NEVER FEAR.

You’re hard at work on your novel/short story/dissertation/poem/article and you’re thinking,

If only. 

If only I knew of an editor, who would be able to proofread my work, and offer constructive, relevant criticism. Someone who reads every chance she can get, and who can switch between UK and US English (and Australian English, too, but pff, well, nobody really takes that seriously).

Oh, if only I knew someone who excelled in ensuring that my arguments were coherent, and could give me feedback about the plot or characterisation! Someone who also writes and has been published, and therefore knows the sting of rejection and the paralysing frustration of writer’s block! 

NEVER FEAR.

I’m here.

I’m Rebecca, your friendly editor, writer, and professional bilby.
I live in Albany, Western Australia, a seaside town where, on quiet nights, I can hear the train sounding its horn as it pulls into port, and where it rains quite a lot–for a sunburnt country–but that’s OK, because I like wearing hoodies. I also really like long sentences, but oddly enough, will totally pull you up on them if you ask me to edit your work. I’m pedantic that way. Also more than a little hypocritical, I guess.

More about me? Oh, OK, if you insist. I’ve done a few university degrees, been a high school teacher, worked in retail store management, worked in supermarkets, and waited tables. And I’ve been reading, writing and editing along the way.

I’ve a passion for language. I love the written word, because it allows for voices which might somehow seem too contrived for everyday speech. The act of writing something down is to preserve a moment which might otherwise slip away, unnoticed. It is to mark, in memory, a fleeting emotion. And if you’re interested in doing that, then I’m interested in editing it… and making sure you spell everything correctly.

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Ideal Conditions.

I read a short essay today by Jo Nesbø over at Lit Hub,  where he describes the perfect writing room–an ideal space, which he doesn’t use, and it got me thinking about how often we put off doing something because the conditions are not ideal. Like Nesbø, I have a room which we set aside when we first moved here, where we set up rudimentary bookshelves, a couch, desk, and chair, with a lamp and a computer and enough space to handwrite at the table, if I chose. It’s bright, with lots of windows, separated from the rest of the house, and up until recently, the high door handles kept the majority of the children out, when I shut the door. There are wooden blinds and wooden floorboards, and there’s room for the dog and possibly a cat. So it is pretty ideal.

library

[Picture is of our ‘library’, with bookshelves around each wall, and a computer set up on a small rectangular wooden table, under a window with wooden blinds. My brown and white dog is lying on a blue and yellow sarong, on the couch]

And yet, I rarely use it. Most of the time, my editing and writing takes place on a small laptop which I balance on my knees or which I take into the kitchen, to edit while I make dinner. Like Nesbø, I visit a cafe regularly, where we’re part of the furniture and the staff know us, and there, I write or edit by hand, enjoying the bustle and community, even as I am engrossed in my own literary world.

It’s so easy to hold off on doing the things we’d like to do–especially in the creative field–because the conditions are not quite right. I know that I sometimes daydream about landing a huge book deal or winning lotto (despite not playing!), and think how great it would be if we were set up for life. We could hire a nanny, have a cleaner, go on holidays, and suddenly, it would be so much easier to find the time to write or work or study. But would it really? I’m not trying to be romantic about financial struggles; creating amazing art is exceedingly difficult if you’re not sure where your next mortgage payment is coming from. But the idea that a perfect room or set of circumstances are necessary to succeed is just another way of our putting up obstacles. It’s dreaming rather than doing.

The work that I’m most proud of, whether it’s editing another writer’s manuscript, or writing my own, has largely been completed while propped up in bed, or on the edge of the kitchen table, surrounded by mess and children, or sitting on the loungeroom floor, while music or a TV program plays in the background. I do crave quiet, and I often get it, but mostly, the work carries on within the bustling life of which it’s a part.

Is this ideal? And do we ever really know what we need? As Nesbø  points out, he has realised where he writes best, and it’s not in a beautiful, bespoke workspace, but rather, in a cafe, as a part of the community. Perhaps it would be wonderful to have a quiet, private area, a ‘room of one’s own’, but waiting around for the conditions to be perfect is unlikely to lead to much creation of anything. Far better, to simply jump in, use what we have, and watch what wonders we can make, from such small and humble beginnings.

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Your First Editor.

Can you imagine how awesome it would be, if you had an editor on hand to re-read passages you’d written, and give you some ideas of what worked, where you’d repeated yourself or added redundant phrases, where the story was wandering? How handy would that be? And imagine if that editor were absolutely free, and all it cost you was a little time?

You know what I’m going to say, right?

You DO have an editor on constant standby. This editor is always there when you need them, and they know all about the story/article/dissertation you’re writing, and the direction in which you want to take it.

