The Writer’s Craft – The Glory of an Editor

(Silverdale, Washington; August 31, 2020) – Writing a book is a solitary endeavour. Publishing a book requires a team effort.

I spoke about this in my Aug. 17 column, “Teamwork” (https://sparks1524.com/2020/08/17/the-writers-craft-teamwork/). Publishing this blog on my own is one thing, but no one can successfully publish a book without help once the draft is complete.

Jerry, my friend and fellow retired chief petty officer, kindly agreed to act as editor for my forthcoming first novel, Proud Lion. Finding a good editor was critical as I will independently publish the book online. I would have an editor assigned to me if my manuscript had been picked up by a traditional publishing house, but I had to find my own since I’m doing this on my own.

Good editors possess a critical quality: they will tell you the unvarnished, inconvenient truth about how they see your work. I had my first meeting with Jerry last Friday to discuss Proud Lion. The book is hitting the fleet Sept. 20, so I’m actually behind the curve a bit. Unfortunately, when your editor breaks his lower leg into two rather gnarly pieces requiring surgery to repair, things get slowed down. Even so, I’ve known and worked closely with Jerry for many years. I know how fast he is, and how good he is. I finally got the first look at what he thinks of my fiction writing during our meeting.

He said I stink.

KIDDING!

Actually, he said the story is very entertaining, but, of course, the draft has issues. The funny thing is, I’m already aware of every problem he laid out! This pleases me on a personal level because it means I’m very self-aware about my strengths and, just as critically, my own weaknesses. Jerry’s comments confirmed my own judgment in how I look at myself and in my choice of the best person to edit me. This is another factor you must consider—can the person acting as editor understand how you think and communicate accordingly so you can achieve the heights you’re shooting for?

Jerry and I were both career Navy mass communication experts and taught together for several years. We both have finely tuned perspectives on what makes good writing, and what makes average writing. I can edit and guide other people, but, as discussed in my Aug. 17 column, my own brain is hard-wired to ignore any errors I commit since I know what I meant to write. Jerry’s hard-hitting red pen is exactly what I need to bypass my weaknesses in order to continue my own growth as a storyteller.

Jerry picked up on two specific problems. The first is a weave of semi-unrelated thoughts that seemed like spaghetti thrown on a wall. The second is a lack of passion; he felt like he had to dig to really feel the emotional core of the characters. I will deal with the second of these first.

I’ve been a working journalist for over 20 years. Perfecting my craft meant eliminating emotionalism from my writing. Despite what you often see on network “news” shows, a truly professional journalist works diligently to keep their opinion out of the story. Granted, true objectivity is not possible, but a true professional will work to subordinate their biases so the reader can make up their own minds.

Two decades of striving for the impossible star of objectivity worked. I can write a news or feature story that largely gives no hint of what I think while clearly showing my subject’s opinions and emotions. I have to start “unlearning” that a bit now so I can let the emotions of my fictional characters shine through. As with any task, I will gain skill with practice and with guidance from my editor.

The primary problem Jerry encountered, the stampede of barely-related thoughts, is actually a window into how my brain works. Many hyperintelligent people have the “Sherlock Holmes” problem, as I call it. We process information with great speed, often completing processing one thought and moving on before other people catch up. This can manifest in my writing as jumbled thoughts because my hands can’t keep up with my brain, leaving things unfinished on the page where they were complete, neat, and tidy in my head. Jerry and I will meet daily this week to go over each chapter in detail.

Interestingly, Jerry is reviewing the novel I wrote in the shortest amount of time. The three drafts for the subsequent “Accidental Detective” novels all took seven to ten months to write. Proud Lion came together in five months…sort of. Proud Lion was a late entry I only started last November when I realized this story was the best introduction to these characters. After a month of work, I felt the murder was boring. I scrapped over 50 pages and started over in December. The book he’s reviewing effectively came together in four months (half my usual time). That’s about as rough a draft as you can get. Jerry’s getting a raw look into how my brain works, but this means he can better advise me.

All writers must confront their own egos and insecurities. My ego is exceptionally healthy; it tells me I’m pretty much the greatest writer since the Bard himself. That supremely subjective opinion is, of course, not supported by objective evidence. I’m a human being, and I carry all the faults, foibles, and failings of my species, including the ability to convince myself of my own inherent greatness. I am man enough to admit hearing Jerry’s critiques stung my ego because, gosh darn it, he didn’t say I was perfect! How dare he?

Actually, my ego is not so much a threat as one might think. I was raised well; I was taught humility and perspective. My ego gave me the strength to strike out on this project and the confidence to put my work in the public eye. My greatest personal hurdle comes from a writer’s other nemesis: insecurity. You’re talking to a man with a rabid anxiety disorder. Anxiety breeds insecurities which can negate the confidence generated by one’s ego. Still, anxiety or not, the fact is there will always be someone criticizing us. Some criticism will be constructive, some will be malicious. No one can escape it. Therefore, a writer has two choices: forget everything, or take the risk. There’s no “safe” middle ground. Sometimes you just have to accept the insecurity, learn to live with it, and move on.

I’m my own boss now (a situation I’ve spent my entire adult life working to achieve!), so I have no editor over me with authority to tell me to make changes. Jerry will go over his ideas with me, but then I’ll have to decide whether to implement or skip each one. No matter how much work Jerry puts into editing, I’m the one ultimately responsible for what Proud Lion will look like once it’s published.

Once again, I’ll have to face my own insecurities, but, sometimes you just have to risk.

The glory of an editor is that you have a person willing to use their expertise and experience to help you succeed. This is a resource not to be taken lightly, so find an editor you trust. Lean on them. Let them help you polish your work. Writing a book is a solitary endeavour, but publishing a book requires an editor who will be professional, constructive, and, most of all, honest!

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sparks_photography/

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