Friday, June 20, 2008

Great Editorial Debate

Ever since the New Concepts Publishing came out and flatly stated that they do not do editing of contracted novels - because neither writers nor readers know any better regarding editorial instructions or the writing craft rules - there's been a "rippling" storm coursing through the yahoo group lists and many blogs. General questions that I've seen used in attacks and counter-attacks are:

  1. Do readers, especially of e-published novels, actually notice any lack of editing and/or do they catch any poorly crafted writing? And if they do - do they care?

  2. How many writers - e-published mostly but also pubbed by large New York presses - actually understand editorial requirements and instructions given as edits of their work?

  3. Has poor editing or lack of editing actually hurt author's sales? (of subsequently released new novels)

  4. What exactly does an author understand by “poor editing or lack of editing?”

  5. What exactly does a reader understand of the same conditions? And what does it mean to an editor?

Does any of the above matter - in the e-publishing or traditional pub-houses?

I'd like to hear any opinions or experiences from readers, writers and/or editors on the above questions. And here are my experiences - as a reader and author.

I've read many books by Koontz and Danielle Steele that were riddled with typos. Is this bad editing? Nah. Just some tired copy-editor's late night work. Did I forgive it? Yeah, I did. I've read trade paperbacks that started as e-print novels by some of the well-established e-publishers out there -- also riddled with typos. Did it 'swear' me off the writer's work? Nah.

But something else did.

Poor story flow. Lack of story structure. Rambling or stilted prose. Fragmented dialogue and blatant discontinuity. For example, some of the e-novels written in 1st person, offer comments and observations - in a sense making a promise to the reader to "I'll tell you later about this..." and never, ever do come back to the started story-thread. I've combed such trade paperbacks for just this one "clue-answer" that was promised on pg 11 and by pg 258 it still was not to be found.

Do pov-changes within a sequence or as may be the case in many stories, within a paragraph or couple of lines of dialogue, bother me as a reader? It's jarring. It's annoying and it's distracting to a degree where the reader wonders whether the author knows anything about his/her writing craft at all...but, hey, it's forgivable. One can actually LEARN to live with it - if the story's strong. If it flows. If it has believable dialogue. If it delivers on ALL its 'hidden' sentiments and promises. If it is otherwise written well.

But often it's the story that's delivered in such a convoluted, sloppy and nearly haphazard manner that as a reader, I confess to not being able to finish quite a few trade paperbacks that started very promising...very promising indeed.

And this is where the writing craft itself separates proof-readers from editors. Typo-free story is not necessarily a well-written story. An author who establishes e-pub business to promote his/her own work...along with works of others, is not necessarily a good editor - or even an editor - period.

Do I want another author editing my work?

That's the billion-dollar question today in the e-publishing industry. There are a few superb editors out there who later on settled into writing. Nancy Mehl is one of them. She helped me edit my first published novel, "The Cracked Shadow." She was an editor and taught creative writing for 30 years before she settled into writing her own novels. She is a superb editor and a great writer. How many e-publishers today actually have STAFF editors who have editing experience (never mind credentials) and do nothing but editing?

NCP has just owners who write. In a sense, they're doing their writers a huge favor by NOT even attempting to do edits. And their readership certainly doesn't seem to mind so...? I think NCP will survive quite nicely and continue doing what they've been doing all along - producing novels for which there is an established readership out there that either doesn't care, desn't know better or doesn't notice lack of editing. There are other e-pubs that do little (typo-only) or no editing - I won't mention them but they're doing fairly well too with their established readership.

And then there are publishers, e-and-print, who actually have "Howitzer-size" editors - big-guns. These folks really know what editorial process entails, how to apply it and what constitutes editorial improvements - not to be confused with editorial whims, edit-by-numbers, and silly, petty indulgence. These folks will pick up story disconformities lickety-quick. They will ask one question that will very often lead to the author having to re-write most if not the entire storyline - if the author wants the novel to see the light of electronic debut. These are the folks who will not contract a poorly-structured, poorly-executed novel and will see this from reading the first 5 pages of the story - first 5 pages that are totally typo-free. These are the folks who will INSIST on changing one sentence and when the beleaguered author finally gives in, he/she will see that the change actually streamlines the story's flow - ENTIRE STORY'S FLOW at that.

These are the folks who know their facts, know their history, know their social or political taboos and are quick to censor any offense in a manuscript. These are the folks who have ONE preferred manual of style for placement of commas and will stick to it - author would be wise to just accept the comma placement with a blanket acquiescence.

