Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Whose Story, Yours Or Your Editor’s?

     I’ve been making the acquaintance of an increasing number of other indie writers lately, in consequence of having joined Gab.ai. Quite a few of them have expressed frustration at their difficulties in completing a project. Many of the complaints come from writers who have quite as much to say about their frustration with their editors.

     At least one category of the complaints involves the editor acting as if he were the creative force, and arrogating to himself the privileges thereof.

     To make that plainer and more sharply pointed, such an editor criticizes not the grammar, spelling, punctuation, timing, scene-setting, characterization, plausibility of sequence, naturalness of dialogue, or other technical or quasi-technical matters but the causal underpinnings of the story: in other words, the author’s theme. The editor then tries to steer it in a different – sometimes wholly contradictory – direction. And many a writer, insufficiently sure of himself and his aims, allows such an editor a wholly inappropriate degree of influence.

     An editor who does such things doesn’t deserve to be heeded; he deserves to be fired. But that, too, is often beyond the confidence of a relatively new writer.

     Maxwell Perkins, one of the most brilliant and effective editors of all time, was scathing about such editorial assertions of a co-creative role:

     “The first thing you must remember: an editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to its author. Don’t ever get feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing....If you have a Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare, or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end, an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.”

     Perkins edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway, among other literary giants. No doubt the great gifts of those writers helped Perkins to remember his famous credo – “The book belongs to the author” – but he worked in the same, self-effacing fashion with other, less well known writers.

     Contemporary editors, both of Pub World and free-lance, have largely failed to grasp Perkins’s lesson.


     I’ve worked with a couple of gifted editors who did understand the Perkins maxim. One of them, Rafe Brox, was responsible for cleaning up On Broken Wings. The other, Kelly Tomkies, was instrumental in grinding the burrs off Shadow Of A Sword. I won’t go so far as to say their efforts were what made those books readable, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

     By contrast, I’ve also worked with an editor, who shall go unnamed just in case he’s repented of his sins, who wanted to recast my story in a wholly different direction. Ultimately, I ignored his “suggestions.” (It was made easier by his predilection for exclamation points and writing in ALL-CAPS.) Though it took a while – I was a newly fledged novelist and still tended to pay excessive attention to an editor – I sensed, that what he and I both wanted to do was to write the book. I decided that he could jolly well hare off and write his own novel, without my financial contributions.

     Now, there’s a moral in this. Many an editor is himself an aspiring writer. Why he hasn’t struck out on his own might be a mystery, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the author’s authority and the editor’s proper place in the scheme of things. Maxwell Perkins got it right. You, the author, should enforce Perkins’s dicta on any editor you entertain the notion of hiring.

     That can be a difficult undertaking, especially as many a free-lance editor requires payment before undertaking the job in prospect.


     The great irony of the overly intrusive editor lies in this: the most effective editor for your book will be someone who genuinely enjoys the kind of story you have to tell. Thus, he’s highly likely to be a writer himself, and one who writes in your chosen genres, at that...and that will predispose him to the very over-intrusiveness of which I speak here.

     It doesn’t matter. You must be firm. If you’re not, he’ll succeed in twisting your tale to point in a direction alien to your wishes. The final product might well contradict the premises with which you started your project. Indeed, it might express a theme you believe to be wholly incorrect, perhaps even evil.

     That makes membership in a critique group of like-minded writers one of the most valuable alliances a writer can form. Writers who hold to common moral and ethical values can serve one another as editors, often to far better effect than many a “professional.” Of course that, too, has its costs. The largest of them is obligatory reciprocity: if he agrees to critique your manuscript, you are morally obliged to do the same for him.

     I needn’t go on about this at great length. Remember, “The book belongs to the author.” Don’t allow an editor to snatch it out of your hands and transform it into something you never intended. Imagine the shade of Maxwell Perkins looking down on you from heaven and clucking – not at him for his unholy cheek, which is all too common these days, but at you for your boiled-vermicelli spine.

     [Cross-posted at my fiction-promotion site.]

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