Ode To The Editor

The editor walks the craggy wasteland.

Maybe she’s a freelance pen-for-hire. Maybe her red ink dances for one of the corporations.

Doesn’t much matter. She is what she is.

Then –

In the distance, across a valley of charred manuscripts and killed-off characters she hears the plaintive cry of a writer lost in the woods, a writer with a soggy, boggy book falling apart in his hands.

And the editor rides.

Hoofbeats on broken earth. Her heart driven by the thunderous stampede — a heart hungry for the story, voracious for the words, desperate to find all the fiddly bits, all the commas and semi-colons and character arcs and thematic throughlines and save them from the hands of an author strangled by his own creation.

An author mad by his own whims.

And that is what she finds over the next ridge.

The author, kneeling over his manuscript. Punching it with raw-knuckled hands. Grabbing fistfuls of paper and shoving it into his mouth and moaning around the wads of crumpled story.

“I’ll make the protagonist a camel!” the author cries around dry, labored gulps. “I’ll write three prologues. Each weirder than the last. I’ll remove all the punctuation and make it one big run-on sentence and all the characters will fall prey to my plot and my plot will fall prey to my themes and my themes will fall prey to a half-dozen strongly-concocted gin-and-tonics and–” Here he eats another wad of his own manuscript. “GRASHAGRABLECHRAGGTERFUGGMBTZZ.” He falls to the earth, forehead against it, blubbering.

The editor kicks him off the manuscript. The author tumbles into the dust. Tears streaking dirty cheeks.

You,” the author says.

The editor nods. Pops a white Chiclet. Crunch.

“But…” the author begins.

The editor just shakes her head.

Finger to lips. Shhhh.

She pats his head. Whispers something in his ear. It’ll be all right. That’s what she tells him.

Then she gathers up the crumpled story-boulders and pages caught on cactus spines and she again mounts her steed and rides to the next ridge. There she sits, alone. For hours. Maybe days. Pulling pages apart. Seeing what she has. Shining a light into dark corners. Finding sense. Fixing errors. Bringing sanity back to madness, chaos back to order, context back to content. Her red pen dances bloodily upon the page.

And when the time is right, she rides again.

Finds the author now sitting alone, perfectly still as if he had taken Herculean amounts of LSD and was afraid that he’d become a little teapot and any movement could cause his tea to spill.

She goes to him.

She shows him what she’s done.

He hates her — at first.

He froths and kicks and spits, a beast poorly corralled, distraught at what he sees — the ruination of my art, the muddying of my vision, poopy handprints on what was once a clean white wall.

But soon he sees.

He sees how things make sense.

How the periods and commas all line up proper-like. All reporting for duty.

His crutch words are gone. His plot has been untangled. The characters are no longer just cardboard cut-outs slotted into gaps but rather living, breathing entities, emotionally resonant and utterly believable.

His pile of word-slurry has been concretized. Into a marble bust. An aegis of the gods.

And when he looks up, the editor is gone. His satchel, too.

She’s riding off. A wasteland MacGuyver. An apocalyptic A-Team.

What she brings to the story is hidden behind every page. Lost in the space between sentences. Her repairs are invisible — the mechanisms of her craft hidden behind authorial drywall. Ever unknown to readers.

“But I don’t even know your name,” the author whispers — a whisper lost on the wind.

She’s gone. Onto the next writer sitting in his own waste. To clean up him. To fix his story.

To do what must be done.

* * *

All this is a roundabout way of saying Yay, Editors!

Not all editors are good, or great, and some are quite bad.

And no editor can take a bad story and make it good — dross does not polish into gold.

Oh ho! But an editor can however take a good story and make it great, harnessing the potential that lives in a pile of unforged story. Dross will not become gold, but iron can become steel.

What I’m trying to say is, I have recently been getting this question:

“Do you know any good editors?”

Folks email me and want to know if I’ll look at their work (I won’t), or if I know any good editors (I do, but not in a helpful way). And so I come to you, my bubbly lovely jubblies. Let us speak of editors.

