Friday, November 4, 2011

Busted!—Tatiana de Rosnay Caught Doing Something Right

I've been known to irreverently refer to the early work of untrained writers as “an amazing number of black marks on a white page.” I'm not without compassion; we all must start somewhere, and I applaud anyone who sits still long enough to try to bring a literary vision to fruition. As a developmental editor, I enjoy helping shape such work.

But it's immediately apparent, in many manuscripts I see, that the writer has concentrated too hard on the black marks without giving the white page its due. In overwriting, the author has created a wall of words and feelings and facts and actions and descriptions and stage directions that virtually shut out the reader. That conscientious effort to tell every aspect of a story ends up being a misstep.

The reader wants to bring her life experience and intellect and observation skills to what she reads. Add things up. Make educated guesses. Feel smart. Fill in the blanks. To that end, you need some blanks. What you don’t say can be of vital importance.

Of course without applying black marks to a white page we wouldn't even have a manuscript. But that's first and second draft thinking. While editing later drafts, your writing will benefit from thinking of your manuscript as white pages defined by black marks.

In visual art, you might think of this as a canvas on which sketched lines or dabs of paint start to suggest a human form. Music would simply be noise without the small silences that organize and define it. Watching the way a dancer manipulates space, energizing it and pushing against it and slicing through it, can be more thrilling than the movements themselves. A soliloquy without dramatic pause would fall flat.

This brings me to the author I’m busting today: Tatiana de Rosnay, who in titling her 2007 novel points to the literary device she so beautifully employed: Sarah’s Key.

In 1942 occupied Paris, as French police tear entire Jewish families from their homes and escort them to unknown fates, ten-year-old Sarah bravely “saves” her brother by locking him inside their secret bedroom cupboard, promising to come back for him as soon as she and her parents are released.

Sarah keeps the key in her pocket throughout her unconscionable ordeal. It is around this symbol that de Rosnay builds her entire novel—Sarah’s 1942 story line entwines with that of a reporter who, sixty years later, tries to unlock secrets about this buried aspect of history, as shameful to her own family as it is to France.

One story event at a time, as we learn of the impact Sarah’s act ultimately had on so many, the key grows in symbolic power—to the point that its re-appearance, near the end of the book, packs a powerful emotional wallop. If de Rosnay laid out for the reader its many figurative meanings, she would have insulted her.

Bonus bust: Because de Rosnay told her tale in short, punchy chapters, plenty of white space contributes to her book—as if her story is visually wrapped around untold secrets and unexplored spaces.

Not every story lends itself to a powerful, unifying symbol. But other comparisons, such as simile and metaphor, also do a fine job of inviting the reader to apply her life experience to her understanding of your story.

This is what literary art is all about: a white page defined by black marks.

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Kathryn, you have outdone yourself with a post as well-crafted as the white-and-black art you hold up as an example. I find this focus on the white space left for the reader to fill to be particularly important and challenging in writing thrillers. If you paint in too much, there is no mystery and discovery; too little, and the reader is lost and confused. The sweet spot seems to me where the reader is given all the clues to guess but without the answer key. When all is revealed the reader is both surprised and satisfied, with a sense of "Yes, of course!" or even "I knew it!"

    --Larry Constantine
    --(Lior Samson, author of contemporary thrillers

  2. Thanks, Larry. You represent the thriller writer's challenge well, although finding that "sweet spot" is tricky in any genre. And one of the best reasons to hire an editor!

  3. Kathryn, excellent post here on this technique.I am learning, in tandem with this - to not to give it all away to my reader, but meet them half way - let the reader create and build things in his mind as well without giving it all away. thanks!

  4. See? This is why I don't like reading contemporary work ... I get so darn jealous of those talented folks out there.

  5. I'm so glad you started this series, Kathryn. Writers just starting out can learn a lot from it, and sometimes even those of who consider ourselves pros. LOL I like the idea of holding back, too, and a book I always hold up as an example is Brother Termite by Pat Anthony. She introduces an alien without ever once telling us he is an alien. Good use of white space.

  6. I'll bring up thumbnails of my pages - too much black or too much white is usually a sign I need to take another look.

  7. Kathryn,

    This is a beautifully written article and will help many writers learn that what the author doesn't say can be just as important as what the author includes in the manuscript.

  8. Thanks Kathryn. Sometimes the construction of a book is as important as the words in the book. For example, a short, two-page, chanpter can have more impact than a long twenty page chapter. And two pages of dialogue where each character is so well-defined that "he said/she said" is rarely needed can say more than four pages of narrative.

    Lovely post.

  9. Donna: That's the ticket! Thanks for stopping by.

    And Christopher: Jealousy can be a pretty powerful motivator. And if you are implying that writers of historical or futuristic fiction don't utilize these skills, that's not true. Or are you saying you only read dead writers, because it's hard to be jealous of someone who's lost their life?

  10. Thanks for your kind words, Maryann. It's nice to have a fan.


    But then again, you also have a multiple arts background. I'll have to look up Brother Termite; sounds like I'll like it!

  11. Elspeth: Cool tip for the literal interpretation of this issue, thanks! In The First Five Pages agent Noah Lukeman admits to thumbing through a manuscript first thing; if he doesn't like the black-to-white ratio, he doesn't bother reading it.

  12. Thanks Catherine, for stopping by! Nice to see your name pop up here.

    And Helen, I couldn't agree more. When thinking about story structure few think about the way macro structure like that can support meaning all on its own, such as sections marked "Childhood," "War," and "Aftermath": you are meant to make a connection, and the author is leaving it up to you.

  13. True about the black marks. I usually can't get around to eliminating them until the umpteenth edit, when it finally dawns on me how to say something right.

    Morgan Mandel

  14. Years ago, when I was doing desktop publishing, I learned about the use of white space to highlight whatever needed to be emphasized. Its application to writing nudges the mind to accept the beauty of this transferable skill in that process. "A white page defined by black marks" is definitely preferable to "an amazing number of black marks on a white page."

    What a wonderful post, Kathryn! It makes me want to read the book.

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  16. Kathryn: I was just being ironic ... I really DO enjoy reading contemporary writing (however, I still get envious of their talent). Anyway, no matter what I say, I always pick up some little tidbit of the craft from BRP's excellent posts.


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