Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Greetings from Dublin

As I write this message, I've just submitted the edits for my new novel, The Book of Lost Things, which is due to appear in the autumn (or the fall, as nice Americans like to say. ) It's a curious thing, being edited. Perhaps it's my journalism background, but I try not to submit a book to my editors until I feel that it's as good as it can possibly be. When I worked for The Irish Times in Dublin, the worst thing that could happen was that the newsdesk sent a piece back to you asking for revisions. Generally, the aim was to produce something that could go into the newspaper as it stood, so if it was sent back it was rather like getting your homework wrong.

I take the same view of my novels, although other writers adopt a different approach. I know of one writer who views her relationship with her editor as very hands-on and collaborative. She will submit a rough first draft, often unfinished or a work-in-progress, and her editor will offer suggestions, criticisms and potential rewrites on the basis of what she receives. I'm not sure that I'd be comfortable with that kind of relationship. In fact, I know that I wouldn't. I keep the book until the last possible minute, revising and rewriting over and over until I feel that I've done as much as is humanly possible to get it as close to the book that I had in my head when I began writing. My editors and my agent are the first people to see it. I don't offer it to friends or anyone else to read along the way, and it's been like that since my first book.

Then, inevitably, the suggestions and criticisms come back. They're usually very minor (I hope that, eight novels down the road, I'd know better than to submit a book that was seriously flawed) and they're nearly always right. I think, over the course of those eight books, I've rejected only a handful of suggestions for changes and, in retrospect, I probably should have gone along with most of those as well. It is another lesson that I learned from journalism: while it's best to submit the best possible work, you can't be precious about being edited. Most of us aren't writing deathless prose, and we're often too close to our own work to be able to see all of the flaws, although I still think that I'm my own harshest critic. (And, inevitably, there will be flaws. Imperfection is at the heart of every human endeavor. )

This time, as always, I made most of the cuts and changes for which my British editor asked. In the great scheme of things they were quite small, but it still took me a month to grit my teeth and make them. In a few weeks my American editor will probably come back with suggestions of her own, and I'll take most of those on board as well. Did it hurt to make the cuts? Well, yes. I thought when I was writing them that those sections were important to the book. I may well have been wrong but it's still painful to let them go. I suppose that, in the end, I trust the opinions of my editors. The challenge, though, is weighing those opinions objectively against my own and then parting with paragraphs, sections, or even an entire chapter upon which I've worked over and over for a year or more.

So I'm grateful to my British and American editors. Without their input, my books would be poorer creatures than they are. But sometimes, when a new book of mine appears on a shelf, I wonder about its shadowy twin, the book that might have been, the book with all of my words still intact within it. That book is, in a sense, the true Book of Lost Things.

1 comment:

Man With Big Ideas said...

I thought it was interesting to think about the original versions created before the editing process. It's interesting to contrast with feature films were Director's Cut editions become available which provide you with that fuller original. It might be interesting to see how material removed during the editing process would add to the novel.