Mon 4 Jan 2010
On the weekend before Christmas, Washington, DC was hit by a blizzard that dropped sixteen inches of snow on the city in twenty-four hours. DC is not equipped to deal with that kind of weather. Cars were buried. The roads were impassible. Even the subway ground to a near standstill. At the end of the storm, I braved the weather and went downtown to see Avatar. The streets of the city were empty, covered in a blanket of untouched, powdery snow. Most of the restaurants and stores were closed. Only a few tourists were out trudging through the snow, the uncertain footing and their resultant stumbling gates making them appear zombie-like. The city looked positively post-apocalyptic.
It was the perfect evening to escape to the richly detailed world of Avatar. Say what you want about the simplicity of the movie’s storyline, but their can be no denying the beauty and originality of the world that James Cameron has created. I am a big Cameron fan, and after seeing Avatar, it struck me that perhaps one key to his success (besides having gargantuan budgets) is that he produces, writes and directs his films. This gives him a level of creative control that is rare in the film world. A bad screenplay or poor producer can undermine even the best of directors (think Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). More commonly—or so my screenwriter friends tell me—perfectly good screenplays are ruined by incompetent directors. And a bad lead actor or actress can doom the efforts of all involved, as Ben Affleck has made a career of demonstrating.
This is yet another reason why I love writing novels. As a novelist, I have total control over the end product; I play the role of writer, director, and actor. There is no one to blame but myself if things don’t turn out as I planned. I get to be James Cameron for every one of my books.
However, writers still need “producers,” and that is where editors come in. Editors perform many of the same functions as movie producers, who select projects (i.e. purchase the rights to books, screenplays, TV shows, or other properties that can be turned into movies), commission screenplays, and oversee filming. First, editors read the manuscripts that agents or writers send them and pick the ones that they think can sell as books. As regards first time authors, they’re (I think) looking primarily for two things: 1) a great story that they can sell; and 2) a writer who will do the hard work to make that story even better. Editors are not in the business of fixing flawed manuscripts. Editors edit; they do not rewrite. That is the job of the novelist. The editor will provide vital feedback (sections that might be cut; places where more is needed; plot issues that need to be worked out), but the writer does the rewriting.
This is because editors are busy doing other things. They have a never-ending stream of manuscripts to read and other books to edit. And, once they have edited a book, they still have to serve as the coordinator of its production, publicity, and marketing. An editor works with artists and designers to produce the cover. (And I think they did a wonderful job for SIEGE.) She works with the production editor, who oversees the copy-editing and the process of getting the book printed (picking the type; delivering the proofs; scheduling the printing). She works with the publicity director to make sure that the book gets reviewed. And, she coordinates with the marketing and sales department to try to get the book displayed as prominently as possible in as many bookstores as possible. If you’ve ever wondered who decides which books end up on the newly released shelf or on that table you see when you first walk into a bookstore, well, editors have a lot do with that.
In short, editors are the “producers” of novels, working with the author and the publishing house personnel to guide novels from manuscripts to the hardbacks sitting on the shelves at bookstores. They have a huge role in a book’s success… which is why I thank my lucky star (and my agent) that I have a great one.
Tune in next week to learn how authors get paid, aka Sorry, writing a novel is not a quick path to fame and fortune…