An editor’s perspective on writing

I went to a brown bag lunch the other day, and it was led by Colin Harrison, the Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Scribner. Before joining Scribner, he was the deputy editor for Harper’s Magazine. He’s an accomplished novelist but edits mostly nonfiction because he enjoys the challenge, the journey that he takes with the sometimes nervous and overburdened writer.

These sessions allow young editors the opportunity to interact with someone who, before, had only been known by name. Example: an auction comes up and I can tell how serious the competition is by the way the editor says the other editor’s name. Who’s bidding on this, too? Oh, it’s so and so. Gravitas: I might lose this auction. Lightly: Oh, I’m totally winning.

Harrison is a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a well-kept winter beard, and he talks with his hands. I expected the typical spiel about the business of books, but he actually provided an intimate account of writing and editing. I felt that some of his points might help me and you (whoever “you” might be) become better writers.

“What does it mean to be a writer?” he asked us. We all worked in different departments: editorial, marketing, finance, and legal. First thing that popped into my head is that writers need to be a bit bonkers. They need a small dose of insanity to conjure wild stories. Harrison definitely agreed, saying that a writer either wears this stereotype like a badge of honor or profusely denies it.

But, “writers are [also] criminals,” he remarked. While others aren’t noticing, while they are too busy obsessing over the superficiality of the world—the Kardashians, for example—writers take what they see as authentic and appropriate it to their own use. Without others knowing, these writers commit a slight theft, storing knowledge for later use.

I’m riding the subway and I see a mother and her sleepy child wearing a puffy pink-and-violet winter coat. The girl’s braids are coming loose, and her face is pressed against her mother’s left side. We arrive at a stop, and the mother shakes her child awake, but the little girl refuses to budge. The mother hoists her by the armpits, and drags her off the car. The girl is like a rag doll, the tips of her light-up sneakers skimming the floor.

See, this is something I would use in a story.

Harrison also discussed the challenges that writers encounter: the form, the story, and the process.

The Form. This should be the easiest thing to figure out, right? Wrong. Sometimes you’ll need the reader to point out that one form would benefit the story more than another. There have been plenty of times when I critiqued a writer’s work at my writing group and saw that the story could have functioned as a poem, rather than a short story.

The Story. Ugh, the struggle. I often ask myself why I’m telling this person’s story? What is the narrative that will grab the readers’ heart, hold them hostage until they become willing visitors to another world?

The Process. Every writer has a particular way of functioning. Harrison mentioned someone he knows who writes in the morning. And every morning, his wife would pour water on his head to wake him up. Funnily enough, this practical joke has become a step that the writer takes to jump-start his writing process. I haven’t developed a process that benefits me fully, but I will.

Oftentimes, writers mistake one problem for another. Example: I can’t figure out how to write this story in first person. Someone else asks: Why? Writer: Because the coffee shop where I write gets noisy and I can’t concentrate when that happens. What they think is a form problem actually turns out to be a process problem.

Finally, Harrison also talked about the definition of a book. He dismissed the normal definition that we all use, and of course, tweaked it with a novelist’s flair. According to him, a book is a machine of language. The beginning brings readers to the middle, which leads to the end; every part of a novel benefits the next. So, in this sense, editors are the mechanics. A book comprises a narrative, an argument, or a list. If you have trouble placing your book into any of these categories, then you might not have a book.

Well, it’s obvious by now that I love talking about writing! Perhaps too much. But I hope Harrison’s tips resonate with you as much as they resonate with me. Comment below to let me know your thoughts!

Other posts on writing: 

What I learned after working at literary agency 

In search of a writing community

What I learned from reading and writing fanfiction

Letters to myself

A week before graduation (wow, six months ago?), a creative writing professor asked us to write letters to send to ourselves. I’d gotten mine in September, and it’s taped to the wall, right above my writing desk. Whenever I hit a writer’s block, I look up from my computer screen and stare at this letter.

