Thursday, June 2, 2011

What Every Writer Needs: An Editor

So. I've been browsing through my book reviews, and still debating whether it's wise to write and review, and I don't want to chuck the writing but I enjoy reviewing, and, oh, crap. What to do, what to do, what to do? While browsing I keep noticing the fatal flaw that dogs nearly all of these books that are good books but fall short of great, and that's the absence of the editor. And by that I mean that these books might have been vetted by a marketing crew, a production crew, and possibly a copyeditor (although even that is becoming rare), but NOT AN EDITOR. Or at least undergoing what I consider a rigorous editorial review.

The classic role of an editor is to browbeat, chastise, sternly lecture, and/or praise a writer into producing the best possible book with the material they have. Being something of a Hemingway and Fitzgerald fanatic, I often reread the letters between them and their editor, Max Perkins, and I think, wow, that is just not happening today. As New York publishing continues to flounder, the traditional editorial system is going by the wayside. You can see it in the writing. There is a lack of focus, a fuzziness. A good editor sees the promise of a whole book and does everything they can to push the author to her or his best writing self. It's having a sense of a book's integrity that is unique to that book.

I'm even talking about schlock. There is a case to be made for decent schlock. I've spent many rainy afternoons curled up on the couch reading decent schlock. It has a place on my bookshelf and rainy afternoons are tailor made for the potboiler. But even a decently written potboiler needs a second eye. Someone who says, wow, the schlock in Chapter 5 is marvelous. But Chapter 8 is largely unadulterated crap so rewrite or remove.

It's a jungle out there. Competition for people's time is fierce. It seems to me that instead of firing the editors, we should be hiring MORE of them. There are so many books that I've read in the last three years that I believe could have been great if handled by an editor with a fearless pen.


kimboosan said...

Yeah, but that's kind of like saying we need better writers; of course we do, but the issue is really about leveraging quality. TBH the editing I've gotten for the most part has been copy editing; and the one publishing house who gave me a bona fide editor won't ever get another submission from me because I found her to be arrogant, ignorant, and condescending. The finished product doesn't even read as if I wrote it. The kind of editor you are talking about is someone who is -- MUST BE -- educated, literate, and a good writer herself. Where are they? Working as independents? I can't afford those rates; it's thousands of dollars per book.

I don't have a solution; I agree with you, but I'm leery of what's passing for an "editor" these days. I'd rather go it alone than end up with my work twisted beyond all recognition by incompetence. It's a lose/lose situation. :(

Claire M. Johnson said...


Well, there are good and bad editors. I can honestly say that everything that I've put pen and have received praise for has been the end result of some vigorous edits by people whose sensibility I trust. That doesn't mean that I agreed with them on everything, of course not. But it got me thinking in a bigger way. It got me wondering how I could deepen what I was doing. Take it up another notch. Or in some cases, a few notches.

I'm reading this book about Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It's about their friendship and how Scott, fresh from his success from writing Gatsby, meets a young, kinda raw writing talent, named Ernest. He promotes him to Scribners and pretty much lauds him to anyone who will listen. And he plays a pivotal role in editing Hemingway's first novel. Scott has Ernest cut out the first nine pages, in addition to other improvements, but I think the cutting out of the beginning was key. For me the beginning of a novel is critical because it's like the unfolding of a menu. It tells you of the possibilities of what's going to unfold. Literally, it's like opening up a map and saying, hmmm, we could go here, but it sounds like we might be going there. But whereever we end up, it's going to be marvelous. THAT's what a beginning does. So if you cut out nine pages of a beginning, to me that's a fairly significant edit.

As he tended to do throughout his life, Ernest eventually rewrote Scott's role as miniscule, denying that he had anything major to do with the novel. Which is proven false by existing letters, etc. But the truth never stopped Hemingway when he was in a mood to self-aggrandize. And then, of course, they both had Max Perkins as an editor and he was something of a god at the job.

My point is that I think the process of editing has become yet another victim in publishing's freefall. That there was a time when an editor's job was to believe that you could produce a really fine book. Or just a better book. That they were simultaneously cheerleader and task master. I don't think that happens much these days. At least it doesn't seem to be happening in the books I pick up. I'm continually frustrated by the near miss. A book with such promise and if it had another six months it could have been truly jaw-droppingly good. And I mean that across all genres. Even a rip-snorting potboiler when done right can leave you smiling.

I live far too deep inside my head. That's what I think an editor should do. Yank you out of that safe bubble and make you be a brave and better writer. Prod you to become the writer you can be.

There's only one thing that I've written that I wrote by myself, with no input from anyone, and I have to admit, it's been received really well. However, the majority of stuff I've written that I've gotten kudos on is the result of someone saying to me, um, no, you're not there yet. Not by a long shot. I'm not sugar-coating this. And maybe it's just me. But I can honestly say that a majority of things that I've written that have gotten me a small amount of recognition are precisely the pieces that I agonzied over and reworked and rewrote because someone(s) said to me, uh, nope, not working. Or not working enough for the story it *could* be.

So I believe in this process. It has made me a much better writer. I think I'm essentialy a lazy person and it forces me to not take the easiest path.

It goes without saying that you have to trust the person "editing" your material. Someone who accepts you as a writer. They just want you to realize that potential. That' very different from someone who has their own agenda and wants you to realize *their* fantasy, as opposed to creatively working with yours.