An editor for this self-editor

18Apr08

When I read the description for Beena Kamlani’s Friday morning session titled “Writer as Editor,” I almost thought, “Wow, I could lead that session.” I’m now glad that my hubris didn’t lead me to effect a coup d’etat for the podium in the Bytwerk Theatre because Kamlani, with 20 years of editorial experience at Viking Penguin, was much more suited than me to share her wisdom with Festival participants.

I identified with the title of the session because more often than not, I self-edit my work. And though I’ve been writing semi-professionally and now professionally for several years now, I’ve never really had a good mentor-editor to work with me and develop my style, my tone, my pacing. Granted, my writing typically falls into the category of journalism or marketing and Kamlani mainly talked about fiction, but
some the things she said still apply to my work.

Here are a few things I’ll take away from this session – some good words from an editor:

1) A good story must balance the uncommon with the ordinary in life to make it both interesting and credible. Actually, Thomas Hardy said this, but I appreciate that Kamlani brought it to my attention because when I look for interesting stories to write for my job, it’s hard to get excited about those stories that are reported on year after year after year. My instinct here is partly right in that I’m hesitant to write about things that are all too ordinary to be interesting for people to read. And yet it is my job as a writer to yes, tell that story again, but to find the angle that makes it just a little uncommon, or different. In a sense, it’s my job to find fresh ways to tell the stories that are told year after year.

2) Characters in a story need to be painted with “pulsating brush strokes,” not tiny strokes that stultify the characters and make them uninteresting. This point is connected to the last point. When I tell the story of a student researcher or a student leader, I need to resist the temptation to describe them in such a way as to give them a certain identity or put them into a certain box. If I do this, the action in the story will stop because the main character can’t climb out of the box. Stories told about students should be stories of growth and transformation.

3) Finally, be careful with irony. “Irony tends to create distance,” Kamlani said. At the same time, be careful with earnestness in a story. And if you’re going to include both irony and earnestness in a story, be very careful with how you handle transitions from one tone to another. Now I don’t get many opportunities to lace my story-telling with irony because I work to some extent with marketing material, but still, it’s tempting to allow it to creep in here and there. I’m not entirely sure what to do with Kamlani said, other than to be very careful with how I use irony in my writing.

Thanks Beena Kamlani for these thoughts – for being, in a sense, my editor.

~posted by Allison Graff

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2 Responses to “An editor for this self-editor”

  1. 1 ashleighdraft

    I saw B. Kamlani at a session this morning, too — and was equally impressed. Thanks for posting this summary; I had wanted to attend this session but opted for Phyllis Tickle instead.

  2. 2 Julana

    I got to see her session with Paul Mariani and really enjoyed it. I hope to get my notes from it up before long. Thanks for sharing yours. She was a wonderful person to listen to and learn from.


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