When to cut a manuscript

Those who are regular followers of the doings of Arthur Dent may have received an impression of his character and habits which, while it includes the truth and, of course, nothing but the truth, falls somewhat short, in its composition, of the whole truth in all its glorious aspects. And the reasons for this are obvious. Editing, selection, the need to balance that which is interesting with that which is relevant and cut out all the tedious happenstance. Like this for instance. ‘Arthur Dent went to bed. He went up the stairs, all fifteen of them, opened the door, went into his room, took off his shoes and socks and then all the rest of his clothes one by one and left them in a neatly crumpled heap on the floor. He put on his pyjamas, the blue ones with the stripe. He washed his face and hands, cleaned his teeth, went to the lavatory, realized that he had once again got this all in the wrong order, had to wash his hands again and went to bed. He read for fifteen minutes, spending the first ten minutes of that trying to work out where in the book he had got to the previous night, then he turned out the light and within a minute or so more was asleep. ‘It was dark. He lay on his left side for a good hour. ‘After that he moved restlessly in his sleep for a moment and then turned over to sleep on his right side. Another hour after this his eyes flickered briefly and he slightly scratched his nose, though there was still a good twenty minutes to go before he turned back on to his left side. And so he whiled the night away, sleeping. ‘At four he got up and went to the lavatory again. He opened the door to the lavatory…’ and so on. It’s guff. It doesn’t advance the action. It makes for nice fat books such as the American market thrives on, but it doesn’t actually get you anywhere. You don’t, in short, want to know.

—Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Manguel on editors

The story has often been told of how Coleridge dreamt his “Kubla Khan” in an intoxication of opium, and of how, upon waking, he sat down to write it and was interrupted by “a person from Porlock,” thereby losing forever the conclusion to that extraordinary poem. Persons from Porlock are professionally employed by the publishing companies of the Anglo-Saxon world. A few are wise and ask questions that speed on the writing; a few distract; a few quibble away at the author’s vaporous confidence; a few destroy the work in mid-creation. All interfere, and it is this compulsive tinkering with someone else’s text that I have to question. Without editors we are likely to have rambling, incoherent, repetitive, even offensive texts, full of characters whose eyes are green one day and black the next (like Madame Bovary); full of historical errors, like stout Cortez discovering the Pacific (as in Keats’s sonnet); full of badly strung-together episodes (as in Don Quixote); with a cobbled-together ending (as in Hamlet) or beginning (as in The Old Curiosity Shop). But with editors – with the constant and now unavoidable presence of editors without whose nihil obstat hardly a book can get published – we may perhaps be missing something fabulously new, something as incandescent as a phoenix and as unique, something impossible to describe because it has not yet been born but which, if it were, would admit no secret sharers in its creation.

—Alberto Manguel, ‘The Secret Sharer’ (collected in Into the Looking-Glass Wood)

My own comment: The nihil obstat has been removed. The principal function of editors was never to edit books, but to reject them, and they rejected a lot of very good books because of their personal tastes, or their unsound judgement of what was and was not commercial, or simply because too many good books were submitted to them and they could not publish them all. Half the point of being independent authors is that when we write a good book, we can take it straight to the public without giving an intermediary the power to reject it. To replicate the editorial function of traditional publishing would not only be foolish, it would destroy our reason for doing business.

