The Difference Between Compromise and Input

Canadian writer (and for a long time a good friend) Cliff Burns has a provocative post here on basically telling editors to f— off, with “compromise” being a dirty word.

I think I have three reactions…

(1) Re this, “I read one account in Poets & Writers magazine where an author sat down to lunch with his agent, outlined a couple of different ideas for a novel and let his rep pick the one he would work on next.” Without having read the account, I don’t have the context, but I know that more than once I’ve been equally passionate about two very different projects and haven’t really cared which I do first. In such cases, I think the tie-breaker probably would come from my agent or my editor. I don’t think that’s a big deal.

(2) People keep saying that true editors don’t exist anymore–which speaks to Burns’ assertion that “Editors should remain unseen and unheard. They are non-entities. Spell-checkers and proof-readers and if they try to raise themselves above that lowly status, slap them down. Hard. Writing is not, repeat not a collaborative exercise. Anyone who credits an editor for saving a manuscript didn’t work hard enough on it, chickened out when the going got tough.”–but I haven’t found this to be true. I’ve always benefitted from a good editor who shares my vision for a book and, through his or her suggestions–either developmental or on the chapter/paragraph level–has made sure the vision on my head is actually on the page. Because, eventually, the text becomes white noise. Your gaze cannot get a grip on the page. Sometimes this is true even after you’ve had time to reflect. A good editor, even just with questions about the narrative or characters, can allow you to re-imagine and revisit the text in useful ways. I can’t ever remember getting an editorial suggestion I thought was given in a spirit of making something more commercial. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

(3) Although there are famous stories of eccentric geniuses like Orson Welles wanting final cut, as Burns suggests, this doesn’t examine whether or not in such cases Welles, for example, consulted with his cameramen, or his cinematographer, or friends he trusted, or whatever. In other words, I think it’s very rare that a work goes from conception to completion to being publicly presented without someone else having had some kind of influence.

On the other hand, Burns has a very cool post about his reading habits, including a long recommended reading list.

7 comments on “The Difference Between Compromise and Input

  1. Mr Cinematic Pedant here reporting for duty. Stanley K and the Great Orson are both heroes of mine and I probably know more than is healthy about their careers and working methods. Both tough nuts, yes, but they also stated in interviews that they were open to input from *anyone* once a film was in production. Most famous example of that in Kubrick’s case is Malcolm McDowell’s ad libbing of Singin’ in the Rain while on the set of A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick immediately got on the phone and bought the rights so they could use it in the film. Hard to believe when you see how embedded that song is in the finished work that it wasn’t there from the outset.

    Film is a poor analogy for this argument, it’s a collaborative process unlike writing. I seem to recall M John Harrison making similar barbed comments about editors in the Savoy issue of New Worlds circa 1979. Would be interesting to know whether he still thinks that way.

  2. Thank you Cinematic Pedant. I thought as much!

  3. Brendan says:

    Yeah, I don’t think comparing cinema to fiction necessarily works, since cinema, like band music, is a more collaborative effort.

    That being said, a lot really depends on the writer and the editor. Good editors are certainly harder to find than good writers, because a good edtior needs to have a vast knowledge of literature, while at the same time being humble.

    In my life, I have run across maybe half a dozen, or so. But in each case, what they have published has been as good or better than what I handed them. So that can’t be a bad thing.

  4. Brendan–I agree. It was Burns’ comparison.

  5. Alex Carnegie says:

    I am reminded of a sketch by Mitchell & Webb here:

    The ideal of the Good Editor, which you’ve put forward in point #2, is the kind of thing I look for in Creative Writing instructors as well: somebody who can grasp and appreciate what you’re trying to do, and yet also look at it with a certain amount of detachment. This is to say they won’t pull any punches, but will also give you suggestions and feedback with the intention of making the piece, as you imagine it, as good as it can be, and bringing insights and ideas which you (who are looking at it “up close”) might not have thought of.

  6. Alex: Yes, I think it’s one of the wonderful things about writing. When you find someone who knows your work as well or better than you do.

  7. Seth Merlo says:

    Talk about writing for shock-value, this article didn’t leave me very convinced at all. I totally agree with sticking to your creative integrity and vision, and that editors should not try and change that, but he hit all the wrongs notes for me. Entirely too combative. I suspect the essence of his argument is that an editor should bring the writer’s vision to fruition without interfering with it, but he never actually says as much, and if he does, it gets lost in arguments such as ‘the writer is always right,’ which many comments on Burns’ blog have already argued is a fairly naive point of view. It almost comes across as if the writer is/should be his or her own best editor, which wold clearly never work despite Burns’ being convinced that the writer can get every aspect of writing correct all of the time. He’s obviously more peeved at the machinery of publishing than at editors specifically, but again, for me, this is lost amongst the broad categorisations and general combative nature of the article.

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