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.”

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21 Responses to “How Finished Is Finished?”

  1. "Darcy" Says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve completed many novels but become terrified and frozen when the time comes to share them. During grad school in Literature/Fiction Writing, I felt I had to please all my mentors and everyone in my classes. This is NOT the same as editing or accepting feedback. It was the opposite. I tried to change my work for all these people, some of whom disliked and disagreed with each other.

    I was “successful” with my writing and degree, but fell apart emotionally. Once I recovered , I found all kinds of ways to self-sabotage, and only started sharing my writing again five years ago during a stay in Manhattan. I found a writer’s group there that worked for me. We didn’t share our writing unless we wanted to, but we talked about some of those fears. For some reason, this gave me the confidence to start sending stuff out, and it started getting accepted, and then an agent contacted me asking if I had a novel.

    All this to say that now that I’m almost “finished” with my current novel, which I would like to show her, I was about to fall into the very trap you describe – not that I think my writing is perfect or that not a word should be changed. I just fear freezing and self-sabotaging again. Most of my recent short stories were published “as is,” but for one, I had an awesome and respectful editor who went over some changes that were so RIGHT. I loved it!

    Thanks again for your (as usual) wonderful sharing of experience and insight.

  2. julija Says:

    Amen! It’s very difficult to hear that the text you thought was great, and that you’d mentally filed away as finished, needs to be overhauled. When it happens, I put my text away for a while, allow myself to disconnect a bit from it emotionally, and only return to it once I’ve gathered my strength and can face it again. Such an important lesson. Thank you, Louise.

  3. Tina Neyer Says:

    As an aspiring, yet-to-be-published writer, your points about the collaboration between writer and editor are great. I hope, one day, to have such collaboration.

    Here’s my question though, how do I turn off my inner editor long enough to write the story?

    On my shelf is one nearly complete manuscript, one in progress and one ruminates in my head.The completed piece I’ve edited to death, the in-progress piece feels as if it can’t go forward without rewrite. I’m a fan of fast writing, getting everything on the page, but find it troubling to not listen to my perfectionist self when rereading in order to pick up on the story and move forward with it.

    • writingalife Says:

      Can you separate the process into parts? I do that in my book Writing as a Way of Healing. Let yourself prepare, begin, then write an uncensored really not too good first draft, then begin the project of deepening, then looking at various aspects of craft to sharpen the work, then finish the work. That is, there are appropriate behaviors for each stage of the work. And it’s important to remind ourselves that at the beginning, self-censorship isn’t an appropriate behavior. “Now I’m just writing.” “Now I’m looking to sharpen each sentence.” “Now I’m deepening the portraits of the people in my work.” That is, patience, one step at a time, one thing at a time.

  4. Nancy Caronia Says:

    Thanks, Louise. Each semester, I tell my freshmen composition students about my experience writing my Master’s thesis. I sent off my introductory chapter to my major professor. We met, he said it was good, really liked it. Of the 15 pages I had written, about two sentences were left. I went back and with the next draft, he thought about a page was usable. Some of what I wrote showed up in other chapters and some of it became notes for other things. It was a great learning experience, and I began to understand that 1) I didn’t need to do it all alone and 2) an outside eye is able to see things about what I want to accomplish that I’m not able to see. My students appreciate my honesty and they seem to draft with more enthusiasm. If I can do it and survive, so can they! I think about you every day! Hope you are doing well.

  5. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    Great advise Louise.
    I am prety new at crafting stories, but I have learned to look forward to- not fear- expert advise from those I trust!
    Thanks for the new blog
    Lisa

  6. Margaux Fragoso Says:

    About six rounds of revision for my memoir and this was after re-envisiong and rewriting the whole book three times on-and-off over a period of eight years without professional editors or agents on the case. I was really fortunate because my creative writing profs. cared about what my final work looked like…

    It takes years to orient yourself to what your writing is about, to know your characters, and you can’t get away with less unless you want an inferior book. Anyone who gets a rigorous editor is lucky, because there are also people out there who just want to gain your approval so they’ll tell you want to hear, instead of the frank truth, which is what will help your book evolve into something great.

