Sunday, May 18, 2008

An Editor's Writing Life

© Hugh McCracken 2008 all rights reserved

Hugh McCracken was born in Glasgow, Scotland and had his early education somewhat interrupted by evacuation during World War II. After taking a degree in Chemistry and Mathematics at St Andrews University he worked for some time as a Chemical Engineer before becoming a teacher.

He, his wife Lyn, and son David, relocated to Canada in 1967 where his second son, Iain, was born. While teaching in Canada, Hugh completed a Bachelor's degree in Education and a Master's degree in Educational Psychology at the University of Manitoba. Hugh now lives in Ottawa to be close to both sons, daughter-in-law Allison, and three grandchildren. For the past ten years Hugh has been a freelance writer and editor, although he started writing much earlier.

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When did the writing bug first afflict me? For it is an affliction, an addiction.

I remember as a small boy playing make-believe games with my chums, I was the one who came up with the scenarios and became furious when the other ‘actors’ unwittingly deviated from the script I had in my head.

That stage of make-believe play ended when we, as twelve-year-olds, moved to secondary school, but not before it had resulted in confrontations when I in anger at my beautiful plot – known only to myself – being ruined by some stupid player, I’d shout: “You can’t do that! “You’re not the boss,” would be shouted back, “I can do what I bloody well please.”

And the fight was on.

The foreshadowing of being edited and editing?

Ever since I learned to read I consumed very book I could lay hands on and at secondary school discovered that putting my scenarios on paper, as my authors did, was a much less hazardous procedure than trying to have my chum act them out in play. However, the plots became so complex and convoluted that I invariably ended up tearing the sheets up in disgust.

Essay writing – a hated chore to my classmates – was an opportunity to put my thoughts on paper for someone else to read.

My mother wasn’t so pleased at the ocean of red ink in my ‘good essay jotter’. “How a boy who spends most of his life with his nose buried in a book can’t spell, I’ll never understand,” she’d complain.

She wasn’t at all mollified by the end comments: ‘A good story’ or ‘Interesting ideas’. It was the final: ‘Rewrite in more easily decipherable hieroglyphics, AND USE A DICTIONARY’, that always caught her eye.

It was a patient English teacher, Mr Henderson, whose classes were undisciplined nightmares, who taught me to set an essay aside for some time before coming back to it, to edit and proof. He also taught me an invaluable lesson in gauging what an editor wants in an article which stood me in good stead as a freelance writer for periodicals. The topic set was: ‘A Pleasant Saturday Evening’ with the emphasis on writing the piece to make the reader feel the pleasure.

I wrote about wandering the rainy streets of Glasgow alone, having fallen out with my chums, again, and finally seeking shelter in a church hall where there was a political meeting in session. I described the meeting and its participants ending with: ‘I’ve spent a better night with the toothache.’

Mr Henderson made some very flattering comments about the style, the descriptions of those present, and the setting, then gave me an ‘F’ ‘Read the topic.’

My opinion of political meetings has not changed over the years.

When I left school I surprised most of my teachers by studying Chemistry and Mathematics – a Science Degree – rather than enrolling in an Arts Program, perhaps English Literature. This was a purely pragmatic decision. At that time Chemistry and Mathematics graduates were in high demand, while many Arts graduates found considerable difficulty in finding any work related to their studies. No one could stop me writing and I didn’t need an Arts degree to justify it.

However, pressure of work and daily living slowed me down although I did continue to scribble in any free moment, but anything for publishing had to be of a technical nature.

It wasn’t until I was close to retiring in 1992 that I started to consider trying to have some of my short stories, written over the years, published. After all, some of my superiors in various fields had obviously considered many of my reports fictional and I was already freelancing for periodicals on a variety of non-fiction subjects.

One short story I was working on ‘took legs of its own’ and RULES OF THE HUNT, my second novel for the Young Adult market was born.

Another writer once told me: the difference between a short story and a novel is, a short story is about a character being, while a novel is about a character becoming. This distinction hadn’t really registered with me when writing short stories, but in RULES OF THE HUNT a minor character, Peter, took over, and became the dominant person in the book. This became so obvious that the whole book had to be rewritten from third person singular with Peter being an observer, to first person from Peter’s point of view and stemmed two sequels, RETURN FROM THE HUNT and MASTERS OF THE HUNT.

Having worked with one of chemists from the Glasgow Police Laboratories – a very early forerunner of Crime Scene Investigators – I was always intrigued by police procedures and by a stroke of luck I was able to follow this interest through friendship with several Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers. This led me to a very different track from my Young Adult books and my first police procedural, THE KNOTTED CORD was written. This thoroughly nasty investigation of murders and boys for rent was published under my pseudonym, Alistair Kinnon, and was followed by THE TANGLED SKEIN in which the detective from THE KNOTTED CORD follows the trail to still more murders and organised trafficking of boys.

Do you plot your books? Do you know where you are going from the start? These questions come up at writers’ groups and speaking engagements. No, I set my characters in a situation and they take it from there. Their reactions to the circumstances and to each other determine what happens and every writing session is an adventure. Researching, rewriting, editing, and proofing which take me much longer than the original writing are necessary chores.