Heinlein’s Rules vs. Amazon’s game

While I am tilting at windmills, I am minded to try a joust with that famous contraption called ‘Heinlein’s Rules of Writing’. What moves me to do this, chiefly, is the tub-thumping in favour of those rules performed a while ago by Dean Wesley Smith, who delivers himself of windmills and giants in roughly equal proportions. Someone ought to do the public a service and tilt at them all, and sort them, because it is not always easy at first sight to tell t’other from which. I have neither the time nor the stamina, nor probably the skill, to do them all, but I am willing to pitch in and take on a share of them if others will do the same. Since Mr. Smith is a great devotee of Heinlein’s Rules, and often repeats them with greater force than clarity, it occurs to me that they would be a good place to begin. My peculiar taxonomy of windmill-tilting is, of course, one of the essential tools of human thought, an age-old distinction as famous as the sun, and has been universally recognized as such ever since I thought of it the other day. One part of the preceding sentence is true. In case it is the last part, I shall recapitulate, so that those of you who are new on the job may know what I am blithering about: One of the jobs an essayist or a thinker can do is to play Don Quixote and tilt at windmills. Don Quixote did this because he imagined that the windmills were giants, which naturally needed slaying. Nowadays we have a tendency to take ideas as if they were expressions of unalterable natural law — predictable, automatic, and virtually infallible, like windmills; when they may only be expressions of personal opinion — capricious, organic, and mortal, like giants. So we tilt at them; we try to kill them, to see if they can be killed. So let us sharpen up our lances and see if we can score a hit on Heinlein’s rules. Here they are, as first formulated in a short piece ‘On the Writing of Speculative Fiction’, written in 1947:
1. You must write. 2. You must finish what you start. 3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order. 4. You must put it on the market. 5. You must keep it on the market until sold.
The First Rule is non-negotiable; the only way to get things written is to write them. Frederik Pohl, in The Way the Future Was, tells a lovely-naughty story about a rich and cultured young Italian contessa who wanted to be a writer, and asked him for advice. She had the marketing and the byline all down pat, but whom, she wanted to know, should she hire to do the actual writing? The story is almost, but not quite, too good to be true. If you are William Shatner, or even Newt Gingrich, you can get a publishing contract on the strength of your name, and then hire a ghostwriter to do the heavy lifting. But the heavy lifting has got to be done by someone. The Second Rule is one of those interesting things, a tautology that is not a truism. If a piece of writing isn’t finished, it can’t be sold; if it has been sold, it is finished as of that moment — with rare exceptions. (The Hobbit provides a good counterexample. The confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum, in its present form, was written ten years after the first edition was published; but it was so great an improvement, and so necessary to the sequel, that it completely ousted the original version from the canon.) But that does not shed as much light on real literature as we might hope. When Mark Twain wrote The Mysterious Stranger, he hung fire a couple of times in the writing process; the last time, he was about two-thirds of the way through the projected story, and he never touched it again before his death. Yet just as it stands, the work ends at exactly the right place; no other ending could better emphasize its horrible and inhuman unity. Illusion after illusion is stripped away, and then the illusion of reality itself is stripped away: the narrator is left alone for ever with his own solipsism. When the story was published, several years after Twain’s death, hardly anybody knew that the author himself had considered it unfinished. He was finished with it; and it was finished enough to make its point. It is not always obvious even to the writer when he finishes what he started. Still, there is such a thing as an obviously unfinished story, and cases like Twain’s don’t come along very often. We can accept the second rule as it stands. The Third Rule is where nearly everyone objects. On the face of it, it looks like a commandment to send out your first drafts and never revise them. This was poor advice in 1947; it was poor advice even in 1939, when the pulps were in their autumnal glory and Heinlein first broke in. (By the way, it is remarkable that so many people were inclined to take as gospel the advice of a man with less than ten years’ experience in the field, however successful those years had been. It is far more remarkable that people still take it so now. Dean Wesley Smith, who regards Heinlein’s rules as a fount of wisdom, has been a working professional writer for nearly three times as long as Heinlein had been when he wrote them. One wonders that he holds them in such awe.) A lot of ink has been shed in vain to explain away Heinlein’s Third Rule. One school of thought holds that what he meant by ‘rewriting’ was not redrafting and polishing, but tearing up a story and redoing it from scratch. Another says that he meant excessive