The nature of an editorial note is essentially private, between writer and editor. And because my work in the publishing program at PSU has involved real manuscripts from real writers, those notes are best left confidential. Well, except for this one: for a class assignment in Developmental Editing, we each picked a published book and wrote a DE note as if it was still in progress. I chose State of Wonder by bestselling author Ann Patchett. Maybe I’ll get to work with her for real someday.
Here’s a short version of that note. Think of it as DE Lite.
January 28, 2017
Dear Ms. Patchett,
It was such a pleasure to read State of Wonder. I was quickly immersed and didn’t want to put it down. Much of that had to do with the protagonist, Marina. She’s likeable and complex, and I enjoyed going with her to the Amazon. She might’ve lost her luggage but she didn’t lose me.
You got my attention right away as you plunged Marina into multiple crises in the Amazon. That statement contains the main strength and weakness of the book: a fascinating character must deal with an unnecessarily complex group of events to get what she needs and resolve the story. Marina is well drawn and relatable. Her looming middle age and her background as a medical student in obstetrics us an ideal clash in a story about fertility drug research. Characters in general are well written, though I felt Dr. Swenson didn’t quite live up to her hype.
The following sections will address ways to fine-tune the world of the story and the timeline of the story to make it more plausible and less confusing for the reader. I’ll touch on elements of formatting, language, and characters as well, but those areas are generally very strong.
Format and style
State of Wonder is a professional-looking manuscript, as I would expect from an experienced novelist. Thank you for copyediting it before sending it on to me. Your grammar and mechanics are clean, with one small exception: places where commas should be semicolons, such as on page 31: “Dr. Swenson wasn’t the sort to announce a frivolous death where no death had occurred, that would constitute a frivolous waste of time.” It’s a hiccup in the act of reading and I encourage you to comb through the manuscript for similar hiccups.
Your voice is finely crafted and controlled, allowing us to observe Marina’s relationships from just the right distance. I appreciate your choice of the third person limited voice. It lets me into Marina’s thoughts and experiences without having to inhabit her (which can be exhausting), and allows you, the author, to put things in words she might not use herself.
This section deals with how the story is put together and how well it flows. These are the three questions I like to ask about structure: (1) Does this story begin in the right place? (2) Is it told in the best possible order? (3) Does it end the way it should end?
In the case of State of Wonder, I would say yes, probably, and yes. It’s a great start, the news of a colleague’s death under strange circumstances. It’s a great end, with much resolved but with a few key questions left open regarding Marina’s future. Everything in between is fairly well sorted out, but certain elements need to be revised for clarity.
While sci-fi isn’t your genre, what you’re doing here is essentially world-building: a village deep in the Amazon is almost as alien to your readers as a planet across the galaxy. A key challenge is how to make it remote enough that a tribe of people can exist with little interference and yet scientists from Minnesota can come and go on a regular basis. A more believable approach might be less dependent on navigating by broken branches and more on something like a gated-community approach: people who want to remain isolated might have a well-charted entry point, but you need a pass to get in.
Pace and timeline
The pace of the story is good and it flows well, but at times I wondered about the timeline. I felt a certain elasticity regarding the passage of time; when Marina has been in the camp for a week you could’ve said she’d been there a month and it would’ve been just as believable. I can see how it helps to heighten the disorientation in Marina’s nightmares, and it contributes to a sense of timelessness in the depths of the jungle, but it also makes it more difficult to keep track of events.
Ninety-nine percent of your language is spot on. In English, anyway. Marina bungles the few Portuguese words she uses, and I don’t see any excuse for it: she says obrigado, but as a female speaker it should be obrigada (p. 207 and 298). I would excuse her for not knowing the language, but she asks Dr. Nkomo. He says, “Obrigado.” Well, he’s male and that’s how he would say it, but if he can read and write Portuguese, he would know that a woman uses the feminine ending. The error is compounded on p. 297-298 when Marina says she’s been reading a Portuguese dictionary. Not only does she repeat obrigado, but then, wanting to say she has some letters to mail, she shouts, “Correspondencia!” The correct word would be cartas, which you would get if you looked up “letters” in a Portuguese-English dictionary.
There’s a great deal of focus on letters throughout the story, especially Anders’s unmailed letters which Easter has kept, giving some clue to his state of mind, his love for his wife, and how Brazil was eating away at him. I’d like to see at least one more of these letters. Easter has started leaving those letters for Marina, so I’d like her to read a really good, long one, maybe instead of the short excerpt on p. 221. This is one of the few ways we get to know Anders, this and Marina’s memories of him, and it’s not quite enough for me. Even in his absence, Anders is a wonderful person. I get a sense that he’s based on someone you really know, because he has that much depth. I’d like you to share him a little more.
Marina is one of the most sympathetic protagonists I’ve read in recent memory. It seems Brazil wants to strip her of everything she has brought with her—the baggage of her life. It’s her cave, the place she must go to face her old nemesis and redeem her lost sense of value. For me, this is what the whole story is about, and I think you’ve done a fantastic job.
There are really no major changes needed in this manuscript. State of Wonder could be published as is. My goal, however, is for you to fine-tune a few main elements—the clarity of the timeline and the narrowing of scientific research going on, among others—so that readers will be sucked into this world with no questions asked. You’ve created another exceptional story and I thank you again for bringing it to me. I’m always available for questions or comments, so please don’t hesitate.