Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing AO1, installment #3: Editors and Other Goddesses

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Warning: In this installment I will dis George Elliot. I know, blasphemy, blasphemy. Which is always fun, right?

Middlemarch, by George Elliott, is a sweeping epic novel (as opposed to those tight, brief little epic novels I guess…hmmm) largely having to the do with the life and loves of Dorothea, a wealthy, educated, thoroughly good and beautiful young woman. She is also serious. Very serious. All of George Elliott’s heroes and heroines are serious. Dorothea makes the others look like Britney Spears.

A hallmark of Elliott’s work is that she inevitably leaves her characters more reconciled than idyllically happy. I like that. I think it’s where true happiness lies or at least begins. Plus, I am very keen on sweeping epic novels. I find them… well, sweeping. Not to mention epic.

What I love most about Middlemarch is that on final page Elliott sums up Dorothea’s life with some of the most poignant, beautiful prose around. She says, “Her full nature spent itself on deeds which left no great name on the earth but that the effect of her nature on those around her was incalculable. The growing good of the world is partly dependant on unhistoric acts and all those Dorotheas who live faithfully their hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs.”

This is tremendously good stuff. It says something. Says it succinctly and elegantly. It causes many among us who are not likely to leave any great name on the earth to muse, “Heavens, I may be part of the growing good of the world by acting in such a way that the effect of my nature on those around me will be incalculable. Surely, this is reason enough for getting up in the morning right there.” This passage is certainly reason enough to read Middlemarch.

Unfortunately, a great many people do not read Middlemarch. The reason for this, I am certain, is this; less than a third of the way through the 700 and some pages, Elliott, at some length and with obvious full knowledge that what she was about was the business of the writing of a sweeping epic novel, takes much time and several pages to describe in minute detail the appearance of the shrubbery outside Dorothea’s country home.

I wish I could say that this description of shrubbery also provides insight into life. It doesn’t even provide insight into shrubbery. Nor, it seems almost needless to say, does it advance the plot in any way. Nothing interesting happens to the main characters as they walk through the shrubbery or beside the shrubbery. No one ever murmurs. “My, that’s some shrubbery.” It’s simply described in excruciating detail then dropped forever. It could all have been ripped out the next day and replaced by Poplar trees or a nice flowering border for all we know.

Now, many of you are raising a tentative hand (or an eager one if you’re G.E. fans) saying, “Ah, but ambience!”
I will give you that. I will give you, Elliott and anyone else who writes or reads the importance of ambience. As a writer, you have to set the stage, provide some texture and let people know what the atmospheric wallpaper of a place looks like. And I would be prepared to put down the long-winded shrubbery fiasco as the product of some damp, dreary morning when Elliott sat down to work and suddenly thought, “God, I am so sick of Dorothea. Why doesn’t she just marry the ruggedly handsome gloriously principled hero right now like we all know is going to happen eventually so she can spend the last 600 pages having hot, amazing sex instead of what she is going to do which is pine, misunderstand him and be very, very serious. I think I’ll write about something else today. Maybe shrubbery.” We can all see this happening, particularly in the course of writing a sweeping saga.

But here’s the thing. Middlemarch also contains a fair number of other lengthy, plot-not-advancing descriptions, run-on conversations and story lines stretched far beyond their interest or importance. Don’t get me wrong it’s a wonderful book. A book can absolutely be flawed and also be wonderful. Which is lucky. Because there are exactly the same number of perfect books as perfect people.

My feeling is that, as a writer, Elliott was simply a victim of having the best and worst conditions possible; unlimited time to work and no editor.

Many writers think they don’t need an editor. Many more think they don’t want one. This is understandable. For three of my last four books, I’ve worked with Beth Follett who is a goddess in the form of a fiction editor; talented, wise and direct. Nevertheless, when Beth sends me back an edit, my reaction is something like this:

Day #1: Is she joking? How could I have let this woman near my work? My description of the monkey (or coastline, flower border, drug dealer—insert your favorite descriptive passage here) is the best thing I’ve ever written. Maybe the best thing anyone has written. Ever. Obviously, she’s in need of medication. Or therapy. Or both.

Day #2: Well OK, I suppose I could cut the monkey description down from seven pages to maybe five… or two. And it might read better. But that’s as far as I’m going.

Day #3: Actually, summing up the monkey thing in three lines really tightens the whole section up.

Day #4: I call Beth to tell her that I’ve removed the monkey section entirely, as suggested and that she’s totally right and that I am nothing without her. Which is true.

I do this every time. Another author I know purposely plants a few sections of really bad writing into every manuscript she sends to her editor. She hopes this will distract the editor from looking too closely at all the sections she really wants to keep. Others I know prefer not to work with an editor at all. There are two possible names for authors like this. One is, “Margaret Atwood.” The other is “unpublished.”

The thing is, the job of an editor is not to make you wish for death (theirs or your own—depending on the edit) but to make you look good. An editor is someone who loves books as much as you do and wants yours, in the end, to be one of the books she loves best. So she tells you, gently it is hoped, where you’ve rambled or not said quite enough or entirely lost your grip on either the plot or your characters or both. She reaches down into the sometimes muddy water of your thoughts and prose, pans out the gold, holds it up to the light where you can see it and says, “This. This is what you want right here. Pursue this.”

How do you find this person? Take your favorite book off the shelf, find out who edited it and, if you can’t afford to pay what she charges, offer to baby-sit her (or his) children or clean her kitchen. Or, locate another aspiring writer whose work you appreciate and edit each other. Join a writing circle. Or give your manuscript to your three best friends with a list of key questions, “Where does it lose you? What questions do you have for the characters?” Do not do yourself the extreme disservice of taking their input as a statement of anything other than how you can make your work even better (ie: “So, when you say you don’t quite get the third paragraph on page 278, do you really mean that I’m a bad person?”)

Find an editor. Listen to your editor. They are not always right, but deciding where they are or are not is also going to improve your work. And, if you need any further convincing that an editor is a goddess with a blue pencil, let you tell me what I know for sure. If Beth Follett had edited this blog, it would have more brief, less flowery and much, much better.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Anne Hines

Anne Hines is the author of three novels, Fishing Up the Moon (Pedlar Press, 1998), The Spiral Garden (McArthur & Co, 2005) and Come Away: song of songs (McArthur & Co., 2007) and one collection of nonfiction humour, A Year In HineSight (McArthur & Co, 2002). A series of essays, Parting Gifts: notes on loss, love and life is due for publication by McArthur & Co, fall 2008.

Go to Anne Hines’s Author Page