B&N Week 33: Working With An Editor, Pt 1

| August 9, 2011 | 6 Comments

Tuesday. Do you have any idea of how much I look forward to this day? Not only is it a day that ends in Y , but it’s the day that I get to share things with all of you. I love it, let me tell you. Love it, love it, loooove it!

This week, I thought I’d go over working with an editor. I’ve touched on it before, and there are things I’m not going to have any clue about, but this will be much more in-depth than most of the things you’ll run across.

Working with an editor. The first thing you need to know is that the editor is your friend. Their main job, their only job, really, is to make your story better. It may not seem like it at the time, but their job is to make you look like the genius you think you are. It doesn’t get more simple than that.

Now, I when I was first starting out, I asked a well-known writer to look at some of my stuff. And when I say well-known, I mean you’d recognize their name instantly. (Name?) Nope. I’ll point fingers at someone, sure, but I’m not a name dropper. Name dropping is something you do to try to get ahead or to impress someone. I’m not out to get ahead [that way], nor impress anyone with whom I know. That’s not what this is about. Anyway, this well-known writer was also an editor at one point in time, and at the time I had the fortune to meet him, he was working as a writer for one of the Big Two. He was talking about some of the editors at one of the companies, and it wasn’t in the most flattering of lights. Imagine dropping some f-bombs in conjunction with the word ‘stupid’, and you begin to see what I’m talking about.

The first thing I want to impress upon you is that when you work with an editor, you’re dealing with their own personal filter of how stories should be told. That’s going to be first, foremost, and paramount. As my wife would say, you’re dealing with their paramount personal opinion. With that in mind, you still have to tell your story, but understand that it’s going to go through someone else’s sensibilities.

This is going to be true wherever you go, but it’s going to be ultimately true when dealing with Marvel/DC. (Steven, why do you always say it like that? Marvel/DC, as if they’re interchangeable.) [Because for the purposes in which I talk about them, they generally are. While there are differences in how they tell their stories and how their universes are run, they’re both large companies with solid views on their product. As an indie, they’re going to be interchangeable until you Get There. That’s why I do it like that.] When you’re dealing with Marvel/DC, you have to realize that you’re not dealing with your own creations. You’re dealing with characters that have been around probably since before you were born. This means that any story you tell with these characters are only a single strand in their tapestry. The editors are actually custodians of those characters, and that’s why it’s so damned hard for you to tell your Wolverine/Drax the Destroyer lesbian love fest story.

Let’s drag this back. Okay, so you’re dealing first with someone’s opinion. That’s the first thing to realize. However, the second thing I want you to realize, right after that, right on the heels of that, is that you’re dealing with an informed opinion. That’s an important distinction. And it’s that informed opinion that you’re looking to tap into. It’s that informed opinion that will hopefully make your comic.

Sure, you can go it alone. There are a lot of you who do just that, and honestly, I think you’re wrong. You hear things like editorial control and say to yourself that you’re not going to go through that. Fine. I’m calling bullshit, but fine. (Steven, it’s my story, and I’m not going to let someone else ruin it!) I already said fine. (No, you said bullshit. Want me to go back? I can go back and show you.) You’re right. I did say bullshit. And I also said fine. But here’s why it’s bullshit.

First and foremost, using their informed opinion, an editor’s job is to make the story you want to tell the best story it can be. No one is out to ruin your story. [Well, maybe you are, but we’ll get to that in a minute.] An editor’s job is thankless and mostly invisible. Do you think they’re in it to make your story into their story? Sure, maybe at Marvel/DC there are editors like that, but you’re not going to run into many of them in the indies.

But think about this: how many editors do you know? Leave Quesada and DiDio out of it. How many can you name? You have Axel Alonso, Tom Brevoort, and after that? You can get out an Andy Schmidt, maybe, but after that? No, don’t go start digging through your collection. This is what I’m talking about. Being an editor is thankless. It’s powerful , but it’s not sexy. Sexy is the demesne of writers and artists, not editors. And you think they’re trying to control your story?

Like I said, the editor’s job is to make you look good. That’s their only function. That’s their reason for being. If the book doesn’t sell well due to poor writing or lazy storytelling, the fault isn’t totally on the writer. The editor has to take some of that blame. In my opinion, the editor needs to take all of that blame.

I’m going to go out on a short limb and say that the majority of the stories you want to tell are craptacular. When I say the majority, I mean 90%. I’m telling you this because you need to hear it. No one else is telling you. You get the nice form rejection letter in the mail, if you get one at all, telling you that the story isn’t what they’re looking for and to try again with something else. Again, that’s if you get one at all. Why did you get that rejection letter? Because you sent in crap, more than likely. It’s that simple.

Now, if you get to tell that craptacular story, one of two things happened: you wrote a pitch selling a story, and was able to tell another story that vaguely resembled the story in the pitch but was totally different, meaning that the editor was stuck with what they bought, or the editor wasn’t doing the job they were hired to do.

Time to talk about me for a little bit.

