Monday, April 14, 2008

The First Edit; What am I looking for?

Pencil in hand, I am reading the first draft of the manuscript sent to me by my new author (who will be revealed next week. Really!). This is my absolute favorite part of being a publisher and is the number one reason I do this work. It's also the reason I keep looking for more authors, even though I have more than enough projects right now. Still, being the first to read these words, the two sides of my brain working cooperatively with my heart and gut, my Muse eagerly snatching each page as I finish them, the excitement of beginning to create a new book... this is why I am a publisher.

A lot of what I do is instinct. I have a knack for finding the heart of a story; discovering the threads that tie it together while cutting out what doesn't. But I've been trying to pin down what it is I do exactly.

I begin with what the writer told me the story is about. I'm not the writer, so I don't want the author to write like me. I want them to write in their own voice. My job is to make sure they're doing that. So if the author tells me their book is about a man who hunts the world for his lost love only to discover he never really loved her in the first place, then I'm going to look for those bits in the manuscript that perpetuate that. I ask lots of questions, like, why did he go to Cuba? What is it about this girl that haunts him? How did he discover he doesn't love her? Lots of Why type questions, and then even more "What if..." If I read something in the book that doesn't add to the story directly, then no matter how beautiful or inspired the prose, I say cut it. When the man goes to Japan and meets a woman who teachers him how to play pin-ball, that might be a fun part of the story, but how does it tie in with finding his lost love?

When I was working with Laura, she had many pages of beautiful prose about the landscape of Mendocino County. Really well written and lovely, but how did it help the flow of the book? Setting is important, but was the book about Mendocino County, or the students who live there? She slowly cut those passages down. It wasn't easy and I know it probably hurt "killing her darlings." But in the end, we both agree it tightened the pacing of the book and brought the focus to her and her students, which was where it needed to be. And now she has several pages of beautiful prose sitting on her laptop, waiting for the next book she wants to write, which will be perfect for those descriptions.

The new author's book is about personal finance and day to day life. It's funny and well written, full of helpful advice about getting out of debt. So I am reading it with that in mind. What is the focus? Is this book a "how-to get out of debt" book or "personal essays about getting out of debt?" That question has to be answered early because both types of books have a different tone. Plus, the author's voice is very strong and unique, so I am looking for the places in the writing when that voice is true, and highlighting the places when the voice is weak.

It's still early in the process and I'm sure we'll go through several more revisions before we agree it is her best work (yes, the new author is a woman). Happily for Jane, there are very few spelling or punctuation problems. The copy-editing process should go smoothly.

But we don't get to that part for at least two more revisions, so I'd better get back to work on this first draft.

1 comment:

janemac said...

This is why you're the "big picture" editor and I'm not. I admire what you do -- and how incredibly well and intuitively you do it -- so much!