During the next few weeks, the Conversations feature of my blog will center around the theme for the month of June, which I have unilaterally declared “Indie Author Month.”* In the lead-up to the actual month of June, I have two interviews with editors – one a freelance editor working primarily with the indie author community, and one an editor working at a successful romantic fiction publishing house. During June, I will be interviewing indie authors and concentrating my reading projects on works by authors publishing outside of the “Big Industry,” so, DIY authors, small press authors, etc. But without further ado … a conversation with Mike Lynch, freelance editor and leader of the Round Rock Writers’ Guild.
The year was 2009 and I had just moved to Texas. My husband deployed almost as soon as we managed to get a house, move in and adopt a dog and a cat. Sitting around with nothing to do just isn’t my style, so I did a quick Meetup.com search and one weekend headed up to Austin with a failed NaNoWriMo and a pad of paper and a pencil. There at a large table in the middle of a now-defunct bookstore, I met a number of people who would have an out-sized influence on my current goals of pursuing creative writing. One of these people was Mike Lynch, who got involved in the group due to Swiss cheese.
“… on a book-cataloging site called LibraryThing.com, I wrote a five-page stream-of-consciousness response about the origin of Swiss Cheese,” said Mike. “In other threads, I’d recount my ongoing struggle with trying to keep my home pet-free, stories of Christmases past and present, and random bits of silliness. Although I got a lot of positive feedback, I kept finding things in them I wanted to rewrite. I was never satisfied with any of them, so I searched around on the net for a writing group that did peer-group reviews.”
That group was the Round Rock Writers, the first incarnation of the group now known as the Round Rock Writers’ Guild. We got to know Mike as the member who wrote memoir, who hated pets, who liked cheese, who knew a lot about trees, and who always had the sharpest eye for what we all came to know quickly as “GPS,” or, grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
When our leader had to go on extended medical leave, Mike stepped up to take leadership of the group. I asked him to talk a little about the challenges of running a critique group for a large group of opinionated writers.
One of the first things Mike did was to go through the rolls of the group and personally contact every member who had joined, he said. After someone joins the group, they must attend a meeting within a month or he won’t approve their membership.
In a group that lives or dies by participation, it might seem counterintuitive to limit that participation – but the group actually has a vibrant presence, spurred in part by the fact that the members are not just virtual but actual, socially participating members of the group who contribute greatly to its vitality.
One indicator of its vitality is the fact that the group has doubled the number of meetings per month. In addition to the monthly critique meeting, the monthly writing exercise meeting, the monthly “Shop Talk” meeting, and the monthly “Write-In,” the group has a series of “mini-critique” sessions and weekly write-in sessions, according to Mike.
There is also a social aspect to the group.
“We schedule other meetings that are group outings—a new exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center; open mic at a Poetry Slam; a book signing event at the indie book store in Austin,” said Mike.
As a writer, Mike prefers to receive “honest, positively-stated feedback.” As an editor, I asked him to share his philosophy of editing. His answer:
“Do no harm? I’m not sure I have a particular philosophy. Different genres of books require different criteria. A non-fiction book needs to be edited differently than a novel, and a novel has a different set of rules than a children’s book. Most of what I critique, and most of what I get paid to edit, is fiction and fantasy. I prefer to not change the story too much. On the other hand, if, given the parameters of “the universe of the story,” something is implausible, I’m going to point that out to the author, and expect it to be resolved or removed in the next reading. When I edit, I have to read as if I’m three different people. One is the editor, and I’m looking for any kind of error. The shoulder-length brunette cannot have her hair cut and shampooed one afternoon and be a long-haired blonde the next. I also have to be in the head of the author. What was the intent of the author? Is what I just read a setup for something else in the storyline? Make a note of it, continue, and make sure the issue gets resolved. The predominant person I read as is the audience. I will write comments in the manuscript about how I reacted to reading a section or how I laughed at a comment by one of the characters. Or, the opposite; a joke that fell flat (and why).”
In addition to editing for readability and clarity, Mike also does a thorough amount of fact-checking. For a story that involved a sawed-off shotgun, he went to a gun store and grilled the owner, handled shotguns and other weapons, and used the experience to help visualize the narrative, he said.
“From the gun shop, I went home and cut a 2×4 to the length of the shotgun, drove to a truck dealership and asked to see the truck that was used in the story. I’ll pause here a moment for you to register the look on the salesman’s face…,” said Mike. “I was able to determine that there was no way to swing the shotgun around while sitting in the driver’s seat, and it was also impossible for the end of the barrel to come to rest where the author said it did.”
Mike does a lot of freelance editing for the indie community, both with the RRWG and as a gun-for-hire editor for those authors prepping their manuscripts for publication. As one of those authors, I asked him to share some common mistakes made by developing authors. His response?
“There are no mistakes in manuscripts. A mistake is an error that one corrects immediately. You type a wrong letter, or realize you’ve used a wrong word, and if you’re like me, you correct it either right then and there, or as you come beneath it while typing the next line of text. There are lots of slips—accidental typos, minor things like extra spaces after punctuation marks, especially at the ends of paragraphs—and errors—consistent inattention to grammar or punctuation. Errors are an indication that an author needs to relearn basic rules, or realize that some have changed since they were initially learned. Your use of ‘mistakes’ here is a common error; almost everyone else has the same misunderstanding of the word.”
I stand corrected … and somewhat chagrined.
We were running out of time (and I’m running out of space), so I asked him to talk a little about his dislike for pets, especially given the fact – shared with the group through his writing – that he fell in love with and married a woman who loves animals.
First, Mike said, he wanted to clarify that he wasn’t against pets, per se, just against having them in the house.
“I’ve just had this string of bad experiences with interspecies cohabitation, and prefer the company of people,” said Mike. “My wife on the other hand, comes from a family that seems to be pathologically drawn to all manners of beasts. Despite that, the[y] are otherwise very nice people.” They will celebrate their twelfth anniversary on May 26.
Getting back to the topic of editing, I asked Mike what types of projects he would like to see come his way.
“High-paying ones, please,” said Mike, joking – or was he? He added: “When I read for pleasure, I seem to have a strong preference for non-fiction and essays. I love stories that make me feel I’ve just had a conversation with an old friend. It’s tough editing non-fiction, though, and most authors write fiction and fantasy anyway, so I enjoy the variation. I will edit anything—not sure if I can put enough emphasis on that last word.”
Mike added: “I see what I do as a collaborative effort, and I don’t mind being the silent partner. I’ve always been most comfortable as a behind-the-scenes person. My mission is to provide clarity and readability.”
* June will be followed by July, which theme – at least on this blog – will be “The American Entrepreneur.”