Editing Is a Service Position

editorI’ve been at work on preliminary edits to a novel. The author had submitted his work to other publishers before bringing it to Iron Twine Press and one of the others had expressed a srong interest in publishing it. So we’re Publisher B. The book came to us because the author didn’t like the conditions put upon him by Publisher A.

His book is an adventure tale set primarily in a wilderness environment that is being threatened by human activities. That’s vague, I know. But we don’t have rights to the book yet and I want to respect the author’s ownership of his own work. What I’m telling you about the story doesn’t give anything away.

So, Publisher A liked the story a lot–it’s exciting and though-provoking, a really good read. But they wanted one change before they would agree to publish it: they wanted the author to make the characters in the book overtly supportive of the idea that human activity is the root cause of climate change.

Putting aside the fact that I believe that to be a fact supported by the preponderance of scientific evidence, I strongly disagree with Publisher A’s demand in this case. The book isn’t about the climate change debate. It mentions the existence of previous ice ages and warming periods, but not in the context of taking any position on what is happening to the climate today. Publisher A, in my opinion, brought an agenda into the experience of reading the book and was trying to change the book to support that agenda.

That raises a fundamental question for me about the proper role of an editor. Is it the editor’s role to view a book as raw material they can turn into something they imagine, or is it to imagine ways to turn the book into the best possible version of what it is already trying to be?

I believe it is the latter. As a writer myself, I’ve been through too many writing workshops of my work and others’ that devolve into imagination frenzies where everyone stops suggesting ways the author could make more clearly the points he or she is trying to make and just starts re-writing the story with their own ideas. “What if, instead of a bank robber in New York, you made this about a livestock rustler in Amish country? Then, in the getaway chase, instead of a car, you could have him riding a sheep. That would be funny.”

It’s a subtle distinction, maybe, but it’s an important one. Editors should suggest changes to details if the existing details are at odds with the truth and clarity of the story. Editors should resist the urge to change details if the only problem is that the existing details lead readers to a different truth than the truth the editor holds. If you want the story to deliver a different truth, write a new story. If you want to be a helpful editor, help the story clarify the communication of it’s own truths. Editing is a service position; the editor should exist in service to the story.

Best Sentence Saturday — #2

Brautigan_1Maybe you didn’t think we could do it, but here we are again: Keeping the Best Sentence Saturday series alive into it’s second week.

It’s simple: we read, we encounter sentences that hit us hard, that demand rereading because they are so well crafted or so full of the flavor of being alive.

1) Author: Richard Brautigan; Story: “The Betrayed Kingdom”; from his collection The Revenge of the Lawn

At the end of a funny story of a woman he once knew in San Francisco who would flirt her way to getting rides home from parties in “the last spring of the Beat Generation” and always left her lustful drivers disappointed, sleeping on her floor, tangled in an army blanket

This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.

And yet, isn’t that a good thing for us readers? Look at all the great writing that struggle gives rise to.

2) Author: Lisa Mecham; Essay: “Reckoning”; published online at Midnight Breakfast

I think of you. Forty-seven point six miles away in your townhouse, your new life. What’s it like in that alternate universe? It must be so still. Remember how we used to listen? Under the sheets, taking turns cupping ear to chest. The rhythmic pounding of the day, beating itself out. And then lying side by side, how we swore we could hear our girls, their heart muscles pumping in the room next to ours. Those tiny flesh miracles we’d created. And now? What do you hear on the other side of forsaken?

The precision (“forty-seven point six miles away”) of it, the intimacy, the whistling wind of loss. Read the essay, it’s short at just over a thousand words. But the way those thousand words are put together, they knock you back like a solid punch.

Whatever you’re reading, enjoy!

Our First Company Scandal and What It Has Taught Us

so-you-want-to-be-a-writer-where-do-stories-come-from
Kaye Dacus offers some interesting insights about the origins of stories on her Web site. Click the image to go see.

Once upon a time (Monday), Iron Twine Press published a new book (The First Honeymoon: New and Collected Stories, by Lyn Coffin) and the world caught fire with excitement. No, not really, but we were excited—no lie, it’s a damn fine book, you’ll enjoy it if you’re a reader who appreciates fine crafted writing, the play of language, the clever image, tongue-in-cheek humor, and unabashed offerings of wisdom—”Life as we know it is always coming to an end”; “the farsighted swim in irony-infested waters”; “Moral: there is none (Fables usually have morals, people usually don’t)”—all within the comfortable confines of good stories. In our excitement to share, we posted excerpts of two of the stories, and Lyn (the aforementioned author) posted links to those excerpts on her Facebook page. Minutes later: outrage! hurt! scandal!

Robin Hemley, from whom I took a writing class at Western Washington University, has written a book about this topic. Click the image to learn more or go to Robinhemley.com.
Robin Hemley has written a book about this topic. Click the image to learn more at Robinhemley.com.

It seems one of the stories we excerpted is based on actual events and a real human person in the world at large, a person who participated in the non-fiction events now fictionalized in the excerpted story took umbrage over the story being told at all. Sore aggrieved this person was. Super pissed. No one wants to see anyone’s feelings get hurt. But it got us to thinking about a few truths about fiction:

  1. Most fictional stories draw from real life. Many times the true event is just a jumping-off point. I’ve written a story about the home-invasion robbery I endured, for example. But in my story every single thing that happens after the robbery is made up. I wanted to see what would happen if my protagonist, faced with the same experience I had, then made the opposite choices from the ones I had made.
  2. As readers we take it all as fiction, if we’re told it’s fiction. But if you’re the person who lived through the events that figure in the fictional account, you can feel exposed even though the readers most likely don’t know you’re there.
  3. If you have writers in your life, assume you’re in one of their stories. Go ask your writer “am I in any of your stories?” They will say no. Then sometime later you’ll read one of their stories and you’ll see yourself coming into a paragraph with a different name to ask “am I in one of your stories?” We are all raw materials in writers’ workshops.