‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
– Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944. On the Art of Writing. 1916.
And therein lies the difference between that first free-wheeling tatterdemalion draft, and a polished ready-to-submit manuscript.
Many years ago, when I turned in my first novel, my editor at Harper Collins sent the manuscript back with the last sentence of many of my paragraphs deleted. I had this horrible tendency to write a perfectly good paragraph and then tack on a repetitive last sentence. I didn’t trust my ability s a writer to communicate to the reader exactly what I intended and so felt the need to either repeat myself just in case you missed the point, or else add some little enhancement. I think, after four books, I’ve almost learned to stop doing that. Almost.
When an interviewer asked Hemingway if he revised much, he answered by pushing a story across the table and telling his interviewer to take it home, read it carefully and tell him the next day if he had found a single word that could be cut. The interviewer declined, and decided this was Hemingway’s way of telling him the story had gone through many, many, revisions.
When I’m at this phase of the work I begin by putting aside the manuscript for a period – days, weeks, sometimes months, so that I can go back and evaluate it with fresh eyes, and less attachment. I can’t tell you how important this is. It never fails but that immediately upon finishing a piece of writing, I am convinced it fairly sparkles with brilliance and wit, that’s it’s the very best thing I’ve ever written and as soon as my agent sets eyes upon it she will send it off to publishers without suggesting I rewrite a single word. The publishers will be so dazzled they will begin an immediate auction, which will result in the book being promptly published, verbatim, to gushing acclaim.
Shockingly, this has never happened. What does happen is that the next morning I look the work over and go back to the keyboard, slashing wildly. That’s after one night’s rest. You can imagine how critical I am of my own work after leaving it in a drawer for a couple of months. But that’s a crucial part of the process. Somehow, in the intervening days, the sparkling prose has transformed, settled, relaxed, if you will, into decent work, but with ample room for improvement.
I being re-reading, chapter by chapter, at least three times, questioning each word.
I then cross out every extraneous word. The adverbs are the first to go (in favor of more precise verbs), then most adjectives. I discover, and promptly excise prepositional phrases or replace them with a single word (up on, down by, over near – replaced with: on, by, near). Is my description excessive? I hunt for words, phrases, paragraphs, even scenes and chapters, which can be cut. And even as I’m doing this I know that should I have the good fortune of finding a publisher for my work, an editor will probably ask for more cuts. It’s heartbreaking, but surgical-strike editors are oddly less attached to my darlings than am I.
I try to remember Chekhov’s advice about spare description: “very brief and relevant . . . one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes, you get a picture.”
Chekhov regarded it as an insult to over-describe; the writer gives just enough detail to evoke the reader’s knowledge of life. He also suggested that one write a beginning, middle, and end, then cut the beginning and the end.
There is only one thing that is utterly true about writing: it has to be interesting to a worthy reader. The only way of judging whether or not you’ve accomplished that is to have a good critical eye for your own work and to be a worthy reader yourself. Never, never, ignore what Robert Olen Butler calls the Twang! You know – when you’re reading away and suddenly – Twang! – something jumps out at you as just wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Maybe you don’t even know why. Thrum, Thrum, Thrum, Twang!! You can’t tell if the problem is pacing or imagery or lousy dialogue. You just know it stopped you. Bored you. Snapped you out of the dream. Put a check mark beside the passage and go back and fix it. Work at it until the Twang! is gone.
One of the things I find is that because I go through multiple drafts, sometimes something – a scene, a passage, or even a character — gets dragged forward, a sort of ghost from the previous draft. That won’t do, and after a ‘resting’ period, it generally sticks out like a sore thumb. Snip, snip – another darling gone.
My sense is that I must edit my work to such a degree that I am able to defend every comma, every phrase, every scene. This is not to say that I won’t agree to suggested changes from wise editors, but rather this means I will be able to explain to an editor why such a thing is included — in other words, what my intention was. A good editor’s job is to help the author meet their intention, and if the editor feels the author’s intention hasn’t been met, to be able to say why not.
When listening to an editor, whether it’s one you’ve hired, or one provided by a publisher, the best thing you can do is listen to their comments with an open mind. Frankly, I don’t always take their advice for solutions, but I always listen to the problem. If an editor tells me, for example, that she thinks a character should be cut, I listen because I know what I’m being told is that there’s a problem with that character. This happened with my last novel, but I knew that character had to stay in the book. Thus, I went back to work and made that character more fully alive, more credible, and proved his worth to the editor. I couldn’t have done that properly had I not spent considerable time editing the book before handing it in. I simply wouldn’t have known the book, and the people in it, well enough.
From that example we see that although sometimes draconian cutting is required, the inverse is also occasionally true. Sometimes we think we’ve included enough information, only to find what’s on the page isn’t quite enough. In my first novel, some six weeks before going to press, I realized that a character who didn’t appear until chapter 20 or 21, actually had to appear in chapter 2. Luckily, I had done enough background work on the character, I knew him well enough, that I could write these entirely new sections quickly enough to meet my deadline.
Although my publisher was horror-struck, and balked initially, she trusted my instincts, and the rewrite, we agree, made all the difference to the book’s success.
Sometimes editing requires bold strokes. Past the mechanics of punctuation and grammar and so forth, it’s about gut instinct – that Twang! Butler talks about.
If you’re at the editing phase, there are a few books which might help you: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Brown and Dave King is quite good, and I’m very fond of Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, although it’s not strictly an editing book – it’s just a damn good work on the overall writing process.
Although I suppose it’s possible to over-edit, to get just as stuck perfecting a novel as it is possible to get trapped in first-draft land, where you never get past the first hundred pages, I’m more inclined to advise emerging writers to edit more, not less. You only get one chance to have an agent or a publisher read your manuscript. Make sure it’s the best it can be. Get enough distance from it so you can regard it with the same cool eye you would a stranger’s work. Remember how easy it is to talk about the bad books you’ve read, to describe exactly what’s wrong with that last novel, and how you could have done so much better? Well, here’s your chance. Get out that murderous, bloody red pen.