Wendelin asked if I would make some guest appearances on her blog, talking about what an editor’s job is and how I go about it.
So I thought I should start by telling the story of how we first “met.” I say that in quotes because we didn’t meet in person for years after we started working together. (I work with many authors and illustrators I’ve never met.) No, I truly meet authors in the same place any reader does—on the page, in their stories, through their ideas.
I first met Wendelin in the pages of How I Survived Being a Girl. I distinctly remember reading this on Amtrak, riding from New York to Boston. I remember laughing at the daring exploits of Carolyn and her brothers as they spied on the neighbors and dug up someone’s yard. I remember my heart nearly bursting as Carolyn’s crush dangled a gift in front of her—and then put it back in his pocket. And I remember grumbling with frustration at the long and rambling sidetracks Carolyn went off on as she told her story. I remember the manuscript being heavy.
Now, Wendelin and I disagree on the length of this first manuscript. I acknowledge that the balance of evidence is on her side (since she still has the original document). But this is my post, and I remember the book being just ridiculously long! Carolyn’s narration would be tripping along nicely and then she’d veer onto a side road and spend pages ranting about something, and then finally, finally come back to the main story. Don’t get me wrong—a lot of these meanderings and musings were hysterical. But the sidetracks kept interrupting the flow of the story—I’d find myself skimming and skipping ahead—yeah, yeah, but what happens next?
And so I wrote to Wendelin and said I liked her story but would she please cut it in half. If she was willing to try, then I’d read it again.
I may have been nicer about it than that, a smidge more encouraging, but not much.
I stand by the advice. Cutting a story that severely forces a writer to choose. To pick out the events and the details that are truly essential. To decide which of the many plot threads are bedrock, and which can be chipped away without damaging the whole. Once you know the true heart of the story, your can figure out which details amplify that meaning, and which ones distract from it.
Also, it’s important for me to know if a writer can revise. (Not everyone can.) And it’s good to know if a writer is willing to cast a critical eye on their own work and re-think, and re-imagine it. Willing and able—a successful writer needs to be both.
So—decent advice, iffy delivery.
I believe it’s Wendelin’s husband, Mark, I have to thank for actually convincing her to revise the book and send it back to me. Did he somehow sense that I really loved this story, meanders and all? Did he just want to give Wendelin some encouragement to keep trying at this thing she loved? Whatever the reason, I thank you, Mark, from the depths of my heart.
I have to say, this story makes me queasy. It ends well. Wendelin did revise the book. She didn’t cut it quite in half, but she did tighten and focus the story brilliantly. I loved it. I published it. It was the first novel I acquired on my own—a huge milestone for any young editor. And Wendelin and I have now worked on thirty (and counting) books together. We are an awesome team. So when I think back on the terseness of my first letter to her—how glib I must have sounded—I feel a little ill. She could have easily crumpled that letter and never responded. And I would have missed out on the most rewarding editorial relationship of my career. And on meeting one of my dearest friends.
It’s a fragile thing, this business. Luck plays a big role. And occasionally, rarely, if you are a truly lucky editor, then the stars align, and the kind husband intervenes, and you meet…Wendelin.