Tag Archives: book editors

An Interview

Months ago, a few book bloggers (including yours truly) were interviewed by a popular writer for an online article.   For various and sundry reasons, the article never appeared so we are posting it here with the four original questions that were posed and one bonus question.book reviews

Why do you blog?   Is it for free books or just the love of reading?

I see it as performing a public service.   My reviewers and I take the time to read books and make a judgment as to whether this is worth the average reader/consumer’s money and – even more importantly – time.   These days both are seen as precious commodities.   We either recommend a book or refrain from doing so.

If you agree to be in a book tour and you  hate the book, do you review it anyway?

When this happened to me, I notified the tour leader that I was withdrawing; I had no desire to ruin someone else’s party (a debut party for the first-time author).   But I also told the tour leader that I would be writing and posting my own honest and less-than-favorable review at a slightly later date.

By the way, on Joseph’s Reviews I’ve periodically posted multiple reviews of the same book.   In one recent case, three of us reviewed the same novel.   I did not recommend buying and reading it, but two other reviewers did.   None of us claims perfect knowledge, but we try to clarify for the review reader how and why we each arrived at our own position.   Sometimes the difference in perspective can be due to different life experiences, or even recent positive or negative events in our lives.

Why do you think you’re “qualified” to review books?

I have a degree in Communication Arts, wrote music and entertainment reviews in college, and earned a law degree from a major university.   I’ve also taught, done significant writing and editing as a government Public Information Officer, and done some pre-publication work for a publisher based in England.   However, I think the key prerequisite for being a reviewer is the ability to be completely honest about one’s views.   It is just one opinion, but it should always be a frank and honest one.

Does you blog have anything to do with your own writing (i.e., did you start it because you were writing a novel or are the two totally unrelated)?

Because I enjoyed writing reviews at a period when (in the words of The Who), “I wore a younger man’s clothes,” I elected to do something similar with my adult leisure time.   I was an avid reader of music reviews when I was in college, and I often loved the critics whose opinions I most often disagreed with – those who didn’t necessarily sway my own views but whose consistency and tenacity I admired.

Writing an engaging, and hopefully, convincing book review is a bit like trying to fashion a proper legal argument.

If you had the power to do so, what one thing would you change about the book publishing industry?

A number of years ago, when you purchased a blank music recording cassette, part of the purchase price went to reimburse artists for lost royalties.   The same is true today when you buy a blank CD-R.   I would like to see a small part of the purchase price for each book – hardback, paperback or e-book – used to fund a central editing clearinghouse.   In my fantasy, all books would receive a final read and edit prior to publication.   The clearinghouse would have to issue a stamp of approval before the publisher could actually release the book.   (Crazy people and speed readers such as I would likely work at the literal publisher’s clearinghouse.)

There’s nothing more frustrating than picking up a “finished” book and finding it loaded with typos and simple mistakes that should have been corrected in the editing and fact-checking processes.   For example, my wife was just reading a novel that placed the UCLA campus in Brentwood – which is likely a major surprise to the tens of thousands of students on the grounds at Westwood!

ucla-campusJoseph Arellano

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God Bless the Editor

God Bless the Editor: The Power Behind the Scenes

The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night.   He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”

I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice.   All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending.   Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.

I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer.   Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform.   Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear.   The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”

Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music.   This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even  improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”

Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice…  It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions:  “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear?   Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”

In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit.   And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer.   I will restate his advice this way, in my own words:  Don’t argue, don’t take it personally.   The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.

The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra.   As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.   This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers.   Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed.   I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable.   And it wasn’t just me.   One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good…  not just in theme but in tone.”   Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other.   We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.”   Exactly!

When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.

One other key function is left up to the editor.   Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable.   You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming…  you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.”   If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.

In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust.   Mr. Mailer was so right.

Joseph Arellano

Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor. 

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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