July 6th, 2007

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Writers and Editors, part one

Writers need editors.   ALL writers need editors.   Some need editors worse than others, or at times need more editing than at other times, but all writers, at some time (and mostly that's all the time) benefit from having a good editor comment on their work.

Notice the word "good" in the previous paragraph...a good editor is worth more than rubies.   A bad editor...well, let's just talk about good ones. 

For most writers, these days, his/her "editor" is both the "acquisitions editor" (the person who said "We have to buy this book") and the main contact point a writer has at a publishing house.   That editor communicates with the writer and the writer's agent,  and also communicates within the publishing house with copyeditors, Production, Marketing, etc.  The fate of a book rests in the editor's hands, in other words, including all those bits that writers have zero control over.

But sometimes Stuff Happens.   The editor who bought the book is fired, or decides to leave that publishing house, or gets sick or dies.   Another editor is then handed that  book (finished or not) and the writer has a new, untried editor to deal with.  You don't even know if the editor said "Oh, goody!" when handed that assignment or "Why me? Why can't I have a *good* writer?" 

Meeting (in person, in email, or over the phone) one's editor is always a scary/tricky period.  Writers usually communicate best in writing...and some of us communicate a lot better in fiction than in nonfiction business writing.   I used to have a phone phobia to the point of having to write down the first two or three sentences  I would say when calling someone I didn't know.   Talking to a real live NYC editor, publisher, or agent was terrifying, especially if they called *me* and I didn't have my sentences in front of me.   I don't have that problem anymore (I don't think!)  but I still find first meetings stressful.  I want to come across as professional, pleasant to deal with,  but not a pushover.   Businesslike is not my native state of mind, but I really don't want the editor to realize right away how tongue-tangled I can be (and boy, can I be, esp. on the phone...the brain and the mouth do not run neatly in tandem...!) 

 I imagine that editors also approach that first meeting with some trepidation, depending on their attitudes towards writers in general.  The control freaks (there are a few) want to be sure their new acquisition understands who's in charge...the more laid back just want a good working relationship with someone whose personality they know nothing about (sometimes) or too much about (other times.)   As the writer's career becomes a little more solid (it's never rock solid!)  editors may see the writer as  a reliable workhorse, and they want that workhorse to work as well for them as for the previous editors.  I think they think this way.  I have no idea, really.

I'm in the position of getting a new editor, after three months without one, during which time I finished and turned in a book.   This makes the third editor for a five book series...and this  is the last book on the contract, so not only does this editor have to deal with the last book in the series, it's also the last book on the contract...which means this editor will be involved in contract negotiations.    It's a tough situation for me and for the editor.   A few weeks ago, I heard via the top editor and my agent who was assigned to be my editor for this book, someone new to the company, just hired away from another.

What can the writer do?   Well, there's always research.  Find out who had this editor before and be nosy.  I did this discreetly, on a closed list.  Heard only good things.  Whew--sigh of relief.  A very good editor and not hard to get along with.   She was busily reading two previous books in the series, to get up to speed on the new one.  That was excellent, very encouraging.  

Yesterday,  I had email from her.  I love email for situations like this.  You can rewrite your responses until you are happy with the effect and be prepared for a closer contact.   I emailed back immediately (see, I'm professional!) and told her I had agent-suggestions in hand.  She emailed back asking to see them so she could fold them in with hers, when she was through reading the new book.  I emailed those (it was after business hours in NYC by then) and we'd already set up a 10 am phone call.

She called today on the dot of, and we had a very productive (on my side at least) chat.  She reminds me of another editor I worked very well with, at least on the phone.  I 'fessed up to two problems (I can't outline well, and last summer's copyeditor disaster) and she didn't have fits.  This is good.  She seems organized, businesslike, much more than I am (which is what an editor needs) and we discussed scheduling (this book will come out in February...time for revisions she wants will be tight, as Production wants it by August 15, but doable, even though I'm leaving for a convention in less than two weeks.  Thanks to the magic of the internet I can work on revisions and ship them to her before, during, and between conventions.  A laptop and some thumb drives (for multiple backups) and I'm good to go.

We still have to find out if her work style and mine mesh well...I do best when let alone for the most part, and some editors are not happy with that...but I have high hopes for this partnership.  (I start that way with all of them...it helps.)   My former editors, with very few exceptions, made my books better by calling attention to problems, even if I didn't always fix the problem the way they suggested.  Two of them were stellar--the books would not have been 2/3 that good without them.  The others were helpful, but not quite at the same level.

Writers need editors...GOOD editors.  In subsequent posts, I'll talk about what I think makes a good editor.

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Writers and Editors, part two

A lot of people (including me, when I started in this business) are confused about what an editor actually does with (or to) a writer and the writer's work.   What do they do that friends and family who read the work in draft don't do?  What do they do before (sometimes) and after (always) they get their hands on the manuscript?

Sticking to good editors only: editors, from their background and experience, see the book as a whole, in relation to not only that writer's other books, but all other books.   They must grasp--for every book, every writer--what that book tried to be, and where it doesn't achieve the writer's goal.

This is easiest if the writer and editor started with the same conception of the book and can communicate in the course of the writing about the direction the book is taking.  If the writer can outline well, if the writer can do some pre-writing or early-writing analysis, and the editor has time to listen and perhaps make suggestions,  the writer-editor collaboration usually goes smoothly.  

That's not always possible.  Writers like me,  intuitive and discovery writers, can't always (often!) talk analytically about a book before it's at least half done.   This leaves the editor uncertain what the writer was trying for, until the manuscript comes in...and then the editor must quickly get on board, figure out the writer's purpose and  analyze the manuscript to see if the book is doing what the writer (apparently) wanted.    I understand that this can be harder for editors, but working the other way is impossible for some writers, and I'm one of them. 

