Never Go Back

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgA couple of years ago, I had a completed first draft of a first novel. Hurrah! I also had a month-long residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Double hurrah! That’s the perfect storm for revising a long manuscript. A private studio, no meals to cook, no interruptions. Sounds like bliss, right?

And it was. Before I left home, I printed out a copy of my then-monster draft. For  years, as a short story writer in a monthly critique group, I’d printed out copies of my own 20-page submission, plus the 3 other 20-page submissions from my critique partners. That meant 80 pages of paper a month. It didn’t seem like a lot, but watching my printer chug along to spew out 350 pages…Well, that was an awful lot of paper.

I began to fret. Was my draft too long?

I began to comfort myself. If it was too long, my page-by-page review would reveal that. It is standard, tried-and-true writing advice: You can catch things on paper that you can’t catch on a screen.

I began to feel uncomfortable. I worked onscreen all the time. I sometimes call Track Changes my second husband. I felt confident catching errors onscreen for my clients, so saying that was not good enough seemed contradictory.

I began to reassure myself. After all, I’m not a copy editor; I’m a developmental editor. It’s not in my task list to point out punctuation boo-boos.  Also, I’m a terrible typist. Typing errors are my superpower, so I fully intended to run the MS through a proofreader before submitting.

I made myself okay about the stack of papers, though punching holes in them before putting in a binder was tedious. But when  you have a month-long residency ahead of you, it’s easy to put aside your inner Catholic guilt child and pack up your big stack of paper.

VCCA green chair

Green chair in the VCCA cottage

At VCCA, I sat in a comfy chair, or on the sofa, or at the desk, and spent a week meticulously reviewing each page of my writing. The binder was a bad idea. After about an hour, I ditched the binder and went to buy a clipboard. Because, when you go off to a month-long residency, you always forget something important. I was relieved that, this time, it was only a binder.

Paper, clipboard, red pen, Post-it flags. This was old school, and comfortable, and I really did love looking at the draft on paper. It *was* nice to be away from the screen, and though I was not at the proofing stage, I did catch errors and typos I’d sailed right over.

Had I stopped at the end of the week, I’d be a 100% printed pages writer. But reading on paper is Step 1. Step 2 is transferring the red marks, cross outs, notes to insert details, flags to check for repetition, reminders to research, etc., etc., etc., to the digital manuscript.

There is an old saw that women forget the pain of childbirth because, if they remembered each contraction and what if feels like when you push a big baby head through a small mommy opening, they’d never do it again. I had twins, so I had to do the big head/small opening thing twice in 10 minutes. One moment from my life that I can recall with crystalline clarity is sitting at the edge of my hospital bed, rocking back and forth, and telling myself, “Don’t forget this. Don’t do this again.”

I had a similar moment transferring my on-paper revision marks to the manuscript on my laptop, minus the rocking back and forth. Okay, maybe with a little rocking back and forth.

VCCA paper manuscript

The manuscript from my never-go-back choice.

My handwriting got sloppy.  I’d drawn arrows and written on the back, so I had to shuffle. It was a PITA to go from the circle for a missing period to putting the period on the screen. The process was tedious. It was slow. So slow. So very, very slooooow. And I could not stop the voice in my head saying, “If you’d done this on your laptop in the first place, you wouldn’t be shuffling these blankety-blank-blank pages around for 14 days.”

I even got a paper cut.

Every writer has his/her process, and most of the time that process goes through trial and error—or trial by fire—or a trial of character.  After I’d completed the on-paper review, I was fired up. I knew how to revise this monster. But day after day of shuffling papers, I wanted to cry. Or scream. Cry and scream and tear my hair out.

And the voice wouldn’t stop. “If you’d done this on your laptop in the first place….”

It may be true that you catch more errors on paper. I certainly enjoyed the sitting and reading through, even after I ditched the binder, but the pain of revising by reading notes and going into the manuscript to make the change, took much longer and was far more tedious.

Writers make choices every day. Mine was to listen when the voice changed from “If you’d  done this…” to “Don’t do this again.” I had to accept that what worked for everyone else might not be the best advice for me. I had to balance the joy with the tedium, and this time, the tedium far outweighed the joy.

I never had more children, either. Just saying.

Now I work onscreen, for creating and revising. I print for readings, and that is all. I have my own tricks on catching errors–reading aloud, changing the background color, investing in computer glasses–to make it work the best it can.

That was my never-go-back choice. Do you have a never-go-back writing choice? Do you revise on paper? Is Track Changes more painful than childbirth contractions? Or do you love the efficiency?

Let’s talk about it.

How About a Book Rave?

