August 23, 2016
How Did He Make It So Suspenseful?
Eric Larson achieves the drama and suspense of a political thriller in his book on the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. This is a remarkable achievement because everyone knows how it ends before they start--a German U-boat sinks the ship. How was he able to do this? When I read the acknowledgments at the end of Dead Wake, I found out. He listened to his editor.
My editor at Crown Publishing, Amanda Cook, wrote me an eleven-page letter that provided a brilliant road map to tweaking the narrative. She proved a master at the art of offering praise, while at the same time shoving tiny knives under each of my fingernails, propelling me into a month of narrative renovation that was probably the most intense writing experience of my life.
Larson showed great humility and objectivity by listening to his editor when he was already the author of several national bestsellers. He could easily have thought that with all that experience and success he didn't need to pay attention to what was suggested. But he did and the result is exceptional. By cutting back and forth with increasing speed between the stories of the U-boat, of the passenger liner and of the British Admiralty, we are drawn inexorably and with heightened tension into a compelling tale.
Editors aren't always right. But when I've been edited, I find they are right ninety percent of the time. Something that helps get psychological distance from your work is to get some temporal distance. While an editor or others are reading the manuscript draft, stay away from it. Don't look at it or tweak it or rework it for at least six or eight weeks. If ideas come for additions or revisions, just keep a list in a separate file that you can refer to later. But don't look at the manuscript. When we come back to it, after a couple months not only can we hear our editor better, we can see its virtues and vices for ourselves more clearly.
Achieving that kind of distance from your own writing is rare. But when it happens, the result can keep a book that had some holes in it well afloat for a very long time.