These are the folks who have actually READ every single page, every single line of your manuscript and you as an author can readily see this - because Microsoft and Bill Gates gave us "track-changes" tool.

These are the folks who actually pick-up on your characters' motivations, no matter how subtle, and, depending on the action, timing or surrounding events, will question these and you as an author better have a logical answer.

These are the folks who give you 3 months to "answer" 750 questions enclosed in ''comment" balloons that arrive with your 1st edit.

These are the folks who give you an additional month to repair what they still see amiss in 350 questions that arrive with your 2nd edit.

These are the folks who generally edit for a living and to them editing is a job - not "that proofing thing they do to writing before we can put it up on our site for sale."

As an author, I've been in all three categories - good edits, poor edits and no edits. Did it hurt my sales? I don't think so. Not with any of the pubs where my works appear. However, I definitely prefer to work with an editor who knows his job, even if time and experience has shown me that those works that are with a publisher who has no editorial staff whatsoever, aren't going to suffer that much. It's actually quite an exciting experience to work with an editor who takes your story and its characters to task, every step of their actions and motivations. Such true editorial application makes you a better writer - it challenges not only your creativity and imagination, but your knowledge of writing craft.

As a reader...well, that's a different story. I've spent a lot more time on reading excerpts of those e-published authors whose print books I bought to see whether there's been improvement. It made me smile when I saw it...but it wasn't too often. I wonder whether we approach 'reading novels' differently as authors and readers? Or whether I'm just an oddball.


    Cindy K. Green said...

    Great blog Edita. I have to say that I've had some great editors and some not so great ones. But each one truly did try to help me and my manuscript. I learned something new from them all. Taking advice and criticism from an editor has never been a problem for me as long as the editor 'got' me and my story. I believe in good editing and a house who can't provide that doesn't come across as a professional and legitimate part of the industry-in my opinion. Wishing all the best for you and your books. :)


    Edita A. Petrick said...

    Thanks for the comment, Cindy. I'd say you're an "exception" amongst writers who get to work with editors on their novels because of that one comment...<...each one truly did try to help me and my manuscript.> It's not just very kind but truly extraordinary to have this kind of outlook. I bet you're the type of person who always looks at a glass as "half-full," instead of half-empty.

    Many writers (and I belong to many critique and yahoo groups - have for years in some cases) feel the editor is 'ripping' their work and imposing his/her own fetishes upon it. That's actually true in about 20% of cases - the rest are as you said it - applying their skills, experience and knowledge to help what they accepted as an already good piece of work. My best to regards to you - Edita.

    Pauline B Jones said...

    I can't imagine NOT wanting an editor! We all need all the eyes we can get to look at our work.

    I have heard rumblings of even NY authors being told to hire an editor if they wanted/needed one. And read where big name authors "don't need" editing anymore. Evidence (sales) suggest they are right.

    I also recognize that there is a certain level of subjectiveness in the process. What one editor would change, another doesn't mind or notice.

    It's like everything else in this crazy business: shifting sand with all of us trying to find our feet.

    Edita A. Petrick said...

    You'd be surprised, Pauline, just how many authors do not want or dread even a slight editorial suggestion. And the ones I know are seemingly normal people, who'd give you a ton of advice but when it comes to their work it's...creation-unsurpassed and dare not touch kind of attitude.

    And yes, you're so right about rumblings in large NY publishing houses about accepting work from already established (their) writers ONLY if it has already seen rigorous editorial work - discussed this on one of my other workshop-loops a while back that has a couple of freelanc and one in-house NY editor - it's yet another means of traditional publishers doing another round of "slashing" employee ranks - because apparently that's the drive behind it. Thank you for your comment, Pauline and cheers - Edita.

    Windlegend said...

    I have never had one of my 50+ books go out without being edited. My husband has a degree in journalism and is a stickler for correct grammar use yet he's been 'caught' by one of my gung-ho editors putting commas where she didn't think they belonged and leaving them out where she thought they should be. You can use the spell check/grammar check in Word and nine times out of ten, she will disagree with what Word says is correct. My DH will look at the edits she sends back and growl.

    Once she sent back edits with a note that I needed to write up a compendium of my characters, organizations, etc. for one of my SF series. She said I had 'confused' the characters, organizations, etc. I was devasated. How could I have done that?

    I hadn't. She had confused them and upon being told she had, offered to come clean my cat litter boxes. :)

    Another editor I had screwed up the edits so badly I had to re-send the original to her from which to work. She apologized profusely, said she'd been on some 'strong' medication at the time but I had already lost respect and confidence in her long before that. One telling sentence she had written: "You need to learn your craft!" still jacks my jaws as my DH says. She apologized for that, too, by saying she had me confused with another author. Huh? How the heck do you do that?