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgYears ago, when my venture into professional editing was just that—a new adventure—I was fortunate to be supported, and promoted, by author friends. Today, I am paying forward with an interview with fellow Pennwriter and Sisters in Crime member, Tamara Girardi. Continue reading

What the Audience Knows

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIt is always a delight when a story finds a forever home, to borrow a phrase from the pet adoption world. “Voices” appears in the Summer 2017 issue of Philadelphia Stories, and I could not be more pleased to have my work in that fine publication. Continue reading

A Soldier from the Bayou

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgWhen I was in the 5th Grade, I won my first writing competition—a school contest on patriotic poems. The competition was sponsored by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. I blogged about that experience  here. If you read the opening of my prize-winning poem, you’ll understand why I am not a poet, but also why that contest was a seed for my young creative self.

Since then, I’ve been to VFW halls for weddings and anniversary celebrations, or Friday fish fries in Lent and Saturday pancake breakfast for the Boy Scouts, but apart from the fond memory of the poetry night, I never thought much about the local VFW hall. Until this weekend.

The last few months, I’ve been working on my mother’s autobiography. I encouraged her for years to record the stories of her childhood and family, her years as a new wife while my dad was in the Army, her good and bad times as a nursing student at the now-closed Charity Hospital in New Orleans, her upbringing in a big French-Catholic family in south Louisiana. My mother is in her 80s now, but she faithfully recorded her memories in her still-beautiful handwriting. I’ve been transcribing and fact-checking dates and names. If still wrote poetry, I might write this:

How do you spell Rudolph?

Let me count the ways!

Rudolph, Rudolphe,  Rudof, Rudolf.

Genealogists, I feel your pain.

I asked my mother a question about a funeral, which led her to make an offhand comment about the funeral of Freddie John Falgout, the first soldier to die in World War II. The name was familiar but it took a while to place. I finally remember that the place where I received my patriotic poem award was the Freddie John Falgout VFW Post. But it was news to me that the first military death in WWII was a boy from the bayou.

What surprised me more was that Freddie John Falgout died in 1937, aboard a US Navy vessel docked in a harbor in Shanghai.

While my mother was speaking, my editor brain was in full swing. The US was not at war in1937. The US was never at war with China during WWII—the two countries were allies. How could the first US military casualty of WWII happen before Pearl Harbor, on board a ship docked at Shanghai? Was my mother confused?

We hung up, I Googled, and learned a good lesson. Beware of questioning your mother, because she was usually right.

Freddie John Falgout was a native of Raceland, Louisiana, one town over from where I lived in Lafourche Parish. I don’t know why he joined the Navy, but many young men did in the 1930s because, as my mother put it, the military guaranteed a bed and three meals every day, and many families could not provide those things in the mid-1930s.

Freddie John FalgoutIn August of 1937, Freddie was a Seaman First Class aboard the Cruiser USS Augusta, which was docked in Shanghai. The Augusta’s mission was to aid in evacuating westerners from the city.  This was the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan, which lasted from 1937 until 1945. The Battle of Shanghai went on for months and resulted with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. This conflict is one of several military aggressions that led to second world war, and why Freddie John Falgout—though years before Pearl Harbor—was the first American soldier to die in World War II.

On August 20, 1937, Freddie was one day shy of his 21st birthday and was engaged to be married. That evening, the ship’s commander called for a movie night on deck. Though the Augusta was surrounded by Japanese ships in the harbor, it was considered safe. The US, after all, was not involved in the fight for Shanghai. The Augusta was there on an evacuation mission.

As sailors was setting up chairs for the movie, an anti-aircraft shell landed on deck. Shrapnel exploded from it, killing Freddie and wounding 18 other American soldiers. It was not known at the time if the missile came from the Japanese or Chinese, so there was no return fire. Later, it was confirmed that it was a Japanese “pom-pom” shell that had missed its target—a Chinese plane—and landed on the Augusta.

The next day, the crew of the Augusta marked off the spot where Freddie had died. At the same time, radio and wire services were spreading the news of the death of an American seaman in Shanghai. By August 21, 1937, Freddie John Falgout’s 21st birthday, his death was the front page story of the New York Times and another newspapers across the nation.

It took six weeks for Freddie’s remains to arrive in San Francisco. His body, accompanied by an uncle, then began a journey by train to his home town in Louisiana. He was buried with full military honors on October 3. Though only 500-600 people lived in Raceland, the funeral was massive—an estimated 10,000 people in attendance.

My mother recalled stories of people walking all day to get from their homes to the church for Freddie’s funeral. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called Freddie’s death “an unfortunate accident.”

