Monday, August 31, 2009


An interesting question cropped up on the forum recently regarding editing. I found the Straub story particularly interesting: the idea that an author would publish an unedited version of his manuscript alongside (albeit with a different publisher) the edited, mainstream version of the book. I don't know Peter Straub, but it made me wonder about the relationship between Straub and his editor, and whether he views his unexpurgated version as superior to the edited version. Did he make the cuts reluctantly, and did he feel that they compromised his vision of what the novel should be? All quite fascinating.

My experience of being edited has always been overwhelmingly positive, and I don't say that simply to ensure that my editors don't drop me like a hot stone on the grounds that I'm not sufficiently fawning, although it would be nice if they didn't drop me, and I can be more fawning if that helps. Like many authors who are published on both sides of the Atlantic, I have two editors. When I finish a book, I send the manuscript to both of them on the same day, then wait for their responses. Usually, one will reply sooner than the other, but eventually I'll have the responses from both. Curiously, they're never the same. I don't mean that one may like a book while the other doesn't: that's never happened, thankfully. Instead, one will spot weaknesses, or suggest small changes, in areas that have not troubled the other editor at all, and vice versa. By and large, I think that I've only declined to follow one or two editorial suggestions over my entire career, as they tend to be eminently sensible.

I'd like to think that I help my cause by not delivering a book until it has been rewritten a number of times, a hangover from my time in journalism. Then, if a piece was handed back to you for changes, it was because you'd done something wrong, and it was a badge of shame, like getting lots of red marks on your homework. By the time the book goes to my editors, and my agent, I've usually reached the point where there are few major alterations that I feel can be made to it. Actually, this only lasts as long as it takes for the manuscript to arrive in London and New York, as by that time I've had a day or so to think about it and have already started making further alterations, on the grounds that a book is never finished. What I'm saying, I guess, is that the relationship with my editors is not adversarial in any way. Oh, I want them to have to make as few changes to my deathless prose as possible, largely on the basis of the homework analogy used earlier, but I'm quite happy to have my work improved by them, especially as it's still my name on the cover, and readers will then assume that I'm brilliant all by myself instead of, in reality, not being terribly bright but being ably supported by some very bright people.

Thinking about THE GATES, it was one of my editors who suggested that the demons should be a little more threatening at some point. In my manuscript, they were largely inept, with the exception of Mrs Abernathy, the chief villain. It was my agent and my principal foreign rights agent who suggested altering the footnotes in the main chapter so that they were integrated more fully into the main body of the text, which, visually, made a lot of sense. My agent, too, wanted more made of the relationship between Sam and Nurd, and he was right about that as well. Mind you, those suggestions come in the form of a single line. "Why don't we have more of Sam and Nurd?", my agent might say. "Brilliant", I think, followed by, "Hang on, how do I do that?" I then spend a couple of days fretting about it, dismissing it as impossible, or so difficult as to be nearly impossible, before sitting down and just getting on with it. Rarely will I ask my editors or my agent HOW something might be done. They make a suggestion, and then I figure out how to make it work. After all, it's my book, and I'm the writer. Often, what seems quite hard to achieve when first raised in an editorial letter can usually be achieved quite easily by a bit of tweaking, but despite having written twelve books now, I still get that anxiety attack when I'm asked to make a general change to the text, rather than a specific change to a line or word.

I wonder, too, if the fact that I write up, not down, is a help. By that I mean that my first draft tends to be short, the second draft a little longer, and so on until the book is ready to be sent. I write by accretion, so the chances are pretty slim of of me delivering, say, a book like THE STAND to which, some years later, I might choose to restore 200 pages of cut text. There is very little pruning done to my books. It's just not the way that they're written.

For now, though, I'm between edits. THE GATES, to which I was making changes right up until production, is done. THE WHISPERERS is on one of the early drafts, and it will be December before my editors see it. At this stage, I am my own editor, and I'd like to think that I've written enough books by now to be able to spot when something is drastically wrong, and correct it before it has to be pointed out to me.

I'd like to think that, but I suspect my editors will prove me wrong.

This week John read:

BAD BOY DRIVE by Robert Sellers

and listened to:

TAMPER by Jim O Rourke


Reader said...

With a more experienced and seasoned writer, an editor has to do less technical tweaking and try to experience the manuscript from the standpoint of the reading audience. It seems to me that your editors do a very good job presenting with detached perspective things that are superfluous, requires clarity or more depth etc. I think that a creative person in whatever medium is to some extent like a person madly in love. Often other people around can blatantly see massive faults with the object of love. The lover often is oblivious to the flaws (as can be an artist to his creation) Both are too emotionally and creatively involved to have total objectivity. That's why I don't understand the authors who are too "BIG!(i.e.think they're important) to be edited. I have found many discrepancies and sense issues in books by unedited or poorly edited authors. So buy your editors a good dinner for continuing great work!
P.S. Look forward to seeing you at Centuries and Sleuths Nov. 3rd and am Looking forward to reading "The Gates"

Daniel W. Powell said...

Afternoon John,

This is a fascinating post, and I must say, the finished U.S. version of The Gates was awesome. Witty, insightful, exciting and very fluid--I liked the compact chapters and accessible pacing.

I think you raise some fine points here, chief among them the notion that you're the writer. These editorial suggestions (which I also tend to take in my own writing; it takes a village and all that) are a bit more objective, and your ability to exercise control in how you build them in is what keeps the writing fresh.

Again, great post. I hope you can make it out here to Florida for a U.S. book tour. If you can make it to Jacksonville, you'll need to hit Sliders for some oysters and rum runners!