A Brief Lesson in Editing

By on May 17, 2012 in Editing, Publishing, Writing

There’s been a lot of commotion happening in the online horror writing community this week over the editorial work of one Anthony Giangregorio of Open Casket/Undead Press – and with just cause, I might add. So before I launch into this, let’s get two things clear. ONE: A good editor works WITH a writer to shape a story into the best piece of fiction it can possibly be. TWO: A bad editor insinuates themselves all over the work and gives the writer absolutely no recourse in the matter, except to scream about it on the internet after publication when it’s too late to do anything about the travesty that his or her name has been attached to. And that is exactly what Giangregorio did, with a side helping of freshly grown grammatical errors (in the story’s title no less!) and an extra serving of beastiality for the plot. Who wouldn’t be upset?

I feel for Mandy DeGeit and the other authorsĀ involved who are starting to come out of the woodwork and tell their stories. I had a similar experience once upon a time, as a newbie author, with a different small press. It was so devastating and embarrassing that I actually stopped writing for a whole two years of my life. Unscrupulous companies like these find easy prey in new writers who don’t know what to expect from the publication process or how they should demand to be treated during it. When it happened to me, in my early twenties, I didn’t know that I should be asking for a final proof of the book to sign off on before it went to print – I trusted that the publisher knew what it was doing. Trust, as I quickly discovered, is a dangerous thing when put in the wrong people.

I ended up starting Burning Effigy Press as a direct result of this humiliating experience. It was my way of turning a major negative in my life into a positive, and moving on. The original idea behind the press was to give up-and-coming authors a supportive and quality first publication experience. Over the past thirteen years that direction has changed fundamentally as we’ve become a genre imprint for more established talents, but the love and care and author involvement in the publishing process hasn’t changed one iota.

For those who care – and for Mr. Giangregorio, who seems to need a primer – this is how we do a book:

Once we buy a story, we do a full edit complete with fully visible notes and changes. Minor things such as grammatical errors, duplicate word usage, occasional adjective replacement, issues with sentence structure and other mechanical errors, I tend to correct and/or make suggestions for. Larger plot problems, namely continuity errors, unbelievable character arcs, scenes that require a little bit more emotional weight and/or resonance all get sent back to the author to correct themselves, with specific notes from me. It is still their story after all, not mine, even though I paid to publish it.

The author then gets this entire edit to go over, tweak, sign off on and make the requested changes to. The author also works with their edits/changes fully visible, so that I can see what has been done to the story when it returns to my desk.

At this point I do a sign-off/copy-editing pass. If there’s anything we are still butting heads over or not quite seeing eye to eye about, we have a meeting where the author can argue his side and I can relay mine. The meeting does not conclude until we are both in absolute agreement about the story. That’s not to say I’m a push-over – anyone who has worked with me knows that there are certain things as an editor I slam my foot down on firm and hard about – but I always like to give an author a chance to prove me wrong, and I kind of love it when they do. I think these sorts of debates and challenges only make for a stronger, tighter, toothier story. Editing should be a collaboration, not a steam-rolling tanker truck.

And as an editor, I don’t want to steal your story or splatter myself all over it – I have my own writing to do that in – I just want to finesse it into something we are both 100% proud of publishing, which is why nothing at Burning Effigy goes to print without full sign-off from myself and the author, and this includes both interiors and covers. I would rather delay a book, than release it without these checks and balances in place.

Maybe that’s why four of our titles have made it onto the final Bram Stoker Awards ballot, and maybe that’s why we have the reputation that we do.

Either way, I don’t buy that excuse about writers not being able to edit. I’m both a writer and editor professionally and other than struggling to find the time to do both, I’ve never found it particularly challenging to keep them separate. I don’t edit because I can’t write or can’t succeed as a writer, I edit because I love stories.

In fact, I’ve often thought that being a writer may make me an even better, more intuitive editor, because I know how writers like to be/should be treated, and I have a unique perspective of both sides of the business. If anything, a writer should have more respect for his or her colleagues, because they are members of the same creative tribe. But just as not everyone is meant to be a writer, not everyone is meant to edit.

But how do you protect yourself as a newcomer from the bad eggs? Talk to people. Google the company. Read a book they’ve put out. Don’t just blindly submit. Find out about a publisher’s reputation first. Ask someone who has worked with them what the experience was like. The internet was still in its infancy when this happened to me, but now information is as close as your fingertips twenty-four hours a day – so use it!

When people ask me about what Burning Effigy and I are like to work with, I encourage them to ask some of our authors. After all, why should they just take it from me? Go to the source, see if it’s an experience you want to have.

Remember, writing is a job, so treat it with that same level of commitment, even if you are just starting out. You wouldn’t apply to work at a sketchy sweatshop, so don’t allow your fiction to get the same ghetto treatment. And when it does, don’t be afraid to name names and point fingers. Because if this week has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that the genre world is wonderful at self-policing and calling out those committing wanton douche-baggery. So yes, use that too.


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