If you’re an author who has a favorite freelance editor or who merely cares to sing the praises of an editor you’ve worked with at a publisher or elsewhere, please do! Sing, sing those praises!

If you’re an editor who is available…

Well. Please, let us know that. You may find clients here.

And let us all sing the ballad of the editor and tell their mighty stories. For it is the editor that lifts the story up so that it may catch the sun. And yet it is the author who swallows the syrup of glory.

All hail the editor.

79 comments

  • @Jason Krell There are various ways to get into editing, but one that I really recommend, especially as you’re working as a newspaper editor, is to get an internship. I started on the same path as you when I majored in print journalism but the moment I learned that there was actually a job title of Acquisitions Editor, I switched focus to books. My first internship, unpaid, of course, was with a very tiny local publisher, which gave me experience working with actual manuscripts that they published, not just the slush. (As an fyi: You get to do a lot more at smaller pubs because there are fewer hands to cover each job.)

    I did get a job as a copy editor for a newspaper once I graduated, but that combined experience got me a job with a mid-size nonfiction publisher a few years later. I’ve recently shifted my role within publishing to children’s literary agent, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate my editorial background. Not only that, but I learned about design and marketing and sales and production; basically, I saw and worked with most aspects of the publishing process, and I really think my authors will benefit from that.

    So there’s no one way to become an editor, but I would recommend starting small. Your career will build and more jobs will come as your experience strengthens, but don’t be in a rush to land at a house in NYC. That’s a tough road filled with ramen noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a somewhat sketchy apartment. For many, it’s worth those first lean years, but there are other ways to get to the same destination.

    *As a note, while I’m still transitioning to agent, as it is definitely not a salaried position, I’m taking freelance jobs on the side. Since I only rep kidlit (YA/MG), I consider everything else fair game. For info: http://www.michellewittebooks.com/editing

  • This was fabulous and so funny. :D I work as a freelance editor for a publishing company and for individual authors. I love it. (The only problem comes when I’ve been editing for days on end and I either start editing in my dreams or I start editing song lyrics while I’m listening to music. Then I kind of drive myself crazy. ;))

  • In german editing world I can recommend Dr. Andrea Müller from Droemer Knaur. Of the surely great editors I’ve worked with, she was the one who always found every single sore point in my manuscripts and instead of patching them, gave me the chance to do so, always helping, always full of good advice and wanting what is best for the book!

  • Chuck, this was brilliant and beautiful. As a fairly new freelance editor myself, I am still learning some of the ropes, but I love the way that you’ve described the work that an editor does.

  • A few years ago, I was a freelance editor (now I edit at my own imprint), so now to answer the requests I get from authors I keep a list of those YA and children’s book editors who are working directly with authors right now. The list is at http://www.stacylwhitman.com/critique-service/.

    Also, for Jason Krell, at the CBC Diversity Committee blog, we committee members have been blogging about how we got into publishing, so that tag might be useful to you in looking at possibilities: http://www.cbcdiversity.com/search/label/How%20I%20Got%20into%20Publishing.

  • What a wondrous ode — thanks for sharing it, Chuck. (Although if I were editing it, I’d ask you, ever so gently — did you perhaps mean “Bringing… order back to chaos” rather than the other way around? Because that phrase is reversed compared to the others in that sentence.)

    If anyone reading this is looking for an editor for a nonfiction book, especially one that could use some reorganization, I invite you to visit http://www.carteredit.com and see if you think we’d work well together.

  • Loved this! I’d posted a question about editors on my linkedin group (Writania) and someone posted a link to this …ah… article, story, tribute! It’s absolutely perfect. Kudos for nailing it!

  • I really enjoyed your portrayal of the editor’s job as superhero, saving the struggling writer from their own doubts and frustrations, helping them make the tough decisions and then vanishing without a trace. This really is how I see my role as an editor and it’s gratifying to see that someone understands it so well. Thank you!

