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  • How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    How developmental editing feedback improved The Great Gatsby.
    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    When Scott Fitzgerald heard his first novel This Side of Paradise was accepted, he immediately quit his job (repairing the roofs of railroad cars), and ran down the streets, stopping automobiles and friends to tell them the news.

    His novel had been accepted by the traditionally conservative New York publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons. And although Scott had sent previous drafts of the novel to Maxwell Perkins there, acceptance of This Side of Paradise marked the beginning of a professional relationship that would last for two decades.

    Soon F. Scott Fitzgerald would become the voice of a generation – forever associated with the Jazz Age and flappers.

    And Maxwell Perkins would go on to work with Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, making him possibly the most famous and influential fiction editor in history.

    Scott’s last letter to his editor, Max Perkins, was dated December 13th 1940. Scott died later that month from a heart attack. His final novel, The Last Tycoon, was left unfinished.

    The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. It was preceded by This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned and followed by Tender is the Night. Additionally, his Jazz Age short stories solidified his reputation.

    Maxwell Perkins

    Perkins was exceedingly gifted at inspiring an author to produce their best work. While he could help with structure, think up plots and titles where needed, Perkins had a credo: “The book belongs to the author.”

    He also long avoided the spotlight believing that editors should be invisible, both for the benefit of the author and the public. To be visible could erode trust in the work or the writer involved.

    If you have a Mark Twain, he said, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare.

    But in Fitzgerald Max Perkins was dealing with a perfectionist. Consequently, there was less advice needed compared to some others. Nevertheless, as well as dishing out support, cheques against future earnings, and exchanges on other up and coming authors, Perkins would also give editorial feedback.

    In this blog post, I’ll specifically deal with his editorial commentary on the original draft he saw of Gatsby. Perkins would later say of the novel, his favourite Fitzgerald novel, that it was “as perfect a thing as I ever had any share in publishing.’

    What to call the third novel?

    Correspondence between Perkins and Fitzgerald shows Scott trying out different titles for the book. Some of these titles seem distinctly odd now: Trimalchio in West Egg is perhaps one of the least strange. Other suggestions included:

    Trimalchio

    Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires

    On the Road to West Egg

    Gold-hatted Gatsby

    Gatsby

    The High-bouncing Lover

    Under the Red, White and Blue

    While Scott worried over the title and was still fond of Trimalchio, this choice did not go down well with most of those at Scribner’s. And although The Great Gatsby ultimately won out, Scott felt the title wanting in some way.

    The editorial feedback

    There is a Cambridge edition of the early Gatsby manuscript, titled Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. It also contains notes and two letters from Perkins. The value of this draft of Gatsby is in seeing what differs from the final version.

    For anyone particularly familiar with Gatsby, there will be obvious changes. However, the novel that most people know is still very much there.

    Previously, the novel Fitzgerald was writing was far longer, but he removed a lot of material. There is a long story called Absolution that was cut from the Gatsby narrative. By the time the first draft arrived on Perkins’ desk, the manuscript (Trimalchio) was very similar to the end product.

    Maxwell wrote back to Fitzgerald full of enthusiasm. Dear Scott, he wrote, I think the novel is a wonder. He goes on to say it has vitality and glamour.

    He brought up the issue of the title, which no one at the publisher liked but him. This letter was brief since he intended to take the novel home and read it again, before writing his impressions in full.

    His second letter was a bit longer, but it did not amount to what might be a modern manuscript critique. This is partly because Fitzgerald had already cut a lot out of his novel and shaped it before sending Perkins the first draft he saw. This was Scott’s third novel, so he knew what he was doing and was already a perfectionist.

    Perkins opens the second letter with, “I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book.” He goes on to praise the use of a spectator narrator in Nick Carraway, which gives the readers more perspective on what is happening than the characters at the heart of the book. The eyes of Dr Eckleberg also look down on events.

