I have a confession to make, one that not even my closest friends have heard. Oh, the shame! But I’m among amiable strangers here, which makes it easier somehow. Remember my most recent completed manuscript, the English Civil War story set on Dartmoor in southern England? Well, my editor hates it.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration – his three-page editorial report suggests that he harbours some hope of salvaging a halfway decent story from the wreckage – but it’s the first time I’ve been faced with the prospect of a lot of rewriting for one of my scripts. Please, no aphorisms about pride coming before a fall or if at first you don’t succeed… The irony is, I’ve confronted my authors with this degree of revision many times over (the Purple Pen of Doom is merciless when someone fails to breathe sufficient magic into one of my storylines), and can shift effortlessly into cheerleader mode when it comes to boosting their morale and giving them a new burst of energy for knocking a script into shape.
But all I can think right now is, this is so unfair! To me, the story worked, the characters did pretty much what I wanted them to and, most important of all, I met my deadline. Why should I make a relatively minor character four years older just to avoid shocking readers with the reality that children as young as five were taken onto battlefields? Why do I have to spend more time explaining the causes and effects of the English Civil War? Why can’t there be two dramatic pony rescues from the military camp? I read the opening chapters out loud to one of my long-suffering companions and he thought it was brilliant. So there. Crash and thud. That’s the sound of me throwing all my toys out of the pram (in case that means nothing to you, I should explain that it’s a British expression for having a tantrum – think squawking two-year-old with arms flailing and pacifiers flying and you’ll get the general idea).
The simple answer is that I’m the writer here, not the editor, and I just don’t have the right sort of eyes to read my manuscript fairly. When my editor first handed me the marked-up script topped with the loathsome revision report, I took one very quick glance at the opening line – “It is meant to be a horse story but the horse drama isn’t terribly exciting” – and put the whole thing face down on my desk, trying to control my trembling bottom lip. A few days later, I turned it over and read on; things didn’t improve but by then the prospect of doing major revisions had percolated in my head and no longer made me want to lie down on the carpet and cry. Because you know what? My editor’s right. There’s a lot going on in this story – battles, witchcraft, stealing ponies, rescuing little boys – and maybe the horse theme does get lost. The English Civil War doesn’t feature on the American school curriculum so perhaps I should dedicate a little more time to making sense of the historical background, to avoid leaving my readers feeling lost and confused. And ten is still a horrible age to be in the middle of a pitched battle.
Friends and companions should be seen as cheerleaders, there to shake their pom-poms and jump up and down when the muse has abandoned you and you’re washing the bathroom floor to avoid staring at your blank computer screen for one more hour. They’ll carry you shoulder-high when you make the first 10,000 words, the first 50,000, the last line of the final chapter. They’ll stave off hunger and loneliness, and sit next to you in peaceful silence when the only thing your fevered mind can cope with is a re-run of Grey’s Anatomy. And then they’ll let you stamp and wail when your ruthless, business-minded editor – who must hate you to say such horrid things about your script – tells you that your protagonist is a fool, the back story doesn’t make sense, and the structure goes all soggy in the middle (yeah, that one hurt a lot). For most daylight hours, I’m an editor; I say this kind of thing every day and close my mind like a steel trap to the thought of the ranting and gnashing of teeth that I have provoked in my writers’ households. I can say these things because I have the interests of the script in mind, because I haven’t wept blood over my keyboard for the last sixteen weeks and felt as if my life depended on reaching the contracted word count. To put it most harshly, my writers’ personal reactions are not my problem; I ask only that they trust me to help them create the best possible story. I’m a good editor, I know that. Except when it comes to anything that has my name on it.
Physician, heal thyself? Maybe she can. But when it comes to editors who try to write books, a second pair of eyes is always more likely to spot when the horses change color.
Photo by Lebunni.