May was largely about line edits on The Rules of Trade. Line edits are what happens to a book once writer and editor agree that the story is in good shape. Then it becomes about the words, the sentences, the paragraphs; about adverbs, rhythm, and speech tags. Anyone who recognizes the reference to T. S. Eliot’s East Cocker in the title of this newsletter will know what word occurs in the original where I have written “editorial”. The rest of you can follow the link and look it up. If I have to suffer, you should too, if only for sympathy.
Being edited is a funny business. Sometimes it is wonderful; sometimes it is horrible. Sometimes it opens your eyes to problems you could not see yourself or it reveals fantastic new possibilities to improve the work. And sometimes it is a grim tedious grind through differences of taste, opinion, custom, culture, idiom, and vocabulary.
It is worse when you are dealing with fiction, I find. The editing process on my last two non-fiction books was certainly involved and required a fair amount of rewriting. But I don’t recall it being quite such a painful process as with the novel.
Partly, of course, compatibility with your editor matters, as it does in all creative collaborations. Compatibility has nothing to do with how good a writer or editor the people involved are. It is all about their tastes and experiences and the way they work with language.
But I think there are two factors that make the line-editing process more purgatorial than for non-fiction. (There I gave you the word that I changed in the title.) The first is that while a non-fiction book is an argument, a novel is an experience. Arguments are designed to be evaluated objectively. What principally matters is the evidence you present and the logic with which you argue your point. Experiences are much more subjective. Different people can experience the same meal, waterfall, sunset, concert, or novel as wonderful, awful, or tedious. An argument either holds up or it doesn’t. (At least, ones occurring in a world in which logic and evidence matter.) An experience is much more subjective. No two readers, and therefore no two editors, are ever going to experience the same novel the same way in every particular. All discussions about whether the experience works or not, in all of its particulars, is at least partially subjective and thus open to contention.
And then there is the matter of language. The language of a non-fiction piece is creating an argument and it should present the evidence and the logic clearly. Any way of writing that achieves those things is as good as another for non-fiction. Not so for fiction. The language chosen in a novel is the flesh of the experience, and every nuance of vocabulary, rhythm, and even punctuation can affect the quality of the experience. Differences of language that would not be worth arguing about in non-fiction become bones of contention in fiction, all the more so because those nuances of vocabulary, rhythm, and punctuation really do affect different readers in different ways. While the writer is trying to create a really clear and vivid experience for every reader, the differences between the readers themselves means that even the most gifted of writers can’t guarantee that every reader will have the exact experience that they designed for them. Indeed, there is no way to be certain that even one reader will experience the book exactly as the writer intended. Or even one editor.
And so we argue over whether this should be a speech tag or an action beat, and whether that adverb should be struck out or not, and whether one sentence should be made into two, or two into one. And on and on an on. I quake in frigid editorial fires. Purgatory, however, is not for eternity. The paradise of publication beckons. (Don’t tell me yet that publication is no paradise. For now I need that vision to get me through.)
Speaking of writers wanting to have their words exactly as they wrote them, here’s a little anecdote from Stephen Fry trying to change one inconsequential phrase in recording the audio book of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Yes, writers are like that. I’ll be the first to say that the story matters more than the words. Right up to the moment you try to mess with my words. Grrrrrrr.
From the Blog
Two entirely unrelated things on the blog last month. Actually, they are ever so slightly related, in that both deal with enchantment, though in very different ways.
This post expresses a notion that I have had for a while that fantasy literature is fundamentally about power, its possibilities and its dangers, and that it comes in broadly two flavors: Promethean, which is concerned with learning to master power, and lapsarian, which asserts that it is impossible to master power and that we will inevitably be mastered and corrupted by it. I have received several comments, both public and private, suggesting that I am wrong about this. Feel free to pile on.
This is another post in my Grand Tour travel series, recounting our trip down Route 66 in 2018. This post concerns one of the days we spent in New Mexico, the land of enchantment. (See, you can find a connection between almost any two things if you are willing to stretch for it.) The main theme of the post, however, is the amazing similarities that we observed between ancient Pueblo and Spanish sites in New Mexico and prehistoric, Roman, and Medieval sites in Europe. Give or take some differences in climate and available materials, and the features of the sites are similar in far more ways that I would have ever guessed before I saw them.
Questions? Thoughts? Any links to suggest that might be of interest? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!