When it comes to early drafts, this is often the only editorial guidance I need.
When it comes to early drafts, this is often the only editorial guidance I need.
Sometimes this is the only editorial input I need.
(See also: “So what?”)
Here I am with Bruce Tracy at the Guggenheim earlier this year on the Keep Going tour. Bruce edited the last four of my books and it is a sad day for me because today is his last day at Workman Publishing. (He’s off to chill in the woods and freelance.)
From the very first time we spoke on the phone, before we were even officially working together, Bruce has been a great partner in crime. It was on that very phone call (August 2011 — I’m looking at the notes right now!) that he said presentation slides are usually landscape, and books are usually portrait… so how about a square book? Sold!
When I visited him in New York, I brought him a dummy made from James Kochalka’s The Cute Manifesto — the only book I had on my shelf that had the exact trim size we were thinking about. “Can I keep this?” he asked. At the cover meeting, the late Peter Workman supposedly went through a few mocked up covers and pointed to my dummy. “That one.”
Anyways, we worked together for over eight years. A few more good stories like that, but mostly the hard, often unsexy work of patient emails and phone calls and line edits and sales meetings. It was a good run and I’m very grateful.
What’s the value of a great editor? Here’s how Michael Crichton put it, as quoted by Robert Gottlieb in The Paris Review:
In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.
Thank you, Bruce, for standing on the dock and helping me see the ship.
When your editor likes the book pic.twitter.com/U8lZmJ1Lef
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) June 15, 2018
I’m proofing the third pass of Keep Going. I find it really difficult at this stage of a project to get the right perspective — “fresh eyes” — for the thing, which makes it really, really hard to make edits.
The production schedule for this book has been much more accelerated than any of my other books, so my usual device for estranging myself from the text — the plain ol’ passing of time — hasn’t been quite as helpful.
The device that has: reading aloud.
I find that reading my work aloud makes it weird enough that I can’t scan or gloss over anything.
Reading to an audience is best, because you start really judging the thing when you have to project it into a room full of people. Quentin Tarantino says he likes to read his scripts to his friends, not for their feedback, but their presence. “I don’t want input, I don’t want you to tell me if I’m doing anything wrong, heavens forbid,” he says, “But I write a scene, and I think I’ve heard it as much as I can, but then when I read it to you … I hear it through your ears, and it lets me know I’m on the right track.”
I don’t have the time (or the friends) to bother with such a table reading, and I don’t want to pester my wife any more than I already do, so an (admittedly expensive) solution I’ve found is to put on my headphones and fire up my podcasting microphone and pretend I’m recording the audiobook. I don’t know why exactly this works, but it does. (I think it’s being able to hear my voice through the headphones.)
I mistakenly triggered one of the accessibility settings on our family TV that I can’t figure out how to turn off, so when we’re watching PBS with the kids now, in addition to the dialogue, a calm voice explains everything happening onscreen. I borrowed that for proofing the illustrations: when I get to the visual sections of the book, I’ll narrate what’s going on in the illustration, and read any text that appears. That actually helps me look at the illustration and see if there’s anything that needs fixing…
1) Time is really the magic ingredient for self-editing. Put it in the drawer and walk out the door. Come back later and look with fresh eyes.
2) Print out each draft and edit it by hand.
3) Wait until a new draft to make any structural changes, otherwise you’ll just spend all your time shuffling things around and not writing. (I learned this from The Clockwork Muse.)
4) When I need to make big changes to a draft (less than 10,000 words, anyways), it’s better if I just start with a blank document and just retype everything from the paper copy of the last draft. Cut & paste makes me lazy, and I don’t think about whether things are flowing or not.
5) I knew the score at the age of twelve: “Writing is easy, but it takes a lot of time.” So much time.
Above: a page from Show Your Work!
In the most recent episode of Song Exploder, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross talk about their creative process in the studio. Reznor discusses his history with addiction, how he used to be afraid of failure in the studio, but how he now trusts “the process” to getting him somewhere. Maybe most importantly, he says that when the ideas are really coming, he’s learned to give them enough time to come forth, without worrying too much about whether they’re good or bad. “There’s plenty of time to bring out the ‘This Sucks’ hammer,” he says.
Every artist has to balance between at least two modes: call them, for lack of better terms, the creative mode and the editorial mode. In the creative mode, you don’t worry about whether things are good or bad, you just let them happen. In editorial mode, you go back and look at what you’ve got, and you ask the questions, “Is this good? Does this suck?”
Lynda Barry’s essay, “Two Questions,” from her brilliant book, What It Is, explores why and when the editorial mode appears and how you can make it go away long enough to get things on the page. It’s essential, Barry says, “To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape! Without the two questions so much is possible.”
Donald Barthelme says the same in his classic essay, “Not-Knowing”:
The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the… process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention… Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing…
Fortunately for Reznor, he says he has been able to offload most of the editorial mode onto Atticus Ross, so he can stay in the creative mode — he’ll even leave the room for 20 minutes while Ross is assembling pieces of what they’ve recorded in Pro Tools (Oblique Strategy: “Go outside. Shut the door.”):
The different mindsets, or different hats one has to wear in this environment: one of them is the subconscious, follow the Muse, eyes closed, and another one, that’s radically different, is the editorial. “What sucked? What was good? What’s the piece that fits with that?” I love having [Ross] do that part, because I can stay in the other mode of not trying to analyze exactly what’s going on, and still stay subconscious. It keeps this momentum going where neither of us are bogged down too much. Our skill sets compliment each other. So, it’s him arranging stuff. I just kind of bang into things.
This is a terrific argument for collaboration, and the power of two, but for those of us who work solo, we have to try to split ourselves into two different people. We have to play the two different roles, inhabit the two different mindsets, wear the two hats. The easiest way do this, I’ve found, is to split up the modes in time: Write something without stopping, let it sit for 24 hours, or even a week, or even a year, then come back to it with the red pen. Or, make something in one space, then take it over to another space to fiddle with it. (This is why I have separate analog and digital desks in my studio: analog for creative mode, digital for editing mode.)
Most important of all, though, is to keep the “This Sucks” hammer out of reach until you’re ready for it.
This site participates in the Amazon Affiliates program, the proceeds of which keep it free for anyone to read.