July 22, 2013

The Great and Powerful Editor

By Steve Locke

Step one on "The Yellow Brick Road".

At Thin Air, readers and aspiring writers have a fantastic opportunity to see their literary heroes in the flesh. Though, where it would seem that their wonderful texts sprang from their imaginations like spells, of course, it’s simply not the case that abracadabra, a book is printed, and distributed just like that.
What’s missing in this equation is an overseer, a great and powerful wizard hiding behind a curtain, otherwise known as an editor. More than just a capable individual with magic wand (a red pen), the editor is an educated collaborator set on bringing their apprentice’s work ever closer to the reader. This is all while making it seem like the writer had done all the work and the editor was never there, having only whispered enchantments (constructive suggestions) in their ear.

This past week, a local word-alchemist was kind enough to take me under her wing for a short apprenticing session. There, we engaged in a bit of role-playing: I acted as an aspiring writer with a workable manuscript, which I hope is not so hard to imagine, and herself: an editor at a reputable publishing house. This is much less difficult to imagine, since my master was Karen Haughian, the editor of fiction and non-fiction at Signature Editions. She helped me to dispel the myth of the editor, even the red pen.
First off, "Master Haughian" described an ideal manuscript as one that her publishing house may invest in as a marketable product that appeals to a national audience. She also mentioned that in the submission process, it’s best to demonstrate professionalism by sending a query letter and sample through the publishing house. 

Then, our editorial process began:
“So you’ve submitted a sample, it’s piqued my interest, and I’ve asked you to send in the complete manuscript. When I do a first reading, I try to do it without a red pen in hand, which is harder than you might think. I do keep a notepad handy, though, and if I’m seeing real potential to publish, I’ll jot down some notes as I go along.”
No magic wands were used in the editing of this article.

If the manuscript has sustained interest, has commercial potential and fits with publishing plans, the editor might make an offer to publish. Such an offer will rarely be without editorial conditions, of course, which will determine if the writer and the editor “are on the same page”

If, at this point, it already seems like a working relationship simply cannot be struck, Haughian’s advice is to run! “You should never, ever sign a contract to publish your work with a press if you feel it doesn’t ‘get’ your work.”
Once a go-ahead is agreed upon, then a contract is written up, which will outline an editorial schedule that works backwards from a projected publication date.
Okay, so at this point, my master agreed to take me as a full-time apprentice, and had already suggested some incantations to add to my manuscript. Since it was my first apprenticeship, I felt somewhat intimidated. Thankfully, she assured me, “The editing process is not a battle or negotiation; it’s a completely collaborative process, with both parties working together to make the manuscript the best it can possibly be.”
Whew! I was certainly on board for that, especially when she put her role into perspective for me. She said, “The editor’s first task is to get inside the author’s head in order to suggest revisions that are true to the author’s vision and voice. The editor’s aim is to make the connection between the writer and reader stronger.” If the editor does their job well, they will make her work look invisible, and have me grasping exactly what I was trying to say.
The second task is to smooth out any flaws in the work. “The editor will question all kinds of things – from plot inconsistencies and character motivation and development to order, pacing and flow – and make suggestions on how to address them.”
It was then that she took a serious tone and explained why her role was necessary, and objectivity was key. A reading by friends and family simply won’t do, she said. “No one will have the same investment in your work as your editor does. Part of the editor’s job is to keep an eye on how (your work) will be received by people who don’t know you – the elusive reading public.”
After a length of time spent on perfecting the story and characters, then it gets down to the nitty-gritty of editing syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. After that, the manuscript is sent off to the proofreader who is sure to find all the mistakes that are missed. Then, after going through the manuscript for an umpteenth time, it’s off to print!
I asked Master Haughian if there was anything else that I needed to know. She only said that a certain perspective on my manuscript might help the editing process, which comes from experience. She said that new writers are sometimes more difficult to work with because they often feel closer to their work. Seasoned writers, on the other hand, come to view their work as separate from themselves, and an appreciation for the process is reached through sheer volume of words written and re-written.
I took that as a fine perspective to apply to my writing career. Then it occurred to me that the editing process isn’t really all that spectacular; no more so than the writing process, really. I admit that I might have looked to my master with a slight bit of disappointment on that matter.
Never really goes out of style, does it?

She said, “So that what it looks like from under the editor’s hat. As you can see, there’s no mystery, no magic. I’m not any kind of editing wizard, despite the hat. I just do my best to be attentive to the work and the author’s intentions.”

I thanked Master Haughian, and then I thought that maybe next time, I'll submit my manuscript to an editor of fantasy novels instead.


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