Alexis Easley’s St. Thomas University graduate seminar in professional editing met for an evening to look at the Sky Spinner books and emilymeier.com. They formulated the following questions for Emily.
1. How have you experienced writer/editor relationships and what advice would you offer to aspiring editors?
This is actually a large question. Those relationships have been too varied over too many years to summarize briefly. To give a true picture, I need to include people with editorial roles ranging from teachers to writer friends to agents to actual editors. Essentially that means being anecdotal, so I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ll start with the heaviest bit of editing my writing was every subjected to, which was from the editor of a magazine who’d solicited a piece from me on writing. She kept suggesting rewrites and, to be honest, I found it more annoying than useful since the piece wasn’t improved much in the process, and I didn’t learn much as a writer in working on it—and I always like to learn something. On the opposite end of the scale, when I had a novella accepted for publication in a literary journal, the editor told me she didn’t want to change a word. I actually think she was wrong as, much later, influenced in part by the comments of a reader at a university press, I did my own fairly extensive revision before republishing it. But the general rule for me has been that, as a serious reviser, I’ve been a lightly edited writer, particularly at the sentence level, often having work accepted unchanged even at very good journals.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t been given lots of suggestions for how to improve my work.. For instance, Lorrie Moore, whom I worked with during a Loft Mentor weekend, told me I was missing a crucial scene in my short story “Swimming.” I hadn’t realized it, but It was true. Though the scene was challenging to write, it improved the story immeasurably, giving it an emotional depth that had been missing. Earlier, Patricia Hampl had read a stack of my stories in a manuscript seminar and made an observation that was critical to my subsequent work on short stories. She said it was “uncanny” how I rushed plot points. As a person who’d started as a novel writer and came to short stories later, it clicked with me that short should never mean hurried.
My first full novel edit was on an early draft of Suite Harmonic. I had accepted representation from Loretta Barrett, a well-respected agent who’d had her own publishing imprint at Anchor. The edit was a fascinating experience because I was expecting a sort of Max Perkins intervention. Instead, Loretta gave me four double-spaced pages of notes that had two main focuses, one to do with fine-tuning the story and the other stylistic: she thought many of my sentences were too long and convoluted. It was not a hand-holding kind of editing but simply pointing to places that needed work.
The other people who played an early editing role in Suite were writer friends. Two suggested launching the story with more immediacy. A couple of them wanted less innocence on the home front, which presented a challenge as I wanted to stay true to the research materials I was working with while writing a story that might feel more plausible to contemporary adults. I did some careful, threading-the-needle revising. Also, a very experienced filmmaker recommended I include more of the history of New Harmony, which I did. All of these suggestions were, in my view, the best kind of editing because they gave me general notions of how to make the book better. They were very different from the ideas of agents who thought I should cut most of the battle scenes or divide the manuscript into two or three books. I could have done that, but I wouldn’t have been writing the book I was passionate about writing.
Probably the most specifically useful book edit I received was from Eva Talmadge, a junior agent in Emma Sweeney’s office—Emma of Water for Elephants. Eva has a real talent for homing in on individual scenes and offering ideas to strengthen them. She gave me some early suggestions that made Clare, Loving a better book though, again, it was up to me to do the actual work.
Wendy Lesser of The Threepenny Review, who published one of my short stories in the early 80s, was also helpful. She didn’t make a lot of suggestions, but there was one that was crucially important and became part of the way I wrote many later story endings. She thought I had overdone the last paragraph, underlining my point rather than letting it emerge in a subtler, understated way. It was because of that internalized advice that years later I knew when I’d reached the end of Time Stamp. I had thought I had more paragraphs to write but suddenly knew I was done, that anything more would spoil it.
