Why Happy People Make the Best Editors (With Apologies to Erin Morgenstern)

~first posted 3 Mar 13

Now before you start, I’m not talking about nonfiction editors, okay? And not copy editors, either. So don’t send all those nasty emails. (Who am I kidding, right? You and I are the only ones who read this blog. And you never write. Why don’t you write?) When it comes to copy editors, especially, go ahead and hire the skinniest, bony nosed bespectacled one-eyed fella you can find; he’ll do a great job moving those commas inside the quotations, every time. Not like he’s going out clubbing this coming Saturday night, anyway. No, I’m talking about the kind of person that you entrust with your story. When it comes to your real, live story editor, go happy or take that manuscript home. Avoid asceticism; err on the side of jovial gluttony. Ascetics are mean. You want the editor that hands back your manuscript with “Cherry Garcia” stains all over it, saying “That was great, I just made a few suggestions…”Minolta DSC

We all know the drill. Any author who desires “acceptance” must submit to professional editorial oversight. You must! Even if you’re self-published (which we all lovingly refer to now as “indie”). Especially if you’re self-published indie. If you can at least say, with a straight face, “I spent my hard earned money, which I will never in a thousand years recoup from the sale of this dog, to hire a professional editor and I incorporated all her suggestions in this fine, final product. It is the minimal price of admission, though it still just gets you staring at the door, being held back by the big bouncer of anonymity, but you’re so much closer to really getting in (sticking with the clubbing metaphor here). And if you’re lucky enough to actually be under contract, you will submit to editorial oversight/improvement/mercantile optimization/product placement; whatever is asked of you. It’s in the contract, brother. Right there, and there, and again here on page nine hundred twenty-two. So if you have to submit, let it be to a comfortably endowed, built for comfort/not speed, kind of editor. I, for one, quake at sharp tongued criticism of every adjective or descriptive nuance as “not moving the plot forward.” I like the fat, I love the fat. Even when said fat drags the plot a little backwards like a reluctant rump. I write like I cook–with lard, not dried out and burnt to a crisp. I don’t “kill my darlings,” I love my occasional authorial shining nuggets. Everyone says to get rid of the little parts you really love; but I won’t do it. It’s what makes the writing fun. I love the slight poetic excess, the unique turn of phrase, the ironic juxtaposition–even when something much pithier will do. I hate pithy. Except Hemingway. I’m not Hemingway, and, now that I mention it, either is anyone else. And Hemingway was a very sad man.

Of course, this attitude is one of the many reasons that you haven’t bought my book. A true story: I almost had a real live, professional agent, almost. Maybe. She is one of the best in the business, and I was in earnest discussion with her about my new book. She was interested. She was impressed that a good friend in the business that she respected had read my manuscript and strongly recommended that she consider taking me on. We enjoyed repartee, verbal and electronic. This until the fateful day when, in the course of discussing the work, I mentioned that it was 185,000 words. Anguished wailing ensued. The budding courtship was pinched off–unless and until I got a professional editor to excise at least 60k of dead stuff. But, I insisted, there is no dead stuff, it’s all great, all vital tissue. It is a great read, don’t you think? I ask her. She really can’t say, since she admits at this point that she hasn’t had the opportunity to read the thing, or even have her unpaid intern read the thing, and now that she realizes how long it is, she’s sending it back, because it’s soooo long. Wait, I protest, how can you say it’s too long if you haven’t even read it? Because, she says, I can’t sell it at that length.

