There I was in Art 101: Basic Drawing and Perspective, hunched over my easel, my pencil making little rat-like scrabbling noises as I concentrated on replicating the assignment: sketching an art model of the human form on blank white paper. I never saw him coming. But suddenly the professor was towering over me, casting an ominous, deepening shadow.
“The head is too big,” he said. And then to my horror, gum eraser in his hand, he set about eradicating my drawing, and as quickly he replaced my pencil lines with his. I sat frozen like a deer in the headlights, bargaining my soul for the end of class. It was the beginning of the end of my art career.
I am thinking that this is somehow tragic, although only a therapist would know for sure. I had been plucked out of classes since elementary school by teachers who saw a talent that they thought my parents should be made aware of. My earliest memories involve crayons: drawing with crayons, making log cabin houses with crayons, melting crayons and my sister feeding me crayons (although I probably would have eaten them on my own). Being an artist was what I wanted to do as a child. Art lessons followed, ability grew, only to be interrupted by Real Life. Before long, it was clear that the artistic disconnect could only be remedied by a return to college for “proper” instruction. Well. We see how that went.
Fortunately, I am a lot more mentally tough as a writer. I don’t care if you think the head is too big. Unless you are an editor, my liking it is sufficient. Pick up an eraser and you might lose an arm; trust me. I have monsters and they are not afraid to devour flesh.
So how does one transform from a human ruin into someone who can take constructive criticism, and how far should editing go when it comes to writing? The quick answers are: suck it up, and editing should go as far as it needs to. For one thing, there is a crucial difference between writing and art. If Fine Art is your thing, you generally have only one working copy, and if Mr. Eraser-Hand comes along, everything you see in your mind’s eye is at risk. But in writing (hallelujah!) there are drafts. Many, many drafts. Revision is the salvation of the writer’s soul and no amount of editing is irreversible. That is important mentally, because it allows a writer to let go; the criticism isn’t some permanent scar that destroys the forward movement of the muse. A writer can try on hats and keep the one that fits.
Writing is like mental illness. You are too close to the problem to see the problem. We need editors because writing is never a static process; the learning is infinite if the mind is open, and if the mind is not, the muse is the mad woman in the attic.
Writers get caught up in the alternate universe of invention. Words flow like honey, the birds sing sweetly …All in a lovely continuous loop. Everything seems utopian and Perfect. If we tried something new and different, or if it is for a favorite professor or dedicated to your BFF, it may seem even More Perfect. The editor is the voice of reason, even when reason takes the fun out of it. The editor points out the flaws and the little embarrassments, telling us how to fix the problems that threaten to capture a reader’s attention like a great, oozing eye. The editor is telling the writer that what they found is a distraction… a literary car accident on the turnpike of your novel. Do you really want gawkers? Or do you want the reader to stay with the narrative – the flow and pace of the story where prose drips as from the mouths of angels?
A writer does not have to accept the editor’s suggestions, but to not do so carries consequence that one should be comfortable with… because if you are a writer you have exactly two choices: to be the aesthetic author whose novel is the proverbial Tree In The Forest that may or may not someday make a sound; or you can pursue publication.
Publishing is a business, not a moral imperative. With a bottom line like profit, a writer has to assume that there will be some deep personality makeovers going on in the final work and all in the name of marketability. Editors have a hard-won instinct for what warrants signed contracts and what fickle readers might spend limited expendable income on. They are a lot like cops; they learn to do a quick-read of a manuscript and assess both risk and the probable range of potential all based on what is right in front of them. They are not infallible, but they are required to make quick judgments in a hectic environment. So if the writing before them is perceived to be fatally flawed, the writer needs to take an objective position and consider that all might not be well in Paradise. The editor might be right.
Jessica Page Morrell states in her book Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected (2009, Tarcher Penguin) that part of successful writing is unlearning what you think you already know. This is a piece of advice that cuts to the bone because as writers, we are an opinionated lot. We’ve spent our lives developing theories and strategies. Frequently, we’ve been self-taught in the area of fiction. It’s hard to accept that our best guesses may be totally wrong. But we are not inside the industry. Most of us have never professionally edited or proofread other peoples’ writing. We don’t know what is being analyzed and what is being looked for. We don’t know why we are being judged beyond the quality of a good story concept. Worse, we are inclined to take criticism personally and to blame the messenger, when we need to critically look at the rhetorical value of what is being said – to possibly unlearn something we thought was Pure Gold.
Frequently, the problem is that we don’t really know what an editor does. We suppose what an editor does, and unless it is some version of throwing a ticker tape parade for the pure brilliance of our manuscript, we know it’s going to hurt. What kind of sadist, we wonder, becomes an editor? Answer: the kind that works well with masochistic, insecure, or paranoid writers. Editors are a curious breed; they love the written word. They love the mechanics of language. They love literature and words like “narrative,” “backstory” and “arc.” They talk in terms of “cohesiveness” “structure” and “plot.” They communicate in secretive symbolic language called “mark-up” and worry about every detail from the name of a character to spacing and typography errors. Worst of all, they work for Them.
This is why there has been an active effort in recent years to better cultivate successful and productive working relationships between editors and writers from the editorial side. An example of this in print is The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) by Carol Fisher Saller (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing, 2009, University of Chicago Press). From Technical Editors and Newsroom Editors to Book Editors and those in charge of contests, there is an increasing awareness of the sensitive nature of negotiation. Editors receive considerable training – whether it is in the classroom, the board room, or on the job – in the psychology of criticism, honing the tools of diplomacy to best extract desired changes where suggestions have been made. They are not trying to crush creativity, but to fulfill a standard. When the two conflict, there needs to be civil discourse because editors are trying to get you polished and published. There needs to be a meeting of the minds and mutual respect of egos if goals are to be met. Editorial feedback is not only crucial to the process, but it has advantages over the lack thereof.
Many writers know what it is to have their work “disappear” into the dreaded Void of Judgment. We submit; we never hear back. Was it bad, we wonder, was it that bad? Or was the competition just that much better? Am I at least on track? Are my mistakes major or minor? Should I quit and join the Peace Corps? Did you get my manuscript? Is anyone out there?
With the decreasing amount of publishers, the laying off of so many really talented editors across the print industry, and an ever increasing amount of people who think or know or hope that they can write, the submit-and-response thing is largely a problem of logistics. It’s rough and maybe even unfair that one can spend so much of one’s time shaping stories from nothing and never know if it is a labor of delusion. But that is why a writer should never take an editorial response as a Bad Thing, even if the response is ultimately a rejection. A response is information, a sign of life. Listen to what is being said. Editing should go as far as it needs to.
Growth as a writer is about stretching the muscles and taking chances. No one ever said it would be easy. Develop that tougher hide for an eraser-filled world and prepare to do what has to be done to learn everything you can about writing. Editing – when it happens – needs to be seen as the blessing it is. It means you have someone on your team asking you to reach a little higher. Take it all in. Negotiate for what you think is important, and know when to set ego aside and try on hats. If it gets you published and makes you look great when your Mom buys a copy, who cares if the first head you drew was too big?