A while back Jo-Ann Mapson and I were lamenting the lack of decent health insurance for starving writers like ourselves. We decided to start an association in hopes of getting a great group rate on insurance for our millions of soon-to-be members, and Jo-Ann came up with the perfect name…one we felt sure writers everywhere would identify with and flock to…Neurotic Writers of America.
Well, I mean, you do have to be a bit…um…unusual to be a writer.
What kind of person sits alone in a small office all day everyday, missing dentist appointments, letting her mother leave messages on voice mail, forgetting to eat lunch, ignoring the dog until she’s completely devoured the Tibetan rug? Answer: A writer.
Does a normal person drag herself around the country to book signings where she ends up reading to the bookstore staff and a couple of transients who just came for the refreshments? Does a normal person do this not once, but many times? Anwer: A normal person doesn’t. A writer does.
And writers worry. About everything. They obsess. They second guess. They lie awake at night ruminating over something wrong with the flashback that they can’t quite put their finger on. They have arguments with themselves…
I am great. I am shit. I Am Great! i am shit…
It’s all a function of what writers do and how they do it. At a library program once, I was asked to explain all the steps between first draft and publication. This is what I said:
I finish the first draft and I’m so happy I take my husband out to dinner to celebrate. In the middle of dinner, I say…we’ve got to go home; I just thought of something I left out of chapter two that could change the entire outcome of the story. A re-write ensues.
Next I give the manuscript to one of my good writer friends and she reads it and says. I really love this. I say, but what? She says, But nothing. I really love it. I say, what should I change? She says Nothing. I really love it.
I go over the pages three more times trying to figure out what she’s not telling me. Then I send it to my agent, who tells me what my writer friend would not. Another rewrite. I send it back to my agent. She calls me and says, I think C— really likes it. She’ll let us know when she gets back from the holidays.
I sweat out Christmas and New Year’s, going over the ms a few more times. After the holidays the editor calls. She says, I love this book. I say, Thanks. That’s great. She says, I just need you to change the ending so that the boyfriend doesn’t die. I let him live. It goes to the copy editor. I proof the galleys. They send me cover art. I hate it. After several sleepless nights, I call my editor. She makes them re-do the cover art so it doesn’t look like the character is a terminally depressed fifteen-year-old.
To maintain my sanity I start work on another project. And suddenly one day a package arrives in the mail…my Advance Reader Copy! I’m so happy I take my husband out to dinner to celebrate. During dessert I say, oh, God, why did I make that change in chapter two?
The point to all this (yes, there is a point) is that writers frequently need advice, encouragement, validation, a hug and a large glass of wine. And for my birthday, my friend Lois Gilbert gave me a book that meets all of the above needs except for the hug and glass of wine. It’s called The Artful Edit by Susan Bell.
I just finished it and I’m going to set it aside for a week and then read it again.
This post is not a review, but I do want to say how much I admire the way the book is structured. While there is a section on working with an editor, the main thrust is learning how to edit yourself, a difficult, yet potentially satisfying task. The majority of her points are illustrated using The Great Gatsby, including plenty of examples from the manuscript in progress, quotes from Fitzgerald about the work, and from his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
Scattered throughout are mini-essays by various writers on how they approach self editing. It’s a terrific read, but the best part is the last three pages—an interview with Michael Ondaatje, titled “One Doesn’t Just Write a Book, One Makes a Book.” I read it three times.
It is so full of gems—wisdom, candor, clarity, wit—all qualities I love in his novels, only here he’s talking about his writing and self-editing. At one point he admits that he writes his first draft over a period of two or three years, and then spends another two years shaping the story. He says that is how he discovers what the story is actually about and what he wants to say.
I’ve always want to be one of those authors who sits down with a plan and types Chapter One at the top of the page. Instead, I never know exactly what story I’m trying to tell until I write it and edit it and knead it, delete some sections and surgically enhance others. Over the years I’ve given myself a fair amount of grief about it, too.
To read that Michael Ondaatje thinks that process is perfectly fine was an amazing relief…sort of like loosening your belt after Thanksgiving dinner. It made me feel so good. Like maybe I’m not crazy and insecure and weird…
Or maybe I am and he is, too…
Mr. Ondaatje, we are currently accepting applications for membership in the NWA.