Good Story or Great Book

I’m a writer. I didn’t go to school for it, but through a series of life-altering events, it has become my livelihood and my passion. It took me a couple of years of dabbling in the work before I felt confident enough to say that I am.

A proofreader. An editor. A writer.

I’ve been a life-long reader, and could spend hours in Walden-books at the mall while my mom shopped when I was only 7 or 8. I remember long summer nights where I would plan to read a few chapters before bed, only to realize that it was already morning when I heard my Dad’s alarm clock wake him up for work. I’d reach over and turn off the light, feeling the heat from an incandescent bulb that had been burning for over 8 hours.

I was the reader that lived inside my books. I would show up at the dinner table in tears, and everyone wondered if something had happened to me. No one else understood that while I was reading a book, I was sharing a journey; I felt everything the characters felt, and I became a part of their lives while I was lost in the story.

Early on in my school career, I absolutely hated writing. A teacher would assign a topic to write a paper on and I struggled to find the words, or put together a coherent thought, or get an idea across clearly. My grammar and vocabulary were excellent, and my prose was above grade-level. But still, it would take me hours of tears and frustration to be able to put together a basic intro-body-conclusion paper in middle school.

I remember the day that changed, and what changed it. I had a high-school English teacher who simply gave us 5 words to chose from, and told us we could write anything we wanted about that word. 2 pages, double-spaced, 12 point font. I groaned inwardly thinking about the hours I would have to spend struggling over the assignment; but when I got home that night, something amazing happened.

I couldn’t stop writing. I remember that the word I chose was trust. In the midst of teenage hormones, unpredictable parents, and struggles to fit in, I started writing and I couldn’t stop. I wrote about different kinds of trust, and how trust could be betrayed, and how I had learned to trust the most unlikely people in my life. I felt so strongly about what I was writing that the words just poured out of me onto the page.

I remember that a few hours into it, I realized I had written over 5 pages. I tried editing it down, but everything I had written was so important to the point, I couldn’t cut anything out. I finally decided to just reformat it to single-spaced, and chose a smaller font, and turned in a 2 1/2 page paper. I didn’t think about it again.

The following week, our English teacher was handing the assignments back to us. As he passed the papers out, he began talking about how this one paper was just so phenomenal. How one student had really nailed the assignment. How impressed he was with this paper that he would never have believed a high-school student had written, but that it was so raw, and so honest, he knew that it had been. And then, as all the papers had been handed back but mine, he turned and asked me if I would mind if he read my paper out loud to the class.

I panicked and felt my face flush, and shook my head vehemently, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I was the girl that everyone picked on. I had very few friends, and was often the target of bullies. I didn’t want anything to draw attention to me. I was thoroughly embarrassed, though quietly brimming with pride. He honored my request to keep my thoughts about trust to myself, but then said, “You’re a really incredible writer.”

My insecure teenage self couldn’t believe it. I was a terrible writer. I hated it. I couldn’t finish most writing assignments. It just didn’t compute. The pride I felt in the praise and the grade were countered with what I now know were the very real effects of impostor syndromeIt had to be a fluke. That one paper was just an anomaly.

But over the next few years, as I struggled with writing assignments for history classes, or other English classes, I kept going back to that one paper. What was it that had made it so easy? Eventually, I realized that the thing that made the difference was how passionately I felt about the topic. If I had something to important to say, I could write.

In college, I learned to hone this skill. The key to being able to write well was having something to say that I felt strongly about. I learned to seek an angle that I had an opinion on if there was a topic I didn’t care about. My writing improved, and I got excellent grades. But I still didn’t think I was a good writer.

15 years later, I wrote the piece that changed my life. In an emotional Facebook rant to my family and friends, I poured my heart out on the page about a struggle I was having as the parent of a child with Autism. Once again, my passion for the topic drove the prose, and it was beautiful. It didn’t exactly go viral, but in garnered dozens of “likes” and “shares” among my friends, and even some of their friends.

An editor for a therapy website that dealt with Autism came across it and asked if he could post it, and I agreed. Then he recommended that I write professionally. You can read more about that journey here.

A few years into my new career, the insecure girl who thought she was a bad writer is gone. Without formal training, I have built a strong business and a reputation as an excellent editor. I attribute my skill primarily to one thing, and that is my love of reading. I have read so much in my life that I just instinctively know the ins and outs of good writing. I know the rules of grammar, but I also know when to break them for the most beautiful prose. And I know not to write something that doesn’t come from my heart.

And now we get to the point of this little piece. As an editor, I can read the first chapter of a book and immediately tell if this is a work from the heart, or if this is just someone hoping to take advantage of the ease of online publishing to make a quick buck. It comes through in the little things.

Does the author love their characters? Does the author know who these people are and what drives them? Is the author taking you on an emotional journey with them, or are they simply giving you a standard ship’s-log type narrative of what is happening? Do they describe the character’s fears and dreams, and their insecurities and quirks? Or do they simply recite what the character looks like and says?

As a freelancer, I’ve read excellent prose with a drab story line and been unimpressed. I’ve also taken one look at a beloved rough-draft that is in shambles, and seen the potential for a great book. I can tell you with confidence that I would rather work with a new writer who loves their work and wants to make it the best it can be, than a skilled writer with no passion.

I still take on both jobs. But with one, I do a good, clean, technical edit, make my suggestions and changes, and move on as soon as I’ve been paid. With the other, I’ve been known to spend hours on the phone with the author, working through the points together, asking about backstories, and all of the little “why’s” of the book. It’s probably not a good business model because for every extra hour I spend working through it, I’m losing money. But there comes a point where I become personally invested in the story.

When I fall in love with the characters, when I hurt for them, feel their pain and their apprehension, when I start wanting things to come together beautifully, that is when I truly love what I do. When I realize that I want this story to be told as much as the author does, that’s when a good story can become a great book.

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