    When it comes to actual criticisms, Perkins makes only a few points. He was not a very hands-on editor with Fitzgerald. He never wanted to impose his own vision and he was dealing with an exceptionally talented writer.

    The criticisms make perfect sense and while tiny in number, they do make an important difference.

    First of all Scott had worried that there was a slight sagging in chapters six and seven. Perkins agreed with him but didn’t offer a suggestion other than to say he knew Scott would come up with something to fix the pacing.

    Describing Gatsby

    One major difference between the first draft Perkins saw and the published version relates to the scene where Nick first finds himself looking at Gatsby.

    He was only a little older than me – somehow I had expected a florid and corpulent person in his middle years – yet he was somehow not a young man at all. There was a stiff dignity about him, and a formality of speech that just missed being absurd, that always trembled on the verge of absurdity until you wondered why you didn’t laugh. I got the distinct impression that he was picking his words with care.

    After that, Gatsby is distracted by his butler and leaves.

    Readers familiar with Gatsby will remember a more memorable description that more clearly outlines his youth. Perkins pointed out that Tom Buchanan was so well described that he’d know him if he met him on the street. By contrast, “Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim.

    While much about Gatsby is a mystery, Perkins felt that he should be described in as much detail as the others.

    Perkins adds that two people at the publishing house thought Gatsby was older than he was, even with the statement that the man was only a little older than Nick.

    In a later response to Perkins, Scott admitted that he himself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in (the nature of his business). He’d originally thought this was okay, but it was of course one of the problems Perkins picked up on.

    Here is the final version that Scott came up with:

    He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

    Gatsby’s business

    Another point Perkins made related to the mysterious nature of Gatsby’s business. He clearly had a business relationship with Wolfsheim but the reader would still be puzzled by all his wealth.

    It wasn’t that Perkins wanted Fitzgerald to go into detail about the source of his money. But he thought the reader would wonder about it and that it would make sense to drop in hints here and there “that would suggest he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

    Perkins went on to say that the total lack of an explanation “through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect.” Even the suggestion of an explanation would do. The details of what Gatsby is engaged in didn’t need to be outlined, including whether he was an innocent tool of someone else or not. But there did need to be more evidence of his activities.

    In his response letter (which can be read in Dear Scott/Dear Max), Scott said, “Gatsby’s business affairs I can fix. I get your point about them.

    And indeed in the next draft he does drop in more evidence of mysterious business activities that do not in any way undermine the mystery of Gatsby himself. The reader can fill in some of the remaining gaps themself.

    In a later letter Perkins (in Dear Scott/Dear Max) brought the subject up again, referring to the fact Gatsby was supposed to be a bootlegger – a little bit here and there about the bootlegging might be what’s needed.

    Gatsby’s biography

    In the earlier draft, the story of Gatsby’s background appears in chapter eight. Perkins felt that the way it was given to the narrator departs from the narrative technique in the rest of the book. Elsewhere, “everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it, – in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them.” Dumping the backstory where it appears in the earlier draft interrupts the flow of the novel. Perkins thought it better to sprinkle the information bit by bit through the course of the narrative.

    In a later letter to Max, Scott listed his changes – that he’d brought Gatsby to life, accounted for his money, fixed up the two weak chapters (six and seven), improved his first party, and broken up the long narrative relating to Gatsby’s history.

    The outcome

    Although Scott still dithered over the title of the book – mentioning Gold-hatted Gatsby in a March 1925 letter – he also felt that Trimalchio might have been best after all. But it was The Great Gatsby that appeared in bookstores on April 10th 1925.

    Scott’s letters to Perkins show his nervousness, fear, and foreboding. He worried women wouldn’t like the book because it had no important woman in it. And he thought the critics wouldn’t like it because it dealt with the rich and “had no peasants borrowed out of Tess and sent to work in Idaho.

    He also worried that he wouldn’t sell enough to cover his debt to Scribner’s since they had often loaned him money in advance.

