Sunday, March 29, 2020

An Unusual Editing Story

By Terry Whalin @terrywhalin

If you love thrillers and adventure stories, a legendy writer of these books recently passed away. I'm talking about Clive Cussler. Recently in Publishers Weekly, one of Cussler's long-time editors, Neil Nygren wrote a fascinating article, “An Editor Remembers Clive Cussler” (follow the link to read the full article). The full article is great but there is one paragraph I want to highlight here. Speaking about Cussler, Nygren wrote:

“The last time he’d switched publishers, he said, it was to a major house with a justly famed editor. When Clive turned in his first manuscript, however, it came back heavily revised—pencil marks all over the pages. This did not please Clive. He took the manuscript and, on the top of the first page, he wrote one word: stet. Nothing more. And then he wrote the same word on the top of every page in the entire manuscript. And then he sent it all back. A couple of days later—as he told it to me—he got a panicked call from the editor asking him to come to the house’s New York office to talk. Clive declined, stating that “it would be... inconvenient.” That book was published the way he wrote it.”

I pulled this paragraph to point out some editorial details to you:

1. Cussler knew his readers and what they wanted with his books. Most writers are not in touch with the needs and desires of their readers. I'm certain this information came over time but Cussler knew the expectations of his readers and when he wrote, he was focused on meeting those needs.

2. As a best-selling author, Cussler knew not to change because of the editor's suggestions.  Make sure you notice some of the other details in Nygren's story: Cussler was with a major publisher and working with a famous editor who put pencil editorial marks on all of his pages. The novelist did review the ssuggested editorial changes but could see these changes were going to change the fabic of his story and he was going to lose more than he was going to gain.

3. Most writers do not fall into such rare territory. i call this an unusual editing story because from my years in publishing, the opposite is normally true. Editors are focused on readers and producing and excellent product. Their detailed insights are important for you as a writer to pick up on and respond to their directions. This sort of team work produces excellent manuscripts. I don't want to pretend it is easy because it is not but it an important part of the editorial process to produce excellent work. Cussler was an exception more than the norm.

I've worked with writers who want to debate their editor over every single word changed. These writers are not the type that editors love and want to work with on another book project. The word about the writer's reaction is quick to get out to others in this small community.  Editors are not your enemy but should be your colleague to help you produce an excellent book.

Admittedly Clive Cussler was unusual about how he handled this edited manuscript. What lessons and insights have you gained as you have worked with different editors? Let me know in the comments below.


Read about an unusual editing story about bestselling novelist Clive Cussler and some insights from long-time editor and prolific author. (ClickToTweet)

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