By Curtis Bausse
Not my own work, other people’s. I could write reams about my own – the various drafts, the juggling with voice, the search for the right rhythm in each sentence. But that would be like telling you my dreams – only a matter of time before you’re asleep yourself. So this is about how I edit other people’s.
You may be wondering what gives me the right in any case. Well, more than a right it’s a duty, an obligation. I have two anthologies on the go, Second Taste, the third (and final) Book a Break anthology, and (with the invaluable help of Atthys Gage and GD Deckard) The Rabbit Hole, the first volume (of what we hope will be a long and successful series) of weird stories produced by The Writers’ Co-op. As all writers know, a text can only benefit from the critical regard of a reader intent on helping it reach its full potential. To launch an anthology without editing the submissions would be remiss at the least. Closer, in fact, to irresponsible.
I’m not a professional editor, but I do have some credentials in the world of academia, where I peer-reviewed submissions to a number of journals in Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology. I also submitted articles to similar journals myself. It’s not something I recommend if your ego is fragile. The articles are regularly savaged like a ferret set upon by a Staffordshire bull terrier. That’s when they’re accepted. Otherwise it’s a summary ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
I eventually got used to it. But I took away a couple of lessons for use when reviewing myself. The first, more obvious one was to be meticulous, hunt down the slightest weakness of logic, unsupported argument or methodological flaw. The second was to be respectful, less bull terrier than Labrador. (I’m not an expert on the cognitive psychology of dogs, but I see Labradors as firm and rigorous, yet positive and constructive.)
Clearly, a research paper is not the same as a short story. But when I edit, I try to bring those two qualities to the task. Regarding the first, every editor has their own prism, a particular way they like to see things expressed. It’s a fine line between respecting a writer’s voice (which is essential) and accepting an awkward wording or a clumsiness. My own fixation is concision, by which I mean the elimination of any unnecessary word. When I read my own writing I ask myself if every word in the sentence contributes something to the overall effect or purpose. Redundancies get deleted without mercy.
So when they received my comments, a number of contributors to the anthologies may have thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s a nutter!’ My apologies if that’s the case. But faithful to my second principle of constructiveness, I always strive to keep in view what the writer is trying to achieve, and make suggestions to that end. Perhaps I’ve been lucky to deal with writers who are understanding and courteous, but so far the replies I’ve received have been almost all appreciative.
There may on occasion be tension between the two principles of rigour and respect. What happens if the story needs a radical overhaul? You might think that in that case it wouldn’t be accepted, but often I see potential in a storyline which could be brought out if the writing was stronger. On those occasions I won’t hesitate to send back a text that I have in places rewritten, with a comment explaining why. The writer can of course refuse the alterations, but again, the replies I get have so far always been positive.
At the end of the day, it’s like many other types of negotiation: sensitivity, subjectivity, attitudes and egos are involved. When writers defend their position with cogent arguments, it means they’ve thought about what they’re doing and come up with what they see as the best way of doing it. In that case I’ll generally defer, even if my own point of view is different. In fiction, voice and intention count for more than in scientific research, meaning there’s more room for flexibility. In both cases, though, editor and writer have a common purpose: the publication of a piece that’s as good as it can get. Which is why, on the whole, agreement is easily reached.
Perhaps, if anything, I err on the side of respect. Certainly that was the case when I started out. To overcome that, I have a simple expedient: when firmness is called for, I think of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, whose fruitful but fractious relationship led to the publication of stories widely hailed as among the best ever written.
Carver’s initial ending of One More Thing:
L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you no matter what happens. I love you too, Bea. I love you both.” He stood there at the door and felt his lips begin to tingle as he looked at them for what, he believed, might be the last time. “Good-bye,” he said.
“You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.
It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.
“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”
“Is this what love is, L.D.?” she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could.
L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.
He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”
But then he could not think what it could possibly be.
It takes a brave editor to do that. I think I have a long way to go.