December 7, 2010

The Independence of Editors: A Story

The first editorial letter I ever wrote, under Barbara’s supervision at the Author-Editor Clinic, was for a suspense novel. I saw two storylines. One was the story of a male protagonist, set in “the present” (early 2000s). I’ll call this protagonist Joe. The other story was that of Joe’s parents; it was set some 30 years earlier.

There were multiple points of view in the novel (not shifting POV, but perfectly well-handled third-person POV). Some scenes were set in the present. Some scenes were set in the past. Once, the reader spent 120 pages with Joe’s parents in the past before returning to find out what was happening with Joe in the present timeline.

Because chapter one was set in the present, and because the climax of the book was Joe’s confrontation with the villain of the piece, I decided -- and wrote to the author -- that Joe’s story was the primary story, and that Joe’s parents’ story was the secondary story.


In that particular editorial clinic, another editor was also editing this very same suspense novel. We read the manuscript separately. We discussed issues with each other and with Barbara. Then we each wrote our own letter to the author.

(“Then I wrote an editorial letter to the author…” Don’t I wish it were that easy.)

Afterward, I asked the other editor if she would be willing to swap letters so we could read and learn from each other’s approach.

(I do this a lot. I like to wring every last, painful ounce of learning from an experience.)

My colleague had written a stellar editorial letter. I remember admiring her prose, which was clear and direct and respectful. I remember being very happy to find that she and I had similar analyses of the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses.

She suggested that Joe’s parents’ story -- the story with the most tension, conflict, and emotion -- was the primary story, and Joe’s story was the secondary story.


Who was right?

I’ll tell you what I think.

There was an issue to do with structure and pacing and with the treatment of the two stories and two timelines. The only way I knew how to explain this to the author was to extrapolate. I made a choice – to prioritize Joe’s story – and wrote up examples using that framework as a way to describe opportunities for improvement.

But that wasn’t my choice to make.

I was thankful that the author of that suspense novel had received not only my letter, but my colleague’s letter as well. I think the two letters demonstrated that there was a structural issue with the two storylines, and that there were multiple ways to address it.

But most of my clients will get only one letter: mine. And now that I know each editor will have her own independent approach to a manuscript, I want to figure out how to turn my own perspective into something as useful as possible.

Many years ago, in freshman biology class, I learned that in science, observations and questions are more important than answers. I don’t know whether my friends who are scientists subscribe to this summary, but I’m thinking it might be a useful guideline for my editing: Explain observations and questions, not answers.

What do you think? What would you do?


  1. I edit nonfiction, not fiction, but I can't imagine bluntly telling an author what his or her primary story is.... That's up to the author to work out! But somehow one does have to convey that there is an ambiguity or problem the author needs to resolve.

  2. @Beth: Absolutely! I'd never say to an author "this is your story and this is what you should do." But I absolutely do say "this is the story I got when I read your ms., and if that's the story you want to develop, then here are some ideas for structure you might explore."

    @Kyra: Interesting conundrum. I mean, it's one thing to lay out a few different storylines you see and to choose one to explore most fully in discussions with the author. But what if, as an editor, I don't even see some of the options? Well, I guess the author would (A) think I'm an idiot or, hopefully, (B) use what I *didn't* see to have a conversation about what she really wants to say, and to enlist me in helping her do that.


  3. When I really believe an author should take a a certain course, I sometimes provide a bare-bones example of what that would look like, just so that he/she can see what I mean. But I always say, "This is just one idea," and that there is no requirement to use it.

    As a writer, examples such as that help me and I'm intersted in what an editor thinks. So if I were the client in Kyra's sample ms., and the editor had said to me, "I think you should choose one storyline to emphasize," my immediate response would have been, "Which one do you think is strongest?" In the end I would go with my own gut, but I like having another person's opinion.

  4. Nancy, your approach is what I've gone toward. So far all the comments are converging on something similar. I feel it's sometimes helpful to make a handful of suggestions, along the lines of "this is one idea" so if the author doesn't have any ideas yet, there's a basis for brainstorming. Often the writer will come up with much better ideas than mine, but if I've stimulated further thought, I've done my job.

  5. Thank you all for commenting, and with examples of what you like and practice!

    @Beth: That's exactly what I was trying to say, thank you! How to convey the ambiguity or issue without acting like I'm taking choices out of the author's hands.

    I actually went back and read that very first letter I wrote. I did in fact suggest Joe's story was the primary story. Wow. I think I would write the letter differently today.

    However, we did have the advantage of an in-person interview with the author, so at least I made the argument based on several things the author had said to us, as well as explained my text-based reasons. Here's one sample from the letter (with names changed, of course):

    "It is, most essentially, Joe's story. Or, as you said (and I paraphrase): the crime plot is a vehicle used to tell Joe's story. I like this approach a lot—a focus on the details of the plot movement and characters keeps the reader engaged and moving while the “soul” of the story settles in a more subtle way."

    @JVP: I agree with you--hearing from other editors in the Clinic has made it so obvious that I really don't always see all the options. Perhaps none of us on our own ever can. And I like your hope that the author will "(B) use what I *didn't* see to have a conversation about what she really wants to say, and to enlist me in helping her do that." Sometimes I write that hope into the letter, but it seems hard to know whether an author is or isn't capable of doing that, and pretty sure the author will have to sit through some reactions in any case. Somehow even though I think I get better at this as I do it more, I also still find it nerve-wracking, hoping the author will hear what I intended to say.

    @Nancy: Thank you for your perspective! I'm always so glad to hear from those of you who are writers as well as editors how you might take in an editor's ideas. So helpful.

    @Marta: I often have multiple possibilities in my head, and as you say, want to brainstorm with the author. Sometimes it becomes awkward if our interaction will be in a one-time editorial letter. As you said, I hope I will have "stimulated further thought," but unless there's ongoing interaction, I never quite know.

    Next post is about querying authors ... I hope you all will add to that conversation too!