INTERVIEW: Flogging the Quill's Ray Rhamey
In the writer’s blogosphere, Ray Rhamey has carved out a unique place. His blog, Flogging the Quill, is one of the most-linked-to writer’s blogs and tops every blogroll. His observations regarding the craft of writing fiction are spot-on and mostly inarguable. When Ray edits a writer’s sample and modestly types “FWIW” at the end, the smart novelist knows to pay attention to his suggestions. The rest of us scurry to our current WIP’s for surgery. Kathleen and Therese had the great pleasure of interviewing Ray to get his perspective on editing, writing, and the crazy business of selling fiction.
Part 1: Interview with Ray Rhamey
Q: How did you get started in professional editing?
A: The “start” was 15 years as an advertising creative director. A big part of my work was to direct (read: edit) the work of writers to make their copy communicate the best it could, because time and space is very limited in television and print.
Then, somewhere around novel number three, I joined a critique group in Seattle. We met weekly and shared up to 10 pages of manuscript to do line editing and then critiquing on the spot. That was my first experience with editing of that kind.
After about a year, one of the members, himself a nonfiction editor, asked me to edit his manuscript (I’d only seen half of it). He was delighted with the result.
A second member asked me to do the same thing with her novel. Same result. I learned that I liked doing it, and that I could help people. I investigated editing on the Internet, and hooked up with A-1 Editing, a service operated out of Oregon. After passing an editing test, I joined their staff and did several edits for them.
Then I started my own Internet editing business at editorrr.com, and have been slowly building it.
My qualifications, then, are decades of tight focus on making language do its best, sentence by sentence and word by word. That and a natural talent and ear for language. Plus years of studying the craft through how-to books published by the likes of Writers Digest. Plus years of writing and editing my own novels.
So I came to book editing through a combination of experience, study, talent, and inclination. But doing the work of editing in that critique group was the catalyst.
Q: What’s the most common mistake you see?
A: Gumming up the openings of novels with exposition and backstory. I totally understand the urge to do it, but writers must learn to resist. My own epiphany in this came from that initial critique group. One night I brought in chapter 3 of a work in progress, and one member said, “Your story starts here.” I resisted that notion for a couple of months—you know how that is—but came to realize that he was right. I cut the first two chapters, sprinkled crumbs of discarded backstory into the narrative, and it worked much better.
What the heck, while I’m at it, here are numbers 2, 3, and 4.
Another common mistake is head-hopping, failure to maintain a strong, limited point of view in a character’s narrative. Drives me nuts. I recently read a novel that had attracted me because of the strong writing in the opening chapter. It took many months to finish the book, even though it wasn’t a long one. I finally puzzled out why. When telling the story from one character’s point of view, the author would suddenly hop into the head of another character for a paragraph or two, and then back. The result was a failure to engage me with the major characters, to diminish my interest and connection with them, and the book was easy to put aside.
Failure to set the scene (and lack of skill in setting one when it is done). Scene-setting can be used to simultaneously describe, characterize, and advance the plot.
Clumsy, illogical, or impossible staging of action. Happens more often than you think.
Q: Do you ever read a manuscript and think ‘nope, not gonna make it?’ Or do you believe many writers can improve if only they keep at it?
A: Some are dead on arrival, yes. But most of the writers I see, I think, can improve. Although it’s much more than just a matter of keeping at it. It’s a matter of studying the craft. And finding fresh eyes to critique your work in ways that give you insight into your shortcomings.
I do get samples from enthusiastic writers who’ve written an entire novel and think they’re ready for an edit but who haven’t even a basic mastery of grammar and usage, not to mention spelling. I recently said no to a writer who was ready to spend $1500 on an edit with me. Instead, I encouraged her to find a class or a tutor and learn the basics of English. She had a vivid imagination and an interesting tale to tell, but it would have been painful to do an edit.
Q: What steps can writers take to reach the next level of growth?
A: Write. Study. Get criticism. Rewrite. Study. Get criticism. Rewrite. Study. Get criticism. Repeat as needed.
Because I’m an author as well as an editor, I can tell you that intelligent criticism from knowledgeable writers is the most help at my current career stage. I don’t really need coaching on the craft side. It’s with storytelling that fresh eyes help me.
But first, a writer has to master the basics. Understanding the difference between showing and telling, and then learning how to show—and when to tell. Learning to cut adjectives and adverbs (NOT all of them. Gotta have some). And on and on. I’ve written over 100,000 words in my Flogging the Quill blog in the last year, and am not done yet.
Q: You mention that critique groups are valuable for providing fresh eyes to the story. Do you recommend that writers find a critique group?
A: I STRONGLY recommend that writers try to find at least one critique partner, though a group is to be preferred. Some criteria to look for in a critique group:
• Writers of your caliber, if not better. Better is better. You’ll likely be hampered by those with less time behind the wheel.
• Writers who are at least acquainted with the arena you’re in. Fellow novelists will much more help than magazine writers. While magazine writers can help a novelist with language craft, they could be less than helpful with storytelling. I know one novelist who butchered his narrative by following the advice of a magazine editor.