rewriting, beyond the point at which the writer (somehow) knows that the story is ready to send out. Another — but it is pointless to multiply examples. The mere fact that so many people feel the need to explain the rule away shows that it needs some explaining. And it is nearly always on the Third Rule that Heinlein is attacked; though, as I shall try to show later, it is on safer ground nowadays than the Fourth and Fifth. The fact is, I am afraid, that Heinlein did mean for writers to send out their first drafts, with the proviso that they should be corrected for obvious errors and cut to an appropriate length. The kind of rewriting Heinlein tended to do, at that stage of his career, really was rewriting and not revising; and he did it, for the most part, when he had reached a dead end in the story and had no idea how to get his characters out of their predicament. Then he would toss out the last part of the manuscript and cast back, a bit at a time, until he came to a point from which he could branch off and take the story in a different direction. But this, for him, was all in the course of writing the first draft. He once allowed (approximately; I paraphrase from memory) that Stranger in a Strange Land took him eleven years and sixty-two days to write: eleven years of making false starts and then abandoning them, time and again, until he figured out how to tell his yarn about a Man from Mars; then sixty-two days of lightning work to write the draft. Once that was done, he sweated a good deal longer to cut it to 160,083 words (‘and I am tempted to type those extra eighty-three words on a postcard’), knowing that it would be extremely difficult to sell at its original length. This was Heinlein’s normal method, exaggerated to the point of self-parody: write one draft, throwing away as many false starts and blind alleys as necessary; then correct it for grammar, factual errors, and stylistic infelicities; then cut it to suit the market. That is very little revision by the standards of most commercial writers; but even so, Heinlein was more fastidious than most writers for the pulps. I have heard of pulp writers who typed their first drafts with carbon paper — one copy for submission, one for the files. You don’t do that unless you have the perfectly serious intention of submitting that first draft exactly as it stands. Sometimes, of course, one of these pulpsters would have to throw out a page and do it over; but not so often that it would have been quicker or cheaper to do a complete second draft and save the carbon paper for that. Some pulp writers schooled themselves to turn out 10,000 words a day, five or six days a week, for years on end; and that meant doing everything in one draft. Not many writers could put out 10,000 words in a day without degenerating into dada; hardly any could maintain that speed whilst writing two drafts, which (in the days when each succeeding version had to be typed out from scratch) meant doubling the work. The pulps, you must remember, were the absolute bottom rung on the ladder of a writer’s career. Good writers got themselves out of pulp writing if they could; or, at most, indulged it now and then as an outlet for stuff that they could not sell to a better-paying market. (In just this way, Heinlein himself sold occasional short stories to Astounding and Galaxy in later years, if none of the slick magazines would buy them.) Pulp editors were keenly aware of this, and many of them were willing to make extraordinary efforts to salvage stories. When Fred Pohl edited Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, his starting salary was a princely ten dollars a week; he paid his writers, as a general thing, half a cent per word. At that price, he had to buy a fair number of stories from amateurs, which meant choosing stories that were almost publishable and bringing them the rest of the way himself. Even John W. Campbell, Jr., though working with a much larger budget, used to brainstorm stories with his writers and then send them away to come up with a working draft, which he would then edit closely. Indeed, Campbell’s relationship with his writers was much more like James Patterson’s relationship with his numerous co-authors than anything you will find a magazine editor doing today. Once Heinlein found the range with Astounding, he immediately became two of the magazine’s star writers — Robert A. Heinlein and Anson MacDonald — with one appearance under the name Caleb Saunders. (Campbell didn’t like to use the same byline twice in an issue; he also had a thing about Scottish names.) His stories routinely took top place in the ‘Analytical Laboratory’, the monthly readers’ poll, earning him the magazine’s top rate of a cent and a half per word. Anything that Campbell rejected — often for ‘moral reasons’, meaning that Kay Tarrant, his assistant, thought it was smut and would not let him print it — sold readily to other magazines at lower rates, under the name of Lyle Monroe. (Kay Tarrant was a force of nature. One of Fred Pohl’s anecdotes: Every writer in the Astounding stable was engaged in an informal competition to see who could sneak ‘something bawdy’ past her. Nobody succeeded until George O. Smith referred to a tomcat as ‘a ball-bearing mousetrap’. This should give you an idea how tightly the pulps could be censored.) Heinlein was too good a writer to need editing at the pulp level; once he learnt to avoid the faults of his earliest stories, not even Campbell could improve his stories in any unambiguous and cost-effective way. And the truth was that he was getting bored. He wanted to be up and doing, getting strenuous exercise, not sitting at a typewriter all day and worrying about his weight. He could have set himself to climb out of the pulps, but in 1941, respectable book and magazine publishers did not print science fiction and pretended never to have heard of the stuff. H. G. Wells, officially, was a Fabian Socialist writer and nothing else; Aldous Huxley, officially, was a kind of offbeat satirist. There was nowhere to go, as Heinlein himself said, but down. When Campbell rejected Heinlein’s story ‘Goldfish Bowl’, Heinlein took that as his cue to exit. Campbell panicked: his best and most prolific writer had just quit without notice. It took a good deal of pump-priming and feather-smoothing before he could cajole Heinlein into returning; and part of that process meant working out the minimum amount of revision that would make ‘Goldfish Bowl’ an acceptable story for Astounding. This was one of the few cases where the rider to the Third Rule — ‘except to editorial order’ — had applied to Heinlein himself before 1947. (He would do a good deal of rewriting to suit Alice Dalgliesh, his editor at Scribner’s, compared with whom Kay Tarrant was a painted libertine.) When he began selling to the ‘slicks’ after the Second World War, Heinlein found himself moving in a different circle — and one in which he was a great deal less important. He was famous partly for being the first pulp SF writer to sell to the Saturday Evening Post; yet he sold only four stories to that market all told, and had to work hard to do it. ‘Space Jockey’, his second story for the Post, was 12,000 words long in draft form. Heinlein took enormous trouble sweating it down to 6,000 words, the average length of a Post story, before submitting it. He then wrote humbly to his agent: ‘I am beginning to understand the improvement in style that comes from economy in words.’ He knew that if he had submitted the story at its original length, the Post would have rejected it for that reason alone; he had to rewrite without an editorial order, because the editor would not have bothered to issue such an order. Nowadays, nearly all writers are in this position, which neatly destroys the usefulness of the Third Rule. You will occasionally, in some of the short-story markets, find an editor who likes a story but wants something fixed; and if you are an established pro, you may find yourself dealing with a book editor who dislikes your latest book too much to publish it as is, but cannot justify cutting you loose altogether. In those borderline cases, you may get an order to rewrite. Most of the time, you’re on your own; most editors are far too overworked, in these idiotic times, to actually edit anything. Sometimes they are too busy even to read the books they are publishing: that work is left to assistants, or even left undone. And of course if you are your own publisher, as an increasing number of us are, an editor is a hired technician who goes over your work and suggests improvements for you to take or leave as you see fit. In such a case, there is no such thing as an editorial order. What, then, is the self-publisher to do about revision? There is nobody to make us do it; nobody with the authority to withhold the longed-for imprimatur. Heinlein’s Rules would then have us do no revision at all; and not even Dean Wesley Smith is quite that rash. I used to puzzle over this myself a good deal, until I found an answer that suited me. It comes straight out of the tradition that Heinlein wrote in; comes, in fact, from one of Heinlein’s own heroes and role-models; and I am morally certain that Heinlein himself employed it in cutting down ‘Space Jockey’ for the Post. A good number of Heinlein’s letters, including the one I quoted above, were published after his death under the title Grumbles From the Grave. The letters are grouped into chapters roughly by topic; and it was one of the chapter titles that pointed my way through the conundrum of the Third Rule. That chapter was called ‘On Writing Methods and Cutting’. Not rewriting, you will observe; not even revision; but cutting. Heinlein was an engineer, and surely knew the rule of thumb that used to be called the ‘RCA Principle’, but is nowadays known as ‘designing to manufacture’: First build the best product you know how; then see how many parts you can eliminate before it stops working to specification. It is that elimination of superfluous parts that distinguishes a superior design from a merely adequate one, not only in engineering, but in art and literature as well. In this necessary skill, Heinlein’s preceptor and mine was the immortal Rudyard Kipling. This is from his autobiography, Something of Myself:
This leads me to the Higher Editing. Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not.’ The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork and, normally, the shorter the lie-by, and vice versa. The longer the tale, the less brush but the longer lie-by. I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly. The magic lies in the Brush and the Ink. For the Pen, when it is writing, can only scratch; and bottled ink is not to compare with the ground Chinese stick. Experto crede.