In general, I would say that, for me, with editing, less has been more. It’s a suggested direction not a command; it’s an aid to finding a way more deeply into the story itself. Sometimes that means cutting extraneous words or parts; sometimes it means shifting tone slightly or filling in something that’s missing. Less often, it means a rethinking of the whole structure of a work as happened more than once with The Second Magician’s Tale and reflected the ideas from different readers at different times. What it doesn’t mean is an editorial experience like the very worst one I ever had: an agent I didn’t know well, and who barely knew my work, made a rather casual suggestion that I hire a professional New York editor to go over one of my books. It was at a stressful time for me as things had just fallen apart with another agent I’d been working with. From anxiety, I hired the editor. As it turned out, she worked more with genre than literary fiction and, more ominously, she wasn’t a good reader. In fact, many of her suggestions made no sense at all because of her misreading. She also had an idea of what a good book is that was nothing like mine. Though I salvaged a couple of ideas to explore, it was basically an expensive disaster. The experience made me long for the careful reading of someone like my friend Paulette Bates Alden, who reads deeply into a work and offers astute suggestions that help a writer realize its potential.
By now, I think you can guess my main advice for editors. Read attentively, understand the inspiriting intention of the writer you’re working with, and then make it your goal to help the writer achieve it. And here’s a cautionary note: remember you are dealing with someone who’s vulnerable in the face of your editing pen. Don’t abuse that power. Instead, use it to help a writer build confidence and skill.
2. How would you describe the process of editing your own work? How would you describe the way you read and/or edit other people’s work? What is similar or different about these processes?
I’ve heard writers make a hard distinction between writing and editing. I think their idea is that the writer as critic gets in the way of the inspiration for story. While there are certainly times when I write with a uninterrupted urgency, more often the process of capturing a story involves scribbling or typing out phrases and ideas before they disappear yet making the process of ongoing revision the real work of composition. As many writers will tell you, stories come into existence by the act of writing, which involves the revelatory and associative power of language. For me, phrases and sentences and paragraphs have to be mended as I write. That’s how I find what I want to say.
I actually addressed this subject in a recorded answer to a question from my oldest grandson, which is included on my website. My main point is that I’m never done editing. I edit as I write. I edit when I go back to my work the next day. I edit at the end of sections and chapters. I edit when I return to a story or novel after a long absence. I never finish with that finicky part of things until work is published and sometimes not even then, though the uncertainty that suggests isn’t a universal thing but usually attaches to smaller concerns. If I’m really satisfied that I’ve absolutely gotten something such as a story’s ending or a descriptive passage or transition, it’s done.
When I’m editing other people’s work, I am conscientious about pointing to actual mistakes of a copy editing nature. I am also attuned to what is working and what isn’t and any thoughts that raises about a more global sort of revision. I’m particularly concerned if I feel something is off in psychological sense such as a character or relationship lacking in consistency or believability. I also care about tracking and factual accuracy since mistakes in those areas can throw a reader out of the story. I’m also aware, as I am in my own work, of when a part of a story seems clearly lodged in the wrong place with maybe dialogue needing to be summarized rather than rendered or stripped of exposition, with a description of a character’s emotional reaction needing to shift to a telling gesture.
In editing, as long as the writer has a good or higher level of writing competence, I try to keep a fairly light hand. I don’t want to impose myself as a writer on other writers’ work but rather help them to achieve what they’re after themselves. I can remember twice when I violated that principle, both times when I was making suggestions to poets (and I’m not really even a poet). In both cases, I was so caught up in the power of the writing that I suggested edits that extended my own imaginative experience beyond the writer’s focus. Wisely, the writers stuck with their own vision of what they wanted to say, and their finished poems were wonderful.
I’ve realized I’d like to add a paragraph here from the great series of editor and agent interviews by Jofi Ferrari-Adler in Poets and Writers. This one is from a 2008 interview with Pat Strachan, who’d been a longtime editor at Farrar Straus where she’d edited some amazing writers before moving on to the New Yorker. Ferrari-Adler asked if she had a “guiding philosophy” as an editor and her response was something I think is quite important, perhaps because it’s similar to my own view: “Not a guiding philosophy, but I do think it’s extremely dangerous to mess with a novel structurally, because it’s close to poetry in that it’s almost pure consciousness. The way it comes forth from the writer is the way it should probably be, even though maybe the beginning is unclear or not enough action happens in this part or whatever. With a literary book—I hate to say literary, but a piece of serious fiction that isn’t genre fiction—I try to stay away from structural suggestions because they can be very damaging. One big change can make the whole house of cards fall apart. So with literary fiction I really try to stick to line editing. I also think the less done the better, and I consider myself a fairly heavy editor. But I do as little as I can do, because a work of serious literature is a very fragile construction.”
