On Being an Editor

I quit my editing career after the first book. Which I didn’t even finish.


The small press paid proofreaders $25 to rush through and say everything looked great and paid editors $50 as an advance for essentially the same task, but that was half upfront and half when you finished sucking the writer off plus a 20% royalty which I’m actually a big fan of royalties in creative works because it encourages good work—of course, this publication was vanity to the author so my work went wasted and after making the first $25 and splitting duties with a second editors and thus splitting the royalties, I never saw another payment.


Let me reiterate. I was paid a $25 advance for months of work, spending more time per chapter than the author seemingly did on the whole so that we’d both make some sweet royalty loot and I never saw another dollar.


The book was a dark fantasy with vampires and time travel to the Victorian era, according to the author, but he described every lord as living in great castles with great walls made of great stone (his vocabulary was not great) and he clearly had never read literature of the time because his idea of England in the 1800s felt a lot like the way Malory described Arthurian legends which generally are seen as a reflection of the 1500s, but even more so, his setting was like the parody Futurama did of the 20th-century museum where everything from distinct eras in the past blended together seamlessly so the hippies in the 1970s were right beside Shakespeare. And regardless of era-accuracy, his book had assault rifles that only showed up for the climax of the second act, much to the surprise of all readers, though they weren’t an intended twist, just poor world building. He was a terrible, amateur writer, relying on cliches and the love interest being characterized as “a woman”--of course beautiful and of course immediately in love with the main character because one woman was the same as any other to him. For everything, he reached for the mass-produced stock on the shelf at language-equivalent of Walmart so mud was caked on a weary traveler’s boots as the leaves danced in the howling wind on the dark and stormy night that was raining cats and dogs on the rolling hills, and it was so much that he basically just plagiarized culture.


I pointed all this out. I generally had notes longer than his actual chapters that started as pointing to faults and slowly became lectures on how to write effectively using color, word economy, freshness, and simplicity, four virtues in all great literature that shouldn’t be confining in any way. I’d often make suggestions in a variety of styles from light-hearted, poppy writing to grand Gothic that showcased the baroque, letting him enjoy the way poetic language felt when read. I rarely changed the meaning of sentence, only added detail, or suggested moments that might individualize a character.


I gave him so many suggestions I had basically rewritten a few chapters.


The thing with editing is you have to be certain you’re not just changing it to your taste, essentially making it different instead of making it better, and I made sure I wasn’t. His were bland, empty sentences with as much original thought as a sneeze. However, he didn’t see that. He contacted my boss who sent me a very polite email saying, “They’re all fantastic notes. I agree on just about all of them, but he feels maybe there are too many.”


I responded, “I wish he wrote better so I didn’t have to make so many.”


What also showed up about the same time as the guns was pedophilia.


After sending in 5 or 10 edited chapters a week for a month, there’d been uncomfortable hints of this seeing as the main character was a 30-year-old dude lusted after by the vampire queen who had been young when she was turned, forever frozen in a newly pubescent body, which is making me cringe now remembering how the author demanded the cover girl in video game babe-armor look even younger, but in the story, she’d given her age as 57 and also 300 and a few other numbers well beyond the MC’s age and there was an interesting concept that he called a social age, the only interesting concept in the story, that changed to give herself more respect than her body allowed. If as a queen you looked young forever, you wouldn’t want anyone doubting your adulthood forever because of that. But then her actual story came out. She was raped when she was 9 until she was 13 when she was turned into a vampire and that had only happened 2 years prior to the main plot. She was 15. I hope somewhere in his poor storytelling was intended to be a sympathetic, gut-wrenching event but the way he relished the details more than other points in the story--I told you the problem of the default earlier and how everything was great meaning big, but his depiction of her suffering was graphic, and it disturbed me.


I wrote him about two pages of notes on that one scene. I’d given up on style in that chapter and just told him to cut this section because he sounded like a fucking pedophile.


And in a chapter immediately following the reveal that this young looking girl was actually 15 and sexually traumatized, he delved into a sex scene with her and the 30-year-old MC that turned out to be a demon revealing MC’s inner most desires in a dream sequence, which doesn’t excuse the underage depiction of sex, but he then went on to excuse the pedophilia, saying it was natural and so long as he didn’t act on such desires, he was still a man of God-- because among all the other faults, the story was also preachy about being a good Catholic.


I wrote another two-page note and shortly thereafter, I was emailed informing me I was off the manuscript “due to time constraints” and would I like my name expunged from the copyright page? Yes. Regardless, I’d still receive a 10% royalty payment after it went to publication. Again, never saw anything but that $25 advance.


This is uncomfortable to write about, but it was one fucked up creep fulfilling his fantasies and demanding publication to legitimize his philosophy on being a pedophile, and that one bad experience shouldn’t turn me off to editing, not when I’m so good at it. And it didn’t, but I also proofread a lot of books at this press and saw how untouched they were, like the editor had gone through for the typos, but little else, and there were enough editors on enough books that I realized the whole treatment of editing is flawed because of the first email. Being told there were too many notes.


Some of the notes were probably bad or unnecessary, but it’s the hardest thing to relate to non-writers that there is such a thing as good writing. It’s a plurality where there are many correct paths, but like I said earlier, there are four virtues to all good writing that apply across languages, genres, audience age, and any other factor that you want to hold up. Simplicity is the most malleable because if you’re writing for professionals in a scientific field, you need jargon the average reader won’t know, but simplicity is just relative at that point. Sentence structure should still be easy to follow and so on. But bad writers don’t understand that “kicking swiftly” is bad. It’s not even that they don’t understand why; they just don’t see it as bad.


It is though.


Not because adverbs are bad, but can you kick slowly? Can you kick anything but swiftly? A kick is the swift movement of the leg to hit something. It’s verbiage to include the extra word and oh no, one extra word, big deal. Except it becomes a big deal when every noun gets an unnecessary adjective tacked on and every verb an adverb and stock phrases and cliches and those are the just easy things for fresh eyes to fix in bad composition, to say nothing of the burden of creativity. Interesting characters requiring conflict to forge them in the reader’s mind, how to create micro-memories so the reader can relate to what’s happening, when to be visually appealing and when to let the story play out in dialogue. That’s the hard stuff! Creating something fresh we haven’t read a hundred times already and each previous experience already a better version than the latest. We have to find new perspectives or new characters, or to polish it beyond what anyone else has done before. That’s why we need diversity in characters and creators. Cultural backgrounds can highlight struggles that let us empathize better because sexism in the US is different between all regions and races and classes and even more different than sexism in Saudi Arabia or Korea, but those are still recognizably wrong, and maybe in seeing the complexity of other worlds, we realize new solutions to faults in ours.


And this has been a roundabout way of getting to this point, but writers, trust your editors. They’re not personally attacking you when they point to a bad sentence; they want to let the reader see it as brilliantly as it existed in your mind. Editors are worrying about how to best express a thought so that you can focus on creating.