Category Archives: Editing

The Christian Writing Revolution: Straight Talk

It’s never going to happen. This revolution. It’s just not.

It’s always going to be just over the horizon, out of reach, beyond the next bend in the road. Hiding in the shadowlands. Lingering in the space between dreaming and waking.

Our world can’t handle it. The industry will never accept it. The truth is, no one wants to face facts. We all want our cake, our super-sized lifestyles, and we don’t want some stinkin’ revolutionary message messing things up.

We may as well all give up right now.

Ever felt like that? Okay. I didn’t think so. Me neither.

Say what you will, but there’s a very real barrier to anything fresh and new and truly inspired in our Christian books, and I think there’s at least one thing we can point to that explains it. I want to diverge from our recent debate about art as evangelism for today to talk about another very important barrier to the revolution. We all claim to want this industry-wide change to happen, but our outlook is built up to resist it. We claim to want a fresh revelation from God, but we keep flogging the same assumptions, expecting the same thing we’ve always gotten. Maybe we’re afraid of it changing too much or of it not happening on our terms. Maybe it’s easier to use lingo and Christian slang, to speak of vagaries to keep the practical realities from ever infiltrating our daily lives. It’s just easier and safer to “lay it all at the feet of the cross” than to actually do something about it and have our entire lives change.

So why is CBA suffering from a glut of badly-written books, chock full of Christian jargon and unrelenting religiosity?

Why do authors speak in clichés and platitudes?

Why do so many CBA editors complain about the deplorable state of the manuscripts they get to evaluate?

Because just like CBA readers, we editors secretly like it that way. We don’t demand anything better. Second, because writers don’t seek out experienced editors with integrity who don’t allow that garbage to pass by their desks and do something about it. And third, because most editors, publishers, and “gatekeepers” aren’t doing anything to make the situation any better.

If we really believe in this revolution and we’re not just paying lip service to the idea, we need to quit treating publishers and editors like royalty and make them pay for their favored status. Sure, they work hard. They’ve earned their stripes through years of study and real-life book editing. But does that mean we should treat them deferentially as though they don’t owe it to the industry that pays their salary to help earnest, fledgling authors?

There’s too much tip-toeing around in CBA, as though we’re going to offend someone by “bothering” them with our God-given passions. If you believe in the revolution I’ve been flapping about, then stop that groveling right now! One thing I always make it a point to say to any writer’s conference is that any assumption of reverence is completely out of place. We are all in the same sinking ship here and if my hunch is right, when editors get up to the pearly gates, they’ll be told their “talents do not fit the needs at the present time.” They’ll be fortunate to end up with Dante’s book critics.

I made a pledge when I became a book editor to never, ever consider myself worthy of the position. Wordsmith, message-crafter, whatever you want to call it, the skill required is just a skill, like anything else. Now I’m no Stein or Plotnik or Zinsser (And can’t imagine sitting at that table without peeing my pants), but I’ll tell you what: someday I will be. And so will you. And you can bet once you’re there that you’ll realize this fascade of privilege is utter foolishness. So my advice would be to learn to hate it and not even acknowledge its existence. Hate what it does—to me, to other editors, to the business, and to the other poor writers who believe it exists. That’s the first step.

And my other fervent request for the day is for everyone to come on in, let’s have a big, Teletubbies group hug, and realize we’re all working toward the same goal: furthering the Christian Writing Revolution. The only way we’ll ever see it change lives is to allow it to change our own first.

What is editing?

When this is the way top-selling writers behave, is it any wonder the industry is in trouble?

Here’s a snip from Anne Rice’s venomous retort to the criticism of her novel Blood Canticle on
“’I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself,’ she wrote. ‘I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me.’”

Is that what editing is? “Cutting, distorting, or mutilating” sentences?

“An executive at a rival publishing house, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said publishers often took a hands-off editorial approach with stars like Ms. Rice and Stephen King, another prolific, best-selling author, particularly as their careers matured. ‘Ultimately it’s the author’s book,’ the executive said. ‘With an author of a certain stature, they’re the artist; we’re the amanuensis [transcriptionists].’”

This view of professional editing is so arrogant and removed from the real intent of editing, I can hardly stand it. I’m reminded of a quote by Khalil Gibran, “God keep me from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children.” How can an experienced writer still hold to this view that editing is hacking and “mutilating?” Editing could have prevented much of the rancor aimed at Rice’s novel. But obviously the experienced editor in charge of such an unenviable task, wisely chose to keep his hands off. Yet any editor worth his salt and familiar with Rice’s novels would have seen fit to lend some much-needed objectivity to this book. Maybe we should change the title of editors who actually work on books to “clarifiers” or “refiners,” and the ones who simply rubber stamp books in an attempt to make their next Lexus payment the “villains of literature” that they are. . .

But then, maybe I’m just reacting.

New York Times article: “The People Have Spoken, and Rice Takes Offense”

Edit your book!

According to this article from Columbia Journalism Review, there is a trend in publishing that’s growing: editors who don’t edit. Judging from the books I’ve been reviewing for work recently, I believe it–and have suspected it for some time.

The problem seems to stem from the increasingly market-driven business publishing is becoming. Elisabeth Sifton at Farrar, Straus and Giroux is quoted as saying that by the 1990s, it was clear “editors were valued for the deals they could do, not for work well done or talent nurtured.” While this isn’t true across the board, more and more editors concern themselves with looking for big-selling books rather than well-written or well-edited ones. And according to this writer, many simply ask to see a complete manuscript when it’s finished and send it for a copyedit.

What has happened to the good editors? Who is making the effort to work over multiple drafts with the author, invest time into a collaborative relationship, and develop the book into the best communicator it can be?

Even the Christian publishing industry has changed, ineluctably going the way of advertising and publicity. The result, as the subject of the CJR article points out, is that authors are left to get their own editing accomplished to avoid the embarrassing yet inevitable publishing of a book that could have been so much better. “It’s your book,” the author now must tell herself. “It’s not your agent’s, not your editor’s, not your publisher’s. It’s your baby and you are the only one who will care enough to nurture it.”

That’s sad. I don’t know if you see this the same way I do, but I think book publishing is sort of the last great stand of a former age where marketing and sale-figures didn’t hold as much sway as the value of the message–and the other “entertainment” mediums like film, television, and radio were the coarse, crass, commercial-driven industries. There’s just something special about the printed word bound into a book. Maybe it’s the idea of permanence. But we’ve reached the point where that specialness is taken for granted. And maybe it’s simply that now it’s especially important to take extra care against the encroachment of the almighty dollar, and seek harder for the best help we can find for our written messages.

As good editing becomes a lost art, the influx of the next wave of poorly-edited books should convince you of one thing. If you’re an author, please do us all a favor and edit your book!