It’s often said that writing is a solitary, lonely business. Well, I suppose the actual act of writing is done alone, but I never minded the kids coming in to ask what I was doing or to request a peanut butter sandwich; and Christopher Smart and Raymond Chandler had the company of their cats.
The loneliness stops once the writer gets up from the desk. All the writers I know have friends and family who ask about their work; so do other people, and only the most churlish writers won’t volunteer some information.
To judge from the acknowledgments pages of novels, it seems that many writers ask family and friends to read sections while the book is a work in progress, and consider and sometimes adopt their suggestions.
Scott Fitzgerald advised Hemingway to cut the first 40 pages of The Sun Also Rises, which he did, to the great benefit of the book. Big help from a friend, or a sort of a friend.
Before submission to a publisher, most writers will put the draft through two filters – a copy-edit from a partner or friend and an appraisal from their agent. In my case, my first reader is my wife, Jean Bedford, a gun editor who smooths out crudities, points out anomalies and suggests more felicitous expressions. My agent, Gaby Naher, offers her suggestions, often to do with the marketability of the book – the resonance of the title, the appeal or otherwise of a character.
Once the publisher has its hands on the manuscript, two processes come into play – that is, if the publisher is a good one and isn’t cutting costs. The first is an assessment by a reader. This is not an edit, but a structural overview designed to point out plot weaknesses, legal issues, time-line glitches and the like.
In my case, with the Cliff Hardy books, a level of consistency with other books in the series is important. The reader my publisher commissions has been appraising the Hardy books for years and is alert to slips of name, relationships between long-running characters, and lapses of tone. A writer ignores the identification of these pitfalls at his or her peril, because reviewers target them.
Then, the publisher’s editor adopts a fine-tooth-comb approach to the text. I’ve been known to get up from my desk shouting, ‘I hate editors!’ What I really mean is that I hate myself for being sloppy about the repetition of words and phrases too close together, the geographical slips and my ignorance about the latest technological advances. Mercifully, I’ve yet to have an editor suggest a major restructuring, the dropping of a character or the elimination of a passage of writing I was particularly fond of. But I live in dread of any of these requirements.
My worst experience was with an editor who was clearly, from the first few sarcastic marginal comments, out of sympathy with the book itself. I had to ask for her to be replaced. The author has some rights.
Fiction writing is not collaborative like screen writing (God forbid), but it is cooperative. Quite a few fingers go into the pie before it’s baked.