I Could Tell You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You

You know I love what I do. But I can’t tell you how I do it. Not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t really know how I do it myself. (I’ve written a little about that here.)

Oh, sure, there’s lots of things—plot, characterization, pacing, structure—to keep an eye on. But there’s no formula, and every manuscript is different. It’s a little bit like alchemy and when it works—when author and editor manage to get on the same wavelength—the results can be spectacular.

Sometimes it’s just a case of poking and prodding the author to rethink. Not long ago I worked on a manuscript from an experienced author (Wreath, by Judy Christie). One thing we worked on was the effective use of coincidences. Now, let’s face it, fiction is all coincidence or we wouldn’t have a story, but it has to feel authentic—like it really could happen—or it won’t work.

In this case, we had an orphaned teen living on her own (avoiding the authorities to prevent going into the foster care system) in her mother’s hometown, a place she was not known. Wreath was asked to the prom and needed a dress. She and her boss sold vintage clothing found at yard and estate sales, and one day they went to a home the owners were clearing out. Coincidentally, this was Wreath’s mother’s childhood home; some of her mother’s family’s things were still in the attic.

Frankly, I didn’t like Judy’s first pass. And I told her I didn’t like it. It just didn’t feel right. It was too happy. Too perfect. I wanted Wreath to have her happy ending but I wanted it to be a forward-looking happy ending (with her new ‘family’ of friends), not a backward-looking one.

Mind you, I didn’t offer Judy any solutions. She was on her own. I’m ashamed to admit this, because I normally like to help, but I had nothing. In a lively give-and-take we went through two or three iterations of this scene. And here’s what happened. Just look at this! When pushed, Judy came up with this lovely, moving scene:

“How stupid was I to think this could be Frankie’s stuff,” Wreath said, kicking the box. “This is just anonymous junk, the kinds of things we buy every day for the store. They mean nothing! Nothing!”

“I know it hurts,” Faye said, once more putting her hand gently on Wreath’s back. There was a long quiet moment, the only sound the television from another room. “I should have insisted you stay outside. I hoped coming inside might . . . well, settle some things in your mind.”

Wreath looked at Faye, trying to get her bearings.

“I guess I had to come sooner or later,” she said. “This house is one of the main reasons I came to Landry.” She threw her hands up. “This! Like I was somehow going to find Mama in this place.”

Faye remained silent and continued to rub Wreath’s back.

“I loved her so much,” Wreath said.

“I know you did,” Faye said.

“She’d really have liked you,” Wreath said, and followed Faye out of the room. [Chapter ends here.]

Oh. My. This revised passage does so much more for those characters, from the dashed hopes of “How stupid was I” to the heartbreaking final sentence. When I first read it, I sat in front of the computer with my mouth hanging open. This was … sublime. I dashed off an e-mail that had a surfeit of caps and exclamation points.

I take absolutely no credit for this. All I did was resist and resist until Judy discovered the scene that was meant to be.

When I asked her about it later, Judy said it helped to have a fresh perspective on how the scene fit with the rest of the manuscript. “I was able to take Wreath deeper in this scene and other places,” she said, “because I could tell you cared about my novel.”

Well, I do care. I become invested. But when caring produces work this wonderful, I can only shake my head. Editing really is a bit like voodoo.

Tweet: When author & editor get on the same wavelength the results can be spectacular.
Tweet: Editing really is a little bit like voodoo.

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