This letter reminds me of promises that I had made. Most of the time, however, this letter funnily reminds me that inside this petite Asian body is a character I imagine to be similar to Clint Eastwood …

Dear Loan,

You’re probably still procrastinating and wondering if your novel is “worth it,” if your writing in general is “worth it.” You always doubt yourself, you always go back and forth with your ideas, and you always say, “I’ll write it soon.” I want to tell you to stop that bullshit.

Sit the fuck down and write.

And when you can’t, go outside, wherever you are, and observe the things going on around you. Create a story for the people who walk with their heads down, for the people who look angry or upset. Look for the houses that look abandoned, the cracks on the road … let yourself be inspired by the broken.

Then go back and

1. Work on your novel.

2. Say ‘hi’ to your family.

3. Work on your short stories.

Love,

Loan

Sit the fuck down and write. Maybe I should copyright that phrase. Does anyone want to buy a poster? No, no one?

Whatever. I think you might like this, too–here’s something I wrote in 2009, back when I was just getting serious with my writing (completely unedited, unfortunately). I read it the other night, and I was surprised by how fervent I sounded as a high school junior.

(By the way, does anyone use Facebook’s Notes section anymore? That’s where I had posted this letter. To save myself from embarrassment, I have since deleted all of my notes.)

My Purpose

I find myself contemplating about my purpose in life. I suppose this can relate to everyone has been lost before. It’s a narcissistic quality that is innate in all humans–the feeling that you were made to do something. Feeling, deep down, that some divine power had placed you on earth for a singular purpose. Believing that you were genetically designed to do one thing that could affect the process of our metaphysical world. Unfortunately, it just takes an insane amount of time to find a niche.

These thoughts of mine had resulted from a digression in self-esteem. It has been going for the past few days, I admit. Grades, friends, family…I took a hit one day, staggered, got hit with another, and finally, I fell. After this, the world ceased to make sense to me.

I don’t want to make a difference. That’s right. I don’t. Personally, I’m simply not capable of changing the way the world runs. Some people dream of creating inspiring and brilliant theories in science and math and stuff like that. Me? I’m not gong to invest my time to try and reach something that’s best to be left high in the sky. But I do want to be noticed. Do you have to bring a change if you want to be recognized? What reasons make people look at you with respect and awe?

I want to be a writer, plain and simple. But I can’t find the main driving force behind my desire. Perhaps I never will. Do I have to have one reason?

Do I want to write in order to be recognized? That’s one question.

Yes, I suppose I do.

Do I want to write because it makes me feel great?

Hell yes. Solved.

Writing is…indescribable. I love the smell of graphite that reaches my nose whenever my pencil caresses paper. I love hearing the words that I write echo in my head, in the way I intend them to be said, heard, and felt. I love the perplexity that I feel when I can’t find this one word…and I love trying to sift through the files of my mind to find it.

And when I do, the word fits snugly into the puzzle that is my sentence. Suddenly, it all makes sense. I love the fact that nothing is finished until a period is meticulously dotted. That a stretching sea of beautiful bountiful blue will forever go on until I write “and then it was drained of all water”. I love the pictures that are painted by my words and pencil (No paint, no mess). That when I used the world “pencil”, I only saw me and my red Coca Cola pencil against my piece of paper. I love the feeling of my pencil in my hand, because it’s like my hand has molded itself to let my pencil, my creative extension, fit. There’s a mark made by my pencil on the third finger, and it’ll remind me of my writing which will forever be etched in my soul.

No one has told me my purpose. At certain times, I feel like I have none. Like someone had just put me on earth for entertainment, to watch and laugh at whenever they feel sadistic.

Other times, like the moment that had occurred two minutes ago while I was writing this, I know what I need to do. And I will let no one tell me what I can and should do. It’s me who has to find a purpose. And my purpose is to write. Therefore, I am a writer.

 I guess I don’t want to let my 16-year-old-self down. Better keep writing.

Photographed by Alyssa Coffin in 2008?

Photographed by Alyssa Coffin in 2008?