OK. In a case of less than ideal editing, this final paragraph for this question is for leftovers. As far as what’s similar or different about the process of editing my work or someone else’s, I’ll change anything, macro or micro, in my own work. With other writers, I try to read right through to what they’re after and then help them realize it. In terms of how I read other writers’ work when I’m not editing, which is most of the time, unless I’ve set myself a particular task of trying to understand how good work is put together, I try to read just as a reader. Of course, that’s not always possible, particularly if the work feels flawed. In those cases I might find myself trying to analyze what’s wrong, which makes me the busman on a holiday. Finally, I’ll add that I’m a much more intense reviser of fiction or poetry than of essay-style writing. With expository writing, even if there’s a somewhat complex idea to pursue, the writing is easier because it simply doesn’t need to be as written.
3. Have you considered writing a memoir now that you’ve completed your novels?
A number of people have suggested that. They seem to feel it’s the natural next (or last) step, but the simplest answer is no. Even though any fiction writer borrows places or snippets from personal life as triggers for story, I’ve always been far more interested in observing other lives than my own. I just don’t find myself and my experiences all that compelling as material. That said, by the time I had answered the sixty written questions from individuals that became the 70,000 + words of the interview section on my website, I realized I’d essentially written a memoir of a writing life. Adding the Emily Blog to the site, has meant that I’ve written a bit more about myself—anecdotes, memories, a lot of opinions. But I’ve never had a desire to size myself up as a person with a particular relationship to the zeitgeist, which is what much of today’s memoir is. For whatever reason, that’s not really me.
4. What specific or generalized criteria did you use to determine which professionals you would ask to join your staff at Sky Spinner Press? More specifically, what about Mary Byers made her your choice for copyeditor?
Just to clarify, although Sky Spinner Press is an incorporated legal entity, I’ve been its only full time worker since its inception. The other members of the team are independent contractors who worked on other projects even during the most intensive parts of the Sky Spinner production process. The fact I had access to so many topnotch professionals is the main reason I could establish a small independent press that met my first criterion of quality. I also looked for compatibility, availability given the narrow timeline, and cost. While a variety of people and companies have contributed in various ways to Sky Spinner, the key ones that gave Sky Spinner its distinctive signature are Mary Byers, the copyeditor, designer Jeenee Lee, ,and Richard Molby, the logo and website designer.
Mary is the only copyeditor I considered. She was very highly recommended by a writer whose work she had copyedited for Hungry Mind Press, and she has a sterling résumé, including work for both Oxford and Cambridge’s university presses and a long stint as managing editor of the University of Minnesota Press. After a lengthy initial phone conversation, I sent her all my digital manuscripts and she did a sample edit of the first chapters of Suite Harmonic. She’s both meticulous and smart and that was readily apparent. She’s also kind. We decided on an hourly wage that worked for us both and settled into a routine of bouncing manuscripts back and forth as we went through the various stages of the copyediting process. Mary was a quick study about the things I had individual preferences about such as certain punctuation patterns and I always felt she had my back in routine copyediting matters or in catching my occasional diction slips or factual errors. She was also terrific and generous in guiding me through things like the creation of front and back matter for the books and answering any publishing questions that came up. I did not expect her to suggest major changes in things like the structure of the books. Before she ever saw the manuscripts, I had taken each of them through what I considered my final edit in terms of what the book would be. I went through two additional complete readings of each book and did make some final tracking and tonal changes. I felt confident enough of Mary’s work that I felt, if necessary, she could complete the copyediting process without me. She, in turn, felt she had learned enough of me as a writer that she would feel comfortable doing that.
Finding Jeenee Lee was pure serendipity. Various people had recommended I use Bookmobile for my printer because they’re local to the Twin Cities but have a long track record of working with independent publishers. When I was reading about them on-line, I was taken by the picture of the Out Stealing Horses cover on their home page. My immediate thought was that I wanted a cover that was that good. I traced it back to Jeenee and, after Mary Byers, who knew her and had worked with her, put us in touch, I wanted her. She came to see me with a bag of wonderful looking books she’d designed and I showed her some of the artwork I was thinking about for my book covers. She’s a delight and we had a great conversation. Initially, I thought I would publish all six titles as ebooks but only Suite Harmonic as a paperback. As we discussed what the project would cost, exchanging emails in the next few days, we decided to do all the books in both editions, with my providing all the cover art and Jeenee creating a family of books that featured the same exterior and interior fonts and basic design. It meant she could offer me a package price, though I have to say Suite particularly took many more design hours than either of us anticipated and certainly could have tried Jeanie’s generosity.
