“Editing is the same as quarreling with writers — same thing exactly.”
– Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine
I have not yet heard back from either editor so I am able to live with the sweet delusion that things are almost finished with those two books (though I am nagged by the possibility that I have made a complete mess of them).
It takes me a while to get my head around an editor’s suggestions. I’m an optimistic person. When I sell a manuscript, there is a small part of me that hopes I won’t have to change anything.
To me, working with an editor is like watching someone perform plastic surgery on my child. Yes, the kid will look better in the end, but he won’t look quite like mine. The lopsided grin of a silly subplot, the turned-up nose of sentimentalism, the sticky-out ears of awkward dialogue — these are things I have a hard time letting go of.
Plus I’ve already written these books ten times and the thought of doing it again is just exhausting. I really do try my very best in the first place and the idea of another revision (or three, as was the case with Walking Backward, or six, as was the case with My Cat Isis) is overwhelming. Honestly, if I could have made it better, don’t you think I would have?
There is always some genuine fear that I cannot do it. Plus there’s stubborn attachment to what I’ve done already, which makes me a tad defensive about suggested improvements. (“A tad?” my editors will shout and laugh.) And there’s an unhealthy dose of laziness on top. I’m done those books and onto a new one and it’s a beautiful day outside and it’s American Idol night and, crap, do I really have to write that stupid book again?
Editors are special people. They can squeeze a few revisions out of even the most overwhelmed, lazy, stubborn writer. I think they all read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as part of their training. (That book is not about how to manipulate people into doing your bidding. I’d thought it was — that’s why I borrowed it from the library — but no, it’s about being a better person and seeing things from other points of view. Or at least I think it is — I didn’t read it through.)
Editors are delicate in their phrasing. They never say, “I love this story except for the incredibly stupid scene on the playground.” Never. Not once do the words “incredibly stupid” pass an editor’s lips (not while the writer is around). Instead they say, “The character motivation in the playground scene is a bit blurry.”
Editors don’t say, “It’s a great beginning but the end is dull as dishwater.” Nope. Those words would not win writer friends. Instead they say, “The ending doesn’t have quite the punch it needs.”
Editors don’t complain, “Oh my god, it goes on forever!” No. They say, “Readers of this age might get distracted by your witty digressions.” (All right, maybe they don’t say “witty”. They’re kind, not ingratiating. They’re not trying to win votes.)
Editors usually follow the critique sandwich of praise-problems-praise, e.g., “I love this book. The characters are lively and the dialogue shines. However, [insert list of suggested changes without ever using the words “incredibly stupid” and holding back on half of the needed changes so as to encourage revisions not suicide]. You have a beautiful writing style. I’m very happy to be working on this book.”
Like most writers, I’m used to rejection, so the praise parts of that sandwich really do win me over and make me tackle the list of changes. I’ll give my kids new noses and pin back their ears. Then when my editors get back to me with Round Two of edits, saying, “The nose is just where we want it. Now let’s get to work on the chin,” I’ll be up for one more try. Plastic surgery is addictive.
Much as I dislike the editing process, I can’t help suspecting it’s a lot worse from the editor’s point of view. Oh well. At least we’ll have a good-looking book at the end of it.