Opening Our Windows

As we approach year’s end, lots of us take stock of where we were at the beginning of the year, where we wanted to be throughout the year, and where we are now. We ask ourselves, did I do what I meant to do? Did I do enough?  Did I keep my promises? Did I meet my goals?   And the problem is, if we find ourselves answering anything close to “no” to any of those questions, some of us—me included—decide the year was a complete bust.  We feel we’ve somehow let ourselves down. That we missed our chance.  And we regret.

What thick and murky curtain regret can be. It drapes itself heavily over our windows, blocking  out any light and air whatsoever, convincing us it’s dark when the sun is shining, distorting our perceptions, muffling us, making us forget.   

A brisk early morning walk through Central Park a few weeks ago took me past a flock of white birds taking a rest on the Reservoir before resuming their flight south. As I walked by them, the birds arose in a magnificent flutter and I laughed aloud at the sight and sounds.  My laughter startled me—and I recognized just then that I had a great deal for which to be thankful and for which I can laugh. This moment set off a metaphoric pulling back of that heavy curtain and an opening of the windows.  

One year after my spinal surgeries, I didn’t end up participating in the year-end 5K run in Central Park I thought I would.  But I did join a gym in the fall, and am going 3-4 times a week for a level of exercise and fitness that’s making me feel terrific.

I didn’t lose all the weight I wanted to lose this year. But I have lost some, am fitting into favorite clothes, and am headed slowly but surely towards excellent health.

I didn’t write as many blog posts as I wanted to this year. But I wrote a few, I am writing one now, and I know I will write more—whenever I can.

I didn’t make the time to visit with my mentor and friend, Margaret McElderry before she died. But I am inspired by her spirit, her work ethic, and her editorial guidance and acumen every day in my work as an editor and consultant. I think of her now and I laugh—what a great gift, exactly what she would have wanted.

I didn’t get away over the summer as much as I wanted to, for the sake of work and who knows what else that occupies our time. But I had a spectacular, life-changing four weeks in Argentina this spring, walking among the penguins and standing beneath the largest waterfall in the world.

The car we loved died, leaving us stranded on the FDR Drive in the middle of Saturday night traffic.   But traffic seemed to slow just enough to allow us to get to the side of the road and our mechanic happened to be behind us on the highway and was able to push us to safety. We were lucky.

I didn’t want to attend my college reunion because my memories of graduation were so painful. But I walked those halls and paths with my family of friends and put the pains to rest, leaving behind what can be left behind to replace the pain with joy and pride.

I didn’t land some amazing position with a publishing house. But in less than one year, my own business is thriving, generating gratifying work, steady income, the attention of interesting new colleagues and publishing partners, and leaping into the sorts of business opportunities to expand, learn, and help that I never had within a corporate structure.

In the course of working with over 150 clients this year, I must have shared this statement with at least a quarter of them: “It’s a marathon, not a race.”   Whether it’s running, writing, taking care of our families, working—we need to do so at our own pace, thoughtfully, steadily and without reprimanding ourselves.  And today, as I ponder the year’s end and tear away any remnants of doubt and regret, I can see out my windows with an invigorating perspective—it’s been a year of healing, it’s been a year of exploration, it’s been a year of trying, it’s been a year of succeeding, it’s been a year of figuring it out.  And for that, no regrets.    I wish open windows for all this holiday season, and rewarding views.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC


Giving Voice

Creating wholly believable characters is often the most difficult and exciting challenge for an author, in part due to the fact that in finding ways to explore and express the depths and dimensions of their characters, authors can be faced with some depths and dimensions of themselves that aren't always easy or comfortable. Exploring our own motivations, values, and emotions seems to me a necessary step on the path towards infusing our storytelling and characters with a deeply compelling voice that will ring true to a reader.