I was once hired to do some proofreading of a script. The writer was looking basically for copyediting of the script, and I offered my services at a reasonable price. The writer didn’t have an editor on the book, of course. An editor would have taken care of all of that. So, the writer said that the story had some interest from a company, and basically wanted to make sure that it was in the best shape it could be before submitting it. I said that I would also do some light editing of it if it was necessary. I’d do that in order to show what I could do, if the writer was ever looking for an editor later.

Now, way back in the mists of time, I said that when you write a pitch, you may be writing it twice, depending on the pitch: you’ll either write a story that doesn’t match the pitch, and will have to re-write, or you’ve written something superior to the pitch that was written.

So, the story that this writer was telling seemed to be something that was recognizable to begin with. It seemed to be a human story with supernatural trappings. It started out with a foreward saying what the story was about. However, what was in the foreward was barely the story that was told.

This story was a hot mess. Uninteresting, to begin with, and too wordy in the extreme. The writer was in love with their own voice. And worst of all, they weren’t telling the same story that was in the foreward. So, I did a decent amount of work on it, going way above what was called for. In the end, though, the story was unpublishable as it was, and I told the writer that. It needed to be re-written to make sense, and the foreward needed to be rewritten to fit the story that was being told. As it was, a publisher wouldn’t touch it [if they knew what they were doing]. What did I get in return? (Money!) True, but I also got silence. No thank you, no nothing. (What, did you want to be cuddled and kissed?) Nope. I wanted professionalism. It would have been nice, at least. Did I hurt their feelings? Maybe. Concerned about it? Not in the least. I would have been a liar by omission if I didn’t tell the truth about what I saw.

Another writer hired me to actually edit their work. It was a graphic novel that they were working on, and this was also a hot mess. This writer literally took took 50 pages to tell 20 pages worth of story, and tried to squeeze 275 words in a nine panel grid. When I got through with it, the document was dripping red. It was dripping so much, and I kept saying the same thing over and over again that my frustration started to show through. Yeah, that’s kinda deep.

What did the writer do? They took everything I said in stride, and incorporated it. Sure, eventually they put the story away, and we’re maintaining a professional relationship presently, but they said thank you, and took the recommendations to heart. Keeping this attitude, this writer should go far. (Because you were right?) Nope. Because they’re willing to take direction from the person they hired to help them. Now, if I can only get them to get an editor onboard before hiring an artist, it’d be golden. There’s nothing like trying to correct dialogue when there are problems with layout and pacing in the script.

One more.

I was once hired [and subsequently fired] to edit someone else, and this writer hasn’t really worked with too many people. I was sent over a decent script for a story that was told in mediocre fashion. Not a hot mess, but definitely needed some punch. I edited the work, and sent it back. What did I get back for a rebuttal? That I’m a good editor, with an eye for detail, but the writer disagreed with some of my edits, putting it down to a difference in style. I was then sent the script back with minimal changes.

I was frustrated. Like I said before, editors have their own filter that stories go through, and what you’re getting when you ask someone to edit you is their own paramount personal opinion. It just happens that that opinion is an informed one.

I’m not a my way or the highway type of guy. (Coulda fooled me!) No, really. There’s nothing saying you have to listen to me. Nothing at all. You listen to me because you want to. If you’ve hired me, you understand that you need help in making your story better. Remember, every writer needs an editor. Me, you, Jim Shooter, Joe Quesada, Brian Bendis, Paul Levitz, everyone. In the majors, you don’t have a choice about being edited. It’s going to happen, and the story generally isn’t going to go out until it’s up to snuff. You’ll keep going back and forth until the story’s right, or until you’re fired. And more than likely, too much of the former will secure the latter.

We generally don’t have that problem in the indies. Here, the writers [generally as the prime movers] have the power. When you hire an editor in the indies, one of the first things you need to decide is how much power you’re going to be giving up. If you want your story to be the best it can be, you’ll swallow your ego and let the editor do their job. This is the reason they were hired in the first place, right? Why get in the way of that?

The more you struggle and fight, the longer your learning curve is going to be. If the editor is telling you to change something, and giving reason for the change, why fight it? Why are you going to presume to know better than the person you hired to help you tell your story? That’s just in the indies. If you try to struggle and fight in a place like Marvel/DC or Dark Horse, you’ll either not get to tell your story, or you’re going to find there’s no more work for you at that company, if not both. The best part? You’re not going to have anyone to blame but yourself. (How is that best?) All of that talk you hear about editorial interference or mandates? None of that’s going on here. It’s all on you. (But they’re stopping me from telling my story my way! That’s editorial control!) You haven’t been listening.

You have Peter Parker fighting in an alley at night. He’s on the ground, about to punch a thug in the face again because he’s pissed off, and there’s a shadow coming over both of them, from behind Peter. You have this view from the front, and you think it’s great and dynamic. I tell you that this panel isn’t going to work, because it’s nighttime in an alley. Without a light source, the shadow isn’t going to work, and worse, if the shadow is falling on Peter from behind, how are we supposed to see that? If you do a one-eighty to come around to the back, and have Peter’s back to us as he punches the thug, with the shadow falling across him from there, it’s not only more menacing, but it’s also now falls squarely in the realm of feasibility when it comes time to be drawn.

How is that editorial control?

