The Art of Fiction: Say What? Part III

November 30, 2007
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

The Art of Fiction: Say What? Part III

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

December 2007

"Writers who haven’t worked with an editor before may be resistant the first time an editor suggests changes. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

The third cornerstone of the critique process can be a big surprise if you’re unprepared for what it involves. Writers who haven’t worked with an editor before may be resistant the first time an editor suggests changes to their work. But as an editor’s job is to carefully read your work and suggest such changes, resistance is not only futile, but counterproductive. In fact, whether large or small, each suggestion an editor makes is worth your time and consideration.

"While editors’ roles have changed. . . , we still hear stories of how editors shaped writers’ work."
—Lenard-Cook

That Old-Time Editor

While editors’ roles have changed since the days of Maxwell Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald, we still hear stories of how editors shaped writers’ work. Just last month came the news that Raymond Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, plans to publish Carver’s stories as they were before Gordon Lish pruned them to what would become known as Carver’s signature style. Similarly, the recent publication of the infamous roll on which Jack Kerouac typed On the Road illustrates just how much editing occurred before that groundbreaking novel was published. And finally, a 2006 biography of Nell Harper Lee intimated that Lee never completed another novel after To Kill A Mockingbird because Tay Hohoff, the editor who nurtured that project through rewrite after rewrite, retired from Lippincott in the early 1970s, and died shortly thereafter.

"Sadly, today’s editors have neither
the time nor the influence
to nurture individual writers
as their predecessors did."

—Lenard-Cook
Sadly, today’s editors have neither the time nor the influence to nurture individual writers as their predecessors did. In fact, much of this editorial give-and-take now occurs between an author and his agent, with the agent making gentle (or not-so-gentle) suggestions for improving the book. Once a book is sold, however (to an editor who has “fallen in love with it”), the editor becomes invested in its success not only as validation of her skill but with an eye toward her – and her publisher’s – bottom line.
"Today’s editor is an underpaid, underappreciated, overworked juggler. . ."
—Lenard-Cook
Today’s Editor

 

Today’s editor is an underpaid, underappreciated, overworked juggler, who at an given moment is likely reading a dozen manuscripts sent by agents she trusts, putting together the numbers to propose projects she’s fallen in love with in order to justify them to the publication committee of her particular house, shepherding any number of books through the many stages of production (note that word:  production), and nurturing and maintaining relationships with other editors, agents, and the myriad others who make up today’s publishing business. And did I mention writers?

No. I did not.

"As odd as it may seem, writers
are a small cog in the machine
that is 21st century publishing."

—Lenard-Cook
As odd as it may seem, writers are a small cog in the machine that is 21st century publishing. Yes, we are the ones who create its products, but it is the editor who buys and sells that product. Editors’ reputations are made and lost on the basis of these literary gambles, so they must give each their best shot.
". . . receiving your first set of notes can feel like (as Grandma might
have phrased it) a kick in the pants."

—Lenard-Cook

Working With an Editor

If you’ve not worked with an editor before, receiving your first set of notes can feel like (as Grandma might have phrased it) a kick in the pants. But the worst thing you can do for your book is insist, against your editor’s judgment, that what she has purchased stands. You will be written off at best as stubborn, but at worst as a prima donna, who will likely have a hard time selling a second book with such a reputation established.

"If an editor wants to cut (or add) more,
I appreciate her fresh eye
toward the project."

—Lenard-Cook
To that end (and perhaps because I am, to use my agent’s word, “nice”), I have never, ever, considered an editor’s notes a kick in the pants (Grandma also liked to say that most things were “better than a kick in the pants,” and editors’ notes are definitely this). First of all, I know that my words are not holy. In fact, chances are, I myself have cut half (or, in some cases, more) of what I originally wrote to achieve this fiction’s (close to) final form. If an editor wants to cut (or add) more, I appreciate her fresh eye toward the project.
". . . every editorial suggestion I’ve taken has – absolutely and without question – resulted in a better book. "
—Lenard-Cook
Second, I am human. That means I am fallible. I make mistakes. Some of those mistakes have (through no fault of my editors, I hasten to add) made their way into print. (Go ahead: Read my novels and see if you can find them. Eagle-eyed readers have alerted me to a number already.) I’ve even been known to type (horrors!) the wrong “its.”

 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, every editorial suggestion I’ve taken has – absolutely and without question – resulted in a better book. So when I say I’m grateful to my editors, I mean it.

". . . consider those suggestions and revisit your fiction with an eye
toward making it better. "

—Lenard-Cook
Editorial Roles

 

The editor who purchased your fiction will be its shepherd, but along the way you’ll encounter many other editors as well. There will be the copy (or line) editor, who will proofread it for errors like that wrong “its.” There will be the production (or development) editor (depending on the publisher, sometimes the same person who purchased the book), who will coordinate its design. And there may well be other editors, depending again on the publisher, with whom you will work in large and small ways.

I’d suggest that, rather than considering these people’s editorial suggestions as slaps at the quality of your prose, going into days of funk or months of resistance, you sleep on your editor’s notes. Then, the next day, consider those suggestions and revisit your fiction with an eye toward making it better. That’s your editor’s hope, and (for goodness sake!) it ought to be yours, too. So when an editor says, “What if?” don’t say, “What?” Instead, say, “What a great idea!” Your relationship with your editor – and your fiction – will be better for it.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, will be published in April 2008.

 

Learn more from Lisa Lenard Cook in her Authorlink online class, beginning Saturday, January 5, 2008. Enroll now!

 

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