Behind-the-Pages: An Editor’s Reflections on a Book from the Backlist

Three Notes on In High Places by Tom Morrisey

I.
Editors are like parents: we don’t play favorites. (Or if we do, we try those semantic games that allow us to both have/eat our cake: “You’re my favorite first-grader.” So…I would never tell you and could never tell you my favorite book I’ve worked on. Or my favorite author. They’re my favorites for different reasons. (“You’re my favorite author named Athol!”)

That said, I have a favorite.

My favorite book “package” I ever worked on was Tom Morrisey’s In High Places hardcover. Not just front cover (I have a lot of favorite front covers)—but the whole thing. The back cover, back flap, author photo, title page. Author photo! Who has a favorite author photo? Even the interior pages are wonderful. It’s a book set in the world of rock climbing and each chapter begins with an illustration of a piece of climbing gear with a short description. Tom did them all.

Today through Friday the book is free on Kindle and Nook and CBD. I encourage you to download it because the story is wonderful but I warn you…the pieces are all there but the magic of that package is mostly gone.

The hardcover of In High Places was designed by artists. And it feels like it. It’s three-dimensional—it takes up space and that sort of thing doesn’t compress into two-dimensions without a loss. It’s mulish and old-fashioned, I know, to talk about the “feel’ of a book. I sound like a Luddite. But I’m not wrong. We do lose something in our transition to the electronic. Not our soul, nothing that dramatic, but a little bit of beauty. A little bit of magic.

II.
In High Places is the only CBA book I know set in 1970s world of West Virginian rock climbers. It’s a father-son story. An emotional and wonderfully written coming-of-age tale, with some breath-holding moments of adventure. It says something about the state of the market in 2005 that we thought we could make it work.

CBA publishing from 2002 on was beginning to expand at a pretty rapid pace. We were in as many retail outlets as we’d ever been before with B&N, Borders (oh how I miss you) and Books-a-Million all widening their shelves. Wal-Mart was beginning to pay serious attention to the genre (and Sam’s Club, Costco, and other big boxes.) CBA outlets like Lifeway, Family, CBD were flexing their muscle and CBA independents still had shelves across the country. Shelves, shelves, shelves and they all needed books.

Markets always have expansions and contractions. But our current contraction—in terms of genres, if not number of books—has made  the shelves look a bit…homogeneous.

I don’t know what the answer is to this. I will say that while the world of ebooks have wrought k.a.o.s.  on an Smartian level, they have also made it possible for shelves to not matter any more. And that’s good for writers. (And terrible for writers.)

III.
(PLEASE STOP READING IF YOU’RE EASILY OFFENDED. THIS SECTION IS GOING TO DEAL WITH ISSUES OF LANGUAGE AND I WILL PROBABLY USE SOME OF THAT LANGUAGE.  ALSO, THIS SECTION CONTAINS A FEW SPOILERS ABOUT THE BOOK. SORRY.)

In the first draft of In High Places, Tom used the Lord’s name in vain.

In the copy you will buy or download, it’s not there. It got edited out. By me. As a book for the CBA market, it was the only decision we could make. As a “book”—a piece of art—it was the wrong decision. The book is .002% weaker because of that edit. Not enough of course, that it could come close to ruining the book.  You wouldn’t know. But if you had read the section, it might have hit you like it hit me in my first reading.  Like a slap in the face. Only we don’t like to be slapped.
I hate conversations of language in books that refuse to offer context for this word or that word. It’s worthless. So let me try to set the stage.

In the wake of his mother’s apparent suicide, Patrick, a teenage boy seeking answers, finds God. It’s new to him. It’s deadly important to him. His father, an engineer (if I recall) has no time for faith. Patrick’s been looking into his mother’s death and discovers something that hints she may have found faith before she died. With the help of a pastor friend, he presents it to his father. The response is angry silence. And then…

So after the stockroom had been swept, and then re-swept, and then re-swept once again, there was nothing for it but to ride home in the VW with my father. We were six miles from the shop, two miles from the house, when finally he looked my way.
“Jesus Christ, Patrick.”
That was all he said: a cut that wounded twice.

When I first read that section, I remember responding viscerally to this section. The book is first person from Patrick’s POV. He’s a new believer and his father (who’s a wonderful, patient character to this point) says perhaps the most hurtful thing possible. Non-believers take the Lord’s name in vain all the time. It’s meaningless to them. But what does it mean to be cut, for the first time, by the phrase as a believer? Why does God forbid it in his commandments in the first place? This section seemed to ask and answer these questions and so much more.

But it could never stay. And perhaps I’m a coward for not fighting for it. Perhaps I’m a heretic for even considering it.