Writers nowadays are notoriously sloppy and prolix compared to those of fifty or a hundred years ago. Partly this can be attributed to the modern tools of the trade, which do not lend themselves to ‘Higher Editing’ with ink and brush. Even a pulp writer of the 1930s, as I mentioned, generally had to type his second draft from scratch before submitting; and that meant that every word passed individually through his brain a second time, giving him ample opportunity to repent. Writing on a cast-iron Underwood typewriter (I have done it myself) was heavy work; and at every word of the retyping, the writer’s aching fingers would ask him desperately, ‘Is this trip really necessary?’ I believe it was Edison who said, ‘There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labour of thinking.’ But this is not so. A man will do the labour of thinking to save himself  the deadly drudgery of retyping. Few things make me happier than thinking of ten clever words to take the place of fifty dull ones: a thing that often happens when I have to retype a manuscript from scratch. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but Sloth is the father, and he is more prolific than his wife. The trouble nowadays is that we can be lazy without taking shortcuts; we are flooded with technological conveniences to help us achieve it; we can buy prepackaged sloth. The word processor is one of these conveniences. We no longer have to retype every word of a story in order to produce a letter-perfect copy for the printers (or the ebook file). What is worse, there is no visual cue to tell us whether we have even read a passage after writing it. The errors, infelicities, and excess verbiage of the first draft look just as clean and tidy as the niggling changes of the fourth revision. This tempts us to write in a sloppy, slapdash style, telling our story in the first words that come to mind and never bothering to improve them. Our friend Mr. Smith recently informed the world that he has written 745,175 words of original fiction in the last twelve months. I am tempted to ask him: ‘How much was that before cutting?’ It would not surprise me to learn that he had omitted that step, as Heinlein used to do in the bumptious days when he wrote his Rules. If so, he is robbing himself of the very best effects that his writing could produce. I will let Kipling deliver the sales pitch:
I forget who started the notion of my writing a series of Anglo-Indian tales, but I remember our council over the naming of the series. They were originally much longer than when they appeared, but the shortening of them, first to my own fancy after rapturous re-readings, and next to the space available, taught me that a tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but every one feels the effect. Note, though, that the excised stuff must have been honestly written for inclusion. I found that when, to save trouble, I 'wrote short' ab initio much salt went out of the work.
Most Heinlein fans will agree, I think, that the period when his fire burnt hottest was precisely when he had learnt the art of cutting, and his publishers had not yet learnt that his books would sell by the million whether he cut them or not. Nearly all of his fiction from ‘Space Jockey’ (1947) through The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) qualifies as vintage Heinlein, a cut above what went before, and at least two cuts above what came after. It was the cutting that made the difference. If you feel yourself moved to try this salutary technique, I may be able to give you some pointers; at any rate, I can describe the way that I go about it, in the absence of camel-hair brushes and India ink. After the first draft, I open two windows in my word processor, side by side, taking up the screen. On the left I have the completed first draft of my story; on the right, a blank document in manuscript format. I retype the story in its entirety; and as I go along, I invariably find improvements creeping in – better phrases, more vivid descriptions, quicker ways of moving the plot from A to B. If there is comic relief in the story, this is an excellent time to sharpen up the jokes and insert new ones. After that, following Kipling’s advice, I let the new draft lie by for a while. When I reopen it (by itself this time), I go along, using the ‘Track Changes’ feature in Microsoft Word, or its equivalent in whatever program I am using, and mark passages for deletion without actually deleting them. One pass will generally do for a novel, two or three for a short story; for it usually takes more than one pass to get a short piece down to the length that will work best. Then I make one last pass, deleting the marked passages, and making whatever small changes are required to button up the sentences so that the cut version flows smoothly and grammatically. At least that is the Platonic ideal of my method; I do not always apply it consistently, and with some kinds of work I scarcely apply it at all. These essais of mine, for instance, are dashed off almost exactly as they stand, and I do not cut them much, unless I find that an entire paragraph or section can come out. Heinlein’s last two rules are conceivable only within a solid framework of survivorship bias. The number of stories completed each year by writers in any given field has always been vastly greater than the number of publishing slots that exist in all the available markets. For most of those who conscientiously tried to apply the rules, it was not a question of keeping a story on the market until it sold; the most you could do was keep it there until you ran out of places to send it. Thousands of writers lived and died without ever making a single sale; thousands more sold only one story, and gave up writing before they figured out how to repeat the trick. Indeed, the ‘man of one book’ is a cliché in literary history. For every writer like Heinlein, who kept on selling original work for fifty years, there are scores like Daniel Keyes, who wrote an instant classic in Flowers for Algernon, and never came close to matching that success in the remaining half century of his life. Isaac Asimov, in his last volume of autobiography (I. Asimov), tells an unusually poignant anecdote:
When I was handing out Hugos in Pittsburgh in 1960, one of the winners was ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes, which I had loved. It was surely one of the best science fiction stories ever written, and as I announced the winner, I grew very eloquent over its excellence. ‘How did Dan do it?’ I demanded of the world. ‘How did Dan do it?’ At which I felt a tug on my jacket and there was Daniel Keyes waiting for his Hugo. ‘Listen, Isaac,’ he said, ‘if you find out how I did it, let me know. I want to do it again.’
But he never did. Keyes caught lightning in a bottle; and you can never count on doing that twice, no matter how perfectly your bottle is prepared. Heinlein could speak glibly of keeping every finished story on the market until it sold; but he was, so far as I know, the only regular professional writer in the history of science fiction who actually did so. At one time in 1941, as he proudly announced, he had managed to sell every story he had written since he first tried his hand at professional writing – though he had to sell some of the stories at low rates to inferior markets. (Some of these stories, such as ‘My Object All Sublime’, he called stinkeroos, and never allowed them to be reprinted.) Nobody else that I know of ever managed it. Even Asimov died with seven of his earliest stories unpublished – and permanently so, as the manuscripts had been destroyed. If there were an infinite number of slots for stories in the SF magazines, or if writers lived for ever, it would be possible for every writer to keep every story on the market until it sold. But the magazines are finite, and the writers die; and so it is mathematically impossible to keep Heinlein’s Fifth Rule. There is, nowadays, a clever workaround that appears to keep the rule. That is to self-publish your own stories. Magazines are finite, but the storage on Amazon’s servers is effectively infinite: they can always buy more, and they never refuse an ebook unless they have grounds to think that selling it will get them in trouble with the law. If there is one thing Jeff Bezos hates, it is turning away a customer. So he will gladly sell your book, no matter how bad, even if the only person who would ever buy a copy is your own mother; for there are a lot of mothers in this world, and he does not want to see them take their business elsewhere. But this is only an apparent workaround. ‘On the market’ and ‘sold’, for self-published work, do not mean what they mean in traditional publishing; they do not mean anything that even translates into traditional publishing terms. Traditional publishers accept a small number of manuscripts, and reject everything else. Retailers like Amazon and Kobo accept virtually everything, and then help their customers find things they like in the cornucopia. When you sold a novel to a book publisher in the old days, it meant that the publisher was confident of selling several thousand copies at the least; when you sold a story to a magazine, it meant that the editor believed the majority of his subscribers would be interested in reading it. (At least this was usually the case. Sometimes it meant that one of the magazine’s regular contributors had blown a hard deadline, and the editor needed something plausible to fill up the blank pages.) But you can publish your own story without any assurance that anybody will want to read it; and in fact there are thousands of published ebooks that no one has ever bought. It is this difference, I believe, that really points up the irrelevance of Heinlein’s Rules today. The Rules merely described how Heinlein himself extracted the maximum amount of money and fame from the pulp magazine industry of his day. His system did not work for anyone else; was mathematically certain to fail for most of those who tried it. What it did do was give each one of his stories the maximum possible exposure, the best chance to make it past the gatekeepers and into the city of published fiction. Nowadays the gatekeepers are still there, but the walls have fallen down; the city is wide open, and we can stroll in whenever we choose – but that does not guarantee that we will do any business once we get there. The nature of the game has changed, and we cannot hope to play the new game by the old rules. At best, Heinlein had the right answer to a question that nobody asks any longer. At worst, he had a wrong answer that happened to work for him, simply because he was too talented to fail at the game of pulp fiction. But that game does not exist anymore, and we will waste our time if we try to play it. That remains true even if a well-known writing guru refuses to admit it, and invokes the holy name of Heinlein in his defence.

