Thursday, March 24, 2005

What Makes It All Worthwhile

So I bought this novel recently: a foreign publisher gave me a tip, long story short, the agent and the author and I, it's one of those love-at-first-sight things... Thing about it is, you know from the first clause of the first sentence of the first page that you're in the hands of someone great, a real god-damn talent. So we do a deal, I could not be happier, and I know for sure the feeling's mutual.

Life's hard in some ways, though, so despite the good vibe, it takes me a little while to edit the manuscript (yes, even love-at-first-sight things get all scuffed up in the margins, at least the ones I edit), so now I've read it, close, two times. I call her up, tell her all over again how great the book is, that the ms. is on its way, just a few minor things. She says great, look forward to seeing your comments.

Yesterday, 6:07 p.m., I realize I've got a phone message from herself, this writer I mentioned earlier. I call her; she's gone through the manuscript now, has some questions. We talk through a couple of points, then we get to this one note I scribbled up the side of a page. She says, I have no idea what you're talking about here. I laugh, I re-read it, re-orient myself, finally figure it out. Oh, OK, I say, she can't do it that way because back here on page...

...and suddenly it occurs to us--her first, then me--that even though I'd given this book two pretty close readings, and knew it to be a thing of genius, there was one thing I didn't know: what the book meant. Turns out that I'd totally misread something really important--which meant two things at once. First, yes, that I'm a dumb-ass; but second, that maybe she hadn't built her scaffolding quite so cleanly as she needed to to avoid dumb-asses like me from maybe missing something really important.

OK, I can hear you writer-folk out there: OUCH! You wanna know how bad things are in publishing? An editor, and a supposedly stand-up guy too, buys a book HE DOESN'T EVEN UNDERSTAND! The only thing that could be worse is if he then tried to get her to change it to fit how he'd (mis-)read it in the first place--Oh, please God don't tell me he...

Well, OK, it does sound bad, I admit it. Especially since about 30 minutes of our one-hour conversation was, indeed, spent on my trying to sell her a line of bullshit about how, even though it wasn't the ending she intended, she should give her subconscious the benefit of the doubt, one knows not how worketh the creative process, et cetera.

Yeah: sounds really bad. But--know what? It was actually fantastic. Two pros, a writer and her editor, working together on a thing they're both profoundly invested in. You wanna talk creative brainstorming? What's that old-saw college textbook essay about the writing process, the one that includes the actual marginal doodles, and the doodling reveals a moth, and thus Annie Dillard wrote "The Death of The Moth"--remember that one? Well, let me tell you: we had a whole goddamn room full of moths. Except they're not moths, thank God, they're bricks, and we're figuring out how to build a house, from scratch, just the two of us.

And, sure--say what you will about how this whole thing started with some dumb-ass editor misreading the work of an author he supposedly admires utterly--but as the dumb-ass editor in question, I'm here to testify that for the hour we were on the phone, dropping our plumb-lines and positioning our cinder-blocks, I was the happiest man alive. Because we were in it together. GOD what a great job I have sometimes, to crawl inside with the master crafters; and not just watching, either: for some inexplicable reason, I'm afforded the opportunity now and again to work alongside...

We knew we'd had a productive session--easy for me to say, because all I did was say, "What if?"; when we get off the phone at about 7:00 last night, I get to go home; she's the one who has to do the actual work. I tell her to give a yell when she's ready, figuring it'll be a couple of weeks, maybe more.


Tonight--the time-stamp reads 10:17 p.m.--she emails me back. Here's a new crack at the ending, she says. When you get a chance, she says. "It's still a little rough," she says. "But you'll get the general idea."

So I open the attachment and start to read, and it's l.a.f.s. all over again. In one try, she nailed it--solved not just the problem of, shall we say, my little misunderstanding, but in twenty pages (and 27 hours, no less) she amplified and intensified all of the central emotional currents. I was stunned, elated--moved nearly to tears a couple of times. In my reply (time-stamp: 11:36) I told her (in not quite these words) the simple truth, which is that she's a genius, and that she's turned a brilliant book into a masterpiece.

And then I wrote "this is what makes it all worth while." And then I hit "send." And then I felt so god-damn good that I sat down here to tell you all about my incredible good fortune. To give an example, in case anyone ever asks, of why someone might ever want to be an editor.

Time-stamp: 12:46 a.m.


Ami said...