Another friend came up with the name of a web designer. I had a long discussion with her and then talked with my neighbor who’d recently created her own website. She thought I needed to work from a standard template. Since the first designer preferred to design from scratch, I met with my neighbor’s daughter and Richard Molby, one of her friends, who’s a sort of Renaissance man. Richard and I hit it off and, after searching for a template that would allow me to change page banners and use my own page background, we settled on WordPress’s Graphene, which I’ve been very happy working with, though what a huge learning curve the whole website was. Fortunately, Richard can still bail me out when I create my own technical glitches. He also designed the Sky Spinner logo, which I love, working with some random ideas that I sent him. Really, I love thinking about all the design aspects of this project. The visual parts were really fun.
As far as the rest of the team goes, my friend Birgitta Nybeck did some early marketing work and established and has run the Sky Spinner Facebook page. Recently, Jana Robbins, who did publicity for Graywolf for many years, has picked up some publicity pieces. I’ve worked with Itasca, like Bookmobile, a Stanton Publications division, for distribution and fulfillment. 52novels.com, a growing internet company, has created all the files for ebook formats, working from the Word documents I sent them. And, of course, there’s the Sky Spinner support team. The requirement for them was the easiest. They had to be my grandchildren, who happen all to be boys.
5. Do you foresee the possibility of Sky Spinner Press publishing books by other authors at some point? If so, what sort of criteria would you use to select manuscripts? What sort of authors would you hope to publish?
If I were at a different point in my life, the answer to this question might well be yes as I think the huge changes in publishing mean real opportunities for both writers and publishers. It could be serious fun to play a larger role in the creative part of that process; just establishing Sky Spinner and learning so much I didn’t know about publishing was exciting. Still, at that same life point, I might be jealous of the time an expanded press would take from my writing life.
But if I were in a position to publish other work—and people actually have asked if I would consider their manuscripts—I would look for what’s called, somewhat awkwardly, literary fiction, and probably be most drawn to work that shares some qualities with my own. Language would be key and the focus wide ranging. The work would be very character- and place-driven and, though it would care about story, plots would feel more organic than contrived. The work would not fit in the meta-fiction category, but it would occasionally experiment and parts would be interior. It would probably be about important things. Basically, it wouldn’t fall into a ready category in today’s fiction.
Since my daughter and son own Sky Spinner and have families and demanding day jobs, I seriously doubt they’ll be extending its reach. I do have one idea I’m quite interested in. It intrigues me to think that Sky Spinner might at some point become an imprint of another house with a publishing mission of the kind I’ve described. My concern would be that, with Sky Spinner owning the copyrights to my work, the control on keeping work available, one of the great strengths of independent publishing, would disappear.
6. In considering the development of internet advertising over the last two decades and the more recent advent of creative crowd-funding, what are your thoughts regarding the feasibility of publishing via webpage? If so, how would you see such publications changing the form of the novel?
This is not something I’ve thought a great deal about, in part because I find the areas of distribution, publicity, and marketing far and away the most opaque parts of this whole process and the most resistant to change. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t changing and won’t change a whole lot more. It’s just that it’s harder for me, at least, to imagine how they will evolve.
But as someone who has commented on political blogs and observed crowd-sourcing for some important political stories, such as one on the US attorney scandal that garnered a George K. Polk award for Talking Points Memo, and watched a crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign fund a teaching-kitchen for a grandson’s school, I think the internet has tremendous capabilities in all sorts of areas. That certainly may mean that far more fiction will be published on-line, though it takes the right idea and real drive on the part of the person pushing it. My guess is that some on-line work will be reminiscent of the kind of serial publication Dickens did, which of course shaped his novels as he both worked to a deadline and had to keep producing cliffhangers to attract an audience. The phenomenon of serialization was actually very widespread in the 19th century, extending well beyond Dickens. When I was doing research for Suite Harmonic and reading local newspapers in Indiana, I often came across serialized fiction by people I’d never heard of. People have long sought popular avenues for finding stories and newspapers offered the opportunity for people to essentially read the same thing at the same time in a sort of local happening.
