Monday, November 17, 2008

A Good Editor Is Hard To Find

Cynthia Crossen writes about authors, books, publishing and editors in her Wall Street Journal column Book Lover. Today's column talks about Australian author Steve Tolz's first novel "A Fraction of the Whole" (short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in September). The novel is long, 576 pages.
According to the cover quotes (paperback edition) the book is "devastatingly funny," even "laugh-out-loud-funny" and Mr. Toltz is compared to Mark Twain, John Irving, Martin Amis...even Charles Dickens. Ms. Crossen asks the question "What more could I want?" Her answer is quoted below:
__"A plot, compelling voices, believable characters and an editor with a machete for starters. There were a lot of funny moments and lines, and Mr. Toltz is obviously an exceptionally imaginative and witty guy, but where were his minders? Someone should have sat him down in an interrogation room and offered a plea bargain: Lose 100 pages or go to jail.
"Editors are the invisible heroes of the publishing industry, and as publishing companies cut corners, they cut editors. On the most basic level, that means more typos, grammatical errors and factual contradictions...
"But without strong editors, writers are like cars with accelerators but no brakes. While reading many of Mr. Toltz's long passages, I pictured him at his computer (or typewriter), entertaining himself with his own wit and wisdom. That's as it should be. Then an editor should tell him, "Steve, you're a great writer (always start with the praise), but let's do some judicious whittling and makes this fabulous book (more praise) even better."

I can't say enough about good editors. As a writer I value their feedback and direction. They are, after all, trying to help me write well and connect with the reader. As a reader I appreciate a good editor because they keep me turning the page. Those who read Ms. Crossen know that she has a "strict no-skimming rule." As a reader I don't have the same patience to wade through a novel I don't like, no matter how long or short. I'm not sure why she sticks with the author, I can't. There are simply too many other good books waiting to be read.
My work as an editor however, puts me in a very different place. I can't stop reading. I endlessly turn the pages looking at the story line, picturing the characters and listening for the author's voice. What does the author want me to know about this world that she has created? Why has the author chosen to present the characters in this manner, what changes, if any will I see in their character by the end of the story? Why has he chosen this plot, these characters and this particular setting? And what is this book, this manuscript, really about?
My job as a freelance editor is enjoyable, because I get to choose whom I will work with. I work with writers I think I can help. This is why my initial reading is free. I love being the first to read an author's work. It is an honor. And when I've finished those first five or seven pages and I'm wishing I had more I'll call the writer and say let's get together.
Talk to me I tell the writer, tell me where we're going, help me to see what you see. Who are these characters? Where have they been? And where are they going? And they do. The serious writer can answer these questions. They know what they want to say, they just need someone to listen to them and help them get it down. I think the nicest thing anyone could say about me would be, "She's a good editor."
To quote Ms. Crossen one final time, "It's hard work for both author and editor, but it's only fair to those of us who still invest in books."