Like a hub at the center of a wheel with spokes, the center of your book is a necessary architectural arrangement. It makes the story go ’round.
Without a center, no one can help you fix your book.
When editors are asked to read a book, they are looking for one key element. Is it there? Is it singing out – or at least faintly pulsing, even if buried under the rubble?
What they’re looking for is the heart of your book: its center. The compass by which to navigate any future changes that need to be made to finish it up and get it out the door.
A center gives a book weight – it means it’s about something. Like a hub at the center of a wheel with spokes, it’s a necessary architectural arrangement. It makes the story go ’round. The heavier the centrality, the more enjoyable the story.
With a center, the wheel turns forward. Characters adopt signature behaviors, the plot stands on a firm foundation, tensions build. The story hangs together, purposefully.
With a great hub, or center, everything else is fixable. The book will be what it’s meant to be, whatever that turns out to be.
Without a center, a book lacks direction. It rambles, spins out, and weaves a drunken path. You end up with mishaps, like parts of the book conflicting with each other, or overwriting each other. A bit like one step forward, two back.
In this environment, a reader doesn’t know which way to look or whom to root for, because likely the author didn’t or he invited too many people to the party. Readers want to enjoy and suspend disbelief, not wonder if an author knows what he’s doing.
Editors presented with a coherent, salable center will know how to fix what remains. All suggestions for improvements will be based on building on the center, repairing disparate elements, or shifting the weight of the story or scenes to stand more firmly on this base.
In some cases, an editor might find two centers orbiting each other – or competing – and will ask an author to choose one. In the case of twin centers, or sibling stories, authors could save one for later. It’s like too many cooks in the kitchen: stuff gets burnt, or undercooked.
But the hardest case by far, for editor and author alike, is the absence of a center. Now an editor has to launch a search party. It will hit the author in the form of a set of questions. What did you mean here? Is this your focus? Your intention? Or is it this? Can you justify this action? Can you give me the elevator pitch of the book? Am I just not there yet? Have you not yet written it?
The barrage of questions is a well-intentioned fishing expedition. Maybe, the editor hopes, the center is lurking in the shadows, just out of sight. Hopefully, discussions dislodge it, and the resulting draft is transformed.
An editor’s enthusiasm will be proportional to her available time and belief in you as an author and your book. An editor’s river of patience risks running dry if you dance. Dancing around a fire is okay – the fire is your center. The “dodge dance” is more like dancing because you don’t know where the center of your book really lies.
We’ve all seen it. Instead of the pithy, attention-grabbing elevator pitch, there is a long rambling around a set of possibilities. It could be this; it could be that. It’s a slice of this and another thing, and maybe that as well. In such cases the author has a lot of work to do.
But if there’s something there, if the editor persists, it will be to help you mine out the keepers and fill in the gaps. The idea is to spark an author’s creative instinct and nail down what the book is really about. What’s the take-home message?
At some point, though, if a center doesn’t emerge, the editor will call it a day. The book, for lack of a central, guiding idea, is circling the drain hole. Without a center, any suggestions for a fix lack follow-through potential. They are band aids on a mortal wound.
You can’t dance around the center if there isn’t one in your book. If it’s there, you not only have to acknowledge it, you must bask in its glory, proudly believe in it, and show it off. If this conviction and assuredness is missing, an editor might suggest filing the book under “practice novel.”
So, it behooves you to think about your center right from the start. It’s what you are always striving for as an author. Then, when you get feedback from an editor, even if it’s critical, you’ll be far happier. Remember, your core goal, no matter how you get there, is to reach unity in your writing.
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