Last week, Roz Morris and I had the second of our four scheduled weekly editorial chats: Talking Character. The week before that we were Talking Plot. We’re running these chats here once a week throughout the month of April.
We had great fun and talked about the very essence of character, how to discover it, how to design it, how to illuminate it on the page. Roz admitted she hates loud plaid, and I gave her a tam-o’-shanter and a Scottish accent.
Now please join us today for the third of these weekly editor chats: Talking Prose.
Victoria: So let’s talk prose. Roz, you’ve mentioned in our earlier interviews your meticulous attention to the final polish of your manuscript, the scrutiny of every single detail and removal of even lines you love if they cast slightly the wrong atmosphere over a scene.
Roz: Oh yes. That’s one of the many painful things you have to do for a proper edit. When you say it in one sentence like that you make it sound so easy, but it isn’t. I might wander around for a good couple of days, trying to ignore the nagging voice that tells me a phrase doesn’t fit, or a joke is breaking the fourth wall, or the precious sequence I’d always wanted to use from the very beginning really does not work, no matter how much the shoehorn is applied. Especially towards the end of an edit, where all the drek has long gone and everything feels beautifully polished and meaningful.
Victoria: Drek. [laughing] Wonderful word!
Yes—that’s where even the most wonderful Line Editor in the world can’t Line Edit their own work. My husband does mine, and then I send it to another writer friend as well. Otherwise I’ll spend the next twenty years clutching that manuscript in my sweaty little palms, listening to the ringing in my ears and thinking the angels are coming to get me.
Was it Oscar Wilde who said, “I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in again”?
So, Roz, if you could give writers only one piece of advice toward accomplishing the best possible prose, what would it be?
Roz: If your writer’s spider sense is tingling, telling you something is wrong, for goodness’ sake listen. It knows what it’s talking about, and it is speaking for the good of your book. Fortunately I find that the more I edit a novel, the more sure I become of what it needs and what it doesn’t need. That allows me to be more and more ruthless and send those darlings packing.
But so much of writing comes down to instinct. Do you feel something is wrong? Well, you’re probably right.
Victoria: I have such a terrible time with my own manuscripts, and I have to warn clients away from this same trap—I’ll get to that point when I’ve done everything I can possibly do, and, by gum, it looks like it might actually be finished. . .and I’ll get a blinding flash, ‘No! Instead of being finished, I must now transpose something enormous and fundamental that will alter the entire novel!’ And the next thing I know it’s one particular night last week, 2:30 in the morning, and I’m doing a read-through of my latest novel, which has been going cold for the last year, and shaking my head, tutting at myself because that last enormous alteration was completely idiotic, and now I have made a ton of work for myself putting it all back the way it was before.
I know, I know. You’re going to say, “But didn’t you save the original?” Of course I saved the original! But that previous, correct iteration wasn’t it.
It’s a huge soapbox with me, with the manuscripts I see every day, that the hardworking, dedicated development of prose skills is criminally neglected by the mouthpieces of today’s publishing industry. “The writing’s not important,” they’ll say, and I just want to say, “Sure, the writing’s not important—if you don’t want to be a writer.” Otherwise, yeah, it’s kind of important. In fact, this is one of the four questions I get asked most frequently: what exactly is Line Editing and why is it important? Every time I see mindless cliches in published works I just want to shave my head and move to Tibet.
Roz: It’s not just about cliches. It’s about originality and developing an ear for what belongs. A book’s prose style is like its singing voice. Some people don’t mind too much about this, but for me, it’s tremendously important. I can be put right off a story if the writer’s voice grates on my ear.
Victoria: Oh, me too. That’s why I read so little recently-published fiction. I’ve waded through a certain amount of it, but since the demise of the publisher’s Line Editor it’s really not worth it to me anymore. Why bother, when there’s so much beautiful literature from the first half of the twentieth century still waiting to be read? (I just read Shirley Jackson’s ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House last week. Talk about beautiful.)
The thing is structure can be learned fairly quickly. The necessity for pitting characters against each other and themselves can be learned fairly quickly. Cliches of course can be learned without even thinking about it. But beautiful writing is a craft it takes a lifetime to learn to do properly.
Roz: That’s right, and it’s probably one of the hardest things to teach. Structure is logical, although the logic is often emotional as much as constructional. But writing good prose seems to come from somewhere else.
Victoria: It absolutely is the hardest thing to teach. Just last week I got a question for the advice column on how much Line Editing of a peer critique manuscript is too much, and I had to say, “Any at all. Just don’t do it.” It’s taken me thirty years in this profession to develop the proper ear for voice. It is simply not something you can learn to do from only a year or two in the trenches.
Beautiful voice involves the work of both a talented, dedicated writer and a talented, dedicated editor, and mastery of prose defines the literary voices we best remember and love. There is simply no comparison between a writer saying, “We threw ourselves into each other’s arms and smothered each other with frantic kisses,” and Hemingway saying, “Like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.” Or between the writer who says, “She was a tramp and a whore, and I would never forgive her for what she did to Moose Malloy,” and Chandler saying, “It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way—but not as far as Velma had gone.”
