Fitzgerald and the art of the macro-edit

I’ve been reading Susan Bell’s “The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself.” She talks about ways to gain perspective on your writing project and then breaks the revision process into the Big Picture (macro-editing) and the Details (micro-editing).

Micro-editing doesn’t scare me. It has been a big part of my day job for years. It’s exhausting and challenging, but I get it — and it’s ultimately satisfying.

But macro-edits terrify me. I get anxious when I’m not writing a scene or doing something visible, something measurable. I’ve always preferred to write my way through problems, so it’s hard for me to sit still long enough to see the shape of something as big as a novel and puzzle out ways to make it all work.

And once I start questioning a character or action or plot line, there’s no stopping me. In my latest struggle to impose some order on my novel, I have made everything negotiable but still the pieces refuse to fall into place. All those interlocking gears are misaligned, warped by heat, teeth broken off in an industrial accident. They’ll never fit together, let along spring to life again.

My well-worn copy of "The Great Gatsby," which I've had since high school.
My well-worn copy of “The Great Gatsby,” which I’ve had since high school.

In Bell’s book, she uses “The Great Gatsby” as an example of macro-editing (calling it “quite simply, a tour de force of revision”), based on earlier drafts of the novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s correspondence with legendary editor Maxwell Perkins.

It’s gratifying to learn that Fitzgerald was a tireless micro-editor but even he needed a thoughtful reader to suggest macro-edits — though he came up with the brilliant remedies.

He bemoans having to throw out 18,000 words because he got off-track. Pfft! That’s nothing. I’ve abandoned whole characters along the way and had to toss out hundreds of pages, some of which I really liked. That’s how I have found my way through the story while working on craft, but at some point, you have to step back and look at the whole — which I have done more than once. But then I get impatient and start writing again before I’ve really figured it out.

I swear I’m going to outline my next novel from start to finish before I write a word.

Well, maybe just one scene…or two. Three, tops.

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