Sunday, October 24, 2010

Get It On The Page

These things come in waves -- one week, everything I edit has jerky, arrhythmic dialogue, and the next week, it's all clumsy tags or draggy exposition or murky motivations. I don't know why it happens that way. It has an almost woowoo metaphysical feeling sometimes, something like when three people in a row will randomly mention their car tires to you, and then you get a flat the next day. Things just clump up like that sometimes.

So a while back, I had a run of about three weeks in a row where everything I edited led to in-depth discussions with authors about whether they were accomplishing their authorial goals. The conversations went something like this:

Me: We need to understand why the character does XYZ here.

Author: He does this because blah blah blah....

Me: But that's not on the page.

Author: Okay, but, he wants to blah blah blah....

Me: Then put it on the page.

There are two basic problems underlying conversations like this one. First, the author is sliding into defending the work instead of fixing it -- a common problem in critique relationships, but not something an editor is likely to engage in. We'll listen to a certain amount of that, sure, with the goal of helping you to fix the work. But at some point, it has to stop being about what the author hoped to write, and start being about how to write it better. In other words, it's not enough for you to tell me, "This is what I was trying to do here," unless that defense leads to a solution.

And that leads to the second problem underlying these conversations. The author had a clear idea for the scene and characters, perhaps, but it's not coming through on the page. An author can defend it up, down, and sideways in a conversation with her editor, and it's not going to put any extra information on the page.

And the author will never get to have that conversation with her readers. In the end, the only thing the reader will have is the actual text, the actual words on the page after the book is finalized and sold to her. Those words have to tell the story in a way that makes sense. Those words have to satisfy the reader's desire for interesting and coherent characters, strong and dramatic conflicts, and scenes that appeal to the mind and the heart. (And maybe other parts, too, if you write erotic romance. heh Related note -- I once had an author who forgot to write the climax to a sex scene. The scene itself was a good five or six pages long, so it was well developed and certainly entertaining. Just no, er, fireworks at the end. Luckily, that was an easy fix of the "get it on the page" variety.)

Now, we're not talking about secrets and mysteries here. We're talking about ordinary motivations and information necessary to scene and plot development. Get 'em on the page, and if someone tells you, "I don't understand this," resist the urge to defend. Channel that energy, instead, into a revision that will make everything clear to the next reader.



Julie Harrington said...

Good grief, I just had this conversation with a couple of writers I know. It seems like it always boils down to this:

The writer sort of, kind of 'hints' at what, say, the Motivation in a scene is. They kind of say it, but not really, and they think they're being subtle. Or they think that -- because they explained in a previous chapter that the character's background and fears or whatever is XYZ, they don't have to put motivation in Scene 2 of Chapter 12 because the reader should understand already.

As the conversations went on I heard a lot of the same thing from different people and it all boiled down to "I don't want to hit the reader over the head with it and treat them like they're stupid. I read a book by So and So where they did that to me and I found it boring and stupid and I was insulted that they didn't think I was smart enough to get it."

To me the greater fear should be having a reader think WTF? about what a character just did because once that happens, you're now at risk of losing the reader because they're annoyed, frustrated, confused, and now potentially not liking your protagonist(s).


Sylvia said...

I'm absolutely guilty of this. I so often have questions thrown at me and the scribbled comment "you need to work out how this works."

It's not that I haven't worked out the detail but I've not actually written it down. "Just say it outright" is something I need to work on.

Edittorrent said...

I know. We might do a lot of character work where we define the character goal and motivation and all, and it's great that we've figured that out. There's just one more step:

We can do that as subtly or as obviously as we need to. We can hint or say it straight out or just have it in his gestures or her tone of voice... but something has to clue the reader in to something, like his motivation or her conflict, or at least that they have a reason, if not what it is.

The reader is a book reader, not a mind reader.


Giles Hash said...

Whenever my critique partners have this conversation with my, my response is "He does this because blah blah obviously that's missing, where and how do you recommend I work on this?"

And then I take their suggestions, figure out how I want the additions to be written, and put it on the page :)

Anonymous Coward said...

In genre novels, the motivation is usually on the page. But I've yet to read something more "literary" where I've had any inkling of character motivations. I just don't get books like _The Shipping News_, _My Life as a Fake_. To me, those are just words going by--characters behaving according to unexplained and completely inscrutable motivations.

Even some of the more literate (and compelling) television shows, like _Mad Men_, routinely fail to put the motivations on the screen. I don't understand why Don Draper does 75% of what he does. My wife and spend the show tossing hypotheses to each other. But even in the end, it's rarely clear.

Perhaps there's a double standard here. Perhaps the "more literary" work simply depends on the reader to fill in a lot more of the blanks.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great advice. That's why we need editors and critiquers. We're just too close sometimes to see the forest for the trees (forgive the cliche). :D