Tag Archives: alan smithee

Trying to take my own advice

One supposes one’s clients are going to enjoy this.

The general public does not realize it, but I work on many uncredited projects. If you reviewed my credit list, you’d think I don’t work very often. While there are slow times, I’d guess there are as many items absent from the list as present. Most of the time it’s by my choice.

Wait, why wouldn’t I want credit? The most common reason is that the author rejected too much input or seemed likely to do so. It might amaze the world how many people will seek out competent guidance, then go right ahead and do it their (ill-advised) way.  It happens in other ways, such as the author asks me not to and doesn’t offer me a print credit. Or the book content queases me out, though not quite enough to refuse the project entirely.

In this case, a valued colleague got in contact with me. Her favorite uncle, a genial but near-deaf nonagenarian, had written a novel and wanted to see it in print while he was still with us. It was obvious to me that my colleague loved and appreciated this old gentleman and wanted to make him happy. Problem: The novel was not publishable in its then-current state. Another problem: Her bailiwick was exclusively non-fiction. She felt unqualified to handle the necessary rewriting.

Two other editors had provided evaluatory reads–finding all the same problems she had–but weren’t willing to undertake a rewrite. Would I be interested? Well, I said, I’d at least be willing to look it over and say either yes I could, or no I couldn’t.  The novel is set around 1970-73, and concerns gay cowboys in northern Wyoming.  For someone who is neither a cowboy nor gay, I was rather a good match for the project. I’ve at least been to northern Wyoming, lived rather near to it in that timeframe (northern Colorado), have an aunt and uncle who went to college at Laramie, and have ranching roots in the Kansas Flint Hills. I can’t rope a calf, and it’s been a very long time since I rode a horse. But I know the difference in meaning between cows and cattle, have bucked some hay, have felt a truck begin to slide on an icy road, and have been snowed on in Wyoming on the first of June.

Very few editors answer to anything like the above description. Perhaps most importantly, I understand why people live in places like Sheridan. I get the sort of amused pride they take in the hardships their state can inflict on daily life, and how they view the world around them. If I had to do any research, I wouldn’t quite come off as a dude (kids, this was once the term for an effete wannabe Westerner, and still is to a degree in some places). My aunt and uncle, now running the family ranch in Kansas, would have helpful knowledge on more than one level. There’s someone in a club I attend who is from Green River. I was at least alive and in a nearby region circa the book’s era. And if I had to start phoning people in Wyoming who didn’t know me, and try to obtain information from them, at least I’d be unlikely to alienate them.

My colleague was right. The ms was a mess. It happened in a world events vacuum; it head-hopped; there were time jumps of months at a time; those subjects the au did not understand (for example, the world of women beyond cooking), he skimmed; names were common to the point of character confusion. The au was present in the story (most amateur authors just have to insert themselves). The sex scenes were, well, not very sexy. Dialogue was not natural. Every voice was the same. The au had done most things wrong.

However. While I had not known this colleague for all that long, we had experienced immediate rapport based upon our revulsion for some of the more speech-policing aspects of editors’ forums. You might imagine that she was overjoyed at the possibility of getting a substantive editor/rewriter who had at least some idea of the story subject matter and region, and the resources to learn more. Did I know a brand inspector’s job? No, but I could see why they’d be necessary. Stuff like that. It also moved me that she cared enough about her uncle to want to do this for him.

Normally the minimal likelihood the book’s revenues would  recoup my fees (since the au would certainly not market it) would be an early discussion. This relates to the first question I ask most prospective clients, because I have an ethical duty not to take money based on mistaken premises. If an author doesn’t have a marketing plan, it’s a vanity project; while I’m glad to work on vanity projects, me being the experienced industry person the client has a right to expect the benefits of that experience. If one were a safari guide, and someone was about to leave their stuff in a situation where bonobos would surely swipe it, one would not be free to say to oneself “maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t” and blow it off. The experienced, hired professional is there to foresee what the client does not realize, and to offer proactive advice.

Here that was irrelevant. In the first place, the client had his own primary advisor, one at least as competent as me, and didn’t look to me for guidance of that sort. In fact, he and I would never have contact (his interest in online interaction being limited, and his hearing not conducive to the phone). In the second, the client was not stupid. He understood his own motives and they weren’t commercial; they were bucket-list related. He just wanted to see his book in print.

Well, I thought, if he wanted to spend this much money on a trip to Egypt to see the Pyramids while he could, no one would discourage that. If his dream is to see his name on a book, and he can afford to, why shouldn’t he?

