• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Will Always Love You


I’ve been editing a manuscript for the last week and I am reminded how much I love it. When the book is meh, it’s kind of thankless. But when you’re working on a book that is beautifully written, surprising, risk-taking, and emotionally powerful it’s like having a thrilling conversation. It’s like sparring with someone you respect, fear and love. You prod the writer with questions that hopefully compel him to respond in a way that makes the book even more fully realized, or change up transitions to keep it moving, or cut scenes that don’t advance the story. I love suggesting one word for another if it strikes me to have more clarity or accuracy.

Are you a good editor?

19 Responses

  1. When it comes to editing or mentoring, I’m a cheerleader! Rah! Rah! Rah! I love to tell writers that yes, you can do it, you can get over the line. Not too crash hot with details.

  2. No. I’m a terrible editor.

    But my editors are good or great editors. (Hi S###!) Without them I’d still be pushing shit uphill with a teaspoon and a straw.

    That said, I have been of help in a critique group, making wildly obscure suggestions that led to a couple of good stories becoming better — stories that won prizes. So that was nice, although completely flukey. Dammit, now I’ve lost my spoon and my straw…

    • harry, you’re not a terrible editor. I know better, and I think you do, too. You made skillful edits to a work of mine that, in published form, has received mostly positive appraisal.

      • I’d love to take some of that credit, but I had only minor input to those edits. Almost all Juliette — I merely said, “Yes, I see now, you’re right,” and other such things. However, I did format that paperback, and it was absolutely the best I could do. I’m very fucking proud of it indeed, because I raised my formatting skills up enough to do justice to that very good book.

  3. Probably not. I’m used to having someone else edit my work.
    I’m happy to read that you are working on a book you enjoy.

  4. I’m not so much an editor as a revisioner–of my own stuff. I can sit and revise all day long, and I actually enjoy it. Looking at what I’ve written with a critical eye, in a different mood, through a sharper lens, is sometimes easier and more fun(!) than forging forward.

    But editing others’ work? As the designated “family” writer, I’ve edited every college and grad school essay among all my many nieces and nephews (with love and affection). Other than that, I don’t seem to be able to turn another’s phrase with agility. But I can tell you, I adore a good editor that respects my voice and appreciates the work I’ve put in,
    is cordial, encouraging, enthusiastic, and positive. I’ve known one or two of those.

  5. Good lord, I hope so. It’s my day job.

  6. I like to think so, but it’s really why I tend to overwrite – meaning if I need 90K to 100K, I’ll write 120K. That way it doesn’t hurt so much to cut out the crap. At least what I hope is the crap.

  7. I edit, therefore I am.

  8. Sometimes when I edit I feel an ecstatic sensation of understanding, of connection with the work. The ms ferments or clarifies in ways I am somewhat conscious of—then a gunfighter phrase, a grace note, even a seemingly banal deletion, will cascade in me, and I will see the page, chapter, even the whole work in a new way. I will remember something I wasn’t quite aware of tracking, and go back, touch a paragraph, move forward and delete or re-arrange, return to the editing point and adjust, and feel a zizzy shiver, a frisson of deep understanding, excitement, revelation. “Of course,” I say.

    This can be as satisfying, as thrilling, as the best of raw writing, for me. Sometimes better, as a work loses obscuring parts— no matter how lovely— and glows, resonates in a way I had faith about but still wasn’t quite seeing on the page.

    I spent an hour this week on the phone with editor Tom Jenks, talking about the opening of my book and about Frank Conroy’s masterpiece, “Stop-Time.” I described how at sixty, editing my own work and others’ for so long, reading feverishly since I was seven, I collect “mysteries”— that is, works about which I can’t answer the question “how did they do that?”

    Conroy’s sentences are amazing, concise yet languorous. His journalissimo from the first page is riveting. There is a mourning that emerges slowly, which is the essential mystery of this work— how he conveys that in a character who cracks wise and drops his guard only with measured effort. How does he make this boy so real?

