Archive for November, 2008

Getting The Call

Friday, November 21st, 2008 | The Writing Life | 1 Comment

As a writer who has spent ten years pursuing my art, getting the call from my agent that my book sold was the highlight not only of this year, but of my life to date. It is hard to convey the significance of this. I am still trying to process the experience. Everyone has a dream, whatever that dream might be. My dreams,like those of most people, have shifted somewhat over time. From a fasciantion with acting and theatre, I moved into writing fiction ten years ago. Writing novels is all I have wanted to do for the last ten years. I have written more than one complete novel, and now that I have sold one, I am delirious with joy.

As I try to reach for the language to express the feeling of accomplishment, I fail. Others have spoken to me of how lovely it must be to finally have the external validation of a sale, to know that others value my work.While this is true, it is not as large a factor as I thought it would be. I find that what gives me the greatest joy is knowing that my words will be read by those I do not know, that my characters’ stories will be told to those whom I will never meet. I feel at last as if I have fulfilled the next step in my mission: these stories have been entrusted to me, and now I see that they will finally go out into the world. Whether others receive them as warmly as I hope is beyond my control.(Yes, the thing about reaching one goal is beginning to hope for another: in this case, I hope to sell out my print run and have a second.) My book will be out in the world in little over a year,andI feel finally as if I have done my job.

Lunch with an Editor

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 | The Writing Life | Comments Off on Lunch with an Editor

When my agent called and told me that the editor we were in negotiation with wanted to meet me to talk about the book, my first question was “Really? Why?” I had never heard of such a meeting, and when I asked my other writer and agent friends, they too had never heard of a writer sitting down with an editor who had not yet bought their book. Or even then. Editors are busy. They have multiple projects coming in at once, many of them late. In spite of the Carrie Bradshaw mythos, editors rarely meet with authors they are working with. Email and phone calls are the methods of communication. Two martini lunches are long gone, if they ever existed at all.

As it was, when we met, the editor had to run out after an hour and a half to go to a meeting at her publishing house. (We met at a restaurant near her office.) Of course, an hour and a half is a long time, especially with someone I had only just met, but as soon as I saw her, I knew that she was my kind of people. Just an instinct, a feeling, but one I always live by. My internal, instinctive watch dog, the one that judges every person I meet within the first seconds I meet them, did not bark, but welcomed her.

This feeling of certainty only got stronger as we ate, and we talked about my novel, not as if it was a manuscript in my computer, where it had been living for the last two and a half years, but as if it was a collaboration in progress, as if it was going to press in nine months and we had to hammer out the last details of the copy.

Of course, we were not discussing sentence structure or where a comma should go. We were talking about the larger issues: the shape of the conflict of the novel and my characters’ reactions to it. And at this meeting, the character who had come to me and knocked on my inner door, came and sat beside us. Eleanor of Aquitaine offered herself as the second protagonist of the novel, in addition to Alais, Princess of France. This editor and I had the same idea on the same day; two days before our meeting, we independently concluded that not only was Eleanor to be the second voice in the book, but that her experience directly mirrored Alais’. Combined, the stories of these two women would bring the novel to greater heights than I had ever before conceived.

At that point, I was relieved. I was certain that the editor and I would be able to agree finally on a direction for the novel, though she was careful to assure me that until she saw the first fifty pages and a new synopsis, she would not be able to even discuss making an offer. This was no surprise to me, but by then I had stopped thinking of offers and money, even of the future of my career. I hoped only to bring the novel as I was beginning to see it to life, and to then be able to lay it in this woman’s capable hands. She was a kindred spirit, a member of my greater tribe, a woman who knew at once who Mary Renault is, and who loves that writer’s work as much as I do. When I spoke of my favorite author, and the editor welcomed the sound of her name, I knew that we would be able to work together.

But it was up to me to take the notes I had made during our meeting, and the thoughts we both had concerning Alais and Eleanor, and write a synopsis that would convey the new scope of the novel, with all its intricacies and power plays, with its complex relationships filled with love and fury. So much for one book to do. Two such strong and different voices to convey to the reader. But sitting with that editor in a light-filled tavern in the West Village, I knew that I could do it.

Working With an Editor

Sunday, November 9th, 2008 | The Writing Life | Comments Off on Working With an Editor

In my last blog, I mentioned being conflicted about absorbing serious notes on my current novel. Never before was I faced with having to completely reconceive my work, to step back from it and see it as an almost different form. I have done so now, and I am glad I did.

Always before, I had a very vague notion of what an editor does. I have heard them speak at conferences; I have seen countless books dedicated to the editors who worked on them. But as a writer, I have never understood what an editor’s job actually entails. I probably still don’t, at least not completely. But I know more than I did two weeks ago.

An editor takes a novel, one that is fine as it is, but then she says, “This novel is fine, but it could be better.” Then she proceeds to tell the writer how this other novel, the one that only the editor can see, could be born. She does not give ultimatums, but she offers comments, ideas that take the writer down roads that she might never have traveled alone.

I was one of these writers, who was asked to absorb major changes in the conception of my novel. At first, I was horrified. How could I turn my back on the work I had done over the course of two years, and take another road? The answer: I did not turn my back on what already was. I had to absorb what I had already done, accept both its beauty and its limitations, and be willing to look at it again.

This sounds easier than it is. My problem was that I wanted to treat my novel as my child, and not a work of art. I wanted to say, “No, this child is perfect. I could not improve it if I tried.” Obviously, this statement is false. My book is not a child. It is a product of my mind, and my characters’ input. There is very little that can not be improved on.

So I sat with the editor’s comments, sent via email through my agent, and I thought. I did not try to work on the ideas, but let them seep into my brain. I sat still, and waited to see if a new conception of my novel would come to me.

And it did. A character I never would have thought to turn to, stepped forward and said, “Let me add my story to the one you are already telling.”

When I met with the editor, we had the same thoughts. The book, as I now believe it was always meant to be born, came to both of us separately. It only came to me after I sat still, put my original ideas aside, and let it come. I had to get out of my own way. I had to step back, to step aside, taking my ego with me, and allow the book as it can be, as it should be, come forth and speak. Only when I took the leap of saying, “I could be wrong. Let me consider this,” only then did the second character come forward, and volunteer to give me the other half of my novel, the half that makes my original concept whole.
I have lost nothing of the original concept. If anything, adding the point of view of the second character has only helped me to know Alais better. Of course, not any character would have done this. It takes a great woman to add to a novel that is already fully formed. Fortunately, the character who stepped forward, and offered her side of the story, is a character worth hearing from on any level, and under any circumstances: Eleanor of Aquitaine.

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