Where have all the editors gone?

Traditional publishing has gone belly up. Publishing professionals are either jumping ship or switching fishbowls. Agents are becoming editors, editors are becoming publishers and publishers are become print shops. As for writers ––they are all out of the water, flapping all over the place.  It’s sink or swim. Many writers cling to social media rafts made of tiny twigs and end up losing their moorings altogether.  A few clever ones have built for themselves massive floating devices. The self publishing sharks are out. There’s lots of jumping fish, plenty to be had. Everybody is writing a book these days. Even my UPS man.

I feel like Kate Winslett in the last scene of the Titanic. I see the last two good editors rowing by in the far distance. Their flashlights arc over the frozen water full of corpses. “Is anybody out there?” they call. They don’t see me. I cling to the broken hull and call out in my cracked and feeble voice “Come back, come back.” ( If you want to relive this tear-jerking scene from the Titanic, click on the You-tube clip HERE).

Alright, maybe I am being overly dramatic, but it’s still depressing.

EDITORS COME BACK! Don’t leave writers stranded! The world needs good books. There are serious readers out there, not just nibbling piranhas looking for 99 cent ebook treats. And not all readers like short-short white-knuckled fiction. Good literature was meant to be savored. Not gobbled in between tweets.

We writers need bodyguards. We need advocates. We need curators. We need endorsement, and validation: someone to believe in and someone who believes in us. Our Facebook fans can buoy us along but they can’t keep us afloat. Because good books–– really, really good books–– are not born, they are created: word by painstaking word. Agents and editors put their reputation on the line when they take on a debut author. In the hands of a true and worthy publishing professional, a dingy of a novel can become a mighty sailing vessel. But of course the dingy has to to be certified sea worthy first. The stakes are high. And no writer (and I don’t care how accomplished and brilliant you are) can wing it on his own. If you think you can, good luck. But it aint me, babe.

Here are two cases in point:

Harper Lee did not pop out To Kill a Mockingbird like an unblemished and perfectly formed golden egg. Far from it.  Charles J. Shields in his book Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee describes Lee’s lengthy and rather bumpy journey toward publication. Here is what he says:

“I guess I had these romantic notion that Nelle (Lee’s real name)  frantically typed her book in the in between times of life, full of the muse. I see her type the last word, smile, and then march the streets of Manhattan, perfect manuscript in hand, and hand it to her publisher, J. B. Lippincott. I see the publisher ooing and ahhing, the editor saying things like,

Harper Lee’s letter to her agent touches on the depressing state of publishing even in her time. Here it is FROM LETTERS OF NOTE

“Well, I added a few commas, but this thing is beautiful!”

The manuscript when handed in was more of “a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. The characters were three-dimensional but the novel lacked structure. The original title was Go Set a Watchman, followed by Atticus (both crappy titles in my opinion) Only toward the end did the title To Kill a Mockingbird evolve organically during the editing process.

According to Lee’s editor, “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity–a beginning, middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning.”  At one point during the revisions, Lee got so stressed out that she tossed her entire manuscript out the window!(I know that feeling only too well––I’ve been there too.). The world may have never seen Mockingbird if Lee’s editor did not make her go outside and retrieve every single page.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner was another diamond in the rough. As first drafted, the novel was far from perfect, but it drew the attention of several New York editors, including Cindy Spiegel, co-publisher of Riverhead, a division of the Penguin Group USA. “The truth is it needed work,” Ms. Spiegel said. “I think that is why other people were less bullish. The last third of the book had to be rewritten.” (You can read the complete New York Times article HERE). The Kite Runner was completely restructured during the editing process.

What does this prove? If Khaled Hosseini and Harper Lee were diamonds in the rough, well, there is hope for me yet.

HERE IS AN EXTRACT FROM AN EXCELLENT POST- an anonymous letter to Editors by a group of successful traditionally published authors on M.J. Rose’s blog, Buzz Balls and Hype.

PLEASE EDIT MY BOOK. Even if you know it will sell and get reviewed because of my name and my previous books, even though you recognize the many good qualities in the manuscript I have turned in, if you think it needs a serious revision, please, please, ask me to do it…Please do not let me go out in public this time with my slip showing and parsley on my tooth…And while we are on the subject, please employ a copy editor who understands the basic rules of grammar and has a working knowledge of the subject of the book sufficient to make useful and necessary changes in the manuscript instead of adding egregious errors while omitting to find crucial mistakes and typos. I love our nice expense account lunches, and I love you, but above all, I really, really want you to edit my book.

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Teatime for the Firefly is my debut novel. Here is  the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER.  I am represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

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Rough riding my first draft

Shona aged four

This is probably what I looked and felt like when I started writing three years ago. I was winging my first draft, super cocky, ready to dazzle the world. Nobody told me my glasses were too big. Nobody told me I had a bad haircut. I furiously jotted ideas in an expensive leather notebook. Brilliant lines flashed though my head while driving to the grocery stone. I took writerly walks like Stephen King: so writerly, I refused to even let my husband come along. Now, when I look back I see a small girl with big glasses driving a monster truck. I was hurtling down unpaved roads, veering dangerously close to the drop off. My story meandered willy-nilly and often went into some very foggy woods. But did I care care? Hell no! I was a writer!

