Monday, May 19, 2008

Editing and being edited

Years ago, I sold a story to a Prominent Publication. I liked my editor there, but in addition to her edits I received, through her, the editorial edicts of the Big Editor, who I never actually spoke to. The story changed a lot during this process, and by the end, most of the edits were coming not from my editor but from the B.E., and they were making less and less sense with every pass.

I asked my editor what the hell was going on. "It's B.E.," she told me. "He says you're...a good reviser."

In the end, I put my foot down when B.E. threatened to delete my favorite paragraph in the whole story. This small rebellion was accepted without complaint, and the story ran, much changed, but still mine. There were a few days there, though, when I believed there could be no worse fate than being a "good reviser," and a vowed not to be so pliable in the future.

I didn't keep my vow, though. I am pliable. I'm the kind of person who, after talking on the phone with you for half an hour, will adopt your accent and patterns of speech. I'm pretty good at parodies and other forms of literary mimesis, and I'm highly susceptible to editorial suggestions.

This novel I'm revising was a lot different when I first wrote it. I had a "vision" for it. And, you know, being an artist, I figured, what could be more important than my "vision"? Then people started hinting to me that my vision sucked. They were right--so I changed it. Is this, then, a lapse in integrity? Is it a violation of the purity of my work?

I don't think so. I think an art work is a flexible thing. I'm not one of those people who believe that if you changed a single word of Moby-Dick it would be ruined. Indeed, Moby-Dick could be drastically different, still be terrific, and still pretty much be Moby-Dick. It changes in your memory--your Moby-Dick is not the same as mine--and it might as well be changed on the page, too. I also think there are an infinite number of ways of achieiving even a worthwhile "vision,"and, in the end, your editor might even know better than you how to successfully achieve it. And even when your editor is way off the mark, his suggestions, misguided as they might be, are liable to be exposing problems you hadn't noticed. Your solution might be better than his, but without him, you wouldn't have known what problems to solve.

I suppose I'm making a case for the usefulness of editorial input, and the inherent malleability of artistic endeavor. When I sit down to begin a new story or novel, I have a perfect picture in my mind of what it will be like. And then I start writing, and the picture is shattered forever. A first draft, I've come to understand, is a primordial ooze--the raw material from which the real work must be coaxed. And the coaxing process is often exhausting. Why not accept help?

In my view, the work has a life of its own, or should. It isn't your slave--it's more like your pet. You can train it to do some things, but there are certain habits you'll never cure it of, and certain talents you'll never be able to bestow upon it. Or maybe it's some kind of magic spell--you might think you created it all by yourself, but it draws its energy from the world around it--forces flow into and out of it seemingly without your assistance. If the work is published, people will comment on "themes" or "motifs" that you don't remember putting in there--that, in fact, you didn't put in there. These things are the work's personality. Accept and enjoy them. And listen to your editor.


Elizabeth said...

A familiar observation: It's the frustration of parenthood. I have a 5-year old. You may have written this:

"You can train her to do some things, but there are certain habits you'll never cure her of, and certain talents you'll never be able to bestow upon her. Or maybe it's some kind of magic spell--you might think you created her all by yourself, but she draws her energy from the world around her--forces flow into and out of her seemingly without your assistance. People will comment on "traits" or "habits" that you don't recognize in her--that, in fact, you don't recognize in yourself. These things are your child's personality. Accept and enjoy them."

I resist the notion of worldly influences on my creation. I accept that worldly influences are right and necessary for that creation to approach its potential.

Writing's hard. Children, too.

jrlennon said...

I'm with you there.

Joe Linker said...

Good interview with Julie Hecht in this month's "The Believer" magazine (May 2008) - on writing, editing, and difficulties of publishing in general over the last several decades. Given recent posts and comments at Ward Six, thought you and your readers might be interested. The entire text is not on-line, but the intro. is:
Worth picking up for this interview.

rmellis said...

I'm not so easily edited. I get confused by others' vision of my work and lose track of what I wanted in the first place. I mean, when someone says something that feels right or completes an idea I had, nothing's better. But editing advice that feels a little off but could be correct can flummox me.

Remember last year when we hired that person who "edited" our house?

Joe L said...

Rhian, But while I found your original response somewhat cryptic, and I didn't get it, I did enjoy it - and thought, well, maybe it's better to go in for a moniker after all. But I'm curious to know what it was: do you not like the Believer, or Julie Hecht? Because I had never heard of her, and the history of her publishing I found interesting, and so much of what she says in this interview touches on questions raised here. Do you already know her story? Have you seen the interview?

jrlennon said...

I read the intro to that interview, but haven't seen the full mag yet. Looks good--her answers are brief and to the point.

Rhian's referring to this real estate "stager" whom we did NOT hire to help prepare our house for sale last year. Our real estate agent convinced us to let her come over and ply her trade for free for an hour, since she was new at it.

Anyway, the "staging" consisted mostly of this stranger telling us how unappealing our lifestyle was. And she kept using the word "edit." "I think you need to edit these bookcases." "A little editing here in the sunroom." For a few days afterward, we used the word in all kinds of inappropriate circumstances. "I'm going to edit the dishes." "Boys, if you want ice cream, you're going to have to edit your dinners."

Joe l said...

That's hilarious. Editing as extreme makeover. I'm going out to edit the garden, then going down to the barber to edit my hair. Turns out anything can be edited. Thanks for the clarification.

Pale Ramón said...

Well, I guess you should be grateful that she didn't use the word redact.

rmellis said...

Sorry to be confusing, Joe. I decided to rewrite my comment because it was confusing, not because I have anything against Julie Hecht (whose collection "Do The Windows Open?" I enjoyed many years ago and whose new book we have at the store. I've bits of it, and it seems pretty good) or even the Believer. Though I will confess to having not liked the Believer in the past. I'm working on a new, more positive self, though -- so I'll check out the interview in hardcopy next time I'm at work.

Thanks for the info.

Matt said...

I think the tension between what we imagine we are attempting when we start a story/novel and what actually results may lie in the fact that the work we imagine perhaps inhabits more a reader's perspective, rather than a writer's. It's only when we begin the process of writing that we quickly realise: "Riight...well, screw that idea." and carry-on writing the book or story that it should be rather than what we idealized.

As you wrote about Moby Dick, a writer who's been around the block and understands what revising can entail, probably wouldn't bat an eyebrow if one were to lift an entire sentence or paragraph from Moby Dick. Whereas, I think readers would be more sensitive to any changes.