Working With An Editor

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Two

Working with an Editor

Funny Cat

I can only imagine what working with an editor must been like way back in times of yore, like the 1970s, before the rise of electronic word processing as we know it today (I’m writing this book using Word 2013 and it seems impossibly elegant). Back then you had to mail the manuscript back and forth between you and the editor, over and over again, and type out a new manuscript from scratch every single time, and it was only the mandatory cocaine everyone in publishing was required to put in their coffee that kept the whole thing running. No wonder writers were always losing their shit! All that coffee, cocaine, and retyping! And then waiting for the U.S. Mail to deliver your work! And sometimes they lost it! Hope you made a copy, buddy! No? You didn’t? Uh oh, I guess you’re fucked!

But computers, sweet sweet (but maybe evil) computers, have risen and changed the editorial process much for the easier. Now you can zip back and forth with an editor in real time and you can track editorial notes and changes in a document and it is all very slick, very efficient.  I have not worked with a large number of editors—seven or eight, on various projects—but I’ve had the great good luck to work with only the good and the great, the perceptive and the wise. I know bad, incompetent editors are still out there, but one unintentional benefit of the publishing industry’s recent crunch (shrinkage?) has been the reduction of editorial jobs in general, which one would think would cut out a lot of the dead weight, the editors who really didn’t care or lacked that undefinable awareness of when to push and when to pull back that all the best editors have. Most of the remaining editors in the industry, those who’ve managed not only to keep their jobs but keep their employers in the black, are hawk-eyed experts who are trying to help their authors as best as their limited time permits.

I tend to roll over and show my belly when it comes to most editorial notes, accepting the small changes as they come as long as I can sense the logic behind them and they adhere to the tone of the piece. I stand my ground occasionally, throwing down good old STET when I need to, but overall I accept about ninety percent of line edits. Larger things, like notes on developing a character or plot pacing or adding additional chapters, I mull over long and hard. I don’t ask too many questions, even regarding a fifty page edit, but instead try to get a core sense of what the editor is yearning for and how best to incorporate it in my own way.

The lessons I learned while workshopping stories in grad school I now apply to working with editors: I take what I can use and leave what doesn’t help me (and fight to hold my ground when necessary-STET!). The good news is almost every note a good editor gives you is useful in some way, even if not in the direct manner they intended. How well your book ends up being edited is truly on your shoulders, not theirs. Even a bad editor’s notes can be useful if they help you consider your work from a different angle with a clinical eye. Editing is not personal—no professional, constructive editorial note is intended as an attack on your abilities. Even if you have great differences in opinion, you and your editor on the same general publishing team seeking to make your work as good as it can be. Swallow your pride when it needs to be swallowed and give every edit a full consideration, whether you ultimately agree with it or not.

Here’s some (truncated) notes I received from Brian Farey-Latz, my FLUX editor (and accomplished author in his own right) for The Firebug of Balrog Country. Even if you have no knowledge of the book, I think you can sense their helpfulness.[1]

  • Mack’s clearly a bright, well-read guy. I’d like to see some of that well-read pop up a little bit more throughout.
  • One thing I remember discussing was the energy level. Right now, it feels very flat to me. There are definitely peaks (the aforementioned stuff with Mack’s mom) but the valleys are harder to imagine because there’s a sense that Mack isn’t moving toward a goal. I firmly believe HE IS moving toward a goal—maybe not one he even knows about—but even if he’s ignorant of his direction, the reader needs a sense that there’s forward motion and I worry that’s lacking a bit…
  • As I said to you on the phone when we first talked, my biggest concern is Katrina. She is the textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. She’s the mysterious girl (often Goth) who breezes into the humdrum male protagonist’s life, bringing danger and excitement he didn’t know he needed. She’s there for his wish fulfillment and to serve his needs (sexual and otherwise) then blows out of town just as mysteriously. She’s got a great voice but she’s not a character. Give her a story arc of her own. What does SHE get out of her relationship with Mack? Does she have to leave at the end? “I’m tired of my roommates” is weak. I don’t need Mack and Katrina to end up together, happily ever after, but I need her to break out of the confines of this trope in a big way.
  • I don’t buy Ox’s suicide at the end. Not for a minute. It really comes out of nowhere and “Yep, everyone hates me, might as well die” just doesn’t work for a character we really don’t know. Ox is very one note: the ornery old coot who wants you to get off his lawn. I think we need to see him one or two more times after Mack burns his wood (there’s a scene where we hear of him but don’t really see him in action). If I’m to believe his suicide, I need to see the path that leads him there. What is the chink is in his armor? The vulnerability that he hides and, in the end, is ready to die to keep hidden?
  • There are hints that Grandpa suspects Mack is the firebug. He does this whole thing where he takes Mack hunting (a subtle reminder of what an Alpha dog he is) and tells Mack the story about Vietnam that easily doubles as a cautionary tale. His message to me is very strong: stop what you’re doing or confess because, either way, I’ll get you. But then it goes nowhere…
  • We’ve already talked a bit about the justification for Mack’s confession to his father and your assertion is that it finally just weighs too heavily on him. Why? There’s no evidence of that anywhere. No mounting sense of guilt, no trepidation… I keep thinking that Mack’s confession at the end needs to tie more closely to SOMETHING in the book, either literally or thematically.
  • You’re at about 50,000 words, which is a good length. But if you added another 5,000-7500 I wouldn’t cry. It’s mainly in the name of fleshing things out, expanding storylines, and plumbing the depths of some already great characters.

Brian’s notes led me to a big rewrite at a point where I thought I’d explored Firebug as far as I could. They led to much more developed characters, a much different ending, additional vibrant details, and fifty new pages that truly fleshed the novel out. Without his counsel my novel would have been, plain and simple, a much lesser work. He made me see the fictional forest for the trees.

[1] Semi-spoiler alert here if you plan on reading The Firebug of Balrog County.

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