Friday, March 14, 2008

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

It was a late night Wednesday night. Some time ago—I can't imagine when—I got a copy of Master of None, by N. Lee Wood (Aspect). It could be the editor, Jaime Levine, gave it to me, or perhaps I picked it up at BEA. I have no recollection. In any event, it has followed me around from house to house for a while now and I recently picked it up and started reading it. And I'm glad I did. This is a book from which many an author could learn a thing or two.

First, I should mention that it's science fiction, but it's socio-science fiction, so the spaceships are at a minimum, and even the science isn't too prominent.

What I liked about this book was how well the author controlled the viewpoint and how engaged I remained throughout the novel, despite very little action. The characterizations and setting descriptions held my attention. And, of course, I wanted to know what would happen to the protagonist.

Interestingly enough, the reviews on Amazon.com were mixed and the book is out-of-print only four years after it was published. The comparisons in the reviews to Margaret Atwood didn't really work for me, though. I was thinking of Octavia Butler's style when I read it, though it's been years and years since I read Octavia Butler, so perhaps I'm misremembering.

I was about half-way through this book on Wednesday, having been reading it in bits and pieces, when I picked it up about ten-thirty. I finished around two-forty in the morning. Yikes! So much for my beauty sleep. But it did hold my attention and I found the ending satisfactory, if not overwhelmingly satisfying.

One of the reviews on Amazon, I noticed, commented on some of the racial elements of the plot, which to me were very minor, but I found it interesting that he seemed to think the world was based on Arab society. Apparently he has never visited India or even been to an Indian wedding, because the world clearly seemed to me to be stealing from Indian culture and not Arab culture.

Regardless, I think it's well written and it thoroughly held my attention long into the night, which is generally impressive to me.

Generally speaking, I find it very hard to carve out the time to read published books. I have so many manuscripts and sample chapters around that I feel guilty reading published books. But it's important for any agent or editor to keep reading published books, for a couple of reasons:

1. If all you read is unpublished material, the slightly-less-than-drek starts to look really, really good next to the utter drek. You lose your perspective. There's a reason people eat sherbet to clear their palette between courses or crackers between glasses of wine. Reading a good, published book helps do that for editors and agents.

2. It gives you insight to the editor and/or the house. Whenever you go to lunch with an editor, she generally brings along a book or two she's worked on or that the house recently published. I remember going to lunch with Jason Kaufman, who handed me a galley of an unpublished book he was pretty pumped about: The Da Vinci Code. I wonder what happened to that one?

Authors sometimes ask what agents bring to the table. One thing is that, over the years, agents get to know editors' tastes. Ideally a good agent should be able to read a book and know that it might appeal more to editor A at Bantam than it will to editor B. They learn this partially by simply submitting over and over and seeing what sells, but they also know it by reading books that editor has published.

Before Master of None, the last book I'd finished was The Etched City, by K.J. Bishop. I believe I picked this up at Comic-Con in San Diego, from the Bantam booth. I can't say I enjoyed that one as much. The author has a great grasp of language, but the book, again, has little plot, and the society simply wasn't as interesting as that of Master of None. The characters were interesting and I particularly liked the part where a "wizard" turns the remains of a murdered woman into a battle axe for her husband to use in killing her killers. But the novel felt disjointed to me, and there was a major shift that I either was very, very tired when I read it and missed the shift, or there was a scene cut that shouldn't have been that took the reader from point A to point B. And that does happen. The author is under pressure to cut, or the editor thinks the book needs to be cut and an entire subplot or several scenes get removed, but there's something in the cut portion that needed to be retained. And if you move that element to another scene, it's no problem. But if you forget to move that element, you're screwed.

I remember a case of this in Nelson DeMille's The General's Daughter. I hope I'm not spoiling it for anyone, but when the murderer is revealed to be the general's aide, it's never quite clear how the main character reached that conclusion. It's an intellectual leap and the evidence is never quite clear on the page. I found it fairly annoying.

Such intellectual leaps are not uncommon. I remember questioning an author about something in his book once and he replied, "Well, that worked for me because I know that in the next book we're going to find out...." Um, yeah, I'm sure it did, but since the reader doesn't know what you plan to do in the next book, you need to put something on the page that makes the scene work for the reader. Or there's the case where the author starts talking about something that was supposed to happen earlier in the book, but had cut that scene and now the reference makes no sense.

Hence, we come to the importance of outlining, scene-by-scene what should be happening in your book. The index card method has the advantage of also being visual. Outline each scene on an index card and put it on a wall. If you cut a scene, put a big red X through the card. If scene 212 is dependent on action in scene 128, you can make a note cross-referencing them. That way, if you cut 128, you know you need to fix 212.

All of this is, obviously, a lot harder than sitting down at your desk and just hammering out a novel. But I'd bet money that the vast, vast number of authors who are getting published aren't just hammering it out. Sure, the outline may be in their head—and if you have a brain that can handle that, great—but it's there. When an author tells me that she "likes to see where the characters take me" or "see how the plot develops," I immediately know that this author's manuscript is more likely than not going to need quite a bit of work.

My grandfather had a plaque on his desk that said, "Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan." I have always loved that saying, even if I don't always follow it. But I should probably start selling one that says "Plan Your Novel, Then Write Your Novel." If you want to write for fun, knock yourself out. If you want to get published, you need to put in the work.

Z

2 comments:

Chiron O'Keefe said...

Thanks for this...

I'm currently reading King's book on writing where he denigrates plotting in advance, believing that it makes for dry and lifeless books.

For me, it means the difference between a book that hums along and one that clunks.

--Chiron O'Keefe
Ashland, OR

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Z:

I would think that it's okay to see where the characters and story takes you....if you revise. After all, there is a story-generating phase. And after that it's the cold analytical phase. It seems that the folks who forget they cut a specific scene simply didn't do additional drafts and catch their slip-ups. If you do many drafts and have many critters by the time the novel gets to my editor, slip-ups should be repaired. In a perfect world, at least.

Great post, though.
-C

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