All People Who Write Need Someone

to Cut, Rearrange, Rephrase, and Correct the Work That They Do,


Every Writer Needs an Editor

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Bethesda, Maryland, September 16, 1996

Before I get to the main topic of this column, first let me apologize for it being late. Travel made it all but impossible to file. But I should also make some make some mention of the old saw about being careful what you wish for. I did wish, and I got what I wished for, and while I have enjoyed it, perhaps other would beg to differ.

I said in the first issue of this column that I missed weather, and that I was looking forward to the changeability of weather on the east coast of the U.S. and that I was hoping to get a lot of it. Well, that wish certainly came true. We got clobbered by the fringes of Hurricane Fran, then got flood conditions on the rivers, then got more rain and more flooding, and now we're watching Hurricane Hortense, which might or might not do another number on in a day or so. It's been dank and humid and hot -- and I've loved it.

The ironic thing is that the Washington area has felt far more tropical than Brasilia ever has. When we thing tropical, we think lush greenery, trees dripping with moisture, unseen insects buzzing and whirring in the underbrush, and maybe the rumble of far-off thunder from some storm over the horizon. Well, that's Washington for you. There were three days in early August, I think, where it rained some in Brasilia. Besides that, the climate there has followed its usual pattern -- not a drop of rain between about May and September.

And, two days after it was tropically dank in Washington, we were having crisp, brisk fall days, the sky a perfect dark blue, the whole world scrubbed clean. That's my idea of weather -- something that CHANGES.

Be all that as it may, I find that the thing that is on my mind this week is the subject of books that are too long. What brought this topic to mind was my purchase, last week in California, of a stack of old paperback novels at a used book stall. In among the books were a few of Robert Heinlein's later works. I started re-reading TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE as I made my way through the various airports and airplanes and waiting rooms and departure lounges that got me from Los Angeles to Fresno (and a quick side-visit to my in-laws) to Los Angeles to Washington. Even that long a trip was not long enough to polish off TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, and I was not actually done with it until a day or so ago.

Let me say at the outset that TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE is, in many ways, a pretty good book. I was, after all, re-reading it, and I enjoyed it enough to get all the way through it on the second go-round.

But it does follow the pattern of most of Heinlein's later works. In virtually all of them, an interesting premise is established quite early, so that the reader understands the setup pretty well at about five or ten percent into the book's length.

From about the ten percent to the seventy or eighty percent mark, the premise itself is explored and discussed, and possibilities suggested by the premise are likewise explored and discussed. This is not to say that there is any strong plot line is based on the premise. Events linked to the premise take place and are talked about -- things happen -- but there is no strong chain of events, one after another, no domino effect with one plot point causing the next. The main characters generally observe and report events, rather than taking part in them.

At some around the eighty percent mark of the book's length, some new element is introduced and becomes the premise for what is in effect a complete novella tacked to the end of the book. Typically, this involves a journey of some sort. The new element is generally such a drastic departure that what has gone before has little or no effect on events in this final, far more tightly plotted section. In FRIDAY, there is the sudden introduction of interstellar travel, which is mentioned scarcely if at all in the first portion of the book, but is central to the end sequence, in which the title character, Friday, goes off on a interstellar adventure. In JOB, A COMEDY OF JUSTICE, out of nowhere, the end of the world as described in the Bible -- the Rapture, the Resurrection, and so on, suddenly starts to happen, and the title character is suddenly wandering around heaven and hell. At the end of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, Lazarus Long goes back in time and revisits the world of his own childhood -- and meets his own family, and himself as a child.

In virtually all of Heinlein's later books, there is a crotchety, opinionated older man who offers up opinions and aphorisms and anecdotes, with the other characters hanging on his every word with something close to adoration. It is hard to resist the temptation to read this character as anything other than a transparent stand-in for Heinlein himself.

There is one other factor that is true for just about every late Heinlein novel: they are all too long. They are all cluttered with long, discursive sections that could easily be trimmed down or eliminated completely with no loss to the narrative, to the description of character, or to the solidity of the setting.

