When Paul Martone, founder of Late Night Library, asked me why, as fiction writers, we volunteer our time to help other writers, I answered. Because he was recording. This interview. I can’t remember what I said then, because it’s been a few months, but I have remembered the question. And I think about it a lot.
Most of the time, I’m working on other people’s words these days. To produce small print runs of worthy books and then work as hard, or even harder, to get those words into other people’s hands. It’s a cause I believe in. It’s something I can do, having the right background in editing and layout. And it’s a way to circumvent the top-heavy New York industry. Which I have been thinking about a lot lately, too. I can’t change the way the industry is now, but I can build something new, from the ground up, something small and vital, something community based, something grassroots that will hopefully be more sustainable than throwing dollars at celebrity authors and ignoring everyone else.
I didn’t start a small press to fight against the big presses, so I don’t usually think about them. But last weekend I spoke at Lauren Kessler’s class, “Story and Commerce,” at the University of Oregon, and a student asked why an author would submit to me, knowing it’s not possible to make a full-time living as a novelist through a small independent press. Lauren piped up and said very few authors make a living writing even if they are picked up by the big houses. It was important for me to hear that for my own writing career. I knew it, but it was good to be reminded from someone who is a bestselling author.
I had a ready supply of answers for that student, the first one being “We take care of our authors.” We are there with them, partnering through every step of the process. We do publicity, unlike a lot of small houses. We have an eye on longevity–not banking on a book to do well in the first month, but looking toward the first six months, or even the first few years. And we spend the time editing, and revising, and editing some more, until the book is as good as it possibly can be. It doesn’t pay to spend that kind of time editing, but it sure is fun, and it’s a great service to the writer that I can offer–something that other presses might not do because there’s absolutely no financial return to spending hours on helping an author shore up a book.
But in that interview with Paul, one of the things I brought up was how editing other people’s work has made me a fearless reviser of my own work. I trust my instincts more now than ever, even though I’ve been in high-level critique groups for years and for a short time even ran my own freelance editing business. There’s something special about editing something for print, though, being The Last Stand between an author’s imagination and the real world, poking at what he or she has invented to make sure it’ll stand up to readers’ critiques.
I’ve learned to trust myself, and in fits and starts, around my press deadlines, I’m cracking open the first hundred pages of my novel and revising. Slowly. But fearlessly. I know what I want to do, not how to do it, but I’ll find a way. Being an editor of other people’s work has definitely made me a better reviser, and I recommend critiquing someone else’s manuscript to anyone who’s slogging away on a novel. You’ll learn so much from the craft if you keep your eyes open, if you trust your reader-self to find the issues and then trust your writer-self to be able to articulate them in a polite, helpful way.
I still need outside eyes to point out things I don’t see, as we all do, but I think I’m more open to that kind of advice now, too, instead of immediately worrying that a substantial change might erode what I’m trying to do. I’m more willing to say, okay, yes, I see that issue, and I agree. I can fix it. Thank you. My reaction these days is not about me or my writer-self being questioned, my choices being questioned; it’s about the work. And whether it works.
How about you? Do you edit other people’s writing? What do you get out of that close, critical relationship with someone else’s words?