Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What Makes a Great Editor? - Part One

For a few years, I wrote a column on writing for I finally stopped because no one was reading it, but over a period of time I put together a bunch of thoughts about writing, and I've decided to republish them here, in another place that no one reads. I'll mostly do them in chronological order, because that way I don't have to think about any other order, but since deciding to do this was triggered by a friend's Facebook post, I'll start with the thoughts that were triggered. This is the first of five articles on what makes a great editor.

What makes a great editor? I have my own ideas, but I wondered what other people thought, so I googled the phrase.

The first hit was BNET, the go-to-place for management, and they had a whole page of definitions.  All of them were interesting and insightful, and none of them struck home to me. But of course...this was the go-to-place for management. This was a publisher's-eye view, or a CEO's eye view. None of it spoke to a writer's definition of what makes a great editor.

And yes, I do know that essentially a writer's definition of a great editor is someone who loves your book and offers you a big advance. But there's more.
AccessMyLibrary, a wonderful resource I had been previously unaware of, reprints an article [which I'd link to, but the link seems to no longer exist] from The Quill, a magazine for professional journalists, which says, among other things:

    Something odd happens when reporters of any age recall their best editors, the mentors who taught them to understand and love journalism. I've been through just that exercise in a dozen newsrooms and at just as many conventions and workshops. The responses seldom vary by much.
    Their best editors, the respondents say, were great teachers. They took a personal interest in young journalists and showed an obvious concern for them and their futures. They took time. They listened intently. They set high standards and established challenging goals. They laughed a lot. And some of them were even -- dare we say it? -- gentle.

Author Jack Hart is comparing this reality with the myth of the irascible, loud-talking Cary Grant of His Girl Friday or Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men. And he's right, I think. The best editors I ever had were colorful and memorable, but supportive and warm too. I loved them, and remember them with love.

After that, this being the Internet, I started finding software reviews -- what makes a great html editor, what makes a great photo editor. So I was thrown back on my own devices. Which means that I will, after all, have to think.

And hey, that's why they pay me the big bucks. So I'll talk, in future columns, about Bob Abel and Jim Bryans, two of the greatest editors anyone could ever have worked with.

But here I'll relate one anecdote about Bill Grose, who inherited me when Bob Abel left Dell Books. I pitched Bill an idea. I had spent a long bus trip from New York to Bristol, Tennessee, with a young federal marshal as my seat mate. He saw my banjo, and told me a funny story about his first case as a marshall. He had been sent back to his home county in the Appalachian Mountains to take a prisoner into custody. The prisoner, it turned out, was his charismatic reprobate cousin, who accepted that he had been caught fair and square. "But there ain't no hurry, cousin," he said. "You can take me back on Monday. I've got a little moonshining shack up in the mountains..." and there they went, to enjoy a weekend of banjo picking and moonshining, before the law took its course."

"I think there's a story there," I told Bill, on our first meeting. "I'm thinking a rollicking comedy, with the moonshine and banjos and..."

"No, that's all wrong," said Bill. "You've got a story here, but you don't know what it is. This is a thriller...a manhunt."

I needed a book contract, so I agreed. And Bill was dead right. I discovered a young man whose training and inexperience are tested by a cheerful but deadly psychopath, and more important, a young man who has to face the roots and the heritage he has tried to disavow. The novel became The Killing Place, published by Dell, was optioned for the movies by the great Howard Hawks. Later the character of the bad guy (I developed a screen adaptation that moved the story to Puerto Rico) Raul Julia wanted to play the villain. Neither movie ultimately happened. But none of it would have happened if Bill Grose had just said "Nah, I don't see it" -- if he hadn't recognized the story that I had missed, if he hadn't nudged me toward it.

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