Yesterday, sitting in the living room sipping on coffee and peeking out the picture window, I was waiting for the FedEx man to arrive at our home because the edited manuscript of The Real Mary was scheduled to arrive before 10:30am. I met him at the door. Now sit back and listen to the story of what it is like to encounter the “edits” on a manuscript. If you think writing is fun, you haven’t yet had a good editor. It hurts.
I begin with this: my editor, Lil Copan, is the best I’ve ever worked with — and I mean nothing about other editors I’ve worked with, each of whom has been more than good. Here’s why: she’s got a superb aesthetic sense of how books work. I don’t. I was trained as an academic, and I found English writing classes incredibly boring because all they talked about was novels — which I found and still do find … I’ll not go there. But, this I have learned: novelists have an aesthetic for how plot works and how themes work with plots and how characters work inside plots and themes. Lil sees things and hears things and feels things I never see, hear, or feel.
Well, we in the academic world by and large (and I judge this by the books I read and how the scholars who write them talk about their writing) don’t think of plot (we think of argument) or themes (we think of subject) or characters (we think of evidence). We think of method. That is why we generally write books no one reads. Sometimes we’re a bit proud no one reads (or can read) our books. I’ll avoid taking this down that road.
So, Lil sends me comments and she marks up my manuscript in green with suggestions like “Clunky” or “Rewrite sentence” or “Delete” or “Too colloquial” or “Choppy”. Sometimes I duck when I turn to the next page. She uses “green” because “red” hurts more than green. Now how sensitive is that?! Every comment she makes is considered, every one of them serious, and I’ve learned to take every one of them into consideration.
Every now and then she has an exclamation point in the margin — that means “very good.” I relish those. I wish they were more often. Every now and then she says “poetic.” I do a little jig when I read that.
Lil’s a writer herself (a novelist) and she feels my books from the inside out; she wants one idea per chapter (very hard for me to pull off) and a nice easy pace (and I rush ideas). So, with all her fine sense of taste and my academic intent, she is led to make suggestions. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’ve learned tons — and I feel like I’m just beginning. Not (mind you) that I think I’m terrible, or that she thinks that: it’s just (as she says it) “it could be much better.”
Now here’s what happens when I get the manuscript from Lil: First, I dread it coming because I know what’s going to happen. Second, I get the comments and the edited manuscript and I take a quick look to see how bad it is, and then I walk around the house feeling like spider puke and like I have no idea what I’m doing. Yesterday I ended up meandering in the basement and the little cricket who found his way into our home seemed to have an edge to him: like he was chirping at me for what he thought were some bad sentences. Third, then I get a little mad and so I walk around a little more. I think I’ll just not finish the thing, that I’ll go back to writing journal articles because the editors will leave me alone.
Fourth, in an hour (or two) or so I get over it and open up the edits and open up the computer file for the book. Then I start chipping away at the suggestions, arguing with Lil a bit in my study and saying “No way, Lil. I like that expression. Well, maybe she’s got a point. Well, you know, she’s right. I’ll change it.” Fifth, then I work my way through the manuscript and I say: “You know, Lil makes my prose better every time and the book is much better because of her.”
Sixth, I call her and tell her what a great editor she is and that I’ll miss chatting with her when this book is all over but that I’ll be back. And that I’ll see her at SBL and I look forward to chatting.
Seventh, then I fear I may hear her say: “Maybe next time Paraclete will give his next manuscript to someone else who paid attention in English classes.” (And my father is a retired English teacher!)
Then I begin to think that her green is gold, and I think “Next time, I’ll give her something she won’t need to edit.”
Here’s a big compliment: I feel like I’m chasing the perfect round of golf because of Lil. Someday, I say to myself, I’ll send Lil a manuscript and she’ll say, “Well, Scot, you did it. I’ve got nothing to suggest.” Never. I believe Lil would have had suggestions for Hemingway (ever hear of an adjective, papa?).
Lil’s the best. A good editor is a tough editor.