Tag Archives: editing

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.

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A story veterinarian

I’m not much of a pet person, but I’ve read nearly all the James Herriot books. His memoirs provide tremendous insight into good business, good people skills, and good-heartedness. At long last, a suitable analogy for my work (if not always my bedside manner).

I’m a story veterinarian. My patients are stories. Their authors, thus owners, are my clients.

My patients are so familiar to their owners, many think of them as their own children. Said owners spend many hours of loving time with my patients, and become deeply attached to some of their quirks.

I got into this line of work because I truly do love writing, books, and the eloquent employ of the English language, just as the typical vet loves animals and life.

I love to see happy owners with healthy patients, or patients I can help them to heal.

It does not always seem as if I’m that positive and enthusiastic, because I see a lot of patients, and many of them are suffering, and I require a certain thickness of skin in order to get through my working day without absorbing so much suffering that I cannot cope.

It is very hard to tell the owner that s/he was the one who harmed the patient. One can see why the owner would become very defensive and angry. Few pet owners will cheerfully cop to outright neglect. It’s too hard to contemplate.

If the owner doesn’t like what I have to say, s/he is prone to find someone to tell him or her what s/he would rather hear. Poor editors can make great livings telling mediocre writers and storytellers that the story is great, that their writing is great, and that neither will need much change, thus it will be very inexpensive. A number of desperate English majors with private school-level student loan payments are using this method to supplement their incomes from Arby’s. I feel badly for them, but it’s unscrupulous. At the same time, that author would just keep looking until he or she got that answer, therefore someone might as well ‘earn’ the money and enable the publication of the mediocrity, since that publication was going to happen anyway.

Not every owner can handle/wrangle every type of patient I see. Just as a person of 70 with steel pins in a broken hip may have trouble controlling a young German shepherd, a person with poor attention span probably should not undertake an 800-page epic.

Some patients can be healed. Some are terminal. Some suffer from genetic defects. Some just need proper diet and exercise in order to thrive.

No need to apologize to me because the patient crapped and ralphed on the floor. The patient usually craps and/or ralphs on the floor. I am well equipped for that.

My work does not encompass all specialties, and excludes some. As your canine vet may not be able to doctor your pet python, I may be unqualified to edit your offbeat mixing of two disparate genres. All I can do is be honest about my limitations.

I cannot tell the owner what the bill or prognosis will be until I examine the patient in full. Anyone demanding a price or outcome without allowing me a full examination of the patient is being unrealistic.

Every owner comes to me fortified with the accolades of half a dozen fanboys/girls, usually close relatives and longtime friends, who have told him or her that the pet is the cutest and most wonderful thing ever.

There are messages that are very hard to give to an owner, and I won’t always be good at presenting them.

At times, I must tell my client that s/he is abusing or neglecting the patient, and this requires great care and tact. I can experience lapses in that area, especially when it’s obvious the owner needs a serious dose of reality.

A serious dose of reality is often needed, because in many cases, the greatest fiction of all is not the story itself, but the author’s belief that everything s/he does is excellent and marketable.

Not all patients can be saved, or made whole, and the hardest message is to tell someone so.

Why didn’t you notice that before?

Not that I’ve ever been asked the question, but some clients may have thought it. Picture this:

You, welcomed reader, bring me your literary pride and joy for developmental editing. I examine it, see fairly early on that it has major issues to address, load it down with comments explaining those issues, and send it back to you with the recommendation that you fix them. I explain that it will cost a lot less, and be more reflective of your creativity, if you take a stab at fixing them. I had you at ‘cost a lot less,’ so you then demonstrate to me what a superb and coachable client you are by addressing them. In most cases, you ‘get it.’ Beaming, you ship me the modified ms. I edit it this time, and I include a bunch of comments about stuff I didn’t point out in the first pass (but dealt with this time). And perhaps here you wonder: how’d he miss that stuff the first time?

Let’s use an analogy to a flipper house. The carpet needs replacement. The color scheme chosen was Crazy Cat Lady Provincial. The rose bushes are out of control. The crushed rock isn’t strangling the weeds. The hot water heater has a failing thermostat, there isn’t enough insulation, and some imbecile fixed numerous nail and molly bolt holes in the wall without bothering to sand the filler. The bathroom fan is about to chuck a bearing, and so on. Oh, and no one raked leaves last year, so half the yard is dead. Except for plenty of thistles, dandelions, and morning glories.

