Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On criticism and critiques. But mostly editing.

Do you take criticism well? I don't, really. It's probably one of the reasons I'm better suited for being on this side of the "desk," in a relatively anonymous role in the publishing process. I try to have a thick skin, but I understand intuitively what writers experience when they see a review of their work which is not so much a negative review as a "nastygram." Not all criticism is constructive, to say the least.

But I've been spending a lot of my day, nearly every day these past few weeks, giving critiques. Not all agents do this, I'm told-- some literary agents send out their clients' work as-is, figuring that it's up to the publisher to work with the author to get the work into publishable state. I suspect this no-critique technique, on the agent's part, is increasingly rare as the market gets tougher and tougher. It's hard enough to find a publisher for a book the author and I have worked very hard to whip into shape. I can't really imagine doing things another way.

I have a spiel that all my clients probably have memorized by now: I do a lot of editing, but I am not an editor. My job is to help the author get the manuscript (or book proposal, for nonfiction) into a state in which the prospective publisher can recognize its potential. If and when we sell the book to a publisher, the editor will then work with the author to bring the work into its final, polished, published form.

At the larger publishing houses, there are three different stages to the editing process, though I hesitate to even call it that. These three stages are done by at least three different people. (At smaller houses, it's more common for one person to wear more hats, as you might imagine.)

1. The editor who buys the book-- usually the person to whom I sent the manuscript in the first place-- is the acquisitions editor. This person negotiates the deal with the author's agent, essentially hammering out all the specifics. How big is the advance? Will the publisher be allowed to sell their version of the work around the world, or just in the U.S. and Canada? Who owns the film rights? At most houses, the acquisitions editor will also be the line editor. This is a somewhat nebulous task, as it really varies tremendously from book to book in terms of what's really needed. For a novel, a line editor will look at things like the plot arc, the tension, the character development, and so on. He or she will work with the author on making sure all aspects of the manuscript, large and small, are the way the author and the publisher want them-- that the finished book will be a product everyone is proud of.

2. The editing many people think of when they hear the word is the work of the copy editor. The copy editor works with the manuscript after the line editor (who's often just referred to as the editor) has signed off on it, and it's the copy editor's job to make sure that the spelling, grammar and punctuation are all in good shape. But a copy editor's work goes well beyond that, also looking at and questioning individual details like a fact checker at a magazine. The two possibly apocryphal stories I was told when I started in the publishing industry are as follows:
-when a room is described in a manuscript, a copy editor will draw a map of the room to make sure that when the bad guy fires a gun from the doorway and the bullet goes through the window, the bullet and the doorway are both in the right place.
-if a novel involves a chase scene through the Paris metro, the copy editor may pull up a map of the metro system to ensure that the characters are following an actual train line.

3. The third and final stage of edits to a book are done by the proofreader. The proofreader is working with literal proofs of the work: reviewing the pages of the manuscript all laid out for the printer. At this stage, the running heads and the page numbers are all in place; the proofreader will double-check that the pagination runs properly and will also look one more time at the spelling and punctuation. This is a fine-tooth comb type job, as you might imagine. Other things the proofreader looks for: font continuity, widow/orphan control, and anything else that will affect the reader's experience of reading the book. I am not an expert on this stage of the process, but I suspect that the rise of the e-book is complicating the proofreader's work quite a bit.

One of the reasons I try to be crystal-clear with my clients about the whole "I am not an editor" thing is that I am immensely respectful of the work that editors (at all stages of the process) do. A good editor deserves every word of the glowing praise you so often see in the acknowledgments section of a published work.

Back to the critiques, though: with many authors with whom I work, my critique of their work is the first real interaction I may have with that person. That first critique often happens before I've offered representation, and how it is received by the author tells me a lot about the author's personality, style, and our likely dynamic.

Today is the solstice, which means that after a month of warm (sometimes sweltering) weather in NYC, it's officially summer in the northern hemisphere. I've already been through my first round of blisters as my feet get reaccustomed to summer shoes, and I'm well on my way to the very important seasonal calluses. It's an accidental (and kinda painful) technique, but it works.

How do you go about thickening your skin?


Ben Sloan said...

Thanks for the very informative post. My problem is that I have too thick of skin and can never get anyone to hit me hard enough. The more red ink I see the happier I am. One of the coolest things about getting published would be working with a professional editor. (Or, as I learned from this post, multiple editors.)

Joanna said...

Thank you for clrifying the stages and assuring us that publishers do still have the time and resources for such in depth editing. I have received my first couple of edits by a professional editor, one by a renowned author and a few by my critique partner and so far I have agreed with 98% of the input an dfound it all inordinately constructive. The first read through is still a little hard for me, though ;)

Jenni Wiltz said...

I don't have thick skin, but I do have an oddly convenient temper that reflects both of my parents. From my mom's side of the family: I get mad. Really mad. But then it burns itself out after about 10 minutes, tops. From my dad's side of the family: I don't say what I feel. So really, when I get criticism or bad news, I fume silently for 10 minutes, then am ready to get down to work.

Anonymous said...

As others have said, thanks for the insight on the editing process, very interesting stuff (and it was new to me).

Your post was perfectly timed, because I just finished a revision pass and gave my novel to a bunch of beta readers, who are already giving feedback. Personally, I've never had thick skin. Here's what I have instead: thin skin, the will to get critique-stabbed repeatedly, and a smile while it happens. It seems to be enough. :-)

Jenny said...

