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Terra Firma: Trinity University Press blog

Posts by Nan Cuba

Two Hats

Jun 5, 2013 (2:48 pm)

You’d think editing an anthology and writing a novel would have nothing in common, but after trying my hand at each, I’ve noticed overlaps. 

An editor chooses a focus, a concept that drives the book’s contents and organizing principles. For Art at Our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists, Trinity University Press asked me to collect work that represented San Antonio’s literary aesthetic and history. Easy—I was ready at the get-go. A novel’s focus, however, appears during the process of creating the story. The author concentrates on craft issues, and the underlying concept emerges like a message from a Ouija board. I wrote Body and Bread because I wanted to understand the reasons my brother committed suicide. Not until I’d finished did I realize the novel was about the damage caused by a survivor’s grief.  

An editor chooses authors; a novelist creates characters. This comparison is a stretch, but there are similarities. An anthology’s author lineup determines the book’s content and essence; a novel’s characters do the same. An editor not only selects authors; she also chooses representative pieces by each, and the final product is a unique collection of individual parts. An author creates individual characters that shift and grow, their intersecting story lines evolving into a unique culmination. In both cases the artist’s aesthetic vision and literary standards drive the process.  

Maintaining balance is a major issue. For Art at Our Doorstep I included historical and contemporary work. Styles ranged from traditional to experimental, with a variety of genres represented. For Body and Bread I shifted between present and past story lines and between various characters’ scenes, always conscious of pacing.  

Which brings us to structure. How does an editor arrange selected pieces, and does that process resemble the ordering of a novel’s chapters? In each case I relied on some sense of narrative arc. An anthology’s structure is better compared to a piece of music, with the arrangement producing a tonal quality that rises and falls, tenses and relaxes, each effect intuitively conceived. In a novel, the protagonist’s development defines the arc.  

Transitions were tricky. Art at Our Doorstep includes fabulous artwork, and placement of those pieces became a project. Barbara Ras, director of Trinity University Press, and I paired them with the literary pieces, using abstract rather than literal associations. Relying on subject, style, and tone, a synergy evolved from the written and visual connections. Transitions between chapters in Body and Bread were created from seven questions I thought the reader would ask—for example, why did Sam commit suicide, would Cornelia receive her kidney transplant, would Sarah be able to control her hallucinations? Each transition focused on a question and shifted to another with the next chapter.  

I worked closely with an editor on both books. Barbara Ras’s emphasis on the anthology’s celebratory nature meant that some of my choices were replaced with lighter selections. An introduction wrestling with sensitive issues was admired but determined inappropriate. For Body and Bread, my editor guided me through three major revisions, cutting forty pages in the final edit. My experience with each editor was labor-intensive and emotionally and intellectually challenging. In other words, I’m one lucky girl. I’m also grateful for being given this chance to thank them.