My colleague had very reasonable expectations. We agreed that making the book a home run was not practical due to the storyline’s basic weakness, and wouldn’t make sense. We were going for “much improved” and I saw ways in which that would be possible. She was pleased that I signed onto the project, but there was one slight drawback. The client told her he would just put back anything taken out that he wanted back in, and that dropped my non-credit red flag. I don’t urgently need credits, but I do need credited outcomes to reflect competent editorial guidance. I have had situations in which I completed full rewrites, following which the author went back and (to be blunt) re-butchered some parts. It is always the client’s right, but that makes me look subpar, and in such cases I reserve the right not to be credited. This would be an Alan Smithee.

The only surprising aspect of the work is a luxury I haven’t had since my freelance writing days: my very own editor. In most professional situations, I do not have another editor to backstop me. While it’s true that this is substantive editing (a mode in which a proof-ready ms is the expected result and nothing’s off the table), it verges on rewriting. More than verges in many places.

So here I must practice everything I spend so much time preaching. What must I require of myself?

  • Don’t keep doubling back to fix things and self-edit. Just do the job, move forward, get the work done.
  • Feel relief that I’m not the only experienced set of eyes on this.
  • Place my faith in those other eyes, which have more experience than I do with copy editing (if not with fiction editing).
  • Realize that I will make major mistakes I’ll need to repair, and be at peace with imperfection. If I let perfect be the enemy of good, I will get neither.
  • Remember that if it’s not good enough, I have an editor to tell me.
  • Have the guts to send the ms to the editor rather than self-editing forever.
  • Be the kind of writer I would wish as a client.
  • Fricking learn something about how my clients feel, and take that knowledge with me.

We’re working on all that.

Why you don’t lie to your editor

Are you surprised to find that some writers lie to the person they hire to help them succeed? Don’t be.

The reading public, which I love nonetheless, at times lacks a clear picture of the author/editor dynamic. In most people’s perceptions, the editor/author relationship is a battle between conflicting views of “what’s best for the book.” I do not operate according to that model. If the client thinks s/he knows better than I do what’s best for his or her book, and began this relationship simply to fight with me, I have better things to do than play the game. Maybe that person just wants to win an argument for ego’s sake, or is simply disagreeable.

(For confirmation: if you go to any message board meant for writers, you’ll see enough ego on display to last you weeks. Let it be known that you’re an editor, and you can begin the countdown to your first typo, and a smug callout from a small mind who considers that s/he has just taken a scalp. They are rarely worth one’s time.)

Perhaps some editors do work in such an adversarial way. I prefer a discussion/consensus model, and I find that the better the writer, the better that works. The best writers crave feedback and specifics, and they will beat both out of me–exactly as they should, if by some lapse I fail to volunteer them. I cannot get away with a terse statement to them like “that’s incorrect.” They want to know my whole reasoning. This in turn makes me a better editor, because I had better not propose anything I’m not willing to defend. And if I don’t also have the solution to offer, I’m in trouble. What good am I if I can’t tell my client how to improve? Better writers make me a better editor. With them, the consensus model works best because the better writers have more grounds for valid counterpoints, which means we can put our heads together for the best outcome. Viewed another way, when someone can’t write and can’t storytell, the person doesn’t have much to defend. I can and will help that person, but he or she doesn’t usually have the ability to debate how things should be.

By now, not much surprises me, but some things disappoint me. I have had clients accept a lot of developmental feedback, then stiff me. My fault, really, for allowing the situation to get to that point. In one case, though, I was deceived from start to beyond the finish. It involved an Alan Smithee, and I think the story can now be told.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Alan Smithee is a pseudonym sometimes seen in cinema credits. It replaces the name of a person who did not want name credit. I use a similar method when I do not want to attach my name to a book, which can be for many reasons. The most common reason is that my client won’t listen to me, and stands firm in believing that s/he knows better, deciding to override my guidance.

Some time back, I heard from a writer with an incredible story to tell. This client, who went by an obvious pseudonym, told me that s/he had met a renegade who supposedly performed blatantly illegal activities at the behest of legally sanctioned individuals, had had a change of heart about those activities, and decided to tell the story. My client was expecting any moment to suffer great retaliation for talking about it (the renegade supposedly being either dead or beyond reach of retaliatory acts). I read the ms. There were minimal specifics about the illegal activities, but lots of sociopolitical rants, and over half the book told the tale of an abusive relationship that had no bearing on the book’s billing. Why did this renegade open up to my client? The answers were vague, where any were forthcoming at all.

