categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
I realize I’ve gone missing. It’s because I’ve been working feverishly on The High Side, my new novel. And moments ago, I finished. Finished for the tenth or eleventh time, four years and counting, but finished. The edits came back a month or so ago, and after several smart and wonderful but very intense conversations with my editor, Kathy Pories at Algonquin, I got to work.
The thing about working with an editor on late drafts of a work in progress is that with each draft you fully believe you’ve finally done it, finally delivered the perfect manuscript. So when your editor says she loves it, you rejoice. You blush and stammer. And when the other shoe drops, the “but” sentence, you tend to resist. You’re a writer, after all, and you know what you’re doing. Kathy’s letter is very careful and thorough, and after these words: “I loved reading this; I love your sense of joy and fullness and ability to create rich descriptions of everythting, from the food to the sex to the dance performances. The whole is like a sensual meal with so many layers of flavors. It’s like the kind of book I’d like to read when I had a whole week to savor a book and digest it all. And it reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Magus. Have you read that?”
(Have I ever!)
Came the marching orders: “What I do think we have to work on, in this draft, is making sure that the story rises to the top. And I worry that a few things blunt that story.”
Followed by three single-spaced pages of good advice.
Which at first, blinders firmly in place, I found I only half understood. We talked another long talk, in which I was uncommendably defensive (better than offensive? I hope I wasn’t offensive!) But in which, more importantly, the discussion was all about what was going to be best for the book. We were a team, working on the same side toward the same goal. She wasn’t the adversarial editor I’d at times imagined (I’ve had a few of those), but a new ally in the long battle to get this fucking book right.
I started work still a little puzzled about what I’d have to do to correct some of the smart issues she brought up. One was about the timeline–confusion for the reader. That proved to take the most work, including some gentle restructuring. Because when you move one thing in a novel, you have to move many others to fit. It became fun, though, as things fell into place, and then exhilarating as Kathy’s vision became clearer to me, and as formerly wonky corners of the novel started to click and hum. Whole sections were unmarked, and these I read with the pleasure I usually get from the work of others. Also with surprise: in the last draft I’d added a few plot points, subtracted others, fixed pace issues, and actually had forgotten what happened sometimes. That’s a good feeling. The new transitions I had to write were real work, long hours into the night (I like to work in three shifts: late morning, late afternoon, late night). And then sleep, which is when I came up with my solutions, twice leaping up to take notes: another problem solved.
Other of Kathy’s suggestions had to do with specific characters. I thought this would be very, very hard to remedy, as I am in love with all my people, even the unlovable ones. But I softened into the revision and Kathy’s notes and just generally did what she suggested, and occasionally then some. One character in particular, she felt, was getting too much play. I was nervous about changing this person, didn’t want to cut a major chapter that included her, but only before I actually cut it. Because my editor was right.
I had quoted the short-story writer Frank O’Connor to her in one of our talks. He’s speaking to his own editor at the New Yorker, William Maxwell: “You’re right, but I’m right, too.” I love the quote, because there are times when two ways of doing things seem equally good. I think none of us takes every single suggestion our editor offers. And I’ve had a few cases where I’ve taken almost none (the editors, generally, haven’t seemed to mind this). But the stuff in Kathy’s notes I gave Nabokov’s “Thunderous STET!” to was all very small, sentence level stuff, and very little of that. Because of the fact that Kathy was mostly happy with my style, I quite trusted her when she was not. My method has always been to take a given edit, put it in the manuscript, read it, adjust it, and see. And I found Kathy correct at least 95% of the time, pretty brilliant, saving me from overwriting, from passages unclear, and from error.
It’s a great moment for a novelist when he (in my case, it’s he anyway) can finally hold the whole book in his head, when it all seems simple and organic and inevitable, all the suffering falling away, all the drafts, all the doubt, all the bad days and the bad nights, all the weeks when it was just too hard to face. Revision is what gets you there, and working with a great editor is the purest pleasure, plain fun. Once I’ve pushed past my resistance, just part of the process.
I’m not done-done, just taking a break to write this post. Next step will be to start over again, just reading my book like other people will read it, making sure everything I’ve done these past few weeks is working.
And I know (oh bliss), that Kathy Pories won’t hesitate to tell me if it’s not.