I’m going to say that the majority of you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to editorial control. I used to frequent another website for a while, and I was giving critiques on scripts left and right. The owners of the site were thinking about bringing me in as an editor, because they liked what they saw when I made crits, both of them agreeing with about 95% of what I had to say. However, some of the creators were scared of editorial control, basically not knowing what the hell they were talking about.

So, what to do?

If you get to Marvel/DC, I advise to you listen, learn, and do whatever they tell you. If they say to have a dog on page five-teen [yes, five-teen], panel BC-1, then put it there. You’re telling stories with their characters, and you’re not going to get that story told without going through an editor. It gets no simpler than that. Depending on the office you’re working for, you may have more than one editor to deal with. Get used to it, and congratulations for making it to the show.

In the indies [and I’m talking smaller places], you may have a little more give and take. However, that’s not to be abused. It’s still possible to find yourself jobless. Very possible. Just pick your battles in this arena. Remember, these companies also have editorial mandates that they follow. Any time you get the opportunity to tell a story that you don’t have to pay for is a privilege. Every time someone foots your bill, you say thank you, and do the work to their specifications. If that’s editorial control, then so be it.

Now, when you’re the prime mover, paying for everything out of your own pocket, the last thing you want or need is someone to kiss your ass and tell you how beautiful you are. You’re in a war for a reader’s attention, and that war is conducted on the shelves. So, you’re fighting for shelf space. In the fight for that space, you want as much of an edge you can get. This means an editor to keep you and possibly the entire project on point.

Of course, you want to be a little wary when it comes to something you’re paying for yourself. If the editor you’ve hired wants to take your gritty detective thriller and turn it into a wookie zombie ballet, then you’ve got a problem with editorial control. Remember, the editor is there to make your story into a better story, not try to turn it into their story. This is probably few and far between, but it’s something to look out for.

(And you said you were fired?) Yep. I was told that our styles don’t match, and if they made the changes I suggested, then it would no longer be their story. I’ve got no hard feelings about it. I don’t think the story will be as strong, but I’ve got no hard feelings about it.

There are a few different types of editor. You have the editor that explains and teaches [which is the type of editor I hope to be], you have the editor that makes wholesale changes without understanding anything, and you have the editor that doesn’t do much but wants to take credit for stories told. Those are the types, now mix and match.

My editing philosophy is as such: if it’s broke, explain why as I help you to fix it. I don’t pull punches, I don’t cut corners, and if you don’t like what I have to say, then frankly, you’re not ready to be published. (I don’t think you’re being fair, Steven.) Tough. This isn’t about being fair. This is about what you are or are not ready for. If you can’t handle someone helping you to tell your story, then your ego’s in the way, and you’re not ready yet.

Let’s put it another way. You hire an editor to help you with stories you want to tell. You tell a story and you think it’s perfect the way it is. It has subtlety and nuance, and the dialogue and pacing are exactly the way you want it. You then hand it in to the editor you hired, and they tell you that the story’s decent, but you need to shore up certain things, and they point out the faults in your script: impossibilities; problems with dialogue placement; things that didn’t make sense. Now, instead of listening to the person you hired to help you, who’s pointed out the flaws in your script, instead of putting in the work to learn from your mistakes, you say thanks but no thanks, and decide to go your own way, because the changes to the script would have changed the story you wanted to tell. No, you’re not ready to be published.

And that’s really about it. I advocate getting an editor as soon as possible for whatever your project is. The sooner, the better. Trust me, you don’t want to get an editor to correct you when you’re just about to go to print. At that point, our usefulness is limited. I prefer to come aboard right after the script is done. This means before any artwork has been commissioned. In this scenario, I can get in and make any corrections before sending it off to the rest of the creative team. The closer I can get to the base, the happier I am, and the more useful I can be. The further along you get before bringing on an editor, the less effective they’ll be, and, in my opinion, the more you’re hampering your project. It already has a small chance of making it to the shelves, why make it worse?

And that’s it. I’ve finally wound down. Homework this week is to do as honest an assessment of yourself as you can. You’re looking for whether or not you can be edited. The more amenable to editing you are, the further along you’ll be able to get. Until you learn that you’re not going to get far without us, you’re just not going to get far. So, look inside yourself and be honest. It’s only going to help you in the long run.

See you next week!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (6)

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  1. Jules Rivera says:

    I’m interested in seeking out an editor for my work. Frankly, only because I need a sanity check and all my writer friends all seem to be on other projects or otherwise engaged. How would I go about finding a good editor? What qualifies a good editor? And how do I know if I’m not going to find someone with whom I have good synergy?

    • Some of that is in part 2.

      However, conduct an interview. Talk comics. See what your editorial needs are, and then see if the person you’re talking to can meet those needs. If they can’t, keep looking. If they can, see if you can come to an agreement.

      Simple, but you have to know what your needs are. That is most important.

      Hope that helps some.

    • Oh, and a good editor? One that understands your needs and the needs of the story, and works to make it better.

  2. Sarah says:

    Do you think a lot of these apparent to much “editorial controls” are brought about partially by how the story itself was pitched? Would an editor normally propose a genre switch of your story? Thats something that always scared me to death for some reason.

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