Editor interview: Jordan Kantey on helping writers

Now Novel co-founder Brendan McNulty and editor Jordan Kantey chat about the rewards of editing and working with writers, writing advice, first drafts and more in this article from our ‘meet the team’ series.

On coaching and editing writers

Brendan McNulty 00:12
So Jordan, you’ve done quite a bit of coaching in addition to editing over the years. Can you tell me what’s the most fulfilling part of coaching?

Jordan Kantey 00:23
I think really the connections you make with people, and seeing their work grow. Seeing their writing style, their story, develop. And you get to be a part of such diverse storytelling and make these really real connections.

I mean, previous clients still send me pictures of their dogs and their artworks and things. So there’s this amazing sense of connection and community you build with other … with writers. I said ‘other writers’ and stopped myself. But I suppose I am a writer in a sense, but I’m more of an editor.

There’s an incredible sense of insight you get from working with people in this very 1-on-1, very revealing way. People are all writing such different stories, and bring such different personalities and histories and experiences to bear on their writing.

On writing about fiction writing

Brendan McNulty: 01:22
I say the same thing and I’m not even involved in the editing or the writing part of things, but actually helping someone achieve their dreams – it’s a really gratifying part of working at Now Novel. You’re helping people to achieve something that’s a deep-set, internal desire, aim need. It’s fun.

You’ve written hundreds of articles over the last few years, and that’s not an exaggeration.

If you look at them, which article or articles do you think people should be paying more attention to or should be reading, and why?

Jordan Kantey: 02:22
I think people should pay attention to reading the things that serve them and that they want to read. So I wouldn’t want to determine that too much.

I think I wrote a post on short story structure where I drew on some examples from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose writing I absolutely love. It’s fantastic. I think that piece meshed together quite well.

I think it’s always a challenge with writing to choose which doors to open and which to close, and which way the thing goes. The structure and so forth.

That’s one of the pieces I wrote for the blog where it felt like it all hung together pretty well. It’s always a process of … you have an idea, and then the execution, and the two don’t always align completely and perfectly.

So there’s always a sense of ‘could have been’. Or I think many writers grapple with that feeling of knowing where you want to draw the line versus where you end up drawing the line. When something is done, when there’s something more you could add.

It’s a kind of endless process which is also why we update posts on the blog fairly often. I would definitely say I would like people to read what speaks to them, rather than tell people what to read.

Editor Jordan Kantey on drawing the line and scope in creative work

On a story’s scope and drawing the line

Brendan McNulty 03:35
We’ll add a link to that specific article in the comments. Can you go into a little bit more detail what you mean by ‘which doors to open and which doors to close’?

Jordan Kantey 03:53
Well I think in creative process … I think it’s Plato who talks about the ethical act, but I think also the artistic one, is drawing a line in the sand. So knowing where to start something, where to end something, what to include, what to leave out.

Silence and gaps as part of the work

I think it was Italo Calvino who writes about ‘the halo around what’s said’. So it’s like what you say … there’s also blank space and silence around it (not to get too esoteric).

In Japanese music, for example, there’s a concept of ma, I think, which is silence [or rather, the potential within emptiness – Ed’s note] and that’s an integral part of the music. So it’s not just sound, it’s also where you stop, where you maybe skip over something.

It’s a challenge, I think, of all creative disciplines. I mean, visual art as well. The blank page; where you make the mark. So I think in writing the blog there’s that same sense of challenge that one has in writing fiction as well, of, ‘Where do I start? Where do I stop? What’s the scope of this?’

It’s a little bit easier I think in non-fiction or the ‘how to do X, Y, Z’ type of discussion. Because there’s a parameter that’s a little bit narrower. But I think having those parameters is very helpful in creative process. Because it just gives you a sense of shape and scope, and where to start and where to stop, or it can go on forever.

I mean, you could write a blog post that’s 100,000 words if you wanted to.

On common mistakes in writing

Brendan McNulty: 05:21
I mean I think that’s quite difficult … for a writer, knowing the scope of how to tame that.

Again I’m moving to another hat. But looking at your editing work, you give a lot of critique on writers’ work on Now Novel’s critique forums. In terms of shaping, or in terms of anything, what do you find is the most frequently occurring mistake that people make?

Jordan Kantey: 06:02
It’s interesting, because, I think, people make different mistakes. Or … it’s not only mistakes, but sometimes someone has very well-developed style, but they have a lot of language errors (which are very easy to fix for an editor).

It’s always a win for an editor for it just to be little remedial tweaks rather than everything all at once.

I think, in terms of beginning writers, often … It depends on genre as well, I mean each genre also has their tropes or their things that are maybe a bit played out.

So there are content issues, there are language issues, there are style/idiom … and it’s not always even an issue. Sometimes people make choices where maybe X choice doesn’t fit with Y format or genre.

So it’s not just a matter of errors people make, but also what works and what doesn’t work, I suppose. One only gets a sense of that through doing a lot, through editing a lot, through writing a lot. So I think that’s … it’s a hard thing to answer because it’s not one single thing.

A lot of the time I’m critiquing people’s work that’s from the beginning stages, and a lot of the time it’s things like not having a clear hook. Not having a succinct setup where the reader’s lured in and says, ‘Ok I’m going to keep reading. I’m going to keep turning pages.’

So I think there’s that element of understanding how a story works and the crucial parts of a story that I think comes with experience and also just with lots of reading.

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On pithy writing advice

Brendan McNulty: 07:42
So I’m going to ask you a question that you haven’t been prepared for. I’m going to make it a difficult one to encompass a lot of the skills that you pursue.

