Roz Morris goes by the online moniker @dirtywhitecandy, which all by itself is reason enough to interview her.
But on top of that she’s also a ghostwriter with eleven novels under her belt, eight of them best sellers, a critiquer for a London manuscript-critiquing agency, owner of the fiction-writing blog Nail Your Novel and author of her own self-published book of original, hands-on fiction-writing techniques, Nail Your Novel.
Plus she’s one heck of a hilarious human being.
So I went over to her blog and dragged her back here for an interview, and wouldn’t you know it, it stopped being interview almost immediately and became instead a wonderful, rollicking after-dinner ramble about our craft, this extraordinary work of editing fiction—all over not just email and my blog but also Twitter, where she challenged me to a brief wrestling match and promptly threw me.
Please join us now for a trans-Atlantic date, as we
guzzle wine and talk fiction editing:
Roz, what’s the one thing about writing that writers don’t know that makes them need editors? (I just wrote a guest post on this—I hope you don’t answer the same thing I did, or it’ll look like I’m plagiarizing you.)
Roz: Two reasons why writers need editors. One, because they can’t see their own blind spots. Even experienced writers have bad habits they don’t realise are jarring—such as blithe unawareness of POV changes and lapses into telling instead of showing.
Reason two is because all writers are too close to the story. We know it from the inside out, whereas the reader comes from the outside in. You can’t judge how well you’re drawing the reader in and what you’re drawing them into, any more than you can do your own cosmetic dental work or see your own bottom (unless you’re very talented).
Hope that isn’t what you wrote, too. If it is, at least leave in my bottom joke.
V: [laughing] No, it’s not—at least not enough for it to sound like I stole it from you. But it’s the general gist of my opinion, as well. I mean, it’s not even really opinion when you’re talking on this level. It’s just a reality of the craft, part of the creative process. Everything looks very different from the perspective of inside, but you can’t create anything if you’re afraid to step inside it. (This is starting to get back to your bottom joke, isn’t it?)
If you could, Roz, what kind of client do you wish you could take home with you forever, even if they can’t write for beans?
Roz: The kind who genuinely wants to learn how to communicate with a reader and finds it endlessly fascinating. Most of us can’t write for beans when we start. We learn because we can’t leave it alone, and we develop our awareness of what works and what doesn’t—and we’re ruthless with ourselves, being disciplined with our weaknesses and doing whatever we can to practice our art better.
The next question you’re probably going to ask is, Does that mean everybody can write well? Maybe some won’t have the facility that others do. But no one should think they don’t have room to improve.
I don’t ask for much, do I?
V: I’ll tell you, I don’t buy the business about some people being born to write and others not. I’ve read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early novels. He ought to have been banned from owning a typewriter. He ought to have been banned from walking past a typewriter. And yet he wrote The Great Gatsby and later proved the extent of his developed skills in The Last Tycoon.
It just goes to show anyone can do it.
So what kind of client do you wish you could launch off a tower over shark-infested waters?
Roz: The kind whose manuscript is deeply flawed and doesn’t want to hear any criticism. Most of us get a little grumpy when we see pages of criticism, especially when we think the novel was finished. That’s understandable, and I’m not complaining about that. But some people seem to imagine they are paying for an ego trip, to be told how brilliant their work is, and when you point out what isn’t working they tell you you’re wrong. Sometimes they will tell you they have friends who are writers or are in publishing—although they usually remain vague about why this reflects on the quality of their manuscript.
I had one client whose novel was promising but needed a lot of work. When I told her this, she proceeded to tell me she had friends who had ‘worked on Hollywood movies’ in a vague sort of way and thought ‘the novel sounds good’—which was probably supposed to have put me in my place. I also have friends in Hollywood, and I know darn well that book wouldn’t have been seriously considered or optioned. Her loss, I suppose—she paid all that money for a report that told her how to fix a book and refused to believe it needed any work.
Right, tell me who you’re throwing to Jaws.
V: Hollywood, hmm? I wish I were important enough to know writers in Hollywood. Hang on a sec—I do.
Yeah, I have to heave a pretty deep sigh when I get a client who takes umbrage with serious, detailed, constructive advice because it runs counter to their visions of genius. We all secretly believe we’re geniuses. And we’re all wrong.