No, silly. It’s not me. (Although obviously I’m here to help!) It’s YOU.

Sometimes writers will send me work which is little more than a draft, and while I’m happy to go through it and and help, I explain to them that it would be cheaper and quicker for them if they had only gone over it before they sent it to me. All they needed to do was read it back to themselves, just once! Just one time and they would find a lot of the errors themselves. Just one time, and they would be able to appreciate the areas where the words were shiny bright, and the areas where they were muddied and fumbled.

I don’t mind being that editor–the first editor. I quote based on the work that needs doing, and I’m happy to do that to make the work as good as it can be. But if you’re not reading your own writing, you’re missing out on learning from it, and from seeing just what you can do–and how you can improve. By reading your own work first, being your own first editor, you also begin to find your own mistakes.

Others’ feedback is, of course, invaluable. But don’t dismiss your own. You’ve done all the hard work by writing your story or essay. You should be the first to be able to read it, and enjoy it!

 

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Write What You Know.

The first time I was given this advice was in primary school. I think I was about ten years old–already  in love with writing stories, so much so that I did it in my spare time. I imagine it was well-meaning adults who told me this, because no child would ever have thought to limit themselves to writing what they knew. Children write about fantastic creatures and foreign countries and space travel, none of which they have experienced. Children know that all they need is their imagination to create a story. The details are, well, details.

When you get older, then details become more important. So ‘write what you know’ sounds like good advice, for an aspiring adult writer. People are a lot less forgiving of major plot flaws or unrealistic characters when you’re writing a story as an adult, than they are when you’re ten. It’s best, then, to make sure you do know what you’re writing about.

But this shouldn’t mean you should only write about your own experiences–far from it. Take the academic work that I edit. Some of these dissertations are tens of thousands of words on a specific subject. The student obviously knows a lot about their topic, but that’s the result of years of research and study. They’re writing what they know–because they just spent an enormous amount of effort learning it. I’m always in awe of how much work goes into these theses, and I love how much I also learn from reading them.

So yes, write what you know. But if you don’t know about it, then that’s not a reason to give up. You just need to learn. Read. Research. Ask questions. Find out.

And then you’ll know.

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Feedback

An author I follow on Twitter posted this the other day, and I’ve watched it a few times since, and each time, it’s made me chuckle. Both as an editor and a writer, giving and receiving feedback takes a lot of practice.

Sometimes when I’m reading work to offer feedback, I need to remind myself that different styles and genres rely on a number of conventions, expectations, traditions. Sometimes I have to catch myself in ‘correcting’ something, when it’s not really ‘wrong’, but it’s simply the author’s voice. We might write differently, which doesn’t put either of us in the right, it just allows for the wonderful diversity of work which we’re lucky enough to be able to experience these days. Often reading others’ work–and noting what they do well–emphasises areas of my own work on which I know I need to focus.

And this is important to remember when I’m getting feedback, too. I received another rejection the other day, not wholly unexpected, but I realised when I read it, that rejections don’t devastate me in the same way they used to. Perhaps it’s because after you have had some work accepted, it softens the blow of subsequent rejections, or perhaps it’s just that I’m far less precious about my work than I used to be. The feedback I receive is often helpful–not just for picking up issues in the work in question, but also to give me a greater insight into how I write: my style, my habits, my ‘tells’. This is not only important to help me to improve on my weaknesses, but it helps highlight my strengths.

Whether an editor or writer, or simply a reader, I hope you find the video as amusing as I did… perhaps you can see yourself (or someone else) in one or both of these characters?!

 

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The First Cut is the Deepest. Although the second and third hurt a lot, too. And the fourth. And…

 

I’ve been trying to finish my current novel for a while, now. I finished the draft two years ago, and began the second draft last year (I think?!) And it’s still not done. In between I’ve been writing, of course—many articles and short stories, and poems, and blog posts, not to mention the freelance work. It’s not like I stopped writing, but I did stop writing my novel.

So it’s sitting in a state of stasis. And I know why.

The good thing about working as an editor is that I can tell where my novel needs improvement.

The bad thing about working as an editor is that I can tell where my novel needs improvement.

It’s one thing to know what needs to be done. It’s another to have the courage to sit down and do it.

I know what the problem is with my novel. As my first novel, it needs to be simplified. I’m trying too hard to turn it into some grand masterpiece—at this stage, if I include all that I want, it’ll be around 150 000 words. That’s fairly epic, by most standards. And there is so much to research and write, if I choose that route. Of course, plenty of people do choose that route. They take years on their books, ending up with thick tomes from their decades of work.

