We all accept this, based on the evidence of history, from Hemingway’s head (or lack thereof) to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium dreams, Sylvia Plath’s suicidal prose, Emily Dickinson’s cloistered yearnings, and Jonathan Franzen’s dissing of Oprah. The surprise is that writers who have a right to be crazy, such as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, often seem the most grounded.
I think it’s because writers never really finish a work, and never turn out something that’s good enough. It always falls short of perfection, or even their flawed vision of what it should have been. Even for dummies like me, who never know the ending until we write it (and sometimes even after we write it), there’s a sense that we could have done better. The worst writers are those who think they are good writers.
Some revise until they grind the feeling out of the story. A couple of novels I wrote to be “liked” and “popular” turned out to be kind of liked. Nice books. They sort of sell okay and people generally read them and are okay with them. And those are books that I revised too heavily. I polished and polished until every cranky, sharp facet had been removed. They don’t have any grown-up cuss words. And they never make people angry. I took the “Scott” out.
But a book that royally pisses people off is worth its weight in gold. And it’s actually pretty decent publicity. I’m out of the business of reading my reviews for the most part, but I am always drawn to the “one-star” reviews that so many writers dread. I love them. That doesn’t mean I want to be one-starred to oblivion, but often I can see where a story touched a nerve.
My favorite books, both mine and those of others, tend to be either ones or fives. I have read some cookie-cutter bestsellers where the author was clearly punching the clock and putting the series hero through the paces for another quarter million bucks. Yawn. Empty calories, like potato chips. But these days such books don’t get five minutes of my time, because I know where I’ll end up—six hours of my life gone and nothing added.
Dean Koontz, both highly polished and highly predictable, has been one of my favorite authors, and he’s known for revising one page over and over, dozens of times, before heading to the next, using no outline. Now, he’s clearly OCD in all ways, and he’s “fortunate,” I suppose, that his obsession is writing and his compulsion is rewriting. It’s earned him millions of fans. But I would like him a lot better if he slipped up once in a while, if he dangled a participle or let the damned dog die for a change. He’s too perfect, his heroes too good for the world in which I live, his libertarian views too resolute. Maybe in his old age he’ll crack a little and put out something that will change the world.
Some writers are the opposite. King could easily be edited 40 percent. If you read the uncut version of “The Stand,” you get little additional impact for the extra hours of your life. But he’s so gifted that even his waste material is entertaining. He could have cut out the waste and had an extra novel or two.
My biggest danger is editing to make something more “commercial,” under some misguided notion of a marketplace. This is the market of dreams. It doesn’t even know what it wants until it shows up.
Part of that danger is my fault for reading too much writing- and publishing-industry advice, until I’m as insane as all the other writers out there. You learn, “Be the same, but different.” My most successful novels, and the ones that arouse people the most, were written in a vacuum—The Red Church, from back when I didn’t know what I was doing and thus had no expectations of what a novel should be; Disintegration, written as self-inflicted punishment and healing, and never intended for publication; and As I Die Lying, which I did revise many times but each time kept making it less typical.
Maybe writers are better off writing great novels and putting them in a trunk for discovery after death. Then they don’t have to worry about either editing or selling. But what do I know? I’m insane.
This week’s Scott special is Disintegration, 99 cents for a limited time.
Scott Nicholson is author of 12 novels, including the thrillers Speed Dating with the Dead, As I Die Lying, Drummer Boy, Forever Never Ends, The Skull Ring, Burial to Follow, and They Hunger. His revised novels for the U.K. Kindle are Creative Spirit, Troubled, and Solom. He’s also written four comic series, six screenplays, and more than 60 short stories. His story collections include Ashes, The First, Murdermouth: Zombie Bits, and Flowers.
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