Facing The External Editor Or How To Make A Writer Cry Like A Wet Kitten

By Christina Lay

There once was a time long, long ago when I felt pretty sure on my feet regarding this whole craft of writing thing. After all, my friends loved my stories and told me how great a writer I was. And I sold stuff, so obviously editors thought I was pretty great too.

Then I made my first book sale to a small but professional publisher. I awaited my first round of editing with confident excitement. I knew my punctuation skills were lacking somewhat, but I’d been writing for forty years, selling short stories for twenty and I figured the manuscript would only need a light going over. I’d revised and edited it so carefully before submitting it, after all. I’d done my best and it was pretty darn good.

Pregnant pause.

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A year and three projects later, not much has changed. Third book, new editor, same writer. When I open the file and see that there are 2,234 insertions, deletions, formatting changes and comments to deal with, I am still a bit taken aback. This editor must be insane, I think. A comma nazi. A speaker of some obscure dialect.

True, about a thousand of those insertions and deletions have to do with my shaky grasp of commas, ellipses, the overuse of italics, my tendency to write really long paragraphs and so on. On the first go around, I tear through those comments, mindlessly accepting every punctuation and formatting change and (reluctantly) attempting to learn something in the process.

I suppose there are writers out there somewhere who have a firm grasp on all the rules of grammar and punctuation, who can diagram a sentence like a superhero, who outline their novels in advance and perhaps even know what they did and how they did it.  Maybe they fix several hundred of those problems before they submit it for publication. (For well-thought out advice on the self-editing process, I recommend you check out Matt Lowe’s excellent post here.)

Being more of a jump-of-a-cliff-and-write-myself-out-of-the-resulting-predicament sort of writer, for me editing involves facing up to a lot of not entirely thought out plot twists, inexplicable character motivations and odd internal dialogue that has little to do with the story.  This is when the real work starts.

On the second run through the edited file, I move on to the deeper issues, the ones that require concentrated thought, the kind of thought that makes my brain hurt and my feet to spontaneously carry me to the fridge. From simple word repetitions to point of view violations to awkward construction to floating body parts, passive voice, faulty simultaneous action and the dreaded ambiguous pronoun – all kindly pointed out by my sharp-eyed editor- these issues force me to deconstruct sentences, question purpose, recreate rhythm, delete, delete, delete and work the hell out of my dictionary.  Then comes the hard part.  In the third round I address those confusing passages that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to- which is convey meaning, tell the story, create excitement, elicit emotion, conjure empathy.  Damn.

This is a process that takes many hours over the course of several days. I become completely immersed in the world of the book, which I am now convinced sucks beyond any hope of redemption. A friend commented that this process sounds tedious. I mean, come one, 2,234 corrections? Oddly enough, and by odd, I mean I must be a masochist, I’m never once bored during this process. This is my craft, my chosen boulder, my art. Besides, I’m too damn scared to get bored.

For the deeper I go, the harder the challenges presented, the more the fear kicks in. Fear that I won’t be able to do it. I won’t be able to fix it. It’s too broken. I’ve reached the level of my competence and cannot go higher – not in the ten days I have to get that steaming pile of hideous pages back to the editor! I lie awake at night full of dread, full of self-doubt and the crippling realization that I don’t have the slightest clue of how to write a good novel.

But they bought it, right? So there must be something redeemable about it. Possibly even, something good.

Sitting at the keyboard, taking the editing process one comment, one syntax error, one failed metaphor at a time, I know I can write. I know I can do this. Working with an editor pushes me beyond my comfort zone, beyond what I can do by myself. It forces me to be better than I am.

When I finally hit send and collapse into a puddle of depleted goo, I know that miraculously I have done better than my best. And with luck and determination, the next book will be even better.

2 thoughts on “Facing The External Editor Or How To Make A Writer Cry Like A Wet Kitten

  1. Every writer needs an editor. Mine have done nothing but make my work better, and it sounds as if you’re rising to the occasion and making your work better, too. Good job!

  2. Having an editor is such a blessing. We all need to vent at times, but what I don’t get are writers who resent the work, who even take it personally when they have hundreds (and hundreds) of editorial comments.

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