    Even on the day of the release, Scott was picking over the faults he could still see in the novel. Nevertheless, he considered the first five chapters and parts of the seventh and eighth to be the best things he’d ever done.

    Unfortunately, sales did not take off as hoped. The fact the book was around 50,000 words and therefore shorter than what the trade preferred did not help. At least two big distributors reduced their orders considerably at the last minute.

    Scott reflected that the title was only fair, “rather bad than good“. And he still considered the lack of an important woman character to be an issue since “women control the fiction market at present.”

    In the end, the book would establish itself as one of the greats of modern American literature and cement Fitzgerald’s reputation. But it didn’t happen overnight.

    Reference material

    Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby – The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by James W. L. West III

    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald- Perkins Correspondence – edited by John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer (out of print so check eBay)

    Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

    Looking for editorial feedback yourself?

    Whether you’re a beginner writer like Fitzgerald once was, or you have more experience, editorial feedback offers a fresh insight into your characters, plot, story structure and more.

    There are different levels of feedback. I offer an Opening Chapters Developmental edit, a Manuscript Critique, a Beta Critique (a bit shorter and cheaper than a Manuscript Critique), or a full Developmental Edit.

    If you have any custom requests, feel free to contact me at karen@indiecateditorial.com or you can check my services page link below:

    My editing services page.

  • Terrified of reading your work in public?

    Terrified of Reading Your Work in Public?
    Terrified of Reading Your Work in Public?

    Terrified of reading your work in public? You should be. You’re a writer, not an actor!

    Unless of course you’re both. In which case you can stop reading now and do something else.

    There are many intimidating moments in a writer’s life. Getting the first feedback on your novel, hearing back from agents or editors. Reading reviews. The horror!

    Or having to stand up in public and read out your work. More horror!

    While author events are more associated with the mainstream publishing industry, indie authors too can read their work to a live audience.

    Some authors thrive in the spotlight, enjoying the opportunity to interact with readers or potential readers.

    But for other authors, standing in front of an audience represents death by a thousand cuts.

    It’s true that actors and musicians can be introverted in their private lives, then miraculously switch on for an audience. Prince would be an example of this – extroverted on stage, introverted and quiet-spoken in private.

    It’s easier of course when you’ve had a lot of experience performing, or even some training.

    Writers tend not to have any training in acting or performing.

    Is it worth taking acting classes ahead of a reading? Possibly.

    However, there are other ways to approach a reading. The obvious one would be to avoid reading in public altogether! But not so fast… You might want to scurry back into your author’s burrow, but that doesn’t get your work out to the public.

    Plus, if you attend an author’s event as a writer, the audience has made the effort to turn up. So you might as well make the effort to entertain them – and no, I don’t mean by falling off the stage or giving the worst reading in the history of worst readings!

    If you’ve been avoiding reading events, it’s time to develop some decent reading chops. No more sorry excuses. No more turning up to read, and quietly droning into the microphone until you finally get the damn thing over and sit down… hoping you didn’t humiliate yourself too much.

    There is an answer to this problem and it comes in two words:

    Anthony Hopkins

    Yes, you’re going to get some important tips from a master of acting. And you don’t need to become a master of acting yourself to benefit from this advice.

    In interviews, Anthony Hopkins has revealed he memorises his lines 250 times. He’s absorbing the text, ensuring that he really really knows it well. He describes 250 as a magical silly number. Yet something happens when he goes over the text so many times. By knowing the text so well, he has all the information he needs and his brain can relax.

    He goes on to say in one interview that once you’re relaxed, you can go on the stage and improvise within that text. He describes ‘becoming so free you get into the zone‘. Once he’s memorised the script, he puts it aside. He also advises putting ego aside if possible, and managing emotions and remembering that less is more in a performance.

    I’ve added some links below to interviews he’s given if you want to explore this some more. But the bottom line is that his advice can also apply to reading your own novel to an audience.