And that, dear reader, is how it works. Almost-agent of mine wasn’t being mean, or unartistic, or unappreciative of my hard work–she was stating a fact of life in the literary industrial complex. Why should she take this on if I’m not willing to do the work to make it into something that she can actually sell for me/us? Answer: She shouldn’t. And she didn’t. I decided that I would prefer the book I love to sell in the dozens (how prophetic of me, eh?) than to retire on the fat movie royalties guaranteed if I’d only just play the game. But wait, you say,  professional editors make books better. Yes and no. Any professional editor with sense would improve my book, but anyone getting paid to cut 30% off is mangling my masterpiece. I won’t have it, not to my child, no way. I love my ‘non plot-driving scenes,’ my lacy descriptive prose, my ‘realistic-to-the-point-of excess-verbosity’ dialogue. I will not have it sliced off down to the sinew, even if done by a master surgeon. No doubt, I would be forced to give up the little literary techniques that I think I invented, that I love to employ. Like, when I use the exact same line of dialogue twice, spoken by different characters but with a completely different meaning, to draw a meaningful connection between remote areas of the book. Who else does that, I ask you? And other, equally cool stuff. It’s why I write stories, not technical manuals about how to tear down and rebuild your Ducati.

A completely speculative example may be illustrative. I loved the book The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. It was, in so many ways, fantastic. I must admit, however, that I read the final act with an aching heart. The depth of feeling in the writing seemed to grow shallower as I fought the crashing waves of the last third to the climatic shore of conclusion. Only my opinion, now, and please keep in mind that I truly love the book as a whole; it is one of my favorite books and I’ve been reading a good deal longer than Morgenstern has been alive, an amazing statistic. But I got the sense, and still have it on rereading, that somebody at Doubleday Publishing, Inc. lured her unsuspecting manuscript into one of their basement ‘repair’ chambers and, with Erin protesting loudly against her contractual restraints, the smoothly running but rather luxurious manuscript was put up on the rack and had a significant amount of ‘excessive oil’ and ‘overstuffed upholstery’ editorially removed. By professionals, of course, who hardly left a mark. But the result in the third and final act was a thinning of the magic that Morgenstern had deeply ladled into the previous two acts. (Note that I am employing ‘magic’ here to represent the magic of Erin’s writing, not her writing about magic, and that ‘thinning’ is here used in an alternate meaning that contrasts to the overweight metaphor that began this blog. Just riffing here, reader.)

I could well be wrong. I have never met Erin Morgenstern, heard her speak, or exchanged even the most cursory of missives. I’m sure she loves her editors and sends them quirky gifts at unexpected moments. It’s entirely possible that she may not have even had the most minute manicure of her glorious opus at their hands. This is complete speculative bullshit on my part, based upon what I think, having read her book and a bit of her other fine writing. She is an undeniable talent and, no doubt, will forever be a literary force to be reckoned with. I think, though, that she might have been editorially sandbagged on her first outing. No doubt, the movie rights will lead to a fantastically rich adaptation that will have painfully little in common with the best parts of her book, but hopefully will net her a huge amount on the back end for life. Congratulations and well deserved. For this next one, though Erin, get yourself a comfortably plump editor. You deserve it.

Setting

~first posted 17 Nov 12

Most of the time I’m not entirely sure where I am. I mean, who really is, most of the time? It’s hard enough just to keep track of what I’m doing and why. Usually, even the why is pretty murky. But the where is just kind of taken for granted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll pull into my driveway and look up in shock at my house, wondering how in hell I got here. And wondering if I stopped at any of the traffic lights between where I was and where I am now.

Is this a problem? Not really. How often does what I’m doing depend on where I’m doing it? Not very often. Oh, occasionally I’ll find myself at the top of a windswept mountain or completely lost in the woods, but not very often. Usually, my surroundings are pretty pedestrian. The house is unremarkable, unless I step barefoot in a puddle of dog vomit. Suddenly, my setting becomes important. My environment has just started to drive my action. Before I stepped in the dog vomit, I was planning on sitting down in front of Meet the Press with a cup of black coffee and a copy of the NY Times. Now, events are dictated differently. Shouldn’t have given Bob Barker all that left over pizza. Remorse. Concern. The pressure-packed search for a roll of paper towels.

Sorry, Dad.  Bad anchovy.

