Dear Editor . . .
Whoever you are, wherever you are, Dear Editor, this blog is for you. You’ll find it’s somewhere between a human resources case study and a love letter.
I’ve been writing most of my life. I’ve moved from “Not a semi colon goes” (end of conversation, book never published) to “Whatever you say” (utter misery, nearly stopped writing) and am now definitely at “Looking forward to discussion”. I hope the following may help other authors and their Dear Editor avoid some of my pratfalls — or at any rate, get up afterwards a damn sight faster.
Relationship in the mist
Whether you’re a difficult author or a pussycat, the author-editor relationship is always edgy, groping its way through the mist. You can’t get away from it. There are just too many dark alleys and water’s edges. You think you’re striding along a good straight path of mutual understanding and — KERPLOP!
Both of you have to live with this.
And pull each other out of the water when necessary.
Editor Fears Author
Oliver Johnson, who has edited the wonderful Lindsey Davis’s books for twenty-eight years and thirty books, admitted recently on the BBC’s Radio 4 Front Row (12th April 2016) that whenever he goes to visit her for an editing day, he is “still nervous”. This is notwithstanding the fact that she moved publishers when he did. TWICE.
OK, the first time she was encouraged by him making her what she calls “a huge offer”. But the second time, she had to think very carefully. Davis says it was the right moment for her; she wanted a change. But she could have seized the opportunity to escape from Johnson’s interference, with his demands for “more bodies, more bodies” and arguments over her titles.
Why didn’t she?
Because he’s the Ur Reader. “Every time, I have to think of the new reader,” he says.
She agrees he’s taught her about plotting.
Author Fears Editor
This is visceral. Frequently irrational. No amount of good manners, good wine or even Knowing Stuff About Each Other trumps that elemental terror of exposing the beloved work to the steely gaze of — well, anyone who doesn’t love your characters as you do, really.
I have been very lucky.
In my writing career I have had at least four Dear Editors. One became a truly close friend, but that is not essential. With all of them I worked like an angel on amphetamines. Couldn’t wait to finish to get the ms into their hands. Couldn’t wait for their response. Couldn’t wait to do the edits. And I flew.
BUT — even that isn’t all good. You run the risk of becoming dependent. Of course, you don’t have to. Lindsey Davis talks gleefully of putting things into her books to challenge Editor Oliver. I haven’t got that far, but I’ve certainly said, “Not my bag” to some editorial suggestions. Eventually.
What is more difficult — for both parties — is that the Editor is, by tradition, an authority figure. Most thinking people aren’t wild about people who tell them what to do.
When editors are giving you their employer’s requirements, this is fair enough, even if sometimes hard to swallow. But, I have to admit, some take it too far. The author starts to feel they’re treating your novel like marking homework. One friend of mine started to refer to her then editor as The Headmistress.
Another good way to feed authorial terrors is to make promises and then not keep them — no responses by time agreed, no promised phone calls, even just no info at all, for months and months. The editor, pivoting between management, meetings and manuscripts, can easily lose track, of course. But the author, without those distractions and waiting for a response, is in a constant state of pre-fight or flight. It makes us grumpy. And eventually turns us into Difficult Author Who Goeth About Seeking Whom She May Devour.
And then some editors — God knows why — want you write quite another book, their book, full of fantasy revenge, the idyllic love story, the whispering wizard that their own subconscious keeps offering them in their dreams. But those are just ingredients, uncooked. Dear Editor, face it. You need to write that damn book yourself.
And dear Fellow Author, there is only one thing to do, in a case like this.
Walk away. RUN.
Dear Editor, please will you …
These days many skilful editors are freelance. The self-published author (which I am now; wheeee!) needs an editor. I am certain of that. So we have to brief them, in exactly the way that their old employers or new publisher clients brief them. “Just tell me how to make it better” doesn’t really cut the mustard.
The self-publisher and the freelance editor have one common goal: to make the book as unputdownable as it possibly can be. But they come at it from different directions. The author wants to reflect the truth of the characters, in all their intensity and confusion. The author has spent large amounts of time and passion on this. The editor is the First, Best Reader. Readers Want To Know What Happens. So . . .
Dear Editor, please will you
- tell me what you don’t understand in my ms
- tell me where you’re bored
- tell me where you want more
- tell me where you recoil in disgust or loathing (Yes, I know this is going to be tough for both of us, but I need to know. I’ll be brave.)
- And, please, please, please, tell me what you like in it. If the layout is the only thing you feel able to praise, say so. I promise I shall take the point.
The Love Letter Bit
Well, I did say that was part of this blog. Nothing embarrassing, but I’d like to say thank you to some of the editors I’ve worked with, whose remembered advice has kept me writing when I feared I’d lost it entirely. And of course the late, great, Jacqui Bianchi, she of the “Give me firelight. Give me emeralds. Give me ginger, hot in the mouth,” which I have mentioned on this blog before.
You probably don’t remember, dear, dear Editors. The ideas you shared, which I’ve hung onto like talismans (talismen?), were all just part of the day job to you. And probably to me too, at the time, to be fair. But they have proved lights through a very dark wood.
Dear Editor, never underestimate your power to inspire.