Prose is, in fact, the single greatest over-riding quality that separates passing blips on readers’ radar from timeless classics.
Roz: What makes good prose? Can we pin it down?
All the great stylists wrap you in their rhythms and the way they see the world. You know that if you had them in the room with you, the way they talked would be very different from the way anyone else did. To build that distinctive quality takes a long time. They are more persuasive than the average writer, more compelling. Charisma on the page.
It doesn’t have to involve fancy or complex language, although that works for some. But ‘writerly language’ is often used to hide, too. Those two examples you’ve picked are excellent choices because the words and the sentences are simple. So what do we find so compelling about this simplicity? Intelligence , perceptiveness. The confidence the writer has to be stylish yet direct. Too many writers assume that good writing has to be complicated, or difficult to read. But good writing doesn’t obfuscate. It lets through all the light it can.
Victoria: Absolutely. It’s all about learning the many techniques of fiction—techniques that have been stumbled upon and investigated by literary geniuses ever since Austen and the Brontes—that allow you to make your words transparent. You want the page to completely disappear, so your fictional dream itself comes right out and takes up habitation in the reader’s world, in their own living room. It is, as you say, all about illumination.
Roz: I love these words we use to try to define what makes great prose. Transparent is a good one. Crystalline is another. Good writing doesn’t get in the way.
Victoria: Crystalline’s a fabulous word. Words are wonderful, aren’t they? You know, I’ve seen the last few Line Edits Chandler did on the final sentences of The Long Good-Bye. It’s meticulous.
Roz: Now that would be interesting to see. But final sentences need forensic amounts of work. Indeed, I always feel like the final scene in a novel, more than any other, needs to be as carefully staged as a conjuring trick. It is pulling together threads, withdrawing from the story, tucking it away (neatly or not) and saying farewell. It often feels as though there is too much to squeeze in—and not just in terms of tidying away the plot details. There are emotional beats to despatch as well. Very tricky to make them all play well together.
Victoria: Totally forensic! Ye gods. The first page, too. But the final scene even more so. It’s the point at which you’re no longer hauling the reader willy-nilly through your story, you’re jujitsu-ing them through you and blasting them forward without you into their own future, the epiphany that changes them.
Now, after all these years of editing, I can actually pin the preliminaries of beautiful writing down pretty closely: clean, clear, detailed language. Notwithstanding someone like Henry James—who was a pure-&-simple sadist about his perfect grasp of English—simple language is classic language. So that’s the first thing I do in a Line Edit: go through removing all extraneous words. You’d be surprised how many words we can take when we think we know how to say something we think is the thing we want to say. Just say it.
Roz: Still trying to work out how to. . .
Victoria: You say that, but with your publishing track record I know you’re being modest. Because as soon as the writer cuts out the extraneous words, they see they forgot to put in quite a bit of the actual story—and I happen to know from reading Nail Your Novel this isn’t something you let happen to you.
Roz: [laughing] It still doesn’t come easily. I sweat waterfalls trying to strip out the unnecessaries so that I can see what needs to be there.
Victoria: Take stuff out, put stuff in. There’s that comma again. I spend a lot of time with clients saying, “Cut all that exposition. You don’t need to explain. Send me a description of x, send me a sketch of y. When so-&-so looks at such-&-such, what do they see?” I don’t care if they’re writing fantasy or sci-fi or whatever—it had better be completely and entirely detailed and tangible.
Roz: That goes back to the groundwork we talked about in the Character chat last week. Sometimes authors leave these questions until late in the process, others prefer to do it earlier. Those descriptions, thoughts and reactions may not reach the final text, but they are necessary to make the world of the novel real.
Victoria: Those are your complex layers, which is why you need simple language, so the complexities of your characters’ world will be clear and deep and intuitive to your reader. I even tell aspiring writers to use simple rhythms for their sentences: when in doubt, two short sentences and a long, or two longs and a short. Start with these basics. Later, when your manuscript has gone cold, you can go through cutting compound sentences in half or creating new compound sentences, altering an active verb to a gerund here or a gerund to an active verb there, smoothing it all out, listening for the silence in the background that signals the white noise is gone, ‘This is the way it’s meant to sound.’
But of course doing that kind of thing over and over again on your own manuscripts takes years—years added to your ms, years off your blessed life. This novel I was working on until 2:30 am last week I started when my son was four, and he’s now almost fourteen. And it’s one of my more recent novels!
That’s why I’m always telling aspiring writers, “Be in it for the long haul, or find something you like better. This is not a lottery, it’s an art form.”
Roz: I’m always telling people novel-writing is a long game. We write stories in long form. We take even longer working out how to do it. Novels and novel-writers evolve at glacial pace. It’s a wonder we have time to get good at it. At least we can look forward to getting better at it the older we get! (Touch wood. . .If you ever see me wearing plaid, soft or loud, you’ll know I’ve lost my marbles. . .)
Victoria: ‘I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.’
Here’s your question, people: In your experience, what’s the most difficult part of developing prose? (Extra brownie buttons if you can identify that quote!)