The Hidden Partner
Q1: What do these books have in common--
The Book Thief; Wonder; Anna and the Swallow Man…?
Q2: And these--
The Book of Dust; The Running Dream; Walk Two Moons…?
Q3: And these--
The Fault in Our Stars; The Inquisitor’s Tale; If I Stay…?
The short answer is that each book within a given group was edited by the same editor. (Erin Clarke for group #1, Nancy Siscoe for #2, and Julie Strauss-Gabel for #3.) These were off the top of my head, but I could have listed a dozen books for each (also acclaimed works) or I could have listed a dozen other editors (also equally talented) and the list would’ve had the same upshot.
My point is not that there’s a stylistic commonality among the books of each group. (If there is, I fail to see it.) It’s actually that there isn’t a formula to these acquisitions. The commonality is both broader and deeper: each of these books is—first and foremost—a good story. A story that comes from a real place within the author… a place of passion, of belief, of heart. And a good editor knows that if the author has passion for the story and the editor responds to that passion, there’s a strong possibility readers might respond to it, too. So the “formula” is that good editors acquire good stories. Stories they respond to. Stories they believe in.
And once they acquire such a story, what do they do with it? Well, what they don’t do is re-write it. Some editors are writers (David Levithan comes to mind) but that doesn’t mean they push their own prose on the author’s work. (Do you see any of Tiny Cooper in The Scorpio Races? At all? Me neither.) But many editors aren’t writers. In a sense, they’re fundamentally readers. Perhaps the best readers ever. They read broadly, and passionately, and deeply. They can go through a manuscript and pay close attention to their own responses, then expertly articulate which parts work and which don’t, and why. And they can suggest which path the author might take to make the story stronger. But once on that path, it’s the author’s job to write the words that strengthen the book, not the editor’s.
Something else editors don’t do: they don’t overly concern themselves with spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I mention this because I’ve seen (often, and recently) indie writers comment that of course they had an ‘editor’ go through their manuscript and make sure everything was legal—spelling/grammar/punctuation-wise—before they pressed “publish”. That’s a great idea, as far as it goes, but in the Venn diagram of publishing there’s very little overlap between that and what an actual editor does. (And by actual editor, I’m including professional freelance editors as well as editors at publishing houses, so none of us is off the hook here.) Editors are mainly concerned with the big-picture issues that can make or break a manuscript… does the story work as a story? Are the characters’ actions believable? Is the protagonist actually likeable (if that’s the author’s intent)? Does the prose flow, without getting in the way of the story (or worse, taking the reader out of the story?). Is the dialog realistic, as opposed to being a thinly-disguised vehicle for exposition? Are the characters self-consistent, and do their motives and emotions somewhat replicate those of actual living, breathing human beings? And of course, is the story about something of interest and import… is there an underlying theme that adds that extra layer of significance to what might otherwise just be characters moving through a plot?
These are all things the writer needs to concern herself with too, of course, but these are also the very issues we can become blind to, as we get too close to the story after having lived with it for so long. (With multiple re-reads, the specific text of a manuscript can seem almost inevitable after a while, making it hard for us to really see it, let along change it.) Which is yet another reason for editors—to get a fresh set of eyes upon the work, with a fresh viewpoint. (Specifically, a set of eyes lacking that stifling “It’s always been this way, so it has to remain this way” belief.)
Sure, during the course of their many trips through the manuscript editors will make note of typos and punctuation errors as they notice them. But it’s more an afterthought, as these are largely mechanical and don’t affect the fundamental nature of the story. Plus, editors have editors. They’re called copyeditors, and they back up the editor and author regarding all the potential mechanical errors that might accrue over 100,000 words. But even they go far beyond spelling and punctuation. Their brief includes chronological continuity (accurate accounting of times and dates between scenes), consistency of dialog with individual characters, notes about the vibe and grammatical consistency of voice throughout the text (casual vs. formal, etc.), as well as overall fact-checking of virtually everything in the manuscript. (If you write about a character driving a “Ford Camaro,” believe me—you’ll hear from your CE about it!)
So we know what editors don’t do. But what do they do? In short, they do magic. They take a good story and—working in concert with the author—bring all of their skill and passion and talent to bear in an effort to make it the best version of that story possible. Just like a good partner should.
So yes, absolutely—double and triple-check the spelling and punctuation and grammar of your finished/revised/polished manuscript before taking it to the next stage, whatever that is. But if you want the best for your story, also consider the vital step of having it fall under the eyes of an experienced editor. Your story—and your readers—will be better off for it.
