I have a smattering of books that address the relationship between writers and their editors. In nearly every case, the editor was Scribner’s legendary Maxwell Perkins.
Browsing through Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence and Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, it’s clear that Max, in addition to serving as editor extraordinaire, was literary advisor (Max to Scott: If the Cosmop would give you $30 or $40,000 for the serial, I think the only strong argument that could be advanced against taking it would be the quality of the magazine.), book club leader (Ernest to Max: There were too many bayonets in it somehow. If you are writing a book that isn’t romantic and has that as one of its greatest assets it is a shame to get awfully romantic about bayonets.), bank account (Scott to Max: I see by the memo that I have had a $3,243.00 advance... Could I have $500.00 more?), and friend (Ernest to Max: Wish you could come down... We could make a whole succession of new good old days...).
My single experience of working with a book editor was highly professional—no insider gossip or savvy career advice. Long story short: My husband and I wrote a detective novel, had it placed by our agent as the first in a new series of mysteries, worked with the series editor for six months to get it in final shape, then had it rejected by the publisher at the last minute because he wanted the first five years of the new series to feature previously published authors (which we were not). Our agent shifted his focus from book to film writers, detective novels fell out of fashion, and I went back to penning short stories. All this happened 25 years ago. I really have no idea what sort of support one can expect from the average book editor of 2010.
Where, then, does a writer like me find both encouragement for my efforts and hard-nosed critiques of my work? While developing the list of Max Perkins’s value to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the other authors he nurtured, I realized that I could well be listing everything I value in the members of my writers group. Well, maybe I haven’t hit them up for $500, but they have come through for me in the difficult periods in my life. Could my writers group be my Max Perkins?
Max journeyed to Key West (in his suit, tie, and jaunty cap) to fish with Ernest Hemingway. My writers group travels from New Hampshire and various Boston-area towns for potluck dinners, story critiques, and mutual commiseration. A writers group as small and long-lived as mine is a sacred trust. You know everything about each other, and that knowledge is both helpful and traumatic when you’re called upon to be brutally honest about a creative effort.
As with the members of my writers group, Max Perkins was an excellent editor and softened his criticisms with praise. In most cases, his suggestions appear to have been well-taken (Ernest to Max: We’ve eliminated Belloc, changed Hergesheimer’s name, made Henry James Henry, made Roger Prescott into Roger Prentiss, and unfitted the bulls for a reproductive function).
My writers group alerts me to useless minor characters, unintended changes in point of view, and places where getting too close to “what really happened” actually weakens the story. Their suggestions for word changes and additional illuminating sentences can be so superlative that I can’t think of any alternatives and use them verbatim. Then I’m racked with guilt and doubt. Does this mean the story is no longer my own? Even if only one suggested sentence in an entire story has been used verbatim, I can torture myself by imagining that critics in the distant future will point out that specific sentence as an (undeserved) example of my writing excellence.
When I began editing the long (60-page) short story I recently completed, I realized that I had another model of productive editing, different from both the long-distance communiqués of Max and company and the intense meetings of my writers group. During my long (now ended) tenure at Harvard University, I worked closely with a colleague on the final editing of reports and proposals. We sat side by side for days on end, reviewing documents one line at a time. One of our primary goals was to ensure that each sentence was both accurate and understandable even to someone who knew nothing about the proposed or reported project. When problems were identified, we made a highly effective team in brainstorming solutions.
I asked this colleague, Judy, if she would help me edit my story using the same method that worked so well for the dozens of reports and proposals we finalized over the years. The experience ended up being phenomenal. Due to our differing schedules and the length of the story, we weren’t able to work side by side on the entire piece as I originally had hoped, but we did have one long afternoon session that was both very productive and more fun than diligent work is supposed to be.
Judy also read through the entire story and was especially astute at identifying previously overlooked places where a reader might question the accuracy of a word or concept. Her very first comment was on the names I’d chosen for my main characters (Judy to Elizabeth: I don’t really like the names–Chloe is too out of the ordinary and her parents probably wouldn’t have come up with that 40-50 years ago. Ishmael is too distracting...). I located a website that tracks government statistics on the use of names and found that she was right. The two names were not only generally uncommon (particularly Ishmael) but were given to few, if any, babies born in the 1950’s and 60’s. Because I didn’t want others to get bogged down by questioning the names, I changed them to ones that I verified were popular during that time period.
I have never been as pleased with the final version of one of my short stories as I am with this one. I’m sure this is due in large part to my recent retirement and my ability to now work on my writing all day, every day, for weeks on end if I choose to. But I also believe that my composite Max Perkins served me well.
How do you undertake the editing process? Who do you turn to? Do publishing houses still have a Max Perkins on staff or is this role filled in a different way today?