Over the past week, I’ve spent a good chunk of time reading a 300-page manuscript for my writers’ group. The novel is a work in progress for sure, flowing well in some places, meandering in others (in fact, I just made a note to cut Chapter 10 all together). But this is precisely the point of having others read your work; often they can see what you cannot. This is why all writers need editors.
Not all writers agree with this. I’ve perused a fair number of literary agents’ blogs and submission guidelines, and have picked up on a common message: Do not send your first draft. Or even your third. I’ve also heard that many agents and publishers dread the month of January, since it routinely brings with it an onslaught of slapdash National Novel Writing Month manuscripts.*
But what about those writers who have “outgrown” editors? There are a number of authors who have attained enough popularity and status as to make them almost untouchable. For instance, while I can’t know the intimate details of Stephen King’s writing process, the epic length of his books points in the direction of “less is more” when it comes to editing**. Stephen King is big money. If he tells his publisher not to change a word, his publisher won’t change a letter.
Tom Wolfe is another one. For years, I’ve heard what a great writer he is, and his sales numbers appear to reflect that popular opinion. However, when I picked up I Am Charlotte Simmons a while back, I was surprised by his dull characters and rambling narrative***. Worst of all, Wolfe’s then 70-something-year-old voice repeatedly bled through the narrative of this story about college kids (my favorite was when he explained the drinking game of “quarters”, which he set off with quotation marks each time). I barely made it through 100 of the 800-page book before I set it aside, shaking my head and thinking, “This is what happens when a writer gets too big for an editor.”
While I shrugged off Wolfe’s novel, I was crushed to have a similar realization about an author I actually really like, an author who I have in fact praised more than once on this very blog. Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, is everything I aspire to in my own writing: Sometimes distressing but always compelling. Redemptive, but not in a Hollywood ending sort of way. Genuine. As is standard practice with a first novel, I imagine that his publisher had him work very closely with an editor on this book, and to great effect.
But a spot on Oprah’s book club and a few bestsellers later, that editor was noticeably absent in Lamb’s most recent novel, We Are Water, which examines a number of touchy subjects including gay marriage, interracial love, and sexual abuse. I will say this: the characters are complex and many layered, and the storyline is intriguing and topical. But the dialogue feels forced and unnatural, at times more like a series of speeches being delivered to the reader than a conversation between two people. In clear violation of the golden rule of writing – Show, Don’t Tell – most of the back-story is delivered in the form of monologues that go on for pages and pages without a single scene or exchange. The opening chapter is a stilted Q&A session between an awkward journalist and an elderly artist, neither of who are significant characters in the book. And don’t get me started on the overuse of ellipses to signify that someone is about to have a flashback…
It’s heartbreaking when a good book goes bad. We Are Water had so much potential, but left to his own devices, Lamb failed to transform his characters into real people and their stories into real lives.
Everyone needs an editor. Period.
*I wonder if November – the month when all the NaNoWriMo’s are hard at work – is actually the best time of year to submit.
** This is not to talk smack about Stephen King, who is actually a pretty darn good writer when he puts his mind to it.
*** To Wolfe’s credit (or his editor’s), his grammar and sentence structure are beyond reproach.