    Thanks, Louise, for the insightful blog.


  7. I am very new with writing in memoir and I often wonder the same question. I wonder about the editing process and how that works. I am still not sure what my writing is fully about and without my teacher editing I would not be very sure where my memoir is going either. Some of the pieces that I thought were finished turned out to need a lot more work that I had thought. The editing process is much more crucial than I imagined. This blog really spoke to me. It was refreshing to see I’m not the only curious one.

    • writingalife Says:

      Sometimes — almost all the time — it’s hard to know what we’re really writing about, so you’re not alone! Sometimes it helps to write in our writer’s journal about this: “What is my work about?” It changes, yes. But sometimes it’s easier to understand in our journal about our work than as we write. So perhaps try that.

  8. Michael Frankovic Says:

    Whenever a work of mine is being critiqued in a workshop, I am very stubborn with what people suggest I should change. The greater the change is, the more I think to not change it. Unless of course, I agree or something is flat out wrong.

  9. Angelica Roman Says:

    This semester in my memoir workshop class, I had to face something I usually would try to avoid: critique. However, the environment was so friendly and I knew that the writing itself was being commented on and not the story and so it lessened the blow when I had to change around a few things. Your post was really helpful and made me feel more at ease knowing that all the editing and hard work truly does serve a purpose. Even if the process itself can be a bit distressing.

  10. Charles Says:

    Hi Ms. DeSalvo,
    I’m pretty new to writing and sharing. My experience before this year has mostly been: Write paper, hand in paper, receive grade, Done. Writing and sharing with classmates and Professor is territory that was at once foreign and unnerving for me. Now, I see it only serves the work to be open to the ideas and critiques of others. I write very short pieces now, so I’m sure my feelings will probably shift once I spend months or years pouring love and time into a project, only to be told to return to the drawing board. I’ll keep you and this post in mind ,though. That is, if I have the bittersweet pleasure of sitting across from an expert editor carving chunks from my baby.

    • Charles Says:

      I’m reading this and “carving chunks from my baby” sounds a bit strange. Sorry to the readers out there.
      -Charles

  11. Kimberly Sital Says:

    Hi Louise,
    I am very new to memoir. The only type of writing I have practiced is academic writing, mainly trying to prove my point in an argument, backing it up with research information. I always feel that what I am doing is wrong and I am up for new comments, but I get shy when I have to share my work. I try my best to not develop an attachment to the material because nine times out of ten it changes immensely. I think that others can see what works better and what does not. Work-shopping my piece and working with a few writing partners is something I enjoyed a great deal. I got great feedback most of the times. I am still figuring out my voice and structure. How do I know when to listen to someone’s advice and when to trust my own judgment?

  12. Mary Ellen Says:

    This is such great advice! For such an experienced writer as yourself to share the amount of changes you had to make in the editing process is really a priceless gift to hopeful novice writers, such as myself. I am 35 years old, and though it has been years since I wrote regularly before this semester, I used to write all of the time. Creatively, journals, poetry; just for me. The idea of actually crafting a story, rather than just writing it freely, is so new to me, but I do feel I have learned immensely from my memoir professor. The books we read in class, including your own Writing as a Way of Healing, have also helped. Editing my own work and taking the steps necessary to keep improving it is somethink I have learned I must do, and you explaining how far those changes will have to go if I ever am fortunate enough to make it to that opportunity, is greatly appreciated. I will remember your words if and when that day comes.
    Thank you, truly.

    Mary Ellen

  13. Michael DiSchiavi Says:

    Louise,

    Thanks for your reference to Mary Gordon. I have been wanting to discover her for some time and have been reading her books one after another. What a treasure to find a new writer whom you can admire!

    Hope you are feeling better.

