Occasionally, at the Sweet Sixteens blog, we feature submitted posts by our members. Today, the wonderful Meg Leder talks about going from editor to author.
For the past seventeen years, I’ve worked as a nonfiction editor in book publishing. And I love it. I love books; I love working around books; I love helping people make books; I love working with people who love books.
I also love editing because of the confidence I feel when I’m doing my job well—I get to work with authors in identifying what’s shining, what needs help, how to grow things, how to prune things. There’s a very satisfying zing of recognition when you’re making your way through a manuscript and you realize you know how to make something great even better.
I’ll admit it: I also love editing because I’m secretly a bit of a bossy know-it-all. I like coming in, competently surveying the scene, and saying with certainty Here’s where we go next!
So after enjoying the confidence and security of editing for all this time, you can imagine my surprise when I got a deal for my first novel and realized I didn’t know much of anything at all. My seventeen years of experience has helped, but for the most part, I’ve found being an author disconcerting and terrifying and sometimes exciting and sometimes even very wonderful but also the exact opposite of being a confident know-it-all. Call it being a stupid-it-all or call it being Jon Snow, because despite all those years of editing experience, when it came to my own novel, I pretty much know nothing.
Okay, yes, I did know some stuff of this stuff going in. But now I know-know it, all the down to the depths of my deeply anxious author heart.
(Caveat: the editor in me hates this blog post. I can hear her saying, These aren’t parallel points! Are you talking from one point of view or the other? Author or editor? Why is some of this personal and some of this professional? You are using the Jon Snow reference solely for humor even though you do know some things. The author in me says, Ummm… exactly?)
- No matter how much you know ahead of time, no matter how reasonable and smart and rational of a person you are, being an author is irrational-making. And if you’re already a little bit neurotic, well, hold your horses, you are just getting started.
Let me give you an example.
As part of my job as an editor, I pass on projects on a daily basis. Some of the reasons I pass on projects: I don’t publish in that area. We have something similar on our list already. We have a bad track record with a similar book. The project isn’t my sweet spot.
Nothing in that list includes passing on a project because I hate the author and think he or she has no future in writing. I pass on projects for business reasons.
That being said, I have taken every single rejection I’ve received for my fiction writing as a personal value judgment that translates into GIVE UP YOU ARE TERRIBLE.
This is irrational.
This is what being an author does to you.
- You have to keep this irrational part of yourself as secret as you can from anyone working on your book.
I have tried and tried not to share how legitimately irrational-making this process is with the people working on my book.
Here’s something neither my editor nor agent know about me (though maybe they suspect…): Every time I send them an email, I obsessively refresh my email account to see if they’ve written back. And I’m talking every five minutes refreshing. It’s exciting at first, and then the hope starts to fizzle, and I realize it’s only been twenty-seven minutes, and that I have other things to do, and that it’s entirely reasonable for someone to take more than twenty-seven minutes to get back to you.
Here’s something neither my editor nor copyeditor know about me: I talked back to them, out loud, each time I got a round of edits (in my apartment, thank god), going through the line edits. And I wasn’t always polite.
Even though I want to obsessively call my editor and agent and ask them what’s happening with blurbs and should I rewrite my cover copy and what if people on GoodReads make me cry, I am trying (and mostly succeeding, I hope/think?) in keeping this terrified, irrational part of myself secret.
I don’t want to scare them off.
- You need to find a group of people who love you enough to put up with your irritating, self-absorbed, horribleness as you move through your writing. This is the next thing I’ve learned: the importance of finding people who will indulge the irrational, but also tell you to call it quits.
When I got one of the first rejection letters for my novel, I despondently sent it to my friend Nancy, highlighting all the terrible parts of the notes. Nancy responded by pulling all the good stuff from the note and sharing it as blurbs. Thus “While the museum concept is clever, it ultimately didn’t come together for me,” became “The museum concept is clever!” (She graciously added the exclamation points.) The phrase “Even though I was immediately impressed by Meg’s writing and voice, I have to pass,” became “I was immediately impressed by Meg’s writing and voice!”
This is the type of friend you need.
My friend Micol is a published author and my former writing instructor. I forwarded nearly every single rejection I got to her, and she’d weigh in on the feedback in light of what she knew about my writing. She also, very politely, pointed out that rejections are par for the course and happen to most people. Time and again, these gentle reminders were what I needed to hear to stop moping and move forward.
This is the type of friend you need.
My friends Jenny and Vim are both working on their tenure-track books for their respective universities. So, we all write together. We camp out at coffee shops when the weather is awesome outside or we’d all rather be seeing a movie. This spring, we rented a house in Hudson, New York, and spent a weekend writing and enforcing quiet (except for the time we repeatedly sung “Revision!” to the tune of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof).
Would I have rather been exploring the spring weather in New York? Absolutely.
Did I frequently share my undying hatred for the writing and revision process? Of course.
Did they do the same?
These are the types of friends you need.
As a frequent lurker on the Sweet 16s Facebook page and boards, I’ve discovered that all of you are the type of friends and compatriots I need on this journey as well. So to thank you, I wanted to share some of the confused wisdom I’ve gathered in this irrational-making process, in the hopes of letting you know that at least one editor doesn’t know everything (Her name rhymes with Peg Meder), and that if you feel a little bit irrational too, you’re not alone.
Meg Leder is the author of The Museum of Heartbreak (Simon Pulse, 5/17/16). During her daytime hours, she’s an executive editor for Penguin Books. She grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, but currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with a jerk cat named after Friday Night Lights’ Tim Riggins. Her role models include Harriet the Spy and Anne Shirley.