By LEIGH RAPER
Some of the best advice I’ve gotten lately about revising for publication came from a poet.
This outstanding advice, knowledge, and wisdom was bestowed like gift to me by Vivian Shipley during her lecture at the 3rd Annual Writer’s Weekend at The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT. Shipley, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, holds a PhD from Vanderbilt, has won many poetry prizes and literary awards including the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Prize, the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize from the University of Southern California, and the Marble Faun Poetry Prize from the William Faulkner Society. Her most recent book of poetry is called All of Your Messages Have Been Erased. She is an editor, a scholar, and a giver of insight.
I will try my best to share, with all deference to Ms. Shipley, and Mark Twain himself, a distillation of some of the finer points of the hows and whys of editing and refining your work for publication. Something I will call: Shipley Says: A craft workshop in five stanzas.
1. Title: Does your title work? Does your title make your reader do a little of the work herself? If yes, then just skip this part and go to the next tip. Shipley says, “Use the title to offer insight, but not to wrap it up into a bow.” Making the reader do some of the work about how the title fits the work and why you chose the title in the first place invests the reader in the work and gives the reader the “pleasure of discovery.”
2. So What? Do the opening lines grab the reader? Everyone knows that editors have ginormous (that’s a technical term) slush piles. Submissions pile up, day after day, week after week. Most will make a flash decision to continue on or toss aside with those very opening lines. Shipley says, “When I read the work I say ‘So what?’ You have to make people care and you have to make them care at the very beginning.”
3. The End: The end has to matter and it has to make sense. A reader needs to be surprised or delighted or intrigued. But not confused or confounded. They need to be satisfied but, again, everything shouldn’t be neatly wrapped with a bow. Edit yourself and shut up. Shipley says, “Do surgery on yourself. Which is hard because it’s painful.”
4. Check Out The Insides: How is your point of view working? (Do you know what your point of view is?) Is it consistent? This means keeping on top of the relationships between the characters and the work. Make sure the references are clear when it comes to pronouns. A strong setting can do the heavy lifting of character when done well. Shipley says, “Ground in the literal before getting into the metaphorical or symbolic.”
5. Detail-oriented: Details can be rich hues and subtle background colors. They can be character moments that speak so the writer doesn’t have to explain. They can also be distracting clutter that torpedoes a good narrative. Make the details add up. Make them mean something. Use enough to lift the heavy emotions but not so many that you sink the work. Shipley says, “Are the details interesting to anyone but you?”
So, go forth, and edit. Then edit some more. Then submit. Then do it all again. I’ll throw in an extra tidbit at no extra cost. When pondering why we submit to the slings and arrows of the publication process fraught as it is with rejection and heartbreak, Shipley put it simply. An editor provides external validation to our work and help and guidance on how to make that work and future work better. Shipley says, “If you don’t have Sherpas you can’t go up the mountain.”
Leigh Raper has a degree in English Literature from the University of Miami and a JD from Pepperdine University School of Law. She writes fiction and sometimes posts on her blog about the intersections of pop culture with labor and employment law at leighraper.com. She is slightly obsessed with television, rocks out to classic ’80s hair metal and plays fetch with a wicked smart Labrador Retriever. She lives in the hamlet of Palisades, NY, on a rural postal route 12 miles north of New York City.