Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Editing

I wonder how many of you know who Maxwell Perkins is. He died in 1947, so it is not like he’s been in the headlines lately. If you are a writer, a fan of such authors as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, or Wolfe, and certainly if you are an editor, you might know the name.

Max Perkins is considered the most famous literary editor of all time. His job was to take manuscripts and untangled them into works of art. He mentored the likes of Hemmingway, helped shape The Great Gatsby, and legend has it, spent huge amounts of time pouring over Thomas Wolfe's prolific writing, which the author would drop off in a battered trunk. This apparently was back in the day when publishers were comprised of oak furniture, paneled libraries, and a cashier’s cage where bookkeepers calculated royalty statements in longhand. It was also a time when editors spent years helping to develop the work of an author.

I didn’t know who Max Perkins was, and I didn’t really know what editors did exactly. I assumed they looked for spelling errors, or the occasional missing word, and very likely checked the grammar of sentences. As it turns out, these are actually the focus of a copy editor. Apparently editing comes in several flavors, such as acquisitions editor, production editor, project editor, executive editor, and so on, but the two significant ones to an author are the “editor” and the “copy editor.” These are certainly not their actual titles, but it is how authors tend to define them. The copy editor handles all the detail stuff, such as the punctuation, sentence structure, and spelling, and the editor deals with the story. The editor then is the one who everyone blames when a book is a thousand pages long and only enough significant events occur to support three hundred. Max Perkins was clearly one of these, as he fought with Thomas Wolfe to get him to cut 90,000 words from one of his works—about the length of an average novel.

Max was famous for finding hidden talent and mining it out of a bedrock of submitted words. Wolfe later lamented that people felt he was only successful because of Perkins, who had a way of seeing where a story should go, even when the author couldn’t see it themselves. This sort of editing requires a good deal of structural talent. While copy editing is relatively objective, story editing is a hazy murk of opinion. And for a writer who labored over each sentence, the story editor is a frightening person.

What if they aren’t any good? Everyone has worked at a job where someone in a position of authority didn’t deserve it. What if they are merely focused on the commercial aspect? Their job is subject to the amount of sales their books make. Are they going to force an original masterpiece to conform to the established moneymaking standard, because it isn’t worth risking their livelihood? What if they don’t get it? Everyone has had jobs they didn’t want to do, dropped in their lap. It is the nature of business. What if they normally like one kind of story and yours is another? Will they try and force it to be more along the lines of what they like?

I’ve heard horror stories about new authors signing with major publishers and being told they had to make sweeping changes to their novels or they would not be published. Now, I should mention here that I’ve seen quite a few raw manuscripts sent by new authors to publishers. My wife runs an indie pub after all, and from time to time she will have me look at the more promising submissions. Almost all would greatly benefit from story editing. You can kind of see where the author was trying to go but never quite got there, or their style changes midway, or there are whole sections that don’t need to be there. Some are just plain confusing and need straightening out. I’ve actually done a bit of “fixing” for some other authors, and it is very hard. Not the actual restructuring, but rather it is the explaining of the what and why to an author that’s hard. It can easily be taken as an insult, which is why I don’t like touching other people’s work. I imagine that editors at large houses must feel similarly.

From this, you can imagine my trepidation when I received the first edits back from Orbit, the publisher who will be publishing my series in trilogy form. I am a bit protective of this series, and given the response I have received so far from readers, I’m not going to be too keen on altering it to suit someone else’s vision.

There were a lot of edits. Several comments were scattered here and there questioning everything from how the series begins to suggesting that the world building be expanded, or that terms such as Earl and Duke, be made more unique to my world. Reading the list of changes I began to panic. Why did they agree to publish the book if they wanted a different one?

A bit miffed, I prepared to do battle. Only the first thing I was told was, “Did you read the cover letter?” I did of course, but did not understand why that was being brought up.

“Did you see where it was written that these are only suggestions you might like to think about?” I had, but I assumed that was just polite talk for, “Make these changes or else.”

Turns out the editor meant it literally. I didn’t have to make any changes if I didn’t want to.

Blink.

It still took me a day or two to completely wrap my head around that one. When at last I convinced myself they weren’t joking I looked at the changes again. Some made sense, particularly those that reflected the same comments that readers had mentioned. Most writers don’t have the benefit of having their series product-tested by more than fifty-thousand readers before deciding on the final text for publication. This made my decision process much easier.

