Monday, April 28, 2008

Editing for the Big Picture

Pencil in hand, I am reading the first draft of the manuscript sent to me by my new author, Tamarian Graffham. This is my absolute favorite part of being a publisher and is the number one reason I do this work. It's also the reason I keep looking for more authors, even though I have more than enough projects right now. Still, being the first to read these words, the two sides of my brain working cooperatively with my heart and gut, my Muse eagerly snatching each page as I finish them, the excitement of beginning to create a new book... this is why I am a publisher.

A lot of what I do is instinct. I have a knack for finding the heart of a story; discovering the threads that tie it together while cutting out what doesn't. But I've been trying to pin down what exactly it is I do.

I begin with what the writer told me the story is about. I'm not the writer, so I don't want the author to write like me. I want them to write in their own voice. My job is to make sure they're doing that. So if the author tells me her book is about a man who hunts the world for his lost love only to discover he never really loved her in the first place, then I'm going to look for those bits in the manuscript that perpetuate that. I ask lots of questions, like, why did he go to Cuba? What is it about this girl that haunts him? How did he discover he doesn't love her? Lots of "Why" type questions, and then even more "What if..." If I read something in the book that doesn't add to the story directly, then no matter how beautiful or inspired the prose, I say cut it. When the man goes to Japan and meets a woman who teachers him how to play pin-ball, that might be a fun part of the story, but how does it tie in with finding his lost love?

When I was working with Laura, she had many pages of beautiful prose about the landscape of Mendocino County. Really well written and lovely, but how did it help the flow of the book? Setting is important, but was the book about Mendocino County, or the students who live there? She slowly cut those passages down. It wasn't easy and I know it probably hurt "killing her darlings." But in the end, we both agree it tightened the pacing of the book and directed the focus on her and her students, which was where it needed to be. And now she has several pages of beautiful prose sitting in her laptop, waiting for the next book she wants to write, which will be perfect for those descriptions.

Tama's book is more about personal finance and day to day life. It's funny and well written, full of helpful advice about getting out of debt. So I am reading it with that in mind. What is the focus? Is this book a "how-to get out of debt" book or "personal essays about getting out of debt?" That question has to be answered early because both types of books have a different tone. Plus, Tama's voice is very strong and unique, so I am looking for the places in the writing where that voice is true, and highlighting the places where the voice is timid.

My strength at seeing the "big picture" is also my weakness in my own writing. One day, I went to Jody's house for a mocha and writing time. We worked together on our own projects for about two hours, then Jody decided she needed a break. She stretched and smiled and then told me about the scene she'd been working on in which the protagonist is trying to find her imaginary dog (read "Triple Shot Betty" to see why the protagonist is pretending to have a dog). She asked me what I was working on.

I said, "My characters have met, fallen in love, got engaged, got married, met his parents and are now setting out to find their own piece of land to farm."

Jody's eyes widened. "Wow! How many pages did you write?"


She stared at me for a moment, then she laughed. I thought about what I'd just said before I started laughing myself.

Um, Terena, I think you need to slow down.

So the "little picture" details aren't my strong point. That's why I work with Jody (who is the queen of sensory detail) and have my good friend Jane do the copy-editing at Medusa's Muse. The characters in my brain move too fast for me to write everything down. I always feel like I'm frantically chasing them across the page, which is actually an interesting reflection of my life, but that's another story.

When I work with another writer's work, I can see the patterns they've created and I can immediatly see the places where the pattern gets tangled. I love finding those knots and untangling them. My mom used to love untangling knotted up shoelaces and thread. You could give her a tangled knecklace you haven't been able to wear in months and she'd happily sit for thirty minutes gently pulling the knot apart. A story is my tangled knecklace.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Pub Day Weirdness

Confessions of a Triple Shot Betty, my first YA novel, hit stores yesterday. I had a good pub day, mostly. My editor sent me the sweetest little slideshow thingy. I googled myself incessantly. Our tractor finally got delivered. (I know. Tractor? But that’s another blog.) I went out to lunch with My Man. All things considered, it was lovely.

Okay, this is going to sound really ungrateful, but let’s face it: pub day is incredibly anti-climactic.

There’s a phenomenon that happens when you get something you’ve wanted for a long time—something you’ve waited for and built up to ridiculous proportions. It’s like Christmas when you’re little, or having sex for the first time when you’re a teenager: there’s so much build-up, so much pleasure in the experience of imagining what it might be like, that the actual event is just…not all that.

Like have you ever planned a vacation for ages and then you get there and your hair’s all flat from the plane and the tropical plants aren’t quite as…tropical as you imagined, and you flop down on the hotel bed going, “Is this it?”

Anyway, that’s kind of how pub day is. I’ve been through it four times now, and it’s always a little flat-hair-fresh-off-the-plane-strange. Just like with Christmas and sex and tropical vacations, you get past the sad little disappointed kid feeling and then you’re into it again, but somehow that moment has to be there. We need a word for that feeling.

