For the launch of my third novel, I thought it would be fun to have the story editor, Patrick J. LoBrutto, ask some questions. He’s not only conversant with the novel; he made it better.

Pat, who worked in-house at Bantam and at half a dozen other major imprints, has edited more books than most people read in a lifetime. Over a career spanning three decades, he’s worked with Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Eric Van Lustbader, Walter Tevis, the Louis L’Amour Estate, Don Coldsmith, Jack Dann, F. Paul Wilson, Joe R. Lansdale, Brian Herbert, and hundreds of others.

Obviously, if any of my answers come across as incoherent, it’s all Pat’s fault.

If someone were to ask three specific questions about your book that would lead to an explanation of you, what would those three be?

What would they ask?  Let’s see….

1. Did you know that these were warning signs as a kid:  Counting while you bit your fingernails, chewing your sweatshirt sleeves in a perfect circle pattern, and wearing your sister’s hand-me-down pink cut-off shorts while memorizing the digits of pi?

2. How does a middleclass kid get expelled from three high schools in three different states and end up living out of a Greyhound Bus station in Texas?

3. Why didn’t you learn from your mistakes?  Are you stupid or just foolish?

 

Nice.  Now thinking of your story and all the extreme reactions to your characters:  People love Coop even though he’s crazy and violent.  Is he really the way that you portrayed him?

With Coop, I never considered exaggerating or changing a thing.  He’s a wonderful mix of loyal, angry, athletic, loving, and charismatic. He’s pure juxtaposition.  I like watching him read aloud to his toddler, shirtless, with gnarly bruises, scars, and tattoos all over his body.

A lot of the reviewers have been really harsh on your father, but your fans on Goodreads and Facebook see him another way.  What’s up with the disparity?

I don’t know. It seems like some of the reviewers didn’t read the end of the book.  But fans did.  They read the redemption.  Yes, my father made some bad decisions during a three-year period, but he’s 64 years old.  If a college football coach had a record of 61-3, he’d be in the Hall of Fame.  I’m not saying that my father’s perfect now, but he’s a pretty damn good grandfather, and he’s learned from his mistakes.  He knows how to let go.  And I like hanging out with him, watching baseball games with him or going to coffee.  We all have bad years, and parenting is tough, so I can’t judge him too harshly.

 

So the book tells the story of his low point?  Does that make him mad?  And what’s your family’s reaction?

My father has a pretty good sense of himself now, so no, he’s not angry.  Like I said, he knows how to let go.  He’s moved on.  People who read the book to the end understand that.  He changed after his shoulder injury. He’s not the same person anymore. People who work with him at the hospital understand that as well.  My father’s an incredible person.  A scholar who loves people and travel.  For twenty years now he’s done medical relief work in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala. As far as the rest of my family goes, the reaction to the book is mixed.  Some of them say, “Well, that’s just how it was back then.” Others say that they wish I’d included more of the positives, the before and after – the good stuff – especially about my father.  But when I chose to cut the book down, I focused on three years.  And those three years were not good.

 

So the book was longer at first?

The first draft was 521 pages of terrible.  And I never let anyone read that draft.  In fact, I got rid of the only two copies.  Six years and thirteen drafts later, the book was closer to its current form.

 

Then did it sell right away?

No.  I had a year of submissions with my first agent. Twenty-two rejections from editors at many houses and imprints.  They gave me specific and thoughtful rejections.

 

At that point, what did the editors like, and what did they not like?

Their responses were fairly consistent.  They all liked the imagery.  They said I did something with my similes that no one had really done before.  So they liked the writing on a sentence level.  But they said that the story arc was broken, and they were right.  It was complicated.  This probably won’t make sense, but I’d created an out-of-time-order, eleven-and-eleven chapter structure that linked the theme from Chapter 1 with Chapter 22, Chapter 2 with Chapter 21, and so on.  Time only met up at Chapters 11 and 12. It was pure craziness.  But my brain liked it.

I remember my agent saying, “So what exactly are you trying to do here?”

Sometimes different and original do not equal good.

 

There’s still a lot of time shifting in the book.  Flashbacks and disorientation.  You don’t always ground the reader.  Why do you leave out time markers?

Actually, my agent asked me my to put a time marker in every chapter, so I’ve added quite a few. But yeah, the reader isn’t grounded in time, and I wanted that effect.  High school felt eternal for me.  Weeks wouldn’t end.  So I wanted the reader to be out of a consistent time flow.  It’s funny because the book reads fast (I’ve had more than a 100 emails saying that a person read the book in one sitting), yet time doesn’t progress much in the story.

