Monday, February 5, 2018

The Editor Over My Shoulder

John D MacDonald loved to write. Obviously. In addition to his 70-plus books, his nearly 400 published short stories, numerous magazine novels and non-fiction articles, he wrote often about his craft in an effort to help the serious would-be writer, offering practical, analytical advice that reflected his own struggles as a beginner. As early as 1950 he wrote a piece for the Writer’s Yearbook titled “Professionally Yours,” where he outlined the various ways he treated his craft as a business. He continued to produce similar articles throughout his career, in periodicals such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Author’s Guild Bulletin, with instructive titles like “How a Character Becomes Believable,” “How to Start a Story,” “The Biggest Stumbling Block,” and “Creative Trust.”

In December 1962, the same month he published The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything and right around the time he was considering the series character who would ultimately be named Travis McGee, he wrote an article for Writer's Digest titled "The Editor Over My Shoulder." It is both instructive and amusing, and it's obviously the product of MacDonald's own experience as a novelist. It also shows that no matter how profitable or well-regarded an author was, he or she was still at the mercy of the publisher and the editors who worked for that publisher. The previous May he had published one of his most noted novels, A Flash of Green, a book MacDonald had deep regrets about, writing in 1980, "I mistrusted my own objectivity about my own work, and as a consequence the book that finally emerged after many lengthy consultations, was far less of a novel than the original version." I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this article was a direct reaction to the writing of that novel.

The Editor Over My Shoulder

OF TEN THOUSAND ludicrous analogies, all easy to devise, I select here the image of the novelist as a monomaniac who has set himself up in the middle of a carnival -- with cutting table, shears, needles, patterns and fabrics -- and is intently making himself a suit of clothes.

A gusty wind blows, rain threatens; there is a discord of music and the babble of the barkers; the midway throng shuffles by, jostling him, offering comment and advice.

In the midst of this the novelist must sustain his own private world, perform his intimate function. It is easy to ignore, through practice, the ones who jeer, or the ones who respond with vacant automatic laughter at the vision of a man making a suit for himself, or the ones who become angry at what they consider an impertinence. And you can close off the background noise. But the ultimate danger is the mild and pleasant stranger who stops at your table, comprehends what you are trying to do, accepts it as a reasonable activity, and offers plausible advice.

“If you keep working so fast, you’re going to ruin a lot of that material.”

“Why don't you stop right where you are and try it on and see what people think of it?"

“Does it really have to fit you as well as you're trying to make it fit you?"

“The pattern of that material looks awfully loud to me."

“Instead of making a suit for yourself, why don't you make one for me? There's more money in it."

“I can line you up with a good job with Hart, Schaffner and Marx, and then you'll have a nice quiet place to work away from all this hubbub.”

“Nobody wears that style any more.”

“It’s going to end up looking like any other cheap, readymade suit.”

“They’ll never let you into the best clubs wearing that, will they?"

“Just like all your other suits; the shoulders are wrong.”

“Why make a suit when in the same time with the same effort, you could be making four pair of slacks or three dozen handkerchiefs?"

“All the lapels are wider this year.”

When the pleasant stranger stops to talk, you are tempted to halt your lonely task and explain what you are doing. So you stop and you describe just how it will look when it is finished, what a fine suit indeed it is going to be. You speak with maximum enthusiasm, describing every detail. He looks skeptical and walks away. You bend over your work again. Suddenly it has become a dull labor. You have described it so totally that actual production has become drudgery.

Or perhaps you bring the pleasant stranger into the act. “I’ve gone this far," you say. “You can see the sort of a suit I'm making. Do you think maybe one more button on the jacket?"

"One less," he says with sudden expertise. “And it has to have a vest. Bermuda shorts, maybe. And let's start over with a fabric with more pattern in it."

“But that isn’t the sort of suit I. . .”

“Between the two of us," he says warmly, "we'll make you a hell of a suit.”

“But it won't be my suit, will it?"

“Of course it will be your suit, old buddy! But we'll cut it so it'll fit both of us. First let's move this table out of the wind."

Enough of analogy. I am not speaking of journalism or the journalistic novel. I am involved with the novel which is a personal view of reality, an expression of the self-involvement and specialized quest which motivate the novelist, the way chronic mange keeps a dog scratching.

Editors are sensitive, acute, perceptive, imaginative people. That's the trouble with them. (I am speaking here of the men and women who edit the novel.)

