The other day I was walking home with a friend who is a visual artist. ‘What are you doing at the moment, Brian?’ she asked me. ‘Oh I’m just finishing the re-writes on my latest novel,’ I told her. ‘What does that mean?’ she asked. ‘Well,’ I explained, ‘when the first draft of my novel is finished, I send it to my editor and she reads it, suggests a series of changes that need to be made and then sends it back to me for re-drafting.’
My friend stopped in her tracks and looked at me in horror. ‘But how dare she!’ she exclaimed. I stared back at her in bewilderment, wondering if I’d said something I hadn’t intended. ‘How dare she!’ repeated my friend, positively bristling with indignation. ‘I mean, it’s your novel, right? Who the hell does she think she is telling you how to write it?’
I considered embarking on an explanation of the art of editing but decided I was probably wasting my time. My friend is a fully paid up member of the school that sees the artist as a semi-divine being whose unique vision must never be tampered with, even to the slightest degree. There are a lot of people who believe this – particularly in the field of contemporary visual art.
The truth is that good writing is about communication not mystification and the first person a writer needs to communicate with is his or her editor. So if your editor thinks your your second chapter is a bit stodgy, then maybe it’s worth looking at it again. It’s that simple.
One of the most famous examples of creative editing is, of course, Ezra Pound’s work on T S Eliot’s The Wasteland. Most people agree that T S Eliot was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, if not the greatest. The original draft of his poem, The Wasteland, was over twice the length of the final version. The cuts were made largely at the suggestion of fellow-poet Ezra Pound, to whom Eliot sumbitted the work for editing. Was the integrity of Eliot’s vision lost in the process? Clearly not.
Eliot had the wisdom to take on board Pound’s suggestions. Not all authors are as accomodating. I once overheard a fellow writer at a publishing party saying, with considerable self-satisfaction, ‘I told my editor, I’ve never written a book by committee yet and I don’t intend to start now’. He was an author for whom I had a great deal of respect but I saw immediately that he was probably a real pain to work with and I can’t help noticing that his sales figures have been on the slide for a number of years now.
I have a certain amount of first hand experience of what it’s like being an editor since I take part in a number of schemes to help developing writers. I do this because I believe I have something to contribute and because I enjoy it. I certainly don’t do it for the financial reward which is often fairly minimal. But every now and again I encounter an aspiring writer who, instead of considering my suggestions calmly and either accepting them or rejecting them, throws an almighty tantum and starts asking how dare I. Right away, I know that the writer in question is unlikely to have a glittering career ahead of them. Because, despite what my friend the visual artist believes, the one thing you really need to become a successful author is the ability to eat humble pie. And when your turn comes, there’s nothing else for it: you just have to get out your spoon and tuck in.