Six impossible things


When you look at the arts, there are some that clearly, obviously require the talents of multiple people to produce. Movies, for instance, need not only writers but actors, camera operators, prop and costume people, and on and on – last time I went to one, the credits rolled on for nearly five minutes.

At the other end of the scale are things like painting, where one person can theoretically do the whole job themselves (though very few painters today stretch their own canvases or grind their own pigments).

And then there’s writing.

We’ll set aside the problems of production and distribution for now; the Internet is changing that part drastically. But I will point out that for the last century or two, even so-called self-publication didn’t mean you set your own type, printed your own galleys, and bound each copy of your book by hand.

Writing is in many ways a solitary activity; when push comes to shove, it’s just me at the keyboard typing. Even when one is collaborating, you can’t type four-hands the way you can play a piano duet side-by-side at the same piano keyboard. But writers have always talked to each other over tea, over coffee, over beer and wine, from afternoon to the wee hours of the morning, and in letters when they couldn’t get together in person. The Inklings and the Algonquin Club and the Bloomsbury Group were none of them the first of their kind.

Nevertheless, the myth that most non-writers (and far too many writers) believe is that books are an act of singular creativity; they spring from the head of their author in true and pristine condition, and whatever minor changes occur afterwards are mere refinements of the author’s vision. Yes, some people really believe this. A professor of literature at the local university once told a friend of mine rather condescendingly that editors never asked for substantive changes in a manuscript, and therefore they never needed to discuss what changes might have been requested for marketing reasons vs. which were made for artistic ones.

In fact, every editor I have ever had has asked for changes to the manuscript – nothing ever goes straight to copy-edit. Furthermore, most of those changes have not been for marketing reasons (or if they were, the editors were clever enough to come up with good, solid artistic reasons for asking for the changes). I don’t always do everything the editor asks, or do it the way he suggests, if he makes a suggestion. In the current work-in-production, for instance, the editor wanted the opening scenes rearranged in a certain order; unfortunately, this would have required me to change the timing on several key events that were pretty much nailed to the floor, either in previous books or by the weather (settlers did not pick up and move in the middle of winter in Minnesota).

So I did something else, which fixed the pacing-and-tension problems (I hope) without playing hob with timing-and-plausibility, and I got the email yesterday saying they liked it, and we’re good to go to copyedit. The point is, I think the changes were good ones.

And I wasn’t just working on the problems my editor pointed out. My new crit group had a few things to say, too, and while I couldn’t address everything (since, again, some things were nailed down in earlier books), there was still quite a bit to chew over. And that’s not even counting the comments made by a variety of first-readers, long before things ever got to this point, or the discussions with friends about plot points before anything at all was ever written down.

There are also plenty of people whose contributions are more indirect but no less necessary. These are the ones who answer questions about castle construction or the development of guns; who loan out obscure books on British slang in 1811 or the development of railroads; who drag one out to dinner or over to watch a movie just before one’s brain starts racing around and around the squirrel cage.

The books might still happen without all of this support, but they wouldn’t happen nearly as fast and they wouldn’t be nearly as good. It’s an odd sort of teamwork – I’m the one doing the writing and trying to make everything fit coherently, but it would be disingenuous to ignore just how much everyone else is a part of the process. Yet it’s not something you can break down into discrete parts – you can’t say George put the wheels on, Janet did the upholstery, and Gene and Jennifer painted the trim.

I can’t point at a paragraph and say, “Lois wrote that bit,” because she didn’t; I wrote it. Even if I say “Beth or David or Carol gave me that idea” or “I put that bit in for Rosemary or Pamela or Caroline,” it’s never as pure and simple as it sounds. Yes, Lois or Carol or David gave me that idea, sort of, but I worked out how to write it and fit it in, and it changed along the way. Yet it wouldn’t have gone that way if it hadn’t been for that talk we had.

