Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Writer, the Editor, and Human Nature

I have always argued that everyone needs to be edited. No manuscript, no matter how carefully revised by the author, is ready for publication without first undergoing extensive editing by another. All authors are too close to their own manuscripts to catch the logical inconsistencies, or to know what's funny or what works, and what doesn't. I take this as fundamental.

All editors know that when authors bring you their manuscript, they are expecting a few changes, but they are secretly hoping for none, or at least, only the trivial stuff they don't really care about. They are prepared for the editor to change "which" to "that" or "try and" to "try to", but they don't really want the editor to identify the sorts of problems that require one to rewrite whole scenes. When they get the manuscript back covered in blue ink, there are inevitably tears, pulling of hair, and the insertion of pins into small dolls that vaguely resemble the editor.

This is, of course, a normal part of the writing process. Sensible writers know not to respond to the editor for at least a week after they've read and digested the required revisions, because everyone's initial reaction is "What does that idiot know? He's ripping the heart out of my book/article/story!" It is only after one has had an opportunity to review and--reluctantly, grudgingly--accept that the editor might have one or two points worth looking at that one can get down to work on the revisions. Hopefully, if the editor is any good, after having put in the effort to make the suggested revisions, the author comes to appreciate that the manuscript is now even better than it was, and that it was worth the additional effort to get there.

Worst, of course, are the authors who say, "I want you to be brutally honest". Because that is what editors do. It's not about being brutal, it's about fixing the manuscript. So when we hear, "I want you to be brutally honest" we know that this is not a professional, and likely someone who really means, "Please tell me how brilliant my novel is." (I usually ask for money up front when someone says this to me, because I know that by definition I am looking at a dissatisfied customer.)

Which brings us to last Tuesday...when I finally finished my own novel. Of course, it goes without saying that it will have to be edited. And that, like all manuscripts, I can expect my editor to identify any number of necessary revisions.

But um...deep down there is a part of me that really believes that none of that applies to me or my manuscript. Because, after all, I am an editor. With years of experience. And I was revising as I went. So I have already caught that in chapter 27 I had completely forgotten about two of the characters for the last 50 pages. I have already noticed and fixed that character A hadn't actually told B about the secret yet and so B shouldn't be reacting that way. And I've reread this novel like 200 times, and I laugh every single time, so, you know, it works. My editing skills tells me this baby is ready to hit the presses!

So when I hit 'send' to deliver the manuscript to my first reader, what I really expected him to say was something like "Wow, this is brilliant! No need to put in any more work in at all, except perhaps for these 11 words I have identified for you!"

Coincidentally, immediately after sending off my manuscript, I happen to listen to an interview with Five Rivers author Mike Fletcher on Getting Published and am laughing at myself because Mike is saying how he knows intellectually every manuscript has to be edited, and yet how devastated it was to get the editor's critique and how he then had to pick himself up and get to it, etc. And I know, absolutely know, that that is just the way it always is, but still, there is this subconscious voice going,'except of course, my manuscript is perfect'.

And then the interviewer asks Fletcher what three things Fletcher has learned from being edited and he says, "First, that you need to keep your hero under threat; you can't have your characters just sitting around drifting through a scene" and I think, CRAP! That's the middle 1/3 of my book!

And then Fletcher says,"#2, you have to commit, so no 'he was starting to get angry', you have to allow your hero to actually get angry." and I go OH CRAP!!!! I must have written 'started to get angry' like 20 times in just the last six chapters alone!

And Fletcher says, "#3, if your hero says three lines of dialog you have to cut that to two, or maybe one" and I go Oh my god CRAP CRAP CRAP...because that is the entire book...60,000 lines of dialog as hero pontificates to other characters.

And it flashes across my mind that when I was still half-way through the manuscript and gloating how clever all my dialog was, editor Colleen Anderson happened to remark about another book that "there is a difference between your characters saying interesting things, and their doing interesting things", and my thinking...UH-OH!

But I'm sure in my case, having a room full of characters talking in front of a blue screen background for 400 pages will be fine. Really.

Just to be sure that I got a thorough critique, though, I sent my first reader a follow up message assuring him that I needed him to be brutally honest with me.

1 comment:

  1. Great, lucid post, as always, but I have one comment. You wrote:

    "All editors know that when authors bring you their manuscript, they are expecting a few changes, but they are secretly hoping for none"

    Not sure this applies across the board, Robert. I love editorial feedback, and feedback has only ever improved my work (and more importantly my future work). Sometimes I wish we had writing rooms like screenwriters often do. The books would benefit from so many minds at work, I'm certain of it. Thanks and good luck with the revisions. :)