I am not that kind of writer. I have neither the patience nor the will to spend so long on a book. And from a purely practical standpoint, I can’t afford it. I want to be able to sell my work. As it is, I write, edit and publish for a living. I want to be able to finish books so that I can use them as income—something that writers often don’t discuss, but which is close to most of our hearts (and our bellies).

I also want to be able to finish my novel, so that I can learn from it. I want to be able to take the mistakes I’ve made with this book and use my knowledge to do better next time. That might mean I plan better, or that I have a better understanding of character or plot development, or that I manage my time better. The more I write, the better I get—hopefully! And while I’ve learnt a lot already from working on this novel, I know that if I finish it, I will not only have the benefit of having finished a novel which I can then look to try and publish. I’ll also have a sense of achievement that comes with completing a project which, while not War and Peace worthy, has certainly taken long enough.

So the next couple of weeks is dedicated to cuts. Carving out huge swathes of words. Getting rid of various plot points which are irrelevant. It will, no doubt, be brutal. But I think it will be worth it. And this, too, is all about learning. So that the next project can begin, and so it can be better.

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It’s Time.

Last year, I went to a couple of sessions of the Writers’ Festival which is part of the Perth International Arts Festival. One of the sessions was a panel featuring some writers talking about their characters, their methods, and when they found time to write. At the end, I asked them when they found time to write–did they work a nine-to-five job and just write around that? How did they support themselves, given that creative work doesn’t always pay the bills?

Two out of three said that they worked day jobs, and just got up very early in the mornings to write, usually before 5 am. And I thought, ‘I can’t do that. I’m just too tired.’ At that point, my youngest child was still waking a few times per night, and voluntarily cutting short my sleep seemed like a mad choice to make.

I used to be a night owl, when I was at high school and university, but once I began working during the day in retail and customer service, I had to shift my study time to early mornings, or I’d never last the day at work. Then once I had children, they were always up early, and so was the Handsome Sidekick as he started work early at that time.

When the children were still toddlers in nappies, writing around the washing, cooking, and parenting meant that I’d often have to work during the day when they napped, or at night. The problem with nighttime was that it was also the only adult time I got to spend with the Handsome Sidekick, and while he’s very understanding of my need to work, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity of actual adult conversation. And no matter how much tea I drink, by about 10.30, I’m starting to flag. If I work later than that, I begin to write or edit in my sleep. This has some interesting (if unusable) results, as you can imagine.

So it was a bit disheartening, hearing these other writers at the writers’ festival tell me that they got up at 4.30am to write before going to work. But one of them assured me that having children meant it was really hard, and I shouldn’t be so tough on myself.

And you know, she was right! It takes a lot out of you, to look after small children. Not being able to get up early to do a couple of hours of writing is really quite acceptable, if you’re otherwise chronically sleep deprived. Sometimes, doing any kind of focused brainwork at any time of day is too much, if you’re tired like that.

Recently, however, I’ve been less tired. And it occurred to me that I could also now take that time in the mornings, when the children are still sleepy or sometimes still asleep, and get up early to work. I feel like it’s such a milestone, a turning point, to take that step and allot that time. It feels like I can finally get more done, have more of a routine.

There’s the key, I think. Any kind of work needs some kind of routine, and being able to select a time and say ‘this is mine’ is particularly important, if you want to do creative work. I’m looking forward to it.

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The Pretend Parent.

School holidays have begun here in Australia. This is the summer break, and school won’t begin until the start of February. That is a long, long time.

I love my children, deep down. And when I say ‘deep down’, I mean, it is  a love which generally surfaces when they’re sleeping, or playing at a friend’s house. Because there always seems to be so much to do when they’re around, it’s hard to focus on how important they are. Instead, it seems that it’s more important making sure we have clean underwear and at least one vegetable per day (and sometimes, even those small milestones seem difficult).

But I know that there are also lots of other parents around who feel the same way… the mundane everyday routine, trying to work and parent while enjoying the moment, it can be overwhelming and stressful and wears you down until you are a smaller version of yourself. So, what do you do?

You write poetry, of course! To this end, I have published a book of poems on parenting, and all of the fear, love, anger, anxiety, desperation, sadness, and powerlessness which accompanies it. If you’re interested, it’s here. And in light of my own struggles with post- and antenatal depression and anxiety, for every 100 copies I sell, I’ll donate $50 to beyond blue, an organisation which helps educate about, and reduce the stigma surrounding, anxiety and depression.

Putting these thoughts out there is both cathartic and terrifying, as I’m sure many of you understand, but I think it’s good to step out of our comfort zones, at least occasionally. Heaven knows I’ve got another six weeks of discomfort ahead of me!

(I’m kidding! They’re actually great. Especially when they’re sleeping, or at a friend’s house.)

