I’m happy to see you here again.
Early in my writing career, in a day when manuscripts were always hard copies, I won a national writing contest offered by a major professional publication. I was shocked when my piece was returned with lines crossed out and notations for corrections penciled in blue in the margin. When I wrote and expressed my embarrassment, the publisher assured me that even the most experienced writers faced an editor’s blue pencil.
My fragile ego clung to the fact that I’d won “First Award,” no other awards had been offered and the contest had been open to everyone in the United States. I learned to appreciate that blue pencil, was especially grateful for a suggestion to rephrase something that could have been misconstrued as a criticism I didn’t intend.
You, of course, are the first editor of your work. The late Stephen Cannell was outspoken about his severe dyslexia. He sometimes dictated entire books to a secretary. Also, her ability to interpret his poorly worded, misspelled scribbles aided in his success as an American television writer, producer, novelist and sometime actor. If you don’t do grammar, spelling and punctuation well, hire a copy editor before you submit to an agent or publisher.
I’m multi-published in fiction and non-fiction. Probably fifty different people have edited my work, most of whom I’ve never had contact with or seen. Some were great, some hardly edited at all. I sometimes thought the lack of editing meant I was such a competent writer that my work didn’t need it. Now, when reprints of the latter are re-released, I’m often embarrassed by their lack of help cleaning up my writing.
Even as I type this, I wish my current editor could check it before it’s posted. I’ve always been good with grammar, spelling and punctuation, but experience taught me I’m not as skilled as I’d thought. I’ve learned to trust my editors with it all.
In my view, an editor’s job is to make your piece the very best it can be–and to steer you away from anything that might be litigious. Editors know the writing style and other preferences of their publisher. They know the reader demographics. They’re aware of who has been sued for what and the outcome of those cases. Editors, too, have their preferences. One I worked under insisted that if you italicized a sentence, you italicized the ending period. The editor at another publisher consistently removed my period italics.
When I wrote Sweet Chocolate Ecstasy, it was an editor who steered me away from the term “Turtles” in my heroine’s struggling chocolate shop. Surprise, surprise, it’s trademarked. You can still walk into privately owned candy stores and see it used for their caramel-and-pecan candies covered with chocolate, yet any day they could receive a letter warning them to cease and desist. Do you have access to a See’s Candies store? Browse through the names or check online and note the ™ and ® after some flavors. Check the wrapper of the next candy bar you buy.
As a writer, I see my role in the editing process as learning to work with my editor. Or editors. Some houses use an editorial board to review your work. It’s my job not to be cantankerous at some of the approaches editors use regarding changes. They’re looking at my work the way a reader would, and it’s not a criticism of me as a writer (after all, they bought my work), it’s a catch. Thinking “I just said that!” is a clue I didn’t make it clear, not that my editor wasn’t reading carefully. She wants to keep my readers reading.
I usually accept most of the edits requested, but it’s also my role to question those I don’t understand or that I think aren’t important to the story or don’t belong at that point in the narrative. I have the right to reject a suggestion, even fight for it if I feel strongly about it, but first I ask myself if it’s worth it. Is this ”a hill I want to die on,” as the saying goes?
On my first murder mystery, I was so caught up in unfolding my story that I didn’t realize my undercover agent was letting the killer murder again before the agent arrested her. This editor’s approach was, “I hope you understand why I can’t let you do this.”
Oops, and thank you very much!
I’m basically a romance writer, and on another mystery story the watchful eyes of three editors resulted in my cutting a banquet description. “Too flowery.” I laughed because it was the kind of thing romance readers love, but not what mystery readers want. Another time they let me know I’d had detectives respond to a scene when only patrol officers would.
I have a friend whose feathers were ruffled when editors questioned the shoes of her protagonist, who was competing in a long distance race. This friend runs distance races, and was writing about something she knew. She always wears the same brand of shoes, and marks the backs of the heels with permanent black marking pen to separate new and older pairs. The protagonist in her story was in shoes marked like this in a half-marathon.
“Can you really see those marks from that far away?” The challenge came from editors who weren’t even runners.
Sometimes you simply delete things editors question, but the shoes and markings were important to the story. My friend’s irritation ended the day someone walked down her block wearing running shoes. The writer raced out the door and watched the backs of those shoes…then considerably shortened the distance in her story.
For the past eight years, I’ve had the good fortune to work with the same two editors at Amber Quill–a small, independent, royalty paying press. My manuscripts go first to my main editor. Since my work is sexually explicit, once I’ve done the corrections she has requested, the manuscript is forwarded to the editor who reviews all the erotic stories. Unless I’ve goofed in some way, I never hear from the second editor, but twice she’s saved me from mistakes.
My main editor and I have established a friendly as well as a professional relationship, even though we live in different countries and have never met or spoken by phone. I wouldn’t call us Best Friends Forever–and I don’t think she would either–but we know a little about our backgrounds and sometimes share how we spend holidays with our families. She’s always the first to congratulate me when I place in a contest or hit Amber Quill’s Top Ten Best Seller list. I remind her it’s a shared success; we’re a team.
One of my friends was quite upset after an editor handed her over to someone else after having worked on two of her books. Later, she confessed to feeling relieved. “We’ll never understand each other, and she was wise enough and experienced enough to remove that tension for both of us.”
What if you get someone you can’t deal with no matter how you try? I have another friend—with forty-six novels to her credit—who writes for a New York house. Suddenly they switched her to an editor whose picayune demands became so stressful she advised her agent she couldn’t work under that person again. “Not even if it means leaving this publisher.” Her agent negotiated a change, and she continues to write for them.
Digitally published authors rarely have an agent, and so would have no buffer like my friend above had. These houses tend to be small, with a closely knit staff and a limited number of editors, so there are few options. If you can’t work things out with the one assigned to you, you might want to consider whether this is the hill you want to die on before you approach the publisher for a change. For sure, don’t unload your irritations on her or him. Be professional, respecting that this is a business.
Happy reading! Happy writing!