Books by Melissa Bowersock

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Editors and Editing

I’m guessing we’ve all seen movies about writers where they are best buddies with their editors and often sit down with a cup of coffee to go over the latest pages and discuss the progress of the book. I can’t imagine any process being as homey and nurturing and encouraging, and I think it’s complete hogwash. I can’t speak for mega-writers like Stephen King or Danielle Steel, but for the other 99.9% of us, that scenario is nothing but a fairy tale.

My first book was published in 1984 by a New York house. Their communications with me were probably as diametrically opposed to the above as they could be. Granted, the book was already complete when they optioned it, but they never suggested so much as a punctuation mark to me. The fact that they accepted the manuscript verbatim and had no editorial suggestions seemed like a silent nod of approval. I was rather quickly disabused of that notion, however, when I got a letter from them saying I needed to add 70 pages to get to the proper page count. The content of those pages―story line, plot points or character development―seemed to be of no concern whatsoever.

Being a newbie at this and wanting to do everything I could to make the book a success, I set about to add the 70 pages. Interestingly when I had originally written the book—a historical romance—I had gotten so sick of it by the time I neared the end that I had deliberately skipped over quite a bit of detail about living with the Cheyenne Indians. I still had the reference books and so proceeded to write the Indian section that I had originally planned, and since this was a couple years after the fact, it was fresh to me and not a laborious process.  When it was all said and done, I was grateful for the chance to round out the story in the way that I had originally envisioned.

The next communiqué was the “big reveal” of the name of the book. They had dubbed it Love’s Savage Destiny. Obviously my title, The Rare Breed, was much too tame, and obviously they did not care to have my input in the renaming as I was not even aware that process was going on. (After publication, my husband and I went to the nearest Waldenbooks to search for it. After much perusing of the romance section, he said, “There’s a lot of ‘savages’ here.” I think at that time, it was a prerequisite that all western romances have “savage” in the title.)

The final non-nurturing bit of communication came when I received a box of books … from my agent. I had no idea the book was done. I had received no notice of its publication or availability. They just shipped my free books to my agent and left it to him to send them to me. It seemed more like an afterthought: “Oh, and we need to send books to, um, what’s-her-name.” What’s-her-name, you mean the author? Yeah, that’s the one.

Meanwhile, my agent was shopping my next book around, but he was having no luck. He had thoughtfully sent me the rejection letters he had received, but when I realized he had not offered the book to the publisher of the first book, I went ahead and sent it to them. I’m not quite sure why this never occurred to him, but they jumped at it.

As before, they never uttered a word of editorial wisdom, just accepted the book as written. Oh, except for the fact that on this one I needed to cut 50 pages. The dreaded page count reared its ugly head again. No other suggestions of what areas might be cut, just get the page count down.

And as before, this had a silver lining to it. I discovered that the book was actually pretty tight, but I did go through and cut out whatever fluff I could find. I started cutting paragraphs; on the second go-round, I was cutting sentences. On the third go-round, I was cutting single words. I just barely made the page count, but I was happy with the result. And all this, of course, without any help from the editors at all.

When I received the letter announcing the book’s new name (with no input from me), I was not terribly surprised they had chosen Love’s Savage Embrace. My title, Superstition Gold, they said denoted “the occult,” and was obviously not appropriate. In the letter they actually said, “We hope you’ll be as thrilled with the name as we are.” I swore right then that at some point I would write a book and name it Love’s Savage Armpit.

By the time my third book was optioned in 2000, the entire publishing landscape had changed. The big New York houses were concentrating all their efforts on sure blockbusters and small presses were springing up everywhere to take up the slack. It was a novel and heartening experience to work with an editor of a small press. No, we didn’t sit down and have coffee as we pored over my book, but we did e-mail just about daily about everything from chapter headers to fonts to white space. Although, again, he did not offer a single suggestion about editing, the collaborative experience was about 1000% better than what I’d experienced before.

My next two books were also picked up by small presses. One was published with no changes to the text, no editing whatsoever. With the second one, to my great surprise, my editor actually made some suggestions—three if I recall. She suggested alternate text in two locations, both of which I declined to change, and then flagged some confusion over a name that I had not realized I had used twice in different circumstances. I quickly amended that and the book was good to go. It was nice (1) knowing she actually read the book and was thinking of ways to polish it and (2) having that give-and-take relationship where we could discuss the problem areas and agree on resolutions. Still no coffee, though.

Now I have moved into the realm of self-publishing, which means I supply my own coffee and my own editing advice. I do, of course, rely heavily on friends and family to read and give feedback, but on the whole this is not much different than what I’ve done all along. I suspect this is just the way it will be until I make my way up there to the top, right next to Stephen King.

Oh, and I choose my own titles, now, too. 

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