Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The hazards of editing by committee

Twitchy. That's how I'm feeling. Twitchy and pissed off. Next time I accept a nonfiction book assignment, I'll make a point of making sure that the book is to be edited by one editor to whom I am accountable, not a committee.

Now, because I'd still like to be a working writer and still get assignments, let's go all pseudonymous. Let's say it was Packager A who called me up one day and offered an assignment to contribute to Publisher XYZ's new children's nonfiction series. The subject was -- let's call it transportation. No problem I said. I've written on the subject before. I'll take two.

I dug out old notes and looked up new material. Because the series was new, there were no existing books to look at as models, so I requested a copy of the outline of another writer in the series whose outline was due before mine, to assure series consistency. It's highly unfun to get an outline back and find, "Don't like this, make it more like Author B's outline," when you've never seen Author B's outline. So after modeling my two after Author B's outline, I submitted them to Packager A.


Hell, no.

First problem: XYZ's editors, in an, "Oh, didn't you know?" statement, said that they wanted stories about the people, not just the vehicles. "Who are the people operating the vehicles?" they asked. "What are they doing? What kind of training do they get?"

Back to the keyboard, this time for a challenge. I sifted through article databases and put the word out on message boards to find people to interview. It's like gleaning wheat from a field after the combined, other gleaners, and an army of mice have been through, but I finally find a handful of stories. I revise the outlines, send them back, and they're approved by the people at XYZ, with the caveat that I make the stories exciting. "Fill this out," one says. "This is boring the way it's written."

It's an outline, for pity's sake.

All right, so with outline approved, I hack away at the manuscript. It's a short book, pitched for kids, so every word has to count. I write, rewrite, edit, and finally get it off just in time for the deadline. And that was that?

Hell, no.

See, I'm used to working for publishers who, after approving the outline, look over the manuscript, ask for a round of edits, and then turn their team of editors loose on the manuscript to make it look like the other books in the series. I've even written for Publisher XYZ before, and that was my experience.

Not this time.

The manuscript came back bleeding. Fine, I can deal with that on the inital edit. This is where you learn the difference between what the editors asked for and what they really wanted. But this manuscript had been hacked and slashed by an entire committee, and half of the comments completely conflicted with the other half. Orders were to cut 2000 words or so out of the manuscript that was under 6000 words to begin with, yet every paragraph had "expand this" and "can you elaborate on that?" in it. Cut, but expand. Trim, but tell us more.

I want to write. I want to keep getting assignments. So I bit back any commentary and took the draft with a smile. I worked. I cut. I trimmed. I added. I hacked out entire sections. I reluctantly removed a sidebar about careers for women in this field of transporation when a sensitive male editor squealed, "Let's not make this political without presenting the other side!" Women in the field -- there's another side?

This wasn't the end of it, either. This went on for three rounds before they finally accepted the manuscript. Hell, this was a work for hire job. They squeezed me for every penny of value that they paid, and then some, until I was ready to scream to the committee at XYZ, "Just write your own damn book if you know so much about it!" But of course, I didn't. Not within earshot, anyway. This is my bread and butter writing, and it's best just to smile and say, "Sure, I can do that. When do you need it by?"

And now the second book is back for its second go-around. It's already been hacked by the committee once. This time we're dealing with comments from an editor who worked in this area of transporation. He's been busy "correcting" facts and figures that came directly from official industry factsheets, substituting his own from some damn Bob's Website kind of source. He's also tweaked that his own particular branch of the industry isn't represented in the book. Well, finding all those stories was no easy task. If Mr. Expert has some stories I can use, I'll look at them, but his most helpful comment was a listing of vehicles that I could write about. With no stories to go with them, without the people factor that his own publisher is asking for, and with the edits due in a week, I'm not going to cut and rewrite an entire chapter. If Mr. Expert wants a chapter on his industry, he's welcome to find the stories himself and write his own damn chapter.

But of course I won't say it quite like that. I still need the work.

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