In Praise of Editors
First, a little bit of background. I self-published my first book in late 2005. Since then I have published three titles (the Elfhunter trilogy), written a fourth, and begun work on a fifth, all in epic fantasy. The trilogy, with the benefit of several proofreaders and one professional line editor, has enjoyed modest success, with nearly 40,000 sales and over 200 reviews. But it wasn’t until it was picked up by the small-but-mighty traditional press, Sea Lion Books, that it received what is possibly the greatest benefit of all: a full developmental edit by a real expert.
Raised as I was by a Professor of Literature, I have always held proofreaders and line editors in high regard. I loathe grammatical/typographical errors and appreciate all the help I can get in exterminating them. Yet I suffered from an odd disorder known as “contenteditophobia”–an unreasonable fear of content editors. This fear sprang, as many unreasonable fears do, from ignorance and misinformation. With the things I had heard from other writers, one could not blame me–horrific tales of huge sections of manuscripts being hacked away, entire plot-lines decimated, characters made unrecognizable, the author’s “voice” forced into the pattern of “everybodyelseness”–no wonder I was reluctant.
I became acquainted with my first ever developmental editor when Sea Lion submitted the first volume, Elfhunter, for what I have come to call the “Leslie Wainger make-over”. Now, Leslie isn’t your run-of-the-mill content editor–she has over thirty years in the business, is a smart lady who knows and understands what makes a good story, and also has the tact and diplomacy to work effectively with authors. This, my friends, is a very important gift.
Authors might not always want to hear what the developmental editor tells them. Her job is to find inconsistencies, plot holes, places where the story does not flow well, elements that don’t make sense, bits that are dull or overly wordy, problems with point of view, and…and…and.
Guess what? Leslie found all those things in Elfhunter. She found them, and I fixed them. And I didn’t even argue…much. Eventually. After I’d had time to think about it. (Okay, I fixed most of them.) But I must confess that I spent about two weeks in the fetal position when I received the first round of “editorial comments”.
At first, I was…well, a little hostile. My contenteditophobia was acting up, and Leslie wanted to remove one of my favorite chapters! A whole chapter! One of my favorites! And just that morning I had been thinking, “She’d just better not mess with chapter seventeen”. Oh, no, she wasn’t messing with it, she was killing it! And what’s with this suggestion here? Hey…we NEED that backstory! What’s wrong with a little narrative? I mean the whole book is narrative, kinda. Well, she doesn’t get it, obviously. She doesn’t understand me. She’s trying to change my “voice”. (Picture the scene from Kung Fu Panda II where Po is running around in circles raving after unsuccessfully trying to achieve “inner peace”, and you have a fair idea of my response.)
Then I got real.
The first step in opening your soul to content editing is to seek and consume quantities of ice cream. The second is to vent your angst to a real friend, one who isn’t afraid to tell you to get over yourself. My hubby, Jeff, is a master at gently advising me to stop being self-centered and stubborn, to keep my sense of humor, and to see the opportunity to learn and grow that real editing provides. And, well, I guess I’ve become a master at listening to him. Sometimes.
It took a couple of actual conversations with Leslie to make her concerns and suggestions clear in my mind. When that happened, I knew she was right. And yes, chapter seventeen had to go. As much as I love it, it had to go! (The ever-resourceful Leslie has suggested that I hang on to it and include it as bonus content in the mass-market edition, which totally placated me.) She had found inconsistencies that I had missed, and clarifications that needed to be made (we writers often assume readers know what we’re thinking, which they don’t). She pointed out places where things bogged down, areas that needed simplifying, and (rarely) those that needed expansion. I streamlined, simplified, and expanded…learning a great deal in the process.
Having Leslie edit the book was better than taking a creative writing course–it was all “hands-on” learning. For example–POV. I’m the biggest “head hopper” since Kermit the Frog, but now I understand how to use point-of-view shifts without confusing the reader. Her suggestions helped me to become a better writer, to tighten and refine my prose effectively while keeping my own brand of “classic” style. Like all good editors, Leslie did not want to interfere with my voice, she just wanted to make it more appealing to the readers.
She also encouraged me, pointing out those rare moments of brilliance. When one receives praise from someone like Leslie, one is prepared to endure any and all criticism without complaint. The fact that the praise is meaningful makes it precious, and fills this writer with hope for the book’s success. A confident editor makes for a confident author. Confident authors make the best marketers/advocates a book can have.
There’s a reason a full developmental edit is expensive–it requires a skill set far above that of a proofreader or line editor. Fixing mechanical errors is important, but getting into the meat of the book–the soul of the story–and bringing it into its best possible form is really more art than science. It requires experience as well as talent, and commands a higher pay grade. Don’t forget–developmental editors have to deal with egotistical and often difficult writers diplomatically and gracefully. That alone increases both the value and the cost of their services. Hence very few self-published books have the benefit of such an editor. Many self-pubbers won’t even hire a proofreader, which is an entry-level expense if one wants to be taken seriously (in my opinion).
I no longer have contenteditophobia, because I have realized the value of the experience, not just to the book, but to me as a writer. I hope to have a long and productive relationship with my new publisher, but I am saving my pennies just in case I ever find myself self-publishing again. A developmental editor will take my books to a level I cannot attain on my own, and having been there once, I cannot go back. I know my books are the best they can be, and that’s what every writer wants. While it was occasionally painful in the beginning, the gain I have received from allowing myself to be open to such expert criticism is beyond price.