Writing the Book, #4
Thanks to much time and many espressos in my local WiFi coffee shop, appropriately called Buzz, my first draft is finished. Begin phase II of the writing process. Allow me to explain. The first part of any writing project begins with the blank page. Some fear a space of all white; others love it. Some love the freedom and opportunity a blank page offers—the challenge of creating something from nothing. Others have the ability to read a collection of words, know what’s good, bad and ugly about them, and with a deft hand, reassemble them to create an engaging tale.
I’m a blank-page lover. And though I edit others from 9-5, I definitely need an editor when it come to my own work. Every writer, no matter how good, needs an editor. A creative soul—or anyone really—cannot be truly objective about their own product. If I’ve birthed it, I’m possessive and irrational about it—children and stories alike
When Lucky Dissanayake, Dakini owner and publisher, told me I could pick an editor to work with on the tiger book, I knew exactly who I wanted. A former colleague, boss, mentor, and friend, Lynne Warren who used to head the writing division at National Geographic. A beautiful writer in her own right, she’s a phenomenal editor. She glances at copy and, in seconds it seems, knows where you have a logic problem, an issue with the flow, if your words are trite or pedestrian or staid, if the story just isn’t coming alive—and why.
Lynne and I met for five productive and highly entertaining hours one day and went over my draft. During bites of tzatiki, and souvlaki and tomato caprese, we worked out spots that were bugging me. She pointed out repetitive places, one of my huge concerns, and places where inaccuracies may have crept in (I’ve read so much about cats, I feared my past knowledge of say, cheetahs, was creeping into my tiger text). She suggested often small, sometimes large, changes in wording that better conveyed what I meant.
A good editor knows how to say what you mean better than you do. But to get to this level of skill, the editor’s heart has to be in the right place. Lynne knows this so deeply. I told her I was writing about our process and she offered her own perspective (which, to prove my point, better conveys what I mean):
“I think the heart of the writer-editor connection is shared trust and respect. You have to feel really sure that I’m already convinced of your abilities to be comfortable showing me work very much in progress. You have to know that you’re going to be aided, not graded; and that my goal is to help you achieve your goal. And you have to believe that I have the ability and knowledge to help you tailor and refine your text without substituting my voice for yours.” I have to know that your work is worth my time and attention; and while you don’t have to embrace every suggestion I offer, I have to be confident that you’ll consider my recommendations with an open mind and a solid regard for my skills and experience.
Oh, yeah, really liking each other helps, too.”
And we respect, and really like, each other. A few years back, we spent three weeks aboard a Woods Hole research ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for a story on hydrothermal sea vents. She encouraged me to descend in Alvin, a deep-sea, three-person submersible for an eight-hour stint on the bottom of the ocean floor, and was there to help deluge me with cold water when I returned (a rite of passage for Alvin newbies). On the ship, we shared bunk beds in a room the size of a walk-in closet and stayed up way too late hashing out everything from literature to Eagle’s hits to latest loves and crushes. We later taught a photography workshop (clarification: taught photographers how to write to their photographs) at the Mountain Workshops in a small Kentucky town. Again, we shared a room. Again, we stayed up way to late, this time eating lots of fried food and sampling the local bourbon.
Imagine doing all that with someone you didn’t like? Imagine trusting your creation, your baby, to someone you didn’t like?
In these often frenetic days of writing a tiger text, it’s good to know someone has your back.