TPPjpeg

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Handmade

I was in the car on my own recently–something which doesn’t happen all that often, and so I took the opportunity to listen to the CD which happened to be in the player. One of the songs, Everloving, by Moby, came on, and I hadn’t heard it for a while. So I turned it up.

It’s a fairly short song, and quite simple. I really like it, but with the windows shut and the volume up loud, I noticed something I’d either ignored or not realised before: he makes mistakes.

At the beginning, when he’s playing guitar, he fumbles over some of the notes. Sometimes he doesn’t quite hit the one he should have. But the rhythm is good, and it’s only the odd one, so if you’re not listening really closely, it doesn’t stand out. And what’s more, it’s kind of endearing. Rather than being perfect, it has a more relaxed feel to it. It makes me think, ‘I could play that’. It humanises the music. Makes it accessible.

There are some guitar players who don’t miss a note. Obviously they practise and practise and work on the song until it’s perfect. I admire them, too. Because I think it’s admirable to be that dedicated to something, and to have the belief in your abilities (as well as the talent) to keep going, even when you’re tired and it seems like you’re working for nothing. After all, there are a lot of aspiring musicians, and only comparatively few who are masters.

Being able to play the song perfectly is something to work towards. But that doesn’t mean that all our attempts to get there are useless. There is beauty in imperfection. Nobody plays exactly like you do.

Nobody writes exactly like you do. You will look back over work you’ve done and think, ‘how juvenile, how unpolished…’ but that’s what practising is about. Just like music, writing is something which must be practised, if we want to improve it. But the little flaws are OK too. I’m not talking spelling errors or typos, obviously. I mean the use of cliches or the odd undeveloped character. Not every line is going to jump off the page in its brilliance. You can miss a note now and then, and the end result can still be beautiful.

One of the lovely aspects of making something by hand is the tiny imperfections. It’s what makes each piece unique–even when creating more than one of them. It’s what we like about something which isn’t mass produced. And writing–by hand or keyboard or however else you do it–is handmade, and it is wonderful, because of that.

It’s OK for the thing not to be perfect. Just keep practising, and get it out into the world.

 

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Worth it.

Sometimes I think it’s easy to slip into the idea that writing isn’t worthwhile, because it’s not a ‘basic need’. We need medical staff and truck drivers and electricians and market gardeners, because they provide us with everyday necessities and can be responsible for the difference between life and death. We don’t need writing. What’s the point?

And poetry. Especially poetry. When I write poetry, I feel more self-conscious than ever. Who am I, I think, to consider that I can weave words and play with the language like this?

But then tonight I read to my children from a poetry anthology I was given as a child, and… oh, poetry. I was reminded just how brilliant it can be. The imagery, the way the words and rhythm rhyme around one another, the way each poem sets its own pace, and reveals that to you, only when you read it, and especially when you read it aloud. The other books we read tonight were ones the children had heard before, but the poems were new to them, and they were enthralled. ‘Just three…’ turned into six, then nine, and then it really was getting late and they needed to be in bed.

Reading to my children is always a pleasure, but when I stumble across something both they and I love, it’s such a great experience. We sit together and drink in the words, and I realise–and wonder how I could have forgotten–that while it’s maybe not a matter of life and death, if there were no stories, no poems or songs, what a drab, depressing, colourless life it would be.

Write on.

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Just One Letter.

I was at the supermarket the other day and was looking at different shampoos for dogs. Our dog has a sensitive skin, so I didn’t want anything which was too harsh. I narrowed it down to a couple of bottles, one slightly cheaper than the other. I looked at the back of the cheaper shampoo.

‘Natural ingredients to give your dog a healthy shinny coat!’ it claimed.

SHINNY?!

I put the bottle down and chose the more expensive one. If they can’t do a basic spell-check on their label, I thought, then how am I going to trust their brand? It’s not like they mis-used an apostrophe, or failed to end a sentence with a full stop. They made up a word! It screamed a lack of attention to detail.

And it made me think about why it’s so important to get a good editor to read through your work. Yes, you can rewrite and do spell-checks and even get a friend to read it for you, depending on the friend. But when you put out a book, write an article, enter a short story in a competition… your name and your brand are on that work. People are going to read it, and judge you for what you’ve left in, or left out. They’ll decide whether they like your work, depending not only on how strong your writing is, but also how it’s presented. Typos, missing punctuation, spelling errors… they all add up to an overall impression, and that first impression is your best chance to get a foot in the door and have that reader continue to read, rather than putting your work down and picking up the next person’s submission.

After all, it’s not dog shampoo you’re selling. It’s your words. You need them to be as clean, well-groomed, and shinny as they can be.

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