How Finished Is Finished?
December 1, 2011
How Finished Is Finished?
When I go to author readings, I often hear audience members raise questions about a writer’s process, about his/her sources of inspiration, about how long it took for the writer to complete the work. But I’ve never heard anyone ask, nor have I asked: “How much editorial input did you have? How much did you change your penultimate draft [the draft before the last draft] based upon editorial input?” And I’ve come to believe that this is one of the most important questions we can ask published writers.
The reason is this. I’ve noticed, in my teaching, that writers on their way to becoming published writers, sometimes treat their works-in-progress as if they’re sacrosanct, as if they can’t – shouldn’t — be changed very much based upon a mentor’s reading. This assumes that the writer is the best possible judge of what the work should look like. According to this view of the writing process, I, the writer, pen my very best work, and I’ll listen to people’s opinions about what I ought to change, but I’ll stick to my sense of the work: I won’t revise my view of my work very much based upon what another person, even a very well-qualified person, tells me. I’ll make cosmetic changes, say. But I’ll trust my own sense about the narrative, about how it should be told, about what should come first, about what should come in the middle, about what should come last. I’ve sometimes – indeed, often – suggested major changes to works-in-progress and had the writers I’ve worked with not make them even though I know the work would profit by these changes. These writers trust their own sense of what their works should be, rather than trusting mine, even though I have decades of editorial experience, decades of working with editors who’ve insisted that I made changes in my own work-in-progress.
I’ve come to realize that published writers don’t often share what the end of the process looks like; they don’t often speak of how many changes they’ve made (often, they’ve had to make) based upon editorial input. Very many — in fact, virtually all — published works (except, perhaps, those that are self-published) become collaborative efforts at the end of the process. The writer is finished with her/his work. The editor steps in, evaluates the manuscript. And at this point, the author, editor, assistant editor, and copy editor join together to make the book the best book possible. The writer has handed in what s/he believes to be her very best effort. S/he thinks s/he’s finished. But s/he learns, sometimes with a great deal of chagrin, that there is far more work to do. At this stage, there’s a lot of give and take in the process, a lot of negotiation, perhaps even a fair dose of argument. But no book that I know of has gone to press anything like the book the writer completed. So if seasoned writers are willing to take editorial advice, and beginning writers are less willing, I think it might be because beginning writers don’t know precisely how many changes seasoned writers must make to their work because of editorial input.
Let me illustrate.
I had lunch with Mary Gordon just after she met with her agent or editor – I don’t remember which – about her first as-yet-unpublished novel, Final Payments. After the meeting, she realized that she would have to rewrite the entire novel, from a different point of view. She listened to the input that she was given; she undertook that monumental task; the book was a literary sensation. What would have happened had she refused? I’ve spoken, many times, to very well-known writers and have heard them remark, “My editor wants me to rewrite the whole thing,” or “Based on a conversation with my editor, I realize I have to rethink the way the central character comes across throughout the whole book,” or “After meeting with my editor, I realize the structure of the book isn’t working.”
These writers – published writers all – are willing to listen and they’re willing to make fundamental large-scale changes in works they’ve labored over for years. The end of the process is often the beginning of yet another round of changes.
My grandson and I enjoy watching Gordon Ramsay together, and though I’m not a fan of his harangues, I find his programs fascinating. Here is an accomplished chef with a score of Michelin stars under his belt. He walks into a restaurant in trouble. He figures out what needs to be done – a restaurant by the sea needs to simplify its menu and rely more on fresh, local ingredients; a tired-looking restaurant needs to spiff up its décor; a lazy manager who sits in front of a TV instead of greeting guests needs to learn to “work the front of the house”. He tells precisely what needs to be done to fix the restaurant in no uncertain terms. And here’s the astonishing point. Even though all of these places are in trouble, not everyone is capable of listening to and understanding that something needs to be done. Not everyone – in fact very few – are able to “hear” what Ramsay, a spectacularly successful chef – has to say. In fact, many fall back on their old, tried-and-true incredibly unsuccessful practices. Ramsay’s shows illustrate how difficult it is for people to take advice from experts and how wedded so many of us are to practices that just aren’t working. Many of us can’t hear what needs to be done; many of us won’t change even though what we’re doing isn’t working.
Here are some of the major changes I had to make in my own writing practice based upon editorial input. (I say, “had to make” because that’s the way it is in publishing. As one of my editors once said, “You want to publish it yourself, do it your way. You want to publish with me, you want us to use our paper, our ink, our bindery, our warehouse, our trucks, our P. R. people, and you make the changes I insist upon.)
On Moving. My penultimate draft was 100,000 words. The publisher decided, at the end of the process, that they wanted a short, 40,000-word book and they wanted most of the memoirist bits deleted. I refused. But I cut the 100,000 words to 60,000 and deleted much of the more personal material.
Crazy in the Kitchen. My editor insisted that I delete a chapter that she believed was too much like the material I’d already published in Vertigo. Deleting that chapter meant a substantial revision to the chapters that came before and after.
Vertigo. The editorial letter indicating the changes I had to make was about ten single-spaced typescript pages long. The changes had to do with pacing, with phrasing, with characterization. One major change was deleting the term “depression” to describe how I felt, and to rewrite all those scenes telling precisely what I was feeling. (“Depression” is meaningless; it tells the reader nothing; it’s too general.) I had to write a new beginning to the book – this took most of a summer. A new order for the chapters I wrote was implemented, which meant rewriting the whole book to accommodate the new order. And remember: I thought I was finished.
Adultery. The editor wanted me to take a later chapter and make it the first chapter. She wanted the book to start with a punch. This meant rewriting the whole book.
And I could go on. But won’t. The point is obvious, I hope. Not even seasoned writers are finished when they think they’re finished. The seasoned writers hears what’s needed, and does it. The seasoned writer doesn’t cling to the work as s/he’s completed. Seasoned writers listen to expert advice and, more often than not, they take it. And almost always, their published works are far better than they would have been had they not been “forced” to rethink and revise.
Perhaps the best illustration I can give you for this is how Maxwell Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald worked together on the manuscript that became The Great Gatsby. Susan Bell in “Revisioning the Great Gatsby” in The Writer’s Notebook (Tin House Books, 2009) charts the changes Fitzgerald made after receiving Perkins’s critique. She provides an enormously useful way of understanding how writers and editors can work collaboratively toward the production of a better book. (Perkins’ letter is available online – Google Maxwell Perkins’s letter on The Great Gatsby.) Bell concludes “The Great Gatsby would be a different book, and very possibly a lesser one, without Perkins’s counsel.”