THE WORD ON THE .NET

Writer T. James' Exploration of Words, on the Internet.

News, And Editing: Do You Use a Light Or Heavy Hand To Protect The Innocent?

This week you will find me frantically editing for Faye Ling. Working with Faye is always a test of how assertive you are—she has already sent me two scathing emails demanding I, “Stop [mess]ing around on that stupid blog thing that no one reads and get on with editing my writer’s guide.” (Excerpt here).

Pressed for time and too distracted to be inspired for anything creative of my own, I thought the best option was to put together a news flash—something I haven’t done for a while.

After My Mirror Self and I was released mid-March, I spent a while doing some promo and gathering my thoughts. The rest of April was spent writing my current WiP ‘Derek’ (working title), a YA farce. Eleven thousand words in, and he’s about to go abroad. I’ve yet to work out how much of the story to set there before he returns home. I also need to come up with an entirely new cast of characters, get to grips with the ‘feel’ of the place, as well as work out enough of the other character’s motives to carry the story. It’s a long way off finished, and may even stall before completion. As an irredeemable pantser, the only way to find out is to write it.

While I was mulling over all this Faye approached me and requested (i.e. insisted) I help edit her upcoming eBook. As far as I can tell, it contains many of her opinions and ‘insights’ into writing and publishing, and ‘guidance’ for writers who are struggling with their craft and career. Editing it is an interesting experience, and I wonder how many people will find it helpful. Editing the guide has presented me with several practical challenges and an interesting ethical problem (those that know me may be surprised to find I do think about things like ethics sometimes, and not just armpits, snot, and wind).

Most editors wouldn’t have touched Faye’s notes (angular spidery handwriting on screwed up sheets of paper and take-away wrappings, photographs of scribblings in the margins of books, and randomly cut-and-pasted sections of assorted emails and Word docs). I wouldn’t have touched the project either, except that Faye—well let’s just say she has a few things she can use as leverage. I tried suggesting she organise these notes into a document for me, but as far as she is concerned: “That’s an editor’s job, so what are you moaning about? It’s all written, it’s all there. I want you to edit it, so sort it out.” So I’m trying my best to do just that.

Because of Faye’s organic way of working and the resulting time I’ve had to spend organising, I’m more personally involved in, and less detached from, this project than I imagine most editors are from the projects they work on. By working on this it feels as though I’m giving my tacit approval to the contents. The problem is the contents are written by Faye, not by me. An editor’s role has many aspects, one of the most important being facilitator—helping the writer best achieve his or her vision. So my dilemma as shanghaied editor is, do I let Faye speak with her own voice and let her readers be offended, or do I negotiate a watering down of who she is on the page and disregard her right to freedom of speech?

For good or ill, I have chosen to allow Faye to express herself in her own way. She will offend (probably a lot), but she should at least get a reaction—even if it’s negative—and any reaction is better than none, right? Wish me luck. 

Have you ever been able to influence what someone said, and you were … concerned about the potential of a lynch mob if you didn’t hold them back? Did you let the axe fall where it will, or attempt to soften the blow? I’d be interested to know your thoughts… (Faye’s far too busy writing me nagging emails to comment).

 

**ADDITION – 05/06/12 **

To be honest, I thought that everyone was going to catch on to Faye being fictional after she was introduced for her first blog post – the comments after that gave me no indication to think otherwise. I expected people’s responses to this ‘editing’ post to be along the lines of,

“Yeah, yeah TJ – we’ve got you sussed,”

and then go on to comment about their experiences of editing and critiquing. I only put this post up because as I was re-reading and editing the piece I’d written as Faye, I found her voice in my head responding to the changes I was making. Mostly they consisted of her adamant refusal to change anything, and an her usual unrepentant and arrogant attitude toward her readers. That got me thinking about how I would handle someone with such a difficult personality in real life, and so I put up the post.

I honestly thought that the references to Faye’s fictional insistent emails and the non-existent paper-maze would just keep the theme going from her first post, and hopefully raise a reader’s knowing smile. In reality I’d never touch anything like that, or divulge email contents on my blog . I was surprised when I got advice on how to handle Faye, and it took me a while to realise that one or two were serious, and weren’t simply continuing the joke in their own way.

To anyone reading this: it was not my intention to dupe or mislead you – I assumed my ‘humour’ was obvious enough to be spotted coming from a mile away – but if you were in anyway offended by the attempt, then you have my apologies.

 

The full sordid story can be found here: http://thewordonthe.net/category/faye-ling-2/

 

 

 

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10 Comments

  1. I’m more in favor of an approach like this:

    1) Grammatical issues can be pointed out objectively

    2) Content and style issues are subjective

    For content and style, I think it’s better to identify problem areas and explain why you feel they don’t work. Or with questionable areas, ask what the writer was trying for, and if they explain and you can’t reconcile that with your own reaction, then be honest.

