In addition to her work as a script coverage consultant in the film industry, Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 100 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine articles that appear regularly throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her upcoming book, WHERE THE PLOTS ARE, will soon be released. For more information, drop her an email.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month: HOW TO ENDEAR YOURSELF TO THE EDITING DEPARTMENTBack in the Dark Ages (or "pre-Internet," as my nephew Eugene calls it), my first paying job was as a movie and theater critic for a weekly newspaper in Northern California. Granted, my paltry salary wasn't enough for me to even live in a box under a bridge but it was a quarter-page a week plus a byline.
I was in heaven.
I also had what is probably every writer's vision of a perfect editor -- an affable, middle-aged guy who looked like Roger Ebert, loved everything I wrote and, in two years, never changed so much as a comma. Combine this with the fact that this was in the days when I turned in copy that had been composed on a Royal Electric and which was then painstakingly typeset every Wednesday eve by a team who resembled Simpsons caricatures and wore green visors and canvas aprons.
Though at 19 I had yet to foray into writing novels, I assumed -- as do many newbies -- that books emerge full-blown as if from the head of Zeus and are always perfect. Who knew that editors actually did any work to make that miracle happen, having been spoiled by one whose primary job seemed to be just to show up and make coffee.
Selling one's words to a publisher and seeing them in print is a heady experience for any aspiring author. It not only validates the time and talent you have invested in your craft but presents an invitation to write more of the same and submit that, too. Whether you're on the verge of your first sale or are an old hand at this, the following tips will help both of you and your editor(s) get the most out of a professional working relationship.
KNOWING WHAT YOUR ROLES ARE
Bringing a new story into the world has often been compared to giving birth. I have yet to see any analogies, however, that properly label one's editor as the Lamaze coach. This is the person who prepares you for what to expect, makes suggestions on what to call the little tyke, mops your brow, encourages you to hang in there and tells you to push a smidge harder. And all the time, you -- the author -- are gnashing your teeth and wishing they'd just shut the hell up, get you some drugs, and go away until it's all over.
Truth be told, of course, you may have been the one to conceive the idea but, when it comes to the actual delivery, it helps to have a professional in your corner who has done this before.
An editor is, concurrently, your best dream come true and your most horrible nightmare imaginable. What he or she is not, however, is your best friend or worst enemy. This is a challenging perspective to maintain, especially on days when you perceive that this person is totally destroying every last angstrom of wit and brilliance in your manuscript. There will also be occasions when you want to call him or her up just to chit-chat over lattes or to blubber that your hamster died or that your wife has been sleeping with the cabana boy.
As intimately involved as an editor is with your talent, that doesn't automatically translate to an up close and personal relationship with you. While it's certainly possible for friendships to evolve over the course of two people working together, the priority and focus for both of you needs to be on the quality of the work product.
Contrary to popular belief, it's never your editor's secret quest to purposely wreck your manuscript or article with sloppy substitutions, inexplicable cuts, or mind-numbingly stupid recommendations. Since his or her boss has already given the go-ahead for your work to get produced, the last thing an editor wants to do is turn it into schlock that will reflect badly on the publisher.
That's not to say, of course, that an editor's judgment is always flawless or that they all walk on water. The publishing industry -- just like any other business -- is not immune to idiots walking in the door and getting jobs. I recall my own disenchantment when I was assigned to one who had roughly the IQ of paste. Not only did she routinely delete critical clues from my romantic suspense novels but would then come back and ask me to explain how, exactly, the crimes had been committed. On a funnier note, this is the same person who told me that my one of my sizzling chapters was "too hot" and had to be toned down, yet failed to recognize the same sensual verbiage when I changed the lead pair's names and stuck the whole thing into a different book 8 months later.
If an editor is good, there's much that can be learned from the experience of working together. If they're not that swift, at least they can be counted on to provide you with plenty of entertaining anecdotes for cocktail parties.
KNOWING WHAT IS EXPECTED OF YOU
Your editor has just given you the instructions to "pump up" your submission. While he or she may know exactly what this kind of obscure direction means, you're probably clueless. Does it mean you need to increase the word count? Use more eloquent words? Give the reader more examples? Add graphics and illustrations to support your points?
If you're not clear on what you're supposed to do, this isn't the time to fake it. Good two-way communication is essential in order for you to make the revisions that will allow your material to resonate with its target audience. Ask for specific examples of what is needed and use this hands-on writing lesson as an opportunity to improve your craft.
If this is a trade magazine or publishing house that you want to sell more ideas to in the future, treat any feedback as free advice on their editorial style, formatting preferences and demographic focus. By paying close attention to the type of changes being asked for, this will save both you and your editor valuable editing time on subsequent submissions.
KNOWING YOUR DEADLINES
When you started writing your article, script or full length book, you probably weren't under any particular crunch to finish it. Now that someone wants to buy it, however, you'll be working under a pesky think called deadlines to get it ready for its debut.
