Guest post by Rebecca Yount
Years ago a colleague told me his two criteria for testing the suitability of a prospective life-partner:
l. Take a vacation together, and
2. Hang wallpaper together.
To these I would add,
3. Critique each other’s writing.
Recently, my twin adult stepdaughters spent the night with us, escaping from storm outages in their Washington suburban neighborhood. While the three of us were enjoying a sitcom on TV, David was furiously editing a recent blog of mine — with a red pen, no less.
Not for the first time, I could have added.
Writing is immensely personal. When we write, we reveal our secrets. They may be boring, silly, shallow secrets, but they are ours. There are good writers, and inept ones. Then there are those blessed with greatness — the Tolstoys, Hemingways, Jane Austens, Balzacs, and Harper Lees.
As I grow in this craft, I increasingly realize that I am only as good as the guy who edits me, my husband David. The same is true for him: I bleed all over his prose as well, and he is the first to admit that his work is better for it.
Sonya Tolstoy edited her husband’s tome War and Peace within an inch of its life. And though they fought furiously throughout their marriage, it was rarely about her comments and corrections to his masterpiece.
Cassandra, Jane Austen’s beloved sister and first reader, did not withhold her brutally honest comments. I am unaware of an instance in which Jane refuted Cassandra’s critiques.
Hemingway often depended on Martha Gellhorn to tweak his sentences and paragraphs. She did it brilliantly, with little credit from him. Harper Lee’s editor made her re-write To Kill a Mockingbird from beginning to end four times.
Recently I re-read Stephen King’s book On Writing. Without getting mawkish about it, I believe this book is a gift to all aspiring writers and should be regarded as a secular literary bible. When he begins a new project King writes for his wife, Tabby, who is his first reader as David is mine. If he can please her, he’s happy. And pleasing Tabby is no mean achievement.
The same holds true for David. There are times when I rage internally against his criticism, when I’m indignant, and feel downright insulted.
“Try them,” he’ll say about his revisions. “See how they work.”
Of course, he is invariably spot on. What I love is to hear David say, “This is really good,” and laugh in the right places when he reads my books.
Recently, I edited one of David’s Scripps-Howard columns to near-oblivion. He looked over my changes, shook his head, crumbled up the hard copy, and threw it in the rubbish bin.
Assuming he was being petulant, I said, “Don’t do that. It can be rewritten.”
“No,” he insisted. “You’re right. It gallumps, it’s repetitive, and the topic puts me out of my comfort zone. I’ll try something else.”
How can a marriage between writers survive?
In our case, the marriage works because we write in two different genres: David, religious non-fiction and me, crime fiction. So it’s a bit like him running the 100 meter dash while I’m doing the long jump. Yes, we’re both in track and field, but different events. That alone blunts most of the potential competitive edge between us.
Also we work in separate home offices, mine on the top third floor, he in our converted basement/sitting room. Except for a short lunch break, we scarcely see each other until the magic hour of 5 PM. Then, while David walks Nessie, our Scottish terrier, I prepare her dinner and set up for ours as well. Afterwards, we knock off for the day, sipping a cocktail in front of a blazing fire in the grate, talking over our work day, seeking advice, and batting around ideas about current and future projects. Then we enjoy a rerun of a sitcom like The New Adventures of Old Christine, or catch up with the BBC news.
The fact that David was published years before me is not a problem. His success is mine, and mine is his.
But what if he won the National Book Award, and I did not? Now that’s interesting. I hope my attitude would be, “Well if you can do it, so can I.”
In the meantime, we’ve just purchased a fresh supply of red pens.
Rebecca Yount‘s debut crime novel, A Death in C Minor (Mick Chandra Mysteries) is available in e-book format through Amazon.com; Apple iBookstore; Barnes & Noble; Sony Reader Store; Kobo; Baker & Taylor; Copia and eBook Pie. Price: $0.99; ISBN #: 978-1-4675-1499-6. Her website is www.rebeccayount.com.
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