Aileen Brenner ’09 Edits Full-Length Novel
As a student, Aileen Brenner worked in the space between theater and literature, between the performance of the text on the stage and the breaking down of the text on the page. In all of this, she fed her enthusiasm for the well-turned sentence. While an undergrad, Aileen was an active participant in Riverside Players and President of Fakespeare, both Shakespeare-inspired, comedic acting troupes. She also served as Editor-In-Chief of the print yearbook The Pegasus from 2007-2009.
These days, Aileen works as an editorial and advertising assistant for Trial Magazine (American Association for Justice) during the day. At night, she has been working as a freelance editor in the wider world of fiction. The first of her edited books has just been released and she is as proud a mother as the author herself. I would describe Aileen’s experience working with up-and-coming author Gretchen Powell, but she says it so much better herself:
“I met Gretchen through my sister, who roomed with her their freshman year at JMU, and I got to know her better when she began blogging at Honey I Shrunk the Gretchen. We talked about writing every now and then, and even more so after I began blogging at Army Pants and Flip Flops.
Although our blogs are both nonfiction writing, Gretchen and I share an outside interest in dystopian fiction. She originally sent me just a few chapters of her first draft of Terra. She knew I was a fan of the genre and also a practiced copy editor, and she was hoping for some feedback about the set-up of the world and ideas, and her writing.
From that initial read, I was already hooked on the story and the world Gretchen had created. I gave her feedback in the style I’d learned to give feedback to playwrights working on new plays; having never edited a fiction novel before, I relied heavily on the lessons I learned during my writing workshops and drama classes at WAC, and from working at the PlayPenn New Play Development conference with Professor Michele Volansky. I instantly found that working with a new fiction draft (and a fiction writer) is strikingly similar to working with a playwright on a new play–both must define a foreign but distinct world for a new audience, and both must give us characters who define that world and draw us into it with their urgency. In giving Gretchen my initial feedback, I posed a lot of questions about her world and her characters, and it opened up a good dialogue for us to continue discussing her plot points, her characters, and the development of Terra’s story and context.
When Gretchen began writing Terra (her first novel, and also the first novel in a planned trilogy), she decided to self publish. There’s still a very real stigma attached to self publishing; it’s perceived as something of a last resort for writers who can’t get a publisher to sign on for their book idea. And I’ll admit that I was a little wary of this at first as well. But Gretchen really did her research about self publishing; she had plans and lists and spreadsheets for everything from marketing, to page layout, to e-book conversions, to registering for an ISBN. Gretchen didn’t only write a book–she plunged into the entire publishing process head first, and I’m pretty sure she hasn’t slept for more than an hour a night for the last year.
Because Gretchen was self publishing, she was very proactive about seeking the outside help she’d need. After I provided her with initial feedback and we began a discussion about the book, we quickly spiraled into a writer-editor relationship. When she finished her first draft, we went through it together chapter by chapter, and scene by scene, to determine what was currently working, and what needed to be clarified, reworked, or cut completely. Because I was seeing the book with fresh eyes, I was able to point out inconsistencies and plot holes that Gretchen (after having read her book hundreds of times) wasn’t able to see on her own. In the first two drafts, I focused mostly on bigger issues like plot, structure, character development, and the chronology of events. I sometimes marked up margins with so much text, that the questions and comments I had were twice as long as the scene they referred to. We spent a lot of time rearranging and reordering scenes, and Gretchen took my suggestions truly to heart; she was learning the pain involved in the editing process, which sometimes meant cutting full scenes and rewriting entire chapters that she’d really grown to love.
Gretchen and I went back and forth; I questioned and scrutinized every passage that lacked detail, every line of dialogue, and every character’s motivation. In his Acting I class at WAC, Dale Daigle teaches that, as an actor, you must always be able to answer three questions for your character at any given point in a scene: Who am I? Where am I? and What do I want? Using these questions, Gretchen and I painstakingly accosted each character, in each scene, in her nearly 300-page book, to make sure we could justify every single action and reaction, and what it meant to the book and the story as a whole.
Throughout the editing process, my biggest challenge was to re-read the book for consistency after we’d added, edited, or removed scenes and plot points. Which happened sometimes three or four times a day. By the time Gretchen’s third draft rolled around, I knew her world and her characters inside and out. Once we were satisfied with structure and consistency, we began to hone in on tightening up and clarifying her language. Although I had gone into editing her book with an eye for copy editing, I wanted to make sure to devote time to each piece of punctuation and each use of a proper noun to make sure it was telling the story accurately. Gretchen did run her more completed drafts through an outside copy editor, which not only gave her a third pair of eyes, but made sure her language was as defined as possible as well.
I’m so proud of the final product. Gretchen has been overwhelmingly thankful to me, and it has been fun and rewarding to be part of her journey, and Terra’s journey. The editing process was often stressful; when deadlines are involved, you start to wonder if taking the time to flesh out all the finer details is really worth the result. Luckily, Gretchen and I reached an understanding early on that we were committed to making this book into the best version of itself, despite what that meant for our sleep schedules and sanity. I’m signed on as editor for the next two books, and I think Terra’s readers will be surprised and pleased about what’s to come.”
Congratulations, Aileen, on your adventures in publishing! Now we have another book to add to our Winter Break Reading List.
To read the first two chapters of Terra for free, just click here. If those first two chapters hook you, buy the book here.