    How to prepare for your readings in advance

    This is very important. You should not start preparing just before a reading. Instead, you should start before your novel is even published. Going through the final draft, begin selecting passages you’d want to read to an audience. Most likely your opening pages, but you might have one or two other passages you also want to read.

    It’s worth remembering that these passages should act as a hook to reel in potential readers in the audience.

    Your reading is partly a marketing effort and it’s always worth remembering that.

    Begin memorising the final draft of these passages. Follow Hopkins’ example and do it over and over it again, many times.

    In the case of Hopkins, he’s absorbing the words to the point where the words are second nature, and this likely helps bring his facial expressions, body language and internal emotion into line with what he’s saying.

    An author doesn’t need to memorise to the point where they go on a stage and recite without the novel in front of them. In the case of a reading, it’s about absorbing the language until the words become second nature.

    You will be less likely to trip over words, lose your place on the page, and you will also likely become more immersed in the story. This in turn can help with feeling self-conscious.

    It can also ward off the kind of physical tension that can kick in and restrict your voice. Nerves and reading in a formal setting can lead to tension in the throat. This in turn can lead to a tendency to drone.

    But if you really know your material and can relax, you should find it easier to modulate tone and emotion in your voice.

    There’s a difference between reading text that you’re just scanning from a page, and reciting something you know so well that you get swept up in it and your voice can better modulate emotion.

    Rhythm, pauses, emphasis

    Once you’ve really memorised the passages you’ve chosen, to the point where you could recite them in your sleep, play with pauses, word emphasis, speeding up and slowing down speech.

    In a video essay on Anthony Hopkins, relating to a particular scene from Westworld, there’s an analysis of speed and pauses in his speech. I’ve linked to this video essay at the end of this blog post, so you can check it out for yourself.

    You too can experiment with how to break down your text and where to emphasise a word, include a pause or even a gesture, etc. And you can use highlighters or underlines to help you remember, if necessary. Look also for rhythm. Try tapping it out where it’s important in a text, then use it as a guide to how you might read that line.

    Costume

    Of course the reading itself is only part of the deal. What do you look like? Are you like most writers – ie, do you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards?

    You might be tempted to buy new clothes for your reading. (Let’s face it, any excuse to buy new clothes is an opportunity not to be passed up.)

    And there’s nothing wrong with splashing out on that eighteenth century dress in red silk brocade for your historical bodice ripper reading. In fact, the audience will never forget the effort you made.

    Never.

    They will remember it for years to come.

    But remember that if you’re wearing uncomfortable new clothes or clothes that leave you feeling self-conscious, you are making things harder for yourself.

    You can wear something different, including period costume, but make sure you walk around in those clothes (and shoes) a bit before you do your reading.

    Wear them to the point where you hardly notice the way they fit on your body. Make sure they’re also comfortable enough for the reading.

    It’s like costume rehearsals. The more comfortable you feel in your clothes, the less awkward you’ll feel on the stage. Own your costume, even if it’s just your usual jeans and sweater.

    And another thing…

    Own the stage

    When you arrive at the venue, see if you can visit the stage and walk around it a bit. Get a feel for the space. Don’t be afraid of it.

    Also, don’t huddle tightly into a small space behind the microphone or lectern when you’re performing. And stand up straight – body posture impacts emotions and your ability to project your voice.

    Video and audio readings

    Of course, you don’t have to turn up in person to do a reading. You could make a video – again, make sure you really know your text beforehand. If you’re camera shy, you could go straight to audio or use images that match your story to accompany your voice. This allows you to get more creative.

    You can also post readings to social media – be aware that if you have Twitter verification, you can post much longer videos. The algorithms like video content.

    Still terrified of reading your work in public?

    While reading in public for the first time can be a frightening experience, it’s not unusual to get a post-reading thrill. You might even wish you could go up and do it again. It all depends on how it went.

    And how your reading pans out will depend on the amount of preparation you put in.

    Don’t leave things to the last minute and wing it.

    Don’t see it as a painful rite of passage you have to go through for each book.

