The Editor’s Craft

Editing writing requires tremendous restraint. I was reminded of this recently when a poem I had submitted to an anthology was accepted providing I approved of the editor’s changes. I’m open to thoughtful revision suggestions—a text can always be improved—but I assume the recommendations will be just that, insightful observations that cause me to re-think my work. In that light, I can re-enter a poem or story and see if any of the ideas resonate enough for me to make changes. Yet since I’m the poem’s creator, I expect to revise it myself and have the last word on its content.

Imagine my shock when I downloaded the email attachment and discovered a new poem, including a different title. I had expected to see a Microsoft Word document with the reader’s thoughts recorded via the tracking tool. But she hadn’t even extended that courtesy. She expected me to approve of her changes and give her my blessing to publish the piece. I didn’t.

Some of my original language was there, but this particular editor had cannibalized my work, making it her own. I understand the impulse to give new shape to someone else’s writing, thinking that your vision is the right one. But editors must resist that urge. If followed, the publication will contain poems that all have a similar style—the editor’s and not the various writers’.

I recall being part of a poetry workshop years ago where one of the poet-critics took a similar approach to critiquing submitted work. She crossed out lines, rearranged stanzas, added her own language, and generally rewrote our poems. They no longer resembled the writers’ original rhythms and voice. The critiquer now owned them.

Poetry works on many subtle levels. A sophisticated poet knows how to manipulate them all. To ignore a poem’s complexity violates its integrity and the artist’s vision. Good editors don’t mess with a poem’s fine tuning, realizing they don’t inhabit the original impulse that created the contents. They also may not have the sensitivity to make it a better piece.

As for a poem’s multiple layers, its presentation on the page is the first thing we notice. Some poems want to be single-spaced, the lines huddled close together, forcing the reader to focus on the language as it unfurls on white space. Some need more breathing room, slowing down readers, giving them time to digest each word, phrase, and line. Others want extensive stanza breaks or the rhythm of couplets, triplets, or quatrains. Or a mix of the above. Or the arrangement may not follow any convention. The poet may not want too predicable rhythms, depending on the contents. But most of all, text and form should reflect each other.

Then there are line lengths. Long lines give a writer the chance to open up in a prosy way and create a relaxed pace. Shorter lines can add tension but also speed up the reading. If there is extra space between lines or stanzas, that, too, will create varying effects. Similarly, line breaks have different purposes, from causing the reader to pause and reflect on what has gone before to hurling him/her into the next part of the poem. All of these things work together to produce a balanced, aesthetic whole, and it’s part of the writer’s pleasure to determine these craft choices on her own, though at times she may ask for feedback from an attentive, trusted reader.

There’s much more that goes into shaping a successful poem, too much to cover here. Unfortunately, the woman who edited mine ignored the craft’s fine points and the courtesy she owed the writer. Not only did she change the title, but she also made the poem single spaced with only two stanzas; previously, it was a mixture of couplets and tercets. I had used form to reflect the sea’s expansiveness and movement, the waves washing rhythmically on the shore (the sea was the main focus).

In the original, the lines covered a whole page with lots of white space between them. Her revision was a tight little text that bore little resemblance to the poem I wrote. Of course, she complimented me on my lovely poem, but she was really praising herself.

 

 

Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.


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