 

Are you still obsessive-compulsive?  And how do you get over that?

I’m a lot better than I used to be.  My obsessive-compulsive stuff is more like a temptation now.  Something I can fight.  I really want to tap my thigh 23 times before you say your next sentence, but I can make my hand stop.  I want to check my alarm clock thirteen times before I stretch my calves for three minutes, but I make myself walk away.

We all have temptations.  Mine are just a little more ridiculous than yours and often involve numbers.

 

Just like that, you wrote so many details that didn’t make you look good in this book. You seemed uncool or unstable, a poor decision-maker.  The End of Boys is sort of the anti-James Frey book, where you couldn’t grit your teeth and solve yourself, where you needed other people to help you.  Considering that you wouldn’t always look great, why’d you write a memoir?

Well, I was working on a novel for a couple of years, and it wasn’t going anywhere.  My friend, the writer Jose Chaves, was really honest.  He said, “This novel’s awful.  But you have such an interesting true story.  So write your memoir first.”  I was afraid to.  I didn’t want to cry through the first drafts of certain scenes or anything like that, but Jose was right.

Then when I talked to my wife Jennie, she said she’d support me through the process, help me as I write, and help me to move on afterward.  And she did.  She was incredible.

 

Was it hard to cut 300 pages?

Well, the first draft was so bad that Jennie didn’t even see it, and she’s my first reader.  So no, it wasn’t that hard to cut down. It was like cutting off long, yellow, grown-out, down-curving toenails.  They’re natural to your body in rough draft form, but they don’t have to stay there.

 

Even though it’s short, this book is an inspiring story of survival.  What do you hope for its future?

Well, I just found out that it’s being taught at a college and a high school this coming year. It’s being taught for craft at the college level.  It’s being taught at a high school in an alternative reading workshop. People say this book will be good for teens and parents of teens, and I hope that’s true.  I survived.  I went to college.  I became a father and a teacher.  And I have a life that I don’t deserve now, one that I’m grateful for.  So I hope the story means something to people.

 

Since it’s being taught at a college for its craft, what are your biggest craft pet peeves?

Good question. Things that annoy me……obvious dishonesty – or when I can tell that the writer is putting something in a chapter as a device.  I also hate clichés, both cliché images and cliché plot lines.  They’re hard to avoid – we say clichés all the time, think of cliché storylines – but they’re really bad for writing and culture.  I don’t want the girl to bite her lip nervously and be troubled but have a heart of gold.  I don’t want the next generation of readers to hope for that in a story.  And I hate heavy uses of adverbs and adverbial phrases too.  “Yelling wildly and throatily, the boy threw the rock without provocation.”

 

One final question: Is there anything about the publishing process that surprised you?

Yes.  Self-promotion and online time. It takes total commitment to get a book published and help it sell.  You have to spend way more time online than you ever thought. On Facebook, Twitter, your website.  Then you have to set limits on your online time so you still get your writing done.  It’s tough for an addictive personality like mine. I have to say, “I won’t check my email until I’ve written for forty-five minutes.”

Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in authors asking for a critique of the stories I’ve rejected from my anthologies. Most of them ask politely, and I send back the shortest reply I can explaining that I have a rule against giving any sort of critique. This latest round of requests made me wonder if perhaps I was being too harsh, but then I realized that there are very good reasons for me to refuse. Here are the top three:

When I began my junior year of college, I believed that I had mastered the art of the essay. By that point I had taken three semester-long courses on academic writing, and knew the necessary components of a good paper by heart. For every essay assignment, I spent hours, if not days, crafting the right thesis statement, making sure each of my paragraphs had topic sentences, balancing the ratio of analysis to evidence, and so on. I was convinced that I was doing all the right things.

I’ve since learned that I was wrong, however. It’s embarrassing to go back and read my old papers, not because they are incoherent, but because they are inelegant. They contain pretentious language, paragraphs that are slightly out of place, sentences with as many as twelve clauses, and general bloat. For example, an essay that I wrote about The Communist Manifesto began with the sentence, “A salient feature of Marx’s vision of history is its deterministic view; that is, history is a pattern of class struggles as the expanding means of production begin to be inhibited by societal structures which are then broken down and replaced by new ones.” The paper goes downhill from there.

I wrote this way because I did not that writing true sentences was just the first step toward writing comprehensible ones. In other words, I did not appreciate the power of revision.

