Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On editing, nitty-gritty and objectivity

(And once more, this post comes to you from the files of “Rachel getting hit over the head with what she needs, exactly when she needs it …”)

A couple of weekends ago I attended an editing workshop. It was run by Patrick Allington, a South Australian author, at the SA Writers' Centre. There were twelve of us writers, published and unpublished, and the format was basically a round table discussion on all things editing. It was excellent – a big old chin-wag about editing, and just what I needed now that I’m editing my manuscript. So I thought I’d share with you some of the things that hit home for me, and which I now keep in mind when I sit down to my little "slash and burn" sessions with my book.

First up, some quick, but very true, points:-

* Editing is the art of being ruthlessly honest with yourself.
* But don’t be a self-editor when you are writing – this will only squash your creativity flat.
* When you’re editing, you MUST have a constant conversation with yourself about what it is you are aiming to do in your book. Ask yourself – what am I trying to do? Is it working? Do I need this? Does the reader need this?
* Dialogue – cut out the crap that often surrounds dialogue and let it stand free. Dialogue needs to work on its own. And try to avoid info-dumps in dialogue; find a way to dramatise the critical information instead.
* Imagery – check that your images are fresh, as well as being plausible

But what I found most useful was an exercise in which we compared a published author’s unedited work with the version that actually went into print.

The writer I’m talking about is Raymond Carver, widely considered to be one of the greats of twentieth century literature in America. Known as a minimalist for his tight, spare, prose, he worked in close concert with his editor, Gordon Lish, throughout his publishing life. He died in 1988; his widow, Tess Gallagher, has now begun to publish his works in their unedited versions and her decision to do so has apparently caused a bit of controversy. Some see it as a betrayal of her late husband's legacy; Gallagher argues she wants the world to see Carver’s work as it was before Lish took a knife to it, and for readers to make up their own minds.

Whatever the case may be, the publication of Carver’s unedited short stories enables us to see how close to the bone it is possible to go with editing; and, IMO, also shows that after big-picture issues of plot, story arc, character development and so forth have been addressed in the editing process, writers simply have to get down to the nitty-gritty of scrutinising every single word, on every single page, if we are to make our work really sing.

Here are the excerpts we studied - the openings of Carver’s short story, "So Much Water So Close to Home."

Firstly, the story as edited by Lish, from the collection, WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE :-

My husband eats with a good appetite. But I don’t think he’s really hungry. He chews, arms on the table, and stares at something across the room. He looks at me and looks away. He wipes his mouth on the napkin. He shrugs, and goes on eating.

“What are you staring at me for?” he says. “What is it?” he says and lays down his fork.

“Was I staring?” I say, and shake my head.

The telephone rings.

“Don’t answer it,” he says.

“It might be your mother,” I say.

“Watch and see,” he says.

I pick up the receiver and listen. My husband stops eating.

“What did I tell you?” he says when I hang up. He starts to eat again. Then throws his napkin on his plate. He says, “Goddamn it, why can’t people mind their own business? Tell me what I did wrong and I’ll listen! I wasn’t the only man there. We talked it over and we all decided. We couldn’t just turn around. We were five miles from the car. I won’t have you passing judgement. Do you hear?”

“You know,” I say.

And Carver’s original version, published in 2009 in BEGINNERS :-

My husband eats with good appetite but seems tired, edgy. He chews slowly, arms on the table, and stares at something across the room. He looks at me and looks away again, and wipes his mouth on the napkin. He shrugs, goes on eating. Something has come between us though he would like to believe otherwise.

“What are you staring at me for?” he asks. “What is it?” he says and lays down his fork.

“Was I staring?” I say and shake my head stupidly, stupidly.

The telephone rings. “Don’t answer it,” he says.

“It might be your mother,” I say. “Dean – it might be something about Dean.”

“Watch and see,” he says.

I pick up the receiver and listen for a minute. He stops eating. I bite my lip and hang up.

“What did I tell you?” he says. He starts to eat again, then throws the napkin onto his plate. “Goddamn it, why can’t people mind their own business? Tell me what I did wrong and I’ll listen! It’s not fair. She was dead, wasn’t she? There were other men there besides me. We talked it over and we all decided. We’d only just got there. We’d walked for hours. We couldn’t just turn around, we were five miles from the car. It was opening day. What the hell, I don’t see anything wrong. No, I don’t. And don’t you look at me that way, do you hear? I won’t have you passing judgment on me. Not you.”