    No author can edit his/her own work. You will miss stuff that is right there before your eyes. Your editor will miss stuff. Sometimes it's minor like the changing of eye color but when you get a nationally-known, award-winning author like Stuart Woods who gives his most famous character a male child in one novel then in the very next novel changes the sex to female, you have to wonder what kind of meds THAT editor was on to let something like that slip past. authors...are human and they are going to make mistakes. The trouble is: their mistakes are still credited to the author because it's the author's name on the book. How many people look to see who the editor was? Does the average reader care? I seriously doubt it.

    Readers read to be entertained. They don't read to look for errors and they are very forgiving when it comes to finding them. I still read Koontz even though he had a fast foot restaurant in one book. I read Woods even though he has an ambiguous offspring. I read a lot of well-known authors who have glaring mistakes on the page and I really don't care. As long as the story holds my interest they can do most anything.

    Edita A. Petrick said...

    Charlee I really love the sound of that name - no sarcasm intended. I actually do.
    But you're right about lenience and forgiveness when it comes to some authors' work - yep, I forgive Koontz for many, many typos and I try to forget I have a sister-in-law who is a voracious reader but always, ALWAYS reads with a yellow or green hi-liter. When she finishes reading a book - we're talking fiction here, good readers - that book has many pages adorned with yellow markings. Yep, she hi-lites all the places with glaring typos and the woman misses nothing. Thanks, Charlee, for taking time to leave a comment. Edita.

    Margaret Tanner said...

    Hi Edita,
    I enjoyed your article and agree with every point you made except the typos one. Typos really annoy me because they are so easily fixed.It is not only e-books that are full of typos, I have read several Harlequin books that have had several blatant mistakes in them, and I am not talking about their new authors, either.
    My only other gripe is historical inaccuracies. Being a historical romance writer, that really burns me up, because I consider it to be sheer laziness on the writers part, because they didn't check their facts properly.
    Just my take on things.
    Margaret Tanner.

    Amanda Burns said...

    Great blog Edita. Maybe I'm too picky as a reader - I have a hard time forgiving multiple typos, or sudden name changes, or too many p.o.v. shifts. I've never seen a book without a typo somewhere, but I expect them to be few and far between.

    Editors? I love excellent editors. You're so right - they make our voices as authors sing even better. I'm working with one now that I'd love to bottle and keep forever - wish she could peek over my shoulder as I'm writing, and I'm learning lots from her.

    So yes, I want my work edited. I send in very clean copy and lose count of how many rounds my manuscripts go through before I ever send them off. What I love is that suggestion or turn of phrase that makes a passage just that much better.

    My advice? If you find a house that offers you that kind of editing, stick with it!


    Edita A. Petrick said...

    Thank you for commenting, Margaret. Every two or three months I "swear-off" Harlequins and then...I find myself sitting in a company lunch room and there's a Harlequin that someone brought and...I fall off the wagon. But, since I tend to speed-read them, I race over the typos so in a sense they've grown transparent for me.

    I know exactly what you mean about historical accuracy. I remember reading a historical novel once where the writer used a painting by an artist who wasn't going to be born for another hundred or so years. And I only clued into it because one of my offspring was doing an art project in school and while helping him, I came across the said name of the painting...cheers and thank you again. Edita.

    BarbaraK said...

    All of my epublishers edit.
    I love the editing process because it allows me to go over my manuscripts with a fine tooth comb and polish all the rough edges off my stories.

    When I'm working with an editor, I can add new material and delete redundant and unnecessary material.

    Editing and proofreading is the mark of a professional publisher in my opinion. And yes, readers notice mistakes.

    Of course, as an author, it's my responsibility to take the time to read over all the edits, insert my comments and suggested changes and let the editors know if I agree or disagree with their changes.

    I don't do a blank acceptance of all edits. Open communication is a vital element of the editing process because editors make mistakes too.

    Cheryl Wright said...

    I'm finding it truly difficult to believe there are epublishers (or any publishers for that matter) who do no editing whatsoever.

    As an editor myself, I know the difference it can make to an author's work to have his/her work edited.

    As an author, I am grateful when the editor picks up any typos that have slipped through the net, or niggling little changes that have erroneously occurred. I also welcome the opportunity to strengthen my work through the availability of a good editor.

    It's beyond me why anyone would not feel the same way.

    Of course there are authors who believe their work is perfect and needs no alteration whatsoever. I guess the publisher you mentioned would suit them perfectly.