Sunday, June 10, 2018

Randall Klein

Randall Klein is a writer and book editor living in Charlottesville, VA. Little Disasters is his first novel.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Klein's reply:
Untitled, by Cynthia Voigt

Cynthia Voigt has enjoyed a long and much-lauded career primarily writing for the teenage audience, winning the Newberry Medal in 1983 for Dicey’s Song and getting the Margaret Edwards Award (a career achievement) in 1995. She has officially reached the point in her career where she can follow her muse wherever it may take her, and of late it has taken her to writing for adults. I had the good fortune of being Cynthia’s editor for a wonderful book she wrote called By Any Name. Since then, periodically, Cynthia will send me a new manuscript and ask me for my take on it, as she has done recently with a book I’m calling Untitled.

When reading an author’s work, it helps to note what the author is particularly good at. There are two reasons for this. First, you don’t want to write a criticism that solely reads as criticism. Everyone creates art more or less believing they are doing it “right,” and hearing only how they got it “wrong” gets up all sorts of defenses. It helps to frame the weaknesses of a manuscript within the contexts, or in contrast to, its strengths. The second reason is that those strengths can frequently be used later to fix the weaknesses. In Cynthia’s case, her strongest quality as an author is her character work. She writes three-dimensional characters who have rich inner lives that draw a reader into their external actions. Her talent in immediately investing the reader in the actions her characters perform mean that frequently my job is working with her on the structuring of a novel. We’re going to invest in her protagonist as a given, so what are we investing in? This is also the well we’ll return to in the revisions. Cynthia, in both By Any Name and now in Untitled, has penned a ferociously strong-willed central female character whose opinions rankle some of those around her but whose convictions also inspire devotion. So, if a scene isn’t working, we’ve found a lot of progress in looking to those strong, central characters, because they hold the gravity from which everything around them swirls.

Right now, the main issue with Untitled is structural, as it usually is in any early draft. The author has a clear idea of where the book should go, but isn’t quite taking the best path to get there. Scenes can sag because the author has so much information to get out. Or, simply put, not every author handles building suspense or tension with the alacrity with which they build characters or write engaging prose. Cynthia is better than most at this—one never gets the sense that she’s meandering because she doesn’t know what should happen next—but even she still needs a fresh pair of eyes to say, “I think this is the story you are trying to tell, and I think here, here, and here is where that breaks down.”

Obviously there are specifics to Untitled, but I don’t want to go into them here because it’s a work in progress and because Cynthia does the thing that I wish every author did. She moves in miles rather than inches. This is something I try to get across to every author. When an agent or an editor gives you a note, it’s distressingly rare for it to be something small. If I don’t like a word choice on page 47, I will go to page 47 and note in the margins what I think the word should be. Then, you can either take or leave my suggestion. But if an agent or editor asks you to revise, they aren’t asking to get back a manuscript that resembles the previous draft save for a few cosmetic changes. If they can’t tell what is new, it’s wasting everyone’s time. Authors frequently get nervous that they can’t then go back to an earlier draft, but by giving your reader a few looks at how a plot progresses, or how a character’s arc builds, you also provide evidence to argue over. Some of the most productive conversations I’ve had with authors involve them making those bigger changes, really committing to the note and handing me back something fresh, and then we discuss what the new material has done to the overall story.

Cynthia has her process, one honed over decades of success. She’s a consummate professional who is still passionate about her work, the ideal combination. She’s going to go off and work on Untitled, and I’m positive that what I get back will retain the qualities that are emblematic of Cynthia’s work and have made her an acclaimed author, but also something entirely new that addresses our concerns over the manuscript and take it in bold new directions. I’m overjoyed to have read Cynthia’s Voigt’s latest, and perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to an author is that I’m even more excited to read it again.
Visit Randall Klein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue