When It’s There… But Isn’t!

One of the things I’m working on now is revising a piece I wrote some time

Better Than One?

back.  Over time, I’ve worked out a thumbnail sketch of this novel that, to me, gives the sense of the story without the need to go into lots of detail.  I feel as if I could verbally recite the entire novel without consulting the text.

Well, you can imagine my shock when, not long ago, I had reason to go look at the novel more closely.  Other than the first sentence, it didn’t start at all like I remembered.  I was stunned.  This was my story.  It has been read by several people, all of whom have loved it.  How could I have been so out of touch with what was actually on the page?

The fact is, sometimes writers are the worst people for seeing their own work clearly.  Why?  Because the writer not only sees what is on the page, the writer also knows what the writer meant to put on the page.  Sometimes it all makes it there.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it’s there but in the wrong order, and needs to be brought in either earlier or later.

In cases like this, a good editor is very valuable.  I learned this with my first editor, John Douglas, then at Avon Books.  The first novel we worked on was Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls.  John was the one who bought the novel, so obviously he liked it.  However, when the time came for editing he said: “I think this book needs one more chapter.”

I was astonished.  I’d finished the story.  Why did it need more?  When I went back and looked the novel over, I realized John was right.  He trusted me to find out what should be in the final chapter.  Interestingly, over the years, I’ve had many readers comment to me about details from that last chapter.  Clearly, that last bit brought something important to the story.

So, as Betwixt and Between might have said, “Two heads are better than one!”

For my novel When the Gods Are Silent John again offered a valuable insight: “The characters need fleshing out.  I think there is more to them than you’ve put on the page.  Just go through and look.  See if you think I’m right.”

I was sure John was wrong and dove into the manuscript with the passion of a zealot to prove my point.  What I realized was that John was right.  Details were missing or weren’t as well-emphasized as they should be.  I went back and added a bit here and there that made the characters what I had imagined them to be.

I’ll take my comment one step further and say that a good editor who has not been working on the project from conception forward is very valuable to a book.  I think this is where writers’ groups often fall short.  Often, everyone in the group has talked about the book or story in question so often they stop seeing what’s on the page and see instead what they know should be there.  I don’t have anything against writers’ groups, but I do think there is a time when a virgin reader is needed.

Overexposure is one reason I dislike presenting proposals for a piece.  How can the editor judge the actual work if he or she knows what’s supposed to be there before they read the actual work?  Interestingly, the times I have caught otherwise good editors out as flat out wrong have been in circumstances where they knew something about the piece in advance of reading it.

In these cases, when the editor said something was missing, I was able to show exactly where the “missing” element was, where it was emphasized, and all the rest.  The problem was, having seen proposals, having discussed material with me, and – at least I have wondered – having formed a subconscious impression of how it would look – the editor didn’t see what was actually on the page.

Now, in the case of the piece I mentioned above, this revision is going to be one of emphasis, not of content.  Everything I wrote is still valuable, but I need to change how I present it.  And I’m going to do so because part of being a writer is learning how to make what’s on the page mirror what’s in your mind.  As I see it, that’s the only way you can share that vision with the reader.

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7 Responses to “When It’s There… But Isn’t!”

  1. Dominique Says:

    You didn’t say which novel you were revising 😦 Now I am going to have to guess!

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’m always shy about talking about unsold works…

      People tend to remember the first title they hear. Just this week I had an e-mail from someone who wanted to pre-order my collaboration with David Weber and couldn’t find it under its preliminary title (Fire Weather). I directed her to the current title FIRE SEASON.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Hm, so what’s happening here are different alternate realities are merging, and you swear you wrote a different book than that one. Something like that?

  3. Tori Says:

    I agree that a fresh set of eyes can give an author some amazing insights for editing. I hadn’t even thought of how a writers’ group will be biased since they know details that aren’t on the page.

    Artists, too, need editors. Sometimes you just can’t see that the tree in the background looks like it’s growing out of the subject’s head until someone else points it out.

    I suspect “overexposure” is also a factor that makes good authors put out some sloppy works. Sometimes I wonder if publishers tell top bestselling authors that they don’t need an editor or something…

    • janelindskold Says:

      I agree with this, including the last paragraph.

      Worse, there are authors I’ve heard brag about not being edited. To me, this just indicates the editor is either lazy or intimidated. Neither speaks well for the relationship or for the future book.

      Fresh eyes are always useful.

  4. Paul Says:

    Sometimes you can spot your own mistakes, but only if the writing has “cooled off” for a while. Or, in the case of newspaper reporting, you can go over the article umpteen times and not see the obvious error until it’s in the paper next day. As for alternate realities: I saw a movie as a kid and remembered one scene a certain way, then saw the same movie on TV as an adult and found the scene was not that way at all. Now, both the real and false scene are equally vivid in my memory.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I wonder if there was an alternate version?

      There have been cases where more than one such has been released. In film, THE BIG SLEEP is an interesting case, although the original version wasn’t released until later.

      Anime is plagued by this, especially American releases done before DVD releases were common and television (both censorship and schedules) had to be dealt with.

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