Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Exactly Is Editing - Part III

See Part I of this series,  

and part II

We left off in Part II with a Science Fiction Romance Editor, a character you yourself created, sweating over a stack of submissions trying to save her job.

The question is, "What Will She Do?" Which manuscript will she choose?

Now we up the ante.

On her desk are a stack of 1 page novel descriptions from her slush pile readers and a few pitches from Agents who have always done business crisply with her.

But the books from the Agents just haven't sold well enough to keep her job off the chopping block.

The clients of these top Agents are all seasoned professionals who rewrite to order, on deadline, never miss a deadline, and don't waste the Editor's time with gossipy phone calls or emotional hand-holding sessions. These are writers who won't "feel honored" to be chosen. They're craftsman proud of their work who will respect the editor who can see the quality in their product. They're ready to do business as equals, not toady to a power-figure.

She doesn't have to maintain a personal relationship with the clients of these top Agents. They are professional writers who know what they're doing and just do it - on time.

Experience has taught our editor (the hard way) that if she picks something out of the slush pile, the writer (who couldn't land an Agent) will then spend whole, long days of the editor's time on the phone basically asking for writing lessons.

Some editors are writers, too, but that's less and less common in the new publishing world. We'll discuss the difference between writer and editor later in this series.

Our editor can't afford to give writing lessons (though some editors do that even when they can't afford the time because they see $$$ if the produce can be perfected).

Our pressured editor, however, actually doesn't know how writers write or how to teach how to write, even if she is a good professional writer herself. She's trained and paid to recognize at the gut level the perfected result of good writing, not to examine the internal, subconscious mechanism by which this product is created.

She has no time, and her job is on the line.

And she's a corporate professional. She knows that she must not let either the Agents or their writers know that her job is on the line.

She needs a best-seller, and she needs it now. The authors of her former best-sellers haven't been selling so well lately. She doesn't know why. Where to turn?

What is she going to do?

Now, as a writer, you have walked a mile in your customer's high-heels. You can feel the starch in her shirt. You know how tight her pantyhose are and how expensive her haircut was.

Do some method-acting. Feel the roiling emotions, the sweating tension, the desperation that must not show.

You know now who you are dealing with.

Whether you connect with this editor via an Agent or through the slush pile, or at a convention tossing her an elevator pitch - you know what your customer needs from you because you can feel it.

Your customer needs to know that you understand the pickle she's in, won't ever - EVER - let anyone know that you know that things are tough - (never let them see you sweat) - and your customer needs to know that you have the solution to her problem.

Now get this straight.

Your customer needs to know that you have the solution to her problem, not that you JUST THINK you have but really do have it.

What is it that professional Editors do?

They keep their jobs so that they can license your next novel.

They keep their jobs by staying calm and producing concrete results that the bean-counters upstairs can use to keep their jobs!

So your job as "a professional writer" - is not just to produce solid prose the publisher can use to make a profit for the publisher, but your job is to keep your editor calm, collected, confident and successful.

How can you do that?

By assuring her that you are a professional writer with the following traits:

1) That you have totally divorced your emotional life from the string of words you have to offer her.

2) That these words are your personal self-expression, and that your Self is very close to the target audience that her salesman want to hit big with, and will hit that audience in the emotions because of it.

3) That even though these words started out very personal to you, you have attained a clinical distance from them (how you did that is none of her business)

4) That if anything in this work doesn't look to her as if it will fit through the marketing channel smoothly, you will change it to fit perfectly with only the vaguest wave from her to indicate where nips-n-tucks are needed and without further detailed direction from her. 

5) That you understand the exacting (and ever changing) shape of the marketing channel she's got to feed and your goal is to produce a product that will fit neatly into that marketing channel and boost her career.

6) That you know she is a professional editor and therefore is not out to express her personal artistic message via your words

7) That she is your customer, is always right, and not in need of your instruction in how to do her job.

8) That you know exactly what you're doing and will produce results on deadline no matter what may be going haywire in your personal life. You are a professional writer, and keep your homelife out of the office (but you have a rich homelife and are stable and dependable in that context.)

Read that list of assurances again and mind the repetitions; they are important. Note that the face you turn to your editor is totally antithetical to the inner heart and soul of "a writer." It is the professional writer's face.

Read the list a third time. Think about this. An awful lot of the really big best sellers, writers with books that become movies and movies that become best selling books, were journalists first, or for years. What do journalists have that most aspiring novelists don't? Years and years and YEARS of working to a totally inflexible, absolute, do-it-or-die deadline.

A working journalist presenting a novel to an editor has an edge because the journalist will be assumed to make the production deadlines or die trying.

This is an increasingly rare trait in the modern world, and has thus become a saleable commodity in the prose marketplace. Get a professional credential that bespeaks a habit of living within deadlines and never missing them - and you have an edge against all the competition for an editor's (or producer's) attention.

Read that list a fourth time. Note what's missing: art, artistic value, intrinsic merit of the work, discussion of theme or content. Nothing in that list addresses your art. Nothing in that list captures your interest. 

