Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Function of an Editor

"The function of an editor is to prevent a writer from making a fool of himself." --Kathryn Harrison, quoting Bob Shacochis
That's my all-time favorite description of the job. It gets the point across when I'm trying to explain to the uninitiated just what it is that I'm doing when I'm gripping my editor's red pencil. Defining the job of "editor" can be difficult, since editors do so many different things.

There's the managing editor -- the boss, oftentimes. There's the acquisitions editor, who is principally concerned with finding and signing up authors. There's the production editor, who traffics materials between the editorial office and the production department.

But, said Adolph Ochs of the New York Times: "The most useful man on the newspaper is one who can edit."

He said that in 1925. To paraphrase him these days, I would say that the most useful person in any publishing venture is the one who can edit -- who can recognize and correct errors of all sorts, from mechanical and grammatical to factual and logical.

From The Art of Editing, by Baskette and Sissors, comes this passage that I've long admired:
One may describe the duties of the editor, but no one can analyze how an editor works, anymore than one can describe how a poet composes a poem. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, came close to defining one obligation of the editor -- "to improve an essentially well-written piece or to turn a clumsily written one into, at the very least, a readable and literate article, and, at the very most, a beautifully shaped and effective essay which remains true to the author's intention, which realizes that intention more fully than he himself was able to do. He cares about the English language; he cares about clarity of thought and grace of expression; he cares about the traditions of discourse and of argument."
That quote touches on so many aspects of the editor's job:
  • The work is creative.
  • The work is individual. Each editor's approach to the task is different.
  • Editors have obligations to both the writer and the reader.
  • An editor must respect the author's intention.
  • An editor's job is to help the author.
  • Editors sweat the details.
On those days when I make the mental switchover and I'm writing instead of editing, I'm comforted by this observation from L. R. Blanchard, an old newspaper exec:
"No man is qualified to be his own editor. No matter what his reputation, his writing will benefit from another's look."
And that's why I've become such a regular participant in my critique group. I've come to realize that I don't have to write it right the first time. I get it as close as I can on my own, and then I take it to critique for another look. My critique partners are my editors who are helping me to improve and shape my writing.

Here are a couple of other quotes that reflect my personal editorial philosophy, whether I'm editing another writer's work or getting editorial advice about my own stuff:
"The essence of editing lies in helping the author say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it." --Betty Ballantine
"The editor must not in any way at any time attempt to edit the book so that it will be written the way the editor would write it if the editor wanted to, or could, write. The editor must learn to edit in the writer's voice, think the writer's thoughts, achieve the writer's perspective." --Gerald Gross

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A World Without Editors?

The Spring 2010 Authors Guild Bulletin quotes Thomas Mallon:

"The idea of e-books as the most popular format bothers me less than the possibility of a publishing world in which the editorial apparatus has collapsed. As the world of self-publishing proliferates, I just worry about so much stuff being out there that people don't know how to find what's good. That, I think, is the big challenge, more than the shifting technology itself. I suppose that immediately provokes charges of elitism from people. Well, so be it. I don't want to live in a world where everything receives the same imprimatur as everything else. I don't want to live in a world without editors."

What would life be without editors? In such a world, I would have to find a new line of work, since I earn far more of my living as an editor than as a writer.

The Function of an Editor

I'm not too worried about losing my editing job, however. The national nonprofit organization that keeps me busy editing bunches of its publications is unlikely to do away with its editors altogether. As somebody once said: "The function of an editor is to prevent a writer from making a fool of himself." (My Favorite Quotes: 2)  Editors protect not only writers, but also the organizations that publish what the writers write.

No organization wants to look foolish in print. A good editor, for instance, would have caught the blunder about "walruses" in Big Oil's emergency preparedness plans. If the oil companies had bothered to run their plans past an editor, any editor worthy of the title would also have alerted them to the fact that their go-to expert had been dead for the past several years.

No organization, be it for-profit or nonprofit, can afford to be without qualified, conscientious editors examining and correcting the organization's publications before they go public. I can't imagine that world being devoid of editors.

Freelance Editors for Self-Publishing Authors

But what about the world of book publishing? IS the editorial apparatus of the traditional "legacy" publishers on the verge of collapsing?

If it is, then all those book editors will be out searching for work or carving new careers for themselves, just as the newspaper and magazine editors have been doing for years. Many book editors will find work editing online publications. Others will set up shop as freelance editors, the way I did long ago.