Thanks for letting us know about the different types of editors. I always just assumed it was the agent and then a copy editor on the publishing side, so this was very enlightening.

Unknown said...

One true way to "thicken the skin" is to wear the shoes constantly (or to walk bare foot--haven't done that in a while). I guess the metaphorical equivalent is that we need to involve ourselves in critiques often. We have to lay our writing bare for others to offer their advice, criticism and comments.

From my experience, I have found that my wife can be brutal. I mean this as harsh, exacting, specific, but constructive (mostly) critique. It has helped me sculpt my writing.

A part of developing calluses is that writers gain an ability to discern the criticisms aimed at their writing which need to be considered and those that need to be politely ignored. Some elements of story are designed for the storyteller and some are intended for the audience. The balance between the two is important (the audience rules, obviously).
An author needs to stay true to their voice and not lose touch with the story they are imparting to their audience. That is my goal, at least.

Anonymous said...

"For a novel, a line editor will look at things like the plot arc, the tension, the character development, and so on. He or she will work with the author on making sure all aspects of the manuscript, large and small, are the way the author and the publisher want them-- that the finished book will be a product everyone is proud of."

The role of copy editor, proof-reader, etc, seem clear and of obvious value. The role of copy editor as described here,throws up the fundamental issue of who is writing the book.

These editors are, invariably, not successful writers, otherwise they would be making a living writing themselves.

How does one define a successful editor? If the book sells the writer and editor share the kudos. if the book flops blame the writer.

Obviously if a writer is asking a publisher to invest huge sums in their book then the publisher has a right to interfere with the product. But I would hope the author is entirely happy long before they submitted, and will fight to the death to keep their story their story.

Isn't the editor's role as here described to rewrite the novel according to the editor's / publisher's idea of what will sell in their business model?

Far from being a finished book everyone is proud of I hear constant tales of legacy- published authors who are dismayed with their book's cover, blurb and very often the rewriting deemed necessary.

Time was an author did what the editor / publisher wanted because they had no choice.

Thankfully e-publishing is giving authors another route to preserve their independence as writers.

Anonymous said...

As someone who's worked with epub editors, I am very grateful for not only their catches, but their suggestions. In my experience editors have a distance that, as the author, I will never have. And because of that distance, they can spot the errors my eye passes over, as well as the places that need tightening or expanding.

After many drafts it is all too easy for 'slips' to creep into it. What occurs in the library in the first couple drafts may become the kitchen later. But since both are familiar to my eye, I may miss the slip entirely. (Though I hope not! I try very hard to note changes.)

What emerges is a much stronger story, but it is still, in all ways, my story.

Anonymous said...

@alvania8196 - I agree entirely about distance, but if you have trusted critiques and beta-readers these ought to be able to identify all these same issues.

What I struggle with is this idea that an editor, who probably has never written a book themselves, can bring qualities to your writing that an unpaid third party eye cannot.

Anonymous said...

markwilliamsinternational.com - But an editor doesn't have to be a writer to have the skill set to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a book. They, in my opinion, look at it not only with an eye toward their unique house style, but toward their base readership. Plus, I am willing to wager most are avid readers. The key in my view, however, is a mixture of professional experience, relevant education and perhaps instinct that most betas and CP's don't have. I have very good CP's, wouldn't be without them, and they help me more than I can say, but they are not editors.

And, unless you are self-pubbed and hiring an editor or editors, the publishing company pays them, not you. In some ways it is like saying an engineer cannot design a jet unless he, himself, is a jet pilot. Or a mechanic can't work on one unless he can fly it. Or a jet pilot shouldn't fly unless he is an engineer or mechanic. We each bring different skill sets and the ability to see the big picture in different ways to what we do.

In my personal epub experience, I worked with more than one level of editor and each helped strengthen the story overall. In my mind, a good editor(s) brings to the process that almost indefinable finish or polish.

Any book can be made stronger, in one fashion or another. Yes, they are our babies. We've labored on them. But they are not perfect. This is purely my opinion, but if you want to write and have the mss untouched, fine, write for yourself. But if you want to give a reader the best, most polished effort you can produce, don't look at an editor as someone who can't understand your vision, but as a partner who will help refine that vision until it shines--whether you are self-pubbed, epubbed, or print published.

Anonymous said...

@alvania8196 - agree editors can be great. But I also hear tell of editors who want / insist on changes to storyline, characters, etc, that the author loathes, but goes along with because it's that or no publication. When the book then flops it's the writer that gets the blame.

Finding an editor that can understand the writer's vision is the problem. A good editor is no doubt worth their weight in gold. But who decides what a good editor is?

It's not about thinking we're better than them.

Just that they have their agenda. Moreso if they're paid by the publisher. They are hardly going to say the majority of manuscripts are great, no editing needed. They'd put themselves out of a job.

I don't object to editors, just to this assumption that editors are in some way an absolutely essential part of the process. Like agents and publishers, they no longer are.

Courtney Miller-Callihan said...

Alvania, thank you- you've said this better than I could.

markwilliamsinternational.com: I respect your right to your opinions, and I hope that self-publishing proves very successful for you. That being said, comments regarding the usefulness of editors, agents, and other publishing professionals, when posted on a literary agent's blog, cross a line. My blog is not your soapbox. Future comments that seem deliberately malicious or provocative will be deleted.