“Send me three chapters and an outline, please.” Or, in other words, “Move over and let me see how you're coming with that suit.”

Let us guess at the phenomenology involved. To lean upon analogy again, the most effective horror stories never describe the monster. Instead, they describe the reactions of the terrified person, eyes bulging, mouth agape, complexion ashen as she backs away from the offstage horror. The reader then draws upon the infinity of imaginative uglinesses in the subcellar of his own mind and supplies a monster more credible than anything the author could devise.

Incidentally, this is particularly true in cinema and television. TV's Thriller once did a short play concerning people turned to stone by looking at the head of the Medusa. In an innocent clumsiness they showed the viewer the head, garlanded with plastic snakes. Potential horror was turned into inadvertent comedy.

Because the editor is of more than average perception and imagination, turning over a few chapters and an outline is precisely like inviting a reader to create his own version of the offstage monster. Assume that the three or so chapters are highly competent. The editor is intrigued. Out of the resources of his imagination he creates his own vision of the rest of the book and, because it is devised of the materials within his own mind -- conscious and subconscious -- he anticipates marvels beyond the capacity of the author to produce. "Ah yes!” he says. “A fine start. It will be a marvelous novel. Go ahead with it."

So the author completes the book, maintaining the same level of competence, taking it exactly where he wanted to take it. He sends the balance of the manuscript in. The editor reads it -- and feels let down. “Something is wrong with this," he writes. “I can't exactly put my finger on it. But I don't think the rest of the book lives up to the promise of the first few chapters.”

The author is disheartened. He loses confidence in the book. Suggestions for revision are made by the editor. Perhaps they are massive ones -- such as change the viewpoint, make X the lead character instead of Y, change from first person to third. Or perhaps they are concerned with an intensive rewriting of key scenes.

What neither author nor editor realizes is that they are attempting a highly improbable task -- which is to devise a novel which, instead of being the logical development of the few chapters submitted, has become an attempt to duplicate all the magic created in the editorial mind as a result of the stimulus provided by the first few chapters.

Of course the editor can't quite put his finger on what is wrong. He wants the author to write the book he imagined. No author can. And because the editor is perturbed, the author loses confidence. At best, the objectivity of any writer is a precarious thing. Maybe the book will eventually be published. But by then it will have been so chopped and changed, so subjected to intuitive compromises that it suits neither the author nor the editor.

The answer is, of course, to make your own suit of clothes, and make it to fit yourself, and finish every last buttonhole and pleat, and then walk into the editor's office and ask him what he thinks of it. As a professional he may very well suggest a few changes here and there. (You made the pants too long.) But it will be your suit, not some glorious garment he envisaged after a glimpse of the bolt of material you intended using.

What I am saying is so painfully obvious it is often overlooked: Two cooks are too many cooks. Broth is not a team effort.

Yet why do so many semiprofessional novelists continue to try to function on the basis of a fractional submission of material? It seems to me to be a product of professional insecurity. There is a morale factor involved. They want their hands held. “Is this going to be all right?" they ask. “Is this going to be a book?"

We can examine the sophistries on each side. The writer says, “I get my advance on the basis of a couple of chapters and then they're committed to the book." Is he being a novelist or a confidence man? He says, “I want to find out if I’m wasting my time before I invest too much time in it." A novel undertaken with so little confidence is perhaps not worth writing. He says, “I don't want to get off on the wrong track." How in the world does a writer learn if not by getting off on the wrong track a thousand times and detecting the trouble himself and the reasons for it and fighting his way back? If he wants step by step guidance, perhaps he would be better off scripting other people's materials for television.

The editor who requests the chapters and outline rationalizes his position by saying, “I keep good old Joe from wasting a lot of time on something we can't use, so I’m doing him a favor." This can give you a delicious image of an editor sending back the first three chapters of The Late George Apley and asking Marquand to introduce Mr. Moto sooner. Of course editorial considerations are seldom as completely commercial as that -- yet most editors are leery of any experimental deviation on the part of established authors, and it is far easier to discourage such deviation on the basis of a fraction of a book than on the basis of the whole manuscript. One can reasonably say that the writer who plays safe has a little too much hack in his makeup.

The editor will say, “I like to work closely with my authors.” When editors are professionally competent this is fine indeed, provided the careful attention is given to revisions of a completed manuscript, but when it is concerned with work in process, one wonders whether the editor is not merely using the writer as a vehicle through which he can create his own books.

