Thursday, April 14, 2011
REWRITING AND THE EDITORIAL PROCESS
Time to get back to writing!
I thought it might be interesting and hopefully informative/instructive to talk about the importance of a quality editor in the rewriting of our novels. One of the problems I see in the expanding world of self-publishing and e-books is the lack of quality editing in many of these books. It seems to be an uneven field at best.
My own experience has been that good editing makes all the difference between a quality book and… a book.
My own experience has been that rewriting a book under the guidance of a knowledgeable editor is infinitely harder and more work than the first draft entailed.
My own experience is that a good editor will almost always insist on more than one major rewrite.
Now, I have to admit that I’m not always crazy about facing the prospect of rewriting. In fact, if you’ve heard a loud groan coming from somewhere and don’t know the source of it, it may have been issued by me, facing the prospect of a rewrite.
But, that’s just the first reaction. Always, when I get into the bowels of the book’s engine, guided by the master mechanic that a great editor always is, I start to get excited. I can see by the notes he or she has provided, by the discussions we’ve had, by the terms of the work he or she has dictated—that we are about to embark on a fantastic journey of discovery. We’re about to begin a joint effort that is going to transform that assembly line engine—serviceable, but not noticeably different from the other fourteen million other assembly line engines—into an engine that is going to win races.
I’ve always had good editors. At times, I’ve had great editors. Among those I count as great are Kelly Nickell, Charlotte Wright, Rachel Vater, Jimmy Vines, and now… Eddie Vega.
Some of those folks I’ve absolutely hated during the time we worked together. When we were done and I saw what they had pushed me to accomplish, my feelings toward them changed 180 degrees. It’s not important to like your editor. It is important to respect them. And, if you’re like me, that dislike for them during the time you’re working together, will change once you see what their pushing and prodding has caused you to create.
I get the same thing from many of my students. At the time I’m working them to death and refusing to let them off easy or skate on anything or give praise where praise isn’t earned, I know my name gets uttered a lot in their homes, and most likely with the preface of “That frickin’ Edgerton!” (I don’t think they use the word “frickin’” however…) A great editor is going to evoke the same kind of emotional reaction from the writer he or she is editing, I imagine.
I’ve also had mediocre editors whose idea of a “rewrite” was more copyediting than rewriting. Looking for better synonyms, correcting syntax, punctuation, misspellings, and the like isn’t the primary purview of a rewrite editor, but that seems to be what many editors see as their job. Mostly the kind of thing you might enlist a retired English teacher to do. Those folks aren’t editors except in the loosest and most generous definition of the term, but they seem to be all over the place.
What I’m going to do in this post is open the door and let you into the private world of my editor and myself as we begin work on a new novel. The novel is a literary work originally titled The Rape. The editor is a genius named Eddie Vega. I’m doubly blessed in this endeavor as the publisher is also a genius, the writer Cort McMeel. Doubly-blessed and… doubly-cursed! I’m going to have to work and work probably harder than I ever have in my life. These guys won’t accept anything less.
Together, they’re launching a new, exciting press called BARE KNUCKLES PRESS, which will publish ebooks as well as print versions. Cort is the founder of Murdaland Magazine, and Eddie was his editor on that venture. My book is one of the first signed. You can twitter them at @BKPress.
The book we’re working on is an animal of a different stripe than any I’ve ever written before. In fact, I wrote it more than thirty years ago and didn’t show it to anyone until recently when I sent it to Cort. It’s a very dark, a very philosophical, a very literary noir novel. Actually, it’s a novella at a scant 133 pages, which brings its own problems as novellas are largely considered to be in no-man’s land in the publishing industry.
It’s also the most honest thing I’ve ever written. In it, I’ve done what I’ve always felt a great writer should do—go deep down inside and expose those dark places we all have in the deepest recesses of our hearts but hide from the rest of the world. Expose the warts, in other words. The place inside where real truth resides. Most of us are unwilling to go that far. Most of us are willing to go a certain distance, but never all the way. Well, this one goes all the way.
I’m going to show the process Eddie is putting me through. Before I begin, I need to say that Cort already had me do one rewrite of it before he sent it to Eddie. That took about a week and I suspect it’s going to be the easy rewrite when I look back after finishing it.
Eddie has told me he thinks we’ll do four major rewrites before they publish it. I have a sneaking suspicion there will be more. If so, that’s all right. I know from the gitgo it’ll be worth it.
We had a phonecon two days ago. Here are my notes from that, summarized:
There were three major areas Eddie felt I should address in the rewrite:
1. The overall structure.
2. The voice of the narrator.
3. The large themes of the book developed.
Note that none of this concerns syntax, or synonyms or any of that other crapola… Not that those things aren’t important—they are—but they’re grunt work and not the primary concern of a good editor. That’s like asking a NASA scientist to check the wiring of your house. Sure, they might have an E.E. degree and know how to wire a house, but that’s a job for an electrician, not a top scientific mind. A great editor looks at larger issues, not the stuff that a lower-level copy editor would.
