No Matter What, You’ll Always Need an Editor

I’m currently on my third reread of the Harry Potter series. I came to the series late, my first readthrough being in 2014; and while I’m not a superfan, I love the series. It’s a great story across seven books, with wonderful characters and world-building. I also admire anyone who can write that much and have it all come together and make sense.

With the third reread, and thus the story well-settled into my memory, I’m starting to notice more little things in terms of style. And one thing I’ve noticed is that, around the time the series truly exploded — from what I recall, after Goblet of Fire was released — the tightness of the editing waned.

This struck me during Order of the Phoenix, which I’m almost done with. Now, it’s a good story, like all the rest. Its length isn’t a huge deterrent to me, though Harry doesn’t even arrive at Hogwarts until almost 200 pages in. It’s more the stylistic choices. A popular style choice in the book is to end every other sentence with ellipses. Almost everything Harry does or thinks trails off, especially after the halfway mark. It was okay the first 50 times, but after, oh, the fifth paragraph in a row with three sentences ending in ellipses, it starts to get irritating.

I won’t use this post to air all my style grievances with Order of the Phoenix (though seriously, the all caps yelling could also stand to take a chill pill). But as I noticed this sudden hard left turn from Book 4 to Book 5 — one that coincided with what I remember as the rise in the series’ popularity — I wondered if the series’ increased popularity, and J.K. Rowling’s subsequent increased clout, had the negative effect of the publisher taking a step back in terms of editing. Rowling’s books were immensely popular, and now that her work was proven — and rightfully so — perhaps there was less insistence to change or edit her work too much. But as I’m seeing in Order of the Phoenix, that isn’t always for the best.

I can’t say for sure that was the case for Books 5-7 in the Harry Potter series, since I wasn’t in the publisher’s office when the book was finished (though my Potter-loving friend said in response to my tweets about this, “No good editor would have let 400 fucking pages of idling in the damn woods stand. Also, the epigraph.”). But I can site a similar example that was in fact a documented case of a creator receiving little to no editorial interference: George Lucas and The Phantom Menace.

According to a book I just read and loved, Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery; George Lucas had earned the right (and money) to tell the studios that he wanted complete creative control over the return to the Star Wars universe. However, this led to a movie that many fans consider the worst in the series — it’s slow, the acting is wooden, it misses the forest for the trees in terms of lore, and the dialogue is god-awful. To the latter point, Lucas even admitted he wasn’t good at writing dialogue. And yet, he didn’t want assistance with dialogue — and the studios allowed him that freedom because of his clout.

I saw The Phantom Menace when I was 13. Even then, I knew what I was seeing was bad. George Lucas is a creative genius who has devised a modern legend that will live beyond any of us. That doesn’t mean he didn’t need an editor.

Everyone needs an editor, and yet almost no one wants to admit it. Editors are for amateurs, some think; or are deployed by anxious big-wigs who don’t trust their creators or anyone’s vision that’s different from theirs.

Yes, there may be publishers who overstep and edit to their expectations as opposed to the writer’s voice. But just because that happens, that doesn’t mean an author outgrows the need to be edited. It just means they need a better editor — one that respects them as a writer and wants to encourage their growth.

I know both the temptation to go at my work alone, and the sting of being told what parts of my creation need to be fixed. When I get my memo and edits back from Evelyn Duffy, I use them to learn and remember them as I write my next piece — and I’ll admit, I occasionally think, “Ha! I remembered to do [blank] this time! I’m doing one better!” I submit my work to her and wait to see if she notices and remarks on any improvement. I don’t kid myself into thinking a piece won’t need to be edited, but I feel a special sense of glee with the piece that only needs a few copy edits.

Still, those pieces are few and far in between — and lucky for me, I’ve found an editor who doesn’t let improvement on my part diminish any editing on her part. Evelyn even remarked that one of my short stories she recently edited “made me step up my editing game.” This is good for both author and editor, but in my mind, it’s especially good for the author because it challenges the author to keep growing and improving with each piece.

Even if one doesn’t have an editor like Evelyn (and I pity those who don’t, because she’s amazing), it’s still important to remember that, no matter where you are in terms of writing experience, popularity, or clout, you should always be edited and you should always consider the input of others. And if you’re an editor or publisher, you should always maintain that role over your authors’ work, even if they’re established and popular. It results in better outcomes for everyone involved.

I’m all for giving creators more freedom, especially when they’ve proven themselves. But there’s also such a thing as giving a creator too much freedom because they’re so popular. Everyone needs an editor. Everyone needs advice. Everyone needs oversight.

To bring this point home, I present a tale of two creators, as shared anecdotally by friend and fellow beer writer Will Gordon. On one hand, we have David Foster Wallace:

I won’t add much of my two cents, since I haven’t read Infinite Jest; but from what I’ve seen online, the general consensus seems to be that, at best, it’s an ordeal to finish.

On the other hand, we have David Sedaris:

David Sedaris has one of the most distinctive voices in literature. He is edited, and he listens to his editor.

My Favorite Books of 2017

It’s been a year. Some parts were good, others not so good. But the year has come and gone, and I am looking forward to seeing what 2018 brings.

I am an avid reader, but noticed the voraciousness ebbed a little as I worked on Please Give, and readied both that and The Crow’s Gift for publication. Still, I read; and close to 30 books this year. I liked most of what I read, and wanted to highlight my favorites that I read this year (even if they weren’t written this year). Here are my favorite books of 2017, in alphabetical order.

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman — I had never heard of this book until I saw the preview for the movie earlier this summer. Once I realized the movie was an adaptation, I got a copy from the library and sped through it in less than a week. It tells the story of Elio, a young man who falls in lust (and perhaps love) with his father’s research assistant over the course of the summer. The book is told from Elio’s perspective, and his scattered thinking — scattered by the sudden onslaught of lust and love at once — is perfectly captured in Aciman’s prose. I recommend both the book and the film.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay — Roxane Gay released two books this year, Difficult Women and Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I loved Hunger, but was struck by Gay’s beautiful short stories in Difficult Women. Months later, I still hear passages and see scenes in my head. My favorite stories were “Water, All Its Weight” and “La Negra Blanca.”

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas — Thomas’ story of Starr, a teenage girl who witnesses her friend being killed by a cop, is a haunting, timely story. It does a deft job of exploring both the personal toll on Starr and the far-reaching ramifications on her family, her friends, her school, and her neighborhood. I highly recommend it.

Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977 – 2002) by David Sedaris — this is as-advertised: a collection of Sedaris’ diary entries from 1977 up until 2002. Other than the introduction, they’re presented as-is. I really liked this, as the reader is able to fill in context of current events of the time, where Sedaris was in his career, and other items not necessarily told in each entry. I also read this book during a stressful time in my personal life, and found the picaresque mundane of daily diary entries very comforting to read. Make no mistake, though — Sedaris’ wit and talent as a writer are still present in each entry.

Honorable mention: “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian — like seemingly most everyone in the second week of December, I read and enjoyed “Cat Person.” It was a good story — it didn’t bowl me over or beg for a reread, but it was a good story with some great passages. I give it an honorable mention because I was so struck by how it took off online, especially on Twitter. It speaks to Roupenian’s talent that so many people thought it was an essay or a true, personal story. I recommend giving it a read (the full story is available in the linked title) if you haven’t read it already.

What were some of your favorite books of 2017? Let me know in the comments!

Happy New Year, everyone.