Monday, August 27, 2012

The Quintessential Bored Editor


If there were to be a contest to determine TQBR, The Quintessential Bored Reader, the recipient would be the editor.  You could argue that students, forced to confront textbooks with some regularity, are apt competitors.  But when you factor in the number of boring submissions an editor has to read in addition to the other aspects of the editorial job, the TQBE Award goes to editors.

The factor that puts the editor over the edge in this competition is the sheer, ongoing number of things that must be read, a number with a footnote factor.  Most senior editors at publishing houses, and some magazines, have one or more assistants to filter out those candidates that are yet more seriously inclined to produce boredom.

When looking at reasons or for some handhold to help you better understand the causes of boring manuscripts, your best guide is to project yourself back to your late twenties and thirties, where there seemed to be tides of acceptances and tides of rejections, or to use a term you have come to dislike and distrust, you were still on a learning curve.

What matter that you still consider yourself on a curve or wave of learning or, indeed, that you intend to remain on a path of learning until senility or death overtake you and have the final word so far as your writing ventures are concerned?  You’ve more than once delighted in the fantasy of you, lapsing into some form of senility wherein you in effect “forgot” all the things that made your output boring or overblown, filled with pleonasm and orotundity.  But you digress.

The point from which you digress is the point where, in your opinion, writing reaches a crossroad, where it may proceed into moving, evocative narrative or the cumbersome rat-a-tat-tat of linearity.  Simple declarative sentences work well.  Subject, verb, the occasional modifier, set forth in a brief thought to depict a vision of an action.  In effect, such sentences provide stability for the occasional welding together of independent clauses, forming a kind of narrative freight train that has the effect of causing the reader to wave as the caboose passes.  Then, it is back to the relative briefness of the declarative sentence—until the time has come for another narrative extravaganza.

Mind you, while this is happening, the reader is not reacting as though watching a display of fireworks or some splendid Tchaikovsky ballet.  The reader is not agape at the daring of vocabulary or the internal rhythms or the onomatopoetic dazzle of sentences.  The reader has moved beyond awareness of such things, is rooted within the story, neither the style of the prose nor the exquisite choice of words.

Well then, how is such reader rootedness accomplished?  Try using yet another pair of concepts, beyond those you used the past week.  These two companions are Reach and Connection.  Simple, direct, declarative sentences have scant time to reach.  Even if they were to do so, they’d be overcome with telling some action, reminiscent of early readers for early readers:  See. See.  See.  See Dick.  See Jane.  See Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot.

The writer needs to reach not only for a sense of the inner life of his characters but of the connections the writer is making during the reaching process and the connective process the characters are undergoing.

Editors are in their way as cynical as cops, used to such alibis as “The story takes off in the second paragraph.”  Editors are not as polite and mannered as your pal, Barnaby Conrad, when, after a woman read five or six pages of material in which there was no slight hint of story, he stopped her.  “Is there,” he asked, “a point in this narrative where something happens?”

“A few chapters down the line,” the woman confessed, “someone is mauled by some bears.”

“I think,” Conrad, said, all politeness, “we’d better start with the bears.”

The formula is simple.  Junior editors filter the truly boring stuff from the editor.  From what the editor then sees, publication choices are made, enhanced, scheduled.  Then the reader gets a chance to not be bored, thanks to the editorial filtration process.

You have to keep thinking about interesting editors, who have seen everything, even the good stuff.  You will not go into here how you were spared the apprenticeship of having to filter things for a senior editor, although you did have to make sure you had inspirational things to say at sales meetings, particularly when sales reps would interrupt you by asking, “How am I going to sell the fucking thing to a buyer when I only get ten, fifteen seconds per title when I take your list on the road?”

Simplistic as the answer may sound, the formula works best when the writer sets forth previously unseen connections between two or more things of relative similarity.  Another way to put the matter is to say your chore is to see and transmit the miracle in the ordinary.

Connection is a bond between two or more elements or people or things.  Connection is the discovery that some farmers and orchardists get better crop results because they involve bees in their pollenization process.

What do you use in your pollenization process?  How do you connect ideas and things that seem if not outright indifferent to one another, then at least disinterested—at first?

What are your characters looking for?  No fair if you answer that with love or security or a good job or a rich boyfriend.  We all want similar things, or so we tell ourselves.

Reach for a connection.  You don’t get one of those connections; rewrite the scene until you do.  There are bored editors out there, trying to convince bored readers to read their books, which they are presenting as unboring.  You write in a bored frame of mind, thinking, this is my take on what they want, your stuff will not make the cut where it is sent on to the cynical bored editor.  Up to you to take your story somewhere story has not been before.

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