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. [Read more…]

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.

    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