Editors talk frequently about the necessity of an author staying true to their own voice in expressing the voice of their main character; a definition of "voice" in this instance encompasses the word choice, sentence structure, cadence, vernacular, slang, idioms, quirks, and the poetry of speech that help to identify a character within a setting. To my mind "voice" also encompasses that which lies beneath the actual words a character expresses—namely, the emotions, motivations, doubts, desires, fears, hopes, and internal trajectory of the character. These are the elements of a "character" that will turn an "anyone" into a "someone"—a distinct individual with whom readers might identify and in whom readers will believe. "Voice," then, is not only a character's expression through speech and thought, but a characters' expression through actions, choices, and decisions. If we can be completely clear as to who our character is—how that character will behave in any situation, what that character believes in, what side that character will take in an emotional or physical challenge, and how that character will or will not evolve through each experience— then the voice of that character will resonate clearly and give humanity to that character, for all the good and the bad, the strengths and weaknesses, the triumphs and the doubts that infuse every one of us.

We are often encouraged, as we encourage others, to give voice, which means not only to actually say something when saying something seems called for, but it means participating in a larger dialogue, be it emotional, political, or societal in such a way that we are heard, we express, we take a stand. We don't necessarily achieve this with words; we do this with actions and decisions informed by what we feel to be right. And we can only express—and be true to—our voice if we are willing to meet ourselves truly. Our candid exploration of the "why?"s and "why not?"s behind our own decisions, choices and paths taken most assuredly will inform and nourish the "why?"s and "why not?"s of the characters we create. It can be a challenging road inside ourselves to find our own voices, but what can result is the creation of true characters about whom a reader will think, "Of course she'd say that!" or "Of course he'd feel that way." Whether it’s through speech, emotion, or action, it's all voice.  And by honoring our own voices, by taking deep breaths of our own selves, we will find the means to give voice to--and breathe life into--our stories, our characters.

© emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC


The Hard Parts

Recently a dear author friend, Virginia Euwer Wolff, posed what seemed to be a very simple question: What's the hardest part about writing and editing?  As I explored how I might want to answer her question, I realized why I haven't posted anything on my blog recently: it's hard!  What do I say? How do I say it? What's worth writing about? I have lots of ideas, but where do I begin?  Will anyone care? Do I really know what I'm doing?

This exercise to answer Jinny's question has gotten me thinking about what it takes for us to work through our fears and doubts in order to face that which is hard; face it, work through it, and master it.  It takes confidence, it takes time, and it takes a leap of faith.   For someone like me, who fancies herself both an editor and a writer, I fall into the trap of editing myself before I've even put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. I edit myself off the page entirely, so that I find the hardest part of writing to be beginning -- putting words down on that blank page or blank screen. Beginnings are so daunting, so full of promise, so unknown, so vast. You know what you want to say and do, but it all feels so huge and out of control. You know that once you start, you will be in control, but until you make that first mark, it's so very hard.

I equate the feeling to being on skis at the top of a hill, looking down the expanse of crisp white snow. You know what you need to do, you know where (generally) you want to end up, but until you actually take a breath and let the tips of those skis point down the hill and make the first mark in that snow, it all feels impossible. Deep breath.  Remind yourself how gratifying and fun the journey will be once you get going.  And then--you're off! You're soaring! And you wonder what took you so long....

And then, when a new story is asking to be written, you find yourself right back at the top of that vast, daunting ski slope, taking a deep breath and wondering how in the world to begin...again!  And it's then that my editor self takes over...again! 

Editing comes easily to me, but it's not always easy. I think the hardest part of editing a manuscript is being sure that you're completely attuned to the voice of the story you're editing. And by voice, I mean everything from the actual stylistic voices of the narrator and the characters to the more subtle aspects of the storytelling, such as nuance, emotion, motivation, desire, and overall arc. If an editor's not able to find and feel that rhythm in order to be in tune with the voice in which the author's writing, then the editor's not going to be in tune with the author's intentions for the story nor with the character's motives enough to pose the right questions, make inspiring suggestions and instill trust in the author. Editing an author's work is akin to orchestrating a quiet but keen form of back-up harmony for that author's words and ideas. But without being attuned to the song in the first place, such harmony can never be achieved--and so the editor pauses, ever so briefly, to be sure they know how to listen to each new story that crosses the desk.