I don’t know why we humans are built like that; I really don’t. My mom always used to say, “Anticipation is greater than the realization,” an expression my grandfather used before her. That little nugget of homespun wisdom conceals a deep human mystery. Maybe it’s that our imaginations can fly so high, our waking reality just can’t keep up with our sense of possibility.

Or, you know, maybe I’m just a spoiled little bee-atch…

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Boyfriend Deserves Better

I’ve decided my boyfriend needs a title upgrade. I just can’t decide what his new label should be.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about words (i.e. obsessing over them). Since I started writing Young Adult fiction, I’m particularly preoccupied with slang, that underground wellspring of youth culture that flows beneath the surface of Standard American English. I’m all for neologisms—we should definitely create words when nothing in the dictionary quite fits. Basically, I’m a connoisseur of weird and wonderful language, the more out there the better.

Despite these qualifications, I can’t find the right moniker for one of the most important people in my life: my boyfriend. David and I have been living together, writing together, making music together for more than seven years, so I feel like he deserves something a little less juvenile than "boyfriend," which was fine in sixth grade but feels a little weird now that I've hit my mid-thirties.

Here are the options I’ve considered and why they just don’t do it for me:

Standard Terms:

1) Husband: Well, for starters, we’re not married, and a huge part of why we’re not married is our mutual dread of what pops into our brains when we hear the word husband (and its counterpart, wife). I’m not dissing the happily marrieds out there—seriously, if it works for you, go for it—but for us, these words are tied to June and Ward Cleaver associations that are pretty much our antonym of sexy.

2) Partner: Ambiguous, sexless, politically correct, dry and way too 90s. It leaves the listener wondering: who am I referring to, exactly? My business associate? My lesbian lover? My buddy who works the same beat with me? It fails to communicate effectively, and it doesn’t even remotely sound like someone I plan to have sex with.

Less Standard, but still…not it:

3) Sweetie: Yikes. This one’s just a little too cute. It elicits images of puppies and big pink butt bows, neither of which belong in my love life.

4) My Guy: Suffers from the same issues as sweetie, with the Motown hit just adding to its singsong cuteness.

5) Lover: Though I often call him this in private, I’m just not comfortable using it in other contexts. It has the opposite problem of Husband and Partner; while those are virtually sexless, Lover is all sex. If I whip this one out at a faculty meeting or during lunch with an editor, it’s just way too graphic, implanting kinky images whether or not the listener really wants those mental pictures in their psyche.

I’m ready to coin a term, but it has to be fairly self-explanatory; otherwise it will require translation, during which I will inevitably end up using one of the despised synonyms listed above. Come on, fellow word-freaks, help me create or discover a word that grants him the respect and linguistic precision he deserves!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Everyone's a critic

One thing that happens after you sell/publish a book is that people ask you to read their manuscripts. Sometimes fellow writers are seeking feedback or constructive criticism; other times they're looking for blurbs to help them in their effort to sell their book. Sometimes, other published authors come a callin' to ask for blurbs for their front or inside covers (as I recently approached a number of successful and I guess I'd say, even more successful, authors).

The rate at which I've been asked to read manuscripts has increased a little lately, and it's got me thinking about how to approach this task with the attention, openness and humility it deserves.

First, there's critique. What sorts of feedback are really useful to a budding writer (or experienced auteur)? What kind of comments will keep them going rather than shut them down? At what point does attention to detail become nitpickiness? At what point in a work should you even ask for feedback? Is it better to offer your impressions in broad strokes, or line-edit/comment the manuscript? What do you think?

I have found that the approach that works best for me as a reader is to identify the manuscript's strengths and its weaknesses, and then look for concrete examples of these patterns to show the author. Although I may not find a manuscript to be a scintillating read -- either because it's not my preferred genre, or because the writing just isn't my cup of tea -- I can generally find several examples of good writing or technique, and I don't hesitate to share them with the writer. I think identifying patterns or tendencies is important, because it takes a long time to spot them in your own writing (good or bad).

It's quite humbling for someone to place their work in your hands. It's a brave act. I still have a terrible problem letting people read my work early on, and I believe my work has sometimes suffered for it (i.e., I have, on occasion, turned in what amounted to first drafts to my editor instead of polished manuscripts, thereby embarrassing myself). I'd like to help other writers be less precious about their work and learn to depersonalize critique to the extent that they can, in part because I think it will help me on my mission to do the same.

Finally...I would suggest that you take any critic's feedback with a grain of salt. It is highly subjective stuff, after all. It's almost impossible to consummate a work of fiction without some deeply felt convictions about character, plot or premise. Cling to those convictions even as you hear others' critiques of your work, because you'll need to return to them time and time again to remind yourself why you entered this mad escapade in the first place; the purity of the original idea motivates as no other factor can.