I gave my frank impressions: the story’s billing was deceptive, the logic was flawed, the rants were illogical and alienating, the tone was self-serving, and the book wasn’t going to be very good. I wanted much more about the cloak-and-dagger stuff, less about a bad childhood, and much less about a very bad relationship.

My client rejected most of my guidance. S/he was often very coy, the sort of person who won’t just come out and say something, but will drop enough hints to enable one to Google. I was able to verify some of the renegade’s story, though in many cases there seemed to be two sides to that story. The client claimed to have promised the renegade to leave certain parts in; naturally, they were the very worst parts. I did trim out a lot of the fat, and I obtained the addition of a minimal segment of cloak and dagger, but in the end my client only acted on about 15% of my guidance. This client therefore wasted about 85% of the money spent, and I could do nothing about it.

I came to realize that when my copy arrived. (I do not negotiate a complimentary copy, so this was at my instigation. I take pride in being one of the first customers to buy a copy at retail. Seriously, when someone pays you thousands of dollars, the very least you can do is buy your own damn copy from your client.) I shook my head in disappointment. Early reception and sales confirmed my expectations, with those few reviewers calling out the book’s deceptive nature. The positive reviewers were obvious sock puppets. It was all rather sad.

Not long after, my client contacted me: retaliation was coming, might catch me in the target area, and s/he would no longer be able to connect with me by normal means. In so doing, this client dropped enough information to confirm what I had considered 90% certain from the start: the client was also the renegade. All the stuff about getting the renegade to tell his story was twaddle. All the stuff about material the writer had promised the renegade not to alter? Baloney. How challenging it must have been to keep up the whole charade, with the author wondering if I were just playing along, or whether I could possibly be that dumb. Maybe that’s why the client ignored so much of my guidance: going along with the pretense made me look stupid, and thus not to be heeded.

Now, of course, I had much better reason to doubt most aspects of the tale, including its fundamentals. It was not all lies; I had verified a few of the less controversial parts. The renegade was a real person. The illegal activities? I came to believe they were all inventions, and that I didn’t get specifics because the renegade/client didn’t want to author any more fiction. The author’s naive belief was that people would buy a book purportedly full of Shocking Revelations, and not mind when it turned out to be mostly a story of bad childhood and bad relationships, combined with the renegade’s desire to spin the entire story to his/her own glory and the detriment of the renegade’s enemies. Somehow, the client believed that the buyer would not feel scammed.

If the few purchasers felt taken in, I understand that. So do I. If someone isn’t honest with me, it will limit my ability to help that client. In this case, throughout my editing work, I’d had to operate as though accepting the cover story. In reality, I hadn’t been talking to a person who had made an arrangement with a renegade just before that person planned to disappear, and who thus was not a direct participant with no ax to grind. I was talking to the ax-grinder in person, and the ax-grinder had had to supplement lies with more lies.

That simply piles atrocious upon bad and flawed.

Why do that? In the end, I think that the better writer believes that the relationship is about quality, and the worse writer believes that it is about control. The better writer wants to discuss, to hear justification, to brainstorm, to learn, and to produce ever-improving literary product. The worse writer fears a loss of control, and in service of control, may keep secrets. Or tell lies. Or defend the illogical. Or bicker without need. In the end, the worse writer knows his or her work is worse, and that the fundamentals boil down to:

“Well, my client, the bad news is that neither the story nor the writing are very good, but we could fix those.”

“But that’s my style, Mr. Editor! That’s my story!”

“Well, if you insist, then your style and story are bad.”

“I cannot accept that answer. I will keep looking until I find someone who believes in my work.”

“Very good. Best of success to you.”

Allowing major change, the thinking goes, would lose the battle for control. I do not consider that so. Allowing major change would teach the writer to be a much better writer with a more evolved perspective on his or her products, better able to defend decisions and less likely to need to do so.

But if they lie to me, it is fair to say that the percentage of the truth I am told sets an upper ceiling on the percentage of the available good I can do them. And once I learn of the lie in mid-book, while I will finish what I started, there won’t be a second project. I don’t care much for being deceived. I find that most people who live mostly by lies are not offended when caught lying. It’s not the first time, and won’t be the last. They do not expect a consequence if they continue lying; all debunked lies are now water under the bridge. Lie too often, for too long, and it becomes more addictive than an opiate. It becomes reflex, habit, first nature. Before deciding how to answer, the person ceases to ask him or herself ‘what is the actual true answer?’ and asks only ‘what answer would best suit my needs?’

