Many “how-to” tomes advise us that the days of the great writer-editor collaborations are over. No longer, are we told, can publishing houses afford the luxury of nurturing talent, as Maxwell Perkins did with Hemmingway and Fitzgerald. It’s too risky an investment. After all, helping new voices grow and evolve through an intensive editorial process is a hands-on job. It means moving past a superficial business relationship to forge a creative rapport—the old-model editor is part instructor, part father-confessor and part psychiatrist. And it takes time: these editors know that the talent they are helping to shape may not reach its zenith with the first or even the second book. It means sticking with an author’s career for a period to help them navigate the twin obstacles of immaturity and public obscurity. It’s a long-term strategy that banks on reaping even bigger rewards in the future—not the most popular point of view in today’s instant gratification, risk-adverse economy. No, we are told, if that enlightened philosophy ever did exist, it has gone the way of the dodo bird. The modern mantra is this: our manuscripts must be publication-ready upon submission—especially if we are first-time authors.
Is this really true or a malicious overgeneralization? Truth be told, I can’t answer that question yet. Having read the “how to” books and heard the new mantra, I worked on my first novel, NECROPOLIS, for quite some time, honing it, sharpening it and getting honest feedback from quality people: essentially conducting my own editorial process before sending it out to agents. When Night Shade acquired it last March, the work seemed to have paid off. My editor, Ross Lockhart, said the novel needed very little work and that they were fast-tracking it for fall publication. True to his word, he sent me only a small handful of notes, all insightful, all dead on target and (whew!) all easily fixable. It took me less than two weeks to address them, and the novel came out in October—an incredibly brisk pace for the industry. (A friend of mine sold her book to a large publishing house at the same time and it will not be released until October of NEXT year.) But I suspect that the pace of the editorial phase had less to do with Ross’s style than my own compulsive need to turn in as perfect a first work as possible.
While this is my first foray into fiction, as a former TV and screenwriter I’ve had my share of editorial battles with directors, producers and development executives (the closest equivalent to editors in that art form). And let me tell you, those can be hell. There is a certain level of insanity that is reserved only for Hollywood. If you haven’t seen it, go find Kevin Smith’s hilarious tale on YouTube about his attempt to write a Superman script for producer Jon Peters (who started out as a hairdresser). Peters’ three conditions? “Dump the Superman costume, no flying, and there has to be a giant spider in Act 3.” So, novelists, thank whatever gods you worship that you don’t have to deal with that kind of shit. And if you do, run for the hills!
I would probably have a tough time working with an editor who wanted to impose his/her stylistic and grammatical philosophies onto my work. I know the rules, and I know when I’m breaking them. People don’t think or express themselves like the Chicago Manual of Style. So if you can’t handle sentence fragments, I’m not your man. The Emily Posts of the world are missing the point: language is a living, evolving thing, and what was correct 20 years ago may not be now—otherwise books would still read like The Canterbury Tales. Dangling participles are here to stay. Deal with it.
To my mind, an editor’s job is to help develop the writer’s voice and help him improve his craft, structure and technique—not to try to reshape it into his own. The writer’s job is to find and maintain a proper balance between humility and openness to instruction and the valid protection of his own personal artistic style and goals. Tricky on all counts, to be sure. That requires mutual respect. For the editor, it means becoming a collaborator, not an autocrat. For the writer, it means being willing to kill your babies, even when it’s hard, because you trust your editor. Ultimately, success comes down to the individual editor and the individual writer—who they are and how they mesh. But it also depends on the editorial philosophy of the publisher and its business model.
Night Shade has taken a big risk with their “New Voices” program. Does that mean they’re just publishing a whole slew of new people, throwing them all at the wall, and seeing who sticks? Or are they in it for the long haul—will they be there to help these talents develop and find their audiences, even if it takes a while? Hopefully, it’s the latter. Marketing yourself as a champion of new voices requires…well, championing new voices!
Anyway, I can report that my first experience with my first editor has thus far been excellent. Ross has been responsive, honest, and patient with all my dumb newbie questions. He’s both supportive and willing to whack me upside the head when I need it. (And believe me, I need it.) I may be green, but I do know that is a rare and wonderful thing!
Michael Dempsey is a novelist, actor, playwright and theatre director. Michael wrote for network television in the mid-’90s. Necropolis is his first novel and the result of a lifetime’s passion for crime and speculative fiction. He lives in northeastern Ohio with his family, where he is working on his next novel.