Review: Wonderbook

It’s rare to find a creative writing guide that features genre fiction, and even rarer to find an illustrated one. In fact, Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer is the first of its kind, and I’ve just added it to my arsenal of reference texts.

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I don’t have a great camera! It doesn’t do this book justice.

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The pretty pictures, of course, are what draw the eye to the book in the first place, but it’s the combination of essays from successful fantasy and sci-fi authors, insight into character and plot on micro and macro levels, and the visual diagrams (I tend to learn best this way) that make it unique.

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VanderMeer’s more fluid and dynamic approach to the craft and process of writing is also closer to my style than the rigid, often pedantic format that other instructional books have to offer. Though much of the surreal and fantastical artwork accompanied the text for aesthetic appeal, I found them more endearing than distracting.

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Since revision is such a strong focal point of the book, the opportunity to read it really came at a great time for me. Before venturing deeper into my own manuscript, I marked up the ideas and strategies presented so beautifully in Wonderbook to prepare myself for what’s to come.

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Quotes from the book that especially resonated with me (VanderMeer’s words unless otherwise noted):

  • “The impulse to create is like the impulse to breathe. Did you know that people who have been shut down often have trouble breathing?” — Rikki Ducornet
  • “In retreating to the Scar, it is only natural that the writer experiences emotions of sadness, regret, and loneliness — all of which feed into the writing…My particular Scar helped teach me to seek distance from events, to try to be on the outside looking in, to observe. In becoming a writer I channeled that distancing into art, rather than solely into alienation from friends and family.”
  • “The act of becoming a writer — of committing to learning the craft of art or writing — is largely about providing structure to what your imagination creates and is an ongoing process of attaining an elusive mastery (there is always another door).”
  • “A sufficiently self-aware and observant writer should be able to convincingly depict love, loss, family, childhood, growing up, growing old — in other words, the experience of becoming and being a human among other humans.” — Karen Lord
  • “Get rid of the map and get off the road. You need to get yourself lost, at least for a little while.” —Matthew Cheney
  • “Some elements, then, that lead to inspiration and story, that shape and protect your imagination, are deeply allied with your subconscious. But you can train yourself to enter these built-in states by creating the conditions and environment optimal to conjuring up inspiration.”
  • “From the reader’s point of view, the best examples all share that frisson of discovery and mystery, some sense of life beyond the page.”
  • “To grow as a fiction writer, you absolutely must engage in some dissection of stories, your own and the work of others. But you also have to be a kind of zoologist or naturalist of narrative. Observations of a living organism require a different approach, one that doesn’t so much catalogue separate parts as seek to understand how everything works together.”
  • “You shoot the arrow and, depending on how well you judged the trajectory, distance, and wind, the arrow lands where you wanted it to land. Regardless, the arrow lands where the bow that launched it sent it — that end point becomes the bull’s-eye whether you like it or not…All of that lovely tension, pressure, and precision in the drawing back of the bow string, of focusing your eye on the target, the release as the arrow left the bow, the sound it made, the arching progress through the air…it must all mean something in the end.”

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A briefing on my editing services

The truth is, rough drafts suck.

I don’t just mean the quality of writing produced, no matter if you’re a writer or not. The thought of releasing any of my unpublished raw material to the world throws me into a melodramatic shame vortex.

I also mean the way the rough draft is often approached: as something that inherently sucks to do. Whether you’re a student struggling to fill out an essay’s word count or a journalist clamoring to meet your editor’s deadline, chances are you’ve experienced the headache of writing under pressure. Many of my college peers seemed to dread The Essay, and subsequently, their solution was to put as little time and effort into it as possible while still retaining some academic integrity (not plagiarizing work and securing an acceptable grade). It’s no secret that essays in non-writing based courses represent a marginal grade percentage, and are perhaps the most lamentable portion of standardized tests. The removal of obligatory essays from the SAT this year is evidence enough.

