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Friday, July 9, 2010

The Writer-Editor Team

As an introduction to my new role as Friday blogger with Writers Who Kill, I’d like to tell a little about how I view editing, and how that view came to be.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into a young friend at a book signing. Abby (not her real name) just completed her second year at community college. She was perky, exuberant and hopeful, exactly how a sweet young college sophomore should be.

It was heartening to see this new version of Abby. The last time I saw her, she was a high school senior with poor grades, a bad attitude, a rough home life and an uncertain future.

One thing about her, though: Abby loved to read.

For several years, I guided a book club at a large public high school. The third Friday of every month, I braved the school hallways carrying pizza boxes to meet with students who devoted their lunch period to discussing books. The school had a population of over 2,000, so there were two lunches, which meant two book group meetings, back to back, once a month.

I should note here that students who hang out in the school library are not necessarily scholars. Abby was a typical book group member, a smart but challenging young person whose opinions were often dismissed because, frankly, she was often unpleasant.

But when she talked about books, Abby became a different person.

Book club was an adventure. I once posted on my personal blog about their review scale. Over the years, we read some great books, but none were as melodramatic as our meetings. We met in a closed conference room. I was not a teacher and couldn’t/wouldn’t write them up, so the dirt flew. OMG! Break-ups! Crying! Disastrous dates! Heinous haircuts! Attention seeking! Confrontations! Stupid teachers! Stupid parents! Stupid last piece of pizza! I often felt more like a referee than a reviewer.

It was fantastic. The students held back nothing. If they loved a book, they’d do anything to own a copy. If an author let them down, they took it as a personal affront. They were rude and crude and blunt, but they had no agenda, so they were also completely honest.

Book club taught me about audience, and it was a terrific training ground for my current job as an editor.

Teenagers have a lot to say, but it took courage for some of those kids to speak their minds. Our conference room was a safe place for that. It was private and I made them treat opinions with respect.

Now that I work as an editor, my goal is to provide an equally safe place for a writer to send a work in progress, a work that will be treated with respect.

Ideally, an editor assists a writer in creating work that is entertaining and engaging to a reader. The editor’s role is to sift through the pages and highlight the strong points; tell how to repair weak spots; find little errors that get past the author’s notice; and call attention to big gaping plot holes. The editor acts as both critic and cheerleader. If all goes well, the writer and editor work as a team, with the goal of making a story the best that it can be.

That’s the touchy-feely version of what I do. If my job had a one sentence log line, it would be this: A writer sends me a story and I tell him/her what’s wrong with it.

Like teenagers, writers have egos, some more fragile than others. I connected with students, and they learned to trust me. I listened to what they said, but also to what they were trying to say. I do the same with my writing clients.

When I receive a manuscript, I understand that sweat, time and heart accompany the words on the pages. I also understand that the editing process is an arduous one. No one likes to hear item after item of what’s not working, what doesn’t make sense, what isn’t matching up with what happened before. I get that. But like my friend Abby’s troubled teen years show, growth is not always easy. It takes time, effort and patience. Sometimes, it takes a safe place and someone to listen to your ideas.

That’s how I view an editor’s job. My job. I take troubled manuscripts and try to make them strong, perky and exuberant. I try to give authors hope and work to make their stories the best that they can be.

Just like book club, it’s fantastic.


The Written Remains Writers Guild said...

And you do it very well, Ramona! No matter how thick a skin writers develop from years of being critiqued, etc. It always feels good to be in a "safe place" with you work. Great post.

Annette said...

As a former school librarian, I can identify with your experience with young readers. My experience with young readers was from K-8th grade. I have very fond memories of quite a heated discussion of The Chocolate War. Somehow we got into a female vs. male discussion. I sat there in shock as I listened to my sweet nerd members of the Library Club duke it out. I believe it was very theraputic for all of them.