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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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Chris Anderson’s Free: If Read Carefully, Seth Isn’t Wrong

First of all, here’s Seth Godin’s response to Malcom Gladwell’s response to Free.

I believe in paying for quality content, and creating content worth paying for.  My customers seem to agree!  For the past four years, I’ve run a small e-press in a niche nonfiction subject, and I’ve been profitable since I launched.

As a buyer of digital products, though, I realize that there is a huge trust barrier.  Free sampling isn’t just a good idea; it’s usually necessary for customers to feel good about their decision to buy from you.  My micropress has three books out, and one of them is totally free so that customers can experience what my brand stands for.  I’ve essentially been following Anderson’s model, which isn’t new at all, but an old workhorse that all direct marketers know about.

After reading Anderson’s book, a lot of people — writers and publishers especially — have the reaction of “Eek, all content is going to be free and no writers/artists/musicians will be paid for their work, and everyone will have to pick up a jackhammer or wait tables to pay the bills, so no quality work will get put out, and it will be the Dark Ages Of Entertainment, and we’ll all have to resort to crappy high school YouTube videos to get our laughs.”

Then, when Seth Godin backed him up, they wailed, “But I thought this guy was supposed to be smart and help us sell stuff, not give it away for free!”

But they didn’t read his reaction closely enough.  Seth Godin said that people will pay for content:

People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people.

That’s art (or entertainment)!  It is so unique that only the artist can create it.  And being associated with a tribe?  That’s just being a good, meaningful brand.  No business should be only content; it should stand for something, whether the business is a single blogger or an international manufacturer.

Seth also said that people won’t pay for content if it’s the same old stuff as everyone else:

People will not pay for by-the-book rewrites of news that belongs to all of us. People will not pay for yesterday’s news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance. Why should we? A good book review on Amazon is more reliable and easier to find than a paid-for professional review that used to run in your local newspaper, isn’t it?

Again, I think he’s right.  Any blogger can report the news, give a writeup, or provide a bunch of outbound links.  That is truly commodity content, and everyone can have access to the raw source and create “content” from it.  As both a reader and a “content provider,” I agree that it is certainly not enough value to exchange money for.

To me, the problem is that Seth Godin and Chris Anderson are putting a lot of emphasis on something that is just standard direct marketing wisdom, so everyone starts to wonder if there’s more to it than that.  I don’t think there is, digital world or not.