I received my BA in English and writing, and essays had always been my strongest suit throughout my academic career. I genuinely enjoyed setting aside the time to lay out a framework, create a precise thesis, and argue my points home. I also got a kick out of marking up the daily school newspaper, a task most might consider tedious and boring, with my copy edits before it went to print. What a nerd!

Writing with good form takes time and practice, and editing is inextricable from the writing process. But when you (the writer) lack the experience or the extra hours, that’s where I (the editor) can come in.

So, how can I help you?

  • Line edits: Basic, sentence-level copy editing, usually for articles or other brief clips. I’ll mark up the document with my commentary, as well as spelling, grammar, and sentence changes or variations according to AP or your preferred style.
  • Full revision: For larger documents, I’ll do two separate levels of editing: one for content (identifying problems), and another for structure (enacting solutions).
  • Tutoring: I also offer personal and confidential writing tutoring, working closely to fine-tune your writing until it sings. We’ll deconstruct and hammer out your work, and discuss how changes to the writing can help you improve as a writer.
  • In any case: I will deliver work in a timely manner. Contact me in reasonable advance with your deadline, and I’ll get it done.

What won’t I do?

  • Skim your writing and hand it back to you. Never. Your value to me as a client is worth more than your money. Don’t assume that because you cringe at your writing, I’ll deem it a lost cause. My belief is that every rough concept can become polished with proper editing.
  • Be biased or unbalanced. It’s important to me to provide honest opinions, give you food for thought, and keep your creative vision intact. My focus is on the bigger picture rather than trivial issues. My goal is to come to each project with a fresh perspective, offering both support and critique when necessary.
  • Just do all the writing. Unless you want to legitimately hire me as a ghost writer, I won’t write an entire piece with someone else’s name slapped on it. It’s against my code of ethics.

What are my rates?

That depends. Because I’m still establishing a professional portfolio, my typical rate is competitive at $2 per page. By the hour, my rates are negotiable. Here is a flexible list of editorial rates from the Editorial Freelancers Association. Note:

These should be used only as a rough guideline; rates vary considerably depending on the nature of the work, the time frame of the assignment, the degree of special expertise required, and other factors. The industry standard for a manuscript page, however, is a firm 250 words.

In many ways, I’m still learning my craft along with you. If it’s a short project, I’ll be glad to help you for a testimonial. If the piece you need edited is longer than ~20 pages — a manuscript, dissertation, etc. — my tendency is to forgo a strict negotiation of payment until after I’ve finished my work, for several reasons. Because it’s a long draft, it will be hard telling how long it will take me to finish a thorough overhaul. Manuscripts especially need at least two read-throughs if I’m doing a complete revision of the story (including structure and characterization) and line edits. I want to be sure you’re absolutely satisfied with my constructive criticism of the project, so it’s better to have a fluid idea of payment, leaving it to your discretion once you’ve seen my work.

For my resume and work samples or more information, go to my Editing Services and Qualifications pages above, or contact me at marissabyfield@gmail.com.

Remember: When you have the tools to write well, your writing reads well, and that makes a big difference.

*Note: This post refers to interested clients only. If we’re beta readers or critique partners, obviously no charge is involved!

Beginning revisions part II

Okay. Here’s where it gets real.

Without a doubt, I’m more nervous about this than I was to kick out the beta draft to readers. Like, butterflies-in-stomach nervous. Perhaps because at this point, in some ways, I trust my readers’ judgment more than my own. They helped spot the fixes. It is the exceptionally rare critique, however, that not only tells you what needs fixing but also how to fix it. So it’s back in my hands now, but sometimes I’m going to get stuck.

That’s where some practical maneuvering comes in. Visual methods keep me grounded, and I’ve found the Post-It trick to be advantageous in this aspect. Because let’s be honest, mapping revisions onto friendly, brightly colored squares of paper makes the whole process a bit more appealing, too.

