When I wanted to be a journalist

In June 2014, I sent in a résumé for a full-time copy editing position. (Obviously, I didn’t get it. I think it was for the Grand Rapids Press.) This post was in Drafts because I wanted to tell a story about that.

As a college student, about halfway through my stint at the Ferris State Torch, I decided I really wanted to find a copy editing job in a newsroom after graduation. But given the local job market (even in 2004), I was basically waiting for one or two positions to open up. It didn’t happen, I started in an entirely different field instead, then I got into educational publishing when I moved to Baltimore in 2006. Besides, I thought, copy editors work a late shift. I was in my 20s and I didn’t want to give up my evenings and weekends. And the Torch was a weekly paper. I was intimidated by the idea of editing for a daily. And so on and so forth.

The 10 years since then have been the latest part of a seismic shift in journalism, with mass layoffs and budget cuts and dwindling advertising income and more multimedia online content rather than a single daily or weekly print issue. I’ve been through plenty of personal changes over the last 10 years, too, and I’ve done a lot of the things that intimidated me before. I’ve worked a full-time second shift. I worked in journalism again for almost two years. I’ve burned through my 20s and my early 30s, stayed married, had babies, and found that my introverted self is happier chillin’ at home most of the time (even if I don’t have coworkers to blame for not cleaning the microwave). I’ve sent out so many résumés and been successful enough as a freelancer that I can see a résumé as a marketing document; not all my hopes and dreams ride on it. I can do the things that scare me, that intimidate me, and I’ve found that I survive, whether or not I succeed.

But I still remember being 9 years old and touring the Saginaw News offices with my mom. I remember walking into the Torch office at 18 and taking that editing test. I remember proudly pinning up my business cards and press passes from covering big campus events at 23. I remember watching the Grand Rapids Press jobs page the following year (if I sent a résumé for anything, I didn’t get a callback), and setting up a job alert when I was searching again in 2010. So when I saw my onetime dream job show up in 2014, I had to send in my materials, even if getting the job would mean I’d have to trade my yoga pants and all that dorky business admin stuff I like for a commute and a regular paycheck. I owed it to Past Me to give it a shot.

A consequence of that seismic shift and all the layoffs? There’s a longer line of tremendously qualified editors for every job opening. Dreams or no, I didn’t spend 10 those years building journalism experience, and I’m sure there were stronger candidates. No callback this time, either.

As it turns out, that was pretty okay. I’m happy where I am, yoga pants and all. Dear Past Me: Everything turns out in the end—or, at least, it does for the next 10 years. You make it. Keep dreaming. It’s gonna be just fine.

When I wanted to specialize in “weird projects”

I had “Weird projects a specialty” in my profile for a few months (in 2012), and maybe overthought it a bit. I took it out. Nobody thinks their own projects are weird, I thought.

But I’ve said for years that what I really wanted to have was an interesting résumé, full of strange things that made for good stories later on. Weird stuff.

In high school, I worked at a bee farm. Mostly I stuck labels on plastic bears by hand (boxes of 396, 99 to a row), occasionally helped grab honeycomb frames from the hives and later pour harvested honey from big 55-gallon drums into jars, and went on a few deliveries in the ambulance/delivery truck and stocked honey in local grocery stores. Tip: Honey is sticky but washes right off with hot water and a little dish soap. Also, if your honey crystalizes, you can just heat it up and still use it; honey never goes bad. At the end of the year I worked at the bee farm, I even entered the Michigan Honey Queen pageant. (It was a tremendously educational experience.) For my talent, I did a modified Victor Borge bit about phonetic punctuation, but I’d never seen or heard Victor Borge do it. And there was an essay you had to read — I started mine out with something like “you’ve probably heard a few times today that melissa means ‘honey bee’ in Greek” and a bunch of other common facts, which probably would have gone over better if my turn to read had been later in the program (I went third).

The day job I had before I started freelancing was Caption Editor. I applied in the first place because the job title had “editor” in it, but it turned out that I was creating closed captions for cooking shows and DIY shows. I played the video of a final or nearly final TV show, listened to what the people were saying or what noises were happening in the show, and typed it all into a caption. Easy to explain, hard to accomplish. It takes hours to do this for a half-hour show (which actually runs 22 minutes minus the commercials). I started with cooking shows, and that year I did some of my best cooking. I’d be there watching and listening over and over and over to get the words exactly right, and obviously my brain is engaging with what’s being said, so I’m learning knife skills (I still cut onions the way Roger Mooking showed on Everyday Exotic) and thinking about the taste balance of a dish (I put nutmeg in spaghetti sauce whenever I can) and going straight home to try something a chef had spent six minutes talking about enthusiastically (I made my first clafouti for exactly this reason). That didn’t happen as much for the DIY shows because I’m not as good at building stuff as I am at cooking. I captioned a lot of House Hunters, though, which is a very formulaic show that is still addictive as all hell. HGTV has embraced this and made branded bingo cards (PDF).

