Friday, April 25, 2014

The Dark Deliciousness of Working with Editors by Wendy Russo

During the publication of “January Black,” I worked with five editors. I’m including myself in the five because, of all of us, I made the most passes and caused the most trouble. More on that in a minute. First, have you seen that jumbled text of Facebook that demonstrates that jumbled text is readable so long as the first and last letters of every word are in their proper place?

I mean this one:
“I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arppoiatrely cllaed Typoglycemia.
“Amzanig huh? Yaeh and you awlyas thguoht slpeling was ipmorantt.”
If you can read that text in the square above, you will have problems editing your own work.

The fabulous Anne Mini, publishing expert extraordinaire, preaches the strategy of reading the entire manuscript in hard copy, out loud, before sending it anywhere. Our brain’s ability to correct the words in real time are the reason why. I personally made eight passes over my novel before it was accepted by a publisher, and my first* editor found hundreds of errors. Structure. Grammar. Typographic. Continuity. World building. Suspension of disbelief. And my personal favorite, Frankenstein sentences. (You know wrote a sentence, then edited it, then put some deleted parts back, and removed them again. A few months later, you read over the sentence and find two sentence fragements from two separate attempts, tied together with two helping verbs, both wrong, and at least one other word that you have no idea why it was ever there.)

*My first editor was actually a screener. She acquired the book for the press before leaving for nursing school. The “first” editor was actually the second to get the manuscript.

In small presses, your editors will often be a fellow writers. They are people. Humans. They have families, day jobs, health problems, and works in progress of their own. They don’t know you, the thickness of your skin, or your preference for how to receive criticism on your work. I established a casual connection with my editor up front and we chatted off and on during the first few months she had my book. That’s right. Months. Some editors turn around quickly, which has its pros and cons. Others take their time. It was during these conversations that I learned about a dozen or so things in her life that would keep her from working on my novel. And, when I got the edits back from her, I got the distinct sense that she wasn’t the right editor for my story despite what had become a friendly personal relationship.

It’s important to listen to these instincts. Just like a parent, you are the first and best advocate that your novel has. I didn’t listen at the time. I spent two and a half months rewriting the middle third of the book—which I do not regret—and gave it back to her. The second round edits didn’t make me happy and resulted in the publisher reassigning my novel to another editor.

Was she a bad editor? Not at all. It’s not as easy as “good” editor vs “bad” editor, although there are both. Even if you get a good editor, s/he may not be the right editor for you on this book. She may point out all of the things she should, but do it in such a way that makes you want to stab her repeatedly with coffee straw. Or she may love your story too much to critique much at all, and errors slip through publication to be found later on by readers later. These are warning signs. If you’ve built a beautiful friendship with your editor—likely if you’ve connected on Facebook—you may want to sever your business relationship before it all goes sour.

What I have learned is to be patient, but not too patient. Ask questions. Communicate my expectations. I waited too long to see how it would all play out. There’s no shame in admitting when things go sideways with an editor. Sooner, I’ve learned, really is better.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your honest appraisal of realizing when things aren't going well. Often we want to force things for the sake of being "nice," but if the book fails because you let things fall when you felt something was wrong, the person they'll blame is you, not your editor. Thanks for the insight (and reminder for the future)!