Sunday, April 20, 2008

things you should be able to expect of your editor

I had a mini-crisis with one of my manuscripts which was due into production this last week. I won't go into details, but I will say it was 0% the fault of the author, who has done a fantastic job helping me make up for lost time. I also want to say I hope God blames me and not my author for the fact that I made my author work over Passover weekend (I swear, if I had put two and two together when he mentioned a "holiday weekend" I wouldn't have set such a hard deadline!! Sincere apologies to both God and my author about this.).

As a result of this mini-crisis and other unavoidable deadlines that are, inevitably, part and parcel of this whole editorial/publishing gig I seem to have become involved in, I have (as some of you have noticed) not had many interesting things to say recently. I want to take a short break from the deep line edit that has taken over my weekend and post something that I hope is interesting (and is partially inspired by my hard-working author and what I think he and all other hard-working authors deserve).

We have, in posts past, addressed topics such as a) horrible things authors do; b) stupid things authors do; c) things I wish authors would do; d) horrible things agents do; e) stupid things agents do; and f) things I wish agents would do. I look at this list of topics and feel a sense of poor karma. I spend much time judging others. I'd like to take a break from that now, and offer you what I think is a fair rubric by which you should be able to judge me ("me" both specifically, if you know me, and metaphorically, as I might stand in for other editors).

We all have our foibles, and we are all part of a creative industry, which of course means you're going to get rather a lot of personality from anyone you work with (authors, editors, agents, jacket designers, copy editors, publicists, you name it). But there are things you SHOULD be able to expect of your editor.

To my fellow editors who might be reading this: I hope you don't hate me for posting this. The list looks a little daunting, doesn't it? However, I really do believe in the points I make, and I hope you do, too. Our industry and our products come under more detailed scrutiny every day, and I believe that the better effort we make to observe these points, the less we leave ourselves open to impeachability and censure. Even if we can't promise to keep all of those promises, I hope we can challenge ourselves to try.

Note for the nitpickers: I use female pronouns because I'm a girl. No deeper meaning there.

Things you should be able to expect of your editor:

-She edits your book. No, seriously. I do actually have to write this.

How can it be that an editor does not edit a book?! I hope you are flabbergastedly asking. Well, unfortunately, it's not only possible, it happens. At most publishing companies, editors are incentivized to acquire books, not to edit them. The editing is considered unmentionable (because it's the obvious thing an editor does...right?) and since editing doesn't in the short term directly equate to income earned, it's easier to measure a person's financial worth to a company based on the value and number of projects acquired.

Of course, this is obviously a very short-term mindset. After all, a higher quality product will (in theory) do better and last longer in the market place than a rougher less polished product. But your editor has a lot of other things to think about. It's really rather easy for her to have her assistant edit it, or to not edit it at all. Particularly if it's a novel--often, it has to have passed a certain number of approvals at the time of acquisition, and if she's up to her ears in other projects she might decide that's enough approval and put the book into production as it is. And, let's face it--a book often sinks or swims in exactly NO relation to how great a piece of literature it is. So sometimes it's easiest to prioritize and cut losses. You sympathize, right?

I don't. I, for one, am of the very strong opinion that this is unacceptable behavior, regardless of how finished a project might have been when it came in or how many other projects that need more work an editor has. I hope that you, the author, do not want your baby going into production without any critical guidance or revision--no matter how artistic you are convinced your baby is, you MUST admit that no one, not even you, is perfect. Editors were invented because a second set of eyes is never, ever a bad thing.

You have a right to be edited. Talk this over with your agent. Make sure your agent knows that you feel strongly about this, and make sure your agent keeps his or her wits sharp about placing your book. A very busy famous editor at a large prestigious imprint might be the best thing in the world to happen to your book. But only if she's actually editing it.

-She champions your book in her house. Might seem like another no-brainer, but it's not. Different people have different energy levels. Try your best to get an editor with a high energy level. You'll be counting on her constant reminders and in-house cheerleading to get attention for your book in ways you can never imagine (thank goodness we've managed to keep certain secrets). You'd rather be with an editor who loves you and your book than you would with an editor who's bought your book to fill a quota. Yes, that goes without saying. But it's just something to keep in mind.

-She reads (published) books. Yes, she has to read all day at work, and sometimes when she gets home she wants to sit in front of her TV with a pint of Ben and Jerry's and watch Law & Order until 1 in the morning and not have to think about anything at all!!! But she also knows it's her job to try to read some things sometimes, to help her keep abreast of what else is being published, as well as to make sure she is constantly reminding herself of what good literature and good writing is. She might not get through many books outside work, but she remembers that she got into the industry because she likes to read, and being in the industry--despite the grind--has not changed that about her.

-She takes your opinions on her edits into serious consideration. You are the author and the creator, and if you have a strong objection to a change she made in your manuscript, she will hear you out and do her best to arrive at a compromise with you so that you can both be comfortable.

It's important that both you and your editor remember your roles. On your end, this means remembering that your editor edits professionally and that she might have her eyes open to arcana you might not be aware of (for example, that using more than a single line of poetry in quotation is outside the boundaries of fair usage, that the expression "a good rule of thumb" makes a lot of readers angry because of the historical association of the phrase with domestic violence, or that although your analogy comparing your main character to a weeping willow might be very moving there is still a lack of agreement between your subject and your subordinate clause so the the precious language just has to come out). She is also hyper-aware of things like word repetition and structural redundancy--something even the best authors often doesn't see about their own writing. So keep in mind that she hasn't made changes frivolously, and that it's very much in her interest to make the book into the best piece of literature it can possibly be. That said, if you are really uncomfortable with an edit for whatever reason, you SHOULD be comfortable mentioning it to your editor.

-She works nights and weekends on your manuscript if she needs to. Obviously, it is not her first choice to have a 24/7 job. But she won't let a publicity or publication date slip because she has fallen behind or made a mistake. I made a bad judgment this week about when particular materials were going to be ready for one of my books. As a result, my author and I have had to rush to catch up with stuff and I've spent all weekend at my computer. Despite the beautiful weather outside, there's no way I'd let my author down by not getting this safely accomplished. Yes, the book is important to me, too (otherwise I wouldn't have acquired it!). But also I don't want to let my author down--of course I know that my author has more personal investment in the book than I do, being the author and all.

(I will admit that I lose track of this sometimes, which I think is a charming quirk of my personality (don't you think it's charming, too?). For example, there was the time I went into a Borders and cooed so hard over one of my books that the bookseller asked me if I would sign it. That was when I had to embarrassedly explain that although I had referred to it as "my" book I had not, in fact, written it. But it was ok, since apparently the Borders Man had met editors before.)

-She responds to your communiques in a semi-timely fashion. Ok, this is a toughy. We are all swamped, we all lose track of time (it's a syndrome of the species), and we all spend a lot of our week ducking from agent follow-ups and huddling under our desks in order to avoid the production managers who come to harass us about approaching and/or missed deadlines. Just kidding. (...) But as long as you're forgiving and open-minded in your approach, she should be able to give you an honest statement about when she thinks she'll have been able to review your manuscript. Please do go gently, though.

There are two things you absolutely have a right to be informed of, and they are as follows:

-When, approximately, work will be expected of you. You have the right to be able to plan ahead.
-When your book is probably going to be published. This is, of course, subject to natural and outside forces (including but not limited to your own timeliness in turning around the edited manuscript). But we all need a goal to aim for.

NB your editor will probably be slightly optimistic in her response to these questions. For example, "Oh, I'll definitely get back to you by the end of next week" should probably be interpreted as "I'll do my best to be in touch with you by the end of next week, but let's face it, I could really use the weekend to do a good job. And this is all depending on this transmittal I'm working on right now and how quickly they turn around the catalog copy, because I might have some surprise emergencies next week. But let's go ahead and say end of next week so that there's a fire under my butt."

-She'll take you out to lunch, coffee, or drinks at least once (provided you are at some point in the same geographical area). Yes, she's busy and has a really stupid number of meetings during the day, but personal interface will help you relate to and understand each other. Plus, keep in mind that she doesn't make very much money and taking you out to lunch is a way for her to get a nice meal without having to pay for it.

Those are my true and honest thoughts. I am open to your editorial opinions on revisions, deletions, and additions (c.f.#4).




Brian said...

I think the cheerleading is most often taken for granted and few authors realize how important that is. Far too many writers just want Orson Welles to whip out the 'rich and famous' contract and all will be well. They don't understand the (occasionally politically motivated) behind-the-scenes hullabaloo required.

We have editors at work who go balls to the wall for their books. I hope their authors know what champions they have working on their behalf.

Charles Gramlich said...

Your authors are lucky to have you.

Ello said...

Awwwww, Moonrat! You are too awesome for words! Which is funny to say to an editor, right? ;o)

This is a fabulous list and I concur with Charles that your authors are very very lucky! I hope they realize what a champion they have in you!

Jill Myles said...

The cheerleading IS important. My editor has been shuffling my book around in-house so she can find the most advantageous release for me, and I adore her for it.

It's the little things that count. :)

moonrat said...

thanks, guys. i <3 you.

ggwritespoetry said...

Moonrat, thanks for posting this... it's very informative... I only have an assistant editor working with me on revision, but so far, I LOVE LOVE LOVE, her... she is awesome in her suggestions, and I am very blessed to have her on my side. Then, again, I'm very glad to have stumbled on your site. It makes my day to visit it.

moonrat said...

GG--being a pretty junior editor myself, I like to tout our pros. We're much more likely to be life-or-death passionate about your book and to give it REALLY careful attention--after all, we're hoping to make our careers on it. We still have stuff to prove. So chances are you're in good hands ;)

Colorado Writer said...

Doing a revision for an editor or agent is really hard work, especially without a contract, but I am learning so, so much. (11 page ed. letter)

This post helped me immensely. I was sort of freaking out there for a minute. :)

Anonymous said...

