Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Megan: Don't Fear the Editor

Recently I was talking to a writer acquaintance about the process of publishing my book. I ended up my summary with, “And I've spent most of the past year working with my editor to polish it up.” He asked me how that was, and I said, “It was really hard.” His eyes kind of glinted, and he asked, “Did they want you to change all sorts of things you didn't want to?”

I was taken by surprise by his question. I had meant it was difficult because we went through three substantial revisions, in addition to some minor ones. My manuscript grew by almost twenty-thousand words, while nearly as many were cut. My self-confidence took a beating – not because of how I was treated, but because my self-confidence is always looking for a chance to get down on itself.

As I thought about his reaction some more, I realized that it was only natural: as writers we are in love with our words, and our biggest fear is that people won't understand them, or will try to take them away from us somehow. He was probably just responding from the perspective of a writer who thinks the editor is going to irrevocably change his work.

At the same time, editors have a reputation for being gruff and perhaps abrasive. The first one that comes to mind is J. Jonah Jameson in Spiderman, barking out his orders, but I imagine there are literary and film antecedents for the rough around the edges literary editor as well. My editor, Emily Schultz, at Disney-Hyperion, was nothing like that. First of all, when I met her in person, she was wearing the cutest eighties-esque star earrings. Second, she never forced me to change anything.

She helped me to reshape the beginning of my novel so that the end became more poignant and resonant. Her suggestions were always made with a gentle hand. She sent me at least three manuscripts that were covered with her tiny scrawl. She sent me lengthy, thoughtful emails, asking me questions, making suggestions, and forcing me to think more deeply about my work.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I agreed with her. Actually, there was only one point that we really went back and forth on – always in notes on the manuscript, never in person or on the phone. (Although we did talk regularly, this one point never came up, and probably would have been solved much more quickly if it had.) My narrator, Dara, is in a beauty pageant, and she's changing her look from the evening gown portion to her talent costume. She had dark eye shadow on, and I had her lighten that look by adding a lighter shade of shadow. It was something I had seen Carmindy do on What Not to Wear (where all great writers derive their inspiration). Emily did not think it was clear how adding more shadow would lighten the eye. So, she would write a note about it on my manuscript, and for two of the major revisions, I happily ignored her, safe in my reality-television knowledge. It's kind of ridiculous looking back. In the end, I think we cut the line.

Unlike my acquaintance, I don't know that I had any expectations for working with an editor or the revision process. I guess I thought it would be something like working with a critique partner, but it was much more intense. The whole experience was eye-opening in terms of what an editor does, and how much of his or her effort goes into making a (hopefully) successful book.


  1. Oh man, isn't it funny the little things that hang us up? Mine was

    "a tin of mandarin oranges"


    "a can of mandarin oranges."

    Seriously. It seemed so desperately important at the time.

  2. This was a great post to read. My husband and I have discussed this at length as I start to submit my novel for representation or publishing. He is concerned by "voice" will get lost in editing. But, after working with a multi-published author as my mentor, her suggestions have never taken away from my "voice" so I am hoping that will be the case. Any thoughts?

  3. Meryl, having only worked with one editor on one book, I am certainly no expert, but it seems to me that voice, if it's there, is the hardest thing to change. Plus, you can always say no to an editorial change -- saying no can actually lead to some great conversations.

  4. i've only just finished a revision with my agent - her eye saw things that had nothing to do with craft but everything to do with the impact of the book as a whole.

    funny though, when i once mentioned critiques and editing to a close relative, she said, "you shouldn't let other people change your work. maybe you should just publish it yourself."

    i couldn't get her to understand that it was part of being a professional and at the end of the day, the book (and the author) is always the better for it!

  5. But, after working with a multi-published author as my mentor, her suggestions have never taken away from my "voice" so I am hoping that will be the case.

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