Carpenters and Chairs

It’s an old note, but I figure that it’s worth talking about again, especially in light of the new Milestone Publisher newsletter that I started up recently. That one will focus almost entirely on the business of publishing, but occasionally we need to chat about the craft as well.

I’m working with a new author.

[As an aside describing how weird my world can be, the bookstore in Enumclaw, Washington (The Sequel Books) has a stack of my business cards, and when a new author comes in looking for help or advise or anything, most of the time Mike and Susan send them my way. Weird, but I’m farther along the road, so maybe I can help. Won’t say I’m better at anything, just got more experience with the way things run right now, so I have a few suggestions.]

Said new author has a book one in a new trilogy/series and was trying to figure out what the steps were from finally having finished the first draft and now needs to get to brag shelf. Fabulous Publisher Babe(tm) and I sat down with her at the Starbucks a few weeks ago and just kind of turned on the publishing fire hose, once we realized that she was smart enough and grounded enough to handle it. (Not all authors are precious, little snowflakes, but you can frequently start with that assumption and be proven wrong. She’s tougher than most.)

Fabulous Publisher Babe(tm) just doesn’t have time to read a first draft from a new author, especially not a 155k word one, so I volunteered. Finally got caught up on my other homework last night, so I had a chance to start reading it.

All of you who are seasoned vets will understand what I mean when I say first novel by a writer who did not build up a solid catalog of short fiction first. It’s rough. Starts a little pulse-poundery, but not hard enough with the bangs. Got information flow issues, because most of my comments over the first 10 pages or so are: “Who is this? What is their name?” “What is their purpose in the palace?” “How are we dressed?” “Is this fantasy or science fiction?” etc.

She has the chops to write. Just needs to learn things like information flow and setting. Turns out the story is SF, but with a heavy fantasy overlay atop it.

SF is all about setting, so you have to get a masonry trowel out for details.

I’m sure it will take me a while, but I’m also assuming that she speeds up as she starts finding her voice and her rhythm. I have frequently had a rough chapter or two at the beginning of a new series, simply because I’m still working out some of the details as I go and have to go back after I’ve tortured the First Readers and clean up all the sharp edges I’ve cut them with.

Which brings us to Carpenters and Chairs. As an editor/publisher (and that’s the role I’m playing here, even though I might not be her final publisher when the book gets into print), I have to talk about the manuscript. I’m giving it something of a close read, not to be an asshole, but because she’s got something there, and I want to show her the places to work on so that she can get her voice to a point where readers will be breathlessly turning pages. I can see the potential on the page, but it’s a rough read and I keep getting kicked out of the story.

I’m also the first person to ever read it besides her. She doesn’t have a support network of authors she can meet with and share tips. Hasn’t been banging out short fiction and submitting to friends, websites, and professional journals. Literally has been toiling as a stay at home mom and writing because she can’t make the voices stop. Her husband insisted that she start the publishing process on book one before she could work on book two. That’s where I come in.

But old farts like me and you need to make sure that young writers understand the difference between critique of a story and attacks on the author.

When I’m editing, I’m talking about the chair. Is it functional? Is it well-balanced? Will someone enjoy sitting in it?

We’re not talking about you as the carpenter that built it. Lord knows I’ve turned in a few stories where the First Readers look at me and say “Redraft. It doesn’t work.” But they were talking about the manuscript. The chair. Not the carpenter.

As an editor, you need to make sure you’re doing the same thing.

I don’t think that young writers hear the distinction enough to split those into two things. Partly, they are wrapped up inside this wonderful new thing that they have created, and see it as another one of their babies. It takes a while before you look at them as projects to be sent off into the world to make their way.

Blly Joel used to talk about the songs he wrote as his kids. Some were successful. Some failed. One turned into a country music superstar. (“Shameless” covered by Garth Brooks.)

Your books are the same way, but when you only have one, you get invested in it, especially if you’ve been working on it for years now.

So today I need to have a conversation with the editor/publishers out there and remind them that they always need to talk to writers about chairs, and never let the language drift over into a conversation about the carpenter. At least not anything negative. You are allowed to praise them as a genius who has written something utterly amazing. Just remember that they might send you a stinker next time. (We all occasionally roll 1s.)

Have you had to explain to someone that a particular story didn’t work? Not just that it didn’t fit your anthology or your publishing schedule, but that the effort involved to make it work might be more time than you can ever justify?

My young author is not there. Partly, she just needs help understanding information flow, which is a skill. Partly, she’s writing it like fantasy, where you can take certain things for granted and not explain, but you can’t get away with that in SF. Especially not when high-tech SF masquerades as fantasy, and does here in such an interesting way.

So I told Fabulous Publisher Babe(tm) last night that she’d need to help me convey the technical issues and remind me to talk about chairs, and make sure that my young writer doesn’t think I’m talking about carpenters. Because I’m hooked enough to keep reading the story, in spite of the questions that come up. But if she’s consistent, then I know what to look for each time it happens, and the fix won’t be a redraft so much as a hard, slow pass layering in details and microsetting, which are more advanced skills anyway than none of us were born with.

I can see a cool story in there. A interesting universe as she adds half a million words. She just needs some help getting it out an on paper commensurate with her vision. As editor/publisher, that’s my job, because the result will be more art in the world, and a new voice doing something I’m not familiar with. Maybe something very few folks are doing right now, which makes it even more cool.

But always, talk about the chair, and not the carpenter, okay?