Monday, October 15, 2012

When Story Comes Together

This will be short and sweet, just a nice little bon mot I want to share.  This may not seem like much either, but trust me: the moment itself was huge.  

Earlier this week, my Egmont USA editor, Greg Ferguson, and I were going over his comments on MONSTERS, the last book in the ASHES trilogy, and we'd been on the phone a good hour and a half before finally getting around to talking about the last scene and sequence.  Greg asked a great question about how I wanted people to feel when all was said and done; I told him; and then he mentioned that, well, he thought that was true and the tone was nearly there, but he really suggested that we needed to look at this one sentence about three, four paragraphs from the very end.  I was a little puzzled because it seemed like a perfectly fine line to me.  But then he read the line out loud a couple times, and it was very strange . . . but hearing it come out of someone else's mouth really was a lightbulb moment.  I realized then that he was onto something; there was something not quite right about the sentence, although I was darned if I knew what it was.

So we played around with the sentence, pulling it apart, looking at all the words.  I wish I could say that  I figured it out first, but it was Greg who said, "Well, what if we get rid of the word but?  Change it from a conditional to an affirmation, something positive."  So he did just that, read the sentence back--and damn, if that one little word wasn't the make-or-break moment.  Simply brilliant.

Why do I even dwell on this?  Why is it worth tucking away as one of those fabulously collaborative moments that, all too often, we don't let ourselves experience?  Because: sometimes I think writers can get proprietary, losing sight of the huge contribution a very good editor can make toward shaping a manuscript.  I know a ton of writers who get all torqued when editors come at them with revisions or comments.  I've already admitted that, yes, the first edit letter I ever got from Greg made me collapse into a weeping puddle of goo because it was so detailed, I thought the guy truly hated what I'd written.  It took my husband to observe that, you know, the guy loved the series or he wouldn't have bought it; and another pro writer friend to point out that an editor who invested this much into producing such detailed notes and questions was a) rare and b) someone from whom I could learn a great deal.

If there's one thing I've repeated over and over again and in many different venues, it's this: not every word deserves to live.  A writer has to be ruthless when it comes to editing out extraneous stuff, and I'm pretty good when it come to throttling up my weed-whacker.  Normally, I'll kill about 15-20% of a final manuscript.  I'd like to think that I catch every errant word, but of course, I don't.  No one does.  But I guess I'm fixated on that single moment as a terrific example of what working with a gifted editor can be: not dictatorial but collaborative.  An editor like Greg is not only going through a manuscript with a flea comb; he's not only interested in pacing.  He's interested in how a book will make people feel.  He's invested in clarity.  We agonized over one bloody line because we both wanted the message to come across in a very particular way.  This wasn't about killing a word; it was about reinforcing an emotion.  

Now, am I saying that we let editors rewrite our work?  No.  Do we always agree?  Of course not.  Yes, we spin the stories.  Yes, sometimes it can feel as if the comments are nits and silly; I can always tell when Greg's getting punchy from the tone of a question, and we're comfortable enough with one another now that I can kid him about it, too.  

So, yeah, stick to your guns; defend your work because, when push comes to shove, no one cares as much about your book as you.  But always remember, guys: The best editors are, first and foremost, tremendous readers, people who want to be swept away into that perfect moment when story comes together and language does not fail.  


Jordan Dane said...

This is so true. If an author keeps an open mind, a good editor can shape a story into a better one through collaboration. But it's equally important for an author to have a vision for the story and keep and fight for what is essential.

Most authors don't get the attention of their editors, to rework one line, or spend nearly 2 hours on a call. But it's funny you mentioned hearing the line from someone else. I'm working with a narrator for an audio project. Since we write YA in first person (for the most part), hearing a young voice reading my words has made certain words stand out, maybe not in a good way. Maybe you're on to sonething, Ilsa. Read aloud teen beta readers.

Sechin Tower said...

Great points you bring up here.

It's always seemed to me that there are two kinds of writers: those who resent feedback, and those who are good writers.