Inside the Trenches: Editing the CMA Writers Group Book

Whether your idea of a perfect summer activity involves chilling at the beach, riding every roller coaster in the tristate area, or just curling up with a good book, I bet there’s one thing you’d never consider doing.

Writing a book with 20 other people.

And I double bet you’d run screaming from editing it.

Yet 4 of us CMA-ers chose to spend our summer this way. I’m one of those 4. Here’s some insight to what it’s like spending your summer hunched over a fat stack of paper while inhaling highlighter fumes.Books

We volunteered! For fun!

As you know, the CMA Writers Group has been working on a book this year. I can’t tell you what it’s about (under penalty of catapult!), but I can tell you that we’ve been meeting every month and handing in pages. Giving insightful feedback on each other’s work. Sharing ideas. Asking tough questions and brainstorming answers. It’s a 20-person mix of talents and perspectives, and while 3-hour plus meetings with 19 other people exhausts my inner introvert I am immensely grateful to have my first taste of Writers Room experience. I just hope my future experiences are a wee bit smaller. (Seriously: 20 people in one room is A LOT to handle).

But after all of those discussions, and just before CMA took a summer break, the editing team walked away with a prize: a first draft of a manuscript.

Speaking as a writer, first drafts are what you write to discover your story. You barf out any and all ideas that interest you about your topic, look for the best bits, and remove anything that distracts from them. Then rewrite to make them shine. As many times as necessary. Until all you have left is a gem of a story.

frustrated-writer

It feels like this.

Editors are the people who help polish those gems.

Thankfully, everyone on this editing team has experience doing this sort of thing, whether it’s through publishing, digital, television, or other some other avenue of story development. All of us are objective. All of us are focused on story. All of us are willing to change what we need to to make the project great.

Which is great. ‘cause we’re dealing with 20 completely unrelated chapters.

No, that’s not right: we’re dealing with 20 different chapters with completely different characters, voices, devices, and plot structures. There’s no overarching story. No clear protagonist or stakes. Nothing that our target 10-year-old reader would be able to recognize as a story. An anthology, sure – but we voted against writing an anthology in favor of writing a story.

Three Act Structure DiagramLike this!

Since we’re looking at a first draft, we don’t have that yet. So how do we find it?

With different colored Post-It flags.

And tabs.

And pens.

And highlighters.

And a pencil (I ran out of pen colors).

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I’m not kidding. Even though my highlighters have dogs on them.

In short, we read the thing. All the way through. Multiple times. And make notes. We’re reading for story structure, plot cohesiveness, grammar, tone, anachronisms, reading comprehension, and all that stuff that makes for a good story. Thankfully, we’ve got a surplus of story ideas to work with in this draft. We just have to figure out which ones we can use to tell a story that fits all of them.

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Different colors = different threads. Captain Mickey Sparrow approves.

We took all of those ideas, charted the ones that were used most frequently, and brainstormed different story ideas that would work all of them together. We kept the ones that made the most sense, tossed the ones that didn’t, and eventually narrowed ourselves down to an idea that not only fits what we’ve got; it makes sense in its own right, is the most realistic story to tell based on the source material, and sounds really really fun.

happy_woman_jumping

Hooray!

Phew! Our next step is to take that big story, break its components into 20 sections, and figure out which chapters they go in. We’re wrapping that up now, and will be reporting back to the group with editing notes on how to write this thing soon. Along with notes on structure, plot, grammar, tone, reading comprehension, and all that other good stuff I said up above.

And that’s just Round 1.

frustrated-writer

Then we’re back here.

Both the Writing Group and the Editing Team have a LOT more work ahead of us before this manuscript becomes a book. But I don’t mind. I relish it. I chose to be on the editing team, after all, and I did it not just to bust out my television development skills; I did it to get the most out of this project. Editing this raw piece of work not only forced me to write my own chapter mindfully (so I could add to some of the great ideas ahead of me); it gave me a reason to read the whole work closely and absorb all the interesting, inventive tidbits people were adding. It’s rare to see that much creativity in one place and it’s a real privilege to help shape it.

But the best part? The solidarity. For all of the different perspectives in the CMA Writing Group, we’re all trying to make the best product possible. We’ve got the same goal in mind, and are intentionally and happily reaching out to help each other get there. As lonely and isolating as writing can be, this kind of group support is a real boon.

And it’s because of that support that I’m determined to make this the best book CMA will ever publish.

Fingers crossed!

(Shout out to Kristen McGregor for running this thing. It’s a HARD job. And she handles it with grace and perkiness. I admire that. And have no idea how she does it. Go, Kristen!)