    But in any case, it will always be subjective and the writer owns the prose and is the final arbiter.

    So recommendations like, “I think this could be strengthened if…” or “This section is losing my interest because the pacing seems off…” or “I really feel this character could be better developed…” are all valid, but they’re one reader’s impressions no matter how qualified or experienced the reader may be.

    That’s why great works of literature and various bestsellers of prose-quality that range from great to not-so-great were famously rejected for very lucid reasons by very experienced and knowledgeable people in the industry:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/05/16/publishers-who-got-it-wrong_n_1520190.html?ref=uk-culture#s=977975

    And since Gatsby is being made into a film (I’ve never read the book, and doubt I’ll see them film): http://www.onehundredrejections.com/2010/07/famous-rejection-of-day.html

    “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” – Publisher rejection letter

    This one’s even funnier:

    http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/archive/permalink/the_steps_experiment/

    • I like your editing style – respect the work, and the writer. :-)

      Some of the links are surprising, but you’re right in that it does show the subjective nature of what makes a ‘good’ novel.

  2. Wow.. this certainly has given me a lot to think about.. this is one post I think I’ll be re-reading again!

    • Thanks Tamara. Swapping roles proved to be an interesting experience – the considerations are very different, but it does help to see a piece of work with fresh eyes.

  3. To be honest with you TJ if i have a problem with something I tend to soften the blow, point out what works and make suggestions to help the piece flow better. You can also include questions about why the character did x, y or z as you didn’t understand why they did.

    As has already mentioned, it suggestions about problems you’ve had. If a number of people looking at it have the same problems then its something that needs fixing but I would suggest that you let FL know that after putting it together as a Word Doc that she then “asks” others to read through it to check that they don’t have the same probs as you.

    • Sound advice Gareth, and the ‘normal’ way it’s done – canvassing several betas. Getting Faye to ask for anything is nigh on impossible, so I’ve taken on the roll of intermediary I am in the process of awaiting feedback from several brave and selfless souls as you read this. My heart goes out to them.

  4. I’ve come across a few pieces in my little editing and critiquing work that I really didn’t like, but it was a personal opinion and I let the writer know how I felt and why, making sure to use a lot of ‘I’ statements and explaining/accepting that it could just be my perspective that was off. I usually suggest they ask someone else to edit/crit it further.

    Then I go on to grammar, and plot, etc… and keep those notes professional and try to keep them from being personal.

    I think that if something offends you on a personal level and you know and can explain why, then let the other person know… maybe they didn’t see it that way or intend it that way and it might make them realize that their coming off sounding ‘preachy’ or ‘bitchy’ or something else unsavory.

    Honesty is hard but it has the best rewards!

    Great post – got me thinking!!!

    • Hi Heidi,

      Thanks for dropping by, and for the sensible advice. The relationship between writer and their critique partner / editor is a very strange one. Often all communication is done electronically, and you don’t know the other party personally (unless your writing group meets locally). I think your approach is possibly the only way to navigate the potential pitfalls, but it does depend on the maturity level of both parties. Knowing a little of myself and Faye, what do you think the chances are of us being able to implement your suggestions? I’d give us a little less than even… ;-)

  5. I don’t think an editors job is to compile notes into a working book, that’s the writer’s job. An editor’s role may be to juggle things around a bit later and make suggestions, but that’s really all they are, “suggestions” on how to edit the finished book. Emphasis on finished.

    I’d hand all of the notes, scraps of paper and napkins back to her and tell her you’ll be happy to be her editor when the book is in a working form. Organic research is fine, but she has to be the one to compile it into a functional book, not you, as it’ll be her name on the cover.

    As a side note, from the way she seems to work and talk to her editor, she’s the last person who should be giving tips on how to be a writer!

    As has been said, honesty is the best policy – if she’s going to insult her readers then tell her so and the choice is then for her to decide if she should keep or scrap that part. As I said earlier, an editor only suggests changes, they don’t re-write the work. Editor and writer work together to come to compromises on most things but the final say will always be with the writer because if they don’t want to change something, you can’t force them unless your name is also on the cover as co-author.

    • Hi Natalie,

      Thanks for some solid advice. I think anyone who has such a work ethic wouldn’t get past first base with any editor, and would have problems even getting a friend onboard to help – I think anyone who did would be worthy of the title of “co-author”. The bottom line is that we shouldn’t be pressured by anyone into doing anything, and honesty and assertiveness are the best responses.

      As you say about Faye’s attitude:

      “…from the way she seems to work and talk to her editor, she’s the last person who should be giving tips on how to be a writer!” Therein lies the irony.

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