Who’s yo editor?

[July 2005] I’m on my way back home from NECON as you read this, probably with a few more books and few less brain cells than I had when I departed on Thursday. Fortunately, I wrote this entry in advance—like a previously prepared meal on a cooking show—so you won’t be burdened with the ravings of a hung-over sleep-deprived happy camper. Not today, anyway.

A subject I don’t often see discussed on message boards or other writer communities is our relationships with editors. They’re among the first people we acknowledge in our books and the closest things we have to employers, but we don’t talk about them much.

Who are they? Often, editors are the faceless—sometimes even nameless—people who, with the stroke of a pen, decide whether one of our submissions will be accepted or a rejected. We stuff our sweat and blood into an envelope or an e-mail message, send it off and await their approval.

It’s amazing how much power they have over us. A positive response can send an adrenaline rush of accomplishment through our veins. A rejection can temporarily knock us off stride. However, even a few positive words accompanying a rejection can turn it into a positive experience. “Please send us more of your work.” “Close, but not quite. Try again.” “Well written, but not what we’re looking for.” Their encouragement inspires us to try harder, to do better next time.

While I was working on the first draft of The Road to the Dark Tower, I exchanged e-mails with Ron Martirano, my editor at New American Library, and spoke with him on the phone several times, but I hadn’t yet met him. From the deep, confident voice I knew through our phone conversations, I formed a mental image of a tall man with a slight slouch, a casual dresser six or eight years older than me (I was forty-two), probably with deep creases etched in his face and streaks of gray in his hair.

While in New York on other business—it might have been for an HWA weekend—I had the opportunity to meet my agent and editor, both for the first time, over lunch. Ron turned out to be six or eight years younger than me, a stoic New Yorker who discussed his projects and the Mets with the same zeal. He was well dressed, shorter than I’d imagined, his hair jet black, his face unwrinkled.

A brief aside: I am continually amazed by how young some of the editors in the big New York houses are. After Ron migrated to a different Penguin imprint, the woman who came on board to escort my book through the final stages of the publication process was six or eight years younger than him. I met another editor from Berkeley at a recent MWA conference and she looked about two years older than my daughter, who just graduated from high school.

After several months of work, I bundled up my manuscript, took it to UPS and crossed my fingers. What would be tone of his response? Would he hate it? Would he ask for a major rewrite? Several weeks later, his editorial report arrived—eight pages of detailed notes, suggestions and critique along with extensive comments written on the manuscript itself.

He clearly had a big-picture concept of what my book should look like. The good news was that he liked most of what I’d sent him. My editor’s passion and vision was contagious, and I sent him a letter expressing my gratitude for the insightful analysis and my enthusiasm at the chance to improve the manuscript. My agent seemed relieved by the way I responded. It made me wonder what sort of reaction editors typically receive to such sweeping requests for change.

Up to that point, the most editorial feedback I’d ever received with an acceptance was “We want to publish it.” Though I’d published fifteen or twenty short stories and other works, I’d never had an editor and say “Great, but we’d like you to change this, this and this to make it better.” (Later, I would have that sort of editorial experience with Elizabeth Monteleone, who helped me refine my Borderlands 5 story “One of Those Weeks.”)

I was probably spoiled forever by the relationship I had with Ron working on Road. He acquired the book, was as passionate about it as I was, and kept tabs on its progress after his transfer out of the imprint. He even dragged his girlfriend out on a cold February day to take the photographs that illustrate its interior. We fired e-mails back and forth frequently during revisions as things started crystallizing for me. I had a partner in the process. As I wrote in the acknowledgements, he helped me turn a loose collection of chapters into a cohesive book. We still keep in touch when something interesting related to the book or its subject comes up.

When I read about all the responsibilities editors have, all the meetings they attend, how they read manuscripts on the train while commuting to and from work or at home after a long day of work and on weekends, I’m thankful that there are still enthusiastic people in a position to help us writers turn our labors of love and inspiration into something better.


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