The Curious Case of the Missing Editor

OMG, the Monkey screeches again! (for those of you who are still left to hear it)

Though I’ve obviously been MIA, my title isn’t in reference to me. As an editor, I’m always at the ready—always on the job, in fact, even if it isn’t my own, apparently. You see, I mentioned before how I’ve been more in Reader than Writer mode lately, and I’ve got to say I’m gobsmacked by some of the poorly edited work I’ve read lately. And I’m talking traditionally published stuff by best-selling authors. Even the best indie authors know not to dare self-publish without consulting the expertise of an editor. At least they should know if they take their writing seriously and want others to as well. Repeat after me:

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone needs an editor.

We can be ever so proud of our book babies and earnestly believe in our talent, but it’s downright diva to think that any of us could possibly be above the need to have someone else edit our work (and neglectful of editors to let anyone slip through the cracks). I don’t just mean proofreading to clean up the spelling/grammatical bits; I mean deep copyediting, where, yes, you might have to let go of that sentimental scene or hack out some delightful description, no matter how poetic the prose. Anyone who wants to evolve from rookie status should understand the value of a fresh pair of eyes. None of us are perfect in any way, shape, or form.

Hats off to indie author Tahlia Newland, for instance, who in the last few months has published an imaginative suite of stories through Catapult Press. Having myself offered some input on a couple of her projects, I was just one of several beta readers Tahlia makes a point to share her pre-published work with before then employing the services of a professional editor. I’ve been following her blog for a while and, consequently, her journey to bring her short stories and soon-to-be-released Lethal Inheritance novel to readers, and her revision process has been nothing less than comprehensive, involving a team of critical eyes. She also runs the Awesome Indies website, which upholds a standard of quality for the independently published.

Some traditionally published authors, on the other hand…

Well, of the last several novels I’ve read, one that I enjoyed while reading but was quick to criticize in hindsight was The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht. Now, this is a bestseller that has had readers falling over themselves in absolute love with it, and I just have to say, “Eh.” NO QUESTION, Obreht is a debut author that will be a literary force to reckon with going forward. She has a spectacular if not intimidating command of the English language (which is not her first language and surpasses many of those for whom it is!), a maturity transcending her years, and her capacity to describe is absorbing. I’ll delve more into that last observation in a future post about 1st-person POV, but for now I just want to say that, while a tremendous and captivating storyteller, Obreht should have trimmed down a substantial amount of that description, along with secondary characters and story lines. A classic rookie case of wanting to keep in every great idea that crosses the mind, she was just too ambitious with all the folk stories of sorts that she chose to interweave—we’re introduced to an exhausting list of characters who are described in exhausting detail, only for them to fall off the planet with no lingering consequence. The tangle of tales, I felt, ultimately rendered none of them as effective as they could have been (standing alone as part of an anthology, maybe?) and, in the end, left the primary story thread underdeveloped. And her editor should have known this.

To be honest, I think a lot of the readers who gave The Tiger’s Wife rave reviews did so because they didn’t get it and attributed that fact to some profound, intellectual meaning that was surely just going over their heads. That their comprehension simply and understandably fell short in the face of genius. And, hey, you can bet I originally gave benefit of the doubt that my own questioning was a product of me being dumb as rocks. But I don’t think we readers should be so quick to sell ourselves short. When I find myself discussing this book with a group of women on the same page, and all of us educated, well-read, and discerning yet equally baffled as to whether there’s indeed some grand overarching purpose unifying the excess, methinks it actually all boils down to, nah, it was just really crappy editing.

But by far the most abysmal absence of editing I’ve recently encountered was in Julian Fellowes’s Past Imperfect. Now, Fellowes is another brilliant storyteller. He’s brought us the Oscar-winning Gosford Park and hugely popular Downton Abbey. But after just finishing the aforementioned novel (as well as reading his book Snobs a few years ago), I’ve come to the conclusion that screenplays are clearly his forte. Why? Because there’s no doubt he knows his subject matter (rich people). No doubt that he conceives compelling stories, engaging dialogue, and settings that are a feast for the eyes. But he can’t write narration. Or, rather, he has a clumsy handling of it. He’s very good at description and development, but in Past Imperfect, he seems to have invented an entirely new narrative POV: 1st person omniscient

That’s right, his 1st-person narrator can read the minds of every other character in the novel:

A pink cloud of nostalgia hovered over him for a moment. “The library was one of the prettiest rooms I’ve ever seen, never mind lived in. But no.” He shook his head to loosen these disturbing, self-indulgent images. “I’m finished with all that.”

*

“What happened to her?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” She sighed, saddened by the inexorable process of life.

The narrator can also see what other people do while on the phone with him:

“And Terry.”