It’s more than just support, but it’s not the kind of influence my English teachers talked about when I was in school. It’s both more collaborative and less; most of these people aren’t trying to write parts of my book, they’re just joining a conversation about it. But that stimulus from outside my head is sort of like binocular vision for ideas – it’s part of what lets me get a clear picture of what the story needs to be. It’s possible to get along without it, just as one can still see even if one is wearing a patch over one eye; but without two points of view, one loses depth perception.

  1. Well said. A strong part of the feeling I get when I type the last word and/or bundle it all up is gratitude, sort of unfocused thankfullness for the people who helped along the way, and, to my shame, I can never remember enough of them. It would fill pages.

  2. I’m so glad you said all that. I have been getting so frustrated trying to talk to my husband about my story and his only response is, “it’s your story so just sit down and write it.” There are days I just want to scream! *laugh* I’ve read this post aloud to him and hopefully it means that he’ll listen and respond to my ramblings as I try to get my thoughts together, rather than just tell me to figure it out myself.

  3. @Cecelia
    Wives have been making that exact comment about husbands for long time. A big part of the problem is that most males get frustrated/bored with long talks about problems they can’t fix. If you present it to him as “a problem I need to FIND” rather then “a problem I need to FIX” your husband will probably be a lot more helpful.

    Or… find a female friend to talk to.

  4. Binocular vision for ideas – that’s it exactly!

    Now if only there were some kind of matching service for crit groups/first readers… like online dating for writers.

  5. “A professor of literature at the local university once told a friend of mine rather condescendingly that editors never asked for substantive changes in a manuscript, and therefore they never needed to discuss what changes might have been requested for marketing reasons vs. which were made for artistic ones.”

    This professor needs to encounter the reissue of Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein’s cut)with “30,000 words you never noticed were missing”.

  6. It may have been an odd place to learn the lesson, but watching DVD extras has long since convinced me of the need for an editor. The omitted scenes are usually cut for very good reason.

    So, yeah, editing is definitely more than just finding the grammatical and spelling errors.

    • Cecelia – A lot of non-writers have bought into the whole “talking about the story kills it” thing – which is fine, if their writer-friend happens to be that sort of writer, but not good at all if the writer is the sort who needs to bounce ideas around. Or possibly your husband is simply not interested in the kind of stuff you write; it happens. My experience is that if it’s the latter, it works better for everyone if you let him be supportive in other ways and, as Esther said, find someone else to do the bouncing-ideas-around part.

      LizV – What a great idea! Pity I don’t have the time to start one.

      David Y – The professor, as I understand it, claimed that any examples of editorial changes were all the author’s idea; apparently he’d never heard about what Maxwell Perkins did to Thomas Wolfe’s mss. Or else he had “editor” and “copy editor” confused…

      Deborah – Yes, exactly.

  7. Um, well, I don’t have anyone else to bounce ideas with… as pathetic as that sounds, it’s completely true.

  8. @ Cecilia – sometimes you really have to make an effort to find someone to bounce with. When I moved after college I lost my usual bouncers, and I had to look hard for more. I’ve used my blog, my crit group (in the after hours of coffee and snacks), I even had a very productive few hours diagramming the logical structure of one of my WIPs with a dude who turned out to be a little crazy. But he was really good at sorting out the problems in my piece!

    Sometimes if you find a book group of people who read what you write you can make friends with people who like that sort of thing and aren’t afraid to state their opinion.

  9. I’m one of the “talking about the story kills it” people — while at the same time needing to bounce things off other people sometimes! Fortunately, my spouse can work with this, since what I usually need bouncing is “is this logical? given the situation, what do you think the characters are thinking? what about these secondary characters/NPCs?”

    (NPCs is, of course, a gaming term for non-player-characters, but it has utility; if the NPCs have too much of the spotlight, then there’s going to be issues whether the “PCs” are actual player-characters or just “the characters the story is about.”)

  10. I just finshed Across the Great Barrier, thanks so much for writing it! I can’t wait for The Far West!

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