Friday, May 09, 2014

What makes a great editor? Part Three

What made Jim Bryans a great editor? Part of it was what made him a great packager. He knew everything. He knew every facet of the business, and he could deliver the package he promised. He knew how to put together a series, and how to promote it. And he always knew, and made sure you knew, that the writer was the most important part of the package. Show Jim that you were a professional, and you'd be treated with respect.

He was inspiring, He was a larger-than-life figure, and working with him, you knew that you were part of, if not the literary vanguard, at least of a glorious adventure.

And adventure it was. "150,000 words in ten weeks? Sure, Jim, nothing to it."

Then sit down at the typewriter, and panic starts to set in. The great sportswriter Red Smith once described the process of writing a column: ""You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead." I started it. And started it again. And nothing. I did research. I found a neighbor who'd served on a submarine in World War II, another who'd served on a sub tender. Finally, painfully, I started to find characters. I decided to turn each character around and find his or her other side. The promiscuous bad girl...I'd open up her heart, and let her find true love. The good girl, McCrary's sweetheart...I'd find her wild side. The tough, sadistic admiral...I'd find his tender side. The intellectual naval officer who almost got drummed out of the submarine service because he developed claustrophobia, but instead became a brilliant engineer and designer...I'd put him back in a sub and subject him to the most claustrophobic adventure I could imagine. And McCrary, my dead hero?

Finding him alive wasn't hard. I located him on a prison island in the South Pacific, held in a "tiger cage" -- a pit in the ground with bars over the top (I later found out that this wouldn't have happened--no American sub commander survived the destruction of his boat, but that's another story). But then what? During my research I'd found this incredible true story, too long to go into here, which ends up with a prison ship bound for Japan, sunk by an American sub. I put McCrary on it, had him torpedoed, floating for days on a tiny raft, finally rescued more dead than alive. This would be other side of the bold action hero -- his story would be total shell shock, a long, tortuous recovery, until finally he returns to active duty and leads one last heroic mission near the end of the war.

All well and good. But I only had about 25 pages written, and I was three weeks into my timeline.

I got a call from Jim. "Tad, how's it going?"

"Great, Jim! I've got a hundred pages written, it's coming along like gangbusters."

"Well, that's good. Because it turns out we've got a little problem. We accidentally gave the same outline to two writers, you and another guy. But since you've got a hundred pages written and the other guy only has 75, we'll let you go on with it."


"But since we've paid both of you an advance, we'll have to get books out of both of you. So there'll have to be a few changes."

The changes were up to me. But with this restriction -- so as to give the other guy a piece of the war to write about, I would have to change my time frame. Now, instead of October of 1944 to the end of the war, I had to make it to the end of the year.

Which meant I had to seriously revise at least part of my plot. Instead of a slow, tortuous recovery, I had to give McCrary a dramatic, miraculous recovery.

But I had dodged the bullet.

I told this story at Jim's memorial service, and it was good for a fond laugh...the writing life, dodging the editor's wrath, how we got things done one way or another in our youth,

But over the years, I've come to realize...Jim Bryans hadn't just crawled out from under a cabbage leaf. He'd heard every story every writer could possibly tell him. He knew what was going on.

He got the book out of me, didn't he? And on schedule. And the first of many.

There was only one problem with it. Lou Cameron, an old friend and the professional's professional in the paperback novel business, gave me one piece of advice. "Make sure to put an incest scene in it. Jim loves incest scenes."

Well, there wasn't any possible way an incest scene could fit in my plot, but who would know better then Lou? So I shoehorned it in.

Jim called me as soon as he'd finished reading the manuscript.

"Tad, this is great. But what's this damn incest scene doing here? I HATE incest scenes!"

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