Don’t know who he is? You’re not alone. Unless you’ve read his biography or seen the excellent movie entitled Genius, you probably have never heard of him, but you’ve heard of the authors he mentored to greatness as their editor: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. I saw the movie a few years ago, then read the book, and became in awe of him and his literary talent.
Perkins’ talent was not only fostering relationships with his authors that enriched their lives and their work, but in patiently going through their books with them, sculpting it line by line—and sometimes engaging in long, drawn-out debates about their prose. He saw potential in authors other publishers turned down and helped them reach their heights. Wolfe is one example. A prolific wordsmith that would send Perkins TRUNKS FULL OF PAPERS and say “this is my new book,” Wolfe hated to “kill his darlings.” Perkins and he spent two years hacking down his second book to a manageable level (it’s still too long), constantly thwarted by Wolfe’s tendency to cut 3 pages and bring in 30 more the next day. (Wolfe and I are both ENFPs, so I know the feeling, but damn, dude, reign yourself in out of mercy!)
Now considered one of the greatest editors of all time, Perkins had a unique ability to spot talent nobody else saw and work with them to make it happen. He didn’t just send back pages full of notes and crossed out sections, and he didn’t do all the work himself; he went through it, and explained his reasoning, and demanded the author remember the story they were trying to tell. In one terrific scene in the movie, Wolfe is refusing to cut down an enormous section of purple prose about the minute a boy falls in love with a girl. As the two men ramble about the city (indicating their argument happens over the course of several hours), Perkins stubbornly insists on “cut, cut, cut” and Wolfe resists him—until Perkins forces him to stop, and asks him to remember what it was like the first time he fell in love. There was no poetic comparing of her eyes to cornflowers. That takes away from the point. What is the point? “He falls in love.” “Good. That’s all you need. Bam. Like lightning!”
I love that so much.
When I was young and arrogant novelist, I assumed every word I wrote was wonderful and necessary to the story. My manuscripts were giant, inflated tomes on par with Wolfe’s drafts. It horrified me the first time I read the “word count” for most books, because that meant cutting my work ruthlessly just to get down to that word count. I had to do it alone. I read, studied, learned from the best, and took all the advice of good editors, because I care about my books and I want them to be as good as I can make them. I cut mercilessly. Rewrote entire sections. Restructured chapters. Took out characters. Doing all of this forced me to take Hemingway’s advice – “Never use a dollar word when a ten cent word will do.”
Which is why I am so critical of writers who don’t. There is an awful lot of books that could be a lot shorter, tighter, more focused, and bogged down by less literary self-indulgence. More is not always better. And that extends to movie scripts. You know what’s harder to write than complexity? Simplicity. Not every story has to be The Lord of the Rings, and most of them shouldn’t be. I’m not especially fond of The Great Gatsby, but I respect it as a short book that packs a powerful punch.
I feel like many authors put out excellent first books, and as time goes by, their editors edit them less because the publishers know they can sell it anyway. They need a Perkins to point out their flaws with the same voracity their first editor did. The Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling is a tight book. There’s a reason she became famous, and it’s that book. It is only 90,000 words. Edited to perfection. Her sentences sing. The quality of her writing worsens over the course of the series (too many subplots, too many characters, and pointless additions that don’t further the plot, like Liberate the House Elves and Grawp and the 100 pages we spend putting up and taking down tents and hiding in the woods. Cut that!). The last three books could all be shortened by several hundred pages. One of them, in particular, is full of run-on sentences which makes it impossible to read out loud without stumbling over them.
What happened??? She had no ruthless editor. Or maybe refused to listen to one.
Now, she’s writing movies. Fantastic Beasts was an excellent first movie full of great characters that left me wanting more. After that, Rowling forgot to kill her darlings. Our memorable, lovable cast of four people went to a dozen, several subplots, wizarding politics, and the audience having no idea who the lead character was. Whose story is it?? When you have too many characters, you get flat carbon cut outs.
She is not alone. George R.R. Martin went from a tight, compelling first book about the Stark family to the bloated tome of his latest one, which wastes hundreds of pages on nothing that furthers the plot and gave me no reason to read the next one. (“Where do whores go?” Tyrian asks as he farts, drinks, belches, pukes, and urinates, over and over and over again. I don’t care. And I don’t want three pages describing the food at the banquet in detail. It’s irrelevant unless it is going to poison someone.) Stephen King has always been too wordy, but his latest books have forgotten the advice in his own book on writing: be short and to the point, and get rid of all your adverbs. (You first, Mr. King.) Whenever I see a first-time author on a library shelf and it’s as thick as my fist, I pass. I know it didn’t need to be that long.
For the editors who edit ruthlessly, who argue with writers, and spend a lot of time stripping a story to its bones so it can shine, I feel gratitude. For the rest of the over-inflated word-count writers out there, who make me sit through movies that don’t have to be three hours long, and miniseries that don’t need fourteen episodes, and books that don’t require 900 pages to tell a story—get a damn editor!