Tuesday, April 19, 2016

An Editor Like That

Fourteen years ago, I spoke at a writing conference in Los Angeles. On the morning the conference began, all of us speakers, who had flown in from the east coast the night before, woke up really, really early, due to the time change, and sat about in the hotel restaurant having coffee for awhile. We were all established, traditionally-published writers. I was the only person who wrote for children. At some point in the breakfast, I told a long story about my most recent novel, and how my editor had looked at one of the early drafts, told me that I was taking too much time and space to tell the story (it was a journey story), and that I needed to have all the same action take place in half the distance, half the time.

The group gave me a respectful moment of silence. Being writers, they all instantly grasped that I had to rewrite every single scene of my book. Then one woman said, "And so?"

I said, "It's much better now."

A collective sigh ran through the group. Another woman said, wistfully, "I wish I had an editor like that."

I recount this story to make myself feel a bit better. On Wednesday, sandwiched in between having a tooth pulled and leaving for a trip to Paris, I had a conversation with my editor about the sequel to The War That Saved My Life. I strongly suspect we should have had this conversation months ago, but the good news is, we've had it. The bad news is that I'm facing a really enormous rewrite.

The good news is that I'm facing a really enormous rewrite.

I like Jess very much as both an editor and a person. However, we are new to each other (my previous editor retired, though no fault of my own) and it has taken us a little while for us to learn to talk to each other. Based on last week's conversation, I suspect that what she thought she was saying and what I thought she was saying, as well as what she thought I was saying and what I thought I was saying, were all different things. One point of continued contention was my character Ada's emotional reaction (X) to a situation (Y). Jess kept hinting gently that she thought Ada's reaction should be Z. I refused to change it, because Ada's only honest reaction to Y, based on who she is and also based on how all traumatized children, every single one in history across time, behave, is X. I was absolutely unwilling to be dishonest to Ada, especially given all we've been through.

Jess didn't like X. X permeated the story. I could not change X. You see the problem. I kept writing new drafts. Jess hoped I would come to dislike X on my own. I would never, ever come to dislike X. X was Ada's truth. No way out. I wrote increasingly polished and competent drafts--some very good, strong, clear writing--that all centered around X.

Now, my previous editors, Liz and Lauri, with whom I've worked on several books (Liz is the one that retired. Lauri's president of the whole shebang now, so doesn't work on books directly. I can call on Lauri for help anytime if I needed it--heck, I can call on Liz, she's retired but she's not dead--but I never needed to, and I still don't) would have said, possibly a couple of drafts ago, "We need to get rid of X. Figure it out." I liken this to the moment in Hamilton when Alexander Hamilton wants Washington to stong-arm Hamilton's financial plan into being, but Washington insists Hamilton find a way to win Congressional approval. (I'm on a Hamilton kick. I liken everything to Hamilton. Amazing how well that works.) Anyhow, Lauri especially had a useful blunt way of saying, "This must be different. Figure it out." It took Jess and I longer to get to that level of communication, but we did get there.

"X is the truth," I said. (Stubbornly.)

"You're dealing with three kinds of truth here," Jess said. "You've got Ada's truth, historical truth, and the truth that this story needs. You have to satisfy all three."

Just there, I got the glimmering of an idea. I ran away to Paris for a long weekend (not kidding. What can I say? I went to see my son) and thought hard about it. The problem was not X. The problem was that X was the correct emotional reaction to Y. The problem, therefore, was actually Y.

Y is a plot point. Unlike emotional truths, plot points can be manipulated entirely at will. If I get rid of Y, I can get rid of X, with a clear conscience and a light heart. I can replace X with Z and feel I've done Ada no disservice. I can write the honest book Ada deserves.

Of course, I have absolutely no idea what Z will look like. Getting rid of Y means getting rid of a substantial part of the front of the book. I'll detonate a bomb and create a new picture from the fragments. The bad news is that this is going to take a smidgen of time. The book has been moved from spring of 2017 to fall of 2017, temporarily, until we see if that gives me time enough. The good news is that it will be a better book.

Everyone should be so lucky, to have an editor like that.