I’ve tried to recall the problems that kept my 700-page ms. from getting snapped up for a hefty advance. I suspect it had to do with “700-page ms.” It was clear that the book was going to take work to get in shape. It takes a special editor to want to put in that kind of work. Out of the blue one day, that special editor called me.
L and J had sent him my 700 pages. He couldn’t wait to get going on them. His first instructions: change the ending. No argument, just do it. His second: cut 200 pages.
I use this account in my classes, even expository writing classes. He was going to publish my book. I said, “Yes, sir.”
So how do you know when to say “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” and when to argue? Lord help me, I don’t know. I do know that in that case, I had no choice. First novel, major publisher, erudite editor who said he “pulled all-nighters” with my book and who wrote me 30-page letters exploring its strengths and pushing me to think about its weaknesses: in fact, he was a teacher of the art of writing commercially viable fiction, and I wish I had known enough to practice everything I learned from him.
He said something along the lines of (I have the actual letter with the exact quote in my university office) “There’s enough wonderfulness here for four books. We need to decide which of the four is the best and save all the rest for some other time.” He said, “I’m going to show you how to tighten by doing the first 40 pages for you. Then I want you to follow my example on the rest.” I show those pages, with those big slash marks across whole pages, to my students. I show them my own slash marks, following his example. He said, “If a scene’s just repeating the work you’ve already done somewhere else and telling readers what they already know, get rid of it.” He showed me how to give scenes and dialogue their own internal life, what screenwriters call “beats.” I learned how to find the lines that carried the weight and slice out the shaky bridges between them.
I can’t tell you how much better that book became.