If we’re going to turn that house into the cozy, attractive property that it could become, we are going to begin by taking care of the big stuff so that it no longer obscures the small stuff. We restrain the roses and discover that the squirrels planted a walnut sapling at their base. We pull off the baseboards and find evidence that something in the wall has leaked. We rip up the carpet and find that the previous imbecile covered up battered but beautiful hardwood. We pull out the range and learn that someone had a chronic problem with stuff boiling over and running down the sides, rotting out the subfloor.

While we are doing all that, we are not really seeing the smaller but important stuff, because the big stuff obscures it. It’s not that we are incompetent; it’s that we will notice the miniature burro in the room only when the elephant has been herded out of it.

That’s how it is, editing books. Fix the big stuff so that the small stuff can stand out, then fix that, and you have a good book. Because you don’t retexture drywall that you know you will be replacing anyway.

The client question I dread most

No, it is not, “Where do you get your ideas?” It is not, “Now that I have gone through and torn apart your completed editing work, will you re-edit it for free?” And it is not even, “Will you look at my child’s writing and give her a critique?” It is not, “How do you deal with writer’s block?”

Not that I don’t dread those questions; I do. But for all of them there are responsive answers to offer: ‘from life,’ ‘not for free, nope,’ ‘only if you understand that I will lie,’ and ‘it doesn’t exist.’ For this one there is no good answer:

“How do I do that in Word?”

You might be amazed at how often clients look to me for Word tech support: on how to enable this feature, or make that go away, in a Word document. Often I am their first point of call, and it does not occur to them that I dread the question.

Perhaps the assumption is that I’m a Word expert, and that I have mental models of every version of Word since Word 97 to summon forth. What else can I assume?

So why do I not just say “no, not my line of work?” Because that come across as bad customer service. It doesn’t matter that the expectation is unreasonable. How I feel is beside the point. If I say what I am thinking, the client will think I’m a jerk, unhelpful, and crabby. That’s no good. Most clients find me easy to work with, helpful, and cheerful, and that’s important to me.

But life is not fair. As an editor, at one point or another in the relationship, every client will ask me for Word tech support, and I will have to attempt to offer it, and if I cannot do it with a happy smile, I must at least muffle the curse words and replace the grimace with a mask of calm. Never mind that I feel like a flight attendant who has just been handed a baby and asked to change the diaper.

What’s the big deal? Why all the stress and dread? Because:

  • I am incompetent at it, I know this, and being inept is intensely uncomfortable for a person who takes pride in capability.
  • I don’t want to become competent at it. I’m an editor, not a technical guru. All I want from my word processor is that it serve my work functions. I don’t want to be the Word Answer Man. I want to help people perfect their brainchildren, combining candor with consideration and camaraderie.
  • I used to be a computer shaman, and came to hate it, and when I left that line of work, my mind and heart left it behind. When I have a computer problem of my own, I don’t go very far trying to solve it myself. I call the tech support guy I know in Utah who does a fantastic job (that’s Ray Ross of Bugzap), and I do whatever he says to do.

So why is it impractical? Why can’t I just joyously answer the formatting question and be happy to be helpful? Because:

  • The client and I are probably not using the same version of Word, nor will we be, because Word gets worse with every new version. I’m using Word 2002 and will not switch unless/until forced, and if forced, may end up switching to a Mac. With each new version, MS rethinks the names of some concepts, and moves some features around so that one no longer knows where to find them, and calls that an ‘upgrade.’ I don’t have time or patience to go on a new treasure hunt every year, paying for the privilege, so I am not ‘upgrading.’ Neither should most people.
  • Clients vary in technical know-how, but writers often seem to take a perverse pride in technical dufosity. Most computer users don’t even know the real meanings of words like ‘login,’ ‘download,’ ‘malware,’ and even ‘word processor,’ thus often we do not even begin by speaking in the same terminology. It is a weakness of mine, related to my line of work, that I count upon knowing exactly what words mean.
  • Since we are probably not using the same version of Word, I can’t know what s/he is seeing, or where/how to tell him or her to start looking. I can, with laborious effort, explain in some cases how it is done in Word 2002. But if it’s Word-flaky, I can’t answer why theirs isn’t working like mine.
  • Since that is the case, the client will probably still have questions, which I can’t answer. I will look useless, feel uncomfortable, and silently dislike the unfairness of the situation, powerless to change it.
  • If on the other hand my help does solve the problem, the client may decide that I am a Word Deity, and may even come to depend on me for Word tech support in the future, since that went so well.

Thus, there is no good outcome for me.

