When I was editing a few weeks ago, a tear came to my eye.
No, it wasn’t a tear of frustration or that gargoyle of self-recrimination over yet another surface error—you know, some poor word choice, some awkward sequence of phrases. Nor was it my typical consternation with punctuation marks. When I edit I constantly move about the dashes, commas, ellipses and periods—I can never seem to get the rhythm right for the reader to hear the cadence of the sentences as I hear them in my mind.
No, the tear wasn’t for those writerly things that an edit seeks to correct. It was for a character.
Let me explain. Effective story telling often has repeating plot elements, building over time, each repetition creating a heightened weight of emotional meaning. You might have noticed that in An Incoming Tide. I was noticing it in Undertow, the sequel novel now being edited.
It builds, folds in on itself, challenges the emotional equilibrium of the reader until it reaches its peak. When resolved there’s the emotional energy of circumstance and the character’s subjective experience that needs to be released.
And hence the tear.
It always catches me off guard.
An Incoming Tide had about two dozen editing passes. By the time I was willing to say enough and let it go to be published, three and a half years had passed since its initial writing. It was not until the last two or three editing passes that I no longer cried at Nate’s funeral.
What catches us in a good story is not the cleverness of plot twists, not the vividness of description nor the oddities of characters. Those things make the reading rich and help to propel the reader forward, tweaking the imagination. We might catch that cleverness. But what catches us is the humanity of the tale.
Perhaps by now you might have read An Incoming Tide. If you have, I expect what you will remember are the moments when the subjective humanity of my characters shone through. Oh, there’s other good stuff in there, too. I still marvel at how Leanne caught the family emotional dynamics in her portraits. It was—dare I say it?—a clever way to provide backstory. And, the scene in the Vancouver airport with Jackson’s experience of the public art there pointed out the paucity of character in a psychiatrist who just doesn’t get the entanglement of human emotional experience. It was like I gave the psychiatrist his very own Rorschach test and he failed! I like that part too, but it’s merely just clever.
What do you remember, what scenes caught you up emotionally? I suspect it was not the clever bits but the scenes when you felt something characters were feeling at that point in the story.
There’s a companion observation that came from my four decades of work as a psychotherapist. I sometimes asked clients returning after I hadn’t seen them for some time why they had chosen to come back to me, this rather than pursuing other options available. Only one ever said it was because of a particular brand of therapy I happened to use. One recounted that it was something I had said, repeating it. Much to my chagrin, that something sounded more like Dr. Phil than like anything I could ever have said myself!
No, typically wasn’t about therapy protocol or pronouncement. What drew them back was how they felt when they were with me—typically something like heard, or safe, or cared about. Often what was felt had been felt simultaneously by both my client and myself—attunement into the subjectiveness of each other. (And my spell check doesn’t like either of those two words, attunement and subjectiveness but I do, so I’m just going to leave them).
It’s like what I felt with the mourners at Nate’s funeral. Or when that tear came to my eye at the moment of relief in my editing of Undertow.
Perhaps you might imagine how tedious it would be to do two dozen editing passes of one’s own work. Truly it is a labour of love. But it’s not love not for the product—and to be honest, it is hard work to get my writing so it can say something powerful to you. No, not for the product, but my continuing love for the characters there.
They are who I write for … to tell their story … to have my own tear when they have theirs.
May 2022 - Wait for it ... wait ...
April 2022 — Someone called me a Nazi.
March 2022 — Shush! Don't tell anyone.
February 2022 — So does life imitate art? Well, maybe sometimes.
January 2022 — The two most powerful lines in the book.
December 2021 — About time and being human.
November 2021 — Not a tidy little murder mystery
October 2021 — Flow versus focus.
September 2021 -- It's beautiful because it tells the truth.