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The revisions are ordered chronologically and color-coded: Blue = plot; pink = character; green = dialogue; yellow = setting; white = technicalities (grammar, sentence structure, tone, theme, and so on).

I’ve only just begun with beta reader comments, but eventually I’ll add my own revisions, and one of our walls will be entirely papered in Post-Its.

A few links I found helpful in organizing revisions:

Beginning the awesome journey of revision

Deductive editing: Revising like a master detective

Things to keep in mind before beginning revisions

The manuscript from scratch: Beginning revisions

I’m about to do something most writers hate, but all writers must do. I am about to willingly sacrifice my own brain to torture. Because in order to create, we must destroy.

Revision is a long road to hell and back. Writers hate it because to engage in our own work critically, we are subjecting ourselves to a kind of self-destruction, switching off certain parts of our mind so the others can better function in this process. We must take ourselves out of the picture. Wipe our memories. Insert new ones.

Put simply, we’ve slaved over our writing for months, and now we must become a slave to it for at least the same stretch of time. It’s a mental test of patience, discipline, and stamina.

Where to begin? That varies for everyone, of course. Personally, I’ve made a step-by-step checklist and done a lot of homework, and this is some of my best advice. You’re going to need the right tools, after all.

  • Take reader critiques with a grain of salt. Identify those you agree with, and those that aren’t essential.
  • Pay attention to your gut reactions to each. Highlight overlapping themes like clarity or pacing issues. If it sounds harsh to hear, it’s probably true.
  • Put the cart before the horse. In my method, there are three steps of revision: First for story, second for character, third for technicalities (line edits). Story always comes before prose.
  • Go outside your comfort zone. Read at a cafe, library, etc. to remove yourself from your workplace. Do a complete read-through, making notes with comments in Word or on paper, but not changes (yet).
  • Read it as a reader, not as the writer. Ask, “Who is this written for?” When you’re seeing with the fresh perspective of the audience, it’s as though you’re picking up the story for the first time. You should be critical of the story itself, not of yourself as a writer.
  • Look at the big picture, then the pieces of the manuscript, then how they fit together. Take it slowly.
  • Show no mercy. Detach yourself from sentiment toward characters, scenes, and so on. Look at the facts. Think of it as detective work.
  • What sucks about it? What is confusing, boring, repetitive, cliched, obvious? Pinpoint the most common mistakes, then scrap them.
  • Watch your step. Stumbling blocks include inconsistencies, redundant passages, ineffective transitions, sentence structure issues, pacing lags, and things that are too subtle or not subtle enough. Which narrative choices feel embarrassing or clunky?
  • Make your writing speak. On the second read-through, read it aloud, and listen for rough, verbose, or inauthentic voice.
  • Map out the plot trajectory. After reading from beginning to end, sketch an outline of the rearranged plot to get an idea of what it could look like.
  • In medias res. Consider beginning the story in the middle. Deleting the opening is a common edit, and therefore can be the easiest darling to kill (if there is such a thing). If the manuscript starts too early or goes into too much detail, you’re spoon-feeding information to your readers. Determine what they can figure out at the beginning with the least amount of detail.
  • Live in the moment. Keep exposition clear of the story beginning. Hook the reader with the story itself, not the backstory. Take tips from screenwriters: How does a pilot episode introduce characters and backstories effectively?
  • Handle exposition delicately. If any backstory needs to be told, tell it quickly and move on. Determine the most creative and interesting ways to present facts without boring the reader, allowing them to be absorbed naturally. Facts can be prompted through snippets of dialogue or character thoughts, but there must be a purpose for them.
  • Map scenes. Any backstory longer than a few lines should be written as a scene (dramatized flashback), and “triggered” by a character’s memory or sense, but only if it can’t be avoided. Continue to brainstorm ways you can move it to the chronological timeline and reveal it through a conversation between characters.
  • Keep them on their toes. Ratchet up the tension and pace! Introduce more conflicts and sprinkle them throughout the plot.
  • Don’t tell me how to feel. Look for red flags that tell the reader how to feel instead of showing, or characters that tell how they feel instead of showing.
  • Make your characters unforgettable. Multilayered characters — those with seemingly conflicting motives, or secret desires or pains — are the most interesting to follow. Begin with the outermost layer and “peel back” those underneath at turning points of his/her journey.
  • They’re not a hivemind. Differentiate characters’ dialogue. Don’t let them just sit around; add action between lines. Don’t use dialogue if it can be shown through action instead. Picture actual conversations.
  • Interrogate your characters. Was my protagonist dimensional, complex, and transformed by the end of the story? Is she not a passive and reactive character, but one with motivations and goals that drive the plot? Did the supporting characters have necessary arcs in which they changed, and were these arcs “revealed” to the reader at opportune increments? Do characters act their age, and do they have believable actions and reactions? Are they useful? How?
  • Backtrack. Look for areas of improvement in tone. Where can you foreshadow an event? Where can a theme be made stronger?
  • This is heavy, Doc. Make sure the timeline is absolutely clear. List ways to tie up loose threads more neatly and logically. Mark where natural chapter and scene breaks should occur, and rearrange as needed.
  • Make it pretty and sparkly. Figure out your style and enhance it. Describe setting more dynamically. For vivid descriptive writing, use precise verbs and research unique ones.
  • Make line edits. Save this for the very last revisions. Look critically at each sentence under a microscope. Ask, “could I say this any better?” Vary its structure. Avoid subordinate clauses. Eliminate or reword anything that could be misunderstood.
  • Remember your value. Remember this manuscript is better than you think it is. Within it is a story worth telling. Your work will be worth it — if you make it the best it can be.
  • Don’t give up. You may feel lost, but you must go forward. Let your instinct be your compass. Know that it takes time, but you’ll get there.
  • Changes are not permanent. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Now is the time to experiment.
  • Learn to love it. Or at least, to enjoy it. Take creative liberties, keep an open mind, and explore your world! If you can do that, it doesn’t have to be torture.

