The Other Side of the Desk

When the folks at The Kill Zone asked me to join their blog, I hesitated.

Not because this isn’t a wonderful blog. In fact, I think it’s one of the best going and I’ve long been a fan.

But after several years of not blogging, and several years before that writing posts for my own blog and for Murderati, I wondered if a) I was up to the task; and/or b) I had anything worthwhile to contribute.

I guess that’ll be up to you to judge.

For most of my life I’ve wanted to be a professional writer and have succeeded in that goal in a number of ways. I’ve been published in magazines, I’ve sold screenplays, I’ve written for animated TV shows (with the distinction of writing several episodes of what is probably the least popular of all the Spider-Man incarnations), I’ve published books with St. Martin’s Press, Penguin, Amazon, written under pen names for other publishers, including Harlequin, have had books published in several countries, and I’ve even won and been nominated for a couple of awards.

Yes, I’m very tired. And old.

In 2012, after finishing a big project for one of the Big Six, I decided to say goodbye to the “traditional” publishing world and go indie. And I’m convinced that this decision (along with my buddy Brett Battles’s decision to leave Random House) was one of the underlying factors that led to Random Penguin, or whatever they call themselves. They obviously had to join forces in order to compensate for the loss of their two best authors…

No, really.

But I don’t regret the decision to go indie. I’m very happy I took that leap and so is my accountant. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I’m a strong advocate for the DIY approach.

In 2015, however, I went a little crazy and took DIY to new heights and decided to start my own independent publishing company, which has been an interesting and educational experience so far. In the process, I wound up on the other side of the desk, taking in work from other writers and finding myself in the unenviable position of editor.

I say unenviable because editing a book is hard friggin’ work. Harder in some ways than writing the book yourself.

file1461250298916-underwearI have no idea what kind of writer you are, but I can certainly tell you what kind of writer I am. When I turn in my “first” draft to a publisher, I make sure that draft is as clean as a brand new pair of underwear.

Why underwear?

Because my mother used to tell me not to leave the house with holes in my skivvies in case I got into an accident and embarrassed myself at the E.R. Why that would be of any concern to me is a question I never thought to ask her, but you get the point (at least I hope you do).

And if you don’t, the point is this:

Back when I was publishing traditionally, I made sure my drafts were so clean that if I were to drop dead the next day, I wouldn’t be embarrassed by a story full of clunky prose and plot holes and half-baked dialogue.

I’ve always known, in theory, that not all writers are as crazy as I am. And after working with several now, I’ve learned first hand that some will turn in a draft that barely needs to be touched, while others look at the editorial process as a form of collaboration. A way to hone character, plot, story and structure with the guidance of their editor.

Neither way is right or wrong, but working with manuscripts in varying states of completion has taught me a lot about how others work, and has certainly cemented my long-held belief that there is no “single” way of writing a book. That every author must approach the task in a way that makes them feel most comfortable and gets the job done.

file000118281268-crayonsWhat I’ve also discovered is that, because I’m a writer myself, I’m very much a “hands on” kind of editor.

Part of this comes from the nature of the projects I’ve been working on. The premise, characters and series elements are created by me—in house, as they say—then passed on to other writers to do the grunt work. We work very much like a head writer and staff of a television show, and as head writer, I don’t hesitate to take a final pass on the book in order to make it conform to the “rules” of the series and the books that have come before it.

There’s every possibility that the “staff writers” have been grumbling amongst themselves about my sometimes heavy-handed approach, but most of those I’ve worked with have said they very much enjoyed the process and found the task of writing someone else’s characters both challenging and rewarding.

It’s been challenging and rewarding for me, as well.

So what’s the point of all this blather?

Well, it’s merely to lead up to this:

What kind of writer are you? When you turn a draft into your editor (whether indie or traditional) do you take the clean underwear approach, or do you consider the writer-editor relationship more of an exploratory collaboration?

Oh, and how do you feel about heavy-handed editors? I’m not talking copy editors, mind you (many of whom should be drummed out of the business), but content editors or story editors or whatever you want to call them.

And, finally, do you think editors are actually necessary? Because I may surprise you when I say that I don’t believe they always are. But that’s a post for another day.

Thank you to the folks at The Kill Zone for inviting me into the family. Let’s see how long it takes before they want to kick me out… 😉

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29 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Desk

  1. Hi Robert!

    Clean underwear guy here. My manuscript is as close to perfect as I can get it before I pass it along. So far, I haven’t had to deal with a heavy-handed editor. If I did, I’m certain it would not go well for either of us. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Welcome to the KZ! I turn in as clean a manuscript as possible. That said, my editor will always find something to fix, but it’s usually a scene or two and nothing major. I appreciate not having a heavy-handed editor. It’s helpful when she makes suggestions for changes that I can carry out myself.

