Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Mid-Line-Edit Ramble on Line-Editing

I am thirty-five pages from the end of a first-draft line-edit of one of my amazing Spring 2012 novels, and I wanted to stop and put down some thoughts quickly about the work of editing, because they're thoughts I have every time I line-edit a book, but I never pause to write them out as I should. So here they are:

Line-edit:  The process of reading the manuscript line by line, word by word, and examining all of it for rightness and flow:  that these are the right words, the right thoughts, the right lines, and that they link up together in a way that coheres emotionally for the Imaginary Reader, that leads him or her clearly through the plot action and the protagonist's emotional development. The goal is as T. S. Eliot says: "where every word is at home, / Taking its place to support the others / . . . / The complete consort dancing together." I love line-editing, as it's the most intense kind of literary conversation possible: all the close-reading I did as an English major combined with the opportunity to say to the author "Did you mean this?" and "I felt that -- was that what you wanted?", the conversation between two people working for the same ends; and knowing, or at least hoping always, that I'm helping the author to make the book better, to make an even more amazing book happen.

The Imaginary Reader: This is the reader I am editing the book for. Sometimes this Imaginary Reader is me -- I didn't understand the link between this emotion or that one, or it makes no sense to me for this character to suddenly do this or say that, or some pronoun or thought isn't clear to me. But just as often the Imaginary Reader is someone else, someone who isn't as invested in the book as I am, who hasn't read the text before (as I have, so I know what's coming and why everything matters) and who won't read it three or four times over again (though I hope said reader will reread the book, the world is crowded with books crying out to us, and we should all be thankful for even one reading). And of course, as I'm a children's and YA book editor, I must remember the qualities of those Imaginary children and teenage readers versus my qualities as an adult reader -- if they have less attention span than I do or more, whether they'd want all that detail that bores me, if this vocabulary is too hard or too easy for the likely age of said reader, if they'll get the reference to "The Tempest" there (and if not, should we explain it somehow?), whether it matters whether they get the reference to "The Tempest" or whether they can just pass right over it, grow into it later.

It's important that the editor's view of the Imaginary Reader line up with the author's, at least in the large outlines; because otherwise the editor will suggest changes that the author finds utterly useless or stupid. I know I sometimes suggest changes designed to make the book accessible to as wide a swath of certain Imaginary Readers as possible, because goodness knows I'd like the book to sell to as many Imaginary Readers as possible! But a book that will appeal to every Imaginary Reader would probably turn out bland as romaine lettuce, and the certainness of those "certain Imaginary Readers" is important -- that the author and I should choose which Imaginary Readers are our primary audience (their reading level, their interests, their cultural references) and shape the book for them. But still, I can't help thinking it's good to have breadcrumbs for readers outside that swath. . . . This is something I think about, and wrestle with, every line-edit, leaving the ultimate decisions up to the authors each time.

(There is an entire interesting speech to be written about how each of us in the publishing process envision the Imaginary Reader, and how that affects the decisions we make at each stage:  writers, in what stories they choose to tell; editors, in what books they want to acquire; Acquisition committees and bookstore buyers, in what kind of books they think they can sell, and therefore the kind of books they take under their roofs; editors (again) in how they edit and write flap copy; book designers and marketers, in how they design jackets and form marketing plans to appeal to said Readers. And the supreme satisfaction when a book does find its perfect Imaginary Reader, or a perfect reader, period:  someone who gets it, who gives it a good review or recommends it to a friend or writes a letter saying "I read this and loved it:  Thank you." No sweeter moment for anyone in the process than that.)

The Process. I wrote "first-draft line-edit" above because I line-edit a book in three stages:  First I read it to get the whole in my head, how the plot progresses and the characters develop. I make notes on any big things that might need to change, especially any emotional angles that might need to be played out more in the plot. Then I do my first-draft word-by-word workthrough, careful and slow, writing comments (explanations of suggestions, compliments, questions) on some things as I go and in other cases just suggesting changes. I can be so laissez-faire comments-wise because I then do a second-draft readthrough to be sure all the suggestions make sense and feel good to me as a reader, and to address Inconsistent Editor issues below; and I fill in the rest of the comments then. Generally then I do one more sweep to pick up any outstanding questions or fill in notes on larger issues.

