Three-for-All II: The Author-Editor Relationship

In January—in my original post on Barack, in fact—Jon asked:

Anyway, I have a request that maybe you'd consider someday [and, no, it's not that you read my book :)] I would very much like to hear your thoughts on the author/editor relationship. Where are the boundaries? What is the best strategy to build a good relationship with your editor? How does an editor best serve an author, and likewise?

I know you're posting the stories behind some of your books, and you linked to that Raymond Carver article ... so I'd also be interested to hear your perspective on this. I think sometimes people don't appreciate what editors bring to the table, in terms of their sheer contribution to a finished novel, and sometimes authors get hurt/pushy/angry/insulted/wounded by their interactions with editors, whom they see as controlling their very futures. But the best editor/author relationships result in magic ...

In “Finding a Publisher and Falling in Love,” I wrote that if I like a manuscript and its author, we’ll “get married: That is, we’ll sign a contract for the manuscript, edit it and publish it, and hopefully have lots of beautiful books together.” The metaphor works in the context of that talk, which is all about how the submissions process is like dating, but something about it has always made me vaguely uneasy. It is that, unlike a marriage, and especially unlike parenthood, my authors and I are not equal partners and contributors to the relationship. They are the people setting up an imaginary house in the world, they’re the ones conceiving and birthing these ideas; I’m the interior decorator who steps in to help with the draperies, or the kindergarten teacher teaching the kid to tie her shoes. From an artistic perspective (the artistic part being my favorite part of my job), my work doesn’t exist without the work these authors do, and the “marriage” metaphor made me uncomfortable just because it didn’t acknowledge that essential disparity.

But just recently I hit on what I think is the proper relationship metaphor for my work with my lovely authors, and it actually grew out of some fun conversations with said authors, particularly Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich and Lisa Yee. They both came to Scholastic to discuss their novels sometime in the last two months; we went out to lunch, and then we came back to the office to get down to work, dissecting the plot structures (lord, how I love plot structure), talking about backstories and future courses of action for all the characters, rehashing our favorite moments and scenes. I love, love, love afternoons like this, even more than plot structure, because it feels basically like gossiping about our mutual friends, the characters—and better yet, the friends have to do what we say.

Then, based upon that thought about gossip, it came to me: This is exactly the way I relate to my friends when we discuss our love lives. We go through the overall narrative. We zoom in on moments that seem telling and what they could mean to the full story. We debate the consequences of various possible courses of action, we try to come to a conclusion about what action should be taken next—and then, of course, we can’t wait to hear about the results. Every single friendship and conversation is different, based upon our shared history, my knowledge of my friend’s past relationship history (and my friend’s knowledge of mine), where we each are emotionally when we’re talking, and our mutual knowledge of how honest we can be. Through all our discussions, I try to listen carefully for what my friends really want, what they really feel, and reflect that back to them; and I advise them based upon my own experience, both personal and learned. But any decisions are, in the end, my friend’s and not mine to make.

And so it goes with editorial-authorial relationships. Every single one is different, and it is my job, as a good friend and editor, to adapt to what the author and the book needs, not to go imposing my vision on them. I ask lots of questions to try to suss out what the author wants the book to be, if that isn’t clear to me or to help them formulate a vision themselves; I try to listen carefully to what both book and author are saying—as they’re sometimes different things, and then I need to help them try to resolve that discrepancy. I offer advice based on my personal reaction to events in the book; my knowledge of How Books Work, encompassing everything from characterizations to pacing to structure to sentence flow; and my long, long experience as a reader and my ever-growing experience as an editor. Just like my personal friendships, I tailor the manner in which this advice is given to each individual author, based upon our history together, the comfort level of our relationship, and my understanding of what will speak best and deepest to that author, and most to what he or she is trying to do. Finally, I try to be as honest as I can about the book and what it needs, but to do so in a way that will make the author feel energized and excited about making the revisions, not depressed and beaten down.

Because, in the end, all the decisions are the authors’ to make: I am just a friend to them and their books, not the one living those lives. I do hope very much that they take my advice, because I try to make it good advice, with both their best interests and the interests of their readers at heart. (Another way I think of my job is as the readers’ advocate: “Could I have more detail about what he’s thinking, please?” “Could you show us this scene?” “This paragraph of description doesn’t really seem relevant—could we cut this to pick up the pace?”) If the authors don’t take that advice, I really hope they have a good reason for it, and that we can talk that out. . . . Sometimes I haven’t been listening properly, or the author didn’t understand my meaning properly, and then it’s a matter of resolving the miscommunication; and sometimes I just have to accept the author and I don’t see eye-to-eye. But at the end of the day, it is the author’s name on the book, not mine, their happy ending to pursue. My job is only to speed them on their way.

So, Jon, to answer your questions about boundaries and suchlike: I think both sides are wise to learn as much as possible about each other’s tastes and visions before making a commitment to publish a book together. Can you be friends? Do you have a shared sense of fictional values, and what the right values are for this project—what needs work, what direction the book should take? And then both sides have the responsibility to bring their best to the manuscript, emotionally, mentally, everything; to be as honest and clear as we can be, and as grown-up and unselfish as well in accepting those honest judgments and working to fix the problems.

I am still learning—both how to edit and how to work with authors. Every book teaches me something new. I am grateful every day for this job and the marvelous authors I work with; and grateful, too, that they put up with my endless kibitzing about structure and detail. Like all my friends, sometimes they listen to me and sometimes they roll their eyes. But they know (I hope they know, anyway) that it’s done in a spirit of love for them and their books and the truths they tell; and those truths are the most important thing for all of us to convey.

Thus endeth my testament.