Tag Archives: constructive criticism

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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Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles, edited by Kenneth Womack (Cambridge University Press)

“(George) Martin was more impressed with the Beatles charisma than their early material.”

The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles is an excellent collection of essays concerning the band’s work.   This compendium manages to cover their musical career from simple rockers to complicated composers without missing a beat.   The chapter, “The Beatles as recording artists” quotes freely from recording engineer Geoff Emerick.   Although it’s a fine summary in a couple of dozen pages, it does not take the place of Emerick’s essential work, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles.

As with every account of the Beatles, things start out fine and fun before ending in the train wreck of the band’s dissolution.   We begin with Meet the Beatles and end up with the mishmash digital meddling – and mess – of Love.   It remains, all in all, a sad story.   (Hey Jude, anyone?)

One of the writers notes that major educational institutions – like Cambridge – now see the Beatles as a bona fide topic of scholarly inquiry.   Fine, but collections like this one completely omit the spirit of the Fab Four; their human energy if you will.   This reviewer thinks that mythologizing the Beatles is more destructive than constructive.   After all, as John Lennon said, they were just four guys in a band.   That was enough.

Well recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Average is Not Good Enough

“You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now/ You’ve got to roar like forest fire…”   Joni Mitchell (“Judgement of the Moon and Stars: Ludwig’s Tune”)

You don’t see many book reviews concluding that the book being reviewed is average.   Yet, in truth, many books are simply average and this can present a problem for a reviewer.   Think, for example, about the book reviews you’ve read recently that you remember.   I would guess that they were either extremely positive or negative; either praising or damning.

These “A” or “F” reviews almost write themselves as the reviewer is honestly answering a single question:  Why did I love – or hate – this book?   But it is a much harder task to write a review of a book that doesn’t either soar or plummet  – the “C” book that represents the much-dreaded and highly feared word in this country, average.

Sometimes this comes down to the process of editing.   Ideally, an editor should perform two tasks at once when reviewing a manuscript.   He or she should review the grammatical accuracy and, just as importantly, determine if the work has a narrative structure that is attractive and holds the reader’s interest.   There are perfectly edited books – with no typos or errors of punctuation – that merely glide down the runway but never take off, for lack of style.

I had an experience with this recently.   I received a copy of a semi-fictional novel from a first-time author.   There were no obvious errors in spelling or punctuation in the galley but the entire story read as if it were written by a newspaper reporter:  “First, I did this, then that.   Then I graduated from high school, then got married, then went into the military, then went to college.”   You’ve heard of the phrase, “Dialing it in?”

I lost all interest in the book after a few dozen pages.   I had almost no idea what to say about it so I decided not to write a review.   I am not a fan of assigning either grades or stars to books (the latter seems so trite and childish) but in this case I almost wished that I could simply say, “An average story told without style.   C-.”   Oh, well.

But there’s a lesson here, I think, for the first-time writer.   After you finish the manuscript for the Great American Novel or the Fantastic Nonfiction Survey Book, look for an editor who will apply the style test to your work.   This will, hopefully, not be a friend or family member.   Supplying this editor with the first chapter of your work should suffice.   Ask him or her one basic question, “After reading this sample chapter, did you want to read more?”   If the answer is “no,” take it as constructive criticism and work on finding your voice.

It is not sufficient in today’s highly competitive literary market to just bang out a story.   C-level books are not good enough.   If you’re going to be a true writer, an artist, you need to come up with a work that is so individual, so full of your spirit and unique voice that reviewers will either love it or hate it.

Go for the “A” or “F” and get noticed!   And by all means, avoid the cloak of invisibility that’s inevitably attached to average work.

One in a continuing series.   Pictured:  Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (Harper Perennial Trade Paperback, $13.95).

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