Purging the Editor

I believe it is a given that those of us who aspire to write are also vociferous readers. A reader is a wonderful thing to be; however, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes this state of mind and being can be an impediment to an author aborning.  Reading a novel by James Lee Burke or Karin Slaughter or John Connolly or Chelsea Cain can inspire a reader to think, “I want to do that.”  Yet it can also be discouraging; one reads BLACK CHERRY BLUES by Burke and thinks, “I can never be that good; why bother?”  The fleeting dream is set aside, sometimes permanently. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that in the case of a book (or a film, or a painting, or a music project) we rarely see what came before, the early stages that led to the final result.

Such does not hold true with respect to a construction project, to name but one example. We recently had the opportunity to watch an all but vacant shopping center in our area be transformed over a period of several months into a wholly done, over, remodeled, commercially successful unit. It was fun to watch. Readers generally do not get to watch the process by which their favorite author transforms a few hundred blank pages into a cohesive, occasionally unforgettable, experience. So it is that the novel, upon publication, seems to have sprung from whole cloth, seemingly effortlessly. We know better, of course. But it is difficult sometimes to fully appreciate it without seeing the ultrasound ourselves.

I hit an emotional low point this past week for a number or reasons that aren’t really important to this discussion; what is important is what brought me out of it, at least so far as creativity is concerned. I happened across an article in Slate entitled “Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone.”  You can find the article here. It is an extremely interesting piece which, among other things, reveals that McCarthy’s classic novel BLOOD MERIDIAN was a far different book at publication than it was at conception. What really attracted me to the article, however, was the reproduction of two pages from McCarthy’s original draft.  They are instructive, even if you have never read a word that Mr. McCarthy has written or alternatively would not reflexively grab your copy of BLOOD MERIDIAN or THE ORCHARD  KEEPER if confronted with a fire and the resultant dilemma of what to save.  BLOOD MERIDIAN did not flow out of McCarthy’s mind without deep and dark consideration. If you’re having trouble getting your words out of you and onto the page, don’t let it be because you in your own mind aren’t “good enough” or “as good” as your favorite author. When your favorite author started writing, they weren’t good enough either. It takes several drafts, several cement pourings, if you will, before things solidify and become right. Don’t put your handprints and your initials into your work and ruin it before it is dry. Purge yourself of what playwright John Guare so brilliantly called “tiny obnoxious editor living in your head,” the one who tells you that you will never be as good as Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or whoever. Then let the construction begin. 

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38 thoughts on “Purging the Editor

  1. It’s weird to think that an author such as McCarthy would ever spew drivel even in first draft mode.

    I revise/edit as I write so by the time I get to the end, I always tend to think it “should” be the finished product. And every single time I reread it I wonder why it’s only 5th draft good. I think 10 is my magic number.

    Thanks Joe, great reminder.

    • Anne, re: McCarthy, it is strange, is it not? He also writes very slowly. It’s a lesson for us that however long it takes is however long it takes; it can’t be rushed.

      Having said that, I am constantly amazed that James Lee Burke does what he does within a space of a year or so, year after year.

  2. Ha! I thought this thread was going to be more about being able to remove our editing hats and just enjoying the read…as casual readers! I curse when my enjoyment of someone else’s work is halted as my editing alter-ego takes over, even for famous authors’ novels. Jameson’s helps, but sometimes its not enough to stifle those editing thoughts.
    r/Steve

  3. Great post, Joe. As an editor, I’m privy to earlier versions that we work through together, very thoroughly, with many back-and-forth passes, fine-tuning it. Then when the polished version is published, I’m of course sworn to secrecy about all and any details of my input into that story! But I do get a lot of personal satisfaction in helping turn a good book into a stellar one!

  4. Great post Joe. I’ve heard that a Hemingway expert can almost pick out the exact word where he stopped. He killed himself and someone else finished the polishing process. I believe that you don’t need to be a great writer, but a great re-writer.

    • Brian, thank you, not only for the compliment but also for the information about the Hemingway expert — I’d never heard that — and the statement about writing vs. re-writing. So very true.

  5. Thanks, Joe. A timely post for me. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo with my current WIP. I’ve read before that first drafts are often vomit and that’s what I feel I’m doing. With that arbitrary word count and an otherwise busy life, I’m just trying to get words out no matter how stupid or horrible they seem.

    But it’s been freeing in a way I never would have guessed. I write stuff I know I’m going to cut, but I find that some of that helps me get a sense of my story. I switch back and forth between first and third person for the same reason. I can write all sorts of stuff because it’s just vomit.

    That editor is still in the back of my head criticizing me. But now I can tell him that an author like Cormac McCarthy goes through something similar. That should keep my editor in his room with the door shut so that all I hear are mumblings. At least until the end of the month.

  6. Eric, thanks so much for the look into what you’re experiencing during NaNoWriMo. I have the feeling that a number of our visitors who are right there with you will be encouraged by your account of your experiences. Good luck!

  7. One’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp. Aspire to be James Lee Burke, understanding you’ll not get there. (Though you may become as good, but in a different way.) Any writer who becomes discouraged into quitting was in the wrong line of work. It’s not supposed to be easy.

  8. Thanks for the inspiration, Joe. Reading the less than stellar earlier works of some of my favorite authors is very enlightening. Makes me strive to improve with every new project.

