Thursday, February 1, 2007

Do Editors Edit? Part II

Jump to Part I

I actually had a good time. I’d look at his suggestions, one by one, saying to myself, “Yes, yes, yes, fuck you, fuck you.”

— Booker Prize-winning novelist Peter Carey on being closely edited for the first time.*

Early on in my days in this silly business (all of about five years ago), a well-known publishing-industry figure advised me: Never admit you’ve been rejected (or that you have unpublished works), as novels are somehow expected to emerge Athena-like in perfected form. (The corollary to this was never to admit you’ve been helped by anyone in any way, as the central myth of the trade is that of the solitary, rebellious, unschooled genius. ) That’s probably sound advice, but, in my unsound fashion, I’ve ignored it.

Roger Morris took transparency to a new level by publishing his first royalty statement. (Roger's second book, the mystery A Gentle Axe, inexplicably retitled "The Gentle Axe" in the US, is on it's way in March over here, so his first royalty statement is probably only a dim memory. It's been all of, what, four months?)

I can’t match Roger on that (and even if I had a royalty statement in hand I might not be inclined to), but I’ll spend a little time talking frankly about getting, well…edited.

My editor, Will Atkins, explained via e-mail that he would be editing me page-by-page, and also might have overarching structural comments, but assured me he expected the editing would be light as the prose was already polished. After we had an agreed-upon text, the manuscript would go on to copyediting, and once that was agreed upon as well, it would go to proofing.

All this sounded like standard operating procedure to me (much the same process a technical book or paper undergoes on its way to the press, and I’d been down that road before), so I sat back, waited, and meanwhile congratulated myself on my polished prose.

I’d like to tell you my prose was polished to such a blinding sheen that when Will sent his suggestions and observations, his only question was why the book wasn’t twice as long. I’d like to tell you that, but I’ll save my fiction for my books.

This is not a complaint. But for any who still doubt that Macmillan New Writing edits their books, let me state this: My editor’s ‘light’ editing consisted of, at my count, 83 specific points, plus another dozen or so general remarks (mostly about acronyms) that brought the total near the century mark. About a hundred points to be addressed. All of this, mind you, prior to copyediting, so we’re not just quibbling about who/whom or unclear pronoun antecedents here.

I’d call that rather attentive editing for a ‘polished’ manuscript (and makes me worry what form ‘heavy’ editing might take.)

Most of these matters could be described as minor—a turn of phrase that rang false, or a description that called attention to itself, or something that might not be clear unless it were read with the attention a lawyer devotes to a contract. A couple of questions were the result of sheer hamhandedness on my part, plain old inattentive writing. And a few were major, affecting a portion of the storyline, and requiring corrective surgery on a whole section or even chapter.

[On top of those items, a few queries were the result of the transatlantic gulf in the English language. In dialogue I sometimes used slang only an American would likely understand. Solving these problems wasn’t straightforward: if an item of American slang is incomprehensible, one can’t put the corresponding British expression into the mouth of an American. An American male does not visit the loo. (He might hit the head, take a leak, see a man about a horse, drain the lizard, feed the goldfish, shake hands with Mister Snakey, or engage in any number of other creative euphemisms, but the ‘loo’ will not be mentioned.)]

There were also passages containing common US acronyms that, Across the Water, must have been as immediately comprehensible as Linear B (and just about as much fun to read).

After banging my head on the floor a few times (by now I was already prone), I arranged these comments in order from Little to Huge, and started addressing them.

Now, I don’t consider my words to be each one fair and gold, which the hand of man ought not to mar, but the sheer number of issues at first took me aback. Hence the horizontal, floor-bound position (see above).

After I started to work though them, however, I saw that every comment was warranted. And then it sank in on me: This guy was on my side. We both had the same goal. He liked the book, and was trying to make it better. In fact, he was working hard to make it better.

(I hear a chorus of, “Well, duhs,” out there. Pipe down.)

It helps that Will Atkins has a sharp sense of humor and yet is quite gentle (the two don’t often go together). When he found the occasional clunker of a sentence, he never asked (as well he might have) whether I’d typed it with my feet, or if instead I’d somehow employed my prehensile tail as well. In one case, where a sentence had all the grace of one of Hannibal’s war elephants tumbling down an Alp in full battle gear, Will merely asked “A little inelegant—can you rephrase?”

I could, I did, I’m glad.

