This month we continue our discussion of the editing process by taking a look at it from the published-writer’s POV. Initially, I thought to share my own experiences, but when I sat down to write this post, I concluded that others had documented the experience in forms much finer than I might produce here. What follows is a compilation of these exchanges and the articles from which they are culled, in hopes that you might read the articles in their entireties at a later time.
Before we embark on this journey, I offer you my opinion of what it feels like to have your work edited.
In this image, the dragon symbolizes the editor; the fire, the revision letter; and the person on fire, the bearer of all hopes and dreams the manuscript. Think I’m kidding? I offer up Her Stinging Critiques Propel Young Adult Best Sellers, a recent New York Times profile of Julie Strauss-Gabel, editor and publisher of Dutton Children’s Books. In the article, author John Green details the editorial letter he received from Ms. Strauss-Gabel for The Fault In Our Stars.
“The first sentence was, ‘I really enjoyed reading the first draft of this promising and ambitious novel,’ and the rest was 20 pages of her tearing it apart,” Mr. Green said. “Her editorial letters are famous for their ability to make you cry and feel anxious. They’re very long, very detailed and very intimidating.”
Haven Kimmel, author of the bestselling memoir A Girl Named Zippy: Growing up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, experienced her own surprise when Amy Schiebe, the trusted editor who left Zippy relatively free of red-ink, took a contrastingly zealous approach to her first novel, The Solace of Leaving Early. Kimmel describes the experience in “5 Writers Talk About Their Book Editors,” published by The Awl in 2010:
“Her editorial letter was thirteen single-spaced pages, and each point was cross-referenced on the manuscript with a colored Post-it note. I was to revise two first-person alternating POVs into close-third, meaning that the interior voices (so necessary to the sweetly damaged, or the unreliable narrator!) would be gone, and all of that would have to be conveyed through prose alone. And the ending had to be the opposite of the way I’d written it.”
Kimmel responded with a month-long hiatus—the way one does when your writing reality is a bit too hard to face. Fortunately, her husband intervened by phoning her friend, southern writer Lawrence Naumoff, who delivered sage advice. (My favorite part is bolded.) She writes of her resuscitation:
“Lawrence said, in his superfine accent, ‘Well, what you have to decide is if you’re a real writer or not, and if you’re a real writer… you will do every last thing your editor tells you to do, and you will not argue or protect your darlings, and in fact you will never again protect a darling, or think being edited is a violence…’ And that’s what I did. And Amy was right on every point.”
Certainly, editors acknowledge that the editing process is an emotional experience. Robert Gottlieb—who has edited the likes of Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, and numerous other revered writers—speaks to that in “Robert Gottlieb, The Art of Editing No. 1,” which appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of The Paris Review.
“It took me some time, when I was a very young man, to grasp that a writer—even a mature, experienced one—could have made an emotional transference to me. But of course it makes sense: the editor gives or withholds approval, and even to a certain extent controls the purse strings. It’s a relationship fraught with difficulty, because it can lead to infantilizing and then to resentment. Somehow, to be helpful, an editor has to embody authority yet not become possessive or controlling.”
Donna Bray of Balzer + Bray, a boutique imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books that has two entries on the longlist for this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, echoed that latter sentiment in our previous post:
“The best-case scenario is that the author hears what I’m saying…then comes back with her own...solutions. Sometimes they may incorporate my ideas, sometimes not. I’m never invested in one particular outcome for the book, except that it should be the best it can be.”
This returns me to my earlier image of the editorial process as one driven by a fire-breathing dragon hell-bent on the utter destruction of your precious novel. While the process can certainly feel that way, it is clear that it is not this way. Let’s recast it, then, in a new light, one that symbolizes the process as inclusive of both fire (as fire is necessary to burn away the extraneous) and magic. And let us imagine that the first draft of any novel, once properly edited, will rise like a phoenix from the ash. (Or, like any other variety of Harry Potter metaphors. You may choose your own adventure.)
Finally, I leave you with this from author Michael Crichton, taken from that same Gottlieb interview:
“When I sent Bob a draft of The Andromeda Strain—the first book I did for him—in 1968 he said he would publish it if I would agree to completely rewrite it. I gulped and said OK… Even now, when Bob first calls me back about a manuscript, I panic. But I’ll tell you, I think every writer should have tattooed backwards on his forehead, like ambulance on ambulances, the words everybody needs an editor.”