Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Which I Am Proud of My Bruises

Do you know why some really, really prominent children's books - like the last volume of a certain boy wizard series - are edited so badly? I'm certainly I'm not the only person who read through the last few installments of Harry Potter thinking OH MY GOD CUT CUT CUT!!!!
The obvious explanation is that a bigshot author can demand their immortal prose be left untampered with, on threat of decamping to a different publisher.
Yes, in large part.
Another still more depressing possibility is that the publishers just don't care and skip the editing process in order to get the big-name book out there bringing in all that lovely money as soon as possible.
Yes again.
But if the latter, that seems short-sighted, as a well-edited book is surely more likely to stand the test of time and keep making money for the publisher in future (if, of course, that publisher retains the rights - if not, maybe they don't care.).
It's certainly difficult to imagine that Bloomsbury couldn't find someone competent and willing to work on HP. Was there some poor editor weeping in her office over being prevented, by authorial ego or sales department supremacy, from doing her job properly?
Yes, that's possible. There are also a few editors who, unfortunately, just don't really give a crap.

I agree with you that there are further books in certain series that could have done with a sh**load of editing beyond the editing I know they received. (Never assume they weren't edited at all--they were.)

But I'd like to say a couple things about the short-sightedness of publishing, to provide some context, without actually defending it.

For one thing, for 99.99% of books, publishing is about the now. Being able to sell 500,000 copies now is the very best most books can ever hope for. Trying to create a book 'for the ages'--a book that will last past the author's own lifetime, nevermind just making it to two years from now-- is playing with such long odds it's ridiculous. That's a fact of the industry, and something to bear in mind.

It's also worth remembering that as long as the first book in a series is in good enough shape to keep hooking readers, it doesn't matter so much how badly plotted, excessively adverbialized, and padded with filler the last books are. Readers will still want them. That's a fact of the reading public.

So yes, sometimes authors prevent editors from doing their jobs. Sometimes publishers prevent editors from doing their jobs. Sometimes editors just don't do their jobs. And sometimes it's a combination of all three.

It takes a lot of fight to be a good editor. And it also takes knowing what fights are worth fighting.

26 comments:

Andrew said...

Wow......

......never thought I'd hear someone confirm it.

Hats off!

Jenni said...

I think the same is true on a smaller scale, even for single titles. Don't we always hear that a killer opening and a satisfactory end are the most important parts of a manuscript? It seems much harder to lose someone's attention than it is to catch it. If you can get them on board, that's the victory.

Anonymous said...

*cough* Breaking Dawn *cough*

Debbie (Nerd Goddess) said...

So... this just emphasizes the need for writers to edit their manuscripts as much as possible before they send it in, right? Even if you're some big name?

Aimee said...

But why would anyone possibly care?

How does focusing on a book that wasn't properly edited, especially one that happened to sell a bajillion copies, even matter?

Learn what you can from the model and invest your energy in what YOU write instead of niggling about others.

You didn't even edit your own question.

Sarah Laurenson said...

*sigh*
I have two sets of CDs for the last HP book and, much as I loved listening to the rest of the series, I haven't touched the 7th. I read the book, of course, but have no desire to go back and read or listen to it again. Not the same feeling for the first four.

Leslie said...

I agree about the Potter books; I couldn't get past the 3rd one for that reason: just went on and on. But I think that's part of the appeal for the fans; lots of detail about the world they love to read about. And the publishers aren't stupid: they know what sells. All it means is that I am not the audience for the book.

As far as a book for the ages goes, that's really up to the ages. We can call something a "classic" within 10 minutes of its release all we want, but we have no control over the future and what will stand the test of time. That's up to the future, not to us in the present.

Anonymous said...

This post addressed something I've wondered about, too. I had noticed how as HP grew more and more popular, each book became longer and more rambling.

This was also the case with the final Borrowers book, published after a gap of about 20-25 years. It was longer than the others and in desperate need of editing.

