The Power of Place

As a writer, I love revising and rewriting. As an editor, I do almost none of it. Critiques, yes. When a writer I don’t know asks me to edit a book-length manuscript, I generally suggest critique as a first step. I read the ms., make suggestions about plot, characterization, structure, and all that good big-picture stuff, but then the writer does the heavy lifting, not me.

For me, revising and rewriting is like first-drafting in that the ms. takes up residence in my head. My mind works on it when I’m not paying conscious attention. This is why character insights and solutions to plot snags often come to me when I’m walking with the dog or kneading bread.

I’ve learned that when I take on a revise-or-rewrite job as an editor, it often pushes my own writing out of my head. So I avoid developmental and structural editing and stick to stylistic editing, copyediting, and proofreading. (All these things go by different names. In “Editing? What’s Editing?” I explain what I more or less mean by them.)

But I recently (very recently, like this past week) took on a rewrite job for a client. It was short: a new, five-page prologue to a novel that’s been accepted for publication. I also knew the novel well, having worked on it in its earlier stages, and I believe in it.

I read the author’s five pages through. The plot was solid. It introduced key themes and characters that would be developed later. It segued neatly into chapter 1. Yeah, the point of view jumped around a bit, and there was a chunk of historical context recounted in a narrative voice that didn’t belong to any of the characters, but my rewriterly mind was already in gear, working out possible alternatives.

I called up the file. A 10-year-old boy is stretched out on the roof of his uncle’s house, using his BB gun to keep birds away from the abundant ripening grapes hanging from a trellis. I knew this kid well: the novel is his story. I could hear his older sister playing hopscotch in front of the house. But I couldn’t see what he was seeing because I’ve never been there and never even seen pictures of what this house, this neighborhood, this small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, might have looked like in 1975, which is when the story begins.

For me as a writer, place is crucial. As I blogged in “The Importance of Place“; “Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.”

Both place and time are critical to this particular novel: Lebanon in the spring of 1975 was on the brink of a bloody civil war that devastated the country for 15 years. That 10-year-old boy’s life will be radically transformed by this war, and the incident in the prologue is a harbinger of things to come. The prologue needed to show readers what he was seeing and hearing. How could that happen if I couldn’t see and hear it myself?

I emailed the author. We talked on the phone. How close together are the houses? How long is the driveway? Are the grapes used for eating or winemaking? What do the birds look like? Where have all the grownups gone? Is the garden in front of the house or in back? How big is the garden pond?

Finally, finally the scene began to play out in my head. My fingers moved on the keyboard and words appeared or rearranged themselves on my laptop screen. The scene stayed in the 10-year-old’s point of view. The historical context can be worked into a later chapter, but I couldn’t help noticing that it is subtly suggested here in the ripening grapes being threatened by birds while a boy tries to scare them off with his BB gun.

At this point I’m rarely surprised when place turns out to be the key to a scene, but I’m awed by writers who routinely bring to life periods they didn’t live in, places they’ve never been, and times and places that never existed. The research, the extrapolation, the imagination, the finessing of details that can’t be known for sure — it all has to be there, and seem so complete and inevitable that most readers barely notice.