Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What Exactly Is Editing - Part IV

Part One of this series was posted on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com on August 3, 2010, followed by Part II on Aug 10

and Part III on Aug 17,
and now Part IV on Aug. 24, 2010

On the "vehicle" vs "payload" model of story structure, see:




We left off in Part III with several adages to ponder:

A) Writing Is A Performing Art (which I learned from Alma Hill)

B) Sounding Spontaneous is a Matter of Careful Preparation (an old stage adage which I learned from Robert A. Heinlein)

C) The Show Must Go On (which we all know).

D) Time Is Money (which we wish we didn't know)

Those who work in the film industry are all acutely aware of the cost per minute of leaving Union crews standing around doing nothing.

Bringing a project in on budget is all a matter of timing, management, thinking ahead, planning, and face it, just plain luck.

What writers don't always take into account is the cost to the publisher of producing their novel, and how that cost counts against their editor in terms of the editor keeping their job, and how each thing the writer does can increase (or decrease) the overhead of the publisher.

All those adages apply to publishing just as they do to film making, and they apply more and more precisely as time goes by.

Editing is more and more just like producing. It's a juggling act, and the most volatile and troublesome element is "the talent" -- actors, writers, director, people who see themselves as creating Art.

The rest of the people in the production process couldn't care a tiddly-wink about Art. They just want a paycheck on time.

Beginning writers often see themselves as selling their Art to publishers.

The Great Awakening into professionalism is the discovery that the publisher doesn't see it that way.

The publisher doesn't value their Art even as much as a film producer values chorus dancers.

For most beginning writers, just getting the contract signed is the goal-post or finish line. They learn quickly that signing the contract is the opening gun in the race not the victory lap.

Here's a tweet from the person running the twitter account for the huge line of Del Rey Spectra:
@DelReySpectra I just had back-to-back meetings, and my brain is now fried. And only 45 minutes to go, now

That's a glimpse of real life for your novel after you sign the contract and deliver. That's the state of the folks responsible for your success or failure as a writer.

That is why it's so hard to "break into" print. Good writers are a dime a dozen. Only a very few are able to run fast enough after the contract to make it to the finish line, to run with the big guys who have back-to-back meetings and can barely sit straight at their desks for that last 45 minutes.

For the publisher, the finish line is not contract signed, or even books in the stores, books in translation, or books made into films. The publisher's finish line is books in remainder and off the shelves, the film made from the book no longer sold in DVD/blu-ray/whatever.

The publisher's finish line is when the property is no longer bringing in revenue and rights revert to the author.

The publisher and the writer live in worlds that are that different. They have goals that are that different. That's why the personalities and character traits of editors, publishers, agents and writers are so different that rarely can one person do all those jobs successfully.

If you're half the writer you think you are, you've just invented a character who can do all those things!

What Exactly Is Editing?

Editing is the process of bringing those disparate goals in line, together, into harmony, or somehow getting them to co-exist.

The editor has a fractious, temperamental artiste on one side and a hard-nosed bean-counter on the other. One is yelling about their characters wouldn't do this or that, and the other is yelling about the stockholders demanding a higher dividend despite taxes.

And then there's the legal department. Those people think differently from anyone in the world (and few read any novels). The lucky writer has an Agent to deal with the legal department. The writer pays the Agent a hefty 15% to deal with lawyers. The Agent will put as much effort into legal work as the Agent thinks the writer's product will be worth. The Agent's business is a time=money business too. Lawyers bill by the hour. Their incentive is to make everything take longer. To the publisher, the legal department is just "overhead" and legal fees are part of every book's cover price.

Which brings us to another important point in the Editor's job description.

The publishing industry is governed more by custom than law.

What's written in the contract is not necessarily how things will work out. Writers who want the written contract to trump industry custom probably won't last long in the profession unless they are Amazon.com's #1 book for 6 weeks with every book they write.

Between the time the contract is signed and the time the final manuscript is put into "production" (sent for copyediting and given a publication date), the specifications for the vehicle that carries the payload - the writer's heart and soul - to the reader can change.

The changes can put an extra, emergency burden on the writer. It's a rewrite order that comes in as "drop everything, even the work under contract to a different publisher despite next week's deadline, and rewrite this and get it to us by Monday morning" work order.

Such an emergency rewrite order is an additional cost of production that the publishing company doesn't pay, doesn't account for, and doesn't care about. The writer must deliver.

The changes in the world that cause these expensive emergencies are not entirely under the control of the publishing company, or the editor.

Some have to do with economics - the price of cardboard in China, for example, determines the price Mass Market paperback printers must charge for paper. The price of ink changes with other non-publishing related events.

Some changes are controlled by upper level management decisions at a Publisher (upper level management of a publisher may be the management of a business that owns the publisher and really doesn't care much about publishing) - how many titles will be printed per month, how many reprints, how much promotion money will be spent and on what kind of promotion, how many colors of ink can be used in a cover.

A writer's publication date might be delayed (or moved up!) because another writer with a larger readership was late (or early) with a manuscript.

The editor who signed the contract might leave and be replaced by an editor who dislikes the writer's novel and bumps it down from Lead Title to 3rd, prints and distributes fewer copies, dooms it to low sales, cancels reprints of prior entries in a series, reaches out for a new writer from the slush pile.

Any of these events could mean the editor (or new editor) will issue new rewrite instructions such as make it longer, make it shorter, make the lead character female, make the lead character male, make the lead character human instead of Alien From Outer Space.

Longer or Shorter are always on the table, and should be no problem to a professional writer.

Major changes such as the gender of the lead or the setting (from alien planet to contemporary Earth, for example) are a totally different problem.