So...let's say my manuscript comes in, and I'm happy with it (actually, I'm sick and tired of it and never want to see it again for at least a week...)    Like most professional writers, I'm reasonably skilled at the craft: my sentences are sentences, my paragraphs are paragraphs, my spelling and punctuation are (barring a typo here and there) correct, and so on.   No editor should  have to battle his or her way through thickets of illiteracy; that's not what they're there for.   But no writer (OK, almost no writer) is perfect.   I make mistakes, more important than a typo that leaves a teh where the should be.   I fail to see (and my friends the first-readers fail to see) where the story goes soft--where it lacks muscle tone--or where it feels thin.  There's always more in my head than goes on the page, and my selection process (how much sensory detail, how much background, etc.) can be--is, at least once in every book--flawed.

So the editor, the good editor, spots those places.   For instance (all examples are made up for this post), the editor might say "In chapter four, when Brent storms out of the room after Julie tells him his brother was arrested, it's not clear whether he's mad at Julie for telling him, or his brother for being arrested, or both."   Or "You're building suspense all the way through chapter seven, and the big confrontation is in chapter nine, but chapter eight is just...slack."  In other words, the editor keeps track of pace, tension, motivation...spots places where these aren't clear or otherwise create a problem for the reader.  

The editor does this not only within the manuscript--that story--but with the background of many, many such stories, aware of how the book paces compared to others of its kind, how the plot is structured compared to others of its kind, whether the motivations of characters will make sense with the most likely readers for its kind of book.   Perhaps the writer has become fascinated with something that is actually background (I do this...) and needs to be reminded (as I was once) that "not everyone wants to read that much about fly-fishing."  Perhaps a whole lovely, lyrical, beautifully crafted chapter in which things appear to be happening...really has nothing to do with the plot (yup, that one happened to me, too.)   Perhaps the writer has spent too much space on a minor character--not in the writer's mind, where the entire cast of characters must all be real people with real lives, but in the book, where that character's job is to step onto the stage, announce that Mr. Jones is here for his nine o'clock, and then disappear.

So back from the editor comes the always-dreaded editorial request for changes.  Editors differ in how they do this (phone, email, hardcopy) but it boils down to "here's what's wrong with your book" and in some cases "here's what you have to do."  The good editor (the only one I'm going to talk about here) makes it clear why this section didn't work: it was slow, it was confusing, the motivation wasn't clear, there's a lump of exposition in the middle of what should be an exciting scene, etc.  The smart writer waits 24 hours (because, inevitably, there's a moment or two of howling "NO!  It was PERFECT!  I  don't WANT to!"  and then asks (politely) about any editorial comment that isn't clear.  Quite often I think I've made something clear (I know it from the inside, as well as the outside) and I need to know very precisely why it wasn't clear to the editor.   I may say "This is the effect I was trying for...can you tell me what cues you would have needed, or what cue in the manuscript made that reading impossible?"  Good editors always can.  Less good editors--OK, I will mention them just this little bit--sometimes have formed a firm idea about exactly how the writer should have said what the editor wanted said.   I find this difficult, because  if the editor has failed to catch what I was actually trying to do, the fix that's demanded may be entirely wrong for that purpose. 

But with good editors...it's kind of like the way my choir director deals with our choir.  We sing the music; it usually sounds good the first time.  He asks two altos to check their vowel sounds, asks a soprano to sing less brightly, asks a tenor to sing out, reminds the basses that they must enter precisely on the eighth...and we do it again.  It's better.  He tweaks one voice after another, checking the balance of the entire choir (the whole book, in other words) and better than any individual singer could do, he clarifies our sound until, quite suddenly, the music is perfectly there, unencumbered, untarnished or smudged by the frailties of any individual.  The editor nudges the writer here, and there, and tweaks this and murmurs about that...and suddenly the book is more itself, more what it was capable of being, than it was before. 

Choirs need directors.  Writers need editors.  The better the choir, the better the director must be, to see how to perfect and grow that choir.   The better the writer, the better the editor must be, to see how to perfect and grow that writer. 
woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Chocolate Muse

I have a deadline for a short work.   I've been working on it since last Friday, and three short stories' beginnings have died since then.   Short stories are hard for me anyway, unless one drops in my lap, which is rare. 

Finally I realized that I'd quit eating chocolate when I finished the novel.   The last four to six weeks of a novel require a huge wodge of chocolate...less if it's the good dark stuff, more if I'm confined to baking chocolate, the semi-sweet stuff.    When a novel's done, I'm chocolated out and have no chocolate cravings for days to weeks. 

But since intense story-making needs chocolate (in my brain anyway) I had gone off the Muse-fuel at exactly the wrong time.  So day before yesterday I tried small amounts of the Green & Black's 70% cocoa.   The idea I was already fighting with died, but more slowly (that did not help...)  And yesterday I gave up and tore into the rest of that bar...and when it was gone, started on a bar of
Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Espresso Beans.  By  midnight something was taking shape.  Woke up this morning with it, and had the sense to go straight onto the rest of that bar after the obligatory breakfast.  

Words flowed.  That story came alive, and the day produced over 2400 words, most of them pretty good.  It's not done yet; I need another two days of that productivity, and I should have enough chocolate on hand to do it.  One square at a time...every hour or so...usually less than 3 oz/day will get the job done, unless I'm stuck. 

And no, it doesn't give me a migraine nor does the espresso bean keep me awake...not if I'm using all the chocolate & espresso up in the writing. 

Now that I've learned that dark chocolate is helping my blood pressure as well as my writing, it only remains to get this written so I can go exercise off the part of chocolate that does nothing for me but increase my jeans size.

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