Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why Editors Matter (or, How I Lost 3 Hours of My Life That I'll Never Get Back)

Sorry it's been so long since my last post. If you must know, I was out of town, visiting  Yellowstone Park with my family and geeking out the whole time because Yellowstone is where the climax of The Shifting takes place. It was so cool to look around and see where Sarah and Thomas and Ryan ran and hid and fought, even though none of that actually happened and the book isn't even out yet. Still, I felt kind of cool and sort of powerful. I wonder if that's how authors feel when their books become movies: like they have the power to create things, or in my case, at least reappropriate them for their own purposes.

This is the location, as it looked to where I stood. It's Geyser Hill. Old Faithful is off to the side, to the right. This is where my heroes fight evil at the end. Um, is it okay if I take a few minutes to hyperventilate like a fangirl?

I'm back. Now, to the main message of this post. I normally try not to come on here and bash books. I like to take good books and talk about what makes them good. But today I am going to talk about a book I think may be the worst book I've ever read: The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer. Yes, that Chris Colfer. I thought about withholding the name out of respect for the author (I don't like insulting books), but you should be warned. I grabbed the book because I mistakenly thought it was written by Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl books, which I love. (Eoin Colfer does have a new book, so my mistake, I think, is understandable.)

After realizing my mistake, I decided to read the book anyway. The title was intriguing, and I wanted to prove a point to myself. I have a bias against celebrities (read, actors and musicians) who decide to write novels. This is why: some people think that because they can take a pencil and scribble out a coherent phrase it means they can write a novel. Writing takes more than the ability to string words together. There is a certain craft to it. A writer has to consider character development, pacing, stakes, audience, poetry of language, etc., etc. I'm annoyed by people who think what I do is easy.

The biggest reason I'm annoyed by celebrity writers is because while I and other no-name writers have to beg and plead and bend over backwards for years to get our books published, people who already have a name can get anything published, because the publishers already know they can sell those books. A little bitter of me, yes, but I don't like thinking of all those people who are good writers who nonetheless aren't getting published.

Anyway, I know I have a bias, so I decided to give Colfer the benefit of the doubt and read the book. It could be good. I was wrong. From the first twenty pages, I could see the pacing was off. The story didn't truly begin until page 60, and even then I wasn't sure why I should care. Throughout the book, I never engaged with the characters enough to feel urgency in their quest. There were also logical problems, like the heroes having a knife (and using it), and soon after getting caught in a net and NOT thinking to use the knife to cut themselves free. On top of that, there were sentences like "Her lips wrinkled and looked me up and down." Her lips did WHAT now?

Now I feel like a bad person. I'm sorry. There were good points in the book. The story had some very imaginative elements, and I saw some word play that was pretty good. The good parts, however, drowned in the mediocre storytelling and straight-up painful to read moments.

I'm not bashing the author here, although it sounds like I am. Every writer produces a load of junk before writing his or her first good novel. I have a novel I wrote in high school that no one will ever see. Ever. It's cliche and didactic and poorly written and everything I've learned to move away from. But we all write one of these. Well, most of us do. I won't speak for the literary giants among us. I call it my "apprenticeship novel", and while, at the time, I wanted it published because it was awesome (HAH!), I'm very, very grateful that it wasn't.

Which brings me to my main point. I'm not here to insult the author of this book. I'm here to insult his editor. This book should never have been published as it was. It needed a lot of work. Not taking the time to improve this book just because the name would sell any old garbage was a disservice to the writer. I can tell you, I'm not going to be reading any of Colfer's future publications.

I was blessed to work with an excellent editor who told me everything that was wrong with my novel, and while it hurt to hear, he was right. The story is much better now for his help. I've come to see the collaboration between author and editor as a team effort; both are trying to produce the best possible work. Publishers and editors also should work as gatekeepers, preventing bad books from hitting the market either by rejecting them or by helping the writers improve them.

So, I'm angry over this book, but not so much at the writer. I remember the thrill of completing my first novel. It's hard not to print out a zillion copies and send them to everyone you know, plus a hundred publishers. It's the publisher I'm mad at, because even celebrities should want to produce work they can be proud of, and careful editing helps with that. If Colfer rejected his editor's help, well, that's another thing, though I think the book should still not have been published.

And yes, the bias against celebrity writers is still very much intact, more's the pity.

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