When I was a reporter, the best and worst part of my workday resided next to each other. The best moment was when I beat the deadline and turned in my news story to the impatient copy editors. The worst moment came next, when the copy editors and I would engage in a competitive dance off, figuratively speaking, questioning each other’s word choices and grammar (I have a thing for commas). This went on for as many years as I worked as a journalist.
Poetry was so much easier. I love enjambment and I love line breaks and there was no punctuation police hovering over my shoulder. But there were different issues – in graduate school, for example, the dominant culture often criticized my subject matter (racism, immigration, subjugation of women) and use of non-English words without explanation in my poetry and prose. I often felt on the defensive, having to prove myself over and again with each new stanza, each new page.
Years passed. Some good news amid the bad, some of my poems seeing light, seeing publication. Winning some of the arguments.
Then my debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, was accepted for publication. Early 2018. I am alumna of VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) that is a workshop and creative space for people of color, and I’ve participated in discussions about under-represented cultures and voices and how the stories by these voices are often changed to fit with the dominant culture’s notions of what these stories should look like. I had a presentation ready, with slides and talking points, so I could persuade the good folks at Counterpoint Press not to “other” the book about being other in America — by italicizing non-English words and offering definitions and explanations.
I was wonderfully surprised by my wonderful editor Jennifer Alton. Before I could launch into my prepared remarks, she simply agreed with me. In a novel that discusses the lives of hyphenated Americans there is no room to isolate these characters from the multi-faceted aspects of their culture, no room to rob them of what little agency they have, she said.
The copy editors in New York were thorough and a pleasure to work with, too – and I thought I was free and clear, with little revision to do.
Not so fast, Jenny said, a smile in her voice. I want you to hide the times.
In the early iterations of Atlas, I had marked each chapter with the year the action took place.
Jenny was not having it. The readers should have to work harder, she said. You can’t spoon feed them. They have to think about what’s happening and decide if it’s contemporary or the past, or both.
So, she said, please take out all of the dates and revise the chapters by burying the time.
Two hundred sentences and three months later, I emerged from the desk where I write and revise — and submitted the changes, fleshed out some of my sparest chapters. Some of the dates were in shallow graves, some were buried deep under the roots of a neem tree outside Kolkata. As a reporter I had experienced quick editing and the focus of those stories was accuracy and objectivity. The gentle revisions that I did for Counterpoint were such a pleasure, and so much more subtle. I had a great time discussing content and intent, nuance and innuendo, the political as personal and the personal as political.
And that is my one tiny shard of advice: keep the lines of communication open with your editors — these people loved your book enough to want to champion it in public. They are on your side, they are on the side of your book.
I know that my revision experience and the interactions with kind editors are not typical. I am deeply grateful that my editors and publisher love my novel as much as I do, and are taking great care with my words.
Classic (well, this book is phenomenal and an instant classic to me): Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
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