He was puzzled for a second, and then he nodded and smiled. “You’re right. I’d remembered it as being before we left.”

Unless this was a video-conference (which I assure you it wasn’t), seriously, WTF. Or should I say, WTE, as in “Where’s The Editor?”

Because he/she certainly wasn’t there to correct the error in “reaping what you sew.”

And certainly didn’t caution Fellowes against too much telling or constantly interrupting the flow of dialogue with needless narration:

“Are you on good terms these days?”

The question seemed to take him by surprise and return him to the present. My words had told him something beyond their content. “Why did you want to see me?” he asked.

*

“Which ‘some’?”

“Sorry?” The phrase sounded foreign. I couldn’t understand him.

*

He shrugged. “It was obvious she was talking about Damian.” He must have caught and mistaken my response to this news, and hurried to undo any possible hurt. “She was always very fond of you, but…” How was he to phrase it?

I helped him out. “She wasn’t interested in me.”

We both knew she wasn’t, so why should he argue? “Not like that,” he said, accepting my own verdict.

*thump*
*slam*
*swish-swish*
*bam-bam-bam*

Oh, sorry, that was just the sound of me tripping over narration, brushing myself off, then proceeding to deliberately bang my head against the wall. Back to what I was saying…

The long and short of it is, Writers: Each of you needs an editor. And Editors: Even if your authors are already best-selling superstars, don’t cut corners in polishing their work. Just as every writer should take pride in their writing, editors should take pride in their editing, whatever the constraints we face.

I like to think I do, and yet I still don’t claim to master the art on my own—for the work that I do for a small publisher, I have three other editors on my team for any given manuscript, and it’s always a learning process for me. I’m pleased to say, though, that two more guinea pigs I’ve developmentally edited on this publisher’s behalf are out in the world as of September, making five published novels in total, with three more on the way this winter. I also just finished editing a short-story prequel to one of those books, and a freelance manuscript that I’d proofread for the sake of querying has already found itself an agent. SO proud of my authors, and may we all continue to write, edit, and prosper.

See my related post: “Editing Out the Editor

Also, stay tuned for some reflection on use of 1st-person narration

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

16 responses to “The Curious Case of the Missing Editor

  • writeinberlin

    Huh. This is funny, just this afternoon I visited your blog to see if you are still out there. Take that for cosmic connection, honey!
    Congrats on the 5 PUBLISHED BOOKS you edited!! Amazing, can we also know which books they are? Would love to read some piece of your work. (via email if you want to keep it out of the blogosphere)

    On the editing – yes. It seems to be a trend these days that in order to squeeze every last drop of profit (and I don’t say this is necessarily the publisher’s fault, it is this weird ongoing consume-more-for-less mood) of a book they just don’t edit anymore or don’t give the editors enough time for them to work. But that is only my impression. As an insider, tell me. Is it the laziness or is it just the enormous time/money pressure there is?
    I really keep hearing more and more hair-raising stories about that.

    And then I am wondering – the whole rules of show vs. tell, dialogue etc. Isn’t it sometimes ok to allow a bit more of a wordy style, just so not every book is written/edited in the same writer’s-workshop style? What is your take on that?

    Sorry for all the questions but you as always are a victim of your own great post there. 🙂
    Greetings from across the Irish Sea!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ah, there you are, keeping me honest. 🙂 I continually revise my posts after I’ve published them, and your comment has further prompted me to soften a couple bits a little so that I’m not overly harsh on editors—nor lauding myself as the end-all be-all in the meantime, because I’m certainly not!! I would have been terrified to edit something on the level of The Tiger’s Wife! And yet I can’t help but acknowledge things I know I wouldn’t have let slide had I gotten my hands on those raw manuscripts…

      As for writing rules, totally with you on not needing to strictly adhere to those basic ones in the interest of giving each writer a voice, but how those rules are addressed is still subjective no matter what and, as far as I’ve seen in the books I’ve edited, definitely preserves an author’s individual style—if not enhances it. I think there’s a place for telling when it comes to just getting to a point in the interest of pace, good ol’ simplicity, and so forth, but when doled out within reason. In Fellowes’s book, the amount of it that interrupted dialogue was off the charts and distracting beyond belief. It didn’t come across as “style,” just annoying. 🙂 And Obreht, again, is SUCH an amazing writer. I would never criticize her talent (only envy it until my entire body turns green), but the extent of description got very bulky after a while and kept creating false emphasis around people and settings—i.e., the extent of which would make you really concentrate on it as something that must be super important to the story, only for the object being described to drop off without any further significance. Some things should certainly be described to that extent (not only for emphasis but the joy of reading it)—especially if someone can do it as beautifully as Obreht does—but not EVERY thing, and that’s how it read. I also have a personal gripe with the level of detail a narrator can “recall” when telling a story, but I’ll leave that for my next post on 1st person. 🙂