• Critique partners who observe the “rules” of good critiquing; constructive criticism; do not comment on the content but on how the content is expressed; keep it about the work, never personal; keep in mind the subjective nature of a criticism—rather than say “this doesn’t work,” say “this doesn’t work for me because…”
Q: What are some of the pitfalls to avoid in critique groups?
A: Taking suggestions or negative criticisms as gospel. In a group of five, often there will be two diametrically opposed opinions, one person thinking something was terrific, the other quite the opposite. It’s when several people point out the same shortcoming that you listen.
Defending your stuff. Whatever is said, say thank you, I’ll sure give that some thought, and move on.
Q: Is there ever a point when the writer should move on from the group or find a new one?
A: After a couple of years I moved on from my first critique group. With the exception of one member, I’d outgrown the level of the others. While I was more and more able to help them with their writing, they were less and less able to help me with mine. It needs to be quid pro quo to be fair. I’m still in touch with the one writer, and we exchange critiques.
You just don’t know when you join a group. I’m in my second group now, but will likely drop out after the WIP is done. I’ve already helped the others get through their WIPs. I will, however, keep in touch with one of the writers and exchange critiques with her. Why? Quid pro quo. I get really useful notes from the one writer, virtually nothing from the others. At this point, with the one exception, it’s not a fair exchange. An editor colleague once told me that she joins critique groups in a constant search to find good partners.
I’ve also joined up with a small Internet group of writers in a combination support and critique circle. A couple of them are published, and all are very talented writers. We are on four different continents. The critiquing is catch as catch can, not a regular or scheduled thing. We’ll see how that works out.
Part 2: Interview with Ray Rhamey
Q: Do you think writers can over-edit?
A: It happens. I was sent a sample by a writer who had cut his narrative to the bone due to input from a magazine editor. Big mistake. I tried to help by showing him what was, in my view, not working. He became angry and resented it, and gave me a little slam in his blog. However, about a year later I got an email apology from him. He’d learned something in the interim. I probably over-edited my first novel, cutting it from 120,000 words down to about 65,000. But, man, did it move! And it was a great learning process, and a great release to find that I could cut gobs of beloved writing and it was okay. I’ve since rewritten it and added new material until it’s around 97,000 words now, but it still really moves.
Q: Wow, that’s a huge edit. What did you add back?
A: I added scene-setting where it was missing; new plot elements; deeper characterization. Expanded an antagonist’s role. At the same time, I got rid of several characters. Hard to remember it all now.
Q: Did you find you lost some of your voice in the fat-cutting process?
A: I don’t think I lost any “voice.” Maybe condensed it. And keep in mind that this was my first novel, which is probably the one where you display the least voice. I’m sure the revised version is closer to my voice for that novel. By the way, it seems to me that “voice” can be different for different novels. And within a novel. In my current wip I utilize four point-of-view characters. I work hard to make the narrative voice for each character reflect the character. I was gratified recently when a new critique circle member read the first few chapters and wrote that he immediately knew which point of view he was in when I switched without seeing a character’s name. One of the reasons I decided to do my story blog was that I loved the voice of the narrator (first-person kitty-cat), and it is different than anything else I’ve written.
Q: How crucial do you think ‘voice’ is in fiction writing anyway?
A: I think it depends. In a plot-driven book (a la “The Da Vinci Code”), voice doesn’t seem to be needed. In some genres such as science fiction, a book can be “plain spoken” and succeed because of the fantastic voyage you take. But voice is one of the things that I read many agents and editors look for. Mostly because, I suspect, they yearn to read something that feels fresh to a jaded mind.
Q: What advice can you offer writers for self-editing their work?
A: The most important thing to do is to get distance. Once you’ve finished a novel, don’t look at a word of it for at least six weeks, longer if you can stand it. When you come back, you’ll see so much more clearly. I did a post on Flogging the Quill on this. After several rewrites, I do things such as reformat it in a new font and spacing just so it looks different to me. Another helpful technique is to read it aloud. Another thing is to get “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and David King. Also, keep studying the craft in every way you can. For me, the lessons in how-to books were not truly comprehensible until I’d done the writing.
Q: So do you believe that a writer can’t understand the lessons from the craft without first working on a novel?
A: No, I’m saying that it was difficult for ME to do. I’m sure there are others who can read about theory or technique and immediately incorporate it. While I could intellectually understand those things, it took experience before I could internalize them and make them a part of how I worked.
Q: Are there any must-have craft books or writing exercises you recommend?
A: The above mentioned self-editing book. You MUST have that one. “On Writing” by Sol Stein “Story” by Robert McKee I have info on a few recommended books on my editing website on the “Tools” page. There are many, many more good books out there, but those are some that I’ve found particularly helpful. Were I you, I’d go to the library and read my way through what they have.
Q: What sets the Browne and King book apart from the thousands of craft books out there?
A: The Browne/King book is direct and practical. It addresses common issues in ways that help coach a writer to understanding, primarily through good use of examples. The way they put things seems more accessible, much the same way writers sometimes find the notions I post on Flogging the Quill.
Q: How do Stein and McKee complement this book?
