Monday, May 12, 2008

What An Editor Looks For

To continue the theme of what makes an agent or editor say "Yes" to a manuscript, I've obtained permission from editor Nick Harrison and the owners of the Charis Connection website to reprint one of his excellent blog posts, this one about what he looks for (and finds sadly lacking) in the fiction manuscripts that cross his desk. I appreciate the chance to share this with my readers. I miss the posts on Charis Connection, and keep hoping that it will be revived someday. Meanwhile, here's Nick:

I’ve just finished reviewing another pile of fiction manuscripts. Sadly, I had to reject most of them. A few, though, made the first cut, which means I will re-read them more closely and may ask one of my trusted colleagues here at Harvest House to offer a second opinion.

Of the manuscripts I rejected, some are actually quite good—but just not appropriate for Harvest House. Others were not so good—but not so bad either. Ten years ago we might have published them; but nowadays with fiction so competitive, we really have to be more selective in what we publish. Readers are (well, I hope anyway) becoming a bit choosier about the quality of the fiction they buy.

And then there is the third category of rejected manuscripts: those that are just not good at all. And if I could find one common denominator among these manuscripts, I would have to say they simply have no life. They are plots, they are stories, they are pages of a would-be author’s typing, they are perhaps many things—but they are dead on the page. Even so, sometimes when I read one of these manuscripts, I see promise. On these occasions I wish I had one of those machines Dr. Frankenstein invented where he could put a lifeless body under the zapper, push a button, and jolts of electricity would somehow impart life to the corpus.

However, as any good writer knows, giving life to a manuscript is not easy. In fact, I wonder if any writer really understands the process of giving life to words on a page. I’m quite sure there’s no step-by-step process. As Somerset Maugham said, “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

I do have a couple of hunches though. First, we know that different authors write their novels through a process that works for them and is often unique to them. Some outline their novel first, while others start with an idea and write their first draft in a stream of consciousness effort. Some authors rewrite as they go, others wait until they have a complete first draft, then go back and edit. Others can even skip around; working on chapter six one day and chapter sixteen the next. So I suspect that imparting life to a novel can be done in different ways too. I can well imagine the revise-as-you-go author requiring his or her muse to supply the necessary life as the writing occurs. The race-through-the-first-draft author may wait until the second or third go-round to call the muse into action.

A second hunch is that life in a novel comes more naturally to a character-driven novel. After all, “life” is in the characters, mostly. We say that a character leaps off the page, or is memorable long after the turn of the final page, or draws on our sympathy. We root for the character, because we believe he or she really exists in the way a character should exist in a novel.

The point that a character is sympathetic (mainly that we are sympathetic to the character’s plight) probably works best for me in defining what I mean by “life” in fiction. An author who simply has a good plot, but has no sympathetic character to carry out the plot is at a disadvantage, it seems to me. Creating a character with “life” surely comes about because the author has first known this character internally and felt the necessary sympathy long before the first word is typed on page one.

One of my recent novels to edit was
The Battle for Vast Dominion by George Bryan Polivka. This concluding book in the three-volume Trophy Chase Trilogy is just as full of “life” as the first two volumes. After his final look at the galleys, Bryan told me he once again broke down reading the climactic scene (as did I when I edited it). Fortunately, Bryan had the requisite tissues at hand. Bryan once said that he began this trilogy at least a decade ago. All those years of living with lead character, Packer Throme, in the back of his mind, no doubt added to the emotional impact he felt at this critical scene in the final volume. No doubt his feeling it first, enabled him to write it in such a way that I, too, would feel it—and ultimately every reader as well.

Another author I edit, Roxanne Henke, wrote her third novel,
Becoming Olivia, about depression. The main character, Olivia Marsden, is a Christian. She’s a mom and a wife. She’s also very, very real to the reader (who, by the way, first met Olivia in Roxy’s first book, After Anne). When Olivia’s depression becomes apparent in Becoming Olivia, the reader feels it full force. Not surprisingly, Roxy wrote Olivia’s experience out of her own battle with depression. It rings true. It has life. And Roxy’s many fan letters from readers who identified with Olivia are a testament to the life Roxy imparted to her protagonist during the writing.

So I have one final hunch about this topic. It’s that sometimes the grist in the mill for a “sense of felt-life” (a term author Henry James used to describe this fictional necessity) in our novels is the pain God allows us to experience ourselves. What we feel intensely as human beings can, if we’re authors, be transmitted to others through our fiction—fiction that is full of life.
Aha. There it is. Dr. Frankenstein’s invention for imparting life to the lifeless does exist. It’s what we call pain….or joy….or sadness….or anger. For the writer, our life experience—especially our emotional life experience creates in us the mechanism through which we impart life to our fiction.

So Mr. Maugham, I offer as rule number one: A good novel should impart life. And this life is imparted as we allow our own emotional history to bleed full red onto the page before us (and then wisely edited by a trusted editor!).

One rule down. Two more to discover.

Nick Harrison acquires and edits first-rate fiction for Harvest House.


One More Writer said...

Thanks for posting Nick's words, Richard. I will remember them as I continue to write and re-write my current WIP!

Myra Johnson said...

I had a chance to visit a little with Nick at Mount Hermon last March, which made reading his words here especially meaningful. He's a great guy and a great encourager. And a very wise editor.

Heidi said...

Richard - Thanks for this blog post I would never have otherwise seen. I loved what he had to say about what makes fiction engaging. Like Nick says, there are many possibly great stories out there, plots and such, that just are not written well enough to grab the reader. The frustrating thing for many writers is that there is no formula for what makes a story come alive.

For me what makes writing so rewarding is the characters, so I was encouraged that he felt the same. Like Bryan, when I went back to edit my first novel, I cried when I got to the climax, even though I wrote it and knew what was coming, it broke my heart because I loved my character, as flawed as she was, and I wanted better for her. The crying surprised me.

Hopefully my investment in my characters will translate for other readers as well.

Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.