The Inconsistent Editor. This word-by-word examination takes a lot of time, as you might imagine, and thus most of my line-edits happen over a long period and in a wide variety of circumstances -- sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes on planes, or in the office, or (my favorite place) at home on one of my couches, with sparkling water or tea at my side. (Right now it's a glass of sparkling water.) What this ends up meaning is that I edit with varying attention spans and in a wide variety of moods:  Sometimes I am tired or stressed or grouchy and thus not reading with as much generosity or closeness as I should, and sometimes I'm as alert as a squirrel to every nut of nuance, with as much affection for the text and author as said squirrel might have for its winter stockpile. (This is a simile I would certainly question in a manuscript, but I'm leaving it in this blog post because it amuses me.) Thus I need those second- and third-draft runthroughs to be sure my authors are getting me at my best and squirreliest, with all evidence of less bright-eyed Cheryls safely smoothed away. 

Paper vs. Word. I used to line-edit exclusively on paper, and I loved that, as it made that conversation with the author tangible in the blackness of the print beneath my fingers, the scratch of my pencil on the page. But for the last year -- indeed, almost the last two -- all my line-edits have been in Track Changes in Microsoft Word. There are significant advantages to editing in Track Changes that are nearly identical to the advantages of reading e-books:  easier and neater to mark up (or to erase marks); less paper, which is better for the earth; less weight in my bag (except when I carry my laptop about); swift digital delivery; a search function, which is well-nigh invaluable in tracking repetitions or navigating a manuscript quickly. And the disadvantages are the same too: the loss of the pleasures of tangibility and weight and messiness; the fact that I can't edit during the takeoff and landing of a plane! My affection for editing print is now directed at going over the first-pass proofread text of the book a few stages further on, as that still happens on paper and always will (surely, pray God, I hope).

Handing the Baby Over. I'm always nervous giving a manuscript back to its author, because the author holds the final judgment on my work, because the author is the only one who will ever see my work; and I want very badly to have served him or her well, and more than that, to have served the book well . . . to have edited in line with their vision, or helped them to expand or redirect the vision, if needs be, and to be sure every word contributes to that. I usually feel good about my work when I send the line-edit off -- the satisfaction of a job done to the best of my ability, and completed at last; but I also hold my breath a little until the author writes and says "All's well, edits moving forward, I'll send it back to you at X date."

And then satisfaction when the revision comes back in of seeing the author's replies to my side of the conversation:  the clarity, the tightness, the one word there that makes all the difference. The pleasure of making a beautiful thing, and the pleasure of the work itself:  When I doubt myself or this business, I remember those; and as the song says, they can't take that away from me.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Two Pithy Poems about Existence

(One I have liked since high school, and have been feeling more as I've gotten older; the other discovered in reading a sample translation once, much enjoyed, and never forgotten.)

A Man Said to the Universe
by Stephen Crane

A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

by Polleke
(a character in Guus Kuijer's Polleke series)

When I see a cow,
Then I know that God exists.
But if I say so to the cow,
She starts to moo.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

In Which I Make Up for My Lameness with Cute Boys Singing

As far too many of my posts begin:  Apologies for the bloggy silence of late. I spent the last week traveling to Washington, D.C., for the Rally to Restore Sanity; Cape Girardeau, MO, to see my dear friend Katy (who some of you might recognize as the proper heroine of The Bad Mood Banana Cookies, now a terrific professor of history at Southeast Missouri State); home near Kansas City; Manhattan, Kansas, where I talked a lot and stayed at the marvelous Morning Star Bed and Breakfast (highly recommended); and then home again, where my family had a wonderful early Thanksgiving, and my Uncle John won the Frog for the first time ever. The trip marked the culmination of two intense writing projects I'd been laboring over for a while, including the second-pass proofs of Second Sight, and as a result, I've been taking off non-work writing for a bit. But I thought a lot during all the traveling, and I hope to have time and space to put some of those thoughts down soon.

Kidlit Drink Night on Thursday night the 11th, here in Brooklyn. Betsy has the details.

In the meantime, oh my glory! Handsome boys in uniform! Singing acapella! With a star who once played Harry Potter (unauthorized)! The look on Kurt's face! I LOVE this and can't wait to see tonight's episode: