Monday, September 21, 2009

The Truth Has Set Me Free! (Part I)

I was down in the city this weekend and had the chance to meet up with one of my Brilliant Editors.  We had limited time, so I said, "Give me the straight story on my book - what doesn't work?"  And he told me.  And it was wonderful.  Basically, one of my viewpoint characters, Ophelia, an African-American woman, is "complete whitewashed garbage" (I think I may have paraphrased his phraseology slightly, but that was the gist of it.)  Now you might think that a statement like this would severely bruise my ego or make me run off and crawl under a rock.  But you'd be dead wrong.  It felt like getting a confirmatory diagnosis on a condition you'd been suspecting you had for a long time.  (FYI, This particular BE is very valuable to me because he is a fellow unpublished novelist.  He's also a heterosexual male and an African-American, which sets him apart from the other four BEs, who are caucasian females.  So his opinion about Ophelia, and my two male viewpoint characters, is worth gold to me.)  

So where does this revelation leave me?  Well, for one thing, it allows me to let go of one of my too-many viewpoint narratives.  Now you might be thinking, why not rise to the challenge and just re-write this character?  I would consider doing this, except that what I'm looking for now is reasons to pare away at narratives.  In other words, my characters are all in a survival-of-the-fittest contest, and any sign of weakness means they're going to get cut away at, or at least marginalized, in the next draft.

Likewise, my BE thought there was an "imbalance of power" between the men and women in my novel.  I've created strong, middle-ground women, but all my men are either too weak or too macho.  He asked, "Where's the relatable guy?"  I thought this was an extremely insightful question, because I do have a middle-ground, everybody's man character - Marcus - except that, apparently the way that he's currently written, he's not coming across that way!  My BE confirmed that, all-in-all, Marcus has a lot of potential, and his narrative could even be heightened so as to make him a protagonist.  So my challenge now is to raise Marcus up to the level of a strong, relatable male worthy of carrying the story.

There were a number of other valid, constructive points my BE shared with me which I'll write about in the next post ("The Truth Has Set Me Free, Part II).  So let me end here with a ...

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  Take your editors by the shoulders if you have to and demand the bare-bones truth from them.  The revision process is no time for ego-stroking praise.  You know you can write.  Now is the time to claw your way above "good amateur writer" status and strive for genius!


  1. You referenced Elizabeth Lyon in her book, Manuscript Makeover, where she says that a book should start with a "hook", (or in my opinion, at least with a provocative first sentence or paragraph). I totally agree. I read between 50-70 books a year and I feel that one of our best contemporary writers, Anita Brookner, has this "hook" thing down pat. In her latest, book, Strangers, her opening phrase is, "Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers". That got me.

    I must be intrigued and seduced by the opening paragraph of a work of fiction; otherwise, I pass it up. I am sure I miss reading many great stories this way, but it's simply the instinctive way in which I vet a book's entertainment potential for myself.

  2. Excellent comment, Anonymous! For some reason, I have never really thought much about opening line "hooks," but I imagine if I were to go back and re-read the first page of every book I'd ever enjoyed, I'd discover that the authors had indeed used some kind of clever phraseology in the opening sentences to lure me in. What distinguishes a truly talented author from a paint-by-numbers one is that they manage to do this without the reader even knowing they're employing a "tactic!"