How To Be Your Own Best Editor

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Are you a writer who is wondering how to tackle editing your manuscript? As I edit my memoir, I think about the tips Ann Hood  shared at the Muse and Marketplace last May in her workshop, “How To Be Your Own Best Editor.” I left the workshop with pages of a notebook filled with her savory tidbits, and re-read them again and again when I’m stuck. Here they are:

First, you need to develop writing habits that you can keep. And don’t allow anything to interfere with your writing time. If need be, Ann suggested finding a writer friend who is amendable to signing a contract with you.

Each day, before writing the next pages of her manuscript, Ann reads aloud what she wrote the day before, and edits at she goes along (it’s too easy to skim over awkward sentences and words when reading silently). She could not have emphasized this enough: When writing first chapters, start where something happens rather than with backstory. While working on those first pages, Ann reminded us to avoid starting with clichés like long descriptions of the weather, or a scene where someone is waking up. As she said, we all wake up the same way: we crawl out of bed, and rub the sleep from our eyes as we shuffle to the bathroom, pee, brush our teeth, etc. I believed it when Ann declared that first chapters tend to get revised the most – I’ve lost count as to how many times I’ve deleted the first chapter of my memoir in progress and have had to start all over again. This happens because we usually start the piece in the wrong place, and believe that’s exactly where the book should start.

On a micro editing level, Ann cautioned against overuse of the verb to be, as in, “she was walking.” Instead, write this: “She walked.” Similarly, she advised to watch out for extraneous and vague descriptors like “so,” “awesome,” and “meanwhile.” The same goes for words like “smile,” “look, and” laugh.”  A recent word count of my two-hundred-fifty-page memoir revealed fifty smiles, and at least seventy looks. Ann suggests we strive for something that is uniquely revealing to your character, such as picking at knuckles to show a nervous response. Here’s another micro editing detail worth jotting down on a Post-it and sticking on your desk: make sure the beginnings and ends of scenes and chapters are resonant.

On a more global point, Ann referred to Grace Paley’s assertion that every story is two stories: the one on the surface and the one bubbling beneath. The climax is when they collide. The external conflict is the plot, or the tangible parts of the story, whereas the internal conflict is a need.

Ann also alluded to Flannery O’Conner, who said writing is painting a picture with words. Or, rather than stating emotions, show them. How is your character sad, angry, or lonely? And don’t forget to have the protagonist do three essential things along the way: React, reply, reflect. As for dialogue, it should do more than offer information. It should advance the conflict, develop character, move the story forward. Of course, you can’t forget the setting – every scene should have one. Is it in a hospital, an office, at the beach?

When finished with a complete draft, Ann urged us to put it away for three months before sending it out to agents (at the very least, one month). Why? She summed it up in an Allen Ginsberg quote: “To regain your voice, you need to forget you ever heard it.” Now that’s worth writing down on a Post-it.

Please feel free to share any thoughts, questions, or insights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Pain Scale

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Where do you rate your migraine, back pain, abdominal pain? A two, a five, a ten?

A few weeks ago I went to see my physical therapist for hip pain. “On a scale of zero to ten, ten sending you to the emergency room, how bad is your pain?” she asked. Pain is universal, and, like most of us, I’ve been asked to choose a number from the pain scale time and again: in the weeks and months after my pelvis, foot, ribs, and lower back fractured in a car accident, when my bowel got all tied up in a knot, and when a cyst on my ovary ruptured.

In 1999, the Veterans Administration established pain as the fifth vital sign, requiring medical professionals to assess pain using the pain scale, a practice introduced by hospice in the 1970s. But how accurate is that scale? While one’s heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature can be objectively measured, pain is subjective. It’s based on perception, which is influenced by a whole host of factors: attitude, stress, culture, upbringing, age, gender, and more. One’s five may be another’s eight. And what about all the fractions in between two whole numbers? Couldn’t one’s pain be a five and two-thirds? What about chronic pain? Doesn’t that change our perception of overall pain? Are you more apt to assign an eight to, say, your recent foot pain because you’re sick and tired of the pain? Or are you more likely to give that toe, say, a three because you’ve become used to pain and can no longer decipher a three from a four or an eight?

I’ve never met anyone who said they’ve never felt physical pain. There are too many opportunities: paper cuts, stubbed toes, headaches, toothaches, back and neck aches. Why is there a zero on the pain scale anyway? It seems useless. As Eula Biss says in her essay “The Pain Scale,”  “Zero doesn’t behave like other numbers.” When we count, we don’t start with zero: “Zero, one, two, three.” Zero is merely a placeholder, a midway point between one and minus one, for instance.

Because I’m not good at making decisions, I’m not partial to the pain scale.

I think pain is best described with real life descriptors: throbbing, stabbing, crushing, needling, nauseating, a quadruple knot in the gut, the hottest part of a fire, a butcher knife to the toe. I want to tear apart my skin and crawl out of my body. I want to scream, scream, scream.

If you were asked to describe your pain, past or present, what would you say?

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What is Orthorexia Nervosa?

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You’ve heard of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia,  right? Anorexics restrict their eating whereas Bulimics go through cycles of binge eating followed by purging. But what is Orthorexia Nervosa? An eating disorder currently not recognized in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Orthorexia was first coined in 1996 by a physician who used it to describe patients who were overly concerned with their health. Orthorexia, which literally translates into “fixation on righteous eating,” begins with one’s attempt to eat healthy foods. But orthorexics then become obsessed with food quality and how much to eat. The more restrictive the diet, the greater one’s health suffers. Like anorexia and bulimia, there is no exact cause to orthorexia. Though the desire is to eat healthfully, there are other deeply rooted motivations, such as the hunger to be thin, the determination to be in control, and the need to improve self-esteem.

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Rachel Levine, a kindergarten teacher in Denver, Colorado, and an advocate for those suffering from eating disorders, has been in recovery from both orthorexia and anorexia for more than seven years. In the March 2015 issue of Self Magazine, she shares her raw story of how orthorexia “almost killed her,” starting from the very beginning, when her heart nearly stopped beating from nutritional deprivation. To learn more about how Rachel got her appetite for life back, I invite you to read her story, “What it’s Like to Care Too Much About Eating,” here.

 

 

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Residue of Trauma

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“I dream about blood.” That’s how Erin Maynard, Acting President and CEO of PTSD Survivors of America, begins her tragic story, “I Killed a Man and I Want to Die.” In 2008, she unintentionally drove over and killed a pedestrian on the Long Island Expressway. Maynard was heading home from her job as an editorial aide when she felt a “thump” below her car. That “thump” changed her life. That “thump” reverberates throughout her story. Maynard tells it to us straight, bares her soul on the page with stunning courage. Her story is so powerful, and dense, with the residue of trauma – post-traumatic stress disorder, post-traumatic growth, survivor guilt, forgiveness, and identity – that it must be shared. It must be shared so that others can better understand life after trauma.

To learn how Maynard picked up the shards of her shattered life, I encourage you to read her full story in The Spectrum.

Click here for Erin Maynard’s full bio. 

Do you have a personal traumatic story to share? If so, how has it changed you? What can we learn from your experience?

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