I first met author, editor, and blogger Kris Spisak at the 2015 James River Writers Annual Conference in downtown Richmond, Virginia, when I attended her Friday Master Class, “Nuts and Bolts: Editing your Work like a Pro.” She was an energetic, dynamic, and knowledgeable presenter, and I found the information she conveyed so helpful that the following day, instead of eating alone, I overcame the introverted tendency so stereotypical of writers and attended her Lunch and Learn, “Ask an Editor,” an informal, conversational lunch meeting during which writers could ask Ms. Spisak questions about the writing, revising, and publishing process (or sundry other topics).
Ms. Spisak is the author of the nonfiction work Alright? Not All Right: 100 Writing Tips for the Curious or Confused (read a review here), as well as a novel tentatively titled We’re All Mad Here, currently in search of its publication home.
I am delighted to present below my interview with Richmond-based author, editor, and blogger, Kris Spisak.
Mind the Dog: I’d like to begin by asking you a few questions pertaining to your two books. What was the inspiration for each one? Where did you get your ideas?
Kris Spisak: As an independent professional editor, I found myself addressing the same grammar flaws and incorrect word usage issues again and again, and because of this, I started my weekly writing tips blog in 2012. It started as a collection of notes for my clients and writing peers, and then it began to grow. Everyone writes, whether you consider yourself a “writer” or not, and I suppose that’s why my blog—which transformed into Alright? Not All Right—has found a surprisingly wide audience. Grammar jargon is intimidating. My goal has always been to simplify the answers and to interject some humor into the conversation.
My novel started as a work of literary fiction with a male protagonist battling mental health issues, their stigmas, and their effects on his life. It began as an idea over a decade ago that I just didn’t know what to do with. Of course, through the writing and rewriting process, my literary fiction turned into a literary thriller, and my protagonist declared she was female. Who knew? Certainly not me! The author might have the initial ideas, but sometimes the characters take control and decide to tell a different story. (The full manuscript of this book, tentatively titled We’re All Mad Here, is presently out with a number of literary agents, so fingers crossed!)
MTD: How long did each one take you to write?
KS: My writing process has been interrupted by births of children and births of businesses, but the short answer is that I wrote Alright? Not All Right from 2012 to 2015 and We’re All Mad Here from 2009 to 2015—though the “finished” date is rather loose on the latter since it hasn’t found a publishing home yet.
MTD: How many edits and/or drafts did each work go through before it was finished?
KS: It’s hard to definitively say a number of drafts, because I’m continually tweaking: changing a word here or there, cutting lines or adding depth to a moment, and shifting small details for maximum impact. I cannot count how many times I’ve gone through my manuscripts. But wasn’t it Da Vinci who said “Art is never finished, only abandoned”? I connect with that sentiment deeply. (Maybe it’s the editor in me.)
MTD: You’re an editor. I imagine letting others critique your work could be humbling and enlightening. Did your own errors surprise you? What did you learn from the process?
KS: I definitely have to swallow my pride a bit when other people read my early manuscripts, but the truth is, as writers, sometimes we know our stories so well in our heads that we can’t see what has actually translated onto the page. No matter who you are, having other eyes on your writing can make it better.
I might turn red-faced when my critique partner points out that I slipped up on one of my own grammatical pet-peeves, but it happens. That’s why there are early drafts. Story has to come first for me. Clean-up comes later.
MTD: Would you consider yourself a planner or a panster (or a planster!), and why?
KS: I am a planner, but I allow some liberties with that. In fiction, I outline plot-points, not full chapters. How my characters get from point A to point B isn’t always clear to me, but the fact that they will get from A to B usually is.
MTD: This is really interesting, as I would have guessed pantster based on the fact that you didn’t realize the protagonist in your novel was female. Could you say more about that?
KS: My liberties come with my characters. When different people are thrown into the exact same situation, they are going to react differently. While I might plan for ten major points across the arc of a story, my protagonist is the driving force of the plot. Sometimes, as I’m writing, my characters surprise me, rebelling against my plot structure or moving in the same direction I had planned but in a completely unpredictable manner. And where my characters lead, I have to follow. When I force a character to do something or be something against his or her will, the total story falls flat. If my very long process with We’re All Mad Here has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that.
MTD: I’d like to switch gears a little bit here and ask a few questions regarding Alright? Not All Right!, your e-mail newsletter, and your blog. What are your top-three grammar/mechanic pet peeves?
KS: Oh, just picking three is hard! I’ll go with:
- The misspelling of “y’all”
- Misleading quotation marks (when they are used for emphasis inappropriately)
- Confusion of “farther” and “further”
MTD: What are the most common errors you encounter in your clients’ work?
KS: Beyond the expected grammar flaws, there are two larger-level issues that are a regular part of my conversations—specifically characters that all have the same mannerisms, speech patterns, and emotional tics, as well as descriptions that leave a reader wanting more. (To see Kris’s in-depth explanation of these issues, click the hyperlinks.)
MTD: Your quarterly email newsletter includes a plethora of tips each time it goes out. How do you come up with ideas for tips to include in your regular newsletter—errors in works you edit?
KS: Errors in client work, bad writing on social media, confusing store signage, caught typos of my own—as anyone who pays attention knows, there are a lot of mistakes out there.
And because my blog has been steadily gaining a wider audience, I’ve started getting a lot of reader suggestions, too.
MTD: How can readers of this post make suggestions regarding writing errors they’d like to see addressed on your blog and/or in your newsletter?
KS: Dropping me a line via my website contact form would be fabulous. Thanks for asking!
MTD: I am always amazed at the amount of errors you address and all the information you know. How do you know all this?!
KS: Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, and I guess that has rubbed off a bit into my work as an editor. Sometimes I remember things I was taught, but I always have to double-check myself before I publish a post. There’s usually a rabbit hole of research behind each brief tip, and I’ve taught myself a lot of subtleties along the way.
MTD: I’d like to wrap up with some more general questions. What is your take on the Oxford comma?
KS: I’m an Oxford comma groupie.
MTD: What have been some of your career highs and lows, as both a writer and an editor?
KS: As an editor, some of my favorite moments have been hearing client success stories—agents acquired and Amazon bestseller lists achieved. As a writer, I’ve had a blast with my blog and writing tip book, but I’m personally hoping the best is yet to come with my fiction.
The lows can hit a writer hard through the different stages of this process—questioning whether you can do justice to the story you want to tell, whether an agent or publisher will ever want it, wondering how readers will respond, etc. We just have to have faith, keep writing, keep editing, and remember that this is a business of endurance as much as it is passion.
MTD: What do you love about writing? About editing?
KS: Both in my writing and my editing, my favorite place to work is where the right brain and left brain meet, where the craft and beauty of language meet the finite rules of grammar, where the creative process is entwined with research so little known you get to touch documents no one has given a second thought to for a hundred years.
MTD: What is your favorite work of literature and why?
KS: Anna Karenina for its complexities and its powerful inquiries into the nature of humanity; The Alchemist for its simplicity and motivational spirit.
MTD: Who is your favorite writer and why?
KS: You’d think this would be an easy question, but it really isn’t. Dorothy Parker, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Katherine Mansfield, Margaret Mitchell… oh, and I do love Shakespeare.
My favorite writers are full of more than stories. They’re full of language that can drip with beauty and/or wit and can still hit you to the core. I know my list is terribly incomplete. I need more time with this one!
Mind the Dog Writing Blog would like to express gratitude to Ms. Spisak for the time she took to answer the questions in such detail.