Which will leave authors with a decision to make:
  • Do I, Annie Author, self-publish my work without first running it by a good editor?
  • Or do I pay a professional to edit my work before I self-publish it?
Some writers will choose to put their raw copy out there for the world to see -- or, more likely, for the world to ignore.

Serious writers, however, will get it edited before they release it as an e-book or a POD (print-on-demand) book. Writers who care about quality, and who care about their reputations, will not risk making fools of themselves by offering their unedited work to the reading public.

Reader Ratings

Which brings me to the mechanism that may supplant a publisher's mark of approval. When a publisher buys a manuscript, the publisher spends money to get that book edited, designed, printed, and distributed. The publisher's willingness to spend money on the book gives the work a certain validity or legitimacy.

That's the standard view, anyhow. Just because a publisher agrees to publish a manuscript is no guarantee that the manuscript will get good editing.

In a brown-paper sack, I carry around a mass-market paperback that I use as a horrible example of what can happen when neither the writer nor his publisher cares enough about the book to edit it. The unreadable thing came out from a major mass-market imprint of a major New York publisher, and it's just riddled with errors. (For details, see Self-Editing: Part 1.)

But I digress. My point is this: If the traditional publishers go out of business and all authors are self-publishing, then we will need a new way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Ratings by readers may provide that mechanism.

Right now at, readers are rating books for all sorts of qualities: writing, characters, story, cover art and illustrations; whether it's absorbing, funny, challenging, or thrilling; whether it's a book just for fun or it's good for classrooms or improving one's reading skills, etc.

Why not simply add a rating for the quality of the editing? Is the book (check one): Well edited? Minimally edited? Unedited? Unreadable?

An "Angie's List" for Books

I recently joined Angie's List, a site where people grade the businesses and service providers they use. When shopping for a dentist or an auto mechanic, it's reassuring to read about the experiences other people have had with those professionals or businesses.

Why not an "Angie's List"-style review site for books? Readers who review books could be encouraged to comment on the quality of the editing.

Good editing, of course, is invisible. But an absence of editing is obvious to even the most uncritical reader. Volunteer or amateur book reviewers who say the writing is rough or choppy or awkward or hard to follow, or the logic of the story breaks down, or the spelling is atrocious, or the lack of punctuation makes the whole thing unreadable, or the story sags, or it's wordy, or it jumps all over the place, or the quality of the writing is inconsistent -- criticisms such as these indicate that the book didn't get careful editing.

Editors or Gatekeepers?

Even if the editorial apparatus of the traditional publishing industry does collapse and all books become essentially self-published, the world of books, writers, and readers will still require editors. An editor who works for a self-publishing author may, however, fulfill a more basic editorial function:

The editor will be the keeper or caretaker of a book's style, content, and logic, lavishing care and attention upon the work to make it the best it can be. To quote Betty Ballantine, a legendary editor known by everyone who ever wrote or read in the science fiction field:
"To me, the essence of editing lies in helping the author say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it."
That is the proper role of an editor. I don't believe it is an editor's job to be a gatekeeper who prevents books (even bad books) from reaching the reading public.

Like Thomas Mallon, I'm not much bothered by the idea of e-books becoming the most popular format. (I love reading e-books on my Barnes & Noble "Nook.")

But unlike Mr. Mallon, I'm not too worried about the world losing all of its editors. Nor am I fearful that readers, in a world of self-publishing authors, will be unable to find the good books amongst all the garbage.

I believe in the power of word-of-mouth wisdom. The good books -- those that are well-written and well-edited -- will get noticed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Favorite Quotes: 3

"We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done." --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." --Philosopher Henri Bergson

"What isn't yet can still become." --German proverb

"I couldn't get anyone to even read it to reject it. ...You've got to stay at the table. If you walk away, nothing will ever happen." --Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn

"Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another." --Walter Elliott

"The most important quality of a writer is not talent but persistence." --Philip Freund

"Easy reading is damn hard writing." --Nathaniel Hawthorne

Why write? "... the afterglow can last for years if the work is published and other people profit from it. The lasting pleasure is not in their praise but in your knowledge that you have contributed something of value to the culture from which you derive your being."
--Ellen Gilchrist, The Writing Life

"The greatest thing I ever learned to do was read." --Michael Caine

"What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time." --Theodore Zeldin

(For more like these: My Favorite Quotes 1 and Quotes 2)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Heralds in Fantasy Literature

Heralds, in their original and simplest form, were messengers. In fantasy literature, a herald often brings the message or in some other way triggers the events, sets the events in motion.

