Monday, September 6, 2010

Emotional Investment in Our Story—When to Have it, When to Lose it

Leonard Campbell Taylor--The Hall--1952

When I’m working on a book, I spend a lot of time in the story’s world.

I hang out with my imaginary friends. I think about what they’d do in different situations. I wonder what makes them tick.

I frequently think about my storyline and characters’ personalities as I drive the car around town, brush my teeth, or run the vacuum.

To come up with a good story, we do have to immerse ourselves in it. It takes a lot of time to think about all the different aspects that make up the book.

But then, even though we’ve put a lot of thought and emotion into the story, the time comes to back off a little bit and look at it objectively.

I’ve been working on revisions on one manuscript that have been fairly extensive, compared to the revisions I usually get. I’ve gotten requests for changes for both the manuscript’s editor and my agent…different ones, too—for different issues.

That’s where the distance comes in. My agent had a real problem with one of the minor characters in the story, but was trying to work with me to fix the issues. “I just don’t understand why he’s doing this. How about if we have him do this because ______. Then you can have his ex-wife to do _______ instead, then the woman he was seeing could do _______.”

I looked at her suggestions and the domino effect of changes that the motivation change would make. Then I thought about the character himself. Was he pulling his weight? Was he doing his job in making the story work? Clearly he wasn’t.

“How about if I just get rid of the character?” I asked Ellen. “If he’s making problems, then I’ll just ax him.” Not literally, though—I already had my victim. :)

That worked out just fine and I went through the book purging out all references to the character. But then both my editor and agent had a problem with a separate character in the story. And they wanted another suspect more deeply fleshed out.

So I looked at the story again. Counting my characters, I had a pretty good-sized cast. “How about if I fuse this character into the one who needs more development? I could tinker with the personality a little when merging the two characters into one. Then I’ll have a pared down cast, I’ll have gotten rid of the unlikeable characteristics of one of the characters, and I’ll have more deeply developed the one that needed work.”

It worked out pretty well as a solution.

It wasn’t always this easy to make really radical changes to a book for me. I think now, though, I subscribe to the idea that it really does take a village to write a book. It’s a collaborative effort and the more collaboration that I accept, the stronger the story gets.

I think, now, that once I hit “send” on that email with the story as an attachment, that I’ve lost some of my attachment to the book. It’s like the child that leaves the nest—you still love the child, but it’s time to back off and let the child grow up.

It helps that my editor and agent care just as much about the book as I do—they need for it to be successful, too.

How do you pull away from a project enough to get some objectivity?