We’re working our way through the four questions I’m most frequently asked. I’ve answered: 1. Must you write to a preset wordcount, classify your novel in a predetermined genre, ‘dumb down’ your novel?. We’ve talked about 2. How do you know which freelance independent editors are good and which ones are shysters? and 4. What’s the inside scoop on the state of publishing these days i.e. POD, ebooks, self-publishing, multimedia, et cetera? I mean, what’s really going on out there?.
So today let’s get technical, shall we? Let’s talk about the craft itself—the writing—and answer the third of these four most Frequently Asked Questions.
3. What is this Line Editing thing of which I speak? And why do I keep speaking of it?
Have you ever held a book in your hands and, as you read, felt the hair stand up on the back of your neck? laughed out loud? noticed goosebumps rising on your arms? or had your heart contract, your chest heave, and real, wet tears come to your eyes?
You read the sentences over and over, trying to analyze them, wondering what gives them the power to do that to you, and you don’t find it. There’s something about those particular words in that particular arrangement at this particular moment in the story that creates an experience you can’t account for. It just happens.
It’s magic, isn’t it? That’s probably even why you wanted to become a writer in the first place, wasn’t it? To become that magician.
On the other hand, have you ever held a book you wanted to love, knowing everyone who put it on the New York Times Best Seller List obviously loved it, read words you knew were supposed to inspire that feeling, to be on the verge, waiting for it all to happen (the magic of words!), and, in the end. . .just been left flat?
You put the book down with a sigh thinking, What happened? I bet everyone else got the Big Response but me. So you don’t say anything to your friends, thinking it’s just you, until someone finally admits, “It really wasn’t that good, was it? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t like it that much—and I don’t even know why.” And suddenly, with relief, everyone’s nodding and agreeing. “I didn’t like it either!” “Me, neither!” “Oh, my god, I hated that book. I didn’t even finish it.”
And the only conclusion you can come to is that fiction in this day and age kind of sucks, and nobody knows why.
I was in my local used bookstore one day last summer, buying books by the Moderns of the 1910s and ’20s and the Post-Moderns of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. And I mentioned to the clerk how much I love those authors. He said, “Well, sure. That was the age of beautiful writing,” in this off-hand way, as though, you know, it’s only to be expected—an Age of Rationalists, an Age of Romantics, an Age of Realists, an Age of Naturalists, an Age of Beautiful Writing.
And after that. . .what? An age of bad writing? What do you call that—an Age of Crap?
The thing is journalists have always known about Line Editing and continue to use it to this day. The authors of articles submit their works to their editors, who gaily slash-&-burn it into the shape the periodical wants. When I write for publications, I get Line Edited. Technical writers get Line Edited. Everyone writing professionally gets Line Edited.
Except, these days, by publishers.
I know I’ve directed you to the Paris Review interview with the great editor Robert Gottlieb before, but I’m going to do it again. I want you to understand—Bob Gottlieb was not just an extremely powerful acquisitions editor, not even just an astute and intuitive Developmental Editor, he was a skilled, professional Line Editor. (He probably still is. He’s alive and writing books now.) He lay side-by-side on the floor of his office with authors, talking over their novels and marking up the pages. He got in shouting matches over adjectives and semicolons. He dragged other editors out of their offices to back him up on points when the fight got too hot.
He was an Editor. He edited.
Even such meticulous, word-by-word craftspeople as Hemingway (Max Perkins), Jack Kerouac (Malcolm Cowley), John Steinbeck (Pat Covici), and Jean Rhys (Diana Athill) were edited. They understood the editors’ role in Line Editing. And they appreciated the purpose of it—if you want to use written language to its full potential, your scenes, paragraphs, sentences must be just right.
Now, most aspiring writers today have a gut feeling about all this, so they do work away at Line Editing their manuscripts, they do struggle with those sentences, they are desperate for them to be just right. And they wind up burning a whole lot of hours spinning their wheels sometimes, because those techniques aren’t always intuitive. You need someone who knows them really well to teach them to you. And, even worse, even those of us who know them can’t always Line Edit our own manuscripts into professional polish. It’s an excruciating task.
Then you hear all over the blogosphere, “The writing isn’t important. Nobody cares about that persnickety stuff. Just write your message.” And you wonder why someone would say that if it weren’t true.
Well, I know why. And I am here to call SHENANIGANS.
You can have the greatest message ever (very few of us do), but if you casually dismiss the enormous toolbox of techniques of the written word at your disposal—techniques discovered and developed and honed by writing geniuses throughout the past 150 years—you can never hope to give your reader a physical response to your writing. You will always be destined to leave them flat.
Read the writing of the people who tell you that. Getting goosebumps yet? I didn’t think so. They say it because they don’t even know those techniques exist.
Line Editing is the careful, deep-thinking, ruminative work of learning to use those techniques (and they are many and varied) to achieve exactly the effect you want through the words you choose and the arrangement that gives them their amazing, inexplicable power. To work magic.
Sure, ‘nobody’ cares—until they pick up a story or novel hoping for that wonderful, classical, visceral thrill, that weightless feeling of being flung bodily, emotionally, spiritually into the ether.
And then, all of a sudden. . .they care.
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A. VICTORIA MIXON: Freelance Independent Editor
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