In The Hobbit, for example, Gandalf is the herald, or the trigger, that sends Bilbo Baggins off on his grand adventure.

In my WATERSPELL trilogy, Carin is the herald. Her showing up on the property of the wizard named Verek sets the story action into motion. In effect, she will send Verek off on a quest—and she will participate fully with him on the quest, similar to how Gandalf sets Bilbo into motion and also plays his great role in the events of that story.

But behind Carin, there’s yet another herald—another character who is the one that set Carin into motion. So the events actually begin with the original herald, who is described in my Books One and Two as “the wisewoman.” We won’t know the wisewoman’s whole story until Book Three, which I'm about two-thirds of the way through writing.

But back to the beginning. When we first meet Carin in Book One Chapter 1, she’s not acting entirely of her own free will. The wisewoman has sent her to the wizard Verek.

One thing that has made Chapter 1 a bit hard for me to get right is that I need to at least hint that Carin isn’t really sure what her goal is, why she’s come north, or what she’s supposed to do when gets there. She only knows—or she feels, deep in her gut—that she has to be there.

In effect, she’s under a spell—a spell of compulsion. She thinks she’s acting of her own free will, but if she were pressed to explain her motives, she would be hard put to do it. This becomes clearer in Chapter 3, when Verek presses her about her reasons for trespassing on his property. Her explanations don’t satisfy him, and they will—I hope—deepen the sense of mystery that surrounds Carin.

But my problem with Chapter 1, as I’m discovering, is that many “mainstream” readers will expect the main character’s goals and motivations to be clearly laid out right at the start. That’s what they’ve been taught to expect.

Experienced readers of fantasy will understand that motives and circumstances are often quite murky as the story opens. In Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, for instance, the main character, Lyra, has no problem whatsoever as the story opens. She’s having fun. She’s exploring a forbidden part of the college where she lives, and she’s enjoying herself. The big problem that she will face does not become clear for a very long time, as the trilogy unfolds.

So what I’m trying to accomplish with Chapter 1 of my fantasy is to present Carin as a strong, active, decisive character, but I also have to hint that she’s been set on this course, this particular path, by forces beyond her control, by circumstances that she didn’t create. She’s being used, quite frankly, but she’s not a pawn.

In a sense, she’s like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. He used the sword—only Arthur as the rightful king could wield it—but Excalibur had magical powers of its own. It allowed itself to be used only by the rightful king.

My girl, Carin, very definitely has a say in how she’s being used by the original herald, the wisewoman in the south, and by the wizard Verek once she follows the wisewoman’s instructions and finds him, up in the north.

I've been working on a Prologue to Book One that may help to clarify what's driving Carin, what her goal is, what problem she must overcome. I'm hoping that the agent I met in April will give me some feedback on it. In the meantime, I'm studying successful prologues, such as the lovely one that opens Ursula K. Le Guin's novel, The Tombs of Atuan.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Memoir or Novel?

Over lunch on Memorial Day, my friends and I got to talking about the memoir genre and how much poetic license a memoirist has. After the flap over two notoriously fraudulent memoirs that came out in 2006, writers of memoir continue to have questions about how factually accurate a personal narrative must be before it ceases to be a memoir and turns into a novel.

The best discussion of this subject that I've read was in the Spring 2006 Authors Guild Bulletin. Guild president Nick Taylor talked with William Zinsser, editor of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir and author of Writing About Your Life. Here are excerpts from that conversation and the Q&A that followed:

ZINSSER: You have to invent a narrative trajectory that makes sense, that draws people along. Which can mean compressing, collapsing or collating events. But underneath all the "inventing" -- you may be altering the chronological order, or the place where certain things took place -- you are not tampering with the essential truth of the story. ... I think the truth is sacred and you have to stick to the facts.

TAYLOR: ... obviously you don't remember every scrap of conversation you ever had, but if you're conveying the essence and the truth of what a particular conversation was about, then I think that's perfectly acceptable. Your own ears hear things and your own eyes see things, and your memory retains how you process those things. You're not straying from the truth if you're paraphrasing dialogue, for example.

ZINSSER: For many years I've been teaching adult courses in memoir writing and family history ... The reason people take courses like mine is that they want to know how to think about using writing to come to some understanding of who they are, and who they once were, and what heritage they were born into ... my students are trying with courage and grace to clarify the past. They may not finally do it, but that is the intention. [M]ost writers of memoir ... are desperately trying to use writing to find the truth about their lives.