Thursday, January 19, 2012

Column: The Business of Writing - The Editor’s Seat by Linda Rohrbough

I remember several years back while visiting a New York Times best-selling author friend, I went to dinner with a group of writers. When several of the others left the table on an errand, I ended up alone with a writer I didn’t know well. She asked me how I got some well-paying writing work she’d heard about. So I asked her a few questions, then gave her some advice.

Next thing I heard, a year and a half later, she was making six figures. Turns out the dinner was a set up and my author friend deliberately left me alone with this writer so she could ask my advice. Evidently, now that writer was going around telling everyone I coached her into her current success.

So my author friend asked me, “What did you say to her?”

And I wondered, what did I say to her? Because if I could remember what it was, I’d say it to myself.

Here’s how the conversation went.

I asked her about what she did now and about her background. She was working in a bank at the time, but she used to own a magazine. I remember I was stunned.

“You had a magazine? And you’re asking me how to get work? My gosh, girl, you’ve seen it from the other side.”

She just looked at me without saying a word. But I was on a roll.

“You remember the freelancers you loved to work with? How they behaved?”

She nodded.

“So be THAT.”

She was quiet. I wondered if I’d disappointed her. The other writers came back to the table and the subject got changed.

What I wanted to ask, once I heard she was making six figures, was what THAT looked like. During our dinner, since I felt like she’d taken me into her confidence and the other writers would be listening, I never did ask the question. Turns out she had the ruby slippers on the entire time and didn’t know it.

But I took an editing job that lasted several months and now I know what THAT looks like. Because I see it from the other side of the table. So, if you’ll bear with me while I take the long way around, I’ll tell you what I saw.

First, and I know this will come as a shock, I know when an author is lying to me.

They say things like, “I will have the material done, but I might miss the deadline because I’m traveling and I can’t upload until I get back.”

Oh please. You can upload at Mickey D’s. Do I look like I have stupid written all over my face? (Now I sound like my mother.)

Even worse is when I hear something like, “I’ve got this really important party to go to where I’m the guest of honor, so I might miss my deadline.” Or I’m doing some real expensive activity (like taking my yacht out for the weekend, going on a cruise, or water skiing in Santa Barbara). And oops, the deadline is gonna suffer. Do they really think I’m going to say, wow, you’re the important artist and I’m just a small and humble editor, so go ahead and miss the deadline?

Or there’s silence. I send an e-mail. I wait. Repeat. Then they say they never got the e-mails. Or they refuse to acknowledge my correspondence. So I send them back the file to work on and three weeks later when I ask them how they are doing, they say they never got it.

What I didn’t know when I was just a humble author, is editors account to someone above them regularly for every deadline and the status of the project. Then the information is compared to the plan originally submitted by the editor after initial meetings with the author.

I also didn’t know that in some cases the editor doesn’t get paid until the final version is turned in and accepted. In that case, every delay by the author means a delay in the editor’s bottom line. But even if the editor is salaried, it makes them look bad, even incompetent, when authors are late. And that will eventually affect even a salaried editor’s job.

So I now understand why some editors got so angry with me when I was late. And why they often took the delays personally. I get now how insulting it is to the intelligence of another person to talk to them the way I’ve been talked to by some of the writers I work with. It reminds me of junior high when one of the popular girls would say she’d love to come to my party, but she had to wash her hair.

I never had high-dollar, going-out-on-the-yacht excuses, but I remember making excuses that probably were more lame than the ones I listed here. What I remember the most is being terrified. I was behind, I knew it, and I was either not sure about how to handle it or I was afraid to try. Or I underestimated the amount of time I needed. Bottom line was, I was afraid the editor or the house would pull the plug.

But sitting on the other side of the table, I realize now that the best thing I can do is when I’m going to be late, is just let my editor know. Call or e-mail them first, rather than waiting until they ask me where the work is. Tell them what’s going on (with a reasonable explanation) and give them an accurate and realistic estimate of when I can get the work in. They’re not going to like it, but they’ll have a lot more respect for me than if I make up “stories.”

I faced a project this year where I got behind. Given what I know now, I screwed up my courage, called the editor and just told them where I was at. It worked great. It turns out he was behind too and so instead of two weeks, I got an extra month to finish. I’d never known that if I hadn’t simply put my cards on the table. And he gave me some great tips on things I didn’t know from their end that would help me finish the project.

The other thing I see besides all the problems with deadlines, is writers turn in crap work just to hit a deadline. Then they get mad when I edit the work. I notice if the work is shoddy. I can see there’s some benefit to turning the work on time rather than ignoring the deadline. But I wanted to say to the writer, if you’re going to turn in schlock, at least have the decency to keep your mouth shut when I fix it. Plus, I wanted to add, if you’re going to scream about every change I make, I’m going to think you’re a baby.

And remember this. As an editor, I don’t get credit when you, the writer, look good. I may not even have my name on the project anywhere. You get the credit.

Sometimes I get a submission and I know it is off but I have to think about it a while before I can figure out how to fix it. That’s brain drain and it takes time. It’s helpful to remember the editor didn’t go to the trouble to do all that reorganization because it felt good to one-up the author. They did it because they think it makes the work better.

One thing I have done well as a writer is recognize that an editor can make me look good and express my gratitude. And even if I have an editor who looks to me like they are changing things for the sake of change, I save my arguments for the big ticket items, and let the small stuff go.

Being on the other side of the table has helped me be a better author. And I’m grateful for the experience. Now I know what I told my friend that made her so successful. I, too, had the ruby slippers on the whole time. And now I’ve given you a pair. So try them on and see how they fit. Because you can do this, too.

About the Writer:  Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit along with national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. New York Times #1 bestselling author Debbie Macomber said about Linda’s new novel: "This is fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Prophetess One: At Risk had me flipping the pages and holding my breath." She recently won the 2011 Global eBook Award and the 2011 Millennium Star Publishing Award for her new novel. An iPhone App of her popular “Pitch Your Book” workshop is available in the Apple iTunes store. Visit her website: www.LindaRohrbough.com.