Friday, September 2, 2011

A Return Visit to an Old Neighborhood

Whether the individual in question is a client, retaining you as a freelance editor; a student often at the graduate level; a member of your writing workshop (which is quite selective about who it lets in); or an author who you have inherited through your direct connection with a literary agent or a publisher, there is every likelihood that the individual, at the editorial review, is going to behave more like a lawyer than a writer.

By this comparison, you think of the lawyer, having looked up a particular decision, a particular civil or criminal code to slap down on the table as a precedent for allowing said writer to get away with something the author knew was wrong in the first place but has, nevertheless, become defensive about in the immediate second place.

Example:

Writer, pointing at a passage in a printed book (too soon in the game for Kindles of eReaders to be brought into play.  But watch out.)  "What about this?  Right here."  Tapping the page with authority.  "Faulkner does it right here and you say I can't."

Example:

"So big deal, this is a point-of-view violation.  William Trevor does it all the time."

You want to say he doesn't violate anything at all because he freaking writes in an omniscient point of view so skillful that you think you can do it too.  But you let a nod of acknowledgment suffice because, after all, you are leading up to something, aren't you?

Example:

You only moments ago pointed out to a writer that little, if anything, in the way of action has occurred within the opening pages of a novel, whereupon the writer delivers the second most common statement made by a writer upon editorial review.  "The action is coming in the very next page."  When you point out that the next page would be a splendid place at which to consider beginning the novel, you can see the author searching rapidly through his brain, as though rummaging in a bureau drawer for a matching sock.  "Kate Atkinson didn't introduce her protagonist, Jackson Brodie, until the seventy-fifth page of Started Early, Took My Dog."

But, you are thinking as you nod your head, she had story going in the first line.

You have come to know these gambits, arguments, and comparisons, not because you have seen them in action so many times, but because you, too, began with that argumentative bent, that cocksure awareness of having read a number of books and stories with enough diligence and focus to convince you you could argue your way into acceptance.

Almost without exception, those precedent-setting examples argued before you have been executed by men and women writers of good faith, in fact such good faith that the works of theirs that have been cited to you as such egregious examples of breaking rules or conventions were examples culled from second, third, possibly even fourth novels.  All of this is to say that it generally requires a first book or story to demonstrate awareness of current conventions as an ante to get into the game.  Then it requires that remarkable stroke of fortune in which the project earns back its venture costs within a reasonable period of time after publication.

Then you can, if you still require euphemisms, experiment with form; you can mess with point of view.  Moby-Dick was not Herman Melville's first novel.  You'd have some grounds for arguing that all the "stuff" about whales and whaling contributed to the novel's relatively poor reception.  Earlier Melville work had handsome if not extravagant results.

The writer who has been given editorial notes that do not square with his or her original vision has one final line of attack, reminding you often of those Captain Horatio Hornblower novels in which one of Her Majesty's warships positions itself to deliver a series of broadsides to the enemy vessel.  "You're always stressing the need to read,"  the author says, watching to see if you realize the trap you've set for yourself.  "How is it that when I follow the technique I've read in someone else's work, I'm told it doesn't apply to me?"

Aha.  That's the very point.  We do not read in order to copy.  We read in order to observe, then do better.  Doing better, among other things, means doing something in such a way that the effect--not the technique--is noticed.  Doing better means taking us somewhere beyond the example we've used for inspiration.

As a young person, walking home from Hancock Park Elementary School, Fairfax Avenue at the southeast corner of Third Street, mid-city, Los Angeles, you and a cadre of daredevils headed homeward, south.  Between Fourth Street and Fifth were two streets, Colgate and Drexel, running perpendicular to Fairfax, extending from west to east.  At the time, they were filled with single-dwelling houses, all of which had garages in the rear.  It was your heading home practice to visit any number of these garages, finding ways to climb to their roof, then jump from it, landing in a convenient patch of lawn.  There was something particularly fulfilling in the moment your feet touched the ground and, following what you'd learned from your jumping activity, falling into a roll that seemed miraculously to have absorbed the shock of the landing.  You were not alone in the tendency to giggle as your feet touched ground and you dropped into a roll on the sweet-smelling grass.

Neither you nor your friends were leaping from garage roofs with any thought of flying or even pretending you were paratroopers.  There was the occasional risk of being caught, which simply meant being shooed away and being told not to come back here again.

But you knew you'd be back.  If not tomorrow, then the next day.



Sure enough, you became a writer.  You didn't realize it at the time, could scarcely articulate the how and why of it to yourself.  You were learning to jump off taller garages.

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