Ho-Hum, I’ve Got the Editing Blues

As a young teacher I had a sign above my blackboard (back in the day when we still used chalk!) that said

                                     Class Rules:

                     1. The teacher is always right.

                     2. If the teacher is wrong, see rule #1.

The kids never really knew how to take that the first few days of the term, until they discovered my wacky sense of humor and general irreverence for authority. Something I barely admitted to myself and didn’t fully grasp until one day I overheard my twelve-year-old son say something particularly smart-assed to my best friend/boss at one of our backyard pool parties. I’ll cut my son some slack since our families spent plenty of time hanging around together, each with two boys about the same ages. I confronted my son when he entered the kitchen, as I stood at the stove stirring some cheesy concoction that I planned to serve with homemade tortilla chips.

“I can’t believe you said that to Mr. O!” I scolded. “You’re such a smartass! I don’t know where you get it from!” He looked me right in the eye. We were exactly the same height at the time. “Seriously, Mom? I get it from you!” and he walked out of the kitchen leaving me agape, enthusiastically swirling the gooey cheese in wide circles. Well damn. The kid was right! Which is why most of my characters are rather irreverent and smart-alecky. But that’s all about voice, and a topic for another day.

I wrote in a post a while back, about how your editor it always right. Always! And it took me a long time to accept that, a really long time. After a gazillion rewrites, you’re too close to your story and your mind is heavily entrenched and committed to it, you’re blinded and you will never see the flaws. When I finished my fourth novel almost nine months ago, I realized it was a little too sexy for my usual crit partners and one of them suggested a friend of hers instead. And so began my relationship with my current editor.

First, a little backstory on my editing journey. When I wrote my first novel, which quickly morphed into a 300,000-word trilogy (I’ve since trimmed in considerably) I got quite a few bites from agents who asked to read the full manuscript. Without exception, each suggested it was in need of serious editing and after having done so, they’d take another look. I set out to find a pro, searching Editors and Preditors, and other sources, received three proposals and landed on a guy who’d done some editing for Stephen King in his early days. I parted with a good chunk of change, but learned a lot and the money was definitely well spent.

My second editor gave himself the moniker “evil editor” and honestly, I can’t disagree. Mostly, he said my writing was great and then proceeded to beat me up on story and “the market,” telling me certain things would never sell, and to change “this and that…” to the point at which I lost my way and finally decided to give up on writing entirely. Luckily that didn’t last. And as painful as each experience has been, I did learn a great deal and they were necessary evils that helped hone my craft.

Enter the new guy. We originally agreed to swap pages, and did so briefly, but he soon stopped sending, saying he was making some serious revisions and when he was ready to send again he’d let me know. That was six months ago. When I first engaged him I was really just looking for someone to do a general read to see if the story held up and I was unaware that he was a professional editor­— and might have bowed out if I’d realized this ahead of time. And he’s brutal! I say that with love. He sent back his notes which turned out to be a full line-edit of the manuscript, posing questions and theories in his comments. Some didn’t require action, it just showed me how a reader, an expert one, processed the story as he read.

The problem was that it was just taking too long. I’d wait for weeks, sometimes months, for the next installment. And, well…I stalled. I’d quickly rework chapters as they came and send them back and then slump into forgetting about the story again. Eventually, I gave a gentle nudge. “It’s been nine months since you started helping me and I really appreciate it…and I know you’re doing this for free…and I wouldn’t ever want to take time away from you earning a living…” and well, when he finally realized it had been dragging on this long, he loaded up on red ink and shot from both barrels. And now I’m in that dreaded place…he has some serious criticism of the ending and I have some serious work to do. Not to mention the scene outline that I already lamented about last week.

I’ve been here before. It’s when you’re sick of the story and the characters. You don’t give a crap what happens to them anymore. You’ve written and rewritten, and they’re still not happy. Good riddance you say. Let’s break up, get a divorce, I’m seeing other people. It was a nice run, but I’m tired of you, I’m moving on… Because this is when the real work begins. You’ve edited the techy-stuff. You’ve killed your darlings. You’re down to the nitty gritty. The little flaws that you didn’t see, the details you left adrift, and now you’ve got to face them…or not.

Right now, I’m in the not mode. I read through all his comments but they’re still sitting in my inbox and if you know me, you know that NOTHING sits in my inbox for very long. Just like my desk when I was an assistant principal, or a teacher. At the end of each day my work was done and I went home with a clear head. But my head is muddled now. I need to sit for a few hours and transpose everything he’s hit on, then synthesize it, consider carefully about how to solve the problems he’s identified and begin the rewrite.

Each day I awake and think about it. But that’s all I do. It’s like I said last week. It feels like homework and we all know how I feel about that. However, this is necessary homework, and it must get done. Since I’ve been here before, I do know that one morning I will wake with renewed enthusiasm, that spark reignited and I’ll get it done. It just won’t be tonight and maybe not even tomorrow. Ho-Hum…




Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

5 thoughts on “Ho-Hum, I’ve Got the Editing Blues”

  1. I laughed when I saw your “1. The teacher is always right” followed by #2. I taught for thirty years and to keep as many of my students on their toes, paying attention and alert, I offered extra credit if they caught me making a mistake. I told them some pf the mistakes would be on purpose and some would be real because like them, I wasn’t perfect and made mistakes no matter how much I knew about the subject I taught.

    And when one of my students thought I made a mistake, before I said they were right or not, I asked the class to chime in. How many of you agree, raise your hands? How many disagree? There were always hands raised for both questions. That way my students learned that being right or wrong wasn’t unique.

    Only then would I reveal if I had made a mistake, and I never told them if it was on purpose or not. That way if the student who thought I’d made a mistake was wrong, they were never alone because hands had been raised in support.

    The same goes for editors. They are not always right. They miss things and sometimes they go too far. That’s why I think authors must take all editorial suggestions with that “grain of salt” idiom. But to be honest, I agree with my editor way more than I disagree. Maybe 99% to 1%. :o)

  2. Wow, I had no idea it was such a process going through the editing phase. I’m working on my (first) book right now, but it’s a non-fiction memoir of my weight loss journey. I wonder how editing will work when the time comes. I’d think it would be a bit different since it’s not fiction? I was leaning more towards just going with a copy editor (focusing on the grammar stuff). I was going to skip a content/line editor….

    1. I think you’re right, nonfiction is different. However, this is still the art of “telling your story” and that might be helped by a story editor. And then there’s the “content” edit. To make sure you’re not saying anything untrue, (not on purpose, of course) or stepping into any copyright issues etc. For example, I had no idea you couldn’t use even a snippet of a song lyric in fiction. You can use a song title but none of the lyrics even if you give credit to the songwriter/artist. Who knew? I think editing is tough no matter what you’re writing. Good luck!

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