    Hug from Texas, Joe.

    • I know what you’re saying, Jordan. I love finding an author who is new to me and going back and reading their earlier books, in order, watching their talent and ability develop. And hugs backatcha, my wonderful buddy.

  9. Good post and comments!

    James Lee Burke is an author I’ve been meaning to read. I’ve read Alafair’s (his daughter), but not JLB.

    Karin Slaughter…Yes..good reads.

  10. Great points Joe. My philosophy is to get the words down, even those I know will be sliced out later, until the story-bones are assembled. After that first draft it is a grotesque, partially sentient, zombie-like creature with a vaguely-among-the-living feel to it, but it’s been born nonetheless, and it’s my baby. With a bit of love and nurturing, as that repulsive ogre-spawn is suckled at the ink-filled man-boobs of my creative Mr. Momliness, it will grow to be a story of awe-inspiring, or at least fear inducing, tale of power.

    A few weeks back I started putting together a kickstarter project to raise funds to help with research & development of my WIP ICE HAMMER. Beta opinions of the project video were varying degrees of, “That sucks”. Heart breaking…BUT!

    Armed with people’s well thought out criticism I remade the whole thing, tossing 15+ hours of work and starting from scratch. Wow what a difference. Neat thing is, without that crappy start I would not have known what to cut and what to keep. By enduring the embarrassment of being informed of my suckiness in front of several dozen people, I was saved from humiliation in front of hundreds or even thousands of other folks.

    Check out the re-hashed finished product here. As I travel the road toward finishing the books I’m shooting a documentary that hopefully will catch a lot of the process. I’ll be doing a It goes live Sunday.

    • Basil, I only now saw your ICE HAMMER proposal. Very gutsy to put yourself out there but what a reward you have reaped. And what an ingenious way to create a beta group.

      When I grow up, I want to be Basil Sands. Or Jim Bell. Or…

  11. Yunno, I wasn’t going to comment today. It’s late, after all. Then after looking at the Slate piece and seeing that yellowed piece of typed paper, it all came back to me. Images from behind an actual typewriter. Gooseneck desk lamp pulled down close. Sometimes in winter, that lamp was the only heat in the joint. Of course I lived in Sonoma County back then, and the cold was nothing like Montana. I smoked heavy, too. My view of keys impacting paper was through a cloudy haze. While typing away, some part of my mind marveled as fresh impacts released letters, where previously there had only been white space.

    Today on the computer, the experience is nothing like before. It’s quiet, the clacking impacts gone. Now you can type late at night, without disturbing anyone, unless you’re a key-pounder, a habit I forced myself to break. But just think how it was when you had to type every new draft all over again from the beginning. Think about the sheets of paper stacking up next to the typewriter. You’d have to stash them in a box or a big lid to keep them from spilling onto the floor. And you’d do this over and over again.

    Sounds like my grandfather talking about chopping firewood and pumping water into buckets when he was a boy.

    • Jim, it’s never too late to hear from the Man from Missoula. I taught myself to type on a Tom Thumb and graduated to a big heavy typewriter that I hauled all over the country in my youth. I beheld my first electric typewriter in 1973 in Mill Valley, California. They had been in offices since the 1950s but they weren’t really available to the general public until much later. The guy who owned it paid a fortune for it but had to have one.

      Cormac McCarthy, by the way, used the same Olivetti — which he purchased used — to write his novels from 1963 until 2007. He replaced it with another one.

      I am totally with you concerning the experience of writing with a computer, particularly with respect to editing. It’s marvelous.

    • I think I remember you, too! Was it the party at Dave Crosby’s cabin?

      Re: Sausalito…oh yeah. I occasionally used to take the ferry across from The City. There was a mall near the harbor that was built anasazi-style into a hill. I would go into a bar that might have been on the third floor of the place, it had ceiling fans, I think, and I would get drunk as a lord, usually missing the last ferry back to San Francisco, and then have to stumble across the bridge in the early morning. On a couple of occasions there was a comely bartender who would take misguided pity on me and lead me by the hand back to her tiny little house on Caledonia. Her single car garage had a sunrise painted on the door and the house had only two rooms but for a few hours on those nights it was the most wonderful place in the world. I’m embarrassed some forty years on that I never learned her name.

  12. Great post, Joe. Thank you. It is heartening to read this. I follow a lot of blogs, I have read great advice. I am a “newbie” working on my first novel. I am constantly saying those same words, “I will never be that good”, or this really is drivel and nobody will want to read this. Who am I kidding?” I belong to a group that is publishing an anthology for the holidays. Only members of the group can submit. So, for the first time I am submitting a story. I still need to edit it, but after finishing it, my first thought was, “This isn’t good enough.” Everyone will be published. It will be copy-edited. I wonder how much is true, (that it really needs a lot of work to be polished enough to publish) or my fear of finally putting myself out there in prinit for the first time? Interesting thought.

  13. I’ve found, Rebecca, that sending your stories out is similar to sending your child outside alone for the first time. You wonder if you’ve prepared them well enough, if they are ready, and if they will make friends. In the end, you just gotta do it. I would recommend that you proofread your story backward and forward (in my first published story, a 9 mm pistol on page 4 morphed into a .38 Special revolver page 7, ho ho) and send it on. Good luck!

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