Archive for the 'Who I am' Category

The Uninvited Guest

Dec 05 2014 Published by under Who I am

To some, the life of a freelancer might sound like the Sunday-morning version of glamorous: sleeping in, enjoying leisurely meals, only accepting the projects I want to, working in sweatpants, shower be damned.

In truth, the above description constitutes Opposite Day for me. I’m up by 6 a.m. at the latest, I eat and shower quickly as I get the kids ready for their day, I typically work from 9–4 (plus after the kids go to bed and on weekend nights until all hours), I try to say “no” to clients as little as humanly possible (hence the aforementioned schedule), and the sweatpants are a matter of survival rather than sloth (my basement office is freezing in the winter).

But I still love being my own boss—for the ability to spend one Friday morning a month reading to my son’s class, to take the day off when my daughter has a fever or the nanny calls in sick, to know that the only limits to my ability or income are the limits I set for myself—not someone else’s determination of my skill level or their perception of my value as an employee.

It’s not glamorous by any stretch, but I can’t imagine anything more empowering.

However, there is one major drawback to working for myself, which was illuminated for me by a dream I had a few weeks ago in which I crashed a staff meeting at Simon & Schuster.

In order to communicate how bizarre this dream was, you must know that (1) I’ve never visited the offices of Simon & Schuster (couldn’t even tell you the address), (2) I know no one who works there, (3) I have no idea what a staff meeting there is like, so the entire scene was fabricated by my subconscious.

So Dream Simon & Schuster looked suspiciously like the Library Hotel in NYC but with a lot of exposed brick. In my dream, I knew I was crashing and I was simultaneously terrified of being recognized as Does Not Belong Here and also hoping to be identified as Obviously One of Us. I somehow found my way through a maze of conference rooms and into The Big Staff Meeting, which was filled to capacity with not just editors, designers, sales people, and marketing & publicity folks (like the title-design, cover-design, and publishing-board meetings of my WD days) but also agents, critics, and writers.

At first I was a wallflower, just anxiously taking in the scene, but then for some reason we were broken into small groups and I started talking to the people at my table about the projects I was working on now . . .

My two-year-old daughter yelled for me the way she does every morning (“Hellooooo? Is anybody there? Helllooooo?”) and I bolted awake, feeling thrilled by my book nerd’s lit’rary fantasy . . . and also kinda sad. There was no great gathering of My People, no convo with kindred souls. And it hit me: sometimes I really, really miss being part of a team.

Tonight I spent an hour on the phone with a memoirist, just talking about his life, the possibilities for the manuscript he just completed, and how I might be of service to him. When we hung up, I got that post-Dream S & S rush, with none of the letdown, because I was reminded that this is my favorite part of my job.

Catching embarrassing mistakes and polishing prose is a lot of fun for me. But this . . . this profoundly human element, the connection of shared understanding, the collaboration to create art, the common goal of bringing something unique and wonderful to the world, this is why making books is different from making widgets, why the market can only commodify these creations so much before missing the whole damn point.

Author + Editor (+ Agent—can’t forget you guys <high five>). Strategizing, crafting, perfecting. My idea of a dream team.

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“Mommy, What Are All These Papers?”

This afternoon while my two-year-old napped, I tried to get a jump on next week by holing up in my room with my laptop and the PDFs for the latest edition of Public Health Reports, a government medical journal. Spread out around me were the different sections of the journal’s style guide. I was happily clicking along when my five-year-old walked in.

“Mommy, what are all these papers?”

My son knows I’m an editor, that I help to make books and magazines, and that sometimes I have to write about funny stuff like toilet paper or awesome stuff like Thomas the Tank Engine. He even proudly told a schoolmate’s mother that his mom was “an awful”—to her horror—until she realized from the context of their conversation that he was trying to say “an author” (a word he’d recently learned on Sesame Street—you rocked that vocab word, by the way, Lauren Graham).

I could tell by the look on his face today that he wanted to know more, to understand better what I do all day and why. So I took a stab at breaking down my career choice in a way a preschooler could understand it. The explanation came out quite easily, and it even surprised me a little.

I explained to him that I like being an editor because, to my mind, it’s like a game or a puzzle. All those papers he saw spread out around me are like the rules of the game, and the fun is pushing my brain to remember all the rules and then making sure they’re followed in whatever I’m reading. It’s like the classic “Look and Look Again” game from his Highlights magazine. If I can identify all the things that are missing, I “win,” because I’ve helped complete the author’s puzzle.

I guess it was a good answer, because he listened intently, nodded, and then said, “I want to be an editor.”

“It’s a cool job, but you really have to like reading, because that’s pretty much what I do all day.”

“I love to read,” he enthused. Then, his attention already spent, he bounded back out of the room.