“You know,” I say, and shake my head.

Wow. That's some slash and burn. What do you think? Did Lish go too far with his cuts? Or was Carver’s decision to go with his editor's changes justified? There was a lot of discussion on these points at my workshop. Personally, I prefer Lish’s edits. The story is tight and lean, with every word pulling its weight, and an excellent example of how cutting words can enhance clarity and strengthen a story. Plus, I think the tension and mystery is enhanced because we don't quite know what has happened, though we do know it is something very bad. But whatever you think, in the end it really does show that when editing, every word must be considered and tested to ensure you produce the best writing you possibly can. And IMO, in order to do this you must be supremely objective about your own work.

In a post in February, I mentioned the Adelaide Festival of Arts and Writers’ Week, which is currently in full swing here in Adelaide. I caught a session on Tuesday – a panel discussion with Marcus Zusak, Audrey Niffeneger, Sarah Waters and Sarah Dunant. They were there to talk about mystery in writing, but what lodged in my brain were comments made by Marcus Zusak and Audrey Niffeneger about being objective as a writer.

Marcus talked at length about how he regularly writes for hours and hours, only to be convinced that apart from an odd gem or two, all he has written is utter garbage. And he went on to explain how grateful he is that he thinks like this, because if he believed that what he wrote was perfection incarnate, he’d never have the drive to make his writing better. His objectivity (which, IMO, borders on “healthy” pessimism!) improves his work.

And Audrey Niffeneger very succinctly summed up her own variety of objectivity: when she finishes a manuscript, she allows herself ten minutes to sit back and think, “I’ve written a fucking masterpiece!” (her words (g)), then promptly shoves all such grandiose thoughts from her mind. Love it.

So, there you have it. The study of the nitty gritty and cultivating your objectivity - two tools that, IMO, will help make your book the very best it can be.


  1. Hi Rachel,

    Sounds like you've been going to some great stuff! Colour me jealous *s*

    As for the Carver/Lish versions - I _mostly_ think the Lish version is better, but I actually think there's a few phrases where the cuts actually remove some of the "colour", or - IMO - changes the meaning/feeling a bit. For example, the husband tells her not to answer the phone.
    LISH: “It might be your mother,” I say.

    CARVER: “It might be your mother,” I say. “Dean – it might be something about Dean.”

    Now, to _me_, the Lish version is more casual, off-hand. "Could be your mum." Whereas the Carver version "Dean - it might be something about Dean" seems to imply that they're anxiously waiting for news about Dean (that he's come out of his coma? been arrested? been released from jail?) or are worried about him (what if our son's fallen ill?)

    Likewise, in the Lish version, she just hangs up. In the Carver version, she "bites her lip" and hangs up. IMO, the lip biting tells us that she's upset/scared/sickened by the call. Just hanging up the phone tells us nothing.

    OTOH, this sentence:
    “Was I staring?” I say and shake my head stupidly, stupidly.
    is a great example of where Lish's cuts are getting rid of waste. The question already tells us she feels stupid and hasn't realised what she's doing. "Stupidly, stupidly" is completely unnecessary.

  2. Thanks for posting about this in such detail Rachel!
    I have to say, in this case I do agree with the edits, though I sort of agree with Helen's take on it too. Stupidly, stupidly seems like one of those 60s things that writers had - a lot of them seem to have thought that repetition equaled emphasis.
    I guess I'd have to judge on a case by case basis. But after Lish had gone through all his MSs, did Carver get a chance to veto any suggestions?

  3. Helen and Deniz - yes, I am rather spoiled at the moment. GRIN.

    And you both make good points about the Lish v Carver debate ... and Deniz, yes, Carver got to have his say on the edits, and as far as I can gather, he mostly accepted them, until he met his second wife. The story goes that she was convinced Carver's writing was fine without most of Lish's cuts, and that Carver was torn between the opinions of his wife and his long-time editor. The Guardian tells that story here -

    Interesting, no?

  4. Very interesting story Rachel - thanks for the link!