Thursday, October 27, 2016

Without Editing, A Long Ride

I took  a ride with The Girl on the Train but found the journey a bit too long.

The Girl on the Train is the hugely successful thriller by British author Paula Hawkins. When it was released last year it broke book sale records. This year sales got another upward bump with release of the film version.

No one really needs my views on the book. However, just a couple pointers for those who have not read it yet: the timeline is kinky, - somewhat difficult to follow. You need to pay close attention to which of the three female narrators is talking, and on which dates.

An interesting part of the book is the author’s acknowledgements, which are completely ignored by everyone except people like me who not only write for a living, but consider writing their favourite pastime.

Ms. Hawkins acknowledges the many people who helped her with the book, noting she is very grateful to her “brilliant editors.” Her editors might indeed be brilliant in some ways, but they have ignored an important fact about readers.

Readers are time starved and want compressed stories. Not abridged stories. Not the 140-characters quick hits of Twitter or other social media sites offering bits and bits of information without depth or context.

Readers want stories that intelligent editors have read deeply, seeking and paring every not-absolutely-necessary scene, paragraph, sentence or even word. That involves cutting text that does not advance the story. If it doesn’t directly advance the storyline, it should not be there.

The Girl on the Train would have been a much better book if someone had spent the time to reduce it by 20,000 or 30,000 words. The book runs about 100,000 to 105,000 words by my guess.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald runs 47,000. Somerset Maugham’s classic The Painted Veil is about 60,000 words. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger 73,000.

The Girl on the Train contains some text that does not advance the story. It could easily have been 75,000 without losing any critical part of the story.

Obviously not every good book has to be a shorter length. Epics such as Gone with the Wind, which cover extended time periods, can be longer without trying the reader’s patience.

At any rate, the point is that many of today’s books, especially crime novels, need better editing.

Writers famously are afraid to “murder their darlings”. They see their words, phrases and descriptions as precious when in fact some are self-indulgent and do not move the story along for readers. The writer won’t kill them, so editors must do it for them.

(Incidentally, the phrase about killing your darlings has been attributed to almost every author going, especially William Faulkner and Stephen King. They both have used the phrase but the original author of the thought was British writer Arthur Quiller-Couch, who used it in his On the Art of Writing lectures in 1913-14). 

Unfortunately, editing excellence is fading in this age of turbo-capitalism. Publishing houses are like chicken factories. A book is fast fed, plumped up and zipped out to make room for the next one on the conveyor belt.

Good editing takes talent and time. Time is money and money is made these days with competitive speed that requires skimping on, or even eliminating, critical processes such as editing.

It is all about speed and volume, which is why The Girl on the Train sells at some Costco stores for under $7. Despite the lack of hard-nosed editing, it is a good read. Entertaining and well written.

Not so much the film version, according to the reviews. They have been mixed, roughly averaging a five out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie an average rating of 5.4, noting: "Emily Blunt's outstanding performance isn't enough to keep The Girl on the Train from sliding sluggishly into exploitative melodrama."

Rolling Stone was more positive: "The movie gives away the game faster than the novel, but Emily Blunt digs so deep into the role of a blackout drunk and maybe murderer that she raises Girl to the level of spellbinder."


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