Sorry, Dad. Bad anchovy.

Usually, though, you don’t want to know much about where I’m sitting. You want to know what I’m doing. Perhaps, you’re interested in how I’m feeling, or why I’m doing what I’m doing or why I”m feeling the way I’m feeling. Do you care about the color of the sunset outside my window? Does the hue of my Hawaiian shirt affect your understanding of my mood? I think not. And all the time I spend in deeply nuanced description of setting, ambiance, or weather; whether poetic or pedestrian, is time spent sifting through detritus in an effort to get back to what’s important.

Let me paint the walls if I wish. Most of the time, I’m not even sure there are walls. Roof stays up anyway.

Structure

~first posted 25 Nov 12

I just finished reading Cloud Atlas a couple of months ago. I’ve recently published my own first novel, and–no surprise–I think it’s great. Actually, for a little while there, I suspected that I may have written the best novel, ever. (I have subsequently learned that every single new writer feels exactly the same way. This was disappointing. We can’t all beIMG_0063 right.) I decided to read Cloud Atlas because I heard it was a truly great novel. It was certified great by winning the Man Booker Prize. I’m impressed by this, but only because I think that the name of the prize is so much more impressive than the relatively mundane sounding National Book Award. (Note to anyone thinking of nominating my book for the NBA–I would not be adverse just because I think they can come up with a sexier name for the award.) Also, I began to see trailers for the film adaptation starring Tom Hanks. This also fits my definition of greatness for a book–the honor of being adapted (at great personal profit to the author, no doubt) into a film starring Tom Hanks. So, I was impressed that Cloud Atlas was a truly great novel. I wanted to see if my book was in the same league.

I think Cloud Atlas is a great book. I enjoyed it. It is not the best book ever, in my opinion. In case you haven’t read it (it is my impression that a lot of people haven’t read it), the book has a unique structure. Every review, and there have been quite a few, focuses on the structure of the book. Basically, the book is divided into six separate journals spanning a period from the nineteenth century to the post apocalyptic future. The journals are split in half, however. Each journal ends abruptly in mid-story. The next journal takes up with new characters in a subsequent time period, with a few fairly thin hooks implying that the subsequent journal is meaningfully connected to the one you just left. (I’m sorry, but having two characters in different time periods sporting similar birth marks doesn’t impress me as a deeply meaningful insight into the timeless nature of the universe.) After the middle journal, the book takes up the second half of each journal in sequence. You can’t argue that this isn’t a unique structure for a novel. Very unique.

Unfortunately, I found that this very unique structure actually detracted from what otherwise was an exceptional book. Mitchell masterfully employs various dialects in each of the stories, going so far as to invent a future pidgen English that is fascinating in its own right. But the fragmented nature of the narrative compromises every other aspect of the novel. It negatively impacts character development, narrative arc, and especially the tension that creates interest for the reader. Worst of all, the structure is so artificial that it becomes a distraction, a too-obvious and opaque window through which the reader is forced to observe the story. The reader is required to recall details from earlier journals, easily confusing aspects of each journal. It bothered me.

I have had similar experiences with the occasional book that can’t settle on a point of view. The book starts in first person, but suddenly shifts to the third person. Then we’re back in the head of the protagonist. I get it, first person is tough to write in. I’ve tried it, and failed. The author is severely limited. So if that structure is not going to serve your narrative needs, don’t go there. Personally, I find the switching point of view wrenching and distracting.

As a reader, I want the structure of the book to serve my needs, to disappear as I get involved in the story. I don’t want to see the author’s devices, even if they are unique and masterful. Let me get lost in the story, which I can’t do if I’m constantly being reminded of how hard the writer is working. Structure needs to serve story, not the other way around. Unless you’re trying to win a really cool award.