      In any case, I am definitely one who can indulge a lot of description—my love for Dickens is a case in point. I just ultimately need to believe there was a point for it by the time I reach the end of a story. Purely my personal opinion. I’m very new and green in this editing biz, so I can’t pretend to speak for those rocking the industry at the top publishers and for the top authors. Again, brimming with envy…

      But to your point on publishers cutting corners for profit, yeah, I definitely see that being an issue. Less editors on staff and less time for each to devote to each new project. I read a manuscript at least five times before sending it on in the process, which obviously takes a lot of time when you consider how long it takes to read a book just once for pleasure and not having to stop-and-start at every word to correct or question it. It’s the same issue with agents and publishers accepting manuscripts to begin with, isn’t it…our rejections come as form letters, and they’re so often only in response to a query letter at that, not the manuscript itself because reading every one that’s submitted just takes so, so long—you need way more people to field it. And as it is, I work for a young publisher that pays on a commission-only basis, so, until it grows and can compensate more, it hinges on our intrinsic passion for the work. So I have to agree with your point in all fairness to editors (which prompted me to remove both “lazy” references from this post!); I just don’t have to accept it as a reader who doesn’t want to read something that isn’t as strong as it could be. Especially not when it’s coming from editors actually paid a salary to churn this out when I knock myself out practically for free. The industry overall is declining if it’s satisfied making these excuses for why its editors don’t edit anymore. As it is, it seems some writers don’t even have to write (well) anymore. 😉

      Wow, I’m on my high-horse today, aren’t I?! Ha, thanks for indulging it. And thanks again for yet another first-rate comment, as you’re always so thoughtful in fostering discussion. I will indeed follow up with an email of what I’ve edited; since I sometimes comment in my blog specifically about my projects (the good and the bad), it’s best I remain anonymous for confidentiality. Anyway, great to be back in contact, toots!

      • writeinberlin

        Thanks so much for this amazingly comprehensive answer.
        I don’t see high horses anywhere, just big idealism and enthusiasm for the topic, so I love it.
        My rather simplified view on the whole thing (with the little experience I have so far) is that if the stuff sells anyway (from big names) or promises to do so receives much more lenience on the editing. Not always to the advantage of the writing.

        I sincerely hope I got across interested rather than eager to challenge your views. You are the first real editor that I dare ask my many questions around the topic. I love to get your insights, so I hope you don’t mind me asking this stuff. If you do, I will blame it all on the rather direct/questioning German-speaking culture I was raised in and apologize. 😉

        • thefallenmonkey

          Oh my goodness, don’t you dare apologize!! Now I’M sorry if my gargantuan reply came across as defensive, because I didn’t intend that. In fact, I value your opinions and questions so much that your comment compelled me to rethink what I’d written and make sure I hadn’t been too heat-of-the-moment and unfairly chastising (I can get very self-righteous left to my own devices). Because it is such a different publishing climate these days. And ideals unfortunately do have to fall by the wayside where the business of the matter is concerned. I suppose if my job depended on pushing out a large volume of manuscripts in a short amount of time—and assuming I’d want to maintain any semblance of quality of life outside work!—I’d end up making the concessions, too. It’s like, “Well, if that’s what they’re asking me to do, then…” As it is, I have incredible flexibility doing the odd job from home, so I can’t really relate to what the full-time editors are undergoing right now.

          “if the stuff sells anyway (from big names) or promises to do so receives much more lenience on the editing” – YES. I’ve noticed that, too. If I’ve read a series or followed a few of a same author’s books, I’ll notice that as the publication dates become more recent, the quality decreases and length increases. They always get so much longer! Sometimes it’s a product of the author truly coming into their own and growing more savvy and ambitious in their work, the added complexity of plot lines being what adds more chapters. But in more cases than not (at least as far as what I read), the extra bulk is just dead weight that would’ve been trimmed had it gone through a more thoughtful editing process. I’ve questioned whether, in fact, some authors’ later books are actually first manuscripts that didn’t cut the mustard before the author became known and proven to sell. It wasn’t good enough then, but now it apparently will do, so crank it through the presses and the loyal followers will read anything. That seems to be the assumption anyway. I guess that’s where I get really conservative as a consumer and demand more gatekeepers and steps in the quality control process. I just want to know that if I spend my money on something, it will be top notch.

