Nota bene

I once read an interview with the author John Irving in which he said that even after his novels are published, and he’s holding the bound book in his hand, he can’t resist the impulse to edit what he has written. He will actually make pencil edits in the book. He’ll note how he should have written a sentence or developed a thought.

I think for most writers, especially commercial writers, that impulse is long gone by the time the story is in print. The work is finished. The mind has moved on. Any further attention to details like this merely diverts the creative self away from the work at hand.

Still, I can understand the need to tinker, even after a story is in print. An editor once requested substantive changes to a short story of mine. I had relied on a great deal of flashback, but the editor had wanted this revised to make the narrative more straightforward. He, of course, is the editor, and I complied with as much of it as I thought I could. He is more of a strict grammarian than I, so I had to get more in line with the “rules” too. A few emails passed back and forth as we worked on the story, and in the end he accepted it.

I was going over the proofs for the story last week (to find any typos or egregious turns of phrase that just had to be smoothed) and I found that I could have done more to the story after making the changes in order to get them to read better. At that late stage, though, such changes would be inappropriate. The editor had already done page layouts, and only minor, absolutely necessary fixes were permissible.

I’ve found that I can never leave my writing alone. Certainly the magazine articles I wrote twenty years ago would strike me as immature and embarrassing if I dared to allow myself to read them today. I’m sure I could take a red pencil to them and even doubt that the writer had any talent at all.

But work I’ve written more recently is already ripe for retooling. (Is that a mixed metaphor?) My first Finnegans novel, Finnegans Awake, has now been “completed” for nearly two years. (I haven’t shopped it around.) I’ve let it lie fallow, thinking it was finished. Yet the other day a thought popped into my head about how one of my protagonists can sensibly reflect on the nature of the “culprit” in the story in a way that is completely plausible and completely incorrect. It would divert suspicion onto the “culprit” and away from the true “bad guy” while at the same time giving the protagonist a bit more depth of character. (The reflection is related to what I babbled about in my “successful author syndrome” post some time back.)

Now I find myself cracking open that “finished” novel to find a place to put in these musings. Okay. That’s the way my creativity seems to work. I guess I should be glad that this thought came to me before the story made its way into print.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Finnegans, Humble efforts, Rants and ruminations

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