When pressed, I certainly don’t recommend budding authors to follow my lead on this. I have several friends who meticulously map out every step, a skeleton, if you will, and then flesh it out. It works for them, it just doesn’t suit me. Every writer must find his or her own way.

I have been editing for BEWRITE BOOKS since we started publishing Print On Demand novels.

The process is both interesting and challenging. For many of our authors it is their first exposure to a critical, professional edit. It is fascinating to help them navigate through the shoals of the editing process and finally reach the author/editor final approved version. Some, alas, founder when their egos will not accept a change, or changes, the editor considers necessary for publication.

The wail: “But it’s my story. I’m the author and I’ll not have any changes made,” is unfortunately finally met with: “Fine, find yourself another publisher.”

This is why I advise authors who have received a rejection not to stuff the MS into a drawer and forget it, but to get it straight out again to another publisher, and another editor. What one editor doesn’t like may be exactly what another is looking for. Also the first editor may simply have been having a bad day – a hangover perhaps? – we are human.

However, if every submission founders on the same shoal of refusing to accept the editor’s recommendations then I’m afraid it is the author’s ego that is the problem. Perhaps he or she might be best to consider self-publishing where, for a price, the author has total control over the final MS.

As a writer of nine books I know full well that an author is not the best person to edit his or her manuscript being too involved in both the story and the characters to see the pitfalls an editor sees, sometimes only on the second or third reading.

Do I continue to write? Yes. As, I said, it is an addiction.

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To read excerpts and purchase copies of Hugh's books, please visit BeWrite Books Store Front. His books are also available in most online and traditional bookstores.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hugh - wonderful article. Thanks so much. We have a lot in common. I've never told anyone this, but when I was a boy, I did a similar thing with playacting. We called it being "Other people" (OP for short) and it was the start of the fiction addiction. And I, too, hated it when others screwed up my planned plots!

I also took the pragmatic approach to college and career early on. I researched the hell out of grad placement levels after failing to "make it on my own" and put myself through art school. Engineers were hot in the early 80s. Five years later, I had ten great job offers and ended up moving to the beautiful country in upstate NY.

But the persistant itch to write never abated. I tried hard to get my kicks out of writing really elegant meeting notes or tech reports. Somehow it just didn't satisfy...

I write as you do - no careful plotting up front. Just plunk the characters into a scene and let them take the reins!

Thanks so much for an insightful and delightful post.

Aaron Lazar

Marta Stephens said...

Hugh, thanks so much for your post!

For those who don't know, I met Hugh when he was assigned as my editor at BeWrite to work on Silenced Cry. Never having been published before and never having experienced an editorial process, I didn't know what to expect. Actually, I lie ... I was expecting the same treatment I received from my critique group and to work months and months on Silenced Cry. I also expected I'd shed a few tears and yank my hair a few times. Instead it took only weeks and was always treated with the utmost respect.

I saw an interesting side of Hugh while working on the next book in the series, The Black Pearl. Everything was fine until we got to a particular chapter having to do with a missing e-mail. You know how it goes. You write a section, read it a million and one times (because you know your meaning) and think, "Yup, makes sense to me." But Hugh saw what no one else had -- a major inconsistency and darn if he wouldn't let it go. ;)Finally, after 3-4 major edits to correct the problem, a light flickered on and I finally "got" what he had been trying to point out. Needless to say, it works and makes for a much stronger story now.

Kim Smith said...

Hugh, very happy to see you here with us at MB4. I find the job of an editor daunting- and I only have to edit my own work! Editing for others? My soul. Glad to meet you!!

Marta Stephens said...

Blogger does strange things when some try to post. So...due to technical problems, the author of this post asked me to assist. So here it is! :)

An excellent piece, Marta.

Hugh is an exciting and imaginative author, a brilliant, insightful, elegant, surgically accurate, creative, patient and guiding editor ... and a true gentleman of the publishing world. His authors don't know how lucky they are.

We met by accident years ago when we -- Hugh as an author and me as an author in my own right and editor of Hugh's first novel for a publisher who I think should remain nameless -- rebelled and decided to take what was then the Community into paperback publishing.

Since then, he's expertly and sensitively edited dozens of books and steered scores of writers on the right road, and I've been privileged to edit all Hugh's work. He knows the game inside out from the POV of both author and editor and there's never an awkward moment -- none of the ego we sadly so often face with inexperienced authors. A mere hint to Hugh can produce a new chapter, a fresh ending, a story twist or character development. Even a new book. That's the sure sign of a thorough pro.

At BB, Hugh and I have the luxury to pick and choose what work suits each of us best and we very often pull each other in for second opinion and/or specialist input on books.

As a partner, Hugh is a dream come true ... BeWrite Books authors already know that. New BB authors would do well to understand the generous and creative partnership Hugh offers from the word 'go'.

Although Hugh has met Cait and Alex, some of our authors and even my UK family, the pair of us have never actually met face-to-face (that may be fixed later this year). But in the -- literally -- thousands of emails we've swapped over the years, I've come to admire a friend of courage, wit, wisdom and warmth like few others I have known in my life.

Thanks for introducing him to readers of your site, Marta.

Best wishes. Neil

P: He's also a Scot. N

s.w. vaughn said...

Thanks for posting, Hugh - it's great to "meet" you. That distinction between short stories and novels is excellent!