Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Story Comes First

So I'm working on edits right now.



If you've noticed that posting has been scanty lately, that's why! Everything is currently on hold while I zero in on the manuscript of A MILLION SUNS and try to get it right. That means: house = filthy, dogs = dissatisfied that I'm not throwing any balls, husband = sadly neglected and poorly fed, personal hygiene = questionable.


Not too long ago, I was talking with another author about edits. Basically, most people get three rounds of edits with a manuscript (at least):

  • Edit Letter = broad, general changes to make to the story. This comes as a letter with suggestions on what to change. For example: "introduce Character Y earlier," or "strengthen the subplot with Character B," or "make the pace faster in the first hundred pages."
  • Line Edits = comments about specific lines in the text. Changes could be broad: "explain the motivation for the character in this scene" or specific: "make these sentences shorter and change these words."
  • Copy Edits = grammar and continuity, other housekeeping details. 

In talking with this author, I told her that the part I found the easiest was copy edits. Grammar is something I understand well, so usually as I go through the copy edits, I'm either hitting myself on the head for letting something slip, or I'm breaking out my MLA handbook and arguing that the comma should stay in the picture.

But this other author told me that she found copy edits to be excruciating--she questions each word change, and worries about whether the sentence will flow rhythmically still.

I admire that, I do. And her books are lyrically beautiful and poignant and show the level of care that she takes with each and every word on the page.

I'm at the line edit stage right now, and--for the most part--I'm pretty quick to accept changes in word choice and rewrite sentences, and I'm fairly certain that when I get to copy edits, I'll be even quicker on that. The thing is--with a few exceptional cases--I care more about the story than about the words.

Caveat: I'm not saying either of us are wrong--the other writers books are brilliant and among my favorite works published today.

But for me: the words are the frame for the story. Story is an intangible thing that I can't describe. You know that feeling you get at the end of a good book? That satisfied, happy feeling you get? Maybe it was tragic and you've got tears on your face, or maybe it was funny and you're still wearing a smile, but the point is: when you close that book, you've got a feeling inside of you that wasn't there before?

That's Story. And that's the thing that doesn't change.

(I feel as if I'm explaining Story in the same way Doctor Who explains time:)

Words are part of Story. The author I'm talking about weaves words like gilded thread in a tapestry. But I'm much more focused on the ball of emotion that lies in the back of your throat when you close a book than the words that will get you there.

I couldn't have put this in words a year ago. I don't think I'm doing a good job of putting it in words right now. But I think this focus on Story is what has effected my writing style more than anything else. I am quick to cut and quick to rewrite--I will chop up chapters and character and shuffle them around and hack mercilessly at the manuscript. I have beautiful words sometimes, and I hate to see them go. There's a scene I just cut in my manuscript, actually, that I thought--and still think--is pretty writing. But it slowed the Story. So I hacked it out.

I just sent an email to someone who mentioned that she liked the story of how my Chapter 1 of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was originally Chapter 4 (hi Liza!). And I'm working now on my fourth draft of A MILLION SUNS, and I honestly think that about 90% of the words have changed from draft to draft. If you held up draft 1 to draft 4, there's almost nothing the same, word-wise. Character, plot, scenes--all of that changed drastically.

But the Story didn't change--other than that it was enhanced with each cut, each rewrite, each new word.

I don't quite know what point I was trying to make with this post. But I'll wrap it up with this: for me, as a writer, the beating heart of the book is the Story. Everything around it--the individual words, the characters, the plot, the setting, everything--all of it serves the Story. So, if you're editing, don't get lost in the words. Don't get tangled up characters or drowned by plot. Focus on Story.
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