Monday, March 4, 2013

An Editor Like That

Once upon a time--I stopped to do the math in my head, and it was actually TEN YEARS ago--once upon a time, I was invited to speak at a quite fancy conference in Los Angeles.  All the speakers were writers who were also alumnae or professors of Smith College--I was the only children's book writer, a last-minute replacement for the much more famous Ann M. Martin, who made a mint with the Babysitters Club and then went on to write a bunch of critically-acclaimed Newbery Honor books.

All us speakers were East-coasters, so we all got up really early by the California clocks, long before we needed to.  We pestered the hotel into giving us coffee and sat around one big table in the dining room, talking writing.  

I started to rant.  "You would not BELIEVE what my editor said about my latest!  It's a journey story--an emotional journey and a physical one, along the Appalachian Trail.  In the original draft--the draft she ACCEPTED, the draft she PAID MONEY FOR--the story covers the whole Trail over a time span of six months.  And my editor says, 'the point is not whether your characters make it to the end.  The point is what happens to them along the way.  And right now the time gaps between your scenes are making the story lag.'  So, she says, she wants me to compress all the action into 3 months, into half the trail.  You understand what that means, don't you? I had to change the setting of every single scene.  And setting is really important to this book.  I HAD TO REWRITE THE ENTIRE THING!"

There is respectful silence, while my fellow writers contemplate the enormous amount of labor involved.  Then one woman leans forward to ask the classic writer's question:  "And then what happened?"

"I did it," I said, "and it was a much better book."

A long sigh goes around the table.  Another writer says, "I wish I had an editor like that," and all the rest nod their heads.

"I know," I said quietly.  "I'm really lucky."

I am still lucky.  I've had a lot of editors in my fifteen years as a novelist--they change publishing houses, they get promoted, they leave to do something else--and they've nearly all been good.  Liz Waniewski at Dial, with whom I'm working now, is very, very good, indeed.

On Friday while I was working a few extra hours at FIA, an email came up on my phone: the long-awaited editorial letter for my England book.  Printed out on regular paper it runs four pages, single-spaced; on my phone's screen it went on forever. 

The letter is extraordinary.  Liz has a gift for seeing possibilities, for looking at my story and seeing not what it is, but what it might be.  Later that afternoon, while my daughter and I were waiting at the DMV, I showed her the letter.  My daughter's read the manuscript.  As she read Liz's suggestions, her eyes got wider and wider.  "Wow, Mom, I see what you mean," she said.  "This part about Billy, and Ada's mother?  That's really good.  I mean, I never would have thought of it, but it's really a great idea."

Most people think writing is all about inspiration, but inspiration is step one of twenty-seven.  For me, the hard work, the exciting work, starts now.  Liz wasn't the editor for my Appalachian Trail book, Halfway to the Sky, but, like that editor, she doesn't hesitate to push me.  Her first letter about Jefferson's Sons included, "let's see what it would be like in third person," when the entire manuscript at that point was in first.  Like Halfway, a complete rewrite.  And it was better in third.