have an idea, a memoir, a technical narrative they are ill equipped to write, but they have the money to see it take form. These people have a need for an editor, a ghost writer. But does a novelist need one? Some agents may suggest it, but this strikes me as paying up front for something the writer should have done, with knowledge he already should have.

Writers conferences and any place where writers gather are an active marketplace for free-lance editors. These are often people who (in my opinion) have failed to make it big with their novels, so they market their services as editors. There’s more money in it (and they hope people will buy their books.) From what I’ve observed, it’s often an ego thing. I’ve been approached by a couple of these people whose own writing was not as good as much of the writing that goes through Novels-L. I suppose their accepted wisdom is if they charge for their work, it must be good.

You are right that critiques posted on Novels-L are all over the map in both scope and quality. You know the good critters and politely tolerate the poor ones, hoping they will learn. Most will, if they stick with it.

The Internet Writing Workshop can be found at: http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/

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A dozen-plus years ago I read Joseph Chartkoff’s The Archaeology of California. I bought the book for the subject, but I remember the book for the opening of  Chapter 2:

Imagine a setting 12,000 years ago in what are now the deserts of Southern California . . .  The valley is nearly 30 miles across, and in the entire valley only one spot is occupied by people: a hunters’ camp on a gravel terrace near the lakeshore.

Years earlier, there had been another story which I read for other reasons: Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. He started with:

Ursus and Homo were fast friends. Ursus was a man, Homo a wolf. Their dispositions tallied. It was the man who had christened the wolf: probably he had also chosen his own name.

Charkoff wrote in in the present tense (The valley is) and Hugo wrote in the past (Ursus was.) Both used the omniscient narrator to tell their stories: Chartkoff, to convey what he knew about the physical and cultural history of California; Hugo, to convey what he knew about human nature. (Hugo also littered this opening with passive ‘were’ and ‘was,’ the sure sign of an amateur.) These passages are examples of how to do it right, in my opinion, but not everyone shares my view.

I don’t presume to have mastered the art of omni story telling, but I’m clearly on the wrong side of literary fashion; omni is in disfavor, even reviled by some. It leaves the author open to accusations of head hopping and the sin of not getting up close and personal.

In 1968 Francis Fugate gave his opinion on omni in Viewpoint: Key to Fiction Writing

I think it can be safely said, so far as fiction writing is concerned, that this viewpoint is one which is used by writers before they know any better. ( p. 53)

And every critique group I’ve been a part of has had a strong contingent of Mr. Fugate’s brethren.

In fairness to these anti head hoppers, I don’t use this point of view indiscriminately. In fact, once I have set the scene,  my characters often move closer to the camera and I change the point of view to third person, where the perspective is from a single character.

A while back I read Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. I immediately suffered a short-lived reaction that must have been similar to the above mentioned critiquers. I’d been infected by their anti-omni imperative. It seemed to me that Harrison was head hopping and unfocused. He was also an aggravatingly good story teller. Fortunately, this self-induced fog didn’t last too long. I think I’ll remember the story-teller part and use the other two attributes to fashion my own personal cautionary tale of how too many experts can spoil a good story.

More on omni later . . .

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El Greco - St. John the Evangelist

When I ran Unseemly Reliquary through my critique group, more than one of my fellow writers offered comments about that ‘godawful title.’ Who’d want to read such a thing? Half the people don’t understand what the words mean, don’t you know.

Always one to listen to my betters, I tried changing the title. And I lived with the new one for a while — House of Charbon — until I realized I’d neutered my little creation, or at least obscured a major clue to the theme of the story.

We all have our reliquaries, those sacred things that keep us going. They needn’t have corporal form, but they always have concrete results in what they inspire. My characters have their reliquaries, as well. The snip of El Greco’s painting of Saint John the Evangelist at the top of this blog is what I imagine of the painting that hangs in Theresa Charbon’s sitting room. It’s her touchstone to a secret past.  And yes, there are other reliquaries in the story — some less benign than the gaze of a saint.

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I recently drove six-hundred-odd miles to a writers conference in Portland. On the eve of said event I emailed Roger, my alter ego at Novels-L (a critique list we administer within the Internet Writing Workshop.) I said I hoped to debunk some personal sacred cows.

Roger’s never been one to let a good cliché go unpunished. He replied, “Re ringing bells of sacred cows: If not you, who? If not now, when?”

Touché. A new blog.

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