The music of the thirties and forties—swing, the rise of pure jazz, even honky-tonk—was glorious. We can’t wipe out Bing Crosby’s cloying croon, but the rise of Hank Williams, Sr., makes up for Bing. The creators of “Orange Is the New Black” knew what they were doing when they included “I Saw the Light.” It moves all listeners, regardless of belief or lack thereof. The joy and genius of Fats Waller, the growl of Big Joe Turner, the irresistible combination of Billie Holiday and Count Basie (and of Billie Holiday and Artie Shaw) are ornaments on a period of exceptional music, and diving into it was one of the great pleasures of my listening, and writing, life. These songs, these voices, and the great instrumentals still resonate with me, and that’s why each chapter title is a song from that period.
I would like to have been there.
It’s the kind of niggling question that drives a writer mad: is it best to edit a piece after you finish a draft, or is it better to edit while you write? At Electric Lit, Lincoln Michel argues for the latter, on the grounds that it lets writers fix endemic problems before it’s too late. You could also read Lincoln’s 2010 Millions review of the movie Avatar.
That errant spot of ink, she believes, makes a difference, contributing to what she calls a ‘routine but serious misunderstanding’ of the document.
Q: Do you ever find your work isolating?
A: Writing—that’s a lonely job. Editors are lucky enough to be thrown into the company of many, but you have to make time to be alone. Because the work isn’t necessarily solitary, it’s easy to get distracted by meetings and hanging out. It’s important to have the time to do your work, but also to lie awake and worry.
Even though the advice to “kill your darlings” implies editing your writing is a painful process, some writers relish it. At The New York Times, Pamela Erens discusses the pleasures of trimming down her writing. “For every word I cut, I seem to have more space between my ribs, more lung capacity.” For more Erens, read her essay on accepting her book cover.
I wonder now if it needed to take that long. Because I have cared in the past as much about how something is said as what’s being said, I have made it a point to hone lines and perfect scenes before I know if a character or a plotline will ultimately work. That means I can take forever getting something right, only to have someone like yourself point out that it might be entirely wrong. There’s a bit of a battle/war problem here. By the time I perfect something, the war be damned—look at all the battles I’ve made pretty! It’s an inefficient and self-destructive and often heartbreaking way to work, with the only comfort that of knowing you’ve been faithful even to the scraps.
When a novel is printed in multiple countries, it often has more than one editor. Slate interviews Emma Donoghue; her American editor, Judy Clain; and her Canadian editor, Iris Tupholme, about how they all edited Frog Music. They discuss everything from how to deal with editing disputes to the best way to get edits. “I much prefer to get everyone’s opinions separately, because if I got a single editorial letter, it would be like getting a note from God!” Donoghue says. For more on the editing process, read about our own Edan Lepucki’s relationships with her copy editor and editor.
When I edit, I try to look at the big picture first. What is this book trying to do? In some cases, it’s telling an exciting story, in others it’s exploring a fascinating set of characters, or in others teaching the reader something new. My job is to make suggestions on how the author can take what he or she is already doing and make it even better. Mostly, I try to think about how the reader will react to the text. Is there something a reader might not understand? If so, the author should probably clarify it. Is there something that will make this a more page-turning read? If so, let’s do it. And of course, along the way, you’ll catch smaller things — plot and character inconsistencies, grammar errors, etc. — but it all leads to the same goal of making it the best possible experience for the reader.
'See here, I want you to come to Random House and lose some money for us with literary books,' the press’s president and publisher, Harold Evans, told Daniel Menaker, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, in 1995. 'You have five years to fook oop.'