It bears repeating to note that I have read and enjoyed lots of late Heinlein, and expect to revisit many of his works in the future. His skill as a writer and a storyteller, his ear for dialogue, and his often mordant humor all serve to compensate for the flawed structure and weak plots of the books -- up to a point. The patterns discussed above seemed to be come more and more pronounced in each novel. Heinlein also came back, again and again, to not just the same themes, but to the same plots, premises, and characters, in some cases quite overtly. (In other cases, it's not so clear whether Heinlein intended the readers to notice or not. The opening sequence of FRIDAY follows the events and actions of GULF (an early Heinlein novella) almost one for one, and one of the characters in FRIDAY appears to be the same person as in GULF.) More than a few Heinlein readers have muttered that, in book or another, the writerly sins began to outweigh the writerly virtues. Some pointing to one novel as the one that crossed that line, some pointing to another.

In short, a lot people, including myself, believed that Heinlein got a bit self-indulgent in his later books. He seemed to become more concerning with entertaining himself, and less worried about entertaining his readers. He got into bad habits.

Let me also say that I happen to be discussing Heinlein and the patterns of his books because I happened to have just re-read (and re-enjoyed) one of his books. There are lots of well-known popular writers I could have discussed in similar fashion, citing flaws, and patterns of flaws, in their work. I was in part inspired to do this column by the sight of Tom Clancy's new book, EXECUTIVE ORDERS. The book is a monster, 872 pages of small type with narrow margins -- over 400,000 words. I have not read it. But I have read several of his previous books -- and longed to have a red pencil in my hand as I read them, so I could cut out the long, redundant passages that did nothing for the stories but slow then down. EXECUTIVE ORDERS might be the crispest, most tightly plotted novel in history, but, going on the track record of RED STORM RISING, for example, it would probably be a safer bet to assume it is much too long. If you want another example of a book that shouts out on every page that it was, to all intents and purposes, unedited, look no further than John Grisham's THE RAINMAKER. The main plot path is littered with loose ends, sub-plots that are never resolved, plot points that go nowhere, and unmotivated action. (And by the way, among lawyers, the term "rainmaker" means someone who brings in a lot of profitable business. The lead character in the book does no such thing. )

And yet. And yet. And yet. The Heinlein, Clancy, and Grisham books I have read are page-turners. The books demonstrate unquestionable skill on the part of their authors. They make you want to keep reading. For me, that is the core frustration. These are books that are good -- but could be better -- much better. Any competent fiction editor could have given Time Enough for Love, Red Storm Rising, and The Rainmaker a brisk going over and improved them significantly. It didn't happen.

Writing books that are "much too long" is probably the most common flaw of the unedited writer. (As I am guilty of writing a longish book or two myself, let me hasten to add that length in and of itself isn't a problem. There are lots of long novels out there that should not be a word shorter than they are. The stories told by those novels need to be long. A book is only too long when the story is too slight to support that length.) Returning to the author I am citing as an example, it is all but universally agreed that Heinlein's earlier works was far tighter and more focused than his later stuff. His early books were sharper, more focused, and shorter.

This conforms to a pretty standard pattern established by a lot of writers: The books that made them famous are better (and often shorter) than the books they wrote once they were famous. In the case of writers who achieve acclaim right off the bat, with a best-selling first novel for example, it is often the case that the later books are not as good as the first one.

This is the case, I strongly suspect, because the earlier works of such writers were well and truly edited, while their later works were not. But by the time the writer's later works were published, he or she was a giant in the field. No mere editor would have the nerve to tell The Great Author to cut twenty pages from the first two chapters, or to do a better job foreshadowing a key plot development, or that there were long stretches of dialogue that needed to be trimmed. One piece of writer's folklore that I have heard from many sources is that writer X (and who X is changes from one telling to the next) actually had a no-edit clause in his or her contract. The editor, so the story goes, was contractually prohibited to change a single golden word, or alter in any way the placement of a solitary comma. There are certainly plenty of big-time writers who

At the other end of the scale are the poor schlubs who aren't important enough to GET edited -- or, perhaps more accurately, their editors can't afford the time to do it. In the good old days, the editorial end of the publishing process went something like this: (1) An editor would read a manuscript and decide that it was publishable, or could me made publishable. (2) The editor would do detailed notes on the manuscript, discuss the manuscript with the author, and help the author to make the fixes needed to bring the author's ideas and story points into sharper focus. (3) Then the book would be published. Many publishers still do it that way. But the sad truth is that budgets are tight. There isn't enough money to hire the assistant editors and editorial assistants who used to do lots of the scut work of publishing. That work still needs to be done, and with many of the junior workers not there any more, these tasks fall more and more onto the shoulders of the senior people.