    Learn your text, prepare, and give it your best shot. This is your chance to win over the audience – especially if you’re appearing alongside other writers.

    Some of the audience will be there to see and hear someone else.

    Make sure that when they leave, it’s YOU they’ll remember and talk about.

    References

    Anthony Hopkins about his acting philosophy – particularly look for the section 10 minutes in called ‘Working on the text’.

    Westworld: What makes Anthony Hopkins great – video essay by Nerdwriter1

    Other IndieCat blogs you might find useful

    Services

    And if you’re interested in getting feedback on your novel, feel free to check out my services page. You can also contact me if you have a particular custom service in mind.

    Click for services page here.

  • Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

    Patricia Highsmith: Beautiful Shadow
    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

    In Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, the Whitbread-shortlisted biography by Andrew Wilson, Patricia Highsmith is shown to be a woman who never found true happiness. Condemned by her own psychology to seek out inappropriate and often unavailable women, she never had a relationship that lasted longer than a few years.

    An almost life-long alcoholic, Highsmith’s happiest moments came from writing. She was misanthropic, lonely, shy, often hiding behind her curtain of black hair.

    But she was a brilliant writer, unappreciated in her own country, the United States, where publishers were obsessed with the categorisation of fiction. Highsmith’s fiction, like the woman herself, defied categorisation.

    Highsmith’s childhood and college years

    As Andrew Wilson elegantly illustrates in Beautiful Shadow, the writer’s problems began early in life, in her family circumstances. Her biological father was almost unknown to her. She was raised by her mother and stepfather (who gave her the Highsmith name.)

    The Oedipal complex is given a twist here since the young girl had an intense love for her mother, and a desire to kill her stepfather. Highsmith’s difficult love-hate relationship with her mother, Mary, lay at the root of her problems with women, as Highsmith herself recognised:

    “I am married to my mother I shall never wed another.”

    Her mother, meanwhile, could see the teenage Highsmith was not “normal” and at one point advised her to “straighten up and fly right.”

    Although her sexuality was not clear-cut, Highsmith on the whole preferred women. But she constantly engaged in fantasy relationships with unavailable heterosexual women, or became involved with difficult or controlling partners.

    Patricia Highsmith’s feelings about herself as a woman were complicated by the fact that she saw herself at times as having a male identity. Although very beautiful, she had a tendency to dress slightly butch, softening it with a necklace or lipstick.

    Her fellow students at the all-female Barnard College thought she seemed “dashing.” She was certainly promiscuous, successfully luring both straight and non-heterosexual women into her bed.

    Trying (and failing) to go straight

    For a time, during a relationship with a man she hoped to marry, she underwent analysis, in the hopes of turning herself heterosexual. Her biographer records this well, setting it within the context of psychoanalytic attitudes of the period. As Wilson points out, the therapist’s interpretation of Highsmith’s case was “laughably simplistic and over-dependent on Freudian theory.”

    Not only that, such practitioners failed to recognise that Freud did not believe in “curing” homosexuals, but instead in counselling them into accepting their sexuality. Pat’s therapist recommended group therapy alongside married women with latent homosexual tendencies. Writing in her diary, Highsmith mused:

    “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.”

    Needless to say, the therapy proved useless.

    Highsmith the diarist

    Highsmith was a passionate diarist. She left countless “cahiers,” her notebook/diaries which Wilson had access to. These cahiers go back to her youth. Consequently, the biography is very detailed, and the reader gets the impression that Wilson’s book could have been double or triple the size.

    One of the frustrating things is the inability to go into greater detail about individual episodes. This is not Wilson’s fault though, because he’s dealing with a huge volume of information. But it would be fascinating to read more of Highsmith’s words directly and perhaps it might be possible in some other book in the future.

    On the other hand, because of the density of information, it would be possible to read this biography a second time and get even more out of it. Particularly if read in conjunction with her work, which Wilson analyses.

