Thursday, November 18, 2010

Let's Raise a Glass to Quiet Geniuses

My editor has a particular Grace that I'm often aware of, but can never quite quantify. Here's an example of how it manifests: I send her an email about how I cannot possibly write the book, the book is too much of a mess for me to wrap my head around, the book is eating my brains, I cannot even bear to look at the book, the book is haunting me, the book is threatening me, I am a disgrace, my life as a writer is over, I'm going to take a boat to Antarctica and prostrate myself on a glacier and wait to die like that guy in "To Build a Fire," except not really like him, because at least he was trying to build a fire.

My editor will wait a few beats. Then, she'll send me a very calm email in which she will (1) not point out that I am being melodramatic and maudlin, (2) not tell me to get over myself, (3) not tell me to please stop sending her ridiculous emails because she is an extremely busy person and doesn't have time for this, and (4) gently suggest that I perform a particular task. For example, she'll write, what if I made a chapter map of the book so far, so that I can have all the plot points written down neatly to refer to as I reconsider the overall structure?

"It is impossible!" I will write to her. "Didn't you see March of the Penguins? I will die on a glacier and my egg will never hatch! Fine," I'll mutter. "Fine! I'll make a stupid chapter map! No one understands my pain!" I'll climb into bed in my flannel pajamas with tea and tissues and my laptop and my manuscript and the most depressing music ever, and I'll force myself to start the damn chapter map.

You know what happens next? It will turn out that making a chapter map is a fairly mindless activity that doesn't require an emotional investment. This means that I'm able to start it, and continue it, and really get into it, despite being anxious, worried, and emotionally exhausted. But it's also an activity that (sneakily) gets me back into the book, the very book that I couldn't bear to touch just moments before. And once I'm inside the book but not consumed by all that bad feeling... I start to be able to see the structure... I start to realize that maybe it's not too big to wrap my brains around... I start to be able to ask myself questions. "Wait. What if I were able to get from Point A to Point B in some simpler way, without that big tangle of confusion? Wait. What if I could remove this entire subplot? Hang on, what if the relationship between Character A and Character B were more joking than antagonistic? Might that clear up that thing that isn't working with Plot Point X? Ooo! I can't wait til I have time to think about this more! Ooo! I... maybe... just possibly... maybe I can do this?"

One could almost forget that it was my editor's gentle hand that nudged me in the direction that saved me. My editor? She knows how to do her job.

Editors, in general, work quietly, behind the scenes, and consequently do not get enough credit. And they get more than their fair share of criticism. How often do you hear someone say, "That book really could have used better editing"? I hear it all the time, and always think to myself, Really? How do you know it wasn't the fault of a stubborn writer? An editor might know what's right for the book, but she can't make the writer do it. And when a book is beautifully edited, no one knows, because it's invisible to the audience, like the world's best stage directions.

Today I'd like to say a special thank you to my editor for the beautiful work she does. She knows how to find the best in me as a writer, and that is a rare and precious gift.