Saturday, January 23, 2016

If Only

 How pleasing it is to imagine among writers you admire, both those still producing and those passed on, that their material has ultimately gone directly to print as they've written it.  After all, they are favorites of yours' they've probably revised more times than you care to guess, sometimes even to the point of holding up submission over a word or sentence.

In your own way, you feel a note of sympathy for them, thanks to you holding up the submission of one of your stories because on alternate drafts you'd either included or deleted the title of a novel a minor character was reading.  

This dithering caused you to go through at least six more drafts of the story because you could not decide whether to say the character was reading The Heart of Darkness or merely reading a paperback novel.  At the sixth revision, you were finally able to see that the title belonged in the story.  The fact of the young man reading The Heart of Darkness gave you the payoff of the story.

This behavior from you represents considerable evolution.  Not all that long ago in relative terms, you were sending in the equivalent of first drafts, reread to capture misspellings, improper punctuation, possibly some gross overwriting.  On one such submission, you thought the editor might have been overstepping his boundaries when he sent you a note saying, "Can you fix the last chapter?  It goes on too long." 

At the time, you didn't think the last chapter did go on too long, thus preparing yourself for some self-education.  When you reread the offending chapter, you were able to take out a bit over two pages, say six hundred words.  "Better,"  the editor said, when he sent you the check you were living on Kraft Dinners in anticipation of more funds.  Perhaps this was an ah-ha moment.

Several years and projects later, you are not so ready to take offense at editorial notes; you in fact welcome them, even if--and this is important--you do not respect the editor.  The fact of an experienced editor calling you out on whether a thing is necessary or if a thing not included should be included does not give the editor an automatic agreement.  

Rather it alerts you to the possibility of something unnecessary or something missing.  You start by deleting, then regarding the result.  If that doesn't satisfy you, the next step is to ponder over what is lacking  and how it ought to be presented.

In the most simple terms, no one gets it all. One way or another, the editor plays a part.  Yes, some writers you know of, Donna Tartt, Michael Connelley, for instance, don't "take" edits because their sales and critical responses provide a form of Teflon, and each, regardless of sales and, in Tartt's case, the Pulitzer Prize, walk the narrow cusp of overtelling a competent story, laughing all the way to the bank.  But a significant number of contemporary writers still make the effort to be as articulate and economical as possible in the presentation of their visions.

For writers who will allow the editorial process to work, the possibility of a remarkable work persists.  Fifty years from now, Tartt and Connelley will no doubt be read, but you can't help believing many of their readers will temper their opinions with those two, shudder-inducing words, "If only."


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