    Highsmith’s cahiers are a vital insight into her personal life, her psychology, and her mindset as a writer. From them, Wilson has been able to construct how Strangers on a Train came into being. And also where her most famous character, Ripley, came from.

    Something else that becomes obvious is the way she used her infatuations with women in her work.

    The Price of Salt (Carol)

    Her lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (now Carol) was inspired by a woman, Kathleen Senn, who walked into the toy department of Bloomingdale’s where the twenty-seven-year-old Highsmith was working temporarily. Highsmith was immediately smitten with Senn but never met her again.

    However, she later tracked the woman down to her address. There she saw her in a car as it backed out the driveway and headed towards her. Writing about it later in her diary, Highsmith said:

    “For the curious thing yesterday, I felt quite close to murder too, as I went to see the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing. (Is it not, too, a way of gaining complete and passionate attention, for a moment, from the object of one’s attentions?) To arrest her suddenly, my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue.”

    Kathleen Senn became the unsuspecting muse who inspired The Price of Salt, a book remarkable for its happy ending, something not previously seen in lesbian literature in the 1950s.

    In spite of the fact that Highsmith never had any contact with Senn, Wilson tracked down the woman’s surviving relatives. He brings out the other more poignant side of this brief encounter.

    What Highsmith never knew is that the glamorous, sophisticated Senn had a history of mental health problems. Sometime before the publication of The Price of Salt, Senn walked into her garage, closed the door, and switched on the engine of her car. She would never know the part she’d played in literary history.

    The women in her life

    Throughout her life, Highsmith would use the women around her, lovers or women admired from afar, as her muses.

    In spite of this, Highsmith was considered by some to be a misogynist.

    Andrew Wilson, though, shows the difficulties in such an easy reading of Highsmith’s character. The women in Pat’s life lived in the shadow of her mother. Highsmith was a shy, lonely character, and her behaviour at times could be misinterpreted.

    There’s no question she was a difficult human being to be around. But she had her admirers as well as her detractors.

    Highsmith’s politics

    Some people had a better understanding of her nature. She was a brutally honest person, which didn’t always serve her well, though some admired her for it. Her political opinions were hard to define. Some could be termed left-wing liberal. Whereas others veered to the right, and included anti-Semitic tendencies as well as a virulent hatred of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.

    Highsmith spent a great deal of her adulthood in Europe. In exile, she watched in horror as the U.S. went into various conflicts. Her visits back to America often served to confirm her opinion that the country had lost its way. She saw it as a modern-day Roman Empire, and her criticisms wove their way into her fiction.

    Highsmith wasn’t a popular writer in America during her lifetime. The irony is the way she’s been embraced there since her death.

    Wilson believes Highsmith was a writer ahead of her time. Her books, which some have seen as evil and immoral, don’t tread an easy path. She was more interested in psychopaths than do-gooders. These psychopaths were often the viewpoint characters, drawing the reader into their amoral worlds.

    Pacifist and animal lover

    In spite of this, she was a gentle person in real life and a pacifist. Generally, she preferred animals to people and had a life-long love of cats and snails. Wilson documents how Highsmith smuggled her pet snails into France under her breasts.

    Snails and cats are somehow fitting companions for this misanthropic woman. Her love of animals would take a comic dark turn in some of her short stories. There, animals got their revenge on humans, particularly in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder.

    For those wishing to track down her publications, especially the short story collections, there’s a list of her books at the beginning of the biography. Wilson does not ignore the significance of her short stories, summarising their plots and analysing them along with the novels.

    He’s also managed to get some quite revealing information from some of Highsmith’s lovers, as well as those who worked with her. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t set Highsmith within a heterosexist reading of human sexuality or gender. He clearly has enormous sympathy and respect for “Pat” even as he depicts her, warts and all.

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith is an exceptionally well-written and researched book. Wilson has done a fine job in pulling together the strands of this remarkable woman’s life.

    This review was originally written in 2004.

    Other posts on famous authors