Goodbye, Old Friend, Or, The Manuscript as Roommate


So, imagine you have this roommate. We'll call her Mani. You think Mani's pretty cool. She's funny, and witty, and smart. In fact, if you had it your way, you wouldn't change a single word that came out of Mani's mouth. The two of you are perfectly content in your little apartment considering the hard truths of life, expounding on the meaning of words in your Alphabits, and never having to answer to anyone else.

But then you think to yourself, "You know what, self, Mani is such a rad chick, I think other people would like her, too." So you spend the better part of  two (sometimes three, or five, or ten) years taking Mani out and parading her around in front of people you think might like her. You use every gimmick you can think of to get her noticed---you write emails about her in bold, fourteen point font. You send out excerpts of Mani's most polished and fascinating anecdotes, not worrying about what you'll do if someone likes what they see and wants two hundred pages of equal brilliance. You steal into parties wearing your most expensive-looking shoes and spouting an awkwardly practised joke, trying to elegantly get Mani in front of influential eyes. And every time one of them rejects her, the two of you retreat to the comfort of your sofa with a beer and a few consolation Arrested Development reruns, knowing that, one day, someone will come across Mani and they'll think she is just as awesome and intriguing and original as you do.

Then, finally, after years of hand wringing and pity parties, someone likes her! They like you! They think the two of you are the cat's pyjamas and they're willing to put their money (albeit, not a lot of money) where their mouth is! You're overjoyed! You knew you could do it. You showed 'em. You know these lovely folks might make a few changes to polish Mani up, give her a few cosmetic tweaks and a new coat of nailpolish, but they basically like her. You've done it.

And now comes the part that separates the men from the boys. Or, to use a less gender-specific analogy, the beloved authors from the names that will be politely flagged in inboxes for later, much later, attention. 

Enter the editor.

The editing process is unlike any other artistic interaction I know of. The most analogous relationship would probably be between a musician and a recording engineer. The engineer takes the musician's raw material, layers it, tweaks the pitch, adds various effects, and comes out with a polished song created from various vocal and instrumental tracks. But the element that's missing from that relationship that's present in the editor-author relationship is the ability of the editor to significantly rewrite, and substantively change the direction of, the author's material.

The editor isn't simply working for the author, because the manuscript no longer belongs solely to the writer. The names of the publishing house, the editor (and sometimes the copyeditor), the designer, and the distributor are all now tied to this little stack of paper. The editor cannot solely consider the author's intentions or preferences. She's got a bevy of factors to consider.

In my day job, I like to use the term "recast" when conveying to an author that I've significantly changed a sentence's structure or a paragraph's organization. As a writer who also edits, I find myself unable to tell a fellow writer that I've "rewritten" their work, though to the average eye that is just what it would appear I'm doing. I've "recast" it, or I've given it a light "line edit." And somehow what I'm doing is truly very different from writing. I'm not writing, I'm moulding. And adding a bit clay where the original runs too thin.

In many cases and for many authors, myself included, what a substantive editor brings to the table is an equally, often much more, polished literary eye with the green light to recreate the manuscript in the joint image of author and editor. Trust is the cardinal emotion that must dictate author-editor relationships. Without a fundamental belief that your editor can be trusted with your manuscript (read: your child, your spouse, your own life!) the relationship is bound to be fraught.

Luckily, I have the best editor in the world, and I know that Mani is going to be metamorphosized into a beautiful, funny, compelling book once we're done wrestling her into submission. As a team.

Up Next: The Production Locomotive