Sunday, April 18, 2010

Red Pencil Skid Marks

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

How do I know which editorial changes will fundamentally change my book for the better? Crystal ball. Ouija Board. Dial-A-Psychic. Okay, so you’re not buying and I don’t blame you. The truth is I don’t.

First, let me be clear. I make even dumb mistakes that my eagle-eyed editor spots. I don’t think of these so much as editorial changes as much as the head slap I could have had a V-8 moment. Not that my editor ever suggested as much or was anything other than gentle about the glaring boo-boos. But let’s face it. When a character’s eyes change color like mood rings when he has 20/20 vision and no need for contact lenses, that’s not an editorial change request. That is an author-attributable brain cramp and an editorial savior keeping me from sitting in the corner answering the five hundred emails that my equally sharp readers would send me to tell me that I didn’t have my best day. Although they, like my editor, are always gracious about it. Not that it stops me from banging my own head against a wall. What can I say? After doing draft ten or twelve or forty-one, I develop a forest for the trees blindness.

The real challenge lies in the content edit. When has a character become a caricature? When does a plot twist give readers whiplash requiring immediate chiropractic intervention? When does sexy start to feel pervvy and funny become, well, not? Unlike the protagonist holding things in three hands, these change requests are shades of gray. They are subjective and like all things subjective don’t come with a bright line. I don’t know when an editorial content change is going to make the entire work better, more believable, more readable or more entertaining. I also don’t know how making one change will shift the kaleidoscope of the story as a whole. I write mysteries. Every element is intertwined. Think of editorial changes as a literary version of Jenga. If I pull the piece from the middle, will the stack fall? Can I slide in something new without disrupting the structure? I’m no engineer but I bet even they couldn’t tell me in advance.

Sometimes my writer’s instinct baulks from the jump. I know the characters. I know the story. I’ve lived with them for a long time before my editor got to meet them. That doesn’t make her wrong so I actively fight against the urge to defend myself. Editing is collaborative and no one said my baby is ugly and looks just like me no matter what my ears might hear in the first moments. I have to process the request. Try it on like new shoes. Even if they are the same size you’ve worn for years, each pair fits a differently. You’ve got to walk around the store a little bit before you know if they feel like pillows are are definitely going to give you blisters. So I take a chapter or two and pick an editorial suggestion I’m not necessarily comfortable with implementing. I change the POV character or take the edge off the sarcastic tone or even just send someone from the room. Then I let the scene sit. Like wine, edits require fermentation. I do this in a few places using just one content edit suggestion or two, max, at a time. Trying to change too much at once can easily turn a reasonable draft into a bit pot of word soup. Then, I read it again. I ask a couple of my regular readers to chime in (they aren’t shy). I might even go back to the editor to double check if we are a) in agreement on the meaning of the suggestion as implemented and b) think it makes the book better. The answer can be an obvious one. Yes or no. But certainty is rare. Sometimes I have to expand my experimental field. Sometimes I undo what I’ve just done. Sometimes, my editor asks me to go back. Or forward. Editing is the push me-pull me of the writing process. One step forward, two steps back. Or is it two steps forward, one back? I never was a dancer.

When I get to that last page of the proofs, with my new book ready to go to press, I’ll know that most of my editorial changes made for a better book. But I’ll always wonder about some of my choices. No matter how much editorial input I am fortunate enough to get, they are, in the end, my choices. Or my fault, depending on your perspective. I’ll question each choice over and over again. I can’t help it. I’m an artist, anal-retentive and a perfectionist. I know. Perfect art is a figment of my imagination and yet I will continue to self-flagellate in its pursuit. Second guessing is second nature. The trick is to stick to the real question. It’s not are the red pencil skid marks worth the road rash? The real question is did I write the best book I could? Can I put my name on the cover with pride? Can I see the funny side when the darn cat changes color…again?

Thanks for reading and forgiving me my blunders.



Sophie Littlefield said...

Gabi, I *love* the jenga metaphor! I think that may have actually been life-changing...

Gabi said...

Michael's post had the same feel. Do I change chapter 14 as requested or chapters 7 and 11 where the real damage took place? Do I pull a piece from the obviously weight-bearing middle or is that innocuous section near the top a trick of the eye where pulling it will make for jenga implosion? Editing is a land-mine even when there are no back eating zombies looking for love.

Shane Gericke said...

Nice blog, Gabi! Letting the manuscript sit a month and then reading it again is SO useful to catching those V-8 moments you mention that I try to leave extra time before deadline for just one more time before sending. Caught some terrific dead fish that way.

You're so fortunate that your stories are Jenga-strong. Mine are more like those rickety house of cards waiting for a breeze through the window to collapse. But with bullets and cop jokes!