The Thought Fox

I was asked to write 500 words for Faber and Faber’s blog, The Thought Fox .  The brief from my editor was, ‘perhaps if you have time (and inclination) you could write a little piece about the experience of being edited, and proofing, for the first time.’  As it turned out, my article was appended – under the heading ‘Cultural Highlights: 2011 (Part 3)’, which included round-ups of the year by Faber and Faber writers.  I had wondered why the blog’s editor had referred to my article as ‘a little different’.

Here’s the complete article:

I’d been writing for years but never finished anything, accumulating tens of hundreds of thousands of words – confessions, chronicles, vignettes, anecdotes, and things my writers’ group calls ‘pieces’.

‘What you want is an editor,’ everyone said.

I wanted one along the lines of Maxwell Perkins, who lopped 90,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, or Ben Wasson, who sheared a quarter from Faulkner’s third, or even maybe, at a push, Gordon Lish, who adzed up to seventy percent of a collection of Raymond Carver’s stories – and changed a couple of characters’ names too. I wanted a professional who would stand before the block of marble of my writing, see the finished sculpture inside and give me the bag of chisels to get it out.

I first met Lee Brackstone in July 2009, a month after Faber bought the rights to the memoir of my life with the Pogues. Brackstone described a book of between 80,000 and 100,000 words.  By the time of my first deadline nine months later, I had rendered the collections of notebooks, diaries, letters, commonplace books – twenty years of setting reminiscences down in black and white – down to 145,000.

I awaited the return of my manuscript. I imagined a thumbed, dog-eared pile scrawled with carets, deletions and transpositions and maybe a tea stain or too. I’d revise, send it back and we’d be done. When it came, there was indeed a bracket and strikeout or two, and a mug-ring on page 247, but nothing to help me shed the 45,000 words needed. This wasn’t Max Perkins. I didn’t know what to do. In the accompanying letter Lee described my writing as ‘cultivated’. I attended to his notes and then sat on my hands.

I met with him again the Christmas before last at a pub in Islington. We talked about my manuscript over a couple of pints, but it wasn’t until we were standing in the snow outside the pub waiting for a cab, that I got the note I had needed from the start. As we trod our cigarettes out, we agreed that some of the writing was pretentious and long-winded – cultivated indeed.

‘Cut out the writing that makes you look like a knobhead,’ Lee said.  I couldn’t have wished for a better note.

In my writers’ group, we talk grimly about the editing process. We call it ‘killing babies’ – a misquotation, misattributed to William Faulkner, of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote that a writer should whole-heartedly obey the impulse to perpetrate exceptionally fine writing, but should delete it before sending the manuscript to press.

‘Murder your darlings,’ Sir Arthur wrote.

I lined my darlings along the edge of the ditch and hacked them down – along with the knobhead, hoping he wasn’t just lying under the corpses faking not breathing.

After the slaughter, the 115,000 words I was left with went to the copy-editor. I never had so much fun as trying to best my copy-editor’s eye for detail, but he trumped me with the deletion of a possessive apostrophe in the name of a guitar shop in Manchester.

I’d been warned, though, about proofreading. ‘Snow-blindness’ and ‘self-disgust’ were just two of the terms that came up. It wasn’t long before I was staring between my fingers at what I’d written, haggardly perplexed that anyone would want to publish what, to me, had turned out to be the textual equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster.

‘How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,’ Victor Frankenstein says about his creature, ‘or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.’

I can’t wait for publication.