Writing is incarnational.
Writing is incarnational.
The best friend your book will ever have is your editor. From the moment you have a contract in hand, that’s the most important thing to remember.
Your editor is on your side. You and she want the same thing: for your book to be the best it can possibly be when it hits the market. For it to read the best, look the best, sell the best. And in the process of achieving that goal, your editor brings to the table something you need profoundly . . . perspective. Remember, you have been in near solitary confinement with that manuscript since its conception. At this point both your manuscript and you need the light of air only a good editor can bring.
But let me step back for a moment. Sometimes an editor can be your book’s—and your—best friend even before she has offered that contract. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had a developing writer come up to me with an editor’s letter in hand asking, “Does she really mean it?” It’s always a letter that praises a manuscript and makes thoughtful suggestions for revision without yet making a commitment.
Does she really mean it? Yes . . . and yes . . . and yes! Editors don’t have time to encourage writers whose work they don’t want to see again. Moreover, while we have no legal obligation to return to an editor just because she has invested time and energy in our work, why wouldn’t we? If the recommendations feel right, run with them. Thank her for her insights and return to her with the new draft her comments draw forth. You have nothing to lose and a possible contract to gain.
And once you do have a contract in hand, once an editor is truly yours, I have just one piece of advice, but I’ll say it many times. Listen! Listen . . . listen . . . listen! Yes, it’s your manuscript, and it will remain your manuscript, but it’s better to hear what you don’t want to hear from your editor—while the work is still fluid, still can be shaped and improved—than from a reviewer. When you hear it from a reviewer your book has been set in stone. Revisions are no longer possible.
I have a rule of thumb that has served me well in working with editors. I listen. I don’t defend. If I don’t understand, I ask questions. Then I listen some more. Even if I’m certain an editor is wrong, that if I do this thing she is suggesting the entire piece will come tumbling about our ears, I never say so. I just keep listening, keep asking. Once the dust has settled—and the more dust there is the more time it takes to settle—I find that critical comments fall into three different categories.
Most of them are simply, Of course! I should have thought of that myself. Gratefully, I make those changes.
Some are I see what you mean. And certainly it could be the way you’ve suggested, though I think it could be the way I’ve done it, too. In those cases, too, I simply, without comment, make the changes. I figure the editor is probably more right than I can see, because perspective gives her a great advantage. Besides, if it truly could be either way, why should the change matter?
Then there is the third category, the occasional suggestion that simply doesn’t fit, no matter how often I turn it over or how carefully I examine it. That’s where I hold my ground . . . quietly, respectfully, firmly. I don’t make it a last stand. I’m always aware that I could still be wrong. But usually, because I don’t take such a stand often, the editor accepts my view. When she doesn’t, after a careful discussion, we’ve always been able to find a compromise.
Singers need vocal coaches. Athletes need trainers. Writers need editors.
If you begin your relationship with that knowledge deep in your bones, all will go well.
I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island many years ago. It was December, and I was doing a story about how the homeless suffer in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the Boulevard when the summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amid the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides. But he told me that most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox? And he stared out at ocean and said “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.” And every day, in some little way, I tried to do what he said. I tried to look at the view. That’s all. Words of wisdom from man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I’m never disappointed.
There is a profound belonging and community, an unbreakable bond, between a writer and a reader that resides in that creation we call a book. A book is a place of communion. A book is a place of encounter. A book is where a dead word is resurrected and becomes a living thing, as alive as any tree, as cleansing as any river, as open as any piece of lovely sky. A writer pours out his grief, his wounds, his pain, his darkest hours, his wondrous moments of joy onto the page—and the reader stops to drink of those waters. Though the writer may have cried bitter tears in the making of a book, there will always be a reader who tastes the sweetness of humanity in the words she reads.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Two weeks ago I posed a question that Karen Cushman had brought to her fellow children’s writers a couple of years ago. How, in these confusing, troubling times, do you keep writing?
I may have responded to Karen at the time, but if I did, what I wrote is lost somewhere in the bowels of my computer. What I found instead was a start at a response that seems to have dribbled into nothing after a few sentences. So I set out to weigh the question again. See Confusing and Troubling Times.
And I asked my readers to give me your answers to Karen’s question.
I received only three responses. I suspect that this kind of request leaves many of us dribbling into nothing after a few sentences, but here are the ones I received. Each is important.
Janet Fox said “I’m trying to write books that will reach deep inside to bring the beauty of the individual, trying to succeed against all odds, to the page. And to leave readers with hope, always.”
I agree. That is the key, always, to begin with the beauty of the individual, every individual’s struggle, and to end with hope . . . for ourselves as well as for our readers.
Nancy Bo Flood said: “Thank you for describing clearly how hard [it is] to hold onto affirmation about anything during these times. Even our own writing world is enmeshed with firing criticism and scorn rather than thoughtful comments and insights — or encouragement that yes, we can be better human beings. Yes, we can open windows, cross bridges, go around walls, welcome a stranger. Despair is the opposite of hope. Human history is repeating itself – the struggle between kindness and cruelty continues. I think of the Greek god each day pushing the boulder up the steep hill toward light. The darkness of night pushes the boulder back down. Morning means taking up the struggle again.
“And so we do. One kind word. One book. One poem. Crossing the street to assist, to include. If the birds are foolish and brave enough to sing, so must I.”
Nancy’s point about the vitriol that has come to be too constant a presence in our own small world of children’s literature is one I resonate with. I certainly don’t long for a return to a “bunny nibble bunny” world in which all the bad words were kept discretely beneath the surface, but I do wish we could dial down the instant judgments, too often about books the ones judging have not even read, and the profound righteousness that seems to be infecting our conversation these days. There is so much out there in the world that is soul destroying. Am I naïve to wish those of us who write for the young could hold ourselves to a higher standard?
Nancy’s point about the necessity of starting again each morning pushing that boulder up a hill toward the light also strikes a deep chord for me. How helpful it is to be reminded that I am not pushing alone.
And Deb Miller said: “I for one of many will be watching and waiting for your book on Peace. Building love and empathy in the hearts of our children through story is probably the most powerful thing any of us can do. I keep at it because I have to think that someday some child will read my story (if it ever finds its way into the world, that is :-), and work out a more empathetic solution to whatever problem her world presents to her.
“Meantime, like you, I try to stay globally informed through reliable news sources, always fighting against the tendency for helpless despair by remembering the wisdom of Tolstoy’s Three Questions: What is the most important time? Now. What is the most important thing to do? What you see needs to be done. And who is the most important one? The one you are with. (simplified paraphrasing, of course)
“In my bookish life, that translates to acting locally— when I can, doing what I can, and for whom. And continuing to type away at my now ten year old manuscript that I have to believe will foster a measure of love and empathy in the hearts of at least a few children someday!”
A dream we all can carry, especially those who create books for children or create connections between children and books.
Because information frees us and stories enlarge our hearts, and in this perilous time more than anything else we need solid information and larger hearts.