On Editors and Editing

The very first book I ever edited – David Brin’s Startide Rising – won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. My batting average has plummeted since. In reality, I never planned to be an editor at all. Publishing was in fact my second choice of profession. I wanted to be a teacher, but there were no teaching jobs to be had in a dreadful economy. I’d always planned to write, though, and book publishing seemed to be a good place to hang out with writers. Still, if I was going to work in a business setting, I saw myself as a marketing guy. It wasn’t until that first editorial gig that I discovered how much I loved it.

I’ve had a wide variety of fascinating experiences as an editor over the years. Among my favorites were offering a few notes to an science fiction Grand Master and actually having him accept them, convincing a humorous fantasy writer to write a serious novel about her experiences as a nurse in Vietnam (another Nebula winner), and rolling up my sleeves to help a pop singer and his wife turn hundreds of pages of their notes into a moving and instructive memoir. Sometimes I felt as though I was truly making a difference, as in the time a suspense writer told me about the new novel he was planning concerning a man trying to understand why his daughter had killed herself. “What if she isn’t dead?” I said to him, and the entire book pivoted into something more ambitious and much more suspenseful at that moment. Other times, I’ve felt as though I’d be making a bigger contribution if I were cleaning the dishes, as in the time I had an “editorial conference” with two collaborators and could think of nothing to say as they brilliantly dissected their work. At others, I’ve felt like putting my head in a microwave, such as when I was trying to explain to a Hollywood wannabe why his novel needed massive revisions while he was “taking meetings” at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Writers fall loosely into three categories in terms of their relationships with their editors. One is the Feedback Junkie. Some writers simply crave constructive criticism so much that they make you feel inadequate when you run out of things to nitpick. Interestingly, these tend to be the writers whose work is cleanest when I first see it. Then there are the Emotional Cherry Bombs. These are writers who have an extreme reaction to any criticism, though the explosion usually does minimal damage and they usually see the logic of the comments in the end. I had a situation recently where a writer was close to tears about a minor point in his manuscript. When I said to him, “You did notice the first several paragraphs of my editorial letter where I told you how much I loved this novel, right?” it still took him ten minutes to calm down. He did, however, calm down. Then there are the writers who simply aren’t open to criticism. I had a conversation years ago with a hugely talented writer that began with his saying to me, “Lou, I appreciate all the publishing help you’re giving me, and I’d appreciate it if you kept your editorial advice to yourself.” We essentially talked about the weather after that.

Of course, the worst editorial job I ever did in my life was on my own manuscript. When I delivered my first novel, The Forever Year, to my editor, I assumed it was in pristine condition. After all, I’d won awards for my editorial work; of course I could edit myself. The editor sent me a nine-page letter detailing the voluminous errors I’d made. After I groused to my wife for twenty minutes (yes, I’m one of those writers), I realized that nearly everything the editor said made sense. These days, I just assume I’m going to make significant mistakes in my work that others will need to catch. It hasn’t made me complacent, but it has made me much more open to the advice.

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