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.
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.