Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Editors, Perfection, and the Art of Illusion

Let me say from the start that I think I have a fine relationship with my editor(s) and I, by no means, intend to give editors a bad name. But I’ve come to some startling conclusions about editors in my relatively short time as a writer that I wish someone would have told me in the beginning.

Shocking truth number one: Editors are people! Oh yes, that sounds obvious, but it’s something I’ve had to learn for myself. Before I was published, I was well aware that my manuscript was not perfect. I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with it, but I knew that I was a newbie and had little idea what I was really doing. I would think “Oh, when I get an editor, they’ll fix it.” I think I had promoted “Editor” to some Big Brother machine that would strip away all my story’s imperfections so that what was left behind would be perfect. Then I learned that editors are people. They have families, they have heavy workloads, they have deadlines, they have sleepless nights. They make mistakes. Mistakes? No! An editor is supposed to stop me from making mistakes! But they’re human. They’re just people. My editor on The Strange Man was very encouraging and said that there were just going to be some things that slipped by to print. Some punctuation was going to be wrong, misplaced, or forgot entirely. Some sentence might not be the brightest star in the universe. While it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to be lazy, it was sort of liberating, but it forced me to realize a terrifying truth:

The book is not going to be perfect. I’m not going to be perfect. I worked on my debut novel for ten long years and there are still mistakes. There are things that now, mere months after its release, cause me to think, “D’oh! I should have changed that!” It’s not perfect. It never could be perfect.

And I have to learn to live with that.

All of that leads me to my second realization:

Shocking truth number two: When the book’s not perfect, your editor won’t get the blame :p The author takes the critical paddle to the metaphorical rear end for whatever flaws the book possesses, and that’s how it should be. What’s interesting is that we all know that, as a human race, we are imperfect creatures, yet we still demand perfection. Perhaps there’s a larger struggle of Law vs. Grace, but you certainly don’t look at your plumber after he’s done a so-so job on fixing your commode and say, “Ah, well. It’s close enough. You tried and that’s all that matters. None of us are perfect.” No, we expect perfection from those who serve us—entertainers included—though we know that we, ourselves, are not perfect. An interesting dilemma.

In the case of writers, maybe the Reader doesn’t know that we’re just human, not superbeings with magical powers. Or, perhaps storytelling is a kind of magic and, for awhile, we’re able to give others reason to believe in our power—yet when you slip out of the correct POV for a scene or use one too many adverbs, the magic is destroyed. The illusion is ruined, and the magician is alone in the spotlight, revealed to be just a man.

I learned all of these lessons from my first book. So, for my second book, I came at it with a whole new take: My editor is just a human, not the end-all, be-all of my book’s outcome, but merely a player on the team. And perhaps most importantly, I am responsible for my book. I am responsible for growing as an author, for catching the things the editor might not, and for working three times as hard as my editor at making the book as perfect as it can possibly be.

I will still make mistakes. My second novel will not be perfect, but perhaps I can fool you with my illusions for a little while and maybe, just maybe, make you believe that I can do magic :)

These are some of the “cold water to the face” moments I experienced starting out as a writer. To the writers in the audience, what things did you have to learn the hard way? To everyone I ask, how do you deal with imperfection in your life or your job?


Andrea Kuhn Boeshaar said...

I love it when TV shows and movies show editors trailing their authors around, waiting with bated breath for the next chapter of that bestseller. Maybe that happens somewhere, but certainly not in my world. :)

Great post, Greg.

Jillian Kent said...

Nice post Greg,
Oh I wish everything I did was perfect. No such thing for us mere mortals.I learned that I need to read Self-Editing for Writers again and again. All we can do is plan, pray, and persevere.

Bruce Hennigan said...

Greg, you are so right. I had worked with "editors" on my two books that I self-published but never realized just how vital, how essential, how important a good editor is. I felt like I had a collaborator in my editor with Realms and it was a blast! He taught me so much. At first, I was tempted to just send back the advance and tear up the contract. Who am I to take this flawed, rambling manuscript and make it into a coherent book based on these suggestions? But, then I saw the vision of how the changes could make this book work, could make it sing! I'm now in the process of correcting the second manuscript with what I've learned from my editor. And, yes, it was nice to realize he was a human being particularly when he dropped me an email and said he would call as soon as he finished his current game of "Candyland" with his son!