On Writing / Publishing / Writing Life

Editor Laryssa Brooks talks books, words and the joy of editing

laryssabrooks

Editor Laryssa Brooks.

One of the best things about touring and participating in festivals and literary events is the people I meet…and, especially when I’m doing Poetry on Demand, the people I get to write poetry for! I met Editor Laryssa Brooks at a University of Windsor alumni event. Her sweet smile and patient demeanour totally caught my eye, and she was quick to visit my poetry table and have me write her a poem! We started chatting, and I found out she is an Editor – yes, capital ‘E’ – as all editors deserve! Laryssa lives in Windsor and is a freelance Editor. I asked her if it would be cool if I did an email interview with her about her job and thoughts on editing. She said ‘yes’. Yay!

I have since hired Laryssa to edit a *top secret* manuscript I’ve been working on. I’m very excited to receive her feedback and see what is born of our relationship. Because folks, we as writers, NEED to have Editors in our writing lives. And this interaction is very much an integral relationship in the life of the words! I’ve highlighted some of my favourite parts of this interview in red! These are things that really spoke to me! 

Here we go!

VS: Define what ‘editor’ means to you.

LB: To me, an editor is like a tailor — someone who sees the beauty in a work and wants to help make it even more beautiful, bringing out its full potential. An editor weaves his or her knowledge and insight into a work with just as much care as the author had while writing each draft. Most importantly, an editor doesn’t impose his or her work on a manuscript. He or she works as a team with the author to help ensure the writer’s full vision for the manuscript is met. Sometimes being an editor also means being a mediator, helping to find a balance between an author’s original vision and an agent’s or publisher’s wants and needs for a manuscript.

VS: When did you know you were going to ‘be’ an editor?

LB: Surprisingly, there wasn’t one specific moment that I said “I’m going to be an editor.” For a long time, I was actually on the path to becoming a lawyer! I gradually realized that working with language was what really made me happy. As an English graduate student I would help students from other departments with the grammar and spelling in their papers and dissertations, and I fell into the role with ease. Many of them were thankful and word started to spread. People started insisting that I accept payment for my help, and it snowballed from there. I then decided that I should improve my skills and studied editing and publishing formally. The number of people asking for my assistance only continued to grow over time.

VS: What are some of your favourite books/stories – and how do you think the editing of the book/story helped it?

LB: My absolute favourite book is the Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s editor was Maxwell Perkins, and their letters concerning the book are fascinating. In the first draft that Fitzgerald sent, Gatsby himself was a vague, unformed character, and at the end of the novel Gatsby’s career was obvious. It was Perkins’ suggestion that non-verbal characteristics be added to Gatsby, and that his career be kept a mystery. Perkins’ suggestions helped Fitzgerald make Gatsby the iconic, glamorous man readers imagine today while intensifying the mystery surrounding him. I think his edits really helped keep readers fiercely interested in Gatsby’s himself, making them feel just like a curious guest at one of Gatsby’s famous parties. It was also Perkins who suggested that Fitzgerald keep the title “the Great Gatsby.” He was the only one who loved the title — not even Fitzgerald was happy with it. Fitzgerald was considering titles such as “Gold-hatted Gatsby,” “The High-bouncing Lover,” and “Trimalchio in West Egg.” I’m glad Gatsby took Perkins’ advice, because I don’t think those titles have the same poetic sound or feel that “the Great Gatsby” has. 

Another book that I love is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I think I was about ten years old when I first read it, and I was completely enchanted. Before it went to press, her work was edited by a man named William Gifford. Austen’s handwritten manuscript differs from early printed editions of her work by quite a bit. One of the most notable differences is punctuation in dialogue — she used almost no punctuation when writing her stories, and they had to be added in. The nuances of speech that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, Mr. Darcy, and the rest of the characters have were shaped by Gifford, giving them the tones and idiosyncrasies that we recognize and love today. He also added more speech tags to Austen’s work. As readers we’re also always aware of who’s saying what, but in the original manuscript it wasn’t always clear who was speaking. The voices of her characters overlap and overshadow one another and he helped keep her scenes clear and organized. 

I also love John Green’s books, particularly Paper Towns and the Fault in Our StarsGreen’s editor is Julie Strauss-Gabel. He’s talked a lot about how much he relies on her opinions. She had a large influence on Green’s portrayal of Margo in Paper Towns. Originally, Green wrote Margo as being cursed by fantastic, improbable events, but with Strauss-Gabel’s edits Margo was shaped less into a cursed character and more into the character of extremes that readers know today. I think her feedback about Margo really helped Green move Margo away from the manic pixie dream girl stereotype and seem much more realistic, especially as readers come to learn that the stereotype has simply been projected onto Margo. She also edited the structure of the book quite a bit, making sure all of its clues line up to pull the characters and readers towards the end conclusion.

VS: Describe a typical day in your editing life.

LB: I think most people would describe my typical work day as usual for a desk job. The difference is that I work from home, so I get to relax on my couch in my pyjamas while working, if I really want. I usually settle down on my couch or at my kitchen table, put in some headphones to tune out any distractions, and open up my laptop and Microsoft Word. Almost all of my work is done in Word — I use the track changes and comments features all the time. I usually take an hour-long break for lunch, then get right back to editing. Sometimes I forget to eat because I’m so absorbed in my work, and end up working for eleven or twelve hours straight instead of eight hours with a break. When I’m not editing, I’m usually emailing clients, asking them for clarification or answering any questions they have. When I’m done editing a particular work I send it to the author, and they look over my comments, replying to them so that we have a constant dialogue about the writing until we’re both sure it works.

VS: How important is the editing process for a writer? Is it essential?

LB: I think that editing is the most important part of the process. As a writer, it was one of the first things I realized. You spend hours and hours pouring your heart into a manuscript, and as a result you’re very close it. It’s hard to step back and look at what’s actually on the page instead of focusing on what you think you put on the page, or on what you wanted to put on the page. Editors work with what’s there on the paper and help you see what’s missing, or what’s amazing and should be emphasized. They might even realize things about your manuscript that you never thought about or considered. Most importantly, if you want to catch the attention of an agent or a well known publisher, editing your manuscript will give it an edge. Some agents won’t look at a manuscript unless the author’s query says it has been professionally edited, because they receive a lot of queries and their time is very limited. The same goes for some publishers. Showing agents and publishers that you’ve taken the time to work on your manuscript tells them that you’re serious and you respect and value their time.

VS: What are some of the biggest challenges in your job as editor?

LB: The biggest challenge in my job is ensuring that the