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Melva McLean

An Editor in a Three-Day Writer’s Boot Camp, Day 1

A circle of white chairs with one red chair

Novelist’s Boot Camp

Travel Writing Boot Camp

Dissertation Writing Boot Camp

Resume Writing Boot Camp

Children’s Picture Book Boot Camp

Okay, STOP. Right there! Seriously? What could be less suited to boot camp than a kid’s picture book? What’s next? And when did the words “boot camp,” i.e., “a military training camp for new recruits, with strict discipline,” become an okay way to teach any kind of writing?

I recently asked myself that question while huddled in the corner cowering — whimpering, actually — on the third day of a three-day story editing boot camp. I should have been prepared for my eventual meltdown the very first hour of the very first day, when one of the drill quill sergeants said something like: “Everyone cries. At least once. That’s how we know we’re doing our job.”

A circle of white chairs with one red chairAnd when the other one looked around the room and asked, “Which one of you is the editor?” I should have just looked around the room and pretended it wasn’t me. Instead, I foolishly put up my hand. “Me,” I said, a lamb volunteering for slaughter. Looking back, I know they’d already picked me out as the weak one: the editor who thinks she can write AND edit her own work.

As an editor, I’d long ago adopted an old Sufi saying as my editing mantra: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it necessary?’ And, at the third gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it kind?’ ”

It never once occurred that there may be other forms of editorial intervention that work just as well. But this remark is said in hindsight. Within the first hour of the first day, I wasn’t prepared for one of the instructors who looked me in the eye and said, “The writing is good, but I’ve no hell of an idea of what it’s about. Don’t worry! We’ll make a man out of it.”

Well, she didn’t actually say that. That’s what I heard. That, and that maybe what I’d thought was truth: that this fifth (more like 15th) draft wasn’t perfect after all. Maybe I had “imagined” that they would love it. That I’d get heaps of praise for my “perfect child.” Not know what it was about? Were they blind?

As I slinked out of the main room to do rewrites — my tail firmly between my legs — it never occurred to me that the drill quill sergeant-in-charge was actually following my own (borrowed from the Sufis) rule of “Is it true?” That enlightenment would come 48 hours later. On the first day, in that first hour, I was a humbled grunt certain to be drummed out of camp by the end of the day.

…To be continued!

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