Friday, October 19, 2007

Kill Your Darling

I want to thank the ladies at The Writers' Group, who are constantly putting up thoughtful reflections on writing and honing craft. There are a lot of great writer forums on the Web (I know, because I make a point of dropping by all the blogs of people who visit here to see why they're interested in my blog--so thanks to eveyrone who amuses me, helps other writers, gushes about great books to read, or any combination of those three) but I have to highlight The Writers' Group today because Lynne posted this article about being ready and willing to kill your prose darlings when they aren't advancing your plot or characters a couple of days ago, and the article coincided with a particularly frustrating experience here on my end.

Let me tell you about an author of mine. He is a very nice man and a rather ingenious writer. He has done 4 previous books with my company--all before my time--and reviewers at the biggest print review venues (no, seriously--think of the 5 very biggest reviews you can imagine) likened his monumental works to those of...well... think of the 5 biggest male American writers since 1972. There are so many quotable quotables about his books that if we needed to we could put together a 15-page press release.

We don't need to, though, and here's why--his 4 previous books have sold a combined total of about 70 copies for us. Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but the numbers ain't pretty. There are a variety of reasons why good publicity and review coverage don't necessarily lead to sales success, but in his case there is one fairly obvious sticking point--his books are too long. Lit fiction that runs (on average) between 1,200 and 1,500 pages.

And you know what? It's not my "inexpert" opinion here, either--each of those aforementioned glowing reviews has at least one line that says "it's only too bad the editor was not more jucidious about slicing away unnecessary prose before publication" or "too long by half--at least!" or something like that. So the pros agree. And as we all know, commercial audiences are extremely deterred by length. (Myself included... who wants a book that will take them 4 months to finish and will give them carpal tunnel?)

So I met with the author a couple of weeks ago. He was just lovely to talk to, and he totally dispelled my trepidations on working on this book with him after the veritable tanks that his other books became. His already-delivered manuscript is, after all, 300,000 words long.

We talked it through, and he was totally reasonable about it. We'd each take a crack at cutting, and he understood all those very good reasons for needing to cut, and he was so excited to work with me. He really appreciated my enthusiasm and willingness to take a hands-on approach, which his previous editors had lacked.

Yay. Warm fuzzies.

Alas. Over the next week, I get a trail of emails from him. First, they are stalling emails--it's not ready yet; my computer crashed; maybe Monday I'll send it; maybe Thursday. Finally, the culmination email--he was feeling so terribly depressed, he wrote to me. Because you see the thing is, there is really not a single word in the entire book that doesn't absolutely need to be there. There is really no way he or I could cut a single word without ruining the whole project.

I can't tell you my exasperation, although I didn't tell him (instead, I did the right thing and looped in the agent). But here's why--I believe in author relations. Technically, under my contract, if I need to, I, the editor, can put my foot down and make the change. But I don't like to abuse that power at all--the author is an artist and should be happy with the outcome of his or her printed work. I really do everything I can to make the author happy about every facet of their final project.

That's why authors like this guy put me in a really awkward position. I want to do right by him--I really really do. But we bought this book against any financial odds and with foresight--part of our publishing deal includes a clause that limits the maximum word length, and trust me, contracts at many companies have been dissolved for less of a deviation in delivered manuscript--and the author knew the sour history for us. We really put ourselves out on a limb to work with this author again--the least he could do would be to cooperate with his dedicated editor so we're able to sell enough copies to even be able to afford to print.

His problem is that he is unwilling to kill his darlings--not even a one of his 300,000. This is an ultimate frustration for me, and many authors, even the best, will reinstitute text you cut during an edit because they are so proud of a darling or two. This is not to say you shouldn't let your editor know if you are unhappy about a cut--we look at a lot of text each day, and admittedly some of it we cut on a whim because it doesn't appeal to us when we look at it, but in most cases it's not a willy-nilly cut, and in all cases we're happy to hear arguments (after all, maybe you have a rewording you can suggest to get your content across better). And as an author, you need to come forward for what you believe in. The dialogue helps everyone grow--you as an author, your editor as an editor.

But please do keep an open mind about your editor's instinct. A mentor editor once told me something really wise: if something you come across during your editing seems like it might bother you a little, cut it--if it bothers you a little, that means there are people out there who will be extremely bothered by it.

It's good advice. And your editor (among other valuable uses!!) functions as a great outside pair of eyes--someone who doesn't know the intricacies of your person, your personal voice, your history or predilictions (which your commercial readership won't know, either). So please, please do try to keep an open mind. We all want the best for each other; it's not of any interest to me to create a bad book for an author. I promise.

16 comments:

The Trouble With Roy said...

I've generally gone with the suggestions of the editors I've worked with -- those few occasions I've gotten something published-- because I dislike editing so much. I re-read to see if they've kept the point and if they did I go with it.

So stick to your guns.

Church Lady said...

I haven't read "A Suitable Boy" because I don't have time. It's too long. I want to read it. It's on my list. I've heard great things about it.

jalexissmith said...

Maybe he should think about writing series.

Bernita said...

He does seem to have a bit of reality disconnect.

Reductions not usually my problem. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Josephine Damian said...

Yup, Kill Your Darlings is the best writing advice - ever -

But, even if a (smart) writer or a tireless editor is willing to slash and burn thousands of words, even a lean, mean book needs to have compelling characters, "voice," original premise, etc.

Fat or thin, you still gotta have personality.

But, yeah, Moonrat, I think the biggest mistake I see in my writers group is that people "fall in love" with a character, plot line, bit of busness - stuff that just ain't working, but they're positively married to it and insist on keeping it in.

And then they wonder why they're not published.

December/Stacia said...

One would think that after such disappointing sales he would be eager to listen to an editor's advice. Sigh.

The Writers' Group said...

Thanks for the nod. I remember reading Michael Lowenthal's Charity Girl and being fully aware that there wasn't one unnecessary sentence in it.

Your author needs to know that if he wants to be heard, he should say less.

Amy

Maprilynne said...

The best thing I ever did for the fantasy that landed me my incredibly awesome agent was cut 60,000 words out of it.

Ello said...

I just cut 15,000 - got a little nervous but knew it was the right thing. Great post as usual Moonie!

writtenwyrdd said...

I am always reminded of Golem and the One Ring when I think of the prose I don't want to let go of. With that image, I find it quite a bit easier to start cutting.

Maybe if you mentioned that, when he sells a ton of copies, he can always have the "original" edition printed and sell the book again to the same folks. Stephen King probably made a mint with The Stand.

Anonymous said...

My precioussssssssssss.

Maria said...

I'm smiling in a very pained way here. This is mostly because I have a very good friend who is an editor and she sounds very much like you. She often laments to me that she gets so weary of having to deal with difficult authors who treat their works as if they are children and trimming them up akin to sawing off an arm or a leg...

Yet, one of her biggest complaints about my blog is that it is too "word heavy." She often says that she skims it because it is just too long. And I try not to be offended, I really don't....but still....

angelle said...

hmm. so what do you think about tess gallagher wanting to publish "unedited" versions of carver's stories mention in this times article?

Lisa said...

If you want to be heard, say less...hmm, words to live by. One day I'll learn to say more with less I hope.

moonrat said...

the irony being... this post was freakin' long. teehee. none of you mentioned that, which is nice.

Cristina said...

Are you talking about Thomas Pynchon?