A Good Editor is Hard to Find: The True Story of My Publishing Misadventure

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Editor’s note: While we try to celebrate the world of small press and independent authors on Silent Motorist Media, it’s important, on occasion, to visit its pitfalls as well. No environment is perfect, and we’re publishing this piece in the hopes that an awareness of some of the issues addressed here will help new and seasoned indie authors alike make decisions regarding their work that will ultimately strengthen the integrity of self and small press publications.

SMM isn’t here merely to support writers by running a website. We want to help in any capacity we can. That’s why we offer professional editing services as well. We want your manuscript to be as successful as possible. As lovers of books, what you write becomes a little part of our world, a breath of the atmosphere we live in. That’s why we are personally invested in ensuring it’s the cleanest breath possible.

-Justin A. Burnett

Disclaimer: The editing of my book is in no way a reflection of my publisher, who fulfilled the requirements of our contract in a fair and professional manner. I was offered editing services from my publisher and chose to hire an outside editor to “fast-track” the publication.

-Shannon McCaslin-Nolen

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, I wrote a book. I was an inspired new author, head bubbling with ideas, spending more time with the Muses than other people. To put this in context for you, I was working on my undergraduate degree. In fact, I was finishing an undergraduate degree in English Literature. I lost touch with reality (it was fantastic). I spent more time with Shakespeare and Chaucer than I did my best friends. My days were filled with the words of the “Great Old Ones” (Lovecraft, anyone?). In such an environment, inspiration sparked, and the more I read the more that spark raged into a mighty flame.

I had a story to tell, and it consumed me. I could think of nothing else. My characters became real. I thought of them more often than I did my significant other. They wanted to break free from the confinement of my tiny mind and make their debut in the world. I wrote like a madwoman, every day and well into most nights. I wrote in the early morning hours before class. I wrote in between classes, in a spiral longhand, I might add. I wrote deep into the night when the entire world around me stood still and time seemed to slow, then I began the entire process again the next morning. I did this for a year. At long last, I had a novel. I had done it! I finally achieved what I considered an impossible task. And you know what? It was good! It was really good (this coming from a girl who cannot compliment herself). That was it. Move over Stephen King, here I come!

I was so excited, I could hardly sleep. I needed an editor. I needed an agent. I needed a publisher. To be honest, I had no idea what I needed. I was clueless as to where to start, so I did all three at once. My search for an editor occurred before the days of social media, so it consisted of me asking people I knew for recommendations and scouring the Yellow Pages. I began writing query letters to agents and publishers and sending my manuscript to anyone who accepted unsolicited manuscripts. I was on fire! It did not take long however, for that flame to fizzle and smolder. Rejection after rejection poured in via snail mail and email. Sometimes, no response seemed kinder than the agent or publisher who took the time to send that rejection letter, even though they often came with valuable feedback. That was it, I thought. I need a good editor. If I could just polish this piece, it would be my Carrie.

After a long an arduous search and many interviews, I found an editor. We will call him Maxwell (Any Thomas Wolfe or Ernest Hemmingway fans out there?). Well, Maxwell had an editing business, that shall go unnamed to preserve anonymity, with an advertisement in the Yellow Pages. He had over ten years of experience editing fiction and technical writing. Maxwell even had a degree. I was sold. I paid Maxwell $400 for a line and copy edit of approximately 60,000 words. At that time, the editing world was completely foreign to me. I had no idea if this was a fair price or if it was lower than what a good editor would typically charge. All I knew was that $400 was a lot of money to me, and I was certain paying this much guaranteed that my manuscript would come out polished and ready for publication. In the meantime, a small publisher picked-up my book. I was so excited, I signed the contract right then and there. I didn’t even read it in its entirety. I was being published! That was all that mattered.

This small publishing company offered editing services for my manuscript, but they also assured me a quick publication if I hired my own editor, which I had already done (she says in her best snobby, British accent). I was so confident in my editor, that when he sent back the manuscript I failed to review it thoroughly. Off it went. I felt like a proud parent who had just given birth and brought a new life into the world. I had trouble sleeping. I lie in bed imagining how my life was going to change now that I was a published author. I imagined book signings. I just knew I would be able to quit my day job and write full time. I was on my way to Stephen Kingdom. After all, King and I had so much in common! He had a Bachelor of Arts in English. I had a Bachelor of Art in English. He was a teacher for a while, and I was a teacher too! It was written in the stars! I was going to be a “for real” full-time writer. I couldn’t think of a better existence.

Then came that dreadful day when I received my first ten copies of my book. I immediately read through it and my heart sank. It was a mess! Maxwell had not performed a thorough edit. Don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming Maxwell or my publishing company. Ultimately, it is the writer’s responsibility to make sure his or her work is edited in a way that, ten years later, he or she will still be proud of the work. I am not proud of my work. I still believe I wrote a good story, but storytelling and editing are two different things.

Many writers are phenomenal story tellers, but struggle with the mechanics of writing, and that is okay! That is why we have editors! Some writers are gifted in both the art of storytelling, mechanics, and editing—good for them. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, so we play with what we are good at, strive to become better in the areas we struggle, and absolutely ask for help from other gifted individuals when we need to. A writer knows that it is always good practice to get another person, preferably a qualified editor, to objectively review a manuscript for content, line and copy editing. I knew this, but I learned just how important a good edit is the hard way.

I wish I could go back in time ten years and tell my naïve self, “don’t do it!” I wish I had the chance to explain just to myself how important it is to have a qualified and professional editor. I wish I could’ve warned that budding and overly enthusiastic writer that not all editing services return the same quality of work. I wish I could turn back the intervening decade to point out that it is good practice to have an editor in the interview process go over a page and return it so that the writer can evaluate the quality of work before committing to the editor. I also would tell myself that a good editor does not make mistakes like addressing the misspelling of “restaurant” by running a hasty spell-check that changes the word to “restraint” throughout the entire manuscript, so that “fast-food restaurant” became “fast food restraint,” or that what should have been “polka dot” was translated to “poke-a-dot.”

It’s an embarrassing story, but true. I have grown exponentially as a writer and editor since my first book. I know so much more now than I did ten years ago. I edit every single day for my “real job.” I give people writing advice for a living. I have furthered my formal education as well, and hold a Master of Arts in English. I say all of this to make the point that I am ashamed of my first publication. I wish my name was not on it, but sadly, these are things I cannot change. I cannot change the past, my naiveite, or my poor decisions. I also cannot alter the terms of my publishing contract, which states that I cannot have my book released in a new edition (with proper edits).

What I can do, however, is share my experience with others in the hope that they do not experience a similar situation. I can move forward with my new knowledge and not make the same faux pas. I know now that editing a piece is as difficult as writing it, and takes another skill set. I value my editor’s opinion these day, but I also have the experience I need to work with only qualified editors. I am constantly in awe of how improved my writing is after my trusted editor “rips it to shreds.” I think King said it well in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “To write is human, to edit is divine.” Long live the King!

–Shannon A. McCaslin-Nolen
Author of The Other Side of the Glass

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