An American Editor

March 17, 2021

Thinking Fiction: The Book as an Object

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:40 pm

Carolyn Haley

Writing a novel has often been likened to having a baby. The analogy is apt, in terms of gestation, obsession, pain, thrill, frustration, and all that goes with the long-term development of a new life.

Less often discussed is what happens later in the process, when it’s time to push the fledgling out of the nest.

In literary terms, this translates to finishing a book and letting it go to flop or fly. Some writers can’t do that, for any of three reasons:

1) Insecurity. They fear they will fail, or be laughed at, or put down.

2) Perfectionism. They can’t stop fine-tuning, because they believe a state of perfection can be achieved.

3) Brainwashing. They’ve been drilled by gurus to make their work “the best it can be” and believe that anything less is undeserving to be published, so their book is never ready.

The reverse also happens — some writers rush their books out the door in eagerness for publication, and don’t give their work the time and attention it deserves (including not budgeting money or time for editing and proofreading).

Either way, there’s a mental transition that has to occur between writing and publishing. A novel’s natural lifecycle is to transform from a private idea to a publicly exposed product. Along the way, it takes on a life of its own and the author is progressively edged aside.

Transformation phase 1

During draft composition, a story belongs exclusively to its author. Once the manuscript is completed and somebody else reads it, however, the transformation from idea to object begins.

Many authors test their ideas through beta readers to get their first sense of how their material can be perceived outside their own head. The more beta readers, the more different ideas and opinions push against the author’s sensibilities and imagination. What the author initially conceived starts to change in their own minds as well as on the page.

When the book reaches an editor, the real transition begins. Professional editors have no personal connection to the author. Their relationship is a business one, and their concern is only the material the author has created. This is not to suggest that the author-editor relationship is or should ever be indifferent or adversarial; rather, most editors get fully engaged in the material and devote themselves to helping the author cultivate it into a product that will draw readers.

But to the editor, the book is a “thing” — a narrative to be analyzed and polished and, if necessary, reformulated, until it is solid enough to go out the door and connect with its readers. For editors, working on a manuscript is a job as well as a calling, and the manuscript is weighed and measured against standards including, but also extending beyond, the author’s own criteria.

Transformation phase 2

Once a manuscript has been polished, it’s presented to one of three types of people: agents and acquiring editors (traditional publishing), or directly to readers (self-publishing). For the first two, the agent/editor evaluates the book as something they love and can commit to, or don’t love and reject for taste, or love but reject because it can’t be sold in enough quantities to justify the cost of producing it. In other words, the book has become a commodity and is subject to an accounting sheet. The author may still be in the equation, because with agents and publishers, contracts are involved, but at that point, author control and preference start sliding to the back seat, and what has been lovingly carried by their own hands is transferred to someone else’s.

When an author self-publishes their book and promotes it directly to readers, the disassociation happens more slowly but still becomes real. To self-publish, an author must turn a manuscript into a product people can buy. That process involves making all kinds of decisions about style, format, category, distribution, cover design, tagline, blurb, and so forth. These decisions force authors to look at their work as a thing that has to appeal to readers outside their own sphere.

Often, especially with first-time authors, submitting a book to the wider world is fraught with angst, discouragement, and confusion. It’s particularly galling for those who go the traditional-publishing route and submit, get rejected, submit, get rejected, for what could be dozens of times over many years. It’s hard for authors to realize that it’s not themselves being rejected, when what they conceived in passion, and invested a big chunk of their lives into expressing and molding, brings no positive result.

Even when the big day comes and the book is finally accepted, the process becomes more depersonalizing when contracts come into play. Suddenly the “baby” morphs into intellectual property involving rights and licensing, then gets kicked around like a soccer ball during further stages of editing and all the choices and compromises involved in turning it into a purchasable product.

Sooner or later, authors have to detach emotionally from their work and share the publisher’s perspective, whether they are working with a traditional house or producing the book themselves. The book must become an object to get into readers’ hands, by whatever tools and techniques work.

Transformation phase 3

After all the transitional tasks are accomplished, and the book is published, then come sales and reviews — and a new wave of learning just how many different ways the product can be perceived. By then, it’s difficult for an author to remember the once-upon-a-time when the challenge of the day was wringing words out of the soul and getting them into the right order to capture the author’s vision and feelings. The book has flown from the nest, destined for a fate that depends on myriad factors mainly beyond the author’s control.

The weirdest experience some authors have is meeting their readers, through signings or conferences or interviews (online or in person), when their personal self who created the book faces the results of what the book turned into. Depending on their personality type, this can be the most fulfilling part of the process, or the most alienating.

Regardless, the path to publication involves transformation inside the author as well as within the work itself. That’s why it’s important for authors to decide early what they want from publishing.

The best practice is to ignore the question during drafting the book, so the intense, private creation experience can proceed uninhibited. Then, when revising, but before showing the work to any beta readers or editors, authors can dream about what they want for success, and consider what they’re willing to settle for and what they don’t want at all. Understanding their goals and boundaries helps them direct their feedback readers on the best way to revise the book without wasting time, energy, and emotion on dead ends and sidetracks.

It comes down to authors owning their work. Ownership becomes literal once the book has turned into a thing, but while getting there, it’s a psychological state that reduces emotional distress and eases the transition between art and object.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

1 Comment »

  1. Brilliant article! Now I understand why some authors react so defensively to the most tactful editing suggestions.

    Like

    Comment by Tracy Buenk — March 19, 2021 @ 3:15 am | Reply


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