Tag Archives: feedback

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.

Never go full Ramsay

Tonight I was watching an old rerun of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. In the main, the show is appalling. Its premise: legendary Scottish chef Ramsay drops in on a sinking-ship restaurant, his mission to save both restaurant and family fortunes from collapse. I’ve long wondered why I keep watching this predictable dross.

The show consists of the same thing every time, with petty variations. Gordon meets and greets the admiring, thankful restauranteurs, then orders some menu items. Without exception, he hates the chow. This is crahp! It looks loike it came out of a die-pah! This was freozen! It’s ehovacooked! It’s raw! I want to vomit immejatly! What a mess! Gordon is a candid guy. The producers have to bleep him a lot.

The proprietors hurry to defend their dishes. The food is good. I won’t back down on that from anyone. All our customers love this. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry, but this is a customer favorite. We have the best food in town. You’re just a jerk. Gordon comments that he has his work cut out for him, and begins to get to the bottom of things.

Whether it’s incompetent management, lazy kitchen staff, T.rex portions, walk-ins that look like Syrian prison isolators, old grumps who have lost their passion, decor worthy of Rhonda’s deteriorating Doo Drop Inn on US 195, whatever, Gordon ferrets out the fail. He cleans up the Augean kitchen and its biology projects, redecorates the entire joint (time for a team cry), comes up with a menu even these cretins can execute, and re-opens the NEW Rhonda’s Ristorante Italiano (or whatever).

On opening night, of course, it all starts well, then The Problem reverts to his or her old habits. It’s all coming apart. Men curse and quit, women yell and cry; everyone says ‘screw it’ and goes out back for a smoke. Gordon saves the day, gets them back on track, and we’re about out of time. He hopes they stay the course, and that they don’t go back to just buying and microwaving all that freozen crahp.

Some nights, by this time, I’m still awake in my recliner. But tonight I figured out why I bother.

It’s like my job.

No, I am not the Gordon Ramsay of book midwifery, though if I see the butt emerging first, I think I do a creditable job of making sure the literary fetus lives to experience infancy. Just yesterday, a young writer asked me face to face whether I was a good editor. I told the truth. “I’ve got a lot of experience, but I know better editors. I wouldn’t edit my own book; no way. But I could probably help you make yours better.” That admitted, I look at a lot of writing, and I think I’m a fair judge of talent and its application level. Most of it has serious flaws. Most of its authors do not want to hear that. Some sniff, toss their hair, and move on to someone who will give them a gentler edit and a more affirming answer. Others take my words to heart, roll up their sleeves, and decide to repair the deficiencies. Okay, how do I turn it so the head comes out first? I didn’t realize that was the butt.

As I’ve said in the past, there is a bizarre, direct mathematical relationship between talent and receptiveness to input. The writers who need the most help, reject it all. I fight for my words! I think my way is much better; toodle-oo! Those with the most promise drink critique in and let it run down their chins, eyes slavering and wild. They are positively greedy for growth. And I’d better have a good explanation for what I’m advising, because if they smell pasture, they know I’m no use to them.

Their greed for growth is the most invigorating thing that can happen to my workday. This is the best greed they could have. It is what will make me go back over the entire ms again, just to make sure I didn’t miss either a bad verb tense or an opportunity to guide. All they are told is that it’s taking me longer; more precisely, I am applying what I gathered 2/3 through the ms to the earlier parts, where I know the same conditions exist but I didn’t then apprehend them. Why is your edit so consistent? Because I did most of it twice, dear client.

That’s why I know how Gordon feels. If he gets someone keen to improve and learn, he’ll go to the wall with him or her, challenge, educate, reinforce. However, his reality as pictured on the show is a crusade to penetrate self-delusion. And that’s the tough part for me. A lot of people can’t write, don’t want to hear that, and I have to figure out how to say so with some modicum of compassion. I already know it won’t lead to compensated work, because no matter how compassionately I say “This is fundamentally flawed and will be challenging to repair,” that’s not the droids they want. At that point, my goal is simpler: convey truth without sinking a barb. That way, at least, I will not gain a reputation as Crusher of Dreams.

Some editors don’t bother. They have watched too much Simon Cowell, or they are old enough not to care what anyone thinks. Dilemma: if you’re an editor, you assert that you are a judge of literary talent, which presumes owning some of that in your own right. If you can’t let someone down easily in words, where was that literary talent? Was it just too much trouble to dust off? Was there much to begin with?

I will admit, though, that at times I wish I could just go Full Ramsay.

One mustn’t.

Commentary on “42 Dos and Don’ts from a Dick”, and a dirty little secret

First comes the original e-mail, a rejection letter sent to some 900+ applicants who didn’t get an online writing gig.  Read it within this Gawker article impaling it as “42 dos and don’ts from a dick.”  You can then read the original author’s logic and rebuttal at Salon.

When I look at the anger Shea’s long list of advice has generated, my thoughts include:

  • Wow.  No good deed does go unpunished.
  • These people are not cut out to be writers at all.  They cannot take constructive criticism.  I wouldn’t have hired them either.
  • This is a perfect manifestation of the “I’m So Awesome” generation that got a trophy just for deigning to show up.
  • What part of ‘follow the directions’ is so complicated?

I find this all very revelatory.  It’s helpful to me, because there are a couple of errors mentioned that I can easily see myself making, and would rather not make them.  (Thanks, Shea!)  What it reveals to me is that I haven’t been wrong about the Amazing Ego Based Upon Few Results mentality so common today.  Anything that sounds like negative feedback:  “That’s disrespecting me!”  Respect is earned, sorry.  Advice offered:  “How arrogant to think you know better than me!”  Uh, he does; he’s in a position to hire, and you are not.

Think on it.  They would rather have been ignored than receive help.  They would rather flounder in ignorance and mediocrity than take a bruise, suck it up and grow.  Anything less than “You’re so awesome!” is a boot in the groin.

How did we wind up raising young adults this way? Is this a young adult thing, or a writer thing, or a young adult writer thing? Feel free to educate me.  Because when I get a list of 42 things I might be doing wrong, I want to bless the sender.  That’s 42 things I should never do wrong again.

I promised you a dirty little secret, and you shall have it.  Truth:  I didn’t succeed as a ‘lancer because of busting my butt, nor by being a brilliant writer. That isn’t self-deprecation; I’m not saying I didn’t work hard, nor that I’m untalented.  I succeeded at freelancing because most of my competition took a look at its path ahead, sowed as many mines as possible in its path, concealed them carefully, went away for a while to forget where they were, then just waltzed on through the self-made minefield.  Over, and over, and over.  Most of my competition suicided on the way to the finish line.

I didn’t have to beat them.  They beat themselves.