Consider the editor.
Unless you opt for the self-publishing route, as a writer you must realize that the editor is the ultimate gatekeeper to your words appearing in print. That’s true whether you submit your work to a website, a newspaper, a magazine, or, via a literary agent or directly, a book publisher.
Do not think of the editor, however, as just an obstacle to overcome. She or he also can be—and in the best cases always is—an ally, one whose goal is to help you make your writing as good as it can possibly be and then get it in front of others to read.
So it may behoove you to broaden your understanding of how and why editors do what they do. Fortunately, the past few months have offered three notable portraits of editors at work.
The latest is Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, Avid Reader (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Gottlieb is a publishing giant, having worked as a top book editor at Simon & Schuster and, over two separate terms, Alfred A. Knopf, in between which he succeeded the legendary William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker magazine. The roster of authors whose work he shepherded into print includes Toni Morrison, John le Carré, John Cheever, Michael Crichton, Robert Caro, Nora Ephron, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Joseph Heller and Bill Clinton.
The Fairfield Writer’s Blog has purchased Gottlieb’s book but has not yet read it. The universally positive reviews have promised a healthy dose of editorial wisdom amid Gottlieb’s stories about polishing the prose of authors from both the literary and celebrity ends of the publishing spectrum. One for-instance, from Dwight Garner’s review in The New York Times: “Throughout his long career, if one of his writers was blocked, Mr. Gottlieb liked to tell him or her, ‘Don’t write, type!’ ” Indeed, the simple act of putting something, anything, down on the screen or paper often acts as a trigger to getting your creative juices flowing.
The FWB already has cited, albeit briefly, Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life (Knopf). McDonell edited 13 magazines over a 30-year career in periodicals, most of them men’s magazines, ending with a 10-year stint at Sports Illustrated. Written in vignettes, the book presents portraits of such guy scribes as Richard Price, P. J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford; editors Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone), Helen Gurley Brown (Cosmopolitan) and Liz Tilberis (Harper’s Bazaar); and other notables, including Steve Jobs and Jimmy Buffet. Scattered throughout are short, useful lessons about dealing with writers and writing, such as this summary, quoted in our earlier post: “I had only three rules [for writers]: Force nothing. Be clear. You can always go deeper.”
The third 2016 exploration of the editor’s job is not a book. It is a movie—“Genius”—starring Colin Firth as editor Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s and Jude Law as author Thomas Wolfe. The independent film is adapted from A. Scott Berg’s award-winning 1978 biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (Dutton). It was released in U.S. theaters in June, to so-so notices, and came out on DVD earlier this month.
Perhaps it takes an editor to fully appreciate the inherent drama of a famous author-editor relationship. The FWB recommends clicking through to “I Read It at the Movies,” in which Gerald Howard, executive editor at Doubleday (where he worked with FWB friend James Kaplan on the second volume of Kaplan’s monumental biography of Frank Sinatra), offers just such an appreciation of “Genius” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Howard’s essay expresses the challenges and rewards of his and his colleagues’ craft in far more refined prose than the FWB marshals here.
Should you decide to make a deeper study of the editor’s world, Berg’s life of Perkins is the place to start. It won a National Book Award for biography.
A companion memoir to Gottlieb’s is Michael Korda’s Another Life (Random House, 1999). Korda worked down the hall from Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster, editing writers as diverse as Jacqueline Susann, Larry McMurtry and Richard Nixon.
The FWB recalls Korda writing that one of the gifts he and Gottlieb shared was an ability to read a manuscript incredibly fast, often overnight regardless of length. And The Wall Street Journal’s review of Avid Reader has this advice from Gottlieb:
“ ‘Get back to your writers right away. . . .[It’s] cruelty to animals to keep them waiting.’ (He often adds a corollary: ‘Bad news delivered quickly is better than no news.’) When, later in life, [Gottlieb] started writing himself. . . ‘It made me insane when I would deliver a commissioned piece, or part of a book and wait days, sometimes weeks, to hear back from my editor. Insane with anxiety and insane with fury, I expected others to do unto me as I did unto others.’ ”
OK, so your interest is in writing, not reading about or watching the depiction of what Howard, in his essay, refers to as “the sausage factory” aspects of putting words into print. Editing—what’s the fun in that?
Well, if it is fun you are after, consider the story of five authors hoping to find glory through the auspices of editors at imaginary New York City publisher Davis and Dash. The compelling cast of characters navigates a world of glamour, intrigue, humor, heartbreak and, yes, steamy sex. Their journeys are recounted in fast-paced, occasionally cynical and endlessly entertaining style by the late Olivia Goldsmith, author of The First Wives Club, in her novel The Bestseller (Harper Collins, 1996). You can find a copy today on the shelves of the FWB’s home, the Fairfield (Connecticut) Public Library, or perhaps at a library near you.—Alex McNab
Note: This is the first of two posts about the editing experience. Coming up, a veteran author has her latest book edited by her new publisher.