Sunday, 28 June 2015

The basis of the author/editor relationship

Because I see this kind of thing too often - an editor "improving" a text without any understanding of what the hell they're editing - maybe a few words on the editor/author relationship.

I feel I can say something about that because I've been editing for almost as long as I've been writing, and I work as a corporate editor who gets paid for making financial publications look less stupid. Just last week I edited an image brochure that had some serious howlers in there - so, yeah, I get paid a lot of money for making words pretty and improve sentences, and all of that at speed.

Your German analyst can only use one sentence structure and he does that 500 times until your eyes bleed? I fix that shit.

In the bank, it's understood that I write better English than the analyst I'm editing. It's also understood that senior analysts can get away with breaking house style and I tend to explain the rationale behind an edit if the analyst pushes back. But generally, analysts are grateful that I fix their text, since many know they make mistakes or write some awkward stuff as they are under pressure and sometimes work on planes or in hotels or in between a million meetings.

It's all good. It's a positive, constructive relationship, and I prefer editing analysts to editing average fiction writers - there's generally less ego and emotion involved. (I have yet to be called a "Fascist" or told "to die in a fire" by an analyst, whereas that kind of behaviour is pretty common from fiction authors.)

So, the basics of the author/editor relationship, as somebody who's been in both positions:

Author: Ideally, the author looks at edits with an open mind and learns from them. If the editor says a million times "show, don't tell", there might be something to that. Ideally, the author will buy a book on that aspect of the craft and LEARN it - so the author grows as a writer and the future editor won't have to work quite as hard.

This kind of professional development is how I've learned and grown as an author over the last 10+ years. I had great editors taking me in hand and teaching me what I needed to learn.

It's hard work, but by now I'm a strong enough writer than I could self-publish without an editor if I wanted and the end result is readable and may even have less typos than books published by so-called "publishers". (For the record, I still hire an editor or get beta readers involved.)

The author agrees to look at edits with an open mind and LEARN from them. It's better for everybody. Over time, you shape a raw talent into a good, possibly great writer. If that happens, praise be to their editors, because they steered that development and supported that growth (if it's a functioning relationship). I've helped authors improve massively and it's gratifying as hell to see all that hard work pay off.

Conversely, the editor:

The editor agrees to learn their craft as well and only edit inside genres that they understand. (Say, a genre editor without understanding/knowledge of the European literary tradition has literally no place editing that; as a financial editor, I need to understand what the hell the analyst is taking about - I can't edit out words like "human capital" because they offend my sensibilities - it's demeaning for staff/workforce, but that's the convention of the "genre").

An editor working in GLBTQ fiction needs to be aware of GLBTQ issues. An editor who even attempts to edit literary fiction (or work with an author who uses some literary techniques) needs to understand these. Being at least conversant with concepts and applications of rhetorical devices makes sense if the author uses them (and even if s/he doesn't because your next client might).

Also, being aware of and able to apply concepts like the Monomyth ("Hero's Journey"), three- and five-act structure and management of sub-plots are absolutely vital.

I've encountered editors at well-regarded houses who are unable to detect irony or subtext. (Considering how much irony/subtext I use, that's a deal-breaker for me.)

I've had editors who cannot cope with metaphor - metaphor is the lifeblood and colour and energy of my fiction. Scanning back over this blog entry alone, there's lots of metaphors and I wasn't even trying. I speak and think in metaphor.

Say, rhetorical devices - those things have been around for 2,500+ years. They were good enough for Julius Caesar, the Bible and Abraham Lincoln. I've encountered several editors who tried to exterminate them all from my texts - totally ignorant of what they were dealing with.

Subtext and inference - very often, I don't say what's going on outright. That's on purpose. I'm not a bad writer because I don't spell out everything like for a 5-year-old who's still thinking entirely literally.

And I have no business being subjected to edits from "editors" who know less about writing than I do - after 25+ years of getting paid for writing, I know what I do and how I do it, and at the very least I expect an editor to a) understand that and b) respect it.

It's the cherry on top if an editor is good enough that they spot and understand what I was trying to do and then show me a better way to get the same effect - that's where the "needs to know more about writing than I do" kicks in.

Basically, those are absolute basics - I only go to a dentist who's qualified or to a restaurant that can actually serve food that won't make me ill. Similarly, I only let my texts be touched by somebody who knows their shit - my name's on the cover. My reputation as an artist is about as important to me as my teeth. I don't let amateurs fuck with that.

I understand that makes me "snobbish" in some eyes and definitely a "demanding customer" in others, but let's be honest, if I give about 70-60% of my money to a publisher, the very least they can do is source an editor who can edit - because the people who edit for typos and wonky grammar are not called editors, but proofreaders.

And if you think all of this is an exaggeration - there are multiple publishers out there that employ editors who think that "His eyes followed her across the room" means they are *literally* leaving their sockets and rolling across the carpet. I won't  say that's a brilliant sentence (it's not), but it's permissible - it's a rhetorical device and has been used longer than any of those publishers have been in business.

So, the bottom line is this - you've never finished learning in publishing/writing. That's true for authors ("We've all devoted out lives to a craft where nobody ever becomes a master" - Hemingway), but doubly so for editors.