Told by an idiot

As every real literary person knows, brevity is not only the soul of wit, it is the absolute sine qua non of the literary art. The most essential part of writing is cutting. Some fools and philistines think the most essential part of writing is writing: on the silly grounds that until you have written something, you have nothing to cut. This is an error. My latest manuscript consists of 500 sheets of blank paper, and I am cutting it already. I am making it into paper dolls. They are going to be the most critically acclaimed paper dolls in all of literature.     (signed)     H. Smiggy McStudge

Marc Cabot on why ‘crap’ sells

It turns out that having a book well-edited and written according to particular stylistic requirements wasn’t necessary to get it to sell well: it was necessary to get it published. And since books which aren’t published rarely sell well, editing and stylistic accomplishment were second-order requirements. Now that a book can be published without meeting them, lo and behold, books which aren’t edited and written in a particular style can sell well. That isn’t to say that ceteris paribus a book which is well-edited and stylistically proper won’t do as well or better than a book which isn’t. It almost certainly will. But a book which isn’t and has a good story and good characters will do better than a book which is and doesn’t. —Marc Cabot, in a comment on The Passive Voice

Quality vs. quality

Edward M. Grant says, in a comment on The Passive Voice:
Most readers don’t care about ‘quality’ in the English teacher sense. They just want a good story that’s told in a readable manner.
I reply: Which is to say that they are very picky indeed about actual quality. It’s just that the quality of a story as a story is not the sort of thing that English teachers are well equipped to analyse; so they pick and pick at relatively unimportant details of prose technique. The trouble with publishing first drafts, for most writers, is that we very seldom get all our best ideas on the first draft. Right now, for instance, I am (shirking) revising the second book in a series that I am bringing out — an important structural revision. I realized a while ago that the pacing wasn’t holding up well in the earlier part of the book; and in the course of figuring out why, I came up with a much better way of getting the plot from point A to point B, in such a way that all the elements of the story would come together at point B with a bang, instead of making little popping noises one by one along the way. John Cleese talks about how one of his fellow Pythons, though more talented than Cleese as a writer, never wrote scripts as original as Cleese’s. This (said Cleese) is because the colleague would go with the first workable idea he thought of, and knock off at 5:00, whilst Cleese would stay for an extra hour and a quarter, trying different ideas until he came up with something better. A lot of writers do this kind of work in the second draft. They’ve built the skeleton of the story, and have a working route from beginning to end; now they can make structural revisions to come up with the best route. Readers will never consciously notice that all this work has been done, but they have a very shrewd way of being able to tell when it hasn’t.

JD Rhoades on tyops

A typo is like a mental pothole. It’s a jolt of wrongness — and it reminds me that I’m reading. The most sublime moments for me come when I’m so enraptured by the story that I’m not thinking of it as a book any more. I’m THERE . . . and then a tiepo comes along and knoks me bak to realitee. And I HATE relaitee.

JD Rhoades