by Sheila Connolly
Recently a major publisher (one which I share with a lot of my writer friends) announced a major restructuring of those imprints we hold dear—that is, the ones that publish mysteries. There was “ a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” (In case you don’t recognize the quote, Obi-Wan Kenobi says it in Star Wars—A New Hope in 1977.) Maybe a bit exaggerated for our purposes, but the fear was real among mid-list mystery writers. What will happen to us? And a number of our favorite editors are now twisting in the wind.
For those of you who don’t write, or who haven’t yet sold a book, let me tell you that working with an editor is something like a marriage. Don’t for a moment believe that all editors are alike, or that there is a standard manual for “Editing a Manuscript” that all editors must follow. Nope. Editors can range from a hands-off person who might insert a comment every ten or twenty pages (half of which are “cute!” or “huh?”) to someone who wields an electronic red pencil with a vengeance (and the cross-outs and insertions and balloons come in many colors and after a while you have no idea what the page says any more).
There is no one right way to edit. As in a marriage, there are two personalities involved, and they don’t always see eye to eye. This does not mean that either one is right, or not all the time. Sometimes it’s a question of a particular quirk, like a word that an editor hates for no obvious reason. Sometimes it means that the editor has six other manuscripts on his or her desk and they’re all due at the same time or the entire production schedule six months out will collapse in chaos and s/he’s distracted. Sometimes it means that you the writer nailed it on the first try and the book doesn’t need any fixing (rare, but it does happen!).
Some of my writer friends will be working with a new editor now. It’s not like dating, because it’s a business relationship. But it does involve a certain amount of getting to know each other. In the big picture, you the writer need to find out whether your editor “gets” what you’re trying to say. If his/her comments suggest not, then you’ve got to figure out if the problem lies with the editor (s/he’s an idiot) or whether you’re just not stating clearly enough the words you hear in your head (maybe they’re still in your head and not on the page).
With each new editorial comment, you the writer have to decide whether to accept or reject the proposed change. Can you live with it if you say yes, thereby compromising your artistic integrity? But what if the same issue comes up every few pages? Where do you take a stand? Yes, I like adverbs. I may use a few too many and I will cut some to make you happy, but I want to keep some of them. See? Just like a marriage. There must be compromises.
A run-of-the-mill editor can drive you crazy with niggling details, which sometime serve no purpose other than showing you that s/he has more power than you do. A good editor can make your book better—clearer plot, stronger characters, richer language. The thing is, you never know who you’re going to get, and most of the time you can’t pick your own.
Whoever said this business was logical? It is a business, intended to sell books and make money doing it (most often for the publisher!). For the writer, it’s building worlds and creating characters on the page, and hoping that readers will recognize them and feel the way you do about them. Those two goals don’t always mesh, but we keep trying.
Readers, don’t give up! We’re still writing, and our editors are trying to make our books better (we hope) and to get them on bookshelves (real or virtual) so you can enjoy them. The dust of the Purge will settle, and the publishing business will go on, on paper or in pixels—as long as there are readers.
Privy to the Dead, available in stores and online now!
By the way, this was the first book for which I collaborated with my new editor. We’re both happy.