    He achieves some of it by a subtle change of tone, like when he talks about his night terrors at twelve, alone in a cabin, and his shock at encountering feeble-minded patients during his one night with them. Conroy quietly leaves off the bluff, wiseacre aspect, and lets the boy’s ever-present thoughtfulness, watchfulness, and fearfulness take center stage. Because his thoughtfulness was always there, on every page, this feels natural—and because of the frightening events, we are momentarily misdirected, not exactly conscious of the missing adolescent bravura. The result is we are pulled closer without breaking the spell of his unformed self. We are in the moment with him, not as if a film but as his intimate, limited by what he knows and understands.

    The cumulative result is delicate magic at a high literary level. And the way he finesses this is that he doesn’t draw attention to it. An ordinary artist would do so, to guide the reader, to complete the thought, perhaps to subtly brag or condescend to the reader with a clever fillip phrase that explains it. A great artist like Conroy brings no attention to it, letting the ‘wiseacre’ aspect momentum only seem to continue, then resuming it when the boy returns to familiar territory again.

    This is what the best editing is for me. To see into a work, my own and others, and to understand the craft and intention of the writer, and to eliminate all that interferes with the sublime, the opportunity for the trembling self on the page. For the mystery of “how did they do that?“ to fluoresce in the reader.

    • This was a lovely comment to read, and made me think you might enjoy reading Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan. I still don’t know how he did it. Just glad he did.

      • Love “Gould’s Book of Fish”. An apt author to cite in this context, Harry. His writing is luminous, and he blends the surreal with vivid grit and with humanity. That passage about him being in the cell embedded in the shore, the tide rising, falling— one feels both the marvelous and the horrific fighting in his character, his resignation and resistance. All while giving us an unforgettable description of a terrifying place.

        • How wonderful, Greg, that you mention the passage that best stayed with me. In my scattered mind, not much does. But that cell…

          There was a lively and brilliant conversation on Averil’s blog a couple of years ago, where she asked: “If you could describe in physical terms the room of your mind, what would it look like? How is it furnished? What are the colors. What music is playing, what floors are underfoot, what have you pinned to the walls?”

          There were some amazing answers, you might enjoy them, and your own answer would be of interest, I’m sure.

          The reason I thought of it was that, in answering Averil’s question, that cell was where my mind went. I hope you’ll go to Averil’s and read what I wrote about the fish book, because I’m sure you’ll get it. And because (I think), it shows how deeply great writing can soak into us, and how we can somehow find ourselves in it. Or parts of ourselves anyway.

  9. Wonderful last reply! Immersing myself in a manuscript to that degree has a reward hard to describe, but somehow akin to moving puzzle pieces around and getting rid of the superfluous and then, yes, it’s “This fits here!” and the picture comes into full focus.

    Betsy, your books (both written and edited) add great pleasure to my world, and I’m eager to hear the name of this one when you’re ready!

  10. To tighten per format I can shed words like a collie in July. Just don’t want a bald puppy though.

  11. Depending on the situation, I can be an expert yard editor (aka gardener), spatial editor (aka interior designer), fabric editor (aka sewing enthusiast), or fiscal editor (aka Treasurer), but I’m still honing the required skills in the craft of editing my manuscripts.

  12. “Are you a good editor?”

    This is a difficult question to answer. Editing is not a task I’ve ever done professionally. I’m probably not any better or worse at it than any other writer who’s been writing for a time and been reading and been studying the craft.

    A thing that often happens to me when I’m reading contemporary published short stories is I’ll quickly see where I believe the writer has made the wrong move, and what alternate move or moves could have made the story readable from that point on, at least until the next wrong move. That’s the point at which I will set the story aside and move on to the next. No few of these mistakes, or what I perceive as mistakes, appear to arise from the writer making choices learned in some workshop. If I were an editor, and were editing such works, I’d be a hard-ass in demanding certain changes. Would that make me a good editor?

    With contemporary poetry, I believe I’d be an abysmal editor. There’s no shortage of abysmal poetry, but while I think I can see when a poem is not working (and most of them are not), I can’t usually see what I would do better.

    With my own work, it can sometimes take me years to do decent edits.

    No. I’m not a good editor. I’d make a passable apprentice, but would need much more experience and some mentoring to be a good one.

    • Should anyone edit poetry? I once made someone’s poem better, and hated myself for stomping all over it. It seems different to prose, in that way. I think maybe poetry should be rewritten, sometimes forever, but never touched by another.

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