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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Move Over, Lucy Van Pelt....

There are sixteen other “doctors” who have put out a collective shingle—sort of like the best HMO in the publishing business--and I’m proud to be one of them. We all have areas of expertise, and we all have a lot to say about publishing. When I read the first few blogs by my colleagues, I was, well, a bit intimidated. I can’t talk about e-book wars, e-book auctions, or iTablets, but I’m really glad that there are other editors who can because I can learn from them.

I’m a Luddite. But I love words, and I love them in all their perfect and imperfect combinations. I love being an editor, and to me, every manuscript is a new adventure. Characters walk around my house, they wake me up at night, and they sit on my couch—if only I could get them to walk my dog!

Two of my colleagues, Nan and Carla, have blogged about manuscript length. There are two genres where I feel books can be longer—historicals and thrillers. These often run 100,000 words or more. But they also have multiple points of view (POV). It’s very difficult to sustain that length with one POV. A protagonist, no matter how interesting, usually needs supporting characters. I would say the average is three or four characters—although thrillers can often support at least six-- and that includes the omniscient narrator, who looks down at the characters, kind of like God, and has a full knowledge of the story. I once got a call from an agent who had a terrific thriller but couldn’t sell it and couldn’t figure out why. The reason was that the author had twenty-seven POVs! If the main character walked into a restaurant, a waitress would think, “Wow, he’s cute. I wonder if he’s married.” And you never heard from that waitress again. When there was a car bomb explosion, an innocent passerby expressed his terror—right before he died and was never heard from again.

When you have so many POVs, you distill the importance of the main character; he or she gets lost in the crowd.

Currently I’m working on a supernatural thriller. It’s the right length, and it’s primarily from one POV. However, in the midst of a critical scene, another character starts thinking about how he can help. There are three other characters, each important to the plot, who also “intrude” in the middle of scenes. First-time writers need to abide by the rule: Each scene should be from one character’s POV. If you have a secondary character thinking about how he can help, that should be a separate scene. And these characters’ POVs should be “threads” throughout the novel; they shouldn’t appear one time. Using multiple POVs is a lot more work, but it’s a good way of conveying information that the protagonist wouldn’t know. Anyway, whoever said that writing a novel was easy?

So, that’s a bit of advice from one CEA member. The book doctors are in—and unlike Lucy, we don’t even charge a nickel.

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