- By Harry Bingham
- Published 04/17/2013
An interviewer once asked Ernest Hemingway whether he did a lot of rewriting. Hemingway said that depended on what you counted as a lot. He mentioned that he had written the last page of A Farewell to Arms some 39 times. The interviewer was puzzled. ‘Was there some technical problem,’ he asked. Yes, said Hemingway, ‘Getting the words right.’ Hemingway was right on two levels. First, ‘getting the words right’ is the central task of any writer. Second, that’s a difficult business. If it takes a great writer thirty-nine efforts to hit the target, most of us should budget for a lot more than that. In effect, Hemingway was calling attention to the editorial process. The way that a piece of fiction changes repeatedly – and often markedly – from first draft to final product. In this instance, Hemingway was self-editing his novel, but he also, famously, had a close creative relationship with his book editor, Maxwell Perkins, a legendary fiction editor. Great books weren’t born simply of genius. They were born of hard work, countless rewrites, and an external editorial eye. And that was Ernest Hemingway, one of the few essential writers of the twentieth century. I don’t know your work myself, but I’m willing to venture that your manuscript needs outside editorial services even more than his did. So what should you look for? And how to ensure your investment of emotional and financial investment most bears fruit? Well, the first thing is to be sure that your book editor has the qualifications necessary for the task. It’s not enough to just to buy manuscript editing serve prices: done badly, the process can make your fiction worse, not better. And there are only two qualifications that count. First is being the author of novels that sold to major fiction publishers. There’s too much flim-flam published by micro-presses for such a publication record to count for much. Secondly, it’s OK if your putative editor has a credible track record as a commissioning editor at a major publishing house. Either of those is OK. Anything else is not.
A lot of fiction writers think that it’s better to get someone whose speciality is in editing, not writing, but that’s something of a misconception. Editors at publishers only ever have experience of working with authors whose work is already good enough to have been taken on by a literary agent and bought by a publisher. Authors have experience o
f turning ragged first drafts into dazzling final products most newbie fiction writers will need the second skillset a bit more than the first. The second thing to bear in mind when seeking editorial services is that you – and your manuscript – may well need a radical approach. You need an fiction editor who will be truthful first, kind second. It’s very common for fiction (even quite good fiction) to need a genuinely radical overhaul to make it work. I know one professional author who wrote her third novel in two voices, then realised one of those two had to go. I myself once deleted the first draft of my second novel, because I realised it wasn’t good enough. Then rewrote from scratch. And it’s just normal for plot to go through major evolutions. For the handling of points of view to change profoundly. For the number of characters to be culled. And so forth. And all those things have sequelae. If you ditch a couple of secondary characters, then those that remain suddenly have to do more work. In fiction, everything has consequences and the editorial process is about chasing the logic of those consequences down to – literally – the last period and comma. Next, it’s important to realise what a manuscript editing service should and should not do. A good book editor SHOULD give you detailed feedback on what is and isn’t working in your fiction, plus detailed info on how to fix it. An editor SHOULD NOT start rewriting your novel – this is a disastrous practice for loads of reasons. It’s criminally expensive. It means you lose a vital part of the learning process. And it never works. This is your book, your fiction, your characters and story. Those things never come to life in the hands of another. You can put a professional sheen on something, yes, but you will never produce something that will make a literary agent or publisher sit up and take notice.
A couple of final points. You should make sure that any editing service gives you the opportunity for interaction with your fiction editor after you receive your written editorial report. Very often the real illumination happens in that most-report interaction. Also, you do need to realise that editorial advice is just that: advice, not orders. This is your book, your novel, your world! A really good editorial process will probably end up with the author accepting 60% of what the editor suggests at face value, and a further 20% being accepted albeit with modifications. But that still leaves 20% where the author thinks, Nope, that’s not the way I see it, you’ve got that wrong. And that’s fine. Hemingway and Perkins collaborated. It’s what you should look for too.