Eddie wants me to go back and read some texts pertinent to this book. He insists I reread Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan for one. For the voice. He sees the voice I’ve used in the book as close to what he calls “Celine’s naturalist, ‘bad-ass’ voice, and wants me to reacquaint myself with his writing to be able to carry that voice throughout. What he didn’t know at the time was that Celine is one of my top three favorite authors. This was going to be a pleasant homework assignment!
He also wants me to reread three books of the Bible. Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Job. Spot on. I’m very familiar with all of these, due to my childhood where we were required to read the Bible daily and I’ve read the Bible completely several thousand times. Again, he wants me to reread these for the voice, especially that in Ecclesiastes. And, for the themes of the book, which echo these books. I’ve used epigraphs in the original mss from John Donne, from Cipriano de Valera (translating from St. Paul in I Corinthians) and from Borges. Eddie wants me to change those to quotations from Job and Lamentations, which makes perfect sense and will help greatly to better delineate the themes of the book as well as more clearly align the structure.
Themes. Eddie wants me to identify 10-15 lines in the book that go along with the themes, and those lines will act as a kind of umbrella to teach the reader how to read the book.
He wants me to reread John Gardner’s Grendel to refresh myself with how Gardner structures the sections with the philosophical discussions between Grendel and the dragon and shape mine accordingly. There are several of these discussions in my book, between the protagonist, Truman, and his warden, and also between Truman and God.
What was amazing about Eddie, was he told me how I wrote the book. He said it looked to him like I’d begun not sure what the story was going to be about and then, as I discovered what the story was, began to zone in and really begin writing it. Precisely what had happened. That may seem like a small thing, but most editors wouldn’t have been prescient to have observed that. No “copy editors” would have…
He wants me to go back to the beginning where a lot of telling is going on and dramatize it in the way I did later on in the narrative.
Yesterday, he emailed me additional notes. Here those are:
Thanks for sending along the original manuscript. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on the one that Cort sent me.
The novel needs a restructuring and a massively detailed rewriting. But more importantly, the requirements of a great novel are there.
There were many essential elements in the earlier parts that were written around and that really called for direct treatment and elaboration. Some of this is simply the result of the writing process—the real writing begins when the writer finds the story he wants to tell. Until then he is really just feeling his way in the dark.
The cosmological and religious discussions deepen the themes but they are not cleanly strung together and the middle and end sometimes exhibit a clunky stream of consciousness that does not serve the story well. The language moves from high to low in a way that does not seem to serve the voice, which seems largely consistent, a feat in itself; however, there are moments when the sharp turns in the stream do seem to work and the results are wonderful.
There is a way of smoothing out the transitions and heightening the language so the mind gets on that stream and gets carried away without getting snagged on clumping logs or subaqueous stones – carried away like some of the long poetic sections of Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. We can get it there. But it will be work.
Here some things you can fix quickly:
1. Change the title to THE RAPIST. So the identity of the true rapist is left ambiguous—fate itself may be the rapist.
2. Narrative voice should be something dark and angry – like Celine – or dark and brooding like Ecclesiastes. But with a sense of hope, even if slim, even if the promise is ultimately false.
3. Add epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter to something from the Book of Job or the Book of Lamentations. Epigraphs should relate thematically to what is occurring in the chapter.
4. Keep cosmology and philosophical discussions – like Book of Job or discussions between Grendel and the Dragon in the Gardner novel. But should be short, just enough to suggest depth and connection to larger theme.
5. Smooth out transitions between sections. Stream of consciousness is a good technique if it’s grounded in realism (getting into the mind of someone who is drunk, or high, or depressed, or in state of agitation).
6. Provide more details of prison life, the little details that few outside would know about.
7. Add details to earlier sections, show more, tell less, dramatize more, include more dialogue.
8. Reinsert execution scene with blank rifle cartridge. Delete references to Indiana, replace with “the state.”
End of notes.
This is a glimpse into the mind of a truly great editor. A literate person, not a guy who wants each book to look like the last mindless bestseller and whose idea of editing is to “stick more sex in this.”
And, these are my marching orders for the first of at least four major rewrites.
This is an ambitious book. My aim is to deliver a work of true literature—a book that makes a difference. I’m fortunate in that both Cort and Eddie share the same view and same goal.
They both agree the raw elements are there. My job is to shape those elements into a definitive and noteworthy fiction with their direction. I’ve got the editors who can give the direction it requires—I just hope I’m up to the task!
I hope that this glimpse into the editing process is helpful in your own writing, and for those who aren’t yet at the stage where an editor is involved with their book, will give you an idea of what to expect. My hope is that you are as lucky as I’ve been with my book!
P.S. Earlier, I said it wasn’t important to like your editor, but that it was important to respect him. I’m getting a bonus with Eddie—I really like him! He’s the real deal—the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with and knock back some brews with.
If you haven't yet, I'd glom onto a copy of Cort's brilliant novel, SHORT.