    Michael

  14. Melissa Hroncich Says:

    Thanks for your great insight on the importance of editing. It’s true: writing is a process…. a long process. This is what I preach to my middle school students. I make it a point to tell my students that when they create a writing piece….it will not be the last time they see it. I must reiterate this a couple of times a week. I am sure I sound like a broken record to them. However, the mini -lessons that are being taught to reinforce specific techniques like leads, dialogue, organization and grammer encourag the revising and editing stage with me and thier peers too. They learn that this “process” is long but worthwhile and the “finishing” is a goal to accomplish. This is an easy task for me to teach …and yet sometimes difficult to follow. In the past, I always found myself looking to “finish”. But I have found myself changing as a writer. I am realizing more and more that I need my writing partner’s to give me the suggestions necessary to improve my piece. In addition, I am also finding myself rereading and editing my memoir as I go along. I find myself feeling good about it as well because I know I am growing as a writer too. Thanks!

  15. mariham2012 Says:

    Thank you for writing such an inspiring as well as an informing blog. I experienced being in a similar situation, where I had to go back to my ten page essay and rewrite it from a first person voice. At the time, I remember that professor Giunta had suggested for us to take daring actions and try to do something different with our semi-memoir pieces. I took her advice and began to write my paper from the second person point of view, which meant changing a lot of things. So, I did it. As I read it to myself, I thought that this was the ultimate paper! It sounded much better than writing it from the first person, but to my surprise, Prof. Giunta didn’t like it. She suggested that I go back to writing in the first person, which I obeyed because I trusted her experience. So, I can certainly relate and understand the frustration of writers, who work with much more than a ten page paper, when they are told to change their work. Your blog assured that I have been doing the right thing, that is to listen and take the expertise’s advice.

  16. sabrinall Says:

    Dear Ms. DeSalvo,

    I appreciate this post because I have had my short fiction stories published on an online zine. They were paying me per word. When I handed in the pieces they did not send me any feedback but when they send me the actual zine, my work was always a little different which was confusing. So I can appreciate someone telling me what they would like me to change right away. Even though I am a little uncomfortable with someone telling me what they don’t like about my finished piece, it feels better than them actually doing it on their own.

  17. Melissa Sutaris Says:

    Louise,

    I think we all can agree on the fact that at times, we don’t want to listen to what other people have to suggest about our work, especially when someone is standing in our faces, urging us to make big changes. For me, this is about constructive criticism. If an editor wants the structure to change, it must be for a reason. Our problem, as writers, is that we don’t want anyone else to handle our work because we may feel as though it is no longer our own.

    Editors are important, and seeing how much of your work you’ve had to change in the past makes me realize that we should take our editors’ advice when appropriate.

    I believe that we should listen to our editors and take what they have to say into consideration. There is something that this person sees which has to be changed, and sometimes we may be too blind as authors to see it. I feel that we should tackle a problem like this head-on, and take suggestions based on what we feel is right, but also what the other person feels is appropriate as well. Two, three eyes are better than none.

    Mel

  18. Scott Moul Says:

    I have recently received very different responses to my work: the first (which I like) being praise and support, the second (which I don’t like) being a sort of instant, and (I feel) knee-jerk criticism. I will freely admit to being an absolute beginner and also somewhat pigheaded. I’m glad to hear that these two characteristics are commonly found together!

    Here is the rub: the praise comes from a few people whose work and opinions I respect, while the instant criticism comes from those who have not done anything to earn my respect. This happened most recently when I was asked to read a small excerpt from my work in progress. The person gave me a look of disdain and proceeded to criticize my mechanics and style, without so much as a courtesy comment about the content. Her point was well taken, however. Her primary criticism regarded a tendency that I realize I have. I made notes and began looking over my draft to see where I could make adjustments. Next, we did a short workshop. When it came time for me to read, you guessed it, same criticism, same unfriendly tone. By this point I had noticed that others around me did not, in my estimation, seem to be receiving the same level of scorn as I. II must have become visibly shaken, as the next comment was “You aren’t going to like what people say to you.” I thought to myself “No, I just don’t like YOU.”

    So yes, I took it personally. I don’t think I am at all opposed to constructive criticism; when someone whom I respect suggested cutting a large scene from my memoir, I had absolutely no problem doing so. Truth be told, even in the case I described, I worked on my (apparently heinous) tendency for several hours that same evening, chopping sentences as if they were so many thorny bushes, blocking my pathway to literary stardom. I am still ticked off, though. Like I said, pigheaded.

    Thanks for giving me a place to vent!


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