Wednesday, August 15, 2012


The legend goes, Ray Bradbury retired to his basement and wrote Fahrenheit 451 in just two weeks. The truth is, he wrote it in nine days in the basement of the UCLA library, where he used a pay typewriter at 10¢ per half-hour. The deeper truth: what he wrote was a short story entitled The Fireman which would later be expanded into novel form and published in 1953, two years after The Fireman was published.
Many years ago, I remember a colleague of mine commenting that the average time it took for a professional writer to produce a new book was about two years. New writers, took two to three times longer because often their writing time was set to leisure time as they had to work for a living.
A good example of how long a book can be in editing before release was when J.K. Rowling was interviewed about her Harry Potter series. In the interview, she told about how she killed off one of the main characters and then cried about it. “I did it. I killed him,” she told her husband. In the very unlikely case you haven’t read the Harry Potter series, I won’t give it away. The death occurs in the last book, number seven, of the series. From when the interview was done until the last book came out was over two years.
The general public seems to be under the impression that the process of writing a book consists of a writer having an idea, furiously typing out the story into a manuscript, then submitting it for publishing and—BOOM!—it’s published. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a crucial step to the writing process. That step is Editing.
The editor’s job is to ensure that the final manuscript is an entertaining read. A marketable product that the public will want to snatch up and eagerly await the next offering. Editing isn’t just fixing spelling and grammatical errors. The editor has to take the rough narrative and and work with the writer to smooth it out and put the polish on it. It might be an awesome story, but the rough version of it might be barely readable.
It is a process of diplomacy, where the editor and writer go back and forth over different sections of the story to get the pieces to fit into a cohesive whole. There might be a rough patch or a section might go off on a tangent and deviate from the plot. A paragraph that might be pure literary genius might not belong at all in the story. The writer may have referenced something that is completely wrong (such as saying “Elvis was a famous soprano.”). The editor marks the problems and sends the notations to the writer, and it is up to the writer to fix it.
This process can take some time. Often longer than it takes to actually write the original manuscript. A couple colleagues of mine submitted their manuscripts to their publishers recently. From now until production begins, those manuscripts will be edited, updated, fixed, reworked, modified and adjusted until the stories read true. Only when the team of editors and writer are satisfied that they’ve honed the narrative into the best possible form will the text actually go to print. It is not a simple process.
Neither book will be seen by the public until next year.
My own book, Nobody, is deep in the editing process. It is at times a frustrating process. Just when I think I’ve nailed a given section, the notes come back to me pointing out the things I messed up. When I think I’m finished, it turns out there is still more to be done. There does come a point where both writer and editor can agree that the narrative is good enough. Nobody is fairly close to this point, but not quite there yet. I’ll know over the next couple of days how the first section has fared in review.
A book can’t just be shoved up onto the internet for sale. Well, a lot of people have done so. Some of them can actually pull it off, many more of them cannot. I have sampled a few books that were just so awful to read it nearly brought tears to my eyes. The blurbs describing these stories were enticing to read! Sadly, that was about the only thing good to read.
One in particular, the blurb reeled me in nicely. I downloaded the sample and began to read and within three or four paragraphs, I began to wish I hadn’t. The writing was terrible. Its grade level was significantly below the junior high school level reading. Punctuation was terrible, there were run on sentences everywhere. Poor capitalization, misspellings—the list goes on. I stopped reading, deleted the ebook from my Nook, never to be attempted again. It’s sad because the premise of the story really intrigued me. I think the author had an excellent story idea. It’s just that the author’s presentation of that story was a complete failure.
At the very least, before unleashing an unedited manuscript on an unsuspecting public, an aspiring author should set aside their writing and let it sit for a short while. Perhaps the individual should read something else for a bit, then return and read their own writing. Often, after letting something I wrote lay around for a while like a pot of fermenting kimshi, upon rereading it I can easily see where I needed to change one thing or another. This is one way of self-editing.
Some people have a talent for it, many more don’t. It is always wiser to bring in another set of eyes to review what you’ve written.
I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel—I just hope it isn’t an approaching train…