In 2006, I'd reconnected with my college friend, Neil, through Friendster (yeah, remember Friendster?). We'd been theatre majors together at Ithaca, but I'd dropped out after two years, and I hadn't seen him in almost a decade.
Neil is an editor and generously offered to read my manuscript: Savannah Leone & Her Trusty Dog Joe. It was the story of a woman who accidentally ordered a German Shepherd off the internet from Slovakia (sound familiar?). She found love, had a tiny bit of angst, got into a spat with her best friend and. . . well. . . that's about it. Not much else happened to her.
"I take storytelling very seriously," Neil warned me before he read my manuscript.
I'd sent queries out to some agents. I'd had partial requests. I was on the path to something, but I wasn't there yet. I had a vague, unsettling sense that something in my story hadn't fallen into place yet. I didn't want to give my manuscript to someone to read only to get the vague it's good, response that often comes from well-meaning beta-readers who want to be polite. While I'm sure at that point in our friendship I had no way of understanding the depth of Neil's seriousness in relation to storytelling, I was relieved to hear that he'd be reading my manuscript with an idea of what a well-told story should be.
After reading the manuscript, Neil's feedback revealed a deep understanding of Savannah, and the characters surrounding her. He pointed to the balance between the characters, and encouraged me to upset the balance to give Van a chance to put her life back together in a more satisfying way. He directed me to a specific scene.
"If she's challenged more here, her happiness would
be that much more significant.
And so, if I were to boil all of these words down to a single note, I would
Make it harder for Savannah."It's painful to make bad things happen to good characters. It feels like a betrayal to create a character and fall in love with them, only to break their hearts and hurt their feelings. With his advice, Neil gave me the courage to make it harder for Van, so her happiness could be more significant. I took the entire book apart and put it back together into a stronger story (later changing the title). With the new version of my manuscript, I found an agent and later a book deal.
Neil is one of my dearest friends and favorite people. He's also my storytelling guru. In the years since our Friendster reunion, I've benefitted endlessly from Neil's reverence for storytelling. We have epically long chats about characters and stories - what makes a character endearing, why certain stories work, why others don't, and the complex algorithms behind Ron Swanson's awesomeness. Neil understands the intricacies of character and the global cause and effect of simple changes to a storyline. His advice is always balanced and astute.
I'm a better writer because Neil is a wonderful teacher. Without his wise words and advice along the way, STAY would not be STAY, and Van's happiness wouldn't be nearly so significant. Neither would mine.
I've often thought that every writer should have a Neil. So, I'm extremely excited to share Neil's new website with you (designed by the awesome Ashley Cadaret): Neil G. Gordon Writing and Editing Services.
Not only can you have a Neil, you can have the Neil, who takes storytelling very seriously.