So I did make a few changes, like for instance the excess of phonetic dialect that a number of you indicated was annoying. I weighed the benefits of how the characters sounded against the difficulty in reading. As it had always been my mantra to make these books as easy to read as possible--which is why I don’t use fancy phrases, archaic language styles, or hard to pronounce names (we’ll not too many)--I determined that losing the phonetics was in the best interest of the books. Instead I conveyed the same idea by altering the sentence structure and dropping words. Erandabon will still sound very odd, but readers shouldn’t need to pause to sound out words anymore.

A number of readers had also pointed out that the beginning of the series was off-putting, in that it doesn’t start with the protagonists. People begin reading about Archibald Ballentyne and are repelled by the idea of reading a whole book with him as the main character. The result has been that many people put the book down at that point. I always liked the book-ending concept of having Crown start and end in the same place, but if this stylistic nuance is preventing people from ever reading the series--that’s a problem. When the editor also mentioned this, I decided to add a scene introducing Royce and Hadrian in advance of Archie’s scene.

There were a handful of other changes, several of which had nothing to do with comments from the editor, but rather from readers. I have taken this opportunity to fine tune the stories based on two years of comments and observations by devoted fans. Long standing complaints were addressed, and corrections made.

The books have since gone on to the copy editor. Again my pre-conditioning left me very nervous when the edits began to come back. As it turns out, the copy editor is incredible. Their attention to detail is amazing. They don’t just look for spelling errors, or grammatical missteps, but also study the plot, and in this case managed to find a few incongruities—leftovers from when the plot had shifted and all the loose ends were not found. Most of these corrections I suspect readers will never notice, but for an author it is as if someone pointed out the toilet paper stuck to my dress shoe, and the piece of spinach on my front tooth.

In conclusion, the series will be better than ever, and yet hardly changed at all. Which is more than I suspect I will be able to say if a movie is made.

“How do you feel about making Royce or Hadrian a woman and giving the story a romantic comedy twist?”

That’s a problem for another day.

6 comments:

  1. Very interesting, thanks for the updates, keep 'em coming. :)

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  2. This has nothing to do with your blog, but I didn't know how to tell you how great of an author you are....I somehow found the Crown Conspiracy on Amazon about six months ago and bought it. It sat on my book shelf while I slowly and painfully finished another book.

    So I had Crown Conspiracy in my hand and a couple of other books, and I was trying to figure out which one to read next. I chose Crown Conspiracy, and it was awesome. I ordered the rest of the series from Amazon. I have 25 pages left to go in Wintertide. It only took me about 2 months (kids and work got in the way) to plow throught the entire series. I have promoted your books to my friends and family. They are amazing. I have never read so many books so quickly. Sometimes it takes me six months to finish one book. I finished your series in three months.

    I just hope you continue to write. I was thinking the other day when I started Wintertide...I wished the sries would never end. I could be on book 20 and be waiting for book 21.

    Anyway, my point is that you are an amazing author. I have enjoyed Tolkien (big fan of him) and C.S. Lewis and a few others...but your writing is just awesome.

    Jamie Dam

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  3. Jamie,

    Let’s see, you managed to say I was great, that my books are awesome, and you indirectly compare me to Tolkien and Lewis--two of my favorites as well. Wow.

    You do realize this is a public blog…others will see what you wrote. 

    You also mentioned that it took you 3 months to read my first five books. That is fantastic.

    While I am certain it is meant as a compliment, I have had fans tell me they read my books in three days--three days! My only thought is…do you know how long it took me to write that? When I first read the Lord of the Rings, I too had previously finished a slow painfully read (a 230 page book that I spent all summer on) and the Tolkien series took me an insanely fast (for me) three months. I was thirteen and they were the first books I read cover to cover for pleasure. I remember I started reading in the grim months following New Years, so while locked in a Detroit winter I escaped to Middle Earth and when I was done spring had arrived. That was well over thirty years ago and the fact that I remember this so well should be an indication at the impact they had on me.

    I remember being incredibly depressed when I finished the Return of the King. I had recently moved and had no friends. Reading after school, traveling with Frodo, this had been my life for three months and to have it just end was awful. I looked for other books, similar books. I didn’t find any. I ended up starting to write my own as a result. But I can tell you, I never expected anyone to write and express back to me the sentiments I felt after reading Tolkien.

    Thanks for that.

    Oh, and, ah…those 25 paged in Wintertide…well, you’ll find out.

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  4. Gonna have to say, this is my favorite so far...

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  5. A. Scott Berg's biography of Perkins is a great read. (Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius, 1978.) Can't overlook the role of editor (at least in Perkins's time, and maybe in future too) as nurturer.

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