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.

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