Return, Old Soul, & Get It

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The Sankofa bird flies forward while looking backward with a precious egg in its mouth. “Sankofa” comes from an Akan word and proverb that reminds us to remember our past while we work to forge our future. The egg represents the wisdom of yesterday and the hope we hold for tomorrow.

Ten years ago this month my second book was published. It was the sequel anthology, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, and it came out in hardcover from Warner Aspect (aka Hachette). Dark Matter: Reading the Bones would go on to win my second World Fantasy Award, but when it was first published, awards were the furthest thing from my mind. I had no idea that such an honor would come again. Nor did I know that later the water would rise, overtaking Mississippi and New Orleans, or that my mother would become ill. At the time I was just thrilled that the work was done and that one of my favorite artists, Daniel Minter, had agreed to create an original painting for the cover.

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I didn’t know what Daniel had in mind, but when my editors Betsy Mitchell and Jaime Levine shared it with me, I was thrilled. I kept hoping that all the great writers in Dark Matter would like it, too. Daniel’s beautiful art evoked the mystery and spirit of the collection. And what I see in it is also an evocation of that mysterious process, of creation, of storytellers and painters, poets and quilters, music sangin’ muses, of folks who try to make something out of the ether, out of their own imaginations, never knowing how their vision may come true.

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(giftshop display at the Studio Museum in Harlem during the Shadows Took Shape Afrofuturism exhibit)

Creating Dark Matter was a wonderful journey. It took a great deal of work, both volumes did, and I was fortunate to be working with many capable hands. My publisher and editors were pretty awesome, and my team. Yes, I had the best publicists, first Jonathan and then Linda, our copyeditors who embraced all kinds of Black Vernacular with style and grace. Just wow! And didn’t we party? I had great writers from coast to coast who journeyed with me from the stage with Sun Ra’s Arkestra at the Knitting Factory in New York to readings and science fiction/academic conventions, to the prisons upstate. We did the thing, and thanks to everyone’s effort, we did it well.  And this in the age before social media, before Facebook and Twitter, before Kickstarter campaigns. We did it!

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I’m still pinching myself a little, even ten years later (fourteen if I reach back to the very first volume). People think editing is an easy thing. And when they speak of it, I just smile because I realize that they simply have no idea, or rather, they have other ideas that don’t quite ring true. Reading is one head space that requires a specific set of skills and awareness. Writing is quite another space or several! Yes, I feel sometimes as if I am traveling through many other spaces, listening to the spirits when I am writing. But when editing, you have to leave part of yourself at the door. You have to tell some of those other parts of yourself to relax, Love, sit down a spell, and enjoy a sip of sweet raspberry lemonade, so you can think. You have to place what is left of your personality, your interests aside, and gently inhabit another sacred space—the space of someone else’s writing.  They are trusting you to enter them gently, to do so with absolute focus, with their best interest and goodwill in mind. To do that, you have to be like Stevie. You have to tune yourself in the key of their life.  Take on the rhythms and cadences of their language for a short spell so you can hear the story they are trying to tell readers. You must try to see through their eyes, see what they are trying to show you.  And that, friends, is the first reading, the one when you are trying to read for pleasure.

During that first reading, you make mental notes and quickly jot down any moments or thoughts that interfere and impede the process. With some writers, you are simply shaking your head with pleasure, nodding and jotting down quick, unedited praise.  If I edit you, you will also read where I smiled and laughed aloud, where you made me think and feel, where I was worried for your characters or cheered them on. I think sharing that experience with writers can be helpful, as it encourages them to keep most of that good stuff in. Don’t want them mucking with the magic!

The first reading is always exciting to me, because I feel for a few seconds like a child again, sitting down eager for somebody to tell me a good story, please. That’s right, story time, the best time for the inner self. It’s that alrighty now second stage reading when you come in with your pencil (and/or digital review Post-its) in hand. At this point, you’re not sipping lemonade anymore; you are going in to make sure you read what you thought you read. Here is when you begin teasing out for the writer possible places for improvement. You are returning to the moments that pulled you out of the story, broke the spell.  You examine awkward language and syntax, places where the storytelling starts and stops, etc. It’s that itchiness in the back of your brain that tells you something might be off.  I will read your work aloud, again and again. This is when I line edit where necessary, but it’s the full narrative flow, plotting, pacing, and characterization that the editor really focuses on. For me, it’s about being able to hear, see, feel, and believe that a character is real.  My editor/reader/writer self needs to know that your characters have a real life, strengths and imperfections, or motivations that draw me in and make me curious and want to know about what they’re doing (or not doing) and what’s going to happen to them.

As an editor, line and developmental, you are the author’s trusted set of eyes that don’t belong to family members, beloved friends, or your personal writing circle. You are that outsider looking in, but to do this, you have to train yourself to inhabit the writer’s unique creative space.  It is at this point in the process, when you go ahead and invite those other parts of yourself to quietly tip-toe back in the story’s space. As an editor, you will need to rely on a team of many.  I invite my reading-for-pleasure self to help the editing self create that delicate fine balance that’s so critical, the one where you don’t mess up somebody’s story! You don’t want to come in all Bamm-Bamm on it, and yet you are the editor, so the writer is also trusting you not to waltz in the dandelion weeds and the violets. It’s true, writers develop thick skins over time.  It doesn’t mean that they become callous or immune to criticism and feedback.

So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds

And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds

So says Brother Countee Cullen. Writers grow a stronger tolerance to gain insights from feedback whenever possible. They use that strength to carry on with their dreams. They develop this over many years of drafts, revisions, rejections, and cycles of productivity and the necessary lulls. Writers need to know what is working right now and what to revisit.

Editing is at times a solitary task and then it becomes communal. You and the author work together to bring readers the best version of the story the author wants to tell.  I think it is a tremendously beautiful, challenging, and yes, humbling and exciting experience—but it is also work. Don’t mistake that it isn’t. It’s different work from writing. Writers work very hard to create their stories and to become better at editing themselves. And as a writer, I know it’s sometimes hard enough conjuring those sacred spaces, building and rebuilding that faith in yourself. But editing, especially editing another writer’s words, is hard work.

And on that note, may the good spirit bless all my editors, publishers, mentors, and my literary agent Marie Dutton Brown, all the fine folk who have been in my life.  I thank you for your time, your faith, and your good energy!

Sheree Renée Thomas

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