Saturday, April 17, 2010

I stand corrected.

By Michael

“Editors are always right.” That’s my mantra. If they identify a problem, there IS a problem.

But the problem they identify might not be the problem that needs fixing. In other words, they’re always right, but they might not be right about the right things. They might say, “Revise chapter twelve to make it consistent with chapters four and seventeen,” when I really need to revise chapters four and seventeen to make them consistent with chapter twelve. Or they might say, “The villain is shooting with his left hand but you’ve said he’s right handed,” and though I’m tempted to point out that on Page 127 the villain’s right hand has gotten cut off in a machine accident, making right-handed shooting difficult, I know that I need to make changes so that my other readers won’t make the same mistake my editors have made. The key is that the editors have highlighted problems. The writer’s job is to fix the problems one way or another.

Such hasn’t always been the case; sometimes it still isn’t. The editor Gordon Lish famously rewrote Raymond Carver (with a pen in one hand and a knife in the other). We can debate whether Lish did Carver a favor or a disservice, but the reality is that the writer we now call and admire as “Raymond Carver” looks and sounds very different from what he would look and sound like without Lish’s interventions.

I try to remember this, even when editorial advice hurts. Especially when it hurts.

The best bad editorial advice I’ve received came from my friend David Knowles – whom I consider an excellent crime fiction writer in lit fiction clothing – before St. Martin’s Press contracted to publish my first mystery, The Last Striptease. His advice was simple: “Cut out all of the sex.”

A book called The Last Striptease without any sex? That was a hard one to swallow. But “the editor is always right,” so I asked him to clarify his concerns. My PI was sleeping around too much, he said. “With all the sex, he comes across as sleazy. And besides,” he added, “you write ridiculous sex scenes.” That last bit hurt more than the first. (This was my manhood he was challenging, damnit!). But, I told myself, “the editor is always . . . .”

So, I re-read my manuscript with hard, self-editing eyes and discovered, much to my consternation, that David was right. My PI was sleeping around too much. And a lot of his sleeping around looked ridiculous. But if David was right, I wasn’t convinced that he was right about entirely the right things. A book called The Last Striptease without sex? No.

I cut out about half of the sex scenes, the ones that made my PI look sleazy. And I re-wrote the sex scenes that remained. I made some of those scenes less ridiculous. But I also considered that sex – in real life as well as fiction – often IS ridiculous, but in a good way, a way that makes us human. So I introduced cues that marked the characters’ awareness of their own fumbling. Mistakes happen. Sex gets silly. But it manages to be great anyway. The book became much better for the changes.

So, I still think that editors are always right. And if they’re off target? I still pay close attention to where they’re shooting.


Sophie Littlefield said...

so i wrote this book a while ago that hasn't sold yet and my agent said yuck to the sex scenes, which i thought were the best part of the book. still do in fact. because they are really emotion scenes with some mechanics thrown in. of the rejections we got included the editorial comment that she (the editor) could not imagine having sex after a zombie ate half the skin on her back. i thought she was missing the point.

Michael Wiley said...

I'm with you, Sophie. If a zombie ever eats the skin off my back, the first thing I'll want after spraying myself with Bactine is sex . . . because, well, what other physical consolations are there when zombies are taking over the world. Order a pizza? No, I'm heading straight for bed.

Shane Gericke said...

"Sex – in real life as well as fiction – often IS ridiculous, but in a good way."

Line of the week!!

Course, on TV, a la Jack Bauer, the guys who had their backs eaten by zombies wouldn't have sex. They'd grab their guns and start shooting zombies and run and dive and get into big fights with sabers and energy devices without looking like they'd ever been hurt. They'd defeat everyone and hawk cars and hygeine products inbetween. THEN they'd have sex.

Off screen. Don't wanna offend an advertiser, y'know ...

Nice post, Michael!

Michael Wiley said...

Okay, sure, let's put down the zombies with flamethrowers first. But afterward, no distractions.

Thanks, Shane.

Kelli Stanley said...

Wonderful post, Michael! :) And a perfect description of that "translation" we need to make with what actually needs fixing.

Now what I want to know is whether Sophie's book has actual zombie sex in addition to painful back-shredded-by-a-zombie sex ... Soph, do zombies have sex, or does the brain-eating act as a substitute? ;)


Michael Wiley said...

As for me, I've always found brainy women sexy.

Gabi said...

Maybe your friend was focused on the tease part of strip tease? Could be worse. He could have said "Please tell me you're not writing from experience and you're in desperate need of more euphemisms." Of course if that were true, you'd be a killer romance writer instead of a romantic killer writer.

Sophie Littlefield said...

oy, of *course* zombies don't have sex!! they're *zombies* for heck's sake. but my thing is, if it's the apocalypse and all, i mean, what are you going to do - organize your spice shelf? everything will seem so paltry and banal. you'd want to do something that made you feel alive since/esp. bec. you won't be alive for long.

evidently not everyone feels this way, however.

oh ps, if you really want some zombie sex, read BREATHERS. i liked it a lot but i would say it's not really a zombie novel. and everyone needs to read DAWN OF THE DREADFULS immediately. Love, love, love, love the zombie zeitgeist in that - i think it's seminal.