I'm very happy to be joining the Crime Sistahs. Like Angela, Pamela, Gammy, Patricia and Lisa, I write about murder and mayhem, with my stories set in the glittering 1920s. My latest book, DARKNESS AND THE DEVIL BEHIND ME, features a society reporter who covers a young woman's disappearance and the million-dollar heist that occurred after it. Visit my website to learn more.
In addition to writing, I also edit fiction for up and coming authors at Gentle Pen Editorial Services, and so for my debut column on Crime Sistahs, I'd like to don my editor's hat and write from the point of view of someone who works with authors and tries to help them strengthen their story presentation.
"BUT YOU JUST DON"T GET IT!"
What editor hasn't heard that cry? It's usually delivered by an irate author at the tail end of a conversation about areas in which the author's manuscript needs serious revamping. When I tell an author that his or her manuscript is unfocused, for example, and the response is that I "just didn't get it," I'm tempted to respond, "No, I didn't, because it just wasn't there." But since it's Gentle Pen Editorial Services, I press my lips together and smile.
Yes, you might have the misfortune of having an inept or ignorant editor, someone with such a narrow breadth of taste, interests, knowledge or experience that he or she really is incapable of understanding what you're writing about. That does happen. But it could be that your editor is right. In short, if your editor didn't "get it," then Dear Reader might not either. Even when your editor is wrong, he or she has given you valuable information about where your manuscript could be misinterpreted or falls short in credibility.
What provokes the author's cry? It's usually when I've conveyed that there's a fundamental problem with the initial concept, or mentioned an underdeveloped or unfocused plot, or unmotivated or stagnant characters. Or I might have said that the concept was strong, but the execution weak. Somewhere, on the journey from mind to paper, the images, the pathos that so gripped the writer's imagination and made the story vibrant have become faded or blurred. They've lost their crispness, their edge.
Sometimes, the "don't get it" cry follows criticism not about the entire manuscript, but a specific scene. The editor really didn't "get it," and it was because the author left out relevant information that he or she assumed was common knowledge. In such instances, both sides need to sit down and figure out what details -- sometimes, it's only two or three -- must be inserted.
There are times, of course, when an editor's question really does seem to reveal dazzling, inexplicable ignorance. Never mind. It's worth your while as a writer to listen.
In one of my books, for example, there's a horrific lynch scene. My sleuth/hero witnesses it. Worse, the victim is someone he cares about. One of my readers wanted to know why my sleuth didn't intervene and "save" the friend. That my hero would "just stand by" and let his friend die wouldn't do, this reader said. Well, I was incensed. To intervene would mean death, I responded. If the character died, then of course, the book died with him. Privately, I muttered, "How can she even ask that? Doesn't everybody know what lynch mobs were like? Why would anyone suggest that I have my character intervene?" (This reader, as it happens, had partly grown up in England, and probably didn't know the history of lynching.) I dismissed the criticism with an "Oh, but she just doesn't get it!"
But then I thought about it. The fact is, heroes are heroes because they rise to the occasion. They don't listen to common sense. They are, in fact, uncommon. So ... maybe she was right. My hero couldn't follow the common sense path. He had to be heroic. But how to implement that logically? How to make sure he survived? I thought about it and a solution did come, and I daresay the story was better for it.
More recently, a writer approached me about her work, saying that she was having a lot of negative feedback about the heavy use of dialect. She'd indicated the dialect through the use of misspellings, odd punctuation, etc. She said that people in her writing workshop "just didn't get it." Of course, they didn't, she said. They were very different from the characters in her book. Why should she listen to them?
Hmmmm ... I read an excerpt and promptly told her I agreed with her readers. I also told her that the best stories, the ones we remember, rise above restrictions of class, race, gender, religion and nationality. They speak to the human condition. She should strive to tell a story that everyone would "get" because it spoke to their hearts, and not to sabotage that effort by use of systematic errors in her copy. She was a very talented writer and understood.
In summary, your editor could be dumb or ignorant or both. He or she could be a frustrated writer who is simply power-tripping and just loves to tear apart other writers' talented work. But it's more likely that he or she really does love books, really does want to be supportive, and has a width and breadth of knowledge that makes him or her a good test subject.
So please, if you're tempted to simply dismiss an editor's comment out of hand, don't. Pause, take a deep breath, and listen. You're very likely to hear something quite worthwhile.
Next week, I'll talk about when to listen, but not necessarily obey ...
In the meantime, thanks for bearing with me through this long entry! I look forward to filing again next week.
Friday, December 07, 2007