Sunday, September 19, 2010

Every writer needs a good editor

I got about three pages into the novel I'm currently reading (Moon Pies and Movie Stars by Amy Wallen) before I hit a major blooper:  black and white Jersey cows. 

Granted, the book is fiction, but that doesn't excuse getting your context wrong. So if you're going to name a breed, for Calliope's sake, don't screw it up by making it the wrong color!  If you don't know something, don't try to fake it.  Just leave it out.  Every time an author gets something wrong -- verbal anachronisms (using the wrong slang for a time period), general geography, clothing styles or details (putting zippers on an Old Order Amish girl's dress, for example) -- odds are some reader is going to trip over that blooper.  It's going to distract from the narrative, and the writer is at risk of losing a reader permanently.   

Of course, if Wallen had a decent editor -- and despite the fact she thanks her editor in the acknowledgements section, she obviously didn't -- that editor would have paused at the word Jersey and said "what color are those cows?"  (See photo for answer.)  Just like she would have paused at the description of the El Camino vehicle to wonder just exactly what is an El Camino (Chevy hasn't made them since 1987), and whether or not the details are right on the pin-setting equipment in the bowling alley.  There's a reason writers get told "Write what you know!"  If a piece of fiction isn't grounded in reality, if an author is trying to fake a setting without having done a ton of research first when they're trying to set a story someplace they've never been or describing jobs they've never done, it's going to show really fast. 

Because I work as an editor, every so often a friend or acquaintance will ask me to look at a draft of something they've done.  I always refuse.  My stock answer is I work in such a hard-science area that I'm not qualified to edit fiction.  That's an evasion.  I may not edit fiction now, but that doesn't mean I can't tell the difference between good and bad writing.  The real problem is that I'm a really poor liar, and way too often the draft that's being waved under my nose gives up a distinct cheesy odor.  I don't want the appalled look on my face when I hand the manuscript back to kill any friendships.  It's the job of friends to murmur encouraging words and nurture hope; it is the job of editors to kill dreams.  Your friends will tell you "This is the most romantic story I've ever read!"  Your editor will look at the manuscript, mutter foul words, ask if your goal as a writer is to crank out hack work for Harlequin, and then toss your shattered hopes back at you with a demand for yet another rewrite.


  1. Those are my greatest fears right there.

    Holsteins. And I didn't even have to look that one up.

  2. We have discussed this before - you know I am in agreement. A big turn off for me as a reader.

  3. I got a laugh out of this one, and read it aloud to Susan, though didn't bother with the post title. At the end of the second paragraph, she stopped me and said, "Where was the editor all this time?"

    Made a good transition to the third paragraph.


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