Anonymous said...

just speaking as a reader: i've read mysteries in which entire paragraphs were repeated -- likely because no editor ever even *read* them before shunting them off to production. and 'the hedgehog, the fox, and the magister's pox' by stephen jay gould, and published posthumously, was a piece of cr@p and damn near unreadable. it was like the editor was afraid to touch the thing. s/he really should have realized that s/he was editing his work -- not performing his autopsy -- and just done her job as though the author were there to just agree with everything s/he did.

myimaginaryblog said...

"It doesn't matter so much how badly plotted, excessively adverbialized, and padded with filler the last books are. Readers will still want them."

Yeah, that's why I bought and read all of New Moon/Eclipse/Breaking Dawn. And then hated myself. And Stephenie Meyer. And her publisher and editor.

(I don't actually hate Stephenie Meyer. I think she's got some great story concepts. But she really needs a bold editor with a chain saw. And I did actually hate myself about 2/3 into Breaking Dawn, when the story was still dragging on, my household was running to chaos, NOTHING WAS HAPPENING IN THE STORY, and still I kept reading the blasted thing.)

Kirstin Cronn-Mills said...

I teach a HP class (a college class, all 7 books), and we talk about this a lot (you think 7 is bad? 5 is worse, IMHO). Her fans wanted Quidditch, so she put it in. The books would be 100x shorter without Quidditch. It's too bad, because there are brilliant and magnificent things that make those books study-worthy. But their bloat makes studying them much harder. Kajillions of dollars or not, someone still should have stood up to JKR.

Liesl said...

Aimee: LOL! That made my day.

I have a lot of criticisms about a lot of books, but worrying why no one bothered to fix it or how that person got published in the first place is a waste of time.

JK has amazing world building and loveable characters.

Stephenie Meyer has fascinating ideas and strong hooks and she knows how to keep the page turning.

Put the energy into writing something better if you think you can. See where you get when you're on book #4 or 7 or 13. It's a lot to handle. Just know that it's much easier to see flaws in others' writing than your own and what goes around comes around.

Dominique said...

Don't knock Harry Potter 7. I thought it was a very good book. While over the course of the series there were one or two subplots that I, personally, would have dropped, I think overall it didn't display many signs of want of editing.

whereimbloggingfrom said...

Excellent post.

HP book 5 was the most overlong, for me. In fairness to Rowling, I think she does a great job of recapping previous books and incorporating the recap into the narrative - not so much it alienates devout readers, but also enough to give first-timers a sense of what's going on.

And at least Bloomsbury let Rowling take a few years with each installment - unlike the Twilight books, which were pumped out one a year. And it shows.

Anonymous said...

As a writer, I avoid reading books like these because they serve as poor models for my own writing. I don't even want to think, on a subconscious level, "if they can write like this, so can I." They can because they're proven winners while I have yet to prove myself. And my goal is to prove myself by great writing as well as tight plotting and memorable, complex characters.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of you should get off your high horses about bad editing and overlong stories. Rowling created a world that many of us wanted even more of, rather than less. So a subplot doesn't move the main story along? Maybe it was just plain FUN to write - and therefore, probably fun to read also. I read an awful lot of fiction these days that reads like the author is following some kind of "author's rulebook" as to how many words they're allowed to use. Dull, dull, dull.

Anonymous said...

Amen to myimaginaryblog @ 11:34 -- I'm with you on that.

I think it's sad beyond belief that when something is popular the editor feels they no longer have to give a shit. If I was the editor of SM's latter books I'd be ashamed of myself, letting those overly long, nothing happening plots out like that. It would've been so easy to make them tight. It's lazy and inexcusable. Yes, they are page turners, but they could've been EDITED page turners -- it's not like it's either or.

I mean, as a writer, if your editor doesn't care, where does that leave you?

Rose Green said...

HP 7 was edited by editors who cared a whole heck of a lot, at least in the American edition. And if you notice, there are significantly fewer adverbs in the dialogue tags as in the earlier books. So I wouldn't say that she didn't listen to editors any more, or that her editors didn't care once the books got big.