Some points needed discussion to get us in alignment. In one case, after we both contributed our views, I was amused to find we had swapped postions, with Will suggesting we let the original text stand, and I insisting that it needed to be altered for clarity. (If a good editor is confused or bothered by a passage on first reading, there is a very good chance that something is amiss.)

The book's population changed slightly, too. At Will's suggestion, I deleted a minor character who was too obviously there for the convenience of the author (and I then had to figure out some less deus ex machina way of spinning that plot point). Another character who was often referred to got onstage time at Will's suggestion that she deserved a scene. Luckily for me, I already had such a scene (which I had cut, apparently unwisely, in the name of pacing). Will had managed to intuit a textural hole, even though I was sure there was none visible. And one entire piece of technology was obliterated, painlessly (and, if you can toss something painlessly, I think that suggests it oughtn't have been there in the first place).

All in all, it was a great experience, and we now have a better book--especially because of some of his structural suggestions.

So far, I’ve learned many small lessons, but two important ones I'd like to share. First, for those of you who were wondering, MNW indeed edits (and doesn’t charge you--see previous post).

Second, when an editor acquires your manuscript, he is on your side—or, if not on your side, at least on the side of your book, which is what's important. By the time you have an editor, you've probably been through so many adversarial interactions with the publishing industry that you are prepared for more of the same. Relax. Time to take off the Kevlar vest, lower your porcupine quills, realign those brainwaves from spiky beta to smooth alpha. You have an ally now.

Writing is a lonely affair; the editing process is your one chance to collaborate with someone, and, if you're lucky enough to get a good editor, this can be one of the most rewarding parts of writing the book.

Enjoy it. After you get up off the floor, that is.

*[The Peter Carey quote is from Ben Yagoda’s wonderful meditation on style, The Sound on the Page. Great book—and, rather appropriately, quite stylish itself.]

Jump to Part I


Faye said...

Hi David...

First off, congratulations on the pending release of your book.

Secondly, thank you in particular for this post, because I'm also waiting to edit my book with Will (Cover the Mirrors is coming out in November), and I've been really curious about what it's exactly like. I am actually really looking forward to it (I suppose it helps that I got a practice run - albeit a much smaller one - with my proofreaders), but of course we're all defensive when it comes to our work, so it's really good to hear the perspective of someone who's been through it. Thank God hearing it hasn't scared me off!

By the way, did you ever see this Rowan Atkinson/Hugh Laurie sketch about Shakespeare and his editor?:

David Isaak said...

Hi, Faye, thanks for dropping by.

I of course engaged in just a touch of hyperbole here and there in my post, but I meant what I said--I think you'll find working over your novel with Will to be a very rewarding process, and a nice way of finally closing the book, so to speak. Have fun.

Hadn't seen the Shakespeare bit, but it's so much I'm dumping it into the main thread.

Good luck with the book!

David Isaak said...

PS Hope you don't mind that I've dropped a link to your web presence into my sidebar!

Faye L. said...

Hi David,

Thanks, and I'm glad you liked the Shakespeare sketch; I thought it was appropriate.

I absolutely do not mind about the link - it's very nice of you, in fact. Will reciprocate on my own site - is this blog your main site, just so I link to your 'flagship', so to speak?


David Isaak said...

For the moment, this is the flagship by virtue of being the only ship--though I'm (slowly) working up a website.

Is MySpace your main space? (Nice layout, BTW.)

Jake said...

so what DID you do with the Americanisms? Delete and reword, or what?

roger said...

Great post, David. I can't wait for your book.

(Thanks for the mention by the way.)

Faye L. said...

No, my MySpace is the social networking arm of my main site - :)

David Isaak said...

Jake: What we eventually did was swapped one Americanism for another until we agreed that we'd settled on one that would either be familiar, or where the sense of it would be apparent on the face of it. A very interesting exercise for me, though probably a little tedious for my long-suffering editor.

David Isaak said...

Roger, good to see you.

If I read the dates on Amazon correctly, it looks as though "Gentle Axe" and "Taking Comfort" will both be landing in the US in March, which is going to make it look a lot like Roger Morris Month in these parts.

David Isaak said...

Yikes, Faye, you do indeed have a website--a rather large and eclectic one. I'll change the link on this page (though Google found your MySpace link toward the top of the pile--apparently your social networking is giving you a lot of exposure).

Faye L. said...

Really? I had no idea it was getting so many hits. Ah well, the more the merrier!