When my past self stuck these stories in a draft post, I threw in a link to How Not to Be Invisible by Walt Kania at The Freelancery, and today I discovered his post said a few of the same things Brandy said at the start of Project: Mic Drop: Be you, and let your people come to you. And I had said it myself in the strange language of mission statements back in 2012.

Embracing the weird is not a new idea. And in fact, I’ve found, it’s pretty easy to be your authentic self when you’re the only one home, dancing in your kitchen, let’s say, completely hypothetically. It’s harder to keep dancing when your husband and kids get home and catch you. But in this completely hypothetical situation, I announced that I was having a kitchen dance party and kept going. The kids joined in, I put on the Frozen soundtrack so they could sing too, we had a blast, and now Margaret requests dance parties every so often. It’s good — it was good to be seen that way, to be the mom who has kitchen dance parties (not at all influenced by the midnight margaritas scene in Practical Magic, I assure you), and to tell a story about it.

So, hi. I’m Rachel Lee Cherry, the copy editor who did a Victor Borge bit at a honey queen pageant when I was 18 and who used to write the closed captions for cooking shows and who started having dance parties with my kids because I got busted belting out “House Party” while unloading the dishwasher. I’m perfectly capable of being very normal and editing lesson plans aligned to Common Core ELA standards, but if you’ve got a novel set in a universe where the protagonist can travel through time with a special essential oil and falls in love with a sarcastic 13th-century alchemist, and you need it copyedited? I’m in. With bells on.

It Came from the Drafts Folder

In September I participated in Project: Mic Drop, a little circle of artists and intuitives and other business owners facilitated by Brandy Morris, in which we were challenged to dig deep and tell stories and release our mad flava into the world.

I dug deep. I told stories. I broke a seal on my writing that had been in place since my daughters were born (my favorite form of writing was lengthy introspection, which babies don’t much give you time for), and I’ve written almost daily since September 1. Project: Mic Drop gave me back something powerful.

Earlier today I posted about my rockin’ Friday night with a cup of chai and 87 WordPress tabs open. It turns out that the Drafts folder had a few stories worth telling, but they languished there because I wanted to tie them to some link of the day instead of letting them stand on their own. So, in the spirit of releasing mad flava, I’m going to publish It Came from the Drafts Folder, a series of stories about me and who I am and what I know. The first installment is queued up for Thursday.

Maybe they do or don’t illustrate some bit of publishing industry ephemera. They’re just fun for me to tell, and hopefully fun for you to read, and that’s enough.

The power of breaking a rule

On Friday night, I was changing posts from tags to categories in advance of a design update (I clearly know how to rock a Friday night). This quote, from You’ve Got the Power: For Good or Evil on the Subversive Copy Editor blog, was worth a post in September 2012:

I recently spoke to a classroom of new copyeditors, and I took this “knowledge is power” idea one step further. Copyeditors have a choice as to what kind of power they wield. They can wave about the rule book and try to assume the power of saying “No, you can’t” to writers, or they can acquire the power of knowing when to break a rule in order to help writers achieve great writing.

My regular readers know that I like to call that second choice “subversive,” but they also know that it truly isn’t. Choose the second kind of power: it’s a better way of life.

It’s still quite true, and the rest of the post is worth a read as well, here in 2015. The point of knowing the rules isn’t to “take a chunk of writing and… grind it through the style-guide mill,” as Carol Fisher Saller says. The point of knowing the rules — from basic ones like capitalizing the first word of a sentence to arcane ones that rule reference lists — is to make that chunk of writing easier for the reader to understand. If a rule is making something harder to understand, it is eminently possible to throw the rule out. 

(Watch me end that sentence with a preposition. Besides, that’s not even a rule.)

NaNo writers: Don’t choose an editor now

Cheers to everyone writing a novel for National Novel Writing Month! We’re getting to the midpoint of November, and the middle can be a tough slog for any writer. (“Oh, you’re at that part of the book?” Neil Gaiman’s agent once told him).

If you’ve been thinking about publishing the novel you’re writing — or if you’re sure you will never, ever publish your novel — let me tell you this (and I have my editing tiara on as I say this): Do not make that decision in November. Right now, let the words flow. Write some absolute crap. It’s okay. This is exactly the time and place to do donuts in an empty field. Don’t get too bogged down in the idea of fixing it later. Crap will still get you to 50,000 words, and in November, that is your goal.

The next step is to leave your novel alone. Ignore it for the entire month of December. Put it in a desk drawer, as Stephen King advised in On Writing (though now that’s probably a metaphorical desk drawer). This is key. Let it simmer, let it percolate. Let yourself recover. Forget exactly which sentences tumbled out because you were within 150 words of the day’s word count goal and you didn’t care what came out to get you there. Remember only the highs you felt when a plot point worked itself out, when you suddenly knew what to do with Chapter 10, when you wrote something so glorious you weren’t entirely sure it really came from your own brain.

Then, in January and February, pick it back up again. Read through it with fresh eyes. Let your inner editor come back out to play.

Then decide whether you want to publish this thing.