You, dear MR, are entirely charming and I would happily take you for a very fine lunch indeed ~ for posting such fine informative bits as this. (Only thing is, you would have to reveal where to find you for lunch.)


ChristineEldin said...

Phew! Now that we have this in writing, I'm ready to accept you as my editor. But if another editor copies your list and adds lifetime supply chocolate-chip cookies, well I hope you don't mind if I bail....

pacatrue said...

Your post reminds me how difficult it can be to edit someone's work. I used to volunteer edit online short stories before their publication and I remember marking up some story up and down the page and then at the end thinking, "but am I helping this author be a better her or a better me?" It can be very difficult to shift editing style with each author.

writtenwyrdd said...

Thank you for all the clarifications. I'd gotten the impression (both from reading obviously unedited books--more and more are obviously unedited!-- and from general reading on the blogosphere) that editing is becoming somewhat the red-headed stepchild in the biz. Glad to know that editors like you are still around. Like Charles said, your clients are lucky to have you. Too bad you don't acquire fantsy genre, lol.

Precie said...

moonie--I adore you! Your authors are so lucky to have you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to write this out. I hope you know what a kindness you're doing for a lot of people starving for this kind of information. Your authors are lucky to have you!

V-word: maybe your name is Amy??

Bernita said...

Yes, what they said: lucky to have you!

Aparna said...

i will echo the adoration sentimentos. you wished me a happy birfday when it wasn't even my birfday! as if one could ask for more!

cyn said...

awesome post as always, MR.
and as it were, i think your authors would owe *you* a meal and a drink (a cupcake and some karaoke)for your hard work!

Natalie said...

Thanks so much for the post. Definitely a daunting list of responsibilities!

I hope all your authors are grateful for the hard work you do.

Conduit said...

Good to have you back, Moonrat, especially with such an informative post.

Mary Witzl said...

This is all so helpful. Thank you. On top of all this useful information, you have stated that you too are not a James Joyce fan. My compliments.

I'll be back.

Wakai Writer said...

I have to say that, having worked in the publishing industry for a stint now, I've gained a new respect for the job that Editors have to do. It seems to be about 80% business and 20% anything fun, and I've heard a number of them talking about how it's impossible to get edits done in the office and they have to do them at home ("Quiet room" be damned!).

I think they may have to fight it out with teachers for "most work done for free," and I honestly don't understand how you all do it.

The Anti-Wife said...

Any one of us would be fortunate to have an editor of your dedication. Thanks for the very informative post!

sese said...

i just found your site last week and was already so glad i did. =) then *this* post? i've truly found my species! thank you!

Lisa said...

I'd wondered where you were! You have to be the most charming and delightful person in the entire publishing industry. Your writers and your house are very fortunate to have someone with your passion. Go you.

Jessica Burkhart said...

Great post! :)

ObiDonWan said...

Good of you to take time out to list these things, some of which surprised me, who has been around this field a long time. I hope and pray I find an editor like you for my next Really Big One.

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

Thanks for sharing this, Moonie! You ROCK!!

BookEnds, LLC said...

Thank you so much for this. As an agent I seem to spend a great deal of time trying to soothe authors over things the editor is not doing and there are certainly plenty of times when I am doing the job of an editor.

I'm always thankful for the editor who is willing to work an author to death to make sure a book is perfect. I'm not always sure my authors are grateful at the time, but almost inevitably they are all happy when it's done.

I think an editor who can joyfully call a book her own is one you want to have. Yes it's the author's book, but a good editor puts almost as much time, energy and thought into it--just from a different perspective.



Anonymous said...

Where I work, many editors farm out the actual editing to freelancers, editorial directors think editing is the job of the copyeditor (it isn't) and urge the editors to just shove their mss over to the production editor, and everybody has so many titles to work on that some books get published without anyone in the company having read them all the way through. A sad state of affairs, but the natural result of quantity-over-quality focus, and top management whose qualification is a business/finance background rather than editorial.

ObiDonWan said...

Anon sayeth "and top management whose qualification is a business/finance background rather than editorial."

That's sad. Would they put a person with E Lit background into the financial office?

Torgo said...

Great stuff. By the way, the 'rule of thumb' thing? Totally apocryphal.

Anonymous said...

"She works nights and weekends on your manuscript if she needs to."

I'd add "but only if she's able to bill the company for it or is on salary." No job should expect you to work for free.

Alexander said...

Moon Rat, I'm printing up the list of items, sans commentary, and pasting them on my monitor while I work. As someone who has been, mostly undeservedly, sticking editor behind his name for a couple of years, I am curious about point one. How far do you go in editing a work? Similar to pacatru, in addition to a couple of people that I host webfiction for, I tend to do a lot of helping out online on various forums. The biggest thing I see is the classic, tell don't show, writing style.

In trying to show what I MEAN when I say, show me, don't tell me, I have taken to rewriting a sentence or two of the posted work completely, trying to keep the authors voice and style, but representing the action properly. Would you consider this going to far as an editor, to completely rewrite something for the author?]]

Thanks for your time!