Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A good editor

As I read more self-published e-books and blog about them I find myself almost invariably saying "a good editor" would have done this and that. Certainly in two books I read recently, The Essene Conspiracy and Petroplague, the novels could have been much better with the judicious intervention of a skilled editor.

Eric Wachtel needed substantial work in Essene showing and not telling, trimming out excessive detail, fleshing out characterization, keeping the plot on track -- a challenge for a good editor, but worth the effort since the author had a good idea, a fair plot and basic narrative skill.

Amy Rogers needed some trimming, especially in the opening chapter, and some help giving her essentially very good book a professional spit and polish.

It was in re-reading The Grand Mirage in proofs, however, that I appreciated once again what a skillful job Jerry Gross had done in his line edit. He X-ed out whole passages, trimmed adjectives, sharpened focus, drew attention to gaps, asked questions. I had reasonably good editors in my three previously published books -- and Dick Marek was equally outstanding with Gold -- but Jerry brought a real publishing house quality to my book.

This didn't come cheap because Jerry knows the value of his work. I was willing to pay the price because I wanted to have the best product to put forward to agents and publishers.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to a writers' conference -- which I haven't done very often and you're about to see why -- and had some pompous agent warn people off using "independent editors" or "book doctors." He had just finished saying authors need to make sure their manuscript is as finished as possible -- we're talking about fiction here -- before submitting even to agents like himself.

So I went up afterwards to ask him what he had against independent editors. "Well," he said, "you don't know whose work you're getting when an author uses a book doctor."

WTF?? Like you ever know whose work you're getting. And what does it matter? In a world where there is open speculation that Truman Capote, not Harper Lee, wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and Walker Percy, not John Kennedy O'Toole, wrote Confederacy of Dunces, or even that the Earl of Oxford, not William Shakespeare, wrote all those plays, what does it really matter at the end of the day?

"But, but," I said, "Jerry Gross edited my manuscript and I thought it was a good idea." Jerry was speaking at the same conference as this dufus. "Oh, I didn't mean somebody like Jerry Gross," he said quickly. "Jerry's a real pro." What he meant were those unscrupulous quickie publishers who offer to publish your work for free but want a big fee for "editing." Not exactly what he said.

Chalk it up to the schizophrenia that marks the publishing world today, even though this was a couple of years ago. It seemed to me then and now that engaging a good editor to go over your manuscript is just another good boost to get over the hurdle of finding a legacy publisher. In the new era of digital publishing, it can be an important component in bringing a truly readable book to the public.

I don't know if I'll be able to afford Jerry for my next novel. It probably depends on whether I can make any money self-publishing Mirage. But I know that Mirage is a much better book for his involvement, and that he will improve any text he lays his hands on.

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