  • Another Canberran! Don’t have an editor to recommend (other than seconding Tambo’s recommendation for Juliet Ulman), but it’s funny seeing a few of us here…

  • Great piece, Chuck. Hope this doesn’t make you cry:

    …my themes fill fall prey to a half-dozen strongly-concocted gin-and-tonics and–”

    Looks like that sentence did. :D

    Sorry, I’m an editor.

  • WELL-PLAYED! You found my little editorial Easter Egg! A challenge for editors to find and fix and to —

    Ahh, hell, not really. Oops! My bad. See? This is why editors rule.

    — c.

  • Totally love it…it is the very real description that I have with my editor, who I love to pieces. She is excellent and I would recommend her. However, she is not available until after she finished my book in a few weeks. So contact her: Kristen Wint at kristen@kwintessential.ca.

    and she loves chocolate and gin.
    Cheers,
    Marjie Martini

  • Ta-da! Another freelance editor, here! I cut my teeth working in academic publishing, hoisting myself up the ladder from basement-dwelling editorial assistant to rune-examining associate editor to prognosticator acquisitions editor to all-hail-the-queen managing editor. Now I write and edit on the side, because I’m anal that way. Thank you, O mighty Wendig, for this most excellent ode to editors. And if you must know, I’m more a scotch kinda gal. But yes, I also like chocolate. And small fuzzy animals with big Bambi eyes and larger fangs. Especially if they’re bounding through a post-apocalyptic landscape.

    I, too, know it is an awesome thing to behold, when a good editor digs into my rumpled pile of word-spew and spit and helps me see not only the forest for the trees, but the woodpeckers, deer, and ewoks therein.

    (And pssst–it’s MacGyver. If he was an editor in the wastelands, he’d totally bind papers into a book using mutant lizard skin, cactus juice, and abandoned mine tailings. I can only dream to aspire to such heights.)

    Anyway, the question I get a lot is about rates. I generally work on a sliding scale, and adjust according to what kind of work I’ll need to do on the manuscript. I generally do a free estimate of any project I consider and stay within the price range I quote. For those who are interested, an arena estimate of industry rates can be found here, at the Editorial Freelancers Association: http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php

    For those looking for editors (and yes, I am one–I do nonfiction and fiction), I found this blog helpful, because she hooks you up with other independent editor associations and talks you through her process of finding one: http://www.erikaliodice.com/how-to-find-an-editor-do-your-due-dilligence/

    Anyway, thanks again, Chuck, for posting this. And thanks to all of you with the helpful links and comments.

    Cheers!

  • Awesome post.

    There is still a question haunting me and that is when to go look for an editor. I mean, I have a very unwieldy first draft that I’m alternating being very excited about and very sad with. It feels like I would punish any editor reading it with a +10 bleeding in this state….

    /I am definitely in the ‘starts eating manuscript’ state though

  • I love this. Well written and very amusing. And since you ask…
    I am an editor. A freelance editor. I mostly do fiction. I do work for a small independent publishing company, although that doesn’t keep me from doing my freelance work as well.
    If you’re (meaning anyone reading this) interested, please check me out.
    http://www.renwordsmith.com
    Thanks!

  • Wow. I feel a bit humbled by that amazing Ode, but not so humble that I’d hesitate to say that I am a freelance editor and I’m almost always open to new projects. I’ve worked on everything from college research papers to magazine articles to entire books, and everything in between. Unfortunately my website is suffering some technological issues at the moment but I hope to have it up again very soon. It’s at http://originaledits.net, in case you want to check on it at some point.

    In the meantime I can offer samples of my own writing at my blog (http://theoriginaledi.blogspot.com/) and if you’re interested in my work you also contact me via email, (theoriginaledi at gmail) or on twitter, where I’m (shockingly, I know) @theoriginaledi. I appreciate the opportunity to put my information here and I definitely look forward to hearing from some of you!

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