It would be another fifty years–in 1957–before Louisiana Senator J. Bennett Johnston sponsored a Congressional proclamation to have Freddie’s death named the first American military death of World War II.. You can read it, and an article detailing the events of August 20, 1937, as well as Freddie’s family and life, from the Congressional Record – Senate, October 15, 1987, page 128

I am posting this on the 4th of July for two reasons. One, Freddie John Falgout was a soldier who died for our freedom. Second, our country’s history began on this date many years ago. Writing about our history is the way to keep it alive.

I learned this story through a chance comment from my mother. How many stories will be lost if we don’t ask? Look around. What happened in your town, in your family, to your neighbors, that you have never wondered or asked or written about?

Wonder Ask. Write. Do it now.

 

Now You See Me

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgA while ago, I had a funny experience in a drug store. Not ha-ha funny, but odd funny. On the one hand, it was a small incident of little significance, but I couldn’t shake it. Naturally, I wrote about it–a brief vignette of a moment that bugged me.

Sometimes, it is difficult to know if a piece works or falls flat. I was unsure about this one, so I read it at the Newark Arts Alliance‘s monthly Open Mic. After years (okay, decades) of public readings, I know how to judge an audience’s level of interest. This piece captured their attention. The giveaway was the laughter and applause when I gave the punch line.

Laughter and applause. Always a sign that a piece makes it point.

What goes over well in a reading does not necessarily hit home on paper, but I rewrote the piece and sent it out during my 40 days of submissions. It received an almost immediate acceptance from an online magazine for women, but when it came time to work through edits, the editor and I disagreed on the punch line. When we couldn’t come to an agreement, I pulled the piece with her blessing. It wasn’t hostile. We just didn’t see eye to eye. It happens.

I sent it out again, had another quick acceptance, and this time the editor and I agreed just fine.

Perseverance. That’s today’s lesson. Sometimes you have to move on to find the right spot for your writing. I could have wasted a lot of time trying to wrangle that piece into the shape the editor wanted, but I didn’t. As you can see from “I’m Sick of Being Invisible,” at betterafter50.com, I value my time. Check it out and make a comment?

 

Swimming with the Guppies

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIn every career, there is a project or a contact or a conference that is a game changer. For me, a professional boost came in 2010, with the offer to edit the first Guppy anthology.

Guppies are writers who belong to Sisters in Crime’s Great Unpublished Chapter. Authors new to the crime writing genre can join the “Guppy” chapter and find camaraderie, advice, experience, and support. The Guppies are Sisters in Crime’s largest and most active group. If an unpublished author has a work published, they are not expelled from the chapter. Once a Guppy, always a Guppy.

Fish TalesIn 2010, I was approached to edit the 22 stories that became Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology. The stories were self-selected by the chapter, and for many of the authors, Fish Tales was their first publishing credit. The purpose of the anthology was to promote the authors and the chapter, but also to allow new authors to go through the publication process of writing a story, earning an acceptance, working with an editor, revising, writing a bio, waiting breathlessly during manuscript submission to Wildside Press, and finally experiencing the joy of that first printed byline. It was an exciting time for those authors. That experience remains one of my favorites in my career. It was such an honor to be part of Fish Tales.

It also had a lasting impact on my editing business. Guppy anthology #4 – Fish Out of Water – was released this spring. I have now edited 88 short stories via Guppy anthologies: Fish Tales, Fish Nets, Fish or Cut Bait, and Fish Out of Water. I have watched so many of those new authors go from first publication, to contract offers, to becoming well published and award-winning writers.

I am not alone in being grateful to the Guppy chapter for career advancement, and for the experience of working with some many wonderfully talented and driven authors. Many of my editing clients came via the Guppy anthologies or the online classes I teach through the chapter. Fish Out of WaterIt’s impossible to put a price on the value of those contacts and, more importantly, the writing friends I have gained through working with the Guppy chapter.

Last week, E. B. Davis at the Writers Who Kill blog interviewed the 22 authors and 1 editor who contributed to the latest Guppy anthology. The questions go from crazy aunts and comic surprises, writing as an addiction, deer camps and dairy farms, to what happens when an author passes away during the anthology process. Take a look at some inside scoop from Fish Out of Water.

Forever Uncle Edward

purple heartI grew up hearing war stories, about the home front and about those who served. The stories ran a full range: My outdoors-loving father hated his time at Fort Hood during the Korean Conflict because, in true nonsensical fashion, he was assigned to work in the mess hall. My Uncle Joe, who had great talent in the kitchen, had a wonderful time all during World War II as an officers’ cook, and never left California. My Uncle William, who served and saw combat in the Pacific Theater, did not have a wonderful time. Continue reading