On Editing: A Delicate Experience
As those of us who write know, a good editor is golden. I'm currently editing my next book of what I'm calling 'essays' and am ridiculously grateful for my editor.
There are some authors who talk about loving the editing process, and I admit, I'm not one of them. I love it when I'm done, you could say. There's no getting away from the fact that it's a delicate experience, all round. We happened to watch the movie, Genius, last weekend, which is about the relationship between the editor Max Perkins and the writer Thomas Wolfe, contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (and not to be confused with Tom Wolfe of The Bonfire of the Vanities fame). In the movie, Perkins says, "That's what we editors lose sleep over, you know. Are you really making books better or just making them different?"
And I'm sure that this is an ongoing struggle for editors.
In Imagining Canadian Literature, in a letter to Margaret Laurence from 1960, Jack McClelland says:
“It has been our experience that American houses insist on very comprehensive editing; that English houses as a rule require little or none and are inclined to go along with the author's script almost without query. The Canadian practice is just what you would expect–a middle-of-the-road course. We think the Americans edit too heavily and interfere with the author's rights. We think that the English publishers don't take enough editorial responsibility. Naturally, then, we consider our editing to be just about perfect. There's no doubt about it, we Canadians are a superior breed!"
I imagine that editing everywhere is equally rigorous these days, though I've nothing to base this on. It just seems that getting a book out there is so perilous that the editing process is going to take on even greater importance. And of course there's the fact that a lot of authors will pay for professional editing services even before a work is sent to publishers. At the very least, writer friends will have given the thing a decent once-over.
In his book, The Polysllabic Spree, Nick Hornby writes:
“Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress...
Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you're doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they're the first to go. And there's some stuff about the whole winnowing process I just don't get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words–entirely coincidentally, I'm sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I'm sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there's nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound manly, back-breaking labor because it's such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging."
Well, it was true for me that after years of writing classes, I had to learn to flow again. To say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. And I've been lucky in having editors that have a delicate touch, too.
When I talk about this process with people who are not writers, they seem very interested in the time it all takes. Books seem to just come out and land on bookstore shelves very shortly after being written, but this is not the usual way of things.
My book has been 'finished' for about a year and while we are editing now, it won't be available until spring 2018. The cover has yet to be designed. There will still be a copy edit, and the interior design will be worked on. I used to be very impatient about this side of things but after many books, have learned to just relax and enjoy all of the steps.
I'm currently writing a novel and have been for over a year. But this one is essays, in the mode of my book Asking. The title is taken from a line by Virginia Woolf, The Flower Can Always be Changing, and will be published by Palimpsest Press, who also published Calm Things and Rumi and the Red Handbag. So I know I'm in great hands.
One of the lovely things about going through the book again is that I'm remembering all the books that inspired it – which will have to be a post unto itself at some point. But I love those sort of in-between genre books that I read while writing and shortly after: Clarice Lispector's Crônicas, Lydia Davis's Can't and Won't, C.D. Wright's work, Mei Mei Bersenbrugge's, Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encylopedia of an Ordinary Life, Rivka Galchen's Little Labors, Sarah Manguso's 300 Arguments, and even, early on, Out of Eden by W. S. Di Piero, etc etc. All the pleasurable hours spent with the words of others, a notebook on my lap, scribbling in my diary, too.
In the photos to accompany this post, you'll see Chloe's art pencils. While I never really use pencils, I think this illustrates the work and the perseverance of making art, whatever it is one makes. The visible signs of the time put into it are meaningful and maybe why I like using fountain pen ink: watching the line of the ink go down until the bottle is empty.