In early November 2011, I had the privilege of participating in a New Jersey SCBWI workshop given by Arthur A. Levine executive editor Cheryl Klein, author of Second Sight. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions for The Whole Megillah.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Cheryl, what prompted you to put your talks in book form in Second Sight?
Cheryl Klein (CK): I started putting my talks up on my website in 2005, and at a certain point, writers began asking me when I’d put them together into a book. And as I think pretty much everyone likes to have their thoughts in physical print form, it sounded fun to me as well.
TWM: In Second Sight, you present a Quartet – point, character, plot, and voice. What would you say is the interplay between these four elements? If one is lacking, what happens to the other three?
CK: These are the four basic elements of fiction: Point is the emotional or philosophical idea the writer is trying to convey; plot is the structure through which that idea is revealed; characters are the human beings who make readers become invested in the plot and whose actions carry it out; and voice is the language and point of view in which all of this is told. A book doesn’t have to be equally strong in all four elements—mystery and adventure novels, for instance, are often stronger on plot than they are on voice or character. But the more completely you can integrate the elements so they reflect and support each other, and the stronger they all are individually, the more artistically satisfying your book will be.
TWM: You say backstory should be used as emotional context. Can you say more about that?
CK: Basically, your protagonist should have an emotional backstory that enhances or complicates the plot of this book now. If he’s falling in love in the plot: What has his experience with love been like before this? What sort of love did he receive from his parents, an ex-girlfriend, a first boyfriend? How will those loves influence his actions now, in this relationship? If she’s trying to escape an enchanted kingdom: What is her personal connection to the enchanter? To the land? What might hold her there even if she needs to escape? In both cases, if you can show one or two dramatic incidents that illustrate these complexities, it contributes greatly to both the depth of the characters and our understanding of and investment in them.
CK: I’m very fond of “A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter,” because that pulls all of the elements of fiction together nicely and allows me to reflect a little on my personal editorial and readerly experience with the HP series. And the ending came together really nicely on that one. . . (You can see I have the same vanity about writing as any real writer does!)
TWM: What is the single greatest mistake authors make during the revision process?
CK: While this will certainly vary from author to author, I’d speculate that it’s getting caught up in the mechanical stuff—how the protagonist gets from point A to point B, for instance, or transitions from chapter to chapter—and losing sight of the overarching story and character dynamics: what is the emotion you’re trying to create in the reader, and how the characters and plot are accomplishing that. Often that focus on mechanics comes from a deep-down fear of taking a risk and making the large changes required to truly accomplish those emotional dynamics—a very understandable terror! But if you’re making changes that aren’t actually addressing the deep underlying problems and themes in your manuscript—or rather, making changes before those underlying problems and themes have been addressed—you’re mostly spinning your wheels.
TWM: If you had to select a single element of craft that writers need to get right, what would it be and why?
CK: Under pressure, I’d choose plot, because I think readers generally buy books for their plots (the main thing they can pick up from the flap copy), and because plot is the machine that generates the emotions of the story: You get the reader interested here, and then after that, you can push them here and twist them up here and stop them cold there. . . But those emotions only happen if readers are interested in the characters as well, and if they aren’t put off by the voice, so it’s equally important to invest time in those.
TWM: When you spoke at the NJ SCBWI Craft Day in November, you spoke about using a metaphorical camera lens to help craft the story. Can you say a few words about the camera technique?
CK: The idea comes from a wonderful quotation from David Mamet: “All art is where you put the camera.” And if you think about that, it’s really true: how close you are to the action, what you allow your reader to see vs. what is left out, what you linger on narratively, the speed through which you move through the action. . . If you’re just getting to know a narrative world you’re creating, think of yourself as a camera moving through the action, and try to write down as much of what you see as you can. Then, after some time has passed, look at that piece of writing again, and edit down the details so that they serve the primary story you want to tell and ideas you want to convey.
TWM: Certainly, not every editor takes the time to attend conferences and help nurture writers, let alone write a book on craft. What motivates you to contribute your time in this way?
CK: I’ve always enjoyed thinking about how stories work and what they mean—I was an English major in college—and writing talks gives me an excuse to consider many of the different aspects of fiction in a thoughtful and focused way. I’ve learned as much from the thinking and research and writing of them as any writers have! And it’s always nice to be useful to other people.