Here’s what we went with.

So after the stockroom had been swept, and then re-swept, and then re-swept once again, there was nothing for it but to ride home in the VW with my father. We were six miles from the shop, two miles from the house, when finally he looked my way.
“Never again, Patrick.”
That was it. Three words in a ferocious whisper that rang louder than any yell. He’d said his piece.

You can decide for yourself, right call or wrong call.

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14 responses to “Behind-the-Pages: An Editor’s Reflections on a Book from the Backlist

  1. Pingback: Kindle Digest | Behind-the-Pages: An Editor’s Reflections on a Book from the Backlist·

  2. The part that Dave leaves out is that I was a total horse’s backside about that edit. And he was a total saint. I thank heaven for editors such as Dave and his wife, Sarah.

  3. Click on that author phot to expand it, and you can see the two elements that really make it what it is: the vintage VW bug almost totally hidden behind me and … the cookie. Thanks to Rick Tapia for snapping that shot a million years ago — Rick, you wouldn’t know your subject today.

  4. Wow. Tough call. I can see the point both ways. In any event, just wanted to say I absolutely loved this book. I’ve told Tom as much time and again. Kudos to you, Dave, for your editing. You should be proud of this book–from writing to cover. (Which, I agree, is also fabulous.)

  5. Yes, the original was better. I don’t think you could have got Bethany House to allow it, but the original was true to the character, and the replacement (in my opinion) isn’t as true.

  6. I just downloaded the book and sent an e-mail to my friends to get it. Loved this blog post, Dave. I think you made the right decision for the right audience…but I can see that it lost its dramatic curtain line.

  7. Magnificent book. Magnificent cover. I remember being blown away by both. Not surprisingly, I think you’re right, Dave, about the edit being weaker artistically — almost always true in these cases — but nothing so minor could diminish Tom’s achievement in that book (which had me daydreaming about climbing sans rope, despite the fact I can’t even tie my shoelaces without them coming undone).

  8. Personally, I’d say wrong call. I hate the Lord’s name being taken in vain but that’s why it was so powerful. I’m so glad to see you blogging again. Quite a heated discussion going on many sites (Novel Rocket included) about this very subject. Going to go download the book. Thanks for sharing that info. Great post!

  9. I loved this book and gave it a 4**** review on Amazon. It deserved a 5, but I rarely, rarely give a book a 5, so my 4* is really a 5 for most. Anyway, here’s part of my review of this awesome story: Some books are tough to define why they make a powerful impact on your heart, and this is one of them. The story was well-told, meaning for me that it was realistic with solid characterization and plot cruising along with hills, valleys, twists and turns, smashing the things I presumed would happen. The father-son relationship was told as fathers and sons usually relate to each other. Morrisey did not feminize the men’s relationship in order to tell what lesser writers would mistakenly feel would make a more complete story. What he achieved was a portrayal of a relationship infused with nuance and uncertainty–like real life.

  10. Glad you’re back on the blogosphere, Dave. And I have to say seeing that beloved name THAT way also hit me viscerally, but in the way it should, in the way Tom surely hoped it would. As a wounding. I might’ve wirrten it that way, too. But as an editor I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to keep it. Too hard to call! Ditto what GIna said. Great post…

  11. Loved the book. Years later still remember that scene. It’s a story that sticks with us. Will be letting people know it’s available in e-book. I think my husband’s already raced off to download it. We both were sucked in by the writing, story and images.

  12. Bethany House has never had a “list” of any sort in terms of language we will/will not allow. Typically we’ve dealt with it on a case-by-case basis (and rarely does any “language” actually make it through our edits). That said, I can’t envision the day we allow the Lord’s name to be taken in vain in one of our books. There’s an artistic defense for it, I absolutely believe. But it’s always weird to be on the side arguing for breaking one of the Ten Commandments.

  13. “on the side arguing for breaking one of the Ten Commandments”

    Do we not write stories often focused on that? Isn’t that where the conflict comes from? I remember a moving short story in Relief Journal about a blasphemous (#3), son of a preacher who was wandering the roads (#8), using drugs (#2) and running from his past. His preacher-father was a hypocrite (#1) and he hated him for it (#5). But when this young man got high on his unique hallucinogen, he would preach just like his father. Apparently, the theology wasn’t terribly unsound, because one of his travelling friends surrendered to the Lord. Just like he used the despicable priest in _The Power and the Glory_, God used this sinner to preach the gospel to another sinner.

    I know there are limits to depicting sin, but perhaps it is also a sin to help shield churched readers from the true darkness of their own hearts, which is what redemptive fiction does for us.

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