Therapy in words

Very dear Mr. Kappus: I have left a letter from you long unanswered, not that I had forgotten it — on the contrary: it was of the sort that one reads again, when one finds them among one’s correspondence, and I recognized you in it as though you had been close at hand.

It was the letter of May 2nd, and you surely remember it. When I read it, as now, in the great quiet of these distances, I am touched by your beautiful concern about life, more even than I had felt in Paris, where everything resounds and dies away differently because of the too great noise that makes things vibrate.

Here, where an immense country lies about me, over which the winds pass coming from the seas, here I feel that no human being anywhere can answer for you those questions and feelings that deep within them have a life of their own…

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

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Today is my birthday, which I spent most of at a local cafe, reading some of my favorite self-improvement books. One of these is “Letters to a Young Poet” by the brilliant Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from German by M.D. Herter Norton. Rilke wrote these letters to encourage his recipient — “a sensitive observer in a harsh world” — and instruct him about the creative process.

As I grow older, I also grow restless to better myself as a writer, to know more and to know myself, to find my niche in publishing. I’m restless for answers. In this excerpt of his letter, it is as though Rilke is imploring his young protégé to be content with not knowing, with remaining curious. He is reassuring him: You’ll get there in time.

I return to the wisdom of this short book every year. I reread it to remind myself of everything I have yet to learn in this craft, but also because it speaks to me so personally. Rilke advocates a “turning inward,” a solitude that is inherent to writing well but can also be a deeply lonely experience. The struggles of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt are familiar to me, and while writing is a kind of isolation, Rilke’s advice reminds me that we who live to create are not alone in this — a beautiful contradiction.

Words like these help me see a sense of purpose to my writing and myself. No matter what you’ve chosen to pursue in life, it’s important to take time to reflect on that choice, to revisit the reasons that compelled you to make it.

And you’re never too young, or too old, to do that.