Archive for the 'Conferences' Category

The Most Unwittingly Hurtful Thing a Writer Ever Said to Me

Nov 15 2014 Published by under Conferences,Who I am

“So … uh, those who can’t write, edit, huh?”

I just stared at the man, because I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to respond.

We were at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City, the day before my first BookExpo America, and I’d just finished sitting on a panel with my coworkers Alice Pope (Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market), Robert Brewer (Writer’s Market), and Jane Friedman (our editorial director), taking rapid-fire questions about writing and publishing for more than an hour in a packed auditorium.

My adrenaline was still pumping as I stepped down from the dais to greet a small group who’d assembled, waiting for me to answer even more questions, presumably the ones they were too nervous to ask in front of the group. I took a deep breath and put every ounce of energy and warmth I had into the smile I presented them.

Lemme tell you, I was ON. This was one of my favorite parts of my job at WDB: talking to writers one-on-one, helping them to feel a little less intimidated by the submissions process, doing my best to use what I’d learned so far to give informed advice and often-needed encouragement. And being rewarded with the looks of relief and renewed excitement and determination when they left one of our sessions. (After all, isn’t that the whole point of going to a writers’ conference? To remember you’re not alone in this crazy writing biz and that the hours you spend in front of the computer, all by yourself, are not a waste of your life?)

Then, this man. And this comment. Delivered with a confusing combination of sheepishness and smirk, like he needed my reaction to determine whether his question was clever or clumsy.

I wasn’t sure what he was really asking me. Was he trying to upset me? Was this, like, the absolute worst writer’s conference pickup line ever?

I’m not telling you this story to snark. (I already promised you this would be a snark-free zone, and I have no interest in being catty nearly a decade after this happened.) I’m writing about this moment here, now, because it still bothers me.

At the time, I think I ratcheted up my smile a few more notches and bulldozed forward, chattering something about the two being entirely different skill sets (which I do think is true: see last post about the Left Brain/Right Brain battle).

But from time to time, his face and his words resurface, and I spend some time with what might be my ickiest professional fear: Is there a tiny grain of truth to what he said?

Logically, I know there is not. For a few reasons:

  1. Any editor out there (or published author who’s been edited) can tell you that, depending on the author we’re working with and the stage of editing we’re at (more on this next week), (re)writing is somewhere between 25% and 85% of what an editor does.We rewrite sentences that are convoluted or awkward; we fix misplaced modifiers and unclear antecedents. We write transitions between paragraphs and scenes when they’re needed. And, yes, sometimes we even have to finish writing the book when an author just flat-out tires and gives up…and we still have a publication deadline to meet.
  2. There is absolutely no way an editor—especially a developmental editor—can be effective at giving an author direction on plot, pacing, character development, etc., without having a firm understanding of how those elements work together and how to construct each of them.
  3. The laundry list of editors who’ve also published successful books is astounding. In fact, it’s getting to the point where it seems like more editors have published than haven’t. (Way to go, guys!) And why should this come as a surprise? When your life is devoted to creating literature, at some point you might be compelled to break from working on others’ stories and start devoting your love and energy to your own.
  4. Having worked with many amazing teachers in many disciplines during my eighteen years of schooling, “Those who can’t do, teach,” is as silly as it is insulting to the great minds of education who slave away with little thanks and little pay. I assume this was the basis for the man’s assessment of editors, and if I remember Philosophy 101 correctly, no truth can be derived from a false premise.

But in my emotional, illogical heart, his “clever” dig excavated through the layers of my schooling and experience and hit that insecure nerve: Maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer.

I think that’s the fear that was at the heart of his question. Perhaps he was trying to knock me off my dais—negate my “insider” status and reduce me to the same insecurity he was feeling.

His motive isn’t really important to me, though. The comment stung, but I’m actually grateful for it now. Because it’s been there, in the back of my mind all these years, baiting me, pushing me to prove it’s not true.

And it’s also caused me to realize that as much as I love the art and craft of writing, I adore editing for reasons unique to its own craft. I’m not an editor because I’m a failed writer; I’m an editor because I derive just as much pleasure from collaborating with another writer to make their work go from shiny to dazzling as I do creating my own shiny prose.

Editing is the ultimate writing test. Sometimes it’s a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes it’s an exercise in translation. Sometimes it’s a group hug. Sometimes it’s a hostage negotiation. But always, always at its core is the story, the paragraph, the word.

And that’s why, what I should have said to Mr. Unwittingly Hurtful Writer’s Conference Attendee was this: When I’ve done a good job as an editor, the writer can’t tell my words from her own.

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