Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You're invited, but don't bring your dog

The relationship between a writer's manuscript and a person's dog is not so far fetched as it may seem. Addressing either ms or dog with less than full-out appreciation is rife with explosive potential. Speaking of either with critical intent can be lethal.

"Let me see your notes," the author said. It was not an unusual request. Authors are frequently eager to see editor notes and reports on their projects, an eagerness that spans the types of book publishing you've been involved with, which is to say general trade, massmarket, literary, and scholarly.

You reached into the file, extracted the original recommendation to publish provided certain revisions were made, then placed it over the memo of suggested structural changes you'd noted from a second close reading, which included yet additional suggestions made by an outside reader from the author's own discipline. You extended this material to the author.

"So much?" he said.

Your hackles--editorial guard hairs, really--began to rise.

"I don't have to tell you, do I, that I'm considered an expert in my field?"

"Read the first line on page three," you said, knowing exactly what the line was because you'd written it.

The author fumbled pages, then began, starting with his own name, "is a recognized expert in his field, giving this title the potential for academic and public library sales as well as supplementary texts for course work at the junior college and university level. With suggested additions and revisions in place, the title could remain current for at least three years, possibly as long as five, at which point it would carry a number of its readers along to purchase a revised edition." He cast his eyes down sheepishly for a moment, hefting the memo, then bore on. "You know, I've put a good deal of work into this project."

"It needs more," you said, "and we're eager to take it on."

At length, the author said, "I'm comfortable with the manuscript as it stands. I don't see the need for these additions, as you call them, and some of the rearrangement of the chapters."

"We," that is, the publishing house you represented, "finally decided against taking the work on. The author quickly found another publisher who took it on as it stood. The published work had fewer reviews than it ought because of the author's stature, but those reviews in large measure ratified the difficulties your house had found. The work did not remain on the market or in most library shelves for long.

This scenario is intended to suggest that editorial notes have some value because of their intent to make the work as strong, articulate, and memorable a presentation of the author's intent as possible while at the same time respecting the effect the published work will have on the reader; it is most certainly not intended to suggest that there is only one editorial take on a given project or, indeed, that editors the world over are tuned in on that editorial take.

Just yesterday, a client sent you an agent's notes on his latest novel now out in submission. The novel was one you'd gone through on a page-by-page basis. There were several things about the agent's notes that baffled you, including one about some confusion he felt toward the beginning. You and the agent agree the work is intriguing, suspenseful, nuanced, artfully written and constructed, but there quickly comes a fork in the road about such matters as the beginning and interior pace. You cannot see any serious advantage to the author from following these notes primarily because in doing so, the author would be through narrative device violating one of your primary tenets in which no character should remain on stage alone for too long because the result would be having the character resort to interior monologue, including what you consider one of the most monstrous tropes of all time, How had it all begun? How had he/she allowed such things to happen?

At the denominator of the equation are two significant questions. How far will the writer go in order to please? Whom is the author most dedicated to please? There are no easy answers to either of these; they are akin to the banana peels in which characters in comics slip. You step on them at your own risk each time you begin a story.

Or a blog entry.

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