Character

Bulldog~first posted 15 Nov 12

I’m pretty old, and as a consequence I’ve met a fair number of people over the years. This is not to say that I’m sociable–absolutely not. I’m the guy at the party that appears to be reading the label on the bottle of wine he just polished off for an inexplicably long time. On the rare occasion some interesting party-goer would approach me to engage in wine related party conversation, I’d immediately panic and admit that I know nothing about wine. And then excuse myself to find the bathroom. That kind of sociable. But I’m married, with many children. Inevitably, one finds oneself socially interacting with one’s spouse, one’s spouse’s friends, the parents of one’s children’s friends, teachers of one’s children, and occasionally one’s children. Can’t be helped. In addition, I work as a surgeon. This employment involves a great deal of socializing. I’m constantly encountering patients, fellow health care professionals, the occasional malpractice attorney. Not all of them are under general anesthesia, a fact that is horribly depressing in the case of the lawyers.

As a consequence, I’ve met some people. Some are “real characters,” if you know what I mean. Just this morning, in fact. It was 4 am, and I was seeing a young woman in consult in the ER. I didn’t want to, I was writing at the time and experiencing a pretty good flow but, unfortunately, on occasion a person will die if I don’t actually answer my page and go into the hospital, so I’ve pretty much decided that the surgery thing takes precedence. So I hauled myself in to see this thirty-something nice lady suffering from a gallbladder attack (teaching moment: we in medicine call this “acute cholecystitis”–feel free to use this as a conversation starter at your next cocktail party, just not with me). She was with her mother and younger (twenty-something) sister. At 4 am, this is either a sign of an intensely loving nuclear family or evidence that they are homeless (so soon after hurricane Sandy, homeless is not out of the question). After explaining that the woman will need surgery, I ask if they have any questions. The patient does not. Mom looks at me with great intensity and asks, “Are you gonna take care of my girl?” “Yes, I am,” I assure her. “You gonna take GOOD care of her?” “I sure am,” I say, smiling reassuringly. “Cause if you don’t,” the woman continues, “I’m going to come and find you.” She wagged her finger at me. “Oh,” I said.

Now, I’ve been threatened on numerous occasions. On two occasions, the threatening was being done by an individual with a knife. Not my wife, though. I’ve been threatened by patients before, plenty of times. One was a NY Supreme Court Justice, who said to me just as he was being rolled into the OR, “You fuck this up and it will be the last thing you fuck up for the rest of your life.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by this, and I pointed out that, actually, if I fuck this up, it will be the last thing I fuck up for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, Supreme Court justices seem to have no sense of humor. One patient was an organized crime boss (I practice on Long Island), and his threat was much more convincing, believe me. Usually, when faced by this sort of talk, I just ignore it or nod appreciatively. But it was 4 am and, like I said, I’m old now and I handle sleeplessness poorly. So without really thinking, I said to the mother, “Little bit of advice. Never a good idea to threaten your child’s surgeon. Just saying.” And then I left to do my charting. From outside the room, I hear the twenty-something sister say in Long Island/Jersey Shore falsetto, “OMG, I am SOOOO embarrassed! Did you just you hear what he said? You threatened him! He is, like, going to so hate you!”

No, I don’t hate her. I love characters. Maybe I’ll just put her in my next book.

Conflict

~first posted 13 Nov12

Without conflict, there is no story.

And we love story.  Humorous banter, pungent descriptions, unique situations are appreciated, of course.  We are discriminating consumers, demanding the greatest elegance in our author’s elocution. But listen up, buddy–What’s the problem, here?  Page one, line one:  Who’s in trouble and why?  How deep in it is she?  How incredibly glad am I that I’m just reading this thing and not actually the one who has gotta get out of the box, evade the killers, patch up this gaping wound and overcome my significant other’s histrionic infidelities?  I’ll give you two paragraphs, tops.  Okay, maybe three if the first one has some really great hook of a description of something, but then it better be damn good or sayonara, cupcake.  There are a million things to read out there.  I got no time for you, otherwise.  Tell me a story.