Many an editor has not the time, resources, or money to do more than steps (1) and (3). Step (2) -- the actual editing of the book -- gets lost in the shuffle of cover copy, cover design, cover art, interior design, scheduling, presentations, meetings with other departments, and on and on and on. Deadline pressure also takes its toll. All the good editors out there WANT to edit their author's books, but, in effect, they are not allowed to do so.

To make a broad, sweeping statement to which there are many easy-to-find and happy exceptions, lots of big-time writers refuse to allow editing of their books, while time and money constraints are what keep editors from doing a thorough job on beginning writer's books.

The obvious response to all of this might well be: So what? It just means the writer becomes more responsible for making sure his or her work is as good as it could be. The job of editing has merely been shifted from editor to writer. But while writers can try and pick up the slack, and do more of the work spotting typos, cleaning up scrambled syntax, and so on, the editor has two things the writer cannot possibly have: a fresh set of eyes, and a (relatively) objective perspective. The editor will be able to see things the writer has long since become blind to, and the editor will see the words on the page -- not the weeks and months it took to craft the two paragraphs of golden prose that need to be cut. Conversely, the editor can talk the writer out of reworking a section that is doing just fine on its own, for example a section that seems stale to the writer simply because the writer has been forced to read it over a dozen times.

There are three big problems produced by this state of affairs. First, and most obvious, books that get little or no editing are not as good as they could be. Second, the writers of unedited books diminish their reputation. To return to our example, as Heinlein approached the end of his career, his rep was not just that of being a brilliant science fiction writer, but of being a brilliant sf writer who went on and on and on in most of his books. Third, the writer loses out on a chance to learn more about his or her craft. A good editor doesn't just fix such-and-such in a manuscript. He or she teaches the writer why such-and-such is a problem, and why the writer made it, and how the writer to fix it, and how to avoid it in future.

A major part of this third item consists of learning about one's bad habits early, before they become ingrained. I know of several cases wherein a beginning writer never got a good, hard edit early on, and thus never got taken to the woodshed over a stylistic flaw or a pattern of story-structure problem. As a result, the same bad habits can be found -- often in more pronounced form -- in later books by the same author.

I have learned a tremendous amount from the editors -- official and ad hoc -- who have gone over my work. I am fortunate to have a professional editor for my father, and a former literary agent for my wife. My mother, having practiced her skills reading over my father's work, also has a sharp eye. Many of my colleagues have been generous enough to look over my work and tell me what I am doing wrong. My professional editors have also done my work no end of good. I have no doubt at all that my best books are also my best-edited books. I have, in turn, learned a great deal about writing -- and about my own writing -- by doing editorial mark-ups and notes on other peoples' books. By editing others, I have learned how to be much more demanding of myself when I self-edit my work.

But one of the most important things I have learned is that the sensible writer will seek out editorial guidance, strictly out of a desire for self-preservation. I know that I cannot have an objective viewpoint about my own work. I know that a fresh set of eyes will see things I can't. I know someone looking in from the outside can pop up with ideas that would never have occurred to me on my own. Editing is good for you.

I cringe when I hear stories about a big-shot writer who demands a no-edit clause. When I about a new writer's book going from acceptance to publication with little or no editing, that bothers me even more. At least the big-shots could be edited if they wanted to be edited. Oftentimes, beginner writers don't even know they are being deprived.

In short, every writer needs a editor. Writing suffers when there is no one there to check it over. Work gets better when exposed to competent and thoughtful opinion.

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