  3. Clean underwear, for sure. Mainly because I’m a perfectionist and would be embarrassed if I didn’t give it my all. Yes, I believe editors are necessary. They can see things that writers can’t, because we’re too close to our stories. I’ve read Murderati posts several times. Great blog! Sadly, I can’t read as many blogs as I’d like anymore due to time constraints, but whenever I have the chance I pop over. Welcome to TKZ!

  4. I’m the clean underwear type, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love working with a developmental editor even with a manuscript I think is ready. I always know it can benefit from fresh and knowledgeable eyes. I doubt I’ll ever get to the point where a full-length manuscript could ‘go to press’ without that benefit.

    On one occasion, the editor wanted me to change the ending, but I fought that recommendation to the death… because if I’d changed the ending, then the whole story would not have said what I wanted it to say thematically.

    I guess the kind of editor I’d object to is the one who wants to re-write too many phrases so that my voice would be changed in the process.

    As an editor myself, I’ve only changed wording with one manuscript, and that happened because of a horrible deadline (no time for back and forth) and because I got the author’s voice, i.e., everything I changed had to do with a lack of clarity. The author was surprised and pleased when I was able to reproduce his voice, but I don’t think that happens very often.

    However, I do wish more DYI writers would realize when their work is not ready to be foisted on the public. In my mind, it’s sort of like not being able to recognize that you’re stupid, because you are stupid.

    Looking forward to your post about when an editor might not be necessary.

    P.S. Welcome!

  5. “And, finally, do you think editors are actually necessary?”

    Oh, yes. I’m as committed to a clean ms as you, yet in my first book, my editors at Novel Fox detected an embarrassing number of — if I may use strong language — outright boo-boos.

    Nothing like a second pair of eyeballs. Especially those owned by folks who know what they’re doing.

  6. Welcome to TKZ, Rob. Great to have you here. My mother gave me the same underwear advice as your mom, and that’s my approach to turning in the manuscript. Hopefully, no embarrassment in the ER.

  7. Thanks, all, for making me feel welcome. The “do we need an editor” argument will probably be my next post and I discovered when I raised the question on Facebook several months back it angered at least one writer, so I will tread lightly.

    Or not.

  8. Welcome aboard, Rob! A couple of things. First, next time we have lunch, I won’t be worrying about your underwear. Thanks for that.

    Next, I always wanted to turn in the best MS possible to my publishers. My first reader is my wife, who has a great editorial eye. She still goes over my indie work.

    Finally, great content editors are extremely rare. I was fortunate in this with most of my trad books. If an indie author can find a good one, that’s a relationship worth nurturing. A solid team of beta readers who offer detailed feedback is a workable alternative.

    BTW, Rob, do we have to shower as well?

  9. Clean as I can make it. That being said, with some stories I need a helping hand. Recently I completed my first thriller and I knew it wasn’t as cohesive as I wanted it to be. So, I hired two content editors and sent it to my most valued beta reader. Bingo! Magic happened and I can see the path through the forest. With other stories, especially ones further along in a series, I don’t go the editor route, rather I go to my beta readers. But I think all stories benefit from some outside reading! Before I foist my deathless prose on the reading public, I want it spit-and-polished and running smooth.

  10. Morning and welcome Robert. I tend to be a lurker here, but really appreciate your questions about editors. And I like your snarky edge. 🙂

    Yes, I think an editor is important, but maybe some go too far? I don’t have much experience as a new writer. Although I hired a developmental editor for my nonfiction MS. She was terrific, but maybe that’s saying something about my MS. Hehehe.

    Oh, yeah, I signed up for Dark Whispers. Thanks for the ebook. I look forward to reading!

  11. Welcome, Rob. I love that you’re part of the TKZ family.

    Do moms get a playbook of advice? I’m thinking they do, or the clean skivvies thing comes in their DNA.

    I have a rolling edit process where I edit as I write forward to make sure my work is as clean as YOUR UNDIES, my friend. #MyNewGoal

    I also think a content editor’s input is a collaboration worth considering. I’ve had good projects become better with solid input from a good editor. I’ve pushed back on a few things, but I’m open to anything.

    Glad to have you with us, Rob.

    • Thanks, Jordan. Can’t remember the last time we saw each other. It seems like a decade.