If you had the ability to tape one post-it on all the writers’ that you see’s computers so that they would follow this rule to improve their writing, but you have a post-it-sized piece of paper, I know there are things such as ‘show, don’t tell’. There are all sorts of adages and ways of writing.

What would you think would be the most valuable piece of information you could give them?

Jordan Kantey: 08:45
You’re asking an indecisive person very difficult questions [laughs].

I think they would be quite simple. They would be things like, ‘Have fun.’ Because I think so often in creative process one can make it a chore and a stress and an anxiety.

And I think ‘confidence’, partly – what people call ‘confidence’ (and I’m not sure I love the ‘cult of confidence’ because I think doubting yourself is a very valuable trait that’s maybe not common enough in the world, in some ways). But I think having fun, trusting in yourself. Because I think a lot of beginning writers are looking for external validation of what they have already.

They already have something, and they just need to listen to that something. Whether it’s a passion for a subject, or a genre, or whatever it may be. They have that spark, and then it’s just a matter of doing and doing and doing.

So I’d say ‘Have fun’, and ‘writing is rewriting’. There are so many different things. But I think a lot of people also expect the first draft to come out word-perfect and the unfortunate thing is some people are upset to hear feedback on something the feedback giver knows and is aware is in the early stages.

You only know what you know from doing, and if you haven’t written, for example, four or five drafts of the same story, you don’t know what’s not working yet as well as you do when you’re at that point.

Jordan Kantey fiction editor on trusting in your ability

On favorite genre fiction

Brendan McNulty: 10:22
So I think you’ve got enough space on your post-it to write, ‘Enjoy yourself’ and ‘Writing is rewriting’. I think those are good processes and things to follow.

Jordan Kantey: 10:38
I think we can also overcomplicate things. Tasks. In a way that becomes an enemy to progress and to creativity. I know I do that [laughs] so I can relate.

Brendan McNulty: 10:50
Ja, double-thinking and overthinking is a challenge.

In terms of your preferences, genre fiction is one of them. What is your favorite work of genre fiction?

Jordan Kantey: 11:10
Oof, that’s also tough. There are so many wonderful books. I really love A Wizard of Earthsea.

I just really love Ursula Le Guin’s writing generally. She writes incredible essays as well and she interviews well. Her books of essays are as good as any literature, as far as I’m concerned.

I love her writing, it’s very deep but very simple. She studied the Tao … I think she did a translation of it as well – the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, which is all that very aphoristic, fragment-style Chinese philosophy. She’s just fantastic.

I don’t actually read that much genre fiction, I read a lot more literary fiction and classic fiction, which I’m trying to curb.

I’m trying to read more genre because … we had a fantastic interview and chat with a member who writes sci-fi last night. And the more I speak to genre fiction authors, the more I think I’m missing out on all these wonderful genres. So I need to get out of my contemporary slash realist slash literary fiction -loving ways.

As a child growing up, as a kid, I read almost exclusively fantasy. So I think I got to the point where I almost overdid it on that genre. But I’m enjoying getting back into it via our members and via the editing I do sometimes. But I loved the Narnia series, I must have read that about seven, eight, nine, ten (by C.S. Lewis) times, because of the fantasy of it.

And of course you can’t talk about fantasy without talking about The Lord of the Rings which is just so rich and dense and fantastic.

On the most helpful part of Now Novel

Brendan McNulty: 12:54
Ja, so I also read a whole lot of sci-fi/fantasy when I was growing up, but I’ve moved away and now I’ve got a friend who’s a big sci-fi nerd so she shares books with me and recommendations. So it’s quite interesting to go back into different genres and explore things.

Jordan Kantey: 13:16
Ja, absolutely.

Brendan McNulty: 13:19
So Jordan, for my last question, I’m going to ask you – because you know so much about the Now Novel process and helping people (and actually creating it), what do you think the most helpful part of Now Novel is?

Jordan Kantey: 13:36
I think it’s the interaction. It’s the coaching, it’s … in our live webinars where we have Q&As and so forth. And writing sprints in our Group Coaching course.

There are so many opportunities to connect with people who have a real passion for words and writing and storytelling, and a deeper understanding (and a different understanding). So coaches have different areas they may specialize in, such as memoir or fantasy or whatever it may be. And then having those conversations.

I really, really value the connections I’ve built up with our members on the site. I mean, people have shared everything from major life milestones to medical diagnoses, to … People share, the most personal … you know, what friends share with each other, what family members share with each other.

So there’s that real sense of community that I think is helpful as a writer to have. Because writing can be a very solitary and even lonely process. And I think many of the great writers have had fantastic support networks. If you look at the Inklings with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, or if you look at the Bloomsbury group.

There are a lot of groups of writers and writing circles and MFA classes. You have amazing discussion groups in college when you do literature (I just did literature, not an MFA).

You have this amazing sense of community, and people bring such valuable, deep perspective and insight from their own interesting vantage points. But I really think that community aspect is most helpful. And of course the tools we worked on are great, but we’re also still iterating on those.

Brendan McNulty: 15:17
Everything can’t be the best, and I think having the ability to learn from lots of people and different perspectives and having that personal connection is an extremely valuable part of Now Novel, too. Jordan thanks for chatting to us, and getting to know you a little bit better. See you on [indistinct] or on Q&As or wherever.

Jordan Kantey: 15:45
Great, thank you. Thanks for the chat.

About Jordan

Writer and editor Jordan Kantey

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and Language and his undergrad in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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By Brendan McNulty

Brendan McNulty is one of the founders of Now Novel. He helps to improve the website, and loves getting writers' feedback to make Now Novel better.

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