Taking the leap. Finding the rhythm. Working through the hard parts to dispel the doubts, to listen fully to yourself if you're the writer, to listen fully to someone else if you're the editor.  I suppose, really, the hardest part of all:  Trusting yourself. And when you do, you just have to wonder...what took you so long?

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc



Margaret K. McElderry
07/10/1912 – 02/14/2011

My mentor and friend, Margaret K. McElderry, passed away at the age of 98 on February 14, 2011. Valentine's Day. A day on which we celebrate and express love. And a day somehow wholly appropriate on which to say farewell to a woman who was full to overflowing with a passion for imagination, story, a beautifully crafted book, laughter, friends, fine wine and delicious food, blue skies over sparkling oceans, the quiet revelatory conversation and the raucous celebratory gathering—a woman so full of love and enthusiasm for all life has to offer professionally and personally.

Where our work ended and our friendship began, where our friendship ended and our work began, it’s hard to say. I suppose though, the working friendship and friendly working began the day in early August 1990 when I tried to reach Margaret to tell her I was accepting her job offer. Margaret was leaving that day at Noon for her annual vacation on Nantucket and we’d agreed I’d call her at home with my “Yes” or “No.” I made my decision. It was going to be “Yes.” That morning at eight o’clock, I called. No answer. I called again. No answer. I waited a half-hour and called again. No answer. I called over to Margaret’s office at Macmillan to confirm I had the right number. No one was in yet and I left a message to say I was doing all I could to reach Margaret to tell her I wanted the job and would they please let the HR folks know. I called Margaret again. No answer. I was getting on the subway to go to Random House where I was working at the time. I found a payphone to call my partner and my mother to ask them to please keep trying Margaret McElderry’s phone number while I was on the subway. They did. No answer. I got to Random House, called again. No answer. I left another message with Margaret’s assistant. I decided to come clean and tell Margaret’s friend, Knopf editor, Frances Foster what was going so she could confirm I was dialing the right number. I was.

Now I’d not only essentially given notice to Random House without actually accepting the job offer from Margaret, but it was getting on towards 11:00 and I was frantic. I knew darn well you don’t promise Margaret McElderry you’ll call her and not call her. I called Macmillan again and was told my messages had started to set off great concern. Publisher Judy Wilson was putting McElderry Books’ art director Barbara Fitzsimmons into a taxi at that very moment to send her down to Margaret’s house on Washington Square to see if everything was alright. Oh, and by the way, Judy Wilson was delighted, I was told, that I wanted the job. I called again. No answer. And then, just before Noon, my phone rang. Judy Wilson was on the line to tell me it seems Barbara got to Margaret’s house in a progressively nervous state, and was pounding on the door and holding her finger on the doorbell – only to have a rather put-out Margaret McElderry open the door, take one look at Barbara’s pale face, and say something to the effect of…”What are you doing here? Did you all think I was dead?” Well, in fact, yes we did. And, in fact, while Margaret McElderry was clearly very much alive, her telephone line was completely done for. It seems not three minutes before Barbara arrived, she’d just figured out what was happening when she’d quite irately picked up the receiver to call Macmillan’s HR department to tell them QUOTE “If that Emma Dryden doesn’t have the common decency and courtesy to call me at the time we arranged for her to call me, I don’t want her working for me anyway.” UNQUOTE.

Margaret and I never did speak that day, but I started as her associate editor on September 19, 1990, a week or so before she returned to the office, tan and energized, from Nantucket. And when we saw each other, we hugged and laughed and had some rather choice things to say about AT&T.   The rest is history and we told and retold that story over and over again because it said something about our partnership and it made us laugh. Such a remarkably unexpected beginning to a remarkably unexpected friendship and collaboration.I’d give anything to call you right now, Margaret, to tell you how much it all meant to me—professionally and personally—to accept that job offer, to accept that gift. And this time, we'd use our cell phones.