Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Displacement Activity

I should really be doing something else right now, but then most of the time I feel that way. For the moment, though, my guilt centres on the final step to be taken in sending the revised manuscript of THE BURNING SOUL back to my British editor.

Receiving editorial notes is a funny business. They're always welcome, but I tend to open the envelope with a degree of trepidation. There will be a covering letter, usually praising me as some kind of genius (my editors do know how to butter me up, I'll give them that) and promising that, upon my eventual demise, statues will be raised in my honour so women and small children (presumably not my own, but you never know) will have somewhere to prostrate themselves in grief, tearing their hair at the loss I represent to literature and, indeed, manhood in general, while stern chaps stand behind them and discreetly wipe manly tears from their eyes.

Or words to that effect.

Inevitably, following all the stuff about posterity and deathless prose, there will be a 'but' somewhere around the third paragraph. That 'but' will speak volumes. Sometimes, it isn't even a proper 'but'. It will be disguised as something less potentially damaging to my fragile ego, such as 'I have only a few small queries . . .', or 'Perhaps you might like to look at . . .' It's at this point I realise that I'm probably not going to get the statue, or the wailing women, or the stout fellows with handlebar mustaches commenting upon how I was the best of them, and quite the chap, and how they wouldn't have minded if I'd slept with their wives. Far from it, in fact: they'd have been flattered, and their beloved spouses would have been happy to oblige. No, none of that for me, not now. Perfection has eluded me once again...

Actually, the editorial notes were relatively incident-free on this occasion. They mainly amounted to some grammatical errors - darn it, and I thought I was positively Banvillesque in my command of English - and a suggestion that I shorten two anecdotes, while perhaps considering offering the reader less about the intricacies of the wholesale fish business. (Well, I thought it was interesting, and I don't even like fish.) Last time out, with THE WHISPERERS, my editor and I differed on the whole philosophy and structure of the book, and ultimately we had to agree to differ. I wasn't sure that I could make the changes she wanted while writing the book I had set out to write. Thus it was less an argument over quality - at least I hope it wasn't, although I know that THE WHISPERERS will never be her favourite among my books - than about the nature of the book itself. Still, the discussion was worth having, and we've known each other for too long now to fall out over something like that.

On a related note, I've encountered two writers in the last month who were discussing the nature of e-books and self-publishing. One of them was a gentleman (Lee Goldberg), while the other, who shall remain nameless, is, at best, a half-decent self-publicist with a chip on his shoulder about mainstream publishing. The Self-Publicist, in his discussion of the future of publishing, took the view that all a writer really needed was a decent copy editor (essentially, someone who checks spelling, grammar and consistency, and adds instructions for the typesetter) and a cover designer, e-publishing rendering any other input unnecessary as far as he was concerned. At no point did he mention the importance of an editor rather than a copy editor and, more particularly, the relationship between an editor and a writer that, in my case, now spans 15 books. Most writers are not very good at editing themselves, and no book has ever been made worse by the input of an editor. Even Raymond Carver, that exquisite writer of short stories, benefited from the editorial changes of his editor Gordon Lish, if one is to judge by the recently published original versions of the tales later contained in WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE, the 1981 collection that arguably made Carver's reputation. The stories in the original form are more discursive, and arguably less poetic, at least in the sense in which that word is most frequently used when it comes to Carver's work, and they are certainly less minimalist. Lish was undoubtedly a heavy editor, but one might legitimately ask if Carver's work would have been quite so immediately acclaimed following the publication of that collection had the stories remained in their original form.

Anyway, all I know is that my books would have been immeasurably poorer without the advice and gentle touch of my British editor, Sue Fletcher, and my American editor, Emily Bestler, who have been looking after my work for fifteen and fourteen books respectively. Maybe the Self-Publicist is the exception to all this. If so, he, and not I, deserves to have that statue raised in his honour. Still, it's depressing to hear so much of the debate about e-publishing being conducted only in terms of increased income for writers, with little regard for issues of quality. Writers need editors, and the longer a writer and an editor work together, the better that writer's work will be.

Still, I had begun to make significant changes to the manuscript even before my editor's formal changes arrived, which lends credence to the view that a book is never finished, merely abandoned. THE BURNING SOUL, like all of my Parker books, had a prologue and an epilogue, but in this case I had doubts about their merits. In part, the prologue was a hangover from a period when the book was to have been written entirely in the present tense. It was, I thought, a nice piece of writing in its present tense form, but that's not the best reason to allow anything to stand in a book, and the prologue arguably hampered the reading of the novel. THE BURNING SOUL required the reader to be thrust immediately into the circumstances surrounding a child's disappearance so, almost as soon as the book went to my editors, I began to wish that I hadn't sent it off without first sorting out the issue of the prologue. Shortly after that, I met my editor at a dinner in London. Almost her first words referred to the prologue, but at least I was able to say that I had already recognised, and begun to wrestle with, the problem.

So the prologue has gone and so, of course, has the epilogue, because you shouldn't have one without the other. After that, I sat down and made most of the changes my British editor had requested. I always tend to disagree with one of her suggestions, if only to allow myself the illusion that she might be fallible too. In this case, I declined to remove four lines about a court case. When I read back over the typeset manuscript in a month or two, or even glance at the finished book, I'll probably feel that she was right in the first place. She usually is. Meanwhile, my American editor's suggestions are due to arrive in the coming weeks. In addition to editorial changes, my lawyer friend John read the manuscript and spotted some legal areas that needed work, and the book is not only more correct because of his advice, but has been improved too. The manuscript is also in the hands of a private investigator and a Maine police detective. They will find errors, or suggest alternative, better ways for the plot to work. I'll make those changes too.

All that remains is to transfer the manuscript from Apple Pages into MS Word, correct all of the reformatting that seems to occur, and send off the revised version. I should be doing that now instead of writing this blog. So why the displacement activity?

Simple: once it goes, I have to decide what to do next.

Playtime is over.

This week John read

THREE STATIONS by Martin Cruz Smith

and listening to

C'MON by Low


Anne Walsh said...

hi John
You forgot a really important bit about the statues (that will of course be erected to you): the items of clothing that will be rubbed on your statue to use as relics and the many offerings left at your feet (clay alas) as thanks for favours done :-)

John said...

If I perform enough miracles, I will achieve beatification and possible sainthood. On the other hand, if people pick up anything nasty from the statue as a consequence of rubbing articles of clothing or, indeed, themselves against it, then I'll just get blamed for outbreaks of scabies or leprosy . . .

TomH said...

"... a book is never finished, merely abandoned."

Words of wisdom and advice rolled into a single statement.

Thank you for explaining how things work... and always in an honest and forthright way.

Mich said...

I promise that if you predecease me, I shall put up a statue and wail my little heart out.



Photographe à Dublin said...

I consider that the existence of editors is probably the main reason that most people do not write.

I had the relative advantage of spending my undergraduate years in the company of some of the most demanding and/or sarcastic fuss pants I have ever met. Much time was spent pulling and dragging at literary works and wondering about how they were shaping up... or so it seemed to me to be the main function of a literature and language degree. I had little taste for such endeavour...

This very helpful piece has helped me to put my own thoughts in order. I think that quality in work is certainly improved by a helpful outsider, as was the case with Ezra Pound's assault on the early draft of "The Waste Land". When the helper is a paid professional editor it's probably best to develop nerves of steel.

As for the statue, if you choose something along the lines of "The Angel of the City" by Marino Marini everybody will rise in sympathetic joy with smiles on their faces, as all the visitors to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice were doing when I visited last week.
(Having it washed daily with disinfectant should do the trick in relation to plague and pestilence.)