Everything important to you as a writer is in your art. You live for your writing, and all the rest is waiting. That's why you'll argue with editors about whether this character would or wouldn't do that thing - and whether this scene should be deleted or another scene added.  That content is important to you. 

No other functionary in the fiction delivery system cares about anything that's important to you. Knowing that in your bones makes you a professional writer.

You know that your readers (your fans and potential fans) want your heart, not the commercial formula packaging with which you have surrounded your heart. 

But the packaging is necessary insulation to shape your story to the delivery system's tubes leading from you to your reader.

Your readers and fans will never see your heart beating gloriously unless you can package it to survive the 900 pound gorilla that lives in the back of the UPS truck and loads suitcases onto planes. That packaging that protects your heart is the commercial fiction structure, the formula, the trope that academics talk about. It's Blake Snyder's beat sheet and genres.

Read that list of traits a fifth time. It's all about your ability to package a story, not about the story itself.

What makes your product different from the product of other writers (the only real reason you ever write anything) is never mentioned. Nobody in the fiction delivery system is interested in what makes you different from other writers. The only thing of interest here is what makes you the same as all the others. That's what this desperate editor you've invented in your mind is looking for. Someone trust-worthy.

The fiction delivery system workers are all convinced that it's the packaging that sells product and makes a profit.  The content is worthless, irrelevant, and perhaps even annoying or repellent.  Packaging makes a best seller - but the packaging must fit the content like a glove so the whole thing slides right down the tubes of the distribution system frictionlessly.  (friction costs money)

For more on the worthlessness of "content" or Intellectual Property see:
You and your editor discuss packaging - your heart stays out of the discussion.

It's up to you to create your story or novel such that your heart is deep, deep inside and no possible change an editor needs can touch it.

You, your Agent, and your Editor are dealing only in the packaging, not in the heart itself.

And that's how you can manage the clinical distance necessary to get through editing without wasting days pacing and crying your head off, or disputing the changes the editor has suggested.  

No change an Editor might require would touch the part of the story that matters to you - you know that because you are a professional and you constructed the work so that the payload (your heart) is carried in a very sound commercial "vehicle" - a mechanism known to sell to the audience that you secretly know wants your payload.

Now your job (especially if your work has been discovered in the slush pile or captivated the interest of an editor in an elevator) is to convince the editor that you understand the difference between payload and vehicle, and that you are a total master of vehicle repair and maintenance.

That's where most new writers trying to pitch to an editor at a convention will fail.   The new writer will tell the editor the story, focus on all the tangled character motivations and rich tapestry of backstory propelling these characters into adventure.  But what the editor is listening for is, "I am a proficient vehicle mechanic and I build vehicles your readership has proven it loves."  And all that editor is hearing is, "I'm different from all other writers because of my vastly detailed art and I wouldn't ever build a vehicle if my life depended on it."

Payload, heart, the actual story, is very important, but finding useful payload is easy.  Good vehicle mechanics are rare. 

The Editor will choose a payload that suits the target readership for the line being edited. That's a given. Picking out satisfying payload is the editor's talent and stock in trade, and the process is none of your business. That's why editors you interview always say "Just write a good story." or "I want interesting characters." or asked what makes a good story, they are reduced to something that says in effect "If I like it, it's good."

The payload (the emotional kick) of the story is not under discussion in the Writer-Editor transaction. That hurdle has already been crossed, and it's the reason you have an offer or a contract. This editor knows where to sell your payload and has the means to do so.

The vehicle, the mechanism that has to deliver that payload to the heart of the reader, is entirely mutable during the editing process.

What's the editor's job?

To produce 3 or 5 books every month that all travel in the same model vehicle.  

The editor is running an assembly line that produces green Corollas. She might take your red Corolla, but will require a new paint job, and maybe matching interior at your expense.

The editor is running a circus that needs a High Wire Walker, and you got the job auditioning in spangled tights -- but this year's show has a Western theme and she hands you a hoop-skirt costume. It's still wire-walking. You're trained to that. You can do it even though you've never done it in a hoop-skirt before.

Writing is a performing art.

You are a performing artist.

The Editor is mounting a show. She needs singers, dancers, acrobats, a lead actor and actress, some supporting players, and a chorus.

You audition as a singer with one song you know well (your novel), but she hires you and asks for a more upbeat arrangement. You represented yourself as a singer. So re-arrange your song, sing the song her show requires and prove your professionalism.

The show must go on.

Next time we'll look at some of the obstacles to getting the show on the road and the nitty-gritty of what an author under the editing hammer faces in order to accomplish this task.

Readers who aren't writers will begin to suspect they ought to pay more for books than they do, given what writers go through to put those books into the reader's hands.

Part IV of this series posted on Aug. 24, 2010

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I'll definitely be tuning in to part 4! This is very insightful, with lots of thoughts to bear in mind.

  2. Fascinating insight. Thanks for writing this.