Revision from the POV of a Publisher

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?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Revision, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Revision from the POV of a Publisher

  1. Sam says:

    I love critique groups and I find they help me a lot as a writer. When I note that someone needs fewer dialogue tags because they’re cumbersome, I wonder if I use too many and then I pay attention to that in my own revisions. It’s a great tool.

  2. Memoir in progress says:

    Reblogged this on Kellywawa's Blog.

  3. Gwen Stephens says:

    I don’t edit other people’s writing in a professional sense, but I do exchange work regularly with my critique partners. I’ve also had great experiences beta reading two different novel manuscripts for two writing friends. I love reading another writer’s work. It teaches me a lot about my own writing. This was a great post!

    • Exchanging with fellow writers can be a very professional experience, Gwen, because you’re all taking the craft seriously, and it’s such fun to be part of someone else’s writerly journey in that way. Thanks for the comment!

  4. One of the best things to happen to me was stumbling into becoming a 5th grade teacher years ago. All of the young little writers moaned at the idea of revision, but I refused to let them sell their stories short–it was easy to be motivational since I wasn’t writing! For two years I saw kids who thought they had nothing good to say suddenly write five page memoirs and action-packed hero adventures. They not only inspired me to stop living my dreams through them but to be unafraid of revision.

    I actually find it more relaxing once I have the first draft done–then I can have real fun.

    • That’s such a great change in perspective, Middlemay! And I agree–revision can be such fun, once there’s something in place to meddle with (and muddle with, at times). Thanks for the great comment.

  5. I’ve done some beta reading, and I do a fair amount of editing at my job. One; thing it’s taught me is that different people will write a scene differently than I would, and it’s often because they’re trying to achieve a different effect than I would want. Everything in writing is to get a specific reaction out of the reader, but different writers see different reactions as desirable. My father usually wanted a laugh, preferably a big laugh (he was a semi-pro humorist). So, of course he’d write a scene differently than I would, even if it contained the same characters and plot elements. The same for somebody who’s trying to delve deeply into the characters’ pain and anguish and so on, or somebody who’s trying to scare the pants off people. In my first novel, there was a gag, and it was pretty funny (I thought), and I left it out (wrong for the character), but I know my father would have put it in (funny). Didn’t have anything to do with “good” writing or “bad” writing — just different goals.

    “I didn’t start a small press to fight against the big presses, so I don’t usually think about them.”

    I’m always think of this as the Steve Jobs lesson (the one nobody ever talks about — but maybe the most important one).

    When Jobs was out of Apple, the company was obsessed with market share (compared to Windows). It was all they talked about. By gum, they were going to gain market share and someday wallop Microsoft.

    Not only impossible, but also irrelevant. When Jobs came back, he dropped that idea immediately and focused on profitability. And now Apple has the biggest market cap of any corporation on the planet.

    I don’t think you can do anything at your best if your main focus is on what the other guy is doing.

    • I love this Steve Jobs analogy, Anthony. I don’t think I can singlehandedly change the industry, nor is that my goal, but in providing an alternative–another place for authors to find a home for their work–I can do exactly that, best I can, regardless of what everyone else is doing.

      And as far as goals, of what a particular author wants to achieve, I’ve been thinking a lot about that when reading submissions. Some effects may be done perfectly, but they might not be appropriate to this particular story or character, and that bumps me as a reader. We have to make the best decisions for our own manuscripts, whatever those may be, based on whatever results we want to achieve.

  6. Most of my editing others’ words comes from working with my students, especially the ones in my middle school creative writing class. It definitely makes me bolder when it comes to editing my own work (and I love their perspective on excerpts and such that I show them). It’s also incredible the sort of closeness that comes from sharing words. Over the year, I get to know all of my students, but the most closely-knit class is creative writing.

    I also totally love what you’re doing as a small press. It’s so awesome! : )

    • Bryna, I love that you’re the second teacher commenting here about learning to be bold from your students. I’ve never taught, but in being part of writing groups over the years, we’re all friends beyond the page, because of what we’ve shared on the page. How we’ve talked to each other about our work. That honesty and closeness. So cool.

  7. jmmcdowell says:

    I’ve met some wonderful beta readers through blogging, and one of them and I regularly exchange works for critique and editing. And as you describe in your post, I’ve learned to reevaluate my writing through my edits of her work. Recognizing areas that could be strengthened in her work and areas that work beautifully has helped me apply the experience to my own writing. It has meant starting over. But I think the stories will be stronger as a result. And we should want our stories to be the best they can be before sending them out in the wider world.

    • Isn’t it great to have a touchstone writer/reader like that in your life? And great point about why we revise–to make our work better before it goes out. Well said, jm.

  8. Laura, battling with an attack on my poor body, I am late coming to your post. I don’t have the skills necessary to be a good editor. I am a great reader and always provide positive feedback, but the nuances of what you do are not in my line-up of skills.

    I can see how editing other people helps you with your own writing. We learn as much as we teach most days 🙂

    • Oh, Florence! I hope you feel better soon. There’s a lot to be said for your kind of feedback, supportive keep-going words. I have a writer-friend who is so gracious in her responses and I always go to her when I need a reason to keep going, a vote of confidence that the work is, indeed, worthwhile.

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