Editors' responsibility is huge - they have to train/teach writers, but they also have to educate themselves - and as authors increasingly take control of their book and its final shape, gods know there's thousands of editors out there and being a decent proofreader is simply not enough if you're working with an author who knows what the hell they're doing.

First rule of Editing Club: First, do no harm.

Second rule: If you can't, get out of my fucking way.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Tinkering (and thoughts on not writing)

Both real life (TM) and a couple endless computer games are taking up my time - Dragon Age: Inquisition was eventually beaten senseless by The Witcher: Wild Hunt. While DA:I is kinda pretty and I've built a very gorgeous if somewhat clueless inquisitor, the Witcher is just so much prettier, and I love the Slavic slant to the whole thing. It's also much, much better written.

If anything, both would make me want to write fantasy or something with magic, except that my block's still here. I've done some writing exercises and enlisted a colleague at work (we'll be working our way through a book with writing exercises together), but the thought of sitting down to write gives me a feeling of vertigo. Like I'm supposed to fling myself off a cliff without wings. And I'm no good with heights. Never have been.

One of the writing exercises was to write 10 first sentences, for example, and I could only complete the exercise when I looked at my spreadsheet - all the unwritten novels that exist as pure ideas at the moment. There wasn't a new story among any of them. Though I did it, and of the 10, 7 are workable, and of those, 5 are pretty compelling. But still that sense of "what the fuck am I doing here", that I never used to have.

There's some new stuff - in 2013, Lori and I wrote most (70%) of a historical romance novel together, and we wrote the missing bits a couple months ago. Right now, I'm trying to beat the historical parts of it into shape - I've reached the point of exasperation where nothing seems to fit and I have to go back and hit the research books and find a way to make its internal timeline work. It's much more in the vein of Unhinge the Universe than Nightingale, and one of my favourite co-writes with Lori. I still try to wrap that process by 1 July.


It does feel like I need to reinvent myself in some way, do things differently, but I'm not getting any answers in what way, shape or form. Holding the course and waiting for things to change hasn't worked during the last two years. So the search continues.

I should probably make a list of everything that I feel is impeding my creativity, and then separate those into factors I can control (targets, goals) and the factors I can't control (low sales/expectations/the whole publishing process/rights/sub-rights). I've spent a lot of time thinking about why I don't get the same pleasure out of writing that I used to. The problem might be simply that everything that happens *after* the writing (the editing, the marketing, the publishing, the selling, the reviews, the "industry") has become entwined with the creative process. I used to enjoy all that - but now it all looks like endless drudgery. I still enjoy interacting with readers, but the whole rest of the process could go to hell as far I as care.

So it looks like I'm in danger of turning into the very thing I used to sneer at - the writer who's living in their garret and wants to "only write". (That same writer is usually in danger of selling everything to an agent or publisher when they promise him, "We'll deal with the business, don't worry your pretty little head, and go write" - which is usually a disastrous decision as they run away with rights, money and all control.) And how can I can be that writer if I have zero motivation/urge to write?

I've turned and twisted this around several times over. I could start a new pseudonym and write something else  - one way to escape the aspects of the "industry" that I find increasingly oppressive. It does mean to start over from zero, in a field where I'm a nobody, and I can't fall back on any of my old contacts. Say, if I were to self-publish with that new pseudonym, I'd need to really keep that a secret to avoid the whole thing catching up with me again - new editors, new cover artists, new formatters, etc. Not that I think people couldn't keep a secret, and more for a clean break away.

And how fair is that to the readers who tell me, "I'd read the phone book if you'd written it"? The people who are there for my voice and less for what I'm writing about? I'd leave those behind as well.

And there's no way I could support another "me" - website, blog, Twitter, social media presence. Not to sell, mind you, but to connect to those readers, too. I'm already doing a pretty lousy job just being two people.

I've been looking at a few mainstream ideas, and maybe they'll happen. Both of them are ideas that require months of research - possibly years, considering how little time I have these days.

And starting again anywhere new GLBTQ fiction - that's the problem. My voice is its own thing. I've spent 25 years cultivating my "voice". Readers tell me at conferences, "you sound exactly like in your book/blog/twitter". There's power in authentic, from-the-heart speech. By my voice people will recognize me, regardless of the name on the cover. All those years I've written about things that are close to me and therefore revealed a lot about myself. I can't write under a "mask", as it were. Suppressing "voice" once you got it is damn near impossible, at least for me.

There is, of course, the option to write but not publish and go back to "writing just for myself". But I've usually had at least a few people I shared my stuff with. People I really wanted to read my stuff. People who kept me on track, sometimes, or at least somewhat accountable. People who wanted to know "how the story ends". They certainly weren't the reason to write, but they were part of the reason to write harder - to produce somewhat consistently.

See, I can enjoy the company of my characters simply in my own head. I don't have to "do" anything with them. On any given day, I have Silvio up there and the eagle guy, and sometimes walk-ons, like Franco or recently Armin (the latter is better at snark than Franco). A couple days ago, Martin showed up, just dropped in and told me that he and Francis are doing really well - it was vivid enough that it almost felt like a scene I could write (though it had no plot). I don't need to turn any of that into stories - I'm Legion up in my head, and the guys are keeping me entertained.

So it comes down to - why publish? And, on a deeper level, why write?

I used to say or think, "because I can't not write", but clearly, I can. I have been very successful at not writing for a good 12-18 months now. Many people go through life and never write a word.