It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me whether my son becomes an editor, or follows in his father’s more technologically inclined footsteps, or finds a completely different path for himself. But a part of me does feel proud that even at his age, he recognizes the attraction of and value in my work, and if I’ve been able to instill (and continue to nurture) in him a love of reading, I guess that’s the biggest win of all.

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The Most Unwittingly Hurtful Thing a Writer Ever Said to Me

Nov 15 2014 Published by under Conferences,Who I am

“So … uh, those who can’t write, edit, huh?”

I just stared at the man, because I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to respond.

We were at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City, the day before my first BookExpo America, and I’d just finished sitting on a panel with my coworkers Alice Pope (Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market), Robert Brewer (Writer’s Market), and Jane Friedman (our editorial director), taking rapid-fire questions about writing and publishing for more than an hour in a packed auditorium.

My adrenaline was still pumping as I stepped down from the dais to greet a small group who’d assembled, waiting for me to answer even more questions, presumably the ones they were too nervous to ask in front of the group. I took a deep breath and put every ounce of energy and warmth I had into the smile I presented them.

Lemme tell you, I was ON. This was one of my favorite parts of my job at WDB: talking to writers one-on-one, helping them to feel a little less intimidated by the submissions process, doing my best to use what I’d learned so far to give informed advice and often-needed encouragement. And being rewarded with the looks of relief and renewed excitement and determination when they left one of our sessions. (After all, isn’t that the whole point of going to a writers’ conference? To remember you’re not alone in this crazy writing biz and that the hours you spend in front of the computer, all by yourself, are not a waste of your life?)

Then, this man. And this comment. Delivered with a confusing combination of sheepishness and smirk, like he needed my reaction to determine whether his question was clever or clumsy.

I wasn’t sure what he was really asking me. Was he trying to upset me? Was this, like, the absolute worst writer’s conference pickup line ever?

I’m not telling you this story to snark. (I already promised you this would be a snark-free zone, and I have no interest in being catty nearly a decade after this happened.) I’m writing about this moment here, now, because it still bothers me.

At the time, I think I ratcheted up my smile a few more notches and bulldozed forward, chattering something about the two being entirely different skill sets (which I do think is true: see last post about the Left Brain/Right Brain battle).

But from time to time, his face and his words resurface, and I spend some time with what might be my ickiest professional fear: Is there a tiny grain of truth to what he said?

Logically, I know there is not. For a few reasons:

  1. Any editor out there (or published author who’s been edited) can tell you that, depending on the author we’re working with and the stage of editing we’re at (more on this next week), (re)writing is somewhere between 25% and 85% of what an editor does.We rewrite sentences that are convoluted or awkward; we fix misplaced modifiers and unclear antecedents. We write transitions between paragraphs and scenes when they’re needed. And, yes, sometimes we even have to finish writing the book when an author just flat-out tires and gives up…and we still have a publication deadline to meet.
  2. There is absolutely no way an editor—especially a developmental editor—can be effective at giving an author direction on plot, pacing, character development, etc., without having a firm understanding of how those elements work together and how to construct each of them.
  3. The laundry list of editors who’ve also published successful books is astounding. In fact, it’s getting to the point where it seems like more editors have published than haven’t. (Way to go, guys!) And why should this come as a surprise? When your life is devoted to creating literature, at some point you might be compelled to break from working on others’ stories and start devoting your love and energy to your own.
  4. Having worked with many amazing teachers in many disciplines during my eighteen years of schooling, “Those who can’t do, teach,” is as silly as it is insulting to the great minds of education who slave away with little thanks and little pay. I assume this was the basis for the man’s assessment of editors, and if I remember Philosophy 101 correctly, no truth can be derived from a false premise.

But in my emotional, illogical heart, his “clever” dig excavated through the layers of my schooling and experience and hit that insecure nerve: Maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer.

I think that’s the fear that was at the heart of his question. Perhaps he was trying to knock me off my dais—negate my “insider” status and reduce me to the same insecurity he was feeling.

His motive isn’t really important to me, though. The comment stung, but I’m actually grateful for it now. Because it’s been there, in the back of my mind all these years, baiting me, pushing me to prove it’s not true.

And it’s also caused me to realize that as much as I love the art and craft of writing, I adore editing for reasons unique to its own craft. I’m not an editor because I’m a failed writer; I’m an editor because I derive just as much pleasure from collaborating with another writer to make their work go from shiny to dazzling as I do creating my own shiny prose.

Editing is the ultimate writing test. Sometimes it’s a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes it’s an exercise in translation. Sometimes it’s a group hug. Sometimes it’s a hostage negotiation. But always, always at its core is the story, the paragraph, the word.

And that’s why, what I should have said to Mr. Unwittingly Hurtful Writer’s Conference Attendee was this: When I’ve done a good job as an editor, the writer can’t tell my words from her own.

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