In March, I’ll be offering a $999 copy editing special for NaNo writers, but if you’re still in the thick of writing, don’t email me about it now. Copy editing comes way after writing. Write the thing, let it sit, then read through it again and fix the spots that jump out at you. Fix the macro things, like adding or subtracting characters, throwing out a whole scene, rearranging scenes or chapters, or writing transition paragraphs.

When you’ve got that down and you’re pretty well happy with it, go through a third time and pull out some editor tricks:

Change the font (Garamond is a nice choice to mimic a printed book), or bring your manuscript from Scrivener into Word, or even print the whole thing out (with page numbers). Trick your eyes into thinking that you’re looking at something entirely different.

Make a style sheet and refer to it as you reread. Do you use any nonstandard spellings or phrases? Write them in the style sheet so you can keep them consistent. List the full names of all your characters, too. (That way, you don’t have to find where exactly in Chapter 2 you introduced that minor character when his name pops up again in Chapter 17 and you have to check the spelling.)

Here’s a few more tips from Making Professional Editing Work for You, a post by fellow editor Allison K Williams:

What can you do to prepare, and how can you bring down the price?

There are some basic technical fixes you can apply to your manuscript that will improve your writing remarkably in a short time.

  • Search for “ly.” For every single adverb in your manuscript, ask if you really need it. If the adverb’s in a dialogue tag (that’s the “he said” part), rewrite the dialogue to make the tone or emotion clear, or use an action.

“You’re hurting my arm!” he said angrily. (Adverb states the obvious)

“You’re hurting me!” He wrenched his arm away. (Use an action)

“You’re hurting me!” (Trust that the dialogue’s tone is clear)

  • Search for “being” “doing” “going” “began” “continued” and “started.” Most sentences will be stronger if you just use the verb.

“He began to get angry” vs. “He got angry”

“She was doing her knitting” vs. “She was knitting”

  • Read through the manuscript focusing on only one character. Are their actions consistent? Does their dialogue sound uniquely like them and not like another character? If you removed the dialogue tags, would you know who was speaking? Repeat for every character.
  • Is your manuscript within the usual word count for the genre? If not, look for cuts. Ask of every scene, “Does the main character’s journey move forward? What important discovery or action happens here?” Cut the least useful scenes. Use the old screenwriter maxim, “Get in late and get out early”—does every scene start as late in the action as possible? Does every scene end as soon as it can? I trimmed a client’s book from 130,000 words to 95,000 words without cutting any of the actual story by editing out characters getting out of their cars and walking down hallways. Start scenes when the action starts.

Your book will be stronger for all this work. In January and February. Bookmark this post and come back then.

For now, happy writing!

Bits and updates

Happy Friday! I’ve got a few interesting bits and updates from the past week-ish.

As I mentioned on Facebook, I have an immediate editing slot open for a completed, unpublished novel, preferably romance. (I read historicals, the occasional paranormal, and contemporary romance; my past fiction work is all contemporary fiction, romantic elements optional.) Hit me up! The newly updated Rates page now includes pricing for fiction under 40k words. Quotes and sample edits are always available for novel-length works.

If you’re working on a NaNoWriMo novel: YAY!! Go you!! But hold that thought re: getting it edited. I’ll have a post up tomorrow talking about why.

My post Don’t get suckered: National Association of Professional Women went up almost three years ago and still draws comments from women who say that NAPW is up to the same tricks. Journalist Nikki Gloudeman’s new post at The Establishment, Anatomy of a Scam: The National Association of Professional Women, is a deep dive into the experiences of former members and whether they think membership is worth it (spoiler: no), who exactly runs the organization, what it’s like to work for NAPW (spoiler: awful), and what the future holds. My post is linked in the piece, and I chose not to be interviewed for it because anxiety gets the best of me sometimes, but nevertheless, this is an excellent piece. Recommended reading.

Lighter recommended reading: this Tor.com post on How Huge Door-Stopper Fantasy Novels Get Made, with plenty of photos showing the hard covers getting foil stamped, the pages being printed and bound, and the cover and dust jacket added. (You’ll have to add your own somnolent How It’s Made narration.) The post returned to me the term signature. Presses like this one print books in signatures, or chunks, of 32 pages. A half-signature is 16 pages.

Folded and cut signatures. (Photo via Tor.com)
If you’ve ever read a book that had a bunch of blank pages or an unexpected Notes section at the back, it’s probably because there were pages left in the sig or half-sig, so the publisher either left them blank or added the Notes heading. The pricing of a print run is also based on how many signatures each book will take to print. Months ago, I read some romance-related post (at Cooking Up Romance? Smart Bitches Trashy Books?) that wondered why category romances run exactly 192 pages, and I can tell you: it’s because 192 pp = 6 sigs. If a book ran even a page longer, it’d cost more to print; much shorter, and you’d have to argue to call it a novel, I suspect (back-of-the envelope calculation puts 192 pp at 48k words). But at the time I could not for the life of me remember the term signature. Now that I remember, of course, I don’t know where I read the question. (I ran into the other room and shouted at Matt, “Signature!! The word is ‘signature’!” He was just confused. It didn’t help either of us.)