Don’t Fear the Editor

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Last night, after seven full days of ploughing laboriously from one page to the next, I finally completed Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch. At 770 pages it was quite the slog. Having read it in hardback, and carted it from East Belfast to Donegal and back, I have developed what I’m now calling “prolific reader’s wrist” – a repetitive strain injury common in those who read literary works of 500 pages or more. Much as I love Ms Tartt and, on the whole, find her Pulitzer-worthy, (both The Secret History and The Little Friend were instant favourites on my bookshelf), The Goldfinch is not a great book. It’s bloated, self-indulgent and suffering very much from lack of good editing. You can read my full review here at http://www.mybookishfriends.wordpress.com

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I like an enormously long book as much as the next person. I’ve read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Moby Dick, The Tin Drum, many massive Steinbecks and at least a third of Ulysses (the same third three times which must surely count as completion). I may even make another stab at Don DeLillo’s American bohemyth, Underworld again this year, (though that opening150 page account of a baseball match always puts a significant dampener on my enthusiasm). A good book is a good book, whether it’s 150 or 1500 pages long. However, even the most slim volume will feel bloated and sloppy if it isn’t wrangled into a nice, tight edit. I fear that The Goldfinch has become lost somewhere in the sheer volume of material for lack of an editorial voice to call the plot home.

Difficult as it is to let someone take a scalpel to your work a good editor is an absolutely essential element of professional writing. Raymond Carver, as most contemporary readers know, transformed from a decent short story writer to an almost perfect short story writer under the arguably brutal pen of his editor, Gordon Lish. A confident, insightful editor can work wonders on a draft, especially if a writer’s been looking at the same project for long enough to have compromised their perspective.

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I’ve just completed my first serious experience of editing, working through draft after draft of Malcolm Orange Disappears with my fantastic editor, Daniel Bolger. It’s still a big novel but under Daniel’s influence, it’s now a much more streamlined novel. Daniel was a fantastic editor. An American by birth he was a natural fit for understanding the subtleties of culture and language associated with a novel based in North America. He was also an incredibly encouraging voice and none of the changes he suggested felt like assaults on the essence of the novel. Rather I felt like my editor was on the same team as me, trying to make Malcolm into the best little book it could be. The whole editorial experience was much less terrifying than if previously anticipated.

However, I am a ruthless self-editor, constantly tweaking and cutting as I write. I like to get my stories as close to completion as possible before I get to the final full stop for the first. The draft I handed in to my publisher felt very much like a final draft, even though looking back now I realise that it still needed to run the gauntlet of several subsequent drafts before it was even beginning to look like a finished book. It took a lot for me to accept editorial cuts. I felt that after writing the novel I had little energy left for cosmetic changes. I wanted to move on to a new writing project and just sign off on Malcolm. Yet I had to go back into myself and find a different kind of enthusiasm for the editorial process. I’m very thankful that I didn’t have an abrasive editor. Dan was very patient with me throughout the process and happy to discuss and negotiate on every proposed change, even the minute ones. Editing was for me, a learning curve but a good learning curve and helpful, in such an isolated art form, to be reminded that even we novelists need to listen and take input from other people.

 

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