Out of the Storm: How Editors See
Every writer knows the agony of going blind. Beginners do, but it's excrutiating for veterans, too: that moment when we lose perspective on our work, when the page goes windy and dead.
For twenty-five years I've taught fiction writing at colleges across the country, and along with it, self-editing. Revising can be where suspense first ignites the page, where voice becomes unmistakable, my students learn. Until a writer internalizes this she can feel herself twist in the wind, buffeted by the world's opinions. Unfortunately, confidence still evaporates. Which of us doesn't sometimes doubt her purpose, abandon images where they can't speak, smother beauty in an avalanche of overwriting? We come to hate our work when we can't see it.
But editors hold out glasses. They turn on lights. They're different from proofreaders who scour the page for typos and spelling flaws, pulling us back to the "norm"; editors-perhaps especially of fiction—must perform a dual action, peering close at syntax, backing off to rethink whole patterns or scenes. "Try opening later in the action," they might say. Or, "Why do all your characters 'weep'?"
Like an ideal reader, the editor sees the story whole.
Used to be, publishers provided in-house support. Editors like Toni Morrison (yes, that's how she started) held authors' hands, offered sedatives, shook out possibilities in stalled or congested manuscripts. These days, publishers reject work that doesn't arrive near-perfect. And sometimes our years of steady practise, even the skillful reading of friends, just isn't enough.
Last summer a long-lost student googled me. She wanted—kind as ever—to thank me for my teaching. She'd survived a bad divorce and graduate school to publish her first novel (to critical acclaim, I found out: I knew it was full of extraordinary perceptions). But her second book was in trouble. Could I help?
Of course. Marvelling at its strengths, I offered suggestions for tighter language, spotted redundancies, drew arrows, numbered new sequences of paragraphs. I waited for her excitement and disagreement. "Now I know why this dialogue reads flat." "No, that scene can't go!" "Okay—I guess it can!"
We inched through the confusion, partners. The view cleared. Her confidence returned as she glimpsed new openings. Her novel will be magical. Not thanks to me—because she cared enough to regard it with new eyes.
Last fall I launched a small business, offering custom services as an editor, personal coach, and workshop leader. My clients include professors working on novels, memoirists attempting new audiences, writers for children, eager novices. My work is a huge privilege: harnessing the draft—not inventing the story—I help to shift it into the light.
To survive, we writers must learn to love the storm. What can be more humbling, more invigorating, than to support one another as we struggle for clarity? Our work together teaches us to see.
— Lissa McLaughlin
|Lissa McLaughlin Madison, WI|