Saturday, 3 October 2015

...WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS - UMBERTO TOSI


 Not long ago the editor of a literary journal I hold in some esteem expressed interest in running a story I had submitted, while suggesting a few revisions. I know the drill. I sat behind that desk for many years myself,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2b4vUZ7wR4
Shari Lews and friends
back when I was a magazine and small press editor–and even now, part time, as a contributing editor for a local quarterly. I read her email carefully, and with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution. I appreciated her generous praise for my prose and the care she took with her feedback. But I'm always leery about pulling on yarn after a sweater has been knitted.
 
As a editor, I learned to rein in my writing self and resist the temptation to snatch the pen away from a hapless contributor and show how its done – or how I thought it should be done. I learned that a good developmental editor – as opposed to equally vital copy editors and proofreaders down the production chain – encourages and guides more than corrects. That kind of editor helps writers, when needed, to refine, focus, structure and otherwise get stories and books up to their fullest potential. Of course, this varies with the writer. Some hand in perfect gems every time. As an editor I loved those writers, whose work I could read, check and go home early with a smile. As a writer, I envy them.
 

Most of all, the fine art of editing relies upon relationship – something our fragmented postmodern publishing environment doesn't exactly nourish. The legendary literary editors whose names I held in awe as young journalist with literary aspirations all formed close ties with the great writers they were famous for handling – Maxwell Perkins, Robert Gottlieb, Judith Jones, Robert Giroux – the list goes on, and these are only the dead ones. I'm not going to take up the old-guy lament about there being no more “real” editors, because there are still many. But they must swim against stronger currents now – as must writers – in order to connect, if at all. 
 
Looking back, I realize how fortunate I've been to have worked with some fabulous editors myself -though without always being aware of it. As I wrote this post, I learned sadly that one I've long held dearly, Jeremy P. Tarcher, died, on Sunday, September 20, at age 83. Jeremy was a gem, an enthusiastic lover of new ideas who did things his own way. He was an eclectic master of his trade, starting at Stein and Day in New York, which he helped found, but broke from to start his own imprint. He became an irrepressible, maverick publisher whose fabled, wildly successful, independent Los Angeles publishing house (now part of the Penguin Group) evolved rapidly from celebrity cookbooks to memorable, trendsetting psychological and spiritual titles, including introducing Julia Cameron's widely read Artist's Way books on the creative life. Jeremy edited and published my first book in 1981, promoted it with passion and kept it in print for decades. I was editor of San Francisco Magazine at the time. My phone jangled me
Jeremy Tarcher in 1982
from an almost comatose sleep one Sunday morning at 7, after a Saturday night of partying. A cheery, wide-awake, articulate speaker brainstormed into my fogged ear about how to develop a proposal I had submitted into what he believed, more than I, could be a top-tier book. I hardly remembered submitting it. I feigned alertness as I groped for my robe, gathered my wits, dragged the phone into the kitchen for coffee and wracked my brain trying to figure out who this guy was. It was Jeremy Tarcher himself, not one of his editors or assistants. That conversation began a decade-long, off-and-on but always stimulating creative involvement. And I earned bonus points from my then wee daughters because I got to meet Jeremy's wife as well – zany beloved TV singer, comic and puppeteer, Shari Lewis, who seemed able to transcend ventriloquism and sing in counterpoint with her wisecracking puppets, Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse, and whose Sunday morning show they never missed.
 
Editors like Jeremy love what they do, love language and love writers. They can make us better writers, or seem so. I put the late Marshall Lumsden in that category as well. He was my mentor and friend at the Sunday magazine of the LA Times, during the 1960s and 70s. Prior to that, he had been editor of Look, the fabled picture magazine where, among other greats, Stanley Kubrick started out as a photographer in the 1950s. 

The global corporate assimilation of publishing over the past twenty-five years has worked against such creative relationships. It's mechanistic paradigms led to slicing and dicing editors and writers well before the advent of the Internet, which only speeded up the process. As in many other fields, massive mergers and technology shifted the focus of publishing from craft to commerce and from commerce to high-velocity finance. Whatever its capabilities and benefits - and we can count many - capitalism poisons many wells as well, notably when unbridled.


Editors and writers tend to be regarded as interchangeable parts of a seamless promotional machinery whose sole purpose is extracting short-term profit for shareholders and overpaid, bonus-bloated managers. Traditionally, book publishing had always been a labor intensive, relatively low-margin business, not naturally suited to being milked as hard as global investors demand today. Something had to give. Dropping mid-lists, laying off or contracting out editorial jobs is the orthodox, bottom-line-goosing remedy. Who needed all those tweedy editors chatting up neurotic writers on company time? How do they up earnings? 
 

Mike Nichols 1994 horror-satire Wolf summed it all up with droll sang-froid. In it, Jack Nicholson portrays a revered literary New York book editor about to be kicked to one side of the road by an envious underling who has curried their new corporate raider boss' favour. All goes according to plan until the editor finds his inner werewolf! Fits my fantasies perfectly.
 

Fast forward two decades. We see the top ten book publishing giants commanding more than 55 percent of the $120.19 billion market (as of 2014), while the nature of publishing keeps on changing rapidly, as we all know. More and more of us – myself included – swim in a global, networked soup of independent electronic and print-on-demand publishing. When we work together, it's not in offices, but in pods of necessity, collaborating with other professionals, hiring editors, proofers, designers and promoters ad hoc, when we can afford them, or taking on each role in the process, changing colors like chameleons.