      I’m certainly not against a great editor. Cindy Gerard does my editing these days (as a favor) and she’s the best I’ve ever had.

      Wait, that didn’t sound right. You know what I mean.

  12. As one of Rob’s writers, I can attest that he’s a hands-on editor. He’s also tremendously thorough and improved my manuscript immeasurably. And he’s very hard on himself. (Whoops, did I say that?  )

  13. Welcome Robert – what a great topic with which to introduce yourself!
    I try to present the best work I can to an editor and hope (trust) that they can add another layer to my work and allow my ‘best work’ to improve with each submission.

  14. Spicy, Rob. You & Cindy. She’s great. You’re lucky.

    The last time I saw you was at an RWA conference somewhere. San Fran or Dallas maybe. You were in a minority of male writers at a romance con, but you loved all the conference offerings as I recall.

    It’s a treat having you here, my fine friend.

  15. Welcome Bob. I’m all for clean underwear. And as a story coach, I experience the thing you write about here, the encountering of the “naked” story, skivvies and all. Here’s a thought.

    It isn’t just clean underwear. It’s the right underwear. Not to small or too big. Not the wrong color. Not the wrong style. These, of course, are author decisions, rather than editing skills. And yet, these not only stand out, they are what makes a project publishable, or not.

    And then there is commando (no underwear at all), which is also a choice that can work… or not. So many choices, so many ways to screw it up.

    Have fun here at KZ, it’s a great group.

  16. Am I the only person here whose mother never told me about the clean underwear thing? I did get the bit that eating cookie dough gives you worms, though.

    But definitely am a clean undies writer. I think it’s a pride thing or just my naturally anal personality at work (my towels are always put away folded-side out…yuk. I’m working at that.) Still, none of us gets it right on the first pass, so I am thankful to have had good editors, even some great ones, over 13 books now. And not one of them ever tried to go to the mat over something, always saying the final decision was mine to make. That’s a great editor, imo, someone with the talent to bring out the best in a writer but the humility to know when to back off.

    Welcome to TZK, Rob. Looking forward to your posts.

  17. PJ, thanks, but I have to take exception to one thing you said: “None of us gets it right on the first pass.”

    I think that depends on what you consider a first pass. For me, there’s no real first pass, because I’m constantly revising as I go, line by line, until I reach THE END. My so-called “first pass” is my final pass. Whether I get it right or not is up to the readers to decide.

    While I appreciate the work editors do (more than ever now), I can think of only one book of mine that needed extensive developmental editing, and that’s because it was a book written for hire, with very specific needs that I had failed to fulfill. The reason I work so hard to make that first draft clean, clean, clean is because I don’t want to rewrite the book. I’m lazy. And when I’m done, I’m done. And while it’s wonderful to get feedback, I trust my own judgment about my work more than I do an editor’s.

    I know that sounds egotistical, but it’s not meant to be. I just believe that I’m no different than someone like Woody Allen (and I’m not comparing my work to his in any way) who has complete autonomy on all of his movies, succeed or fail. And I’d argue that the WRONG editor can ruin a book. So I try to make my books bulletproof.

    Do I succeed? Not always. But I try.

    I’ll repeat this theme in my next post, which will probably begin with the question: Why doesn’t anyone ever say, “Every painter needs an editor.”

  18. Welcome, Robert 🙂

    Great start!

    When I write on my own, I’m a clean underwear girl. I’m lucky to have a friend who’s also a fantastic content editor, and she goes over my final draft.

    But when I write in co-operation with that friend, I do the writing, and she does the editing and rewriting, and in those cases my undies are not quite as clean. After all, she has to put in some work, too, right?

  19. Welcome to the zone, Rob! I am catching up late to your first post because we just got off an overnight flight to Sydney, Australia. In terms of quality of manuscript drafts, I have always assumed that a manuscript must be in publishable shape, requiring only one round of high level editorial notes, plus one round of copy edit, when it is submitted as a first draft. If it’s not that clean, it shouldn’t be submitted. Any writer who expects handholding from an editor these days is being unrealistic and unprofessional, IMHO.

  20. I always aim for as clean as possible, but it never fails… within ten seconds after hitting the SEND button, I find something that makes me groan and think, “The editor is gonna think I am a total nimrod,” or something a little more explicit.

    As Tim Tresslar mentions, I too am part of Team LINGER, and I don’t remember the last time I had so much flat out FUN with a project. And isn’t that what we should be doing with our writing? Having fun?

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