Up until that point, no one had taught me how to revise. My freshman writing course dedicated exactly one class period to a discussion of editing and revision, and my other teachers insisted that revising was a process that I needed to do, and not much else. Style guides were no help, either. Strunk and White devote exactly one unhelpful paragraph to revising, much of which is about when “scissors should be brought into play.” Although the introduction of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well asserts in the introduction that “rewriting is the essence of writing,” there is less than a page on revision and editing in the body of the text. Even William Kelleher Storey’s Writing History: A Guide for Students simply encouraged me to ask myself several questions like “Will readers find this to be an interesting and significant argument?” before talking about comma splices.

This breezy attitude toward revision led me to believe that it was an intuitive process that demanded far less effort and direction than writing a rough draft. So I was not worried by the fact that I could only intuit about twenty or thirty minutes’ worth of corrections—moving a paragraph here, inverting a pair of clauses there, and finding the occasional place where I could throw in an alliteration. Such efforts were not enough to salvage my Communist Manifesto paper, among many others, from stylistic barbarism.

Where instruction and instinct failed, however, poetry succeeded. In the fall of my junior year, I had lunch with a friend of mine who was taking a class on modernist literature. She came straight from class, and as she sat down she produced, with a flourish, her reading assignment: a working draft of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, complete with Ezra Pound’s annotations. This was the first time that I’d ever been privy to someone else’s writing process, and I was amazed to see this intermediate step between the poem’s embryonic stages and its published form, which I vaguely remembered from high school. More importantly, I realized that Pound and Eliot were not making one or two cursory cut-and-pastes or substituting a few words here and there, but thoroughly re-evaluating almost everything about the poem. Absurd as it seems in retrospect, only then did I realize how much revision can shape a piece of writing.

My next mentors were novelists, who taught me that my relationship with writing was exactly wrong. First, they emphasized that writing well is an unpleasant business. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, described a typical day of writing as “long, snarled, frustrating and sometimes despairing,” while George Orwell likened writing to “a long bout of some painful illness.” And second, they insisted that the key to writing well was ruthless revision. As Ernest Hemingway put it, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” Ninety to one? Wastebaskets? For someone whose editing process usually involved the addition of fluff in order to hit page limits, the suggestion that I ought to throw out more than I keep was absolutely terrifying.

Nevertheless, I resolved that, for my next writing assignment, I would make the editing process as long and unpleasant as possible. So I forced myself to revise for a half a day instead of half an hour. And, miraculously, the more I stared at my rough draft, the angrier and more ruthless I became. I excised sentences, I deleted whole paragraphs, I re-phrased and re-wrote and ended up with something that did not look very much like what I originally put on the page. Then I produced a third draft, and a fourth, until finally I was satisfied with draft number five. For the first time, I felt like I had written a paper that was actually good, instead of just merely competent.

But only this foray into the world of literary art taught me what revision really involved, and I realized that the well-meaning advice of teachers and style guides—who usually boiled the process down to unhelpful metaphors (“it is just a matter of making repairs,” wrote Zinsser) or lists of questions, tips, and tricks—had actually led me astray. Editing has less to do with developing an instinct or following a checklist; it has everything to do with time, effort, and the willingness to cut writing down to its bare bones—even if it means, to paraphrase Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, murdering your darlings.

All of this hand-wringing isn’t mere melodrama, or a kind of histrionic half-apology from those writers who are a bit embarrassed about their thoroughly bourgeois occupation. Rather, as Mark Twain said, “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”  And editing is to the writer what practice is to the musician, what exercise is to the athlete. It is the only thing that can possibly elevate “correct” prose into readable prose, to weed out triteness and laziness and showboating, to quiet—however temporarily—the self-doubts that plague every writer from the moment he or she sets pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard.

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again – Oscar Wilde.

The great news is that on the internet, you don’t have to worry about such an irritating thing as committing to an edit. Wilde could still be revising and moving commas for the rest of his life, if he so chose.

What’s the rule, here?

Once you’ve edited your article, blog, story, whatever, and released it into the wilds of the internet like a flapping and confused dove, it’s out there – it’s published. You’ve officially stated, ‘OK guys. Check it out, and slip me a royalty cheque.’

But.

Technically… you can still go in and edit and play with it in a way you couldn’t do with a hard-copy edition. Names, places, dates, constructions… these are all constructs that can be moved around and changed and worked and re-worked. The boundaries are suddenly much more ephemeral than in different models – but is this fair play? Is the goal to commit to an edition, or rather to distribute the best possible edition, even if that occurs through the use of edits that didn’t occur prior to publication?

Tricky one.