What do I wish people would do? Join a discussion forum about Word. Many are staffed by actual Microserfs, or people blessed by the company. I don’t know of a specific one to suggest, but I know they are there. When I find myself confounded, here’s what I do (or would do if need be):

  • Save a backup copy of your document beforehand. Now you can experiment and butcher it to your heart’s content, because you have a fallback position.
  • Check Word help, though it will probably be irrelevant and clunky. I marvel at how much worse they have managed to make it.
  • If you think it’s a technical problem with Word, restart your machine and try it from a fresh Windows and Word session with nothing else going, just to rule out some potential conflict sources.
  • Use the exact terms Word uses, and feed your problem to a search engine. That will probably lead you to the MS Knowledge Base, or to a message board discussion about the situation, where someone already solved this for someone else. Be sure to include your version of Word in the search, but when the search turns up solutions that seem to apply to other versions, try to run with them.
  • Sign onto one of the message boards that seemed to have the most helpful people. Read the FAQ in case you are about to become the 101,000th newbie to ask this question; it may solve your problem. Be prepared for very brief, direct questions and answers; gurus don’t waste lots of time. Be prepared also for at least a few people who don’t read your post with attention to detail. List your version of Windows, your version of Word, the type of document, what you are trying to do, and if necessary, take a screenie of the problem, using these instructions. Explore anything they suggest.

Some other generally-sound-practice technical tips, while I’m at it:

  • Always save a copy of your work before doing anything daring, so you can revert if you butcher it.
  • There are two types of computer users who do not back up their data files: those who have lost data that way and do not learn from their mistakes, and those who are waiting for doomsday.
  • Just because software offers you an update does not mean it’s always an upgrade. There are exceptions, but the usual result is everything gets moved around and you gain nothing new. Firefox is the poster child for software that gets worse with every new version.
  • If you do not keep a virus scanner updated and current, you are just waiting for the suffering. If you take my advice, you’ll either go with Panda AVG for a free version, or for a powerful pay version worth every penny, Eset’s NOD32. That’s what I use. When I hear that someone got a free trial of McAfee and just stayed with that after the trial period expired, that’s someone I’m expecting to hear got a virus.
  • Not everything your computer vendor pre-installed is garbage, but a lot of it is free trials, tutorials you will never use, and other whizbang stuff from which you can not benefit. Always be careful (like the time I uninstalled a network speed monitor and it took my Internet access with it), but a lot of that is just crapola that can be uninstalled.

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.

New release: Chad Stinson Goes for a Walk, by Shawn Inmon

This short story is now available on Amazon. I was substantive editor.

Shawn brings me story ideas early in the process, which I wish more of my clients would do. I am very frank with him. Some of his ideas, no likey, and I tell him so in a style I call tactful bluntness. If he still wants to write it, of course, I stand ready to help him as best I can. For some reason, he seems to be surprised when I like an idea very much, which is not justified because he has a lot of good ideas, and I tell him so.

This was one of the good ones, and after the first read, I told him as much. Shawn’s horror/supernatural concepts are maturing, and his characters grow more original with his advancement as a writer. The best thing about Chad Stinson, in my view, is the witty mix of social comment and growing macabreness (macabrosity?).

Any author who can pull you gradually into something freaky, while making you laugh at society, accomplishes in two different directions. A great, quick read with broad appeal.

Spiking the ball

In my line of work, there are some unwritten rules of good behavior.

  • One must always do one’s best work within the parameters assigned.
  • One must not review books in which one has had a hand.
  • One must always remember that it’s the author’s book. It was the editor’s job to make the author look as good as possible, and s/he got paid to do so.
  • One must not go to review comment sections in any way that could remotely upstage or embarrass the author.
  • One must accept that invisibility is praise. It’s like officiating a sporting event: if your work is excellent, it goes unnoticed.

I don’t think I’ll be breaking the rules if I do a little endzone celebration here, because I did something I feel pretty good about.

As blog regulars know, the e-book Shadows by Terry Schott was published about a week ago. Terry’s genre is dystopian contemporary science fiction, and he has a significant following. He engaged my editing services on this newest book. Before I got to work, I took a look at the reviews of his previous works. They were mostly very positive, and the only nagging complaint was that a few reviewers remarked upon the ‘editing.’ We’ve been over the ways in which that can be a shortsighted review comment, but I did take note of them. Terry didn’t need me in order to get people to like his stories better. The best service I could offer him was to make the ‘editing’ remarks go away.

Sixteen reviews in, and it’s clear that his fans love the story.

Not a one, so far, mentions the editing. That means that not only did those reviewers have no issues with it that they cared to mention, none so far even noticed much of a change. And if there are potential purchasers on the fence, ones who would be put off by adverse commentary about editing, it may hearten them that the reviews make no such mention. They may attribute it to the author’s strides, or to some unknown factor.

I smile, invisibly, with fierce satisfaction.