Thursday, January 5, 2012
Thanks to my publisher’s schedule, the laptop and I are starting the new year off with a bout of major editing. My latest novel, the 86K-word elephant on the hard drive, requires some early-chapter cuts and tightening, a bit of character tweaking to clarify one of the relationships, more dirty words to up the heat rating and possibly an extra sex scene. I’ve got three weeks to accomplish this. Fortunately the temperature this week is supposed to nose dive into the 20s, so as long as I’m holed up in my snug, warm house, I might as well brew up a couple cups of tea and plug up some plot holes and such.
As usual, I had my typical response when I first scrolled through the file. My initial reaction to an edited manuscript is anger and/or despair—either Omigod, I totally screwed up, why did they even buy this? or You pretentious bitch, you can’t possibly know my story as well as I do. How dare you even suggest I got it wrong? This state can last from about ten minutes to maybe an hour or so. Once the initial shock wears off I calm down, lock my ego in the closet, and set about incorporating most if not all of the editor’s suggestions into the rewrite. Because it’s not about me or her. It’s about making sure all the words on the page are as right as they can be, so the reader reaps the benefits.
A good editor is an asset beyond price. Their fresh eyes will spot your logic flaws, your run-on sentences, and the fact you had your main character’s eyes go from blue to brown within the same paragraph. They’ll suggest ways you can tighten up the narrative or clarify characterization. They’ll let you keep your original words if you provide a good enough argument. They’ll help you make an okay book better, and a good book terrific. Who wants to argue with that?
In this case, my editor zeroed in on flaws and questions I’d had about the manuscript myself. I probably should have let the book sit for an extra month and given it another once-over before I sent it out. I wasn’t even sure they’d accept it. They did, and now I’ve got my work cut out for me. Fortunately, I don’t have to fix this draft alone.
I’ve been lucky in that my current publisher has a top-flight editorial staff. That hasn’t always been the case. Back in the ‘80s a magazine copyeditor working on one of my stories changed the word “grunted” to “grinned.” I’m still not sure why. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except the character doing the grunting was a pterodactyl. Ever seen an animal with a rigid beak grin? Not even in science fiction. Another copyeditor changed my spelling of “leery” (used and spelled correctly by me in context) to “leary,” as in Dr. Timothy. This mag didn’t send galley proofs at the time, so the mistakes ran as “corrected” by the editors. Things like this make the writer look bad, and develop a poor attitude toward editors in general.
For a true editing horror story, dig up the 1989 Tor Books edition of But What of Earth? by Piers Anthony. (You can find used copies on Amazon for as little as a penny.) It’s two books in one: the original story, as Anthony intended it to be read, and Anthony’s notes on the mutilation it went through during the editorial process. No fewer than four copyeditors hacked up his work, with the gleeful abandon of Jason Vorhees pursuing nubile teenagers. They took a mediocre book and made it even worse. No wonder that line went out of business.
Luckily for us writers, that sub-category of editors appears to be rare. The majority of them want you to write the best damn book you can, and they’ll work with you to get it there. A good book makes the readers happy, which makes writers and editors happy. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?