The amount of grunge that had built up on my 4-year-old keyboard finally flagged my attention. Dingy gray soiled the sides of the keys, between the keys, and even the tops. Sound familiar?
That grunge, it occurs to me, is like the congenital flaws you can find in any novelist’s work (including, dang it, mine). Grunge is missteps a writer takes—or steps he fails to take—that go unnoticed and accumulate, dimming and diminishing the narrative.
I got a bottle of cleaner and a paper towel, sprayed, and wiped. Back-lit as the keyboard was by my monitor and a lamp at one end of my desk, it looked fine. This effort, I later learned, was the equivalent of self-editing. I got the obvious stuff, but missed deeper grime because I couldn’t see it. Not enough light from the right angle.
Later, going to open Stein on Writing for a refresher course, I found that my lighting was terrible for reading because it came at me from the front. So I positioned a desk lamp for backlight. Which cast a front light on the keyboard. It revealed that my keyboard fairly dripped with grunge I’d missed.
Not only did it cover the sides of the keys, some scum still discolored their tops. Nasty. I went to work with cotton swabs, cleaner and a fresh paper towel, performed the equivalent of a rewrite after a professional edit, and now write this on a clean keyboard. That desk lamp was like an editor’s mind, revealing unseen grunge that gums up and weakens narrative.
I’ve learned (resentfully, because the learning curve seems to have no end) that I need independent, story-smart eyes to shine a revealing light on my fiction from a fresh angle.
Generally, my stories are seen as having involving plots, excellent pace, vivid action, and strong writing . . . plus big fat voids where I have not done enough with character motivation or revealed enough about characters to make them emotionally involving. It’s not that I can’t do those things, but I just fail to see that some wavelengths are missing. My deep inner knowledge of characters fills in the missing parts of the spectrum, backlighting the narrative so that I cannot perceive the lacks . . . the weaknesses . . . the grunge.
Some writers, especially hugely successful ones, adamantly blind themselves. Anne Rice once stated in a posting on Amazon.com that she refuses to allow an editor near her work. She defends her practice because she has worked so diligently on her art, writing of how she polishes every word. She wants no alien influence to besmirch her prose. I think Anne is mistaken on a couple of counts. The first is to somehow link an editor’s critique as a mandate for change that will corrupt or lessen her art.
Light only reveals. An editor can only observe and remark upon weak spots, hopefully with educated, empathetic eyes that reveal grunge the writer no longer sees. It’s up to the writer to clean it up. Or not. Anne doesn’t have to do what an editor says . . . but the light might show her where grunge has crept in, unnoticed but nonetheless there.
I’m a fan of Anne Rice, and enjoyed hugely The Witching Hour and The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. Fascinating works of imagination. I suspect those books had editorial participation because they are not burdened by the muddiness and wandering I see in her later works. That’s her second mistake—her editor-free narratives have moved me from enthusiastic fan to a maybe-this-one-will-be-worth-it reader to a former fan no longer willing to expend the funds or time on her books. We both lose.
I came across the following post on a blog by a fellow named Trent. I quote his quote of Anne Rice’s misunderstanding of what a good editor does, and his response.
Anne Rice: “When you take home a CD of Pavarotti or Marilyn Horne, you don’t want to hear another voice blended in. I feel the same way about Hemingway. If I read it, I don’t want to read a new edited version.”
Trent: “Ah, but if the conductor notes that Pavarotti has sung the wrong note or key in rehearsal, should the conductor not inform Pavarotti of the mistake? A good editor informs writers of troublesome errors, worthless tangents, unnecessary repetitions–small and large–and so forth. The voice is not to be tampered with–unless it’s off-key or otherwise problematic and inconsistent.”
But it wasn’t successful writers such as Ms. Rice who got me to thinking about writerly grunge. They’ll get along fine (the money-in-the-bank thing). It was the rights postings on Publishers Marketplace made by unrepresented authors. I read the proffered samples and see promising writing tainted by grunge, some of it subtle, some of it obvious. For practiced readers (for agents and editors make that “jaundiced”), those samples foreshadow manuscripts marred by shortcomings—and not worth following up. Backs will be turned.
Every novelist owes it to herself and to readers to find other eyes, knowing ones that can see the grunge. Unless you’re very lucky in your critique group, that probably means an independent editor. Yes, an editor costs, but what is the cost of backs being turned on your writing? At the least, you can check out editors who will consider doing a free critique of a sample . . . but ONLY if you are willing to follow up with an order for an edit if you are convinced you need one.
Or find a critique group with fellow novelists whose writing you like and respect. Reader-friends may be able to give you good input, though in my experience even other writers, if not novelists, don’t know how to address the deeper craft insights a novelist really needs.
Don’t settle for admiring grungy work through me-colored glasses like Anne Rice, find other eyes—you’ll see what I mean.
(In the interests of full disclosure, due to the press of work events, this is taken from an ancient, but still valid, post on my blog, Flogging the Quill.)
Image from JoshHardin.