There is another curious aspect of this chapter and outline procedure, a type of feedback which serves to short out the creative drive. To return to the original analogy, the man stopped making the suit in order to explain to the pleasant stranger exactly how it would look -- and when he returned to his work he found it somewhat tasteless.

Here I believe we have the situation wherein the writer does to himself the same sort of thing he does to the editor through fractional submission. He makes a detailed exhaustive outline of the book he has not yet written. As he makes the detailed outline, millions of sugarplums dance in his head. He sees all the tensions and the colors, experiences the joys and despairs of his characters.

Then when he comes to the task of fleshing out the outline with actual manuscript pages, he wonders why it all seems so flat, and where so much of the magic has gone. In the first place, he has set himself the dogged and impossible task of precisely remembering all of the magic, and duplicating it perfectly the second time around. In the second place he has deprived himself of that special joy of instantaneous invention which is one of the factors which make this profession endurable.

He is like a man who has promised not to deviate from a carefully planned route on a cross country hike. Though there are a hundred ways to reach his destination, many of them more interesting than the one he has chosen, when he comes upon previously unsuspected bypaths, special vistas, he can but glance at them with regret and continue on his destined way. The editor has approved the route.

By restricting himself to a preapproved pattern, the writer has deprived himself of the use of one of the basic talents which made him a writer in the first place. The semanticists talk of trigger words. These are words which have a special weight and import to the listener, and tend to turn him aside from the sense of the statement being made. The writer at work sits atop the vast murky reservoir of his subconscious mind, and as he works he devises within his own manuscript trigger scenes, trigger people, trigger phrases which suddenly bring whole new situations and relationships up out of the jumbled storehouse. These things -- so compulsive, so suddenly seen, so impossible of anticipation -- are what give writing freshness and force, and often give the process itself a curious flavor of autohypnosis and autosuggestion. When the writer says, “It went well today," he means that his relationship of trigger and response was especially fluent, that his invention came readily out of himself, without forcing or faking.

I have come to believe that this process of trigger and response works at its optimum the first time around. Try a ludicrous example. Visualize a woman running headlong into a tree. The specifics of it seem to jump into your mind: scene, clothing, impact, and a lot of possible phrases occur to you, and out of these you make a selection. Let's say that when she hit the tree, she jarred loose a hundred random impressions from your past. Now try this: Visualize a woman running headlong into a tree. The second time around, did you not get a vastly reduced spectrum of consequent images?

If the scene appeared in a detailed outline, by the time you get to the actual manuscript you have impoverished yourself by reducing the scope of your images and relationships. Or, if you have talked too much about work in process, you have done the same thing. You have spent so much of yourself describing how the suit will look when it is finished, that the work itself is leached of enchantment.

In the same way that having an editor over your shoulder can give you a final work which pleases neither of you, it is forlornly easy for the writer to perform the contortionist feat of looking over his own shoulder and, with too much preplanning, turn a potential joy into a dreariness of effort.

In a novel the writer is traveling from A to B. The proper starting point is most usually discovered through a process of trial and error. The ultimate destination is inherent in the starting point. But the time to choose the route is during the actual trip, because it is strange country, and you will not know the footing until you travel it, nor even be able to guess at how long it will take you.

One might protest that there is a serious danger of wandering off into some bypath so attractive you can never find your way back. Yet, is this not almost a perfect test of the validity of the imagined destination? If the bypath becomes more attractive, then should not the book be concerned with the bypath, even to the extent of going back to the beginning? Operating on a chapter and outline basis eliminates future choice. And choice is the condiment which makes a better broth.

Let us examine the editorial reaction to a finished manuscript which is the result of having made the optimum choices while creating it. In the first place, faced with a completed work, the editor is less likely to propose alternate routes. Secondly, his equation is simplified; he will buy it or reject it, or make specific requests for revision. In the third place, it will become completely your book, because the choices were all yours; it will have an individuality, an integrity and an inevitably unachievable by other means. It will not smack of manipulation, of two-man confusions of intent. And finally, it will be of a length to fit the materials rather than being either bloated or dwarfed to fit a preconceived requirement.

Writing is a private affair. A personal affair. When you try to share the responsibility for the final result, you diminish yourself as well as your works.

(A special thanks to author Dan Pollock for sharing his copy of this article with me.)

1 comment:

  1. "The ultimate destination is inherent in the starting point." Oh man, what a great essay. I don't think anyone had a better understanding of the craft of writing than JDM. Thanks for sharing this.