I’d been waiting for my fabulous new agent’s notes for tightening my manuscript, and I received those comments just last night. Up to that point, I’d half-convinced myself that she’d email to say she was crazy before and had decided she couldn’t possibly represent such a pile of lawn droppings. Instead, she said she liked the story even more after the second read. (Aren’t all writers neurotic?)
So after I got past the first reassuring graph, I leaped into the heart of the matter: the revision notes.
I was pretty much prepared for anything since I’d already been critiqued by people from all walks of life, with all sorts of opinions on my plot, characters, dialogue, etc… And as I read through Elisabeth’s list, I thought that most of her suggestions were easily doable. But a few ideas made me freeze up. Cut what? How could I? I’d lose some…
clever shades of grey
clever stylistic stuff
Okay, I got it pretty quickly. These were a few of my darlings. And maybe I didn’t really need them. And maybe they didn’t serve the work as well as they served my ego.
So you know me; I grabbed a book, hoping to find camaraderie and wisdom in another writer’s experiences. I didn’t have to look far.
James Michener, in his now out-of-print Writer’s Handbook, wrote at length about his editorial process and cited example after example of editorial feedback and his response to it. Here’s one of his original graphs, an outtake from his memoir, The World Is My Home:
But I was enjoying myself in Papeete, for in the early part of the evening we all went to the movie house, which was a lively scene with young people all over the place and a level of noisy involvement that I had not seen elsewhere. The island had only one film, a colossal disaster called South of Pago Pago, which was interesting, because if you look on the map there is absolutely nothing south of that tiny island but the South Pole. This did not deter the movie makers, who offered the exquisite but doomed Frances Farmer, one of the most serene of all stars but an incurable addict of alcohol and drugs, in a concoction featuring sharks, buried treasure, palm trees and two of the most conniving villains ever, Gene Lockhart and Douglas Dumbrille: to see them was to hate them.
Michener’s editor circled the last part of the graph, beginning at “This did not deter the movie makers.” The note says, “I suggest cutting this. It delays getting to the point of the story.”
On that critique, Michener wrote, “To few current writers could this criticism be more frequently applied than to me. I love the rich embellishment of a statement, the marshaling of arcane data, the retelling of illustrative incident, and the hammering down of the point I seek to make. Readers have constantly thanked me for that approach to storytelling; editors have properly warned me against redundancy. I have tried to follow a rule of reason and have profited from editorial advice. In this instance I wanted to refer to that delightful actor Gene Lockhart because I had recently acted on an informal stage in Belgium with his daughter, June. The passage could be cut. Sorry, June.”
Earlier on the same page, his editor slices part of a sentence, a description of a man who is “a kind of elf.” That was the bit that was left bleeding on the cutting room floor. Michener wrote, “I surrendered the phrase, but not happily.”
So I guess this is my guiding light as I move into this end-stage of editing: Can the phrase/graph/thread/scene be cut or tweaked–happily or otherwise–without hindering the story? Will reworking it better serve the work?
I have to admit that I’m a little weary of editing at this point. But as Michener points out, editing doesn’t end until the book is printed and sitting on a shelf somewhere. Editors and copy editors will have a go at it–or several goes–and you, the author, will tinker with it until someone rips the manuscript from your bleeding, perfectionistic, type-happy fingers. Because each stage of the process offers new opportunities to improve your work.
And as soon as I see it that way, I’m okay with Elisabeth’s ideas. I may debate a few points with her. I may even win a few. But I get it. She wants the best work. We’re on the same team. Unbounded isn’t mine alone anymore.
Which is actually pretty cool.
So I guess it’s time to take another slice at the script, make it bleed ink.
Write on, all!