Of Mice and Editors

Orson Scott Card suggests that a novel will have one of four things as its primary focus — milieu, ideas, characters, or events (M.I.C.E.). Naturally, all novels will mix all four in some way, but one or another will predominate. In a hard-boiled mystery, for instance, what’s important are the events. The ideas are likely to be pedestrian and the characters developed only as far as needed to carry the plot forward. In a literary novel, what’s important is likely to be the characters. Lord of the Rings, Card suggests, is mainly about its milieu — Middle Earth. Yes, there are characters, and yes, there are events, but there’s a reason (Card points out) why Frodo has only one elf and one dwarf in his crew: They aren’t real characters, they’re just types.

But enough about Tolkien. As I work my way through the dozens upon dozens of comments my editor has made in my manuscript, I find that, again and again, she wants to know more about the interior feelings of the main characters. That is, she would prefer to be reading a novel of character. What I’ve written is, I think, more a novel of events. Here and there I’m finding it useful or appropriate to go in and clarify my character’s feelings — but there are also passages that aren’t about feelings; they’re about events. Having a character say, “Oh, no!” may be all that’s needed.

So I have to work out how (if at all) to take into consideration notes like these (all of them from one page in the manuscript file):


I did, in the end, clarify or amplify the feelings in that scene a little bit, though probably not to the extent that my editor envisioned. Brian Eno once said something to the effect that if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve in a work of art (in his case, music), comments and criticisms from others will only confuse you. So maybe I shouldn’t be confused by this kind of input. But then, I’m not Brian Eno.

Some of my editor’s comments have proven immensely useful. Whole scenes have been reorganized, or created from scratch. Other times, not so much. Right now I’m looking at Chapter 5 in Book 3. In my draft, the chapter opens with my lead character, Kyura, looking at a house and preparing to knock on the door. She and her friends have, after many travels, finally arrived at her destination. After a couple of brief paragraphs and before she actually knocks on the door, the chapter rolls back to tell, in 825 words, about the final stage of the travel that led them across the valley to this house.

The editor’s comment here was, “Don’t jump back and forth with the narration. There’s no point in opening here if we’re going to jump back and go through all the things we were going to go through anyway. Tell the story linearly and open the story with the funeral [one of the events in those 825 words] to emphasize Kura’s guilt and her profound anxiety….”

While superficially sensible, this comment is just plain wrong. Starting a chapter with an important moment and then backing up to show, quickly, a few days of events (yes, events) that preceded the important moment is a technique I picked up from Rex Stout. His narrator in the Nero Wolfe mysteries quite often does this. What it does is present the beginning of something the reader will care about in order to whet the reader’s appetite and then create suspense by forcing the reader to wait (not too long) to find out what happens next. The events in my 825-word flashback, while they can’t be skipped, are not as important as the moment when Kyura arrives at that house.

Strange as it may seem, I do actually have some idea what I’m doing.

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