What Authors Really Want

Most authors recognize that in order to get published today, a manuscript must be edited and prepared for publication before it is ever sent for consideration. Most publishers today do not have the staff, the time, or the money to edit a book once it has been accepted, unless, of course, you are one of the elite authors for whom such things are still the norm.
That said, most authors understand that they must have another eye critique and edit their work before it is sent off to a publishing house.

What many authors don’t understand, however, is that an editor’s job is not simply to rave about the work, declare it ready to go, and fix a few spelling and punctuation errors. Any editor worth paying will read the book with a critical eye and provide honest feedback. Editors should not be hired as ego strokers. It is our job to look at the work and find ways to improve it, ways that would be readily apparent to any reader at any decent publishing house.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to put my work out for review, after I’ve slaved over every sentence, nuanced every line, and agonized over the structure, plot, and storyline. But I also know that when I do have other, knowledgeable readers critique my work, I am able to improve my writing in ways that weren’t readily apparent to me.

As an editor, I have frequently encountered those authors who truly want my professional opinion and suggestions. These are the delightful clients, ones for whom I am willing to put in longer hours and more effort. But there are a few authors who seek my advice and then get indignant when I make suggestions for improvement. For these authors, their works are their children, and how dare I criticize what they have created. These are the authors from whom I know I should run, because neither of us will be satisfied: not them with my editing, and not me with their final product.

But that’s what makes the world go round. Me, with my opinions, and they, with theirs. As an editor, I have to realize that I cannot always edit a work to my vision, but must accommodate the author’s vision first and foremost, but only after I have given my honest opinion, assessment, and suggestions.

Left Coast Crime 2010 Panel

It appears that I have been selected to appear on a panel at the upcoming Left Coast Crime 2010 conference in Los Angeles in March. When I registered to attend, I indicated that I would be willing to serve on a panel if they needed me. Apparently, they need me. I have received word that I will be on a panel, though I don’t know yet which one it will be.

Not a published crime writer yet, I suspect that I will serve as an editing expert. Truth is, I would be delighted to serve in whatever capacity they need, but am most confident in terms of editing. I am working with several clients right now, one of whom is a mystery writer, and teaching courses at UCSD Extension, one of which will be repeated in the Spring: Evil, Vile Villains.

My award-winning friend and author, Meg Gardiner, will also be on a panel at Left Coast Crime 2010. Her presence there was one of the main reasons I registered. Can’t pass up a chance to see her when she’s on the Left Coast! Then, turns out that Lee Child is one of the main presenters. I’ve just “discovered” his books and am eager to hear him speak.

So, time will tell what’s in store for me at Left Coast Crime 2010. I’ll update this blog as I learn more.

Sacrificing the “Little Darlings”

As a writer, it can be difficult to make those edits that you know are necessary to tighten your writing. As an editor, it can be painful to suggest such cuts to an author. Every author has “little darlings”–precious lines that simply make a writer sigh, delighted and satisfied with having written them.

But it is these very little darlings that should be cruelly stricken from your manuscript, scrapped for the sake of the whole. “Oh, I agree, this needs some editing,” an author might say, “but I can’t lose this line. I just can’t.” It’s too precious. Just as a writer must be willing to kill off the protagonist, so must the author be willing to sacrifice those precious lines.

As a writer, I can be cruel with myself, scolding and badgering, forcing myself to see my writing weaknesses and shortcuts. As an editor, it is my job (when I am doing content editing) to make writers see the same weaknesses and shortcuts in their manuscripts. But, with them,  I can’t be cruel. I must use tact and gentleness to persuade them of the truth. It’s what they pay me for. It’s what their writing needs. But it isn’t easy for either of us.

A recent client clung adamantly to three lines in her book, despite my reasoning and admonitions. It wasn’t until two other people entered the discussion that she finally admitted that those lines had to go: they were a slap in the face to the reader, completely out of character for the narrator and, thus, jarring for the reader.

Any lines that place the author at the forefront of the page must be stricken. Authors must remain invisible, and should certainly never rear up their heads and shout, Look at me, look what I wrote!

Career Faire

This past week, I participated in a Career Faire at my son’s high school, where I spoke to two classes about what it takes to make a living as a writer and editor. Following the class presentations, I spent three hours in the gymnasium speaking with passersby at the faire.

There were 30 students in each of the class presentations, 25 of whom were there by choice. As is to be expected, most wanted to write novels or screenplays but had no idea about the reality of publishing today. I explained that you can’t just plan to be a novelist and assume that you can make a living immediately through that writing. Using one of my best friends as an example, I spoke about Meg Gardiner (author of the Jo Beckett forensic psychology series and the Evan Delaney crime thriller series), explaining how it took seven years to get her first novel published, after she had worked on it for years prior to its completion, and how now, as her seventh novel is being published, she is finally picking up momentum and will soon make the kind of sales that will support a family and then some. This year, she also won the Edgar Award, the highest award in mystery writing, which will bring her great publicity.

My point was that a writer can’t just assume instant success once a novel or screenplay has been completed. Success depends on talent, but it also requires an enormous amount of perfect timing and luck.

Given that fact, I assured the students that they could indeed make a living as a writer, while they worked for and sought success as novelists or screenwriters. My handout listed some 20 different jobs in various fields where writers would be an enormous asset to any business. With businesses almost required to have a Web site now, writers and editors are needed more than ever.

When asked, I opined that an English degree was a marvelous first degree for anyone who planned to write for a living, but added that their best preparation, no matter what degree they pursue, is to read, read constantly and widely. To my great delight, the majority of the students were readers, though they admitted to a narrow range of material. I suggested that anyone interested in broadening their horizons email me, tell me about what they like to read and what interests them, and I would send a reading recommendation list. So far, one girl has taken me up on the offer.

One discouraging aspect of the students who stopped by the faire table was the widespread assumption that one could be a writer without knowing grammar and punctuation. My favorite comment from a young man, “I’m a poet, I don’t need to know grammar and rules like that.” What to say?

But overall, I was pleased with the questions I was asked, the interest the students showed, and the love I saw for the written word. Encouraging in this world of instant and abbreviated communication. Writers — and love of language! Excellent!