What happened?

I wandered into Rob Halls’ writing class. I had heard about Rob’s class from another writer. It was difficult to get in. Students pre-registered even before the semester was over. I put my name down on the waiting list and got called one day before the class started. I was in! I found myself in a writing group of 12-16 writers. Mixed ages, no specific genre. There were no prerequisites for the class but all writers had to have a full-length novel in progress. We met once a week at the Community College and critiqued each other’s writing while Rob moderated in his wry, funny way, and made sure nobody got fatally wounded. I was the disruptive one. An unbroken mustang: no critiques had ever reined me in.

Rob Hall never cut with his sword, he always pointed. This was his first gentle critique:

“There is some really good writing in this chapter. You have a particular strength with similes that create, new relevant images for the reader. Clearly, you have the skills. That being said, I don’t know where we are going or what the story is about.”

My fellow writers all had the same complaint. My writing was like pretty leaves scattered on the ground. Nobody saw the magnificent tree in my head. There were no interconnecting branches, no main trunk.

Rob explained things simply but he was never patronizing. Here is another critique:

The things I remember most about this scene is her toe worrying the paint on the verandah and her father lacing his boots. Why is that? You forced me to see those things. In a screenplay those close-up images would be called “insets.” I call the scene truncated because you never finish it. The father stands up and gets his pipe and tin of tobacco. Does he ever pack the pipe with tobacco? Does he ask his daughter what she is going to do with the rest of her day? Do they go down to breakfast together? We don’t know. You have the talent to write well and create images that are fresh and artistic, but I am a bit lost as to what is going on or what to expect when I turn the page to the next chapter. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

Then he got tougher. This time it was a hug followed by a couple of smacks and a final hug.

Your writing is so lyrical and imagistic that I’m crazy for it: until to get to dialogue, and then it’s atrocious. It seems as if a beam came down from somewhere and stole your grammar, absconded with your Tab key (sometimes) struck you dumb about keeping commas and periods INSIDE double quotation marks, and then impishly snatched away some of your terminal punctuation when you went to get a cup of tea. Then, when we return to the narrative, your writing is again beautiful and lyrical. Are you being possessed? Jekyl and Hyde? The words in the dialogue are good. You simply need to get command of the structure. It’s actually the easiest thing to do in fiction. Make it a habit to write correct dialogue. I really like your writing and your characters. You have talent, girl. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

I have to admit, I was not entirely clueless about grammar: I was just too damn lazy. Plus I had a crappy attitude:  I believed punctuation was for librarians and school teachers and not talented writers like me (why hadn’t Rob Hall told me himself?) I did not want to be bothered with those pesky little things. When I refused to toe the line,  Rob Hall just let me have it.

“What is this stuff”. What is that period hanging outside the double quotation marks for? “It is supposed to be like this.” Always.

And what – is this thing? This hypen hanging out in the wind? I suspect you think that it is a dash–but this is a dash. A dash is two hypens with no spaces within a mile of themdo you see?

And again, what is this…three squeezed periods? An Ellipses is presented  . . .  like this in a manuscript. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

He always ended with.“Good luck and keep writing.” It was those five little words (plus the hugs and smacks) that kept me going.

This writing class forced me off the dirt track on to the highway. I began to understand road signs and steer my story towards a clear destination. I learned about plot, narrative arc and pacing. Oh, how I hated structure! All I wanted was to step on the gas and drive like Rambo over potholes.

I have been told I am a good story teller. I can make people laugh, cry, think and wonder. I never thought I would need anything else to be a good writer. But I had much to learn and Rob Hall’s class was only the beginning.

Shona Patel’s debut novel Teatime for the Firefly is a love story set in a tea plantation in Assam. You can read more about it HERE.  She is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

My Writing Bibles

STEPHEN KING On Writing I have never read Stephen King, but I love this book. Read it several times. It really helped ground me in the writing process. King does not bullshit. He comes from the school of hard knocks. He can be so damn funny – like side-splitting funny! Who would have thought! I expected him to be a morose and gloomy character. No way!

FRANCINE PROSE Reading like a Writer: This book helped me develop a discerning eye for reading. It does somewhat spoil the joy of just losing yourself in a story but eventually you get beyond that. It is great way to understand the stuff good writing is made of. It’s humbling and inspiring at the same time.

ANNE LAMOTT Bird by Bird: A joyous and hilarious read,  full of warm humanity. This book taught me not to take myself too seriously: not to get “too sexy for my shirt”. When writers become prima donnas, they are no longer any fun. Read the chapter on “Jealousy”. If you as a writer have not felt this way one time or another – you are a saint!

What books have helped you develop your craft  or shaped your philosophy as a writer? Please share!