Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nothing Wasted, Nothing Gained

by Beth Terrell

Last week, my agent called me with the news that she was heading to New York for BEA (Book Expo America) and that a publisher who had been considering my manuscript might be interested. "He loves the first 100 pages," she said, "and he loves from page 266 on, but he'd like you to do some work on the pages in between."

Ever been there? Maybe you're there now, knowing your book needs work but not quite sure where to start.

In my case, "some work" turned out to be cutting 12,000 words from the 166 pages in question. This wasn't an easy feat, since I had already trimmed the manuscript as much as I could figure out how to at the time--some 8,000 words. But he was right; the story dragged in the middle. "There's a lot of back and forth in there," I was told. This gave me the clue I needed to start renovating my novel.

I realized that I'd fallen into the trap of trying to follow my private investigator's progress too realistically. In a real investigation, one interview leads to the next, then to another. Somewhere along the way, an inconsistency is revealed. or a new clue uncovered that leads back to the first person in the chain. Then the detective goes back to confront that person. It's also not unusual for an investigator to ask the same question of several suspects. Subtle differences in their answers may provide illumination or reveal deception. Realistic, yes (at least, I think so), but when I combined all the scenes with the same suspect (as much as possible), it became painfully clear that the result was not realism but repetition that bogged down the plot.

If you've edited a novel before, you know what comes next. The first step was to combine all scenes that could be combined. This involved more than just cutting one scene and slapping it onto the end of another. In one case, Jared (my PI) wants to interview a husband and wife who recently lost a son. He calls the house, and the husband agrees that Jared can come over to talk to them, but believing his wife is in an emotionally vulnerable state, the husband makes sure she isn't home when Jared comes by. In the original version, Jared comes back later to interview the wife while the husband isn't home. I needed to combine the two scenes, but I also needed the husband to want to keep Jared away from the wife. What to do? I finally realized (yes, gentle reader, I'm slow sometimes) that if the wife answered the phone instead of the husband, I could combine the two interviews into a tension-filled scene with the wife trying to be forthcoming and her husband trying to steer her away from painful subjects.

This scene was both challenging and enlightening to write. Often, we think of tension or conflict as arising from two people arguing or fighting. (Think of the traditional romantic formula in which the man and woman seem to despise each other from their first meeting and then spend at least half the book sniping at each other.) But in this scene, two characters who love and want the best for each other have opposing ideas about how that "best" can be achieved.

With each chapter, I asked myself, "What's the key information the reader must get from this chapter?" and "Does this sentence contribute to that?" I ended up with eight fewer chapters than I had when I'd started, and after that, I was able to find some other places to tighten the manuscript. I ended up cutting a few small things that, if a publisher (the one who requested the edits) or another should accept the book, I would make a pitch to put back, but overall, I'm pleased with the results.

When she first gave me my editing assignment, my agent said, "I hate to have you do all this work when another publisher may want it as is."

"If it makes the book better, it won't be wasted," I said. "And if it doesn't make the book better, I'll learn something from it, so it still won't be wasted."

As it turns out, it was both, so whether anything comes of the pitches she's making on my behalf this week, I'm grateful to that publisher for pointing me in a direction that helped me write a better book.

How about you? Care to share a time when you learned something valuable from editing your novel?

1 comment:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Best of luck, Beth, with getting your manuscript pubished! You write so well that I don't know how any publisher can turn you down.