Finding a Way In and a Way Out
I’ve come to realize that I might approach my writing a little differently than some (which is probably a universally-true statement). Including when it comes to deciding what to write next. I suppose if I had something hanging over me like a contract for multiple books about specific subjects due by specific dates—i.e. a tightly scheduled series—I’d probably fall back on my non-fiction experience and just try to get down to it without a lot of forethought.
But I don’t, and so I don’t. Instead I ponder. Play what if? Run different scenarios past myself and see if any of them light a fuse. And even when I stumble across something I find really interesting, there are two things I have to have before I’ll consider starting on it: A way in. And a way out. And though it may sound like it, these phrases don’t have much to do with plotting or writing mechanics.
“Finding a way in” doesn’t mean crafting the opening sentence (or scene, or even chapter). Those are obviously important to a strong manuscript, but even more vital is that you—as the author—have a visceral connection to the story. Something upon which you can hang your heart. Otherwise you might have a well-plotted tale, but you won’t be fully invested on an emotional level. People will forgive occasional plot holes or coincidences or shaky continuity (watched TV lately?) but not emotional distance between the story and the writer. Because that typically translates to emotional distance between the story and the reader, which means they put down your book and go do something else.
Finding a way in is akin to looking for a hook or an angle, but not in the external, story-mechanic sense. It’s finding the thing (maybe a seemingly small thing) that emotionally connects you to the story. Once you have that, the story has a heart. Then it’s up to you to give it arms (characters) and legs (plot).
For what it’s worth, here are examples of how I decided on the way in and way out for Road Rash. Your decisions for your stories will of course be different, but the concept remains: you need a way to get yourself connected to the story, and you need to know how far to let the story run before you stop giving the reader specifics and let them carry it forward in their own imagination.
My way in for Road Rash wasn’t “I want to write about what it’s like to play drums in a band on the road.” That’s definitely part of the book, but my little emotional hook was exploring the feeling of being tossed out or dropped from the team or kicked to the curb. Especially if the one being kicked doesn’t deserve it. (And that’s pretty universal—who hasn’t felt this at some point in their life, especially during adolescence?) This aspect doesn’t actually occupy the bulk of the book. The protagonist (Zach) gets kicked early on (Ch. 2) and he deals with the emotional fallout for a few chapters as he puts his life back together, but by the end of the first section of the book (pg. 80) he’s on the road with all of that presumably behind him. But much later in the story (pg. 300-ish), the issue of getting kicked out raises its head again, and because of all the baggage related to the earlier incident it carries more resonance than it otherwise might. And that was the vibe that gave me entrée into the story… that gave me a way to sink my teeth into it, emotionally. Much more so than “Boy goes on road with band,” which is really just a setting, with no implicit resonance or conflict or theme.
Likewise, finding a way out doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with the perfect final line or scene (that’s another conversation). It means having a clear vision of how far you need to go in the overall story to reach a satisfying resolution. (Note this still applies to series books. Maybe more so.) I’m drawn to somewhat open-ended conclusions, but even so, you have to get a handle on where to leave it.
With Road Rash I knew I wanted to see Zach and his few real friends achieve a certain level of validation, especially after choosing “hard right over easy wrong.” But how much? I didn’t want a Hollywood ending where they become world-famous rock stars but I wanted to show they had possibilities. I debated having them go to L.A. or New York and attempt to play in the big leagues, but to me that would have felt almost redundant. So I showed they had the potential—and the work ethic—to play at that level, when they get their little moment in the sun. And it could’ve legitimately ended there, but that still didn’t quite feel like enough. It occurred to me that one of the main lessons Zach learned was that—along with the music—what really mattered were the people in his life. I wanted to show this growth on his part, but without hammering readers over the head with it. So we see him and Kimber after the big show, and it hits him that even with all the amazing new possibilities opening up to him, nothing is more important than the person sitting right in front of him.
This is obviously subjective, but to me this sort of character-driven resolution carries more resonance than something more plot-oriented. That was my emotional “way out”… the idea that, in the final analysis, people—and our relationships with them—are the things of true value. So that’s where I wanted to leave the story—with Zach and Kimber sharing coffee, and Zach reprising Kimber’s “What does this taste like…?” routine to show how much he values her. From there, the reader can imagine how their story might unfold going forward.
And—to me—that’s enough.
So if you’re stuck during the initial blue-sky phase of conjuring up a tale to tell, look for an on-ramp to get your heart up and running into the story and an off-ramp to gracefully exit in a satisfying way when you’ve said what you came to say. After you have a way in and a way out you’ll still have a lot of work ahead of you but at least your heart will be in the story. And that’s a big plus when it comes to crafting a tale that’ll connect with your readers.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.