Double or Nothing

by | Jun 18, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

Bet double or nothing on your next draft (and the next one and the next one). 

The great Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins noticed that, in a near-final draft of The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby uses the nickname “old sport” four times. He told Fitzgerald that the moniker was a bit puzzling, and needed either to be cut entirely, or to be repeated until it became almost a tic, something defining in Gatsby’s personality. By the time the book was published, Gatsby said “old sport” 42 times–a thousand-plus-percent increase. No doubt there have been dissertations on what “old sport” says about Gatsby’s character, his pretensions to wealth, his performance of race and gender, even. 

In other ways, too, Perkins guided Fitzgerald to magnify and sharpen Gatsby in the reader’s vision by 1000 percent. In an earlier letter to Fitzgerald, Perkins said that “Gatsby is somewhat vague.” Whatever your thoughts about the classic, often-assigned novel, which enters the public domain this year, you must agree that Jay Gatsby is anything but vague. But the character did not arrive fully formed in Fitzgerald’s imagination. Far from it. It took draft after draft after draft. 

So when I say go double or nothing, that’s actually a pretty safe bet, compared to going in 1000 percent. 

Prompt

In your draft, find something that sticks out. Maybe it sticks out because it doesn’t sit comfortably with the rest of the draft. Or maybe it sticks out because it’s just really good, precise. 

Then decide: either cut it, or do more with it. 

What does doing more with it look like?

Maybe you have a poem or a story or essay with a metaphor comparing a problem to a bunch of hair in a shower drain. So weave more shower or hair or murky standing water imagery into your next draft. In a poem, make it the guiding metaphor for the whole thing. In a story or essay, make it a motif. 

In “Feared Drowned,” Sharon Olds goes heavy with beach and sea imagery. The poem takes place on a beach, so that’s just the logical choice, but it’s still instructive in the way she adheres so tightly to the setting to create the mood. Notice how she compares the swimsuit’s color to seaweed in line 2 (“your suit black as seaweed”) and then reverses the simile in line 12 (“Kelp snakes in like a shed black suit”)–also reversing suit and black to mirror the reversal, and subbing kelp in for seaweed to soften the repetition. 

When would you cut instead? Probably if it’s not so logically tied to the setting or the character or the theme of the piece. Or if, when you try to extend or repeat or deepen it, it just doesn’t quite work. Maybe it seems heavy-handed or cartoonish. Gatsby, for all his memorability and his tics and quirks, is never a caricature. 

But if you’ve got a great pastry metaphor going, and your character is an electrician, maybe just…make your character a baker instead, and go crazy with leaveners and lards. Let your micro-edits unfurl into a larger change in the piece. 

Further Reading

Again, you don’t have to love The Great Gatsby to learn from his revision process. The biography of Maxwell Perkins (affiliate link) covers some of that and much more–he also edited Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, among others.
The revision of Gatsby is the central example in The Artful Edit by Susan Bell (affiliate link). I took Bell’s workshop on revision at The New School, and it truly empowered me as an editor of my own work, and gave me a whole language around revision that I still speak as a writer and teacher. Her book is a master class.