Now, if someone came to me with an explosive tale of intelligence work that would shock the nation to its core, here is the first thing I would say: “Let us have one understanding. What truths you do not wish to tell me, tell me honestly that you will not tell me those, and I will not press you. But do not, even once, tell me a lie. The moment I believe you have is the moment I reserve the right to drop the job like a live grenade. If you cannot live by that agreement, let’s go our separate ways here and now.”

Like anyone else, editors live and learn.

What fills in the gaps?

To look at my credits list, you’d think I rarely work.

As I was updating it today, it occurred to me that people might like to know what fills those gaps.

Alan Smithees: more often than you might think, I work on a manuscript with the specific proviso that I not be credited. This could happen for one or more reasons. Perhaps the author and I have a vast difference of opinion on the book’s overall quality, and the author would like a copy edit that does not address the fundamental (in my view) flaws. Perhaps the book covers subject matter with which I would rather not be publicly associated; perhaps I find its expressed viewpoints to be odious, or stupid, or paranoid, whatever. (Sometimes all three.) As a general rule, if I’m not proud to have my name in there for whatever reason, this is what will happen.

Tech editing: I do some tech writing/editing on the side. Not a large amount, but when it comes in, it is very intensive. It pays better per hour than anything else I do, which is a sign that I undercharge nearly all my clients.

‘Lancing: yes, I still do some small-time assignment writing. Most of it doesn’t pay enough to be worth my while, so I leave the majority to the starving English BAs who have discovered that we let their costs of college attendance balloon up above a typical engineer’s gross salary, yet let our precious businesses take away their gainful employment prospects.

Serials/short stories: most jobs shorter than a novella, I no longer pull up the credits page to update. This also includes small charitable projects, in some cases. As the list gets longer, I am more willing to prune out the less significant bits.

Evaluations: a good percentage of my career gets devoted to books I’ll never work on. Here’s what happens: potential client contacts me. Book needs a ton of help. I present critique and cost options. Potential client realizes that she has two choices: pay a lot of money for a book that will no longer sound like her (because her style is bad), or find an editor who tells her what she wants to hear. By and large, I am much patient with bad writing than bad story conception, because it’s easier to fix bad writing than to make a bad story worth reading. In 90% of such cases, the author either hires me for a pure copy edit without crediting (at my request), or sniffs in annoyance and seeks out one of the aforementioned starving English BAs, who understands that her paycheck depends upon telling that author what she wants to hear. The end result is nothing that winds up on the credit list, but it does occupy my time and energy. And no, I do not charge money to evaluate a ms, unless it’s…

Developmental editing: often the client desires a complete and detailed markup of the ms, with commentary. The idea is that the solutions are best supplied from the author’s creativity informed with sound feedback, and that I will substantively edit the ms after the author has reworked it based upon feedback. I get paid for each pass of this, but it doesn’t produce an immediate addition to the credit list.

Professional development: some of my days are taken up reading stuff I would not read for pleasure, or attending workshops or conventions, and so on. This doesn’t add a credit, but I consider it a priority to add theoretical learning to the practical expertise that develops in the course of regular work.

General reading: editors and writers must read as voraciously as possible. Most are addicts who can read during any bit of wait time, some even unable to wait patiently for anything without a book. There are days when I just have to open a good book to remind myself how it’s supposed to be done, and to remind myself what I should aspire to and will never become–and to be at peace with that truth.

In between all of that, now and then, a new credit hits the list.

Alan Smithees

I do a lot of work that will never show up on my credit list, on my insistence. I call these Alan Smithees, after the crediting pseudonym used in the film industry.

Why wouldn’t I want to be credited?

  • One reason would be that an author overruled much of my guidance. Since the reader can’t know that, the outcome will reflect on me even if the author ignores all of it–unless I opt not to be credited.
  • In some cases, I consider the subject matter highly controversial, or representing views I consider terminally flawed or even odious, and I don’t mind editing it but I don’t want to be associated with it professionally.
  • In others, I have told the author quite clearly that I don’t think it’s a good or viable story idea, but the author disagrees, and asks that I do my best to help it anyway.
  • Now and then, it’ll occur to me that the author might face repercussions, and I may not want to share in them. Not that I am sure this would shield me, and not that I’m sure a risk could exist, but I’ve run into it.