This certainly might be a trend for the future, with the internet providing the means of distribution for such communal reading experiences. And as you suggest, crowd-funding will likely be involved along with advertising dollars based on clicks. There will certainly be ways for writers not only to get their work in front of readers but to find a pay day. Whether this means a different quality or kind of work is hard to predict. The basic rule is always that people can’t read things they don’t know exist. Probably one of the best options for writers is to pool creative resources with editors and designers, marketers and web innovators and all the other people in the production chain. What that will mean for the novel itself is impossible to say, though my hope is that the smart use of the internet will mean more novelists with audiences that are a natural fit for their work, and writers and readers with better access to each other.
This is relevant: recently I read a Kindle Single, “How the Book Is Born” by Keith Gessen, on what went into publishing The Art of Fielding. Originally published in Vanity Fair, Gessen’s piece is a fascinating article with many familiar names, including people I’ve had actual publishing contacts with, and I learned things I wish I’d known years ago. What intrigued me most was the story the article told about a writer who worked in the mind-body-spirit genre, which I’d never even heard of. A standard publisher bought his first book in the field and sold twelve thousand copies. With the next book, the agent went to a publisher who purchased books solely in mind-body-spirit. That publisher had a digital list of a million people, and the second book sold two hundred thousand copies.
I think this is the sort of success story that is lurking with the connections the digital age will increasingly mean. For myself, I’d like huge lists of genealogists, Civil War buffs, Irish-Americans, and people interested in intentional societies. They’re a natural audience for Suite Harmonic. But, of course, they’d have to know it.
–In Collaboration: Alexis Easley, Brittney Wolf, Bethany Fletcher, Jackie Milbrandt, Nathan Wunrow, Brigitte Budahn, Ethan Krueger, Kristin Demery, Devin Taylor, Mercedes Sheldon, Peter Larson, Kara Meyers
The following comments from Emily are in response to some follow-up questions:
I was struck by one student’s suggestion that the author not the subject is what is interesting in a story because of the particular insights a writer brings to what’s written. That seems valid, maybe even profound. Yet as I mentioned, I’m always more drawn to the way writers lean toward what is distinct in the personality of other people than in their attempts to discover their own selfhood. That’s the reason for my personal preference for writing fiction rather than memoir. It’s simply what draws me as a writer.
We also didn’t seem quite finished with the effects of crowd-sourcing and crowd-critiquing on the quality and nature of work. In many ways, we’re going into the unknown with this, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. We have certain independent writing traditions that have worked wonderfully. But there have always been collaborations. Theater offers a great example. Plays are routinely shaped and recreated and rewritten depending on how they play. And while much work can only be achieved alone, there are so many art forms that are based on people pooling talents together and influencing each other. (Think how many skills are required to create and mount an opera.) The fact is, being influenced by others is often a source of great strength. And, ultimately, if we don’t try ideas that are new, alone or with others, we may not venture far enough but assume things are good simply because they’re familiar. Part of writing is taking chances and striking out for the territories. Some experiments will work; some will fail, but the effort will likely mean expanding opportunities. And there’s this, too. Like it or not, vitality doesn’t always require excellence. Some of the most popular work is also the worst written!
I believe there was also a question that was essentially about how intensively we should teach writing. This is a story I’ve always liked. Years ago, an English department chair set up an experiment for his faculty. He had instructors read and grade essays blind from students at the beginning of the semester. At the end of the semester teachers randomly read work from students they hadn’t taught. One teacher was far and way more affective than the others as judged by his peers. When he was queried about his teaching methods, he said he’d simply had his students write a whole lot both in and out of class. Often he graded with just a check mark and made very few comments, if any. In effect, his students were teaching themselves to be better writers by following the age old habit of learning by doing and practice. There’s probably a good deal to learn in this. However, I wouldn’t lose your editing pens just yet.