Consider this scenario. The first novel of writer John Doe has landed on the desk of a leading literary agent. Attached to the title page is a post-it from the agent’s assistant: “Good writer!” it says. The agent eyes the note and sighs. She has meetings lined up back to back all day, fifty calls and emails to return, and a three-foot pile of manuscripts waiting to be read. But she has ten minutes before her next meeting starts, and so she reaches for the manuscript.
The first couple of pages are enough to tell her the writer has talent. She takes the manuscript home, reads a few chapters, and stops when she determines that the writing is not quite good enough. The next day, she hands it back to her assistant. “Close,” she says, “but no cigar.”
Potential isn’t enough. Talent doesn’t equal execution. Either it’s on the page, editors say, or it’s not. Back the book goes, and in all likelihood John Doe will never know why or how close he came.
The only fictional part of this scenario is the writer’s name. The event itself happens all the time. One could write a whole book on Why Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, bemoaning the impersonal, bottom-line state of publishing, but such a book would be of little comfort or service to writers struggling to break through. Rejection is part of the writer’s world, perhaps even a functional part of the artistic process. (See “What if JP Rowling Had Self-Published?”) What’s really unfortunate (though unavoidable, given the volume) is that most rejections come with little or no explanation or guidance. Writers are expected to master the craft on their own time, which means learning not only how to write but also how to edit.
As the comment section of my last post revealed, there’s a lot of debate about the value of outlining for fiction. But there’s virtually none among professional writers about the value of revision…probably because they couldn’t have become professionals without learning it. In my experience, including 15 years as a literary agent and editor, most writers spend as much time editing their stories as they do writing them.
Here are a few thoughts on revision from some writers you may have heard of:
“My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike
“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl
“But why must writers edit their own work?” I’ve been asked by aspiring writers. “Writers write and editors edit; isn’t that the way it works?”
Well, no, that’s not how it works. Writers do need editors to see what they’re too close to see, but that’s at a later stage. To get to that stage, they first need the ability to edit their way toward the heart of their stories.
Imagine Rodin sculpting “The Thinker.” Does he simply envision the finished work, grab his chisel, and sculpt it fluently in all its detail? Of course not; such a thing is inconceivable. The vision must be there, or nothing will happen, but we understand instinctively that the artist must first produce a rough version, which he then goes on to refine and perfect.
So, too, with fiction. No matter how impeccable writers are, their first drafts will be but a rough approximation of what their stories could become. Editing is not just a matter of chipping away excess bits or changing a word here and there. It also entails building up, shifting emphasis, adding or omitting characters and subplots, clarifying theme. Many writers do not fully understand what they’re writing about until they’ve written it. Only after they become conscious of their underlying themes can they go back and enhance their expression.
Good writers are good editors.
Disagree if you dare; or share some of your own tips on editing.
In my Next Level school of writing, I offer a 14-week online workshop called “Revising Fiction,” which leads participants (who must have a completed draft of a novel) through a series of edits. This workshop is intensive and requires a significant commitment of time. But the reward is commensurate with the effort, as students come out the other end with a greatly improved novel and tools that they can go on to apply to everything else they write. The next workshop will be offered in the August 2015. A couple of spots are left. For more information, or to get on my emailing list (most classes fill entirely from that list), drop me a line.