Me going Alan Smithee doesn’t mean that the author shouldn’t publish the book. I’m not an infallible judge of literary worth. I most often have a better mental picture of how the readership will react than does the author, but not always, and I can’t know or govern how the author will go about marketing. All an Alan Smithee means is that I do not desire print credit for my role.

All the same, when I request not to be credited, a majority of authors find it disconcerting. The authorial psyche tends to contain a fair bit of false bravado masking a lack of confidence, so while the reaction may be very defiant on the surface, in many cases the author has begun to question something, or perhaps everything. One of the chiefest such questions is, of course, whether I’m the right editor for the project. Thus, any time I mention the possibility, I am prepared to see this happen.

While I reserve the right to opt out of credit at any time prior to the book’s going gold, it would be what’s called a ‘bitch move’ for me to spring that at the end without any hint beforehand. The reason should be obvious, but here’s my nutshell version: any situation that might bring on an Alan Smithee is one that it is my job to notice or anticipate at the project’s start, not at the finish. In one noteworthy case, the original writing required a complete rewrite. I advised the author that if s/he rejected edits or added material, the voice would be disrupted–that is, that there’d be inexplicable bursts of grammar, tense, and other mistakes in the final product. In the end, I asked not to be credited because I didn’t want people to see those and conclude that I hadn’t done my job correctly. It wouldn’t mean that, but any quick session with a few Amazon reviews will tell you that most readers don’t realize that the final result doesn’t necessarily reflect the editor’s full influence. The author can overrule me at will, and then I have a decision to make. In the end, if upon final review I do not want my name in the book, the author will have known of the possibility up front, and then made decisions, followed by me making decisions.

In the ideal world, I would always want to have my name in every project in which I was a participant. Until that ideal world comes, we will have some Alan Smithees. And that’s okay.

The cost of editing

Money gets everyone’s attention.

I can think of several reasons novice authors might not engage an editor, such as:

  • Fear of honest critique that risks being less than gushy
  • Heard horror stories that editors are demonspawn
  • Raw egotism; the illusion that no one is competent to edit their brilliance
  • Money; what we will cost is far more than what the author hoped to spend

There are different types of editing, requiring different levels of effort. Copy editing is less time-intensive than developmental or substantive editing, which can verge into rewriting and ghostwriting. The simple spotting and fixing of typos is proofreading, not editing. I believe that some editors base their charges on length, and some on an hourly rate, but in either case it comes down to a simple equation: bigger books cost more because they take much longer.

Non-fiction doesn’t take as long, because there is no questioning of plot connections, character development, and so on. The only overall question is what to leave in or remove. The bigger the fiction book, the more story issues the editor must keep straight in his or her mind. It can be an exhausting task, slowing the process by the constant need to refer back to previous material. But whatever the content: the longer you rambled on, the more this is going to set you back.

One misconception is that an editor can provide a reliable cost estimate based upon the first chapter or so. That is unrealistic, especially with fiction, because in order to provide a fair estimate, I at least must see the entire ms. If the entire ms does not yet exist, I can’t give an estimate. And if the author is planning on another large round of post-editing revisions, the author will be wasting his or her money on editing that involves actual changes to the ms, because if I’m asked to do it again, I will provide a new estimate for that service. And if the end result will not reflect my own best work, I will ask not to be acknowledged in the back matter. If your editor pulls an Alan Smithee of this sort, it should signal to you that you made a very bad decision at some point, kind of like when a doctor discharges you from the practice after repeated disregard for his or her advice.

In developmental or substantive editing of fiction, I often find that the ms is not quite ready for the red pen, but is ready for developmental feedback. I believe that serious plot problems are best repaired through the author’s own creativity. It is his or her book, the project of the author’s mind and inspiration, and not mine. I don’t belong in the spotlight and I don’t want to butt into it. If I was helpful, I enjoy a mention in the acknowledgements, provided my pen name is spelled correctly. That and the check are all I get or expect, and not until I have done my work.

Oh, it’s possible that I could invest all that effort reading and feedbacking, then have the author quit on me. Risks of the trade. The alternative would be a reading fee, which I find unpalatable. The road to scams is paved with reading fees. Unless someone asks for that up front–“How much would you charge to read this and comment only?”–I’m not doing it. What happens between first contact and the author’s agreement to engage me is marketing, and authors shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s marketing unless said authors ask to, eyes open.