I was going to write about The Grateful Dead today. But then I read Jule’s intriguing post yesterday and decided to do a fun follow up post about editing.
Julie’s sense of bewilderment amused me because I know just how she feels. Editing a manuscript is an art form, and both subjective and objective in its critique. An editor must be technical, meticulous, a therapist and a cruel master at the same time. Every editor is different and unique, and has their own set of biases. So how long do we let our editors take these manuscripts for the proverbial spin? And as writers, how fierce should we pushback?
The first readers and editors of my manuscript are the members of my writers’ group. While they are my friends, I almost don’t want to be on friendly terms with them because honest feedback can sometimes cause resentment and bitterness, even though a critique is meant to help a manuscript become tighter. The members of my current group, though, really are my friends, in part because they are so willing and eager to accept my honest critiques, as I am to receive their invaluable feedback. In fact, I’ve matured as a writer because of them, to where I embrace their honest opinions. You can’t succeed as a writer if you’re not able to take feedback and synthesize it into the work-in-progress. It’s like the development of a prize fighter: he or she can’t improve their skills unless they take a few punches to the chin, and then learn strategies how to defend themself against such an attack.
I’ve had so many editors during my career that I know how different one editor can be from another. But a great editor is a gift to a dedicated and serious writer. They see things that the writer like myself does not—or cannot—see. They find the glitches in all our literary blind spots. It’s like the shapes hidden in those pixilated puzzles: a good editor sees the mistakes, the inconsistencies, and the troubling tics a writer keeps repeating. A good editor makes a writer want to rework their manuscript. And a good edit should excite and illuminate a writer, no matter the intensive work needed to ‘fix’ a manuscript.
There are different kind of edits. I call this the Hierarchy of Editing. Line edits, while extremely important, reside at the bottom of this pyramid. You can’t perform a line edit on a manuscript until the Universal Edit is completed. The Universal Edit comprises higher conscious story needs: tone, consistency of the plot, tense and POV, proper characterization and structural integrity. Chronology is important, as is dialogue and plot pacing. Then when all that is completed, comes the vigorous line edits: dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
I just went through a horrendous edit—and yet it was one of the best edit jobs I’d ever received. Somehow, someway, my editor edited an older version of my most recent manuscript. This manuscript was part of a trilogy, and I had completely rewritten the first novel after it was accepted for publication. A miscommunication occurred, and my editor’s emails were not getting through to me, and going straight to spam. By the time we finally connected, and because of the nature of the contract I had signed, I had to make edit changes for the first manuscript, only I had to incorporate all these edits into the rewritten manuscript—and I had two weeks to get it back to her. This meant I would be working on the manuscript nonstop. I had already changed the tense and many of the plot points, as well as reworked much of the dialogue. It was a long two weeks. And yet it was one of the most thoughtful, helpful and in-depth edits I had ever received. There were line-by-line markups, as well as universal feedback on characterization, tone and consistency. On top of that, she had me do a second edit after I had completed the first, but she also admitted that we were close to a final version. Her hard work allowed me to extrapolate her suggestions into Books 2 and 3.
Is there a difference between editing a literary book and a genre novel? One might think genre novels would be easier because they follow certain well-known parameters, and that maybe true, but I believe all novels follow a similar narrative structure. As far as chewing on a novel for a year after receiving edits, that seems even hard for me to stomach. And yet many novelists go years between the publication of their novels. John Irving’s last novel came out in 2015. His next novel comes out in the fall and is over nine-hundred pages long. That’s a lot of editing.
Can editors be pals? It’s like the old joke that a man and women can never be in a platonic friendship. The relationship between editor and writer is fraught with perils and inherently antagonistic in nature. And yet . . . And yet we writers are so desperate to be read and praised, and considered deep thinkers, that we become like slaves to the dominatrix. We suffer from Stockholm Syndrome whereby the editor kidnaps the writer and treats him/her like the literary version of Patty Hearst. Most of the time, at this last editing stage, the novel has already been accepted for publication. It’s so close to being a masterpiece that we can virtually taste it. We’ve toiled so long and hard, in silence and obscurity, that the editor’s words—both good and bad—seem like a form of therapy. Or love. We’re like audience members enraptured by a charismatic self-help guru telling us about our unrealized potential. Now we just need to do the hard work.
But will the hard work to self-improvement irrevocably change our nature or personality?
The danger in agreeing with an editor’s feedback is this: where do we writers draw the line! Does a writer blindly follow an editor’s advice, and in the process lose the heart and soul of the novel? I’m always reminded of the story of Gordon Lish’s edits of Raymond Carver’s short stories. The edits were so severe and harsh that they essentially changed the nature of Carver’s stories. Carver nearly had a nervous breakdown because of Lish’s heavy hand. Carver genuinely feared Lish and his control over his intellectual property. Only when Carver got older and more successful did he attempt to push back from Lish’s brutal feedback. And yet, dictatorial as he was in his harsh edits, there can be no doubt that Lish made Carver’s stories better. You can read a before and after version of one of Carver’s stories in The New Yorker, and see for yourself how better the edited version is. This may have contributed to Carver’s alcoholism and growing mental instability. Lish even changed the names of many of Carver’s stories. In fact, many people believe that Lish could have been billed as Carver’s co-writer. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/24/rough-crossings
The question is: would you agree to such radical changes of your novel if it made it better? If it made it a New York Times bestseller? A lot of writers, dare I say most, would agree to a deal with the editorial devil.
A writer has to stay true to themself. A writer must write utilizing his or her own unique vision. A writer must intuit what changes to accept and and what to reject from an editor. It’s all part of the publishing process; a give and take relationship that puts the work over any individual ego. It is not wrong to say it takes a village to publish a novel. But a writer also has to remember that an editor has skin in this game, too, and edits a manuscript in a way that promotes their own best interests. What editor doesn’t want to boast about editing a mega-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel? An editor wants what is best for the writer’s work, because that is what’s best for them, and their publisher. Their discerning and unbiased eyes can help a submission shizzle, and make them look better in the process. This is their job. And most are good at it. A gifted editor is worth their weight in gold to a writer, and I tend to defer to them more often than not, picking and choosing my battles where I see fit.
A quality edit is cleansing and like a rebirth. Yes, it can be tiresome going over an entire novel again and again, but this is the price we must pay to get published and improve our craft. It’s maddening at times. Uplifting. Depressing too. But these emotions can be used as fuel for growth and renewal. Choosing to embrace this laborious and humbling process is the only way forward. Best to view it like the finest vodka filtered seven times through Herkimer Diamonds. It may be the last great chances to make your novel shine before it gets into the public’s hands.