Biting the Beast in the (EDITED)

Okay. Really this is about editing.

Editing has been on my mind a lot lately, as, well, that’s what I’ve been keeping myself busy with. Not just editing my own stuff, because that’s part of being a writer. It’s what we do (if you don’t, you won’t make it as a writer). Rather, editing other people’s stuff is on my mind.

I have a few thoughts on editing other people’s stuff, and I thought I would share.

See, this is a dangerous topic. This is where I could alienate myself and make enemies forever, maybe even ruin my career. Editing other people’s stuff is a dangerous proposition at best.

If I am editing a single person’s story, because they asked me to, I am dealing with worrying what they will think, how they will respond, and how they will take it. Especially if money is involved. If you pay me money, I expect that you expect me to do the best job that I can. But what if your writing isn’t so hot? What if you really wanted me to take your money, hand the story right back to you and say “That was the best thing I ever read!” no matter how bad the story was? That is exactly what some people want.

And it is exactly what I would never do. It would be a disservice to them as a writer, and it would damage my professional reputation as soon as somebody heard I loved the story (and maybe even actually edited it) and they read it and realized it sucked.

So instead, I point out all the things that are wrong and how to fix them.

For some stories, for some authors, that is merely showing them they forgot to run spell-check and take out the ‘teh’ typos. For others, it is teaching basic grammar, spelling, convention, and storytelling all at once (not to mention the story itself might not have been worth telling). Then what do I do? Pull my punches? Or let ’em have it?

Everyone thinks they want to have it told to them the way it really is, but no one is prepared for that gut-twisting first time someone points out the ugly spots on their precious soul put to page. It’s difficult to take the criticism. And that makes it difficult to dole out.

It’s hard to worry that a promising author will shut down after reading what you said was wrong with their story. It’s hard to think about what they will think after you point out  they wrote something bigoted/racist/sexist/politically incorrect or whatever, when it didn’t fit the story to be so. It’s one thing to have a misogynistic character who drives the story forward, but quite another to have a misogynistic narrative that has nothing to do with the story at all.

When you point that out, you are taking the risk of the author taking it personal and feeling you are judging their opinions. Dangerous territory.

Editing can be a monster waiting to bite you in the (EDITED). Oops. Was it appropriate to edit out that word? What will the author think?

That’s a different kind of editing. That is when I am editing something I am going to publish, or be involved in the publication of. If I am editor of a magazine, or an anthology, or even a novel, I become responsible for the content of that story. It reflects upon me. It shouldn’t always, but it does.

If my magazine (this is an example, I don’t have a magazine) always publishes anti-Semitic stories and articles, or heck, even if it only does it once, it will develop a reputation for that, and, as an editor, I would end up with that reputation, too. So it behooves me to be cautious what I am involved in publishing.

When you have an open submission, all kinds of stories come in. ALL KINDS of stories come in. A lot of people seem to forget to read the submission requirements, perhaps in the hopes that the editor won’t notice and will accidentally publish their manifesto. This is why so often (nearly always) there is a standard rejection letter sent out. The editor can’t take time (and/or is afraid for their personal safety) if they take the time to explain to someone why their story glorifying rape was rejected.

This leads to a strange situation wherein new writers have a hard time getting worthwhile feedback from editors. The people who need the help the most can’t get it.

What if the story is perfect for your anthology, but it is riddled with the F-bomb, and everything else about your anthology, is G-rated and you already commissioned an artist to do the greatest Santa Claus cover ever? Is it all right to just change all those words to Fudge?

No. It is never all right to change a writer’s story without their permission. The furthest I would go without asking permission is to correct a typo or add/take out a comma, fix a capital letter, or a missing period. Anything more, and I would contact the author with a list of things that need to be fixed. And then wait for them to fix them. If they don’t, then the story won’t go in the anthology.

I get that some authors don’t want to change their story, and sometimes that is appropriate. I get that other authors will change anything in the story in order to sell it, and that is appropriate, too. It’s their story, they can do what they like with it.

But it’s not my story. I can’t. I won’t. God help the editor who would/does/did.

Therefore I have to be careful which stories I take. (Commissioned work is a different beast all together.)

So what should you take away from my ramblings here?

1) don’t be discouraged by impersonal/form rejection letters.

2) if the editor took time to give you a personal note, no matter what it was, you need to realize it was important.

3) Find a writing group where you can start to get good feedback on your stories, so that you can become a good enough writer you’ll reach the point where you’ll get great feedback.

And the most important thing?

Don’t be an editor.

Stick to writing. Being an editor can bite you in the (EDITED).