          Anyway, you keep firing your questions, girl! I’m just flattered you regard me as remotely an authority on the topic. I really don’t know anything, when it comes down to it. 🙂

          • writeinberlin

            Ha – I think we totally understand each other, dear. The “take old stuff as new” thing is also something that I noticed, and oh so much the dead weight (I jumped off Irving after “A son of the circus”, and also abandoned the super-hit 3rd installment of the Stieg Larsson trilogy because I just could not take any more irrelevant characters and their irrelevant details). But hey, I guess if I would be the bestselling author I would be happy to get a breather to churn out new stuff 😀

          • thefallenmonkey

            Seriously – I have to say I would totally exploit my fame to retroactively publish my first babies that I put so much wide-eyed novice heart-n-soul into…which would be the crap I’m writing now. 😉

  • Tahlia Newland

    I’m totally with you on this. I’ve read a couple of Simon and Schuster books lately that make me think that they’re publishing authors who write beautiful prose but they’re not looking at the structure and overall concept of the books. I get the feeling that the structural edit has gone by the wayside.and that’s not good for people that are selling their ebooks for outrageous prices and getting away with it because they’re supposed to be guaranteed good.
    The book you mentioned with the too many words wouldn’t make it into the Awesome Indies list – interesting huh!
    This is the criteria it wouldn’t pass –
    the book is not excessively wordy, particularly, no rambling descriptions, dumps of information, unnecessary repetition or irrelevant scenes.

    • thefallenmonkey

      “they’re publishing authors who write beautiful prose but they’re not looking at the structure and overall concept of the books”

      – Absolutely, Tahlia! It’s become a massive gripe of mine. I can understand that today’s editors are facing constraints, but I think that fact makes for a sad state of affairs for literature, then. They definitely seem to speed through books by authors who have already achieved high sales, and I just find it insulting as a reader that they apparently think we’re not going to notice that slip in quality—especially if we enjoy a particular author and follow their subsequent work. I don’t doubt established authors’ initial manuscripts are stronger than the average in view of experience, but it isn’t to say they have achieved mastery so can get a hall pass on editing. No one could conquer that on their own.

      I’m pleased to hear that Awesome Indies would have turned both of these titles away. 🙂 The industry needs to know there are still readers out here who have standards. It actually gets me quite frustrated with all the readers who evidently don’t and propel the momentum of these sub-par book factories.

  • Tahlia Newland

    Also, Past Imperfect wouldn’t have passed this Awesome Indies criteria too
    – changes in the point of view of the writing are clear, specifically no confusing quick jumps from the thoughts of one character to another and back again.

  • Jackie Bouchard

    Thank you for calling attention to this! It’s frustrating to read a best-selling author’s book and wonder where the heck the editor disappeared to. I recently read Fannie Flagg’s “I Still Dream About You”. I have enjoyed the sweet, simple manner her books are written in the past, but this book made me crazy. Talk about head jumping! We’d be in one character’s head for a whole chapter, then briefly jump into another minor character’s head for a couple of irrelevant thoughts, and then back again. Maddening.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Gah! Head jumping drives me insane! I had to read Victoria Hislop’s The Island for a book club once, which constantly did that, too, on a paragraph-by-paragraph if not sentence-by-sentence level sometimes. Ridiculous! Definitely a fan of limited omniscient or at least separating different characters’ POVs with section or chapter breaks so we have a signal the change is coming and will be more than a momentary, distracting detour. And how disappointing for you to see that from an author you’ve enjoyed so much; you’d think she herself would know better by now, but, regardless, it’s ultimately the editor’s fault for not calling her out on it. Sad state of affairs for publishing these days…

      Well, thanks ever so much for stopping by and indulging my rant, Jackie! So glad to know I’m not the only one beating my head against the wall over this stuff. 🙂

  • Tahlia Newland

    I just published a review today of another Simon and Shcuster book that didn’t have sufficient structural editing. It would fail the Awesome Indies on the ‘conceptually sound’ criteria. (ie it should make sense)
    http://tahlianewland.com/2012/10/06/review-white-forest-by-adam-mcomber/

  • Milo James Fowler

    Oh, mos def — we need editors. And not just the kind “indie” authors pay before they self-publish. With short stories, we need editors who have chosen our work to appear in their pubications because they know they will make money off it, and they’re invested in making it the best it can be. Then, when the rights revert to us, we can self-publish the heck out of them!

    • thefallenmonkey

      That’s great that you eventually recoup the rights to your stories, Milo! I didn’t realize it worked like that. And, yes, there’s definitely validation in having an editor accept your work because it’s sales-worthy. Even for the novels my publisher prints, I receive royalties on the ones I edit, so, while I’m not the one who accepts them at the start, I’m certainly vested in their future success, which gives me even more incentive to polish to perfection beyond the intrinsic passion for quality storytelling!

  • Third Person Viewpoint and Free Indirect Style | Joanne Phillips – a writer's journey

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