I'm at this same point in the editorial process with my editor and loving it. After being holed up with my words for so long while I wrote the darned thing, I find it to be an incredibly freeing experience to share the detail and craft of my work with someone who has read and re-read my manuscript.

Those dumb-ass moments come for the writer as well. (Finding that you made a secondary character's hair blonde in one chapter and it's turned black when they reappear later in the book. - And I don't care how good you think you are, or how many times you told yourself you wouldn't be one of those writers who makes such stupid mistakes - it happens, and by the end of the 5th draft you'll have made your share of dumb-ass mistakes too. Thank God for the editors who find them when our eyes have gone too bleary from hacking away at it.)

Max said something in his post that was similar to what my editor wrote in a note that was attached to my manuscript. It's a simple thing, but it means the world to a writer...

so now I've read it, close, two times. I call her up, tell her all over again how great the book is

Wow. Someone read it more than once, and still loved it.

To me, that statement it like winning the lottery. More than anything as a writer, I want the reader to love it, to 'get it'.

Who says that editors don't edit any more? Bah.

Here's my recent ode to the editorial process. Happy Spring!

Master Class

Bob Liter said...

I just want to repeat Amyh's comment. "Who says editors don't edit anymore."
I only hope I make a connection with such an editor.
Bob Liter

Bob Liter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Over at Flogging the Quill, Ray posted comments from someone criticizing his critique of a book he (Ray) admired. The comments from Ray's critic looked like the champion negative edit of all time. Thanking the gods that I've never had anyone trash every word I put down, glad there was Ray to balance it out, I then came here and read the paen to the editorial process. Thanks. I'm no genius writer, and I've been up close and personal with an editor without a clue and not even the courtesy to make a phone call and ask a question, but you and Ray and others available through the litblogs are a great counterbalance to the persistent negativity so often presented about the editorial relationship. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Reading is reading.

Editing is editing.

Same medium; different skill.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful post, Max.

Adam said...

Your post brought actual tears to my eyes. I hope I get an editor like you for my novel about the U.S. as an oppressive theocracy a few decades from now. Readers like you make it all worthwhile for us writers.

Allison Brennan said...

I loved this post. But, I'm an eternal optimist!

I had a great experience with my editor on the first book I wrote. Her suggestions were right on the money and she gave me the room to take her advice and work with it. Now that book is done and waiting for page proofs and I'm waiting for revisions on the second ... because it doesn't stop, not if you want a career as a writer. Though my second book is better than the first, it still needs an editor's touch to make it shine.

TLG said...

It's always nice/great/fulfilling to work with someone to fix things who's intelligent and actually cares about the work in the same way that you do. I've had horrible experiences where not only did the other person not get it, but didn't have the work being the best that it could be at heart--they only wanted said work to reflect their own outlook of the world. That's a nightmare. I like to be challenged, and I like to have someone working with me that has great creative energy (what if is a POWERFUL question, Max--it's how most fiction comes into being). However, that person has to have my best interests at heart. I can just FEEL it if that isn't the case, and there's a lot of tension and it's an unhappy time. Things run SO much smoother when both parties feel comfortable and cared for. Especially in the case of somebody's baby.

Beth Ciotta said...

This was an inspiring post, Max. Really inspiring. Thank you for sharing and best of luck to the author!

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Wow. I want to read this book. How are we going to know to run out and get it when it hits the shelves?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great snapshot of this part of the process. I found it inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Max--a simply terrific post. It follows somewhat closely to my experience in getting out my children's book with an editor in NYC. She's not called me, but her creative energy is very high, and she and I have had a terrific time bringing my ms to where it is today--at copyediting. They're out there, Max, and you're one of them. Damn good.

Libertarian Girl said...

Dear Trace--

That's a good question (and I'm DELIGHTED to hear your enthusiasm). It's quite a way off--which is just the way I like it. I know that it's frustrating sometimes when your book (say) seems to take FOREVER to be published, but the fact is that the more time one has to "set up" the book--get in-house readings, bookseller readings, blurbs, bookclub activity--in short, the more time you have to get all the various "buzz" engines firing on all cylinders, the better your chances of a happy publication. And my personal preference is to have a full year between the time the manuscript is done and its publication, especially with new or unknown writers.

So watch this space (and others) in 2006...

Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan) said...

"Someday my prince will come..."

Sounds like a dream come true when an editor and a writer click together...thanks for sharing Max.

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."