Honestly, I think I’ve only had one or two of those in the two years I’ve been doing this work—which is in my opinion an excellent reflection upon the aspiring writing community out there.
But I had a lot of these people when I was a technical writer and editor, computer engineers who couldn’t tell a sentence from a side of fries but regarded writers as unnecessary obstacles between them and their adoring publics. By comparison, fiction writers are a real dreamworld of courtesy and humility.
Roz: They are, and what’s lovely about them is that most of all they believe in making a worthwhile book.
V: Yes. That wonderful belief in fiction that is the reason we all do this work. Of course, if you’re smart enough to hire an indie editor, you’re probably smart enough not to argue. Same goes for therapy, you know. Nobody’s listening to your protestations but you.
Roz: It’s interesting you should mention therapy. The writers who’ve written a novel as therapy are the most sensitive and potentially aggressive about criticism. It’s always hard for writers to learn the patience to disembowel a manuscript that is precious, but those who have written too much from the heart can easily feel that when you criticise you’re judging their life.
Editors need to develop special antennae for it.
V: It really is like practicing therapy, only with imaginary people. I love listening to clients talk about their characters. I love the process of discovering who they are. You are probably not as interesting as your novel—that’s a hard one for some people to swallow. But, you know, to serious writers it’s a godsend. I’m not as interesting, either, as my skills—what I bring to a manuscript.
Roz: I always feel I’m not nearly as interesting, brave or remarkable as the characters in my books. Mind you, I wouldn’t like to live their lives either. Characters I write about will be pushed in ways I would find intolerable.
V: That’s it, isn’t it? Fiction is about characters coping with things far worse than anything the readers will ever cope with. That’s how they reassure us we’re going to survive our own lives.
So, when you do a Developmental Edit on a new manuscript, what’s the first thing you look for?
Roz: First of all, I consider whether I’ve been grabbed by the story and the characters, as I would if I was reading any book. I always read analytically, whether I’m reading for a client or for pleasure—I can’t shut the crit goblins up. I make copious notes, and gradually strengths and weaknesses emerge so that my report arises naturally from these.
V: What’s the last?
Roz: When I’ve got to the end I mull over what the writer was trying to do, whether they’ve succeeded and whether that’s the right approach. The final thing I consider is the manuscript’s suitability for the market.
You, if I may be so bold? Oh, sorry. You’re bold.
V: [laughing] I just got that.
The very first thing I look for is a gripping hook. I read a 1966 mystery last night—by Lawrence Block and called rather preciously The Canceled Czech—and halfway through the first chapter I was sitting up shrieking. The next page made me shriek louder. By the end of the chapter, I was in convulsions, insisting on reading it to my (rather bemused) husband. That’s what you want in a hook.
As I read through a client ms the first time, I’m mostly, like you, just reading to see how hard the story grabs me. When I run across a rip in the fabric of the fictional dream, I jot down a quick note. Then I read a second time, outlining for proper plot structure, making sure all the pieces are in place. Discussion of characters grows out of that kernel. It takes me longer to mull over the characters, where they’ve been, where they’re going, what’s working and not working, what the writer has yet to bring to the surface. Character is a more complex issue than structure, which is why so much modern stuff gets published without being any deeper than the little puddle left in my wine glass right now. . .
I read everything I lay my hands on analytically, too. It makes me enjoy a good book more and allows me to bail early on crap I shouldn’t waste time on. I read a ton of fiction in this job, constantly developing my expertise. I simply don’t have the time to waste.
Roz: I am nodding so hard I’ll soon need to call an osteopath. Reading analytically doesn’t spoil books for me—it increases my pleasure. And I have no patience at all for a book that doesn’t grab me—unless there is a research reason for me to read it. Sorry, back to you.
V: [laughing again] I thought you were handing me the wine bottle.
Roz: Gerroff. Mine.
V: [laughing harder] Stop being so funny, Roz. You’re wrecking this damn interview—
Join us again next week for Part II of:
We can’t leave fiction alone—the Roz Morris
After-Dinner Wine-Induced Fiction Editors’ Wrestling Match
Roz Morris, aka @dirtywhitecandy, will probably also be silly with you if you just ask her. She likes smart-alecks, Scottish accents, and pulling suspicious faces. She can be found on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.