Sometimes, such rewrite instructions issued after the contract is signed are really negotiating techniques for getting the author to back out of the contract. That's what Agents are for.

The Professional Writer would look at drastic rewrite instructions from a different angle.

If massive changes are required, changes in the payload rather than just the vehicle, it isn't cost effective for the writer to invest the amount of time required to accomplish them on a work already crafted.

That's the professional attitude - cost vs. reward.

You don't put into a project more than you can get out of it.

You must get out of it more than you put into it. You must turn a profit.

That's the difference between amateur and professional. Profit. Calculate the effort/return ratio and act accordingly.

The professional writer does not withdraw a manuscript because she thinks she's so great nobody can touch her prose.

Words are strung together for sale at a profit.

Time is money.

The Editor needs 75,000 words that say this, not that.

It took six weeks to write 80,000 words which say that.

It would take another six maybe seven weeks to change that into this.

It would take maybe 5 weeks to write a THIS which is entirely new but exactly what the editor needs.

So instead of rewriting, the professional sends in a chapter and outline for a THIS to replace the THAT which is no longer marketable.

You can fulfill the contract with an acceptable THIS and still have the THAT to market elsewhere (at a profit).

You can do it, but only if you're a professional writer who knows what she's doing and can do it to deadline (and have a really good Agent to deal with the lawyers).

A writer is in business to sell word-strings. Time is money. Provide the editor what she needs when she needs it, and likely she'll buy from you again if she can. (it isn't up to her, remember that) But that can happen only if the sales on the current title pass scrutiny by the bean-counters.

So if the deal comes down to truly drastic changes that require more time than the creation of something new, HAVE that something new in the back files ready to produce at a moment's notice.

Professional merchants have stock on the shelf in the back room as well as out in the showroom.

"Sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation."

It's also true that sounding "calm" is a matter of careful preparation. If you know you can supply whatever the higher management folks demand of the editor, your voice won't squeak when the editor tells you a whole line of novels, maybe a whole imprint, is being canceled and your novel was scheduled for that line, and the advance you received so far is the kill-fee.

Know what a kill-fee is? It's a fee you get when they decide to cancel a contract, especially a contract upon which you have delivered. Usually, if you get a kill-fee for a title, you can't sell that title elsewhere. It's dead. Killed. (there are exceptions to that of course - lawyers live in another world altogether)

So what does an Editor do for a living?

Pull the rug out from under hapless writers, that's what. That's part of the job description, Editor.

Really, tweaking and twiddling text and issuing rewrite orders is the least of what an Editor does. Even the time spent reading manuscripts doesn't eclipse the time and emotional energy spent dealing with the production chain, covers, marketing, blurbs, copy-editing, the accounting department that just doesn't get around to cutting the checks for the editor's starving writers, the power lunches placating the bosses, chatting up agents to get at the biggest name writers, and so on.

The writer never gets to deal with the folks on the committee which ultimately decides whether to contract a certain title, or not.

The editor is the face of the publisher turned to the writer, and the poor editor has to deal with all the changes in the world beyond the control of writer, editor, agent, or sales department, then deal with the emotional basket cases all those disruptions create.

The Editor's job is to orchestrate, manage, and connive, to flimflam all these disparate elements into seeming to cooperate so the higher ups never discover what chaos reigns in the editorial department from time to time (it's mostly pretty organized, but there are moments!)

Thus if the world suddenly changes, the publishing company gets bought, the editorial department head leaves, or the Fed manipulates the value of the dollar, it's the Editor that has to tell you about what that means regarding your manuscript in production, your title on the shelves, or your backlist title that was to be reprinted right before the sequel you're working on now.

It's part of the professional writer's job to understand what the Editor's job is (and is not), and have on tap a product that the editor can use instead of the product that has been contracted.

A cooperative, businesslike writer will ultimately get more work than a prima dona.

Because of that nature of the commercial fiction business, there are few prima donas around. There are, however, a lot of working professional writers in both publishing and film who probably know a lot about the editor or producer's job, but don't think about what they know when crafting a piece under rewrite orders.

Now, I'm being very severe here. Reality is never quite so black and white, and never at all static. What ever's true today will be untrue tomorrow, maybe tonight. There is no "Unified Field Theory" solution for human relationships, business or otherwise. When it comes to establishing and maintaining a relationship with editor or agent, we are all "pantsers" plotting our own success by the seat of our pants.

And we all climb a very steep learning curve. Editors and agents will "handhold" new writers for a while, but expect them to show increasing professionalism.

In Part V of "What Exactly Is Editing" (August 31, 2010) we'll look closely at 6 questions posed by professional writers when asked what they wanted to know about the secrets of rewriting to editorial deadline. And my answers will be extremely severe sounding to beginners.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Thanks for this interesting look into the editor's world.

  2. Thanks so much for this series on editors, Jacqueline! It's very timely for me as I am in Editing Hell right now for the very first time. I'm seeing all this and just comprehending a little, but I am getting there.

    One thing I've noticed is I'm a lot more emotionally detached from my stories now that I've gotten to the point of publication. I'm even a little sick of them. It really does help with the editing to feel that way!

  3. I also want to thank you, Jacqueline, for everything you taught me on story structure and pointing me to Blake Snyder. Having a scene-by-scene outline and 'beating' out each story has made editing them so much easier and faster! It's so much easier and faster to find the little problems that throw everything off, and then to figure out how to fix them.

  4. Wow, great stuff! Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Thank you for this. I'm getting a really good insight into it all. No wonder my writing friends get so frantic around deadline dates.