What an editor can do for you

[July 2006] A couple of months ago I wrote an essay called “What an agent can do for you” in this space, and a year ago, I wrote about the experience I had with my editors for The Road to the Dark Tower, so I decided to cross-pollinate the two notions, arriving at today’s theme.

Our first experiences with “real” editors may surprise us. I use the quotation marks advisedly, because not everyone who prepares something for publication edits the work.

Here is how the process has worked for many anthologies that contain my stories  (I’m using anthologies as an example, but the same could be true of any work):

  1. Submit story
  2. Have story accepted
  3. Receive and sign contract
  4. Review proofs
  5. Receive a copy of the final publication
  6. Receive payment (money, store coupons, extra copies, “valuable exposure.” This step can occur any time after step 3, but “on publication” is the norm.)

What’s missing from this scheme? Somewhere between step 2 and step 4, the editor could offer suggestions concerning the story. Please consider another title. The ending needs work. Let’s lose the bit about the atomic bomb. Why is Darla on page 3 suddenly Debra on page 6 and why do her eyes change from blue to green? The character lives on the third floor of an apartment complex, so how can he build a torture chamber in his basement? (Some of these are real editorial suggestions I received. The last is editorial advice I should have received on an early, published story that was accepted without change.)

This type of feedback is surprisingly rare. Some anthology editors might be more accurately called “story collectors.” The extent of their interaction with authors is to read submissions and issue acceptance/rejection letters and contracts. (Tasks such as ordering the stories, book design and layout don’t involve the authors.) I don’t dismiss any of these—it can be daunting, challenging work—but it isn’t editing. It’s collecting and assembling.

Insightful editors will respond, “I like your story, but  . . .” and with that little word and everything that follows it, earn their pay. They read stories, decide if a particular submission fits their concept and, if it does, work with the author to make the story better. Sometimes their vision and that of the author are at odds, in which case some compromise may be required. “Here’s a suggestion. How about if the child is really the anti-Christ?” To which I responded, “Um, no, that’s a little more outré than I envision for this story.” Sometimes it’s a deal breaker, but usually often.

I’ve told this story a couple of times, but it is a useful example, and my first experience with hands-on editing. I submitted “Ever Had One of Those Weeks?” to Borderlands 5. It caught the editors’ attention, and they held onto it while making their other story selections. They liked it, but something kept them from loving it. As the deadline approached, Elizabeth Monteleone asked me if I would consider reworking the ending. She had some general suggestions for the direction she envisioned, so I went back to work. A little overenthusiastically, as it turned out. My new ending was too much. “How about this?” she countered. It worked for me, the story was accepted, and it’s been one of my most popular tales. The abbreviated title (“One of Those Weeks”) was also their idea.

Similarly with Corpse Blossoms. I had a story in the drawer called “The Smell of Fear” that I wrote for another project that never came together. I sent it to the editors, and they were intrigued. Again, though, it was lacking something. The Sevins had conceptual suggestions (“more of this, less of that”) without being overly specific. The way I implemented their suggestions (as they say in Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept them) was left to me. We went back and forth with different drafts until we ended up with the published version. It was a process of compromise and collective vision—and in this case the compromise extended beyond me because the individual editors had slightly different ideas about the story.

I’m currently working with an editor on a new story. He rejected my first submission, but suggested a different concept for a tale he’d like for his anthology. It took a while for a story to form in my mind, but eventually one did, so I researched and wrote, did one round of revision and sent it to him to see if I was in the ballpark. He loved the story. It would make a terrific addition to the anthology. But . . .

He disliked my title (I wasn’t fond of it either, but hadn’t come up with anything better), and had some fairly specific suggestions about the ending. I had introduced an element late in the tale that “solved” a plot point. It came from left field, I realized in retrospect (though it seemed like a stroke of brilliance at the time—that’s what happens when you get too close to a story).

The editor pointed out that I’d been unconsciously building up to the real resolution, if I had opened my eyes to it. To “fix” it meant writing less instead of more. Chop, chop, away went two pages of subterfuge. I tweaked the earlier pages to guide the story toward the obvious conclusion (not obvious to readers, necessarily, but the ending the story seemed to be building toward all along). It ended up shorter and more tightly focused. And, I believe, stronger and with a more profound impact.

Once you have a few experiences like this, you miss the interaction, the give and take, when it doesn’t happen. We can’t lull ourselves into thinking that any story we create is flawless. Writing starts out as a solitary endeavor, us alone in our little dark chambers, pressing coal into diamonds. We send the final product to editors in the hopes that they will like our concoctions, but if we’re open to feedback we can polish our gems so they gleam when the light of day finally strikes them.

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