Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Drinks Night Reminder & Editorial Metaphor

A reminder for all you NYC folk: The Children's Book Bloggers Night is this Thursday at Sweet & Vicious, near the intersection of Spring Street and the Bowery (6 to Spring St., B/D/F/V to Broadway-Lafayette, N/R to Prince). The weather should be pleasant and they have a nice garden in back, so come have a drink and hang out with Betsy and me, starting roundabout 6 p.m. Hope to see you there!

I'm now working on my SCBWI talk for next weekend, "The Art of Detection: One Editor's Tips on Analyzing and Revising Your Novel" (that title from memory and therefore possibly mistaken). The topic comes from the excellent advice you, my dear readers, gave me way back in June; the title from Sherlock Holmes's opus on his craft, as the conference has a mystery theme. And I will be talking about some ways you might take a step back from your work -- the same distance an editor has -- think about its strengths and weaknesses, and determine how you might enhance the one and remove or disguise the other.

I hope that's what I'll do, anyway, because I love talking about editing and how stories work, and good LORD I can get easily distracted from my point as I'm doing it. I'm not sure this is going to go in the talk (here's a little sneak preview if it is), but this is my favorite metaphor about editing:

Editing is like rebalancing the tires on your car. The goal is to take the reader on a journey from point A to point B, but to do that in a smooth, straightforward manner, all the wheels on the book need to be in balance. The four wheels are the character wheel, the plot wheel, the writing wheel, and the point wheel: who are these people, what who they are makes happen, how the story is told, and what it all means. The editor looks at how each of these wheels are contributing to the forward motion of the overall vehicle and suggests inflating, deflating, or changing the tires as necessary.

  • Sometimes you have to fill out or change characters to give the action credibility. The boy goes into a murderous rage when he sees the dead cat -- why? Perhaps he needs a backstory where, say, his abusive father kicked the family cat right before he killed the boy's mother, and so the boy is flashing back to that painful moment when he sees the dead cat and that's what drives him to attack the bully who killed the cat. Or something like that. (Note that the character tire cannot be overinflated: Only rarely does a writer need to know less about an important character, although that does not mean that the writer needs to tell the reader everything s/he knows.)
  • Sometimes you have to revise the action because it's illogical according to the logic of the book (particularly the magical logic in a fantasy), because it doesn't jibe with what we know of the character, because your protagonist isn't driving the action, or because nothing is really happening and it's boring.
  • Sometimes you have to change the point of view. Or cut out dead-weight prose that's cluttering the scene or a joke. Or dramatize a scene that's told to us, or tell us a scene that doesn't deserve the weight of being dramatized for us. Or change or cut words or sentence structures that are repeating too closely and therefore jarring to the ear. (Yes, we do go into this much minute detail.)
  • And there needs to be a point--not a moral, but an effect or thought the writer is going toward, which the reader feels or understands after having read the book. Usually the protagonist will be discovering this point as well in the course of the action; and the fact that s/he does so causes things to change for him/her in the novel.

And these are just a few examples of all the things that can need to be thought about or revised in a manuscript. . . . Indeed, there are so many ways books can go wrong that I'm sometimes amazed there are so many that go right in the end, and end in delight for us all -- Millicent Min, Girl Genius; The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, by Jaclyn Moriarty; the Casson and Exiles novels by Hilary McKay; Because of Winn-Dixie; and many others.

And of course -- very important -- it needs to be new, through the voice, the story, the characters, the perspective: something true and of the writer's own. I was running this morning in Prospect Park and "Move On" from Sunday in the Park with George came on my iPod:

Look at what you've done,
Then at what you want
Not at where you are, what you'll be . . .

Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be true.
Give us more to see . . .

That is what I want to see in submissions, and what I want to help my authors achieve in their books.


  1. I can't even tell you how jealous I am of your England vacation! Chatsworth sounds lovely. It is now on my must-do list for when I go back to the UK.

  2. I wish I were in NY.
    I need to get Sunday in the Park with George. I have an image of the painting as my desktop wallpaper on my work computer to remind me that my writing is waiting for me when I get discouraged having to be the 'dayjob me'.
    Thank you for the information you put in your blog and on your website. Having read Pride and Prejudice at least once for every year of my life, your lecture transcripts have helped me with my novel. The tire metaphor will, also.

  3. Cheryl! “…end in delight for us all…”

    Yes! Yes! Internet high five! I love that feeling of closing a book with a sigh of satisfaction and it leaves a smooth taste in your mouth, that warm feeling like you’ve just eaten an excellent meal with friends.

    I finally finished “Master and Commander” and the ending did surprise me. I was expecting the big “Star Wars” ending, with a boatload of trumpets proclaiming the triumph of our plucky heroes kicking major bad guy butt. Instead there was a different kind of victory that was completely and utterly more satisfying. It snuck up on me like a puzzle where you can’t tell what the picture is going to be until the last piece is in place, then “whoa”! Captain Aubrey acted not in a predictable way but in one that, having lived with the character for several hundred pages, made delicious sense.

    It did take a while to get use to the heavy use of period detail; did I really need to know that the logs were kept in a tidy copperplate? (Actually from a typographer’s point of view that was interesting.) And about the fourth time Dr. Maturin was dissecting a Macadamian Fruit Lemur, or some such thing, I wanted to call O’Brian at home at three in the morning and yell, “I get it! He dissects things! Constantly! Can’t you have him doing something else in a scene to show he’s brilliant Enlightenment guy?” But these are small, undeserved nitpicks, like criticizing a good Cabernet for not being sweet. I’m off to buy “Post Captain”.

    Good luck with your talk, I know you will rock the house, and thank you, thank you for sharing this gold.


  4. Oh, for drinks with the bloggers! I hate to miss it but the bass player is back from two weeks away, and so Thursday night band practice is, well, NECESSARY. Another time.

  5. Hi Cheryl!

    Wow! Your editorial "nuggets" are fantastic. While editing, I think many writers just do what feels right. We're so into our characters, it's hard to look at the story in terms of mechanics and "moving the car forward."

    I guess that's why we have editors! Thanks for sharing. I'm going out to rotate my tires now.


  6. My problem with the tire metaphor is that it seems like my car actually has about 50 or more tires, some of which are invisible to my eyes, though I have a bad feeling that everyone else can see them. And the tires like to come off the car and roll away at odd moments and I have to chase them. And the spare is flat and I can't find the tire jack.

    Maybe I'd better go to sleep!