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“A good editor should leave no footprints?”

Someone recently sent me this saying: “A good editor leaves no footprints,” (or something like that) and asked my opinion about it.  Keep in mind that my writing experience is a few satirical short stories, some nonfiction books, critique partnering, and a lot on the business side.

I said, “That sounds like total BS!”

Editors have personalities.

If the definition of a good editor is to leave no “footprints,” then why is it so hard to find the right one?  Editors seem to be more like social workers or doctors — you have to find a good match for a good outcome.  Editors are human beings.  To say that editors shouldn’t impose their own ideas on a manuscript is to say that architects shouldn’t impose their own personalities in their buildings.

I do understand that there may be some rules or conventions (“cut the prologue! too much backstory! no info-dumps!”), and a good editor shouldn’t rewrite the book, or edit the author out of his own voice, but they are human.  I expect they will bring their own identity — their own personal beliefs, philosophy, and background — to each piece they work on.  Just as you can have ten violinists all playing the same song, but the performers will all have different interpretations of it because they are all unique beings with unique identities.

Editing is a partnership?

Editing seems to be a partnership, which is why editors get royalties along with the author.  Some writers don’t welcome this kind of partnership, but most of the writers I know thrive on it.  I’m a beta and critique partner, and even though I change no text, I leave plenty of footprints — and people like it that way!  They come to me because I have a good understanding of certain aspects of storytelling, they know I like certain kinds of stories, and they want to leverage my particular strengths.

An editor’s footprints come through in everything they do: questioning word choice, story structure, what they want to see cut.  There’s no way to take the editor’s identity out of the job, and no real reason to, if it’s a good match.  If I hire an editor in the future, I will view it as a collaboration and look for the human being whose ideas can make my work stronger.

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Plagiarism, fan fiction, and intellectual property

Oct 14: Read the Jordan Castillo Price’s post on this blog.

Angela James sent this link on Twitter. Basically, someone took an Jordan Castillo Price’s original, published novel, posted it as an original fan fiction work, and was found out.  She defended herself by saying, “Plagiarism is a social construct, which has little meaning outside of specific contexts.”

Ridiculous.  I could make that social construct argument for many things, including possibly even money, but not plagiarism.

If there’s one thing people want, it’s credit for their ideas.

In a utopian society where none of us needed to work for our survival, most of us would still fight to the death for recognition of our ideas.  We create art to communicate with other people, but also to express our unique selves.  To validate our unique selves.  To create something that comes from within us — something we are proud of — and have someone essentially steal our identity… this is not about money, and not even about getting praised.  It’s about wanting to control what (we feel) is uniquely, intimately ours.

Some people (I had a note on Open Source people here, but it was in error) would argue that “ideas belong to everybody, no matter who creates them,” but I don’t believe that human nature will allow that.  At least, every time *I* have heard that expressed, something in me rebels.  After all, even before something gets made in the physical form, it’s an idea in someone’s mind.  Maybe I’m just a capitalist beyond reform and used to the commercialization of ideas, but there is just something right about a patent/copyright system to me (even with its many problems.)

Is idea monopolization right/good?

I don’t know if this “it’s mine!” impulse is beneficial or not.  I’m certainly not against fan fiction, but aren’t characters ideas?  If I were to write professionally, I wouldn’t mind if people wrote their own stories with my characters, even if people wrote horror-porn.  I don’t think I would even mind if they made money from it, as long as I got credit for the original work.

When I read authors’ “it’s mine” reactions to people using their world and characters, I think it’s pretty stupid.  “Characters exist in the minds of the readers,” I said to my friend Debbie.  “Trying to stamp out fan fiction is like trying to keep people from committing thought crimes.  It can’t be done.”

The difference between plagiarism and fan fiction?

Creating an original work with someone else’s characters is different from plagiarism.  It took me a little while, and a discussion with my philosophy major brother, to figure out what it was.  Speaking only for myself, the difference is this:

Plagiarism is 90-100% the ideas of the original creator.  Fanfiction (or sampling, remixing, etc) uses source material from someone else’s work, but is mostly the idea of the remixer. If I do a retelling of, say, Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, the source material comes from HCA, but most of the ideas are mine, and I will feel like the story is mostly mine.  It is the same with fanfiction; in my own opinion, the fanfiction works are 90% the original ideas of the fanfiction author, not the original.

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Response to “What do publishers bring to the table?”
This article is iynteresting, but the answer seems like it has missed the big picture.  I admit, I’m an outsider to traditional publishing.  Coming from a more general direct marketing background, I have a much more flexible view of what publishing is (and should be.)

How many hats should an author have to wear?!

You’ve heard that saying, “A business owner has to wear many hats,” or some variation thereof.  I work with a lot of small business owners — or aspiring business owners — and find that most people are just not cut out for this.  The “wearing many hats” saying is misleading: it’s more like…

If your area of highest value is the ability to organize, stay on top of a lot of different areas, have a top-down view of a system, like to hook up different people talented in different areas to form a highly-efficient machine, and like to tune up the machine constantly, then you’re cut out to be a business owner of any scale.

In a perfect world, authors wouldn’t have to do anything but produce output in their area of highest value — the writing.  Most authors I know would love it if this were the case!  They could focus only on doing what they do best in the world, and the other modules of the publishing “machine” would take care of the other stuff.

What a publisher should be.

This, to me, is what a publisher should be: a “machine” whose job it is to distribute the highest-quality output to the people who want it.  To achieve that, the publisher has to make it possible for everyone — writers, editors, agents, marketers, artists, reviewers, etc — to function in their areas of highest value, to not have to dilute their time and energy with tasks that they don’t want to do.  There are exceptions, of course.  Some writers love to do their own PR and marketing, and some can self-edit or make book covers or other things.  But just because they can doesn’t mean that they should, or that they want to.

For a writer, the publisher’s job is to handle everything else but the writing.  A publisher should not offload the jobs that it should be doing onto its talent; that would be like making animators at a movie studio also write the scripts.  Sure, some would be able to do it, but most would want to get back to the thing that they most want to do — draw!

As a reader, this is what I want.  If everyone is free to contribute in their areas of highest skill, the books will be the best that they can be.

So, in response to the original article…

My answer is to stop focusing on the specific current functions of a book publisher, such as providing editing and refinement, creating book covers, getting catalog coverage, etc.  This is a limited view that promotes the uncreative “me-too” thinking that is the death of any business or industry.  Instead, the focus should be on the end result — connecting buyers with the highest-quality output — and how publishers can achieve that.  If I were interested in writing professionally, instead of questions about editing, PR, and cover art, I’d ask myself these:

  • Will a publisher allow me to function at maximum capacity?
  • Does the publisher inspire trust that it will do its job so that I can do mine?
  • Do I have confidence that my publisher can do the best job selling my work so that I can keep writing?

Do any publishers inspire this kind of confidence?  From the general response of writers on Twitter (a limited sample, but honest), I’d say that this whole business needs a tune-up.