Count me in the latter category. I'd love to hire top-of-the-line researchers, copy editors and designers – not to mention get help with promtion. But for the most part I am a one-man-band, begging help where I can, usually among family and friends whose opinions I trust – and, most productively, trading services with fellow independent author/publishers, complementing each other's strengths. 

Mike Nichol's smart satire
As has been said often, high-tech indie publishing gives authors extraordinary and evolving alternatives, plus hands-on control, up and down the line. Not a bad trade-off for the chimeric security of the old game. As we've all seen, big money doesn't always bring big results. We've all heard the stories about major publishers screwing up their offerings as often as they get them right, or more – banal cover art, slap dash formatting and even proofing, botched promotional campaigns. 
 

Not all this is new. As a San Francisco freelance writer, during stretches of the 1980s and 90s, I started a tight circle of fellow writers who traded tips, information, editing services and ideas. We also met for racaus lunches once a month and invited guests. We called ourselves “The Ring.”


Now as an Internet indie writer-publisher, my circle remains as select as it used to be, but spread out geographically. My colleagues from Chicago Quarerly Review do much the same as my old San Francisco Ring, but I've also relied on design and formatting help from Gabrielle de la Fair – an independent publisher (HerEthics Books) based in Košice, Slovakia, whom I've never met in person.
Gabrielle designed and formatted the book cover for Ophelia Rising and Milagro On 34th Street, and
http://publishingunbound.wix.com/herethicsbooks
Gabrielle de la Fair
I've edited some of her work as well. Her expertise on the  electronic book production technology and practices of book distributors has proved invaluable.
Similarly, although a small scale nonprofit publisher, Chicago Quarterly Review is put out by editorial and production people 2000 miles apart in Santa Cruz, California and the Windy City itself.


Given all this, it's a pleasure for me to find myself collaborating with an editor of the old school, strictly in print. I wasn't sure this was the case with the editor I referenced at the start of this article. Though I respected her, I'd never worked directly with this editor as a writer. At first, we circled and sparred, testing each other out. She worded her suggestions solicitously, encouraging discussion – as I would have in her shoes. But complicating matters, two respected colleagues who had reviewed the original for me had different takes. One loved it as is. The other concurred, but suggested that it would work better if I eliminated one minor section. Neither proposed anything reconstructive. 


So, there I had three divergent takes on the story besides my own. Best to do as I, the author, thought best. But the longer I considered it the more I could also see the editor's point of view as well. Normally, I'm not adverse to making changes in my stories and in fact, I welcome such constructive feedback. The big problem this time, however: a request that sounded easy, but could open a can of worms – moving part of the story to a different spot. If stories were made of Lego blocks, then switching parts around would be easy, but they're not, particularly this story with a complex narrative told from two characters' points of view. Altering the chronology meant reweaving, with no guarantee of the new fabric's quality, up or down. It didn't matter who was right, only what would be right for the story. 


No way to find out except to give it a try. No prima donna, I messaged the editor back the next day to inform her that I would rework the story – with stipulations that took my concerns into account. Great! She emailed back. “I can't wait to read the new version!” That was encouraging. 


I reworked the story over the next several days. Sure enough, the narrative threatened
to unravel as I feared. For a tense while, everything seemed to melt down. With a few sanity breaks, however, I managed to work it through and resubmit the manuscript to said editor, who seemed receptive. 
Now comes the wait. Maybe she will publish the revised story, maybe not. If not, I can submit it elsewhere. Plus, as noted, authors today have options that didn't exist in the traditional publishing world. 

Whether or not it appears elsewhere, I can include the new piece in the short story collection I'm planning to publish in April through Light Fantastic Books, through which I released Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. I don't pine for the good old days. I've never been the nostalgic type. I much prefer out fluid, fast-moving world of independent creative e-powered publishing.






6 comments:

Dennis Hamley said...

you're right about good editors and their influence, Umberto. To name a few I've worked with: Pam Royds, her daughter Caroline, Julia Moffatt, John Miles, Kirsty Skidmore, Ann Finnis, Liz Cross, Ron Heapy. These names may mean nothing to you but for me they are redolent of understanding, encouragement, stringent standards and a love for the craft they are practising. We shall not see their like again.

Mari Biella said...

Great post. I've heard again and again about publishing's trajectory from craft to commerce, and I've spoken to many authors who've been burned as a result. Perhaps hyper-capitalism and literature were never destined to enjoy a particularly happy marriage.

Good luck with the story!

madwippitt said...

I'd like to leave an intelligent comment, but I'm still smiling about memories of Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop. I loved them. Right now I'm a kid again, remembering!

Umberto Tosi said...

I much appreciate your kind words, Dennis, Mari and Madwippitt. I'm remembering Shari and Lamb Chop myself, thanks to YouTube.

Lydia Bennet said...

Such a long and interesting post Umberto, with such long perspectives on writing and publishing and a cast of strong characters, I hope the short story does well. I remember Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop as well, from children's TV.

Alicia Sammons said...

There is truly an art to being a great editor… Much of what I do as an English teacher is lend an editor's eye to my students' papers--the ones they must send out for external marking… It's no easy job and one I often have little patience for. But it is so true what you said: Editors like Jeremy love what they do, love language and love writers. They can make us better writers, or seem so… You, too, have been an excellent editor… they are often the unsung heroes of literature