The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Phineas at Bay: The Editor's Report

Simon Raven (who adapted Trollope for television, in addition to his own many novels) once defined himself as a writer: "I arrange words in pleasing patterns in order to make money". A short definition for a tall order, even leaving aside the money part.

Karen Clark, my editor who rejoices in the dread title "Domineditrix" (she is the queen of the double, and even triple, entendre, but credits me with this soubriquet) has now provided me with the third and, we feel pretty sure, final edited manuscript. (I'm not sure where Karen's choice of three drafts and done came from, but I agreed, based on the advice of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote somewhere (can't recall where, at the moment), that three drafts was about right--any more and you risk sucking the spontaneity out of the work, as witness The New York Edition of Henry James).

So, as we near completion, where are we? Well, obviously, I'm terribly biased. So it was very nice to see her blog post about P at Bay, which she described as a "tour de force sequel to Anthony Trollope's "Palliser" novels. It's a hell of a good book, and the reason I know it's a hell of a good book is that I am now reading it for the third time . . . and, if anything, I am enjoying reading the book more than I did the first time around." (I've left out a nice triple entendre, so you can click the link to Karen's place.

Also, this follow-up post is awfully encouraging:
I finished re-reading Sister Carrie in record time, having found an edition with nice big print that didn't strain my eyes - and, after that was gone, I needed something good to read. Well - John's book fit the description like a kid elbow glove on an Edwardian Professional Beauty. It's a good read. In fact, third time around, it's an even better read. (You will, I hope, pardon me for preening a bit if I say, "And that's because I edited the first two drafts.")

Don't get me wrong - it was an excellent novel the first time around, before I ever had anything to do with it. But John is one of those rare writers who can take his ego completely out of the way and think about "What is the best thing we can do in the service of this book?" The book itself - das Buch an sich! - and getting it as good as it can be, is all. By the time I had finished Round One of the editorial process, I was already rejoicing in the half-affectionate, half-sardonic nickname John had bestowed upon me - Domineditrix. I think the fiercest crack of the whip I gave was when I sent John and his main character, Phineas Finn, down into a Welsh coalmine...he hadn't written a description of the horrors endured by nineteenth century colliers, and I implored and argued and harangued, and finally used my ultimate weapon - "Your reader will feel cheated if it's not in the text!" - until he said, "Right, I'll give it a go and see how it turns out," and wrote it just to shut me up. And it's one of the best things in the book, by gum.
Karen's editing has been tremendous--not just reading for grammar, clarity, and typos, but, as she indicates, for character, consistency, and that intangible something Ronald Dworkin called fit. Not to mention the clothes. She did a helluva job researching the Victorian costuming I needed to describe, and gave me the opportunity to make my use of an old legal chestnut into a credible comic bit.

I should add that I have had four other readers who have given me invaluable feedback--one a professional novelist herself, as well as a Trollope-lover (she caught a badly-off character beat), one a scholar whose insights into what he has called "the Phineas Diptych" inspired a scene that I didn't even realize I needed until I'd heard him speak. My Dad came up with a great approach to bring in non-Trollope readers, and which led to my Prologue. Finally, another non-Trollopean served as a reality check. But Karen has toiled over this long novel, with enthusiasm and persistence, bless her. It's a better book for her efforts.

It's a little daunting--and extremely exciting--to realize that I'm nearing the point where I have no more excuses, but must, as Robertson Davies once wrote, enter the public square, tell the tale, and see how it fares.

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