Once the decision was made to accept your work, the editors will have assigned a slot for it on their production calendar. Accordingly, they issue deadlines by which the revisions need to be turned in. If you want to endear yourself to the editing department and your publisher, try to set a personal deadline for yourself that is at least a few days earlier than whatever date you've been given. Make a game of it. Reward yourself with hot fudge sundaes when you “beat the clock”.
It's an absolute must to keep your editor informed if you can't meet the requested timeframe...and this doesn't mean calling in on the day that it's due and saying you haven't even started it yet. In the case of magazines, for instance, they have already allocated X amount of space for your material. If you aren’t able to deliver as promised, this creates a gaping hole that then has .to be hastily plugged with a last-minute filler or paid advertising.
Unless the circumstances for your non-delivery are really extenuating (death or earthquakes come to mind as plausible), you probably won’t be given future chances to write for this publisher again. Don’t risk it by being a flake.
KNOWING WHEN TO SAY "NO"
The good news is that your editor at ROMANCES R US totally adored your latest novel. The bad news is that she thinks the name of Bernice just isn't a heroine moniker that readers of this genre will warm up to. She not only makes some suggestions of female names she thinks would be more appealing to your target market but encourages you to toss in a few as well. Do you immediately dig in your heels and insist that it has to be Bernice? Or do you accept that she probably knows the romance market better than you do and that good ol’ Bernice just isn't going to work?
In negotiating with an editor, you need to recognize which battles are worth fighting and which ones should be left by the wayside. By and large, the intent of editors isn't to rewrite the whole book in their own voice but to provide enough nudging for you to make the necessary changes yourself. Even in those instances where deadlines require that editors rework the material themselves, you’ll still get the chance to read the results before it goes to print. In the event your remarks have been misconstrued, you'll be able to speak up and request that they be fixed.
We are all fiercely possessive of our words and get torqued whenever someone suggests that maybe a different phrasing might be more pleasing. In picking your semantics battles, always ask whether the editor's revisions are significantly changing the context of your message. Does it really matter, for example, if your heroine wears a red dress or a yellow one? Does the deletion of an amusing anecdote in a how-to article diminish a reader's ability to figure out how to make a macramé lampshade? Keep in mind that if you nitpick over all of the minutia, it lessens the clout you will have on more serious issues regarding how the material should read.
For those areas you do feel adamant about, it's important to discuss them with your editor and try to reach a compromise that will keep both of you happy. It’s never advisable to go over your editor's head if you don't like the way things are turning out. The bottom line is that the publisher or magazine owner has entrusted duties to the editor based on expertise and familiarity with the company's commercial vision. Unless you’re a major force to be reckoned with (i.e. Stephen King or Danielle Steele), the incentive to keep you happy isn't as high as you’d like to think it is. While your editor's boss may be amenable to looking into the situation (for example, your editor keeps injecting political commentary into the text that you find disturbing), don't count on such intervention to bode well in any continued relationship you may have with the person originally assigned to your work.
It also goes without saying that maybe your only recourse will ultimately be to give them their advance check back and withdraw the material from publication. Be sure to review your contract thoroughly and, if necessary, talk to a legal professional before taking any steps that could jeopardize your reputation.
KNOWING ENOUGH TO SAY THANK YOU
Being an editor is a thankless job, especially when so many authors ascribe to the belief that "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Although many editors have writing projects and publishing credits of their own, they have nevertheless chosen a profession whereby most of their daytime energy is spent making others look fabulous. They also do this with the awareness that most of their authors will take all the praise for the finished product and deny having ever had any help with it.
Even if your experience with an editor has been somewhat hellacious, it's no excuse not to thank them for the time they have put into it. Because thank you's are so rare in this business, the gesture will distinguish you as a class act. Regardless of your personal feelings toward an editor, it’s important to make your closing impression a positive one.
KNOWING HOW TO KEEP YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR
Editors love authors who aren't just one-hit wonders. Why? Because they like to believe that all that time they spent polishing an article or a book will be favorably reflected in the author's subsequent submissions and require less rewrites on both sides. As your project nears completion, now is the time to dazzle them with new ideas and ask for your editor's feedback on whether they’re a good fit.
The advantage to you is that you'll get the inside scoop on what the company is looking for and how you can best tailor your material to fit into that framework. The advantage to your editor is that he or she can go to the publisher with fresh stories that haven't previously been shopped all over town. When the go-ahead is given on one of these proposals, both of you benefit from it, solidifying what can become a successful and long-term liaison.
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Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and professional script coverage consultant whose credits include 17 books, 110 plays and musicals, 3 optioned films, and columns that appear throughout the world. For additional background information, visit her website at www.absolutwrite.com/site/christina.htm