A: Stein is an author, playwright, editor and publisher. He sees novels from all angles, and with unparalleled insight, and he’s a good coach. McKee is much more technical and analytical, but he has helped me understand some of the bones and sinew of structure.
Q: How has your blog Flogging the Quill changed things for you?
A: In many ways. I started the blog as guerilla marketing to try to build my editing business, and it’s slowly having that effect. But the real benefits are much more meaningful. I’m now connected with many writers around the world, not sitting alone in front of my monitor any more. I’ve posted my own work on the blog and gotten great critical input from other writers, and it’s helped me in polishing my work. I’ve connected with industry heavyweights (including Mad Max Perkins, the former BookAngst 101 executive editor/blogger). I’ve never tried to take advantage of those connections for personal gain, but without the blog I would never have had contact. And I’ve helped a lot of writers. I find I really like doing that, and spend a lot of time in correspondence or doing sample edits that won’t bring in any income, but gain great personal satisfaction. Finally, writing the blog and doing the sample edits sharpens my skills in both editing and writing. I learn with every post and with every edit. The learning curve in writing novels is endless.
Q: Do you have any concerns about posting bits of your own work on the blog? Some writers worry their ideas might be stolen; others mention that an editor or agent will be less agreeable to buying something that’s been published online.
A: I’ve decided not to worry. For one thing, all material is automatically copyrighted as soon as it is posted (published). People quote from the blog at times, but reference it, so that’s cool. It’s there to help people, anyway. As for posting my fiction, I look at it as a way to build an audience of people who like the way I write. I haven’t posted a complete manuscript (yet—see my story blog at vampirekittycat.com), so I don’t think it’s a really a worry. As for ideas being stolen, yes, that can happen. But most writers have their own ideas already. Ideas, by the way, can’t be protected by copyright. If you publish a short story in a magazine, someone would be able to take the idea behind it and write something else without suffering a penalty.
Q: Are there any blogs or on-line craft sites you recommend for writers?
A: Hmm. I regularly read Miss Snark, Buzz Balls & Hype, and Paperback Writer, and Bob Gray’s Fresh Eyes. There are sites that deal with craft here and there, and I sometimes stumble upon them, or see a link from a site like Paperback Writer. But there’s no single site I could guide you to. So far, it seems that my blog is unique.
Q: You’ve written a few novels of your own. Tell us what’s happening with them.
A: Two novels are represented by my literary agent, Uwe Stender. The one I have the most hope for has been submitted to about 20 publishers, all top names, and most have declined the opportunity. I get compliments on the writing, it’s the story that they don’t seem to have a place for. The second novel, a coming-of-age story, gets similar reactions. But my agent loves them, and keeps at it. Honestly, I don’t have much hope for their sale. I worked on screenwriting for a time, and got to the point where I could craft a good screenplay. Had an agent, got good feedback. But I never came up with a story riveting enough to interest anyone in plunking down a few million dollars to produce. In regard to eventually landing a book contract, I think the nature of your story is as strong a factor, if not stronger, as the caliber of your writing. Yes, without strong craft you’ll never involve an agent or an editor long enough to avoid rejection after a few pages, but in the end it’s story that readers buy books for and editors hunger to find. Strong craft is an absolute necessity, but it won’t get you to the finish line. My agent is also shopping a proposal for a craft book, working title “Maximize Your Storytelling,” based on the blog. No go so far—the field is very crowded and my “platform” isn’t big enough, they say. If one of my novels were to succeed, it might go. I’m thinking of self-publishing that one just to have it to market when I do workshops. I’m doing a “Flash Editing” workshop at the Writer’s Weekend conference in Seattle this summer.
Q: You mention writing screenplays. Did you learn anything about writing novels from by writing a screenplay?
A: I learned about telling stories from screenplays. I practiced writing dialogue. I learned about continuity. About flow. About pacing. (Sidebar: I was in advertising when I wrote my first screenplay, accustomed to telling a story in thirty seconds. On my first screenplay, I was a third of the way through the story at page 6 of a 120-page manuscript. Oops.)
Q: Would you recommend a novelist try it as a learning tool?
A: No, I don’t recommend it as a learning tool for a novelist because so much is left out of screenplays that is vital to a novel. You can learn about storytelling, pace, all that while working on a novel and, at the same time, be working on the craft as well. In a screenplay, you miss craft elements such as scene setting, description, transitions, interior monologue, and more.
Q: Why do you think bloated or sloppy writing continues to be published? Are editors editing any more?
A: I’m not a publishing insider, so I don’t really know why any better than others who surf the net for information. Some editors still edit but, if what I read is true, many don’t. The sloppy work that is published is silent testimony to that. I don’t think many agents do a good job of getting manuscripts up to professional levels, either. My own agent represents things that really should have been edited before they went out. However, a recent Miss Snark post said that many editors edit, and that she won’t send something out until it’s ready to publish. Why is such stuff published? Beats the hell out of me.
Us too, Ray. THANK YOU for sharing your knowledge with us. We learned a lot, and we hope our readers have, too. --Kathleen and Therese