Please Please Me

The title of this article, of course, comes from The Beatles’ early LP (recorded over a nine-hour session in 1963), and I’ve chosen the title for this blog entry because it sounds so much more enticing than ‘editing’.

Still reading? Aye, 99% of the writer’s lot is editing. Writing the original draft? Child’s play. Revising the bleddy thing until it squeaks with quality? Sisyphus himself knows no such endurance.

Alright, editing is marginally easier than pushing a rock up a hill, but the views are worse.

The story so far: Our hero has written and published a technothriller with a small press. Small press has decided to withdraw it from publication. Through dumb luck, our hero snags an agent. About the same time, a publisher (who shall remain nameless) offers to take said technothriller, providing certain edits are made.

And here I wish to pause. As a group, readers tend to hold certain myths about writing and publishing. Charmingly, one of these is that bookchains promote books on the basis of their quality (the reality: on the basis of publisher cash). But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the myth that the text of a book is solely the product of the writer whose name is often found, in gold-embossed holographic pop-up plutonium, beneath the title. Not so, dear reader. Not so.

You’re looking at the end product of a long, long process. The author, the agent, content editors, structural editors, book doctors, word nurses, and quite possibly Clippy from *Microsoft Word have all conspired, liked aligning planets, to work their witchy forces on the manuscript. To be sure, there is a scale of fiddling. Some writers can’t stand to be edited. Others require a great deal of help. I’ve heard, for example, that Baron Archer has difficulty completing his sentences.

Ah-thank-yaw.

My point is that editing is a natural component of the process. It comes in many forms. Anything that constrains the shape of an art ‘object’ has an editing effect. Your personal history edits your writing. Your culture edits it. Your sensibility censures it. Your conscience may demand that the good end happily and the bad unhappily. These – undetectable as background radiation – are significant forces before we come on to the explicit, interactive force of explicit editing (i.e. the weighty report that suggests you burn your manuscript and start again in twenty years, when you can write).

On the scale of ‘attitude to editing’, I’d put myself at the pole that reads ‘can’t stop fiddling’; and when it comes to calls of ‘please please me’ from editors, I’m usually happy to oblige. Why? Well, I see any draft of a book akin to the rough cut of a film. I’ve done a fair amount of film editing in my time, and I know you can’t fiddle enough with cutting, pacing, experimental juxtaposition, changes of tone using music, and so on. A book is not a unchanging object. It is constantly fluid. The published version of a book is only a snapshot of its flux. Its ebbs and whirls will continue in the mind of the writer long after the printing press has finished its run.

So, those are some thoughts on the whys of editing. Later this week I want to talk a little about the process itself. How does one go about it? Is one’s judgement during the first draft to be trusted over one’s judgement a year later? Is a novel an inherently less structured object than a movie or a short story?

Buggered if I know.

(Image at the top is George Martin. For me, the fifth Beatle. And the best editor in the game.)

* “It looks like you’re trying to write a novel. Would you like to see a list of local psychiatrists and anger management consultants?”

Published by

Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

8 thoughts on “Please Please Me”

  1. Hi Ian, I finished Deja Vu at the weekend. A great read – I really enjoyed it. I shall email you some thoughts, if you wish. But I wouldn’t want to be another cook peering over the pot.

    Roger.

  2. I use the same film analogy with my own writing process – especially the bit where miles of expensive and hard-won footage ends up in the bin. (My BA is in film-making, although I never did anything with it.)

    I’m also a fiddler, and I also leap into suggested edits with so much gusto the original suggester begins to wonder whether they just lit a fuse.

    I’m not sure about the exact editing process you employ, but this blog post of mine covers the latter part of the process, as experienced three times now with the same editor. Much of it will probably ring bells.

    By the way, most of my novels have undergone 30 drafts or more (probably a lot more.) It’s not an endless process because I treat deadlines as absolutely positively must-do, but there’s nothing to stop me spending 17 hours a day working on the manuscript beforehand, is there?

  3. Thanks your for comment, Simon. That was an interesting post. I think that one of the keys to writing ‘professionally’ (in a sense that removes the usual financial gain from the definition) is the understanding that feedback isn’t your worst but your bestest buddy. I think my own writing stepped up a gear when I realised that. You’ve got to kill your babies left, right, centre (and fore and aft) and…well, I’ll leave it there (self-editing…)

  4. I would be interesting in hearing how much of the new editing is done to tighten up the story, versus how much is done to simplify the science and technology in the story.

    I realize there might be some intersection between the two, but I’m looking more to the example of an editor asking why DNA has to be described in such a complicated way (two strands, double helix) when a simpler explanation (one strand, straight line) moves the story forward much faster.

  5. Interesting comment, James. I think I might do an entry on this in lieu of a reply here, if that’s ok…

  6. Sounds good to me.

    See my essay at Lablit.com: http://www.Lablit.com/article/83 and Frank Ryan’s ongoing blog “Meet My Dragon” at the Lablit.com homepage.

    You might also find some conversations with agents to be helpful: see http://rejecter.blogspot.com/2006_10_08_archive.html under the topics “In Defense of Agents” and “My anti-MFA rant”. The Q&A is interesting.

    Also see http://mariemockett.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html and (starting from the bottom) Make Me Wonder and Why Agents Must Feel The Love. Again, the Q&A is interesting (and I never got an answer to Part II of my question).

    Re: A later post — my girlfriend is also very rodent-focused, by the way, although she focuses on squirrels.

  7. Or ignore my references above and just focus on your own experiences. More fun for you, perhaps more enlightening for me.

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