Other series, though...well, I can think of a lot of examples of things going wrong as fame grows.

I wonder sometimes (well, in particular, a certain series) if the author has a vision and the editor has a somewhat different vision. And the new author bent their vision to the editor's until the books became big, at which point the author had the clout to write their original idea--and could, since of course the public wanted whatever they had to write. But by now there was this odd disjoint between beginning and end. Even if that's not the case, it makes me think about the power balance between author and editor, and how important it is that they share a vision and a willingness to do what it takes to reach that.

Anna Bowles said...

I'm surprised some commenters are pouring scorn on the idea of anyone caring about this issue. On a personal and professional level, I just want books - as a general category - to be as good as possible, in as many ways as possible, although factors certainly do conspire against that sometimes.

If that's naive, then it's the very same naivete that drew me into becoming an editor in the first place.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I have nothing but respect for JK. She's one of my favorite authors. How she managed to keep everything straight [more or less ;-)] across a seven book series - and that includes foreshadowing three books in advance - just amazes me. That doesn't mean I love everything she's written.

I have other favorite authors who write extensive series and I see this issue crop up with them. The demand for the next book sometimes drives the schedule and the quality of the book can suffer as a result.

myimaginaryblog said...

Rose Green, I think that's an interesting speculation, and could explain the difference between the strong start and weak finishes of some series.

When I finished Eclipse I thought it was the last book in the series (because I'd heard there would be three) and I was surprised by the ambiguous ending. I thought, "Hmm, I didn't think Meyers was the type to leave loose ends hanging like that. It's mysterious, but kind of cool."

When I found out there was another book, I looked it up on Amazon, where there was a video of Stephenie saying that the last book would "wrap Bella's story up in a nice bow." Later, a friend of mine was complaining that all Meyer's stories get "wrapped up in a tidy bow," and I said, "You're right--she even says so herself!"

In response to those who wonder why any of us cares whether a book could have been written better, all I can say is that maybe some of us are just hardwired to care. I might especially care when I've gotten hooked on a story and let my house run to chaos all for ever-diminishing returns, but even when I'm not so invested, my near-instinctive approach to almost all reading (yes, even of shampoo bottles) is to think about whether things could have been said more effectively (or more efficiently, or more poetically, or with better suspense, etc.)

Oh--one other observation about sloppy editing: Although spell-checking software saves us from most typos these days, I find homophones or simply wrong words (like "off" instead of "of") *all the time* in published books. Sometimes I'm tempted to send the mistake to the publisher for the paperback edition, but then I figure since they obviously didn't care the first go 'round, they probably will care even less on a second go.

shelley said...

Why do you think Stephen King's books are the size of f***ing door stops? I've slogged thru some chapters where I swear he just fell asleep on his keyboard.

emma darwin said...

'Twas ever thus. Being a very professional author, as well as a great (and much-underrated) popular novelist, Georgette Heyer disapproved deeply of the fact that Heinmann didn't edit her books, just received her manuscripts and sent them straight to the typesetter.

Errant Knave said...

Well said. I'm going to have to forward this to my editor in the morning. It will make her day.

(Aside: I loved HP7, but I only read it once, while in super-excited-fanboy mode. I wonder how it will hold up the second time through.)

Sherryl said...

Sue Grafton freely acknowledged that her H and I books (especially the I) were pretty bad, due to pressure from her publisher to produce a book by a certain deadline.
At that point, she was selling well enough to put her foot down and say no more. She would produce the next book when it was ready, thank you.
Kudos to her.
How many other series writers have been unable to resist the same pressure?

jennifereditor said...

"It takes a lot of fight to be a good editor. And it also takes knowing what fights are worth fighting."
I love this--it sums the day-to-day job of an editor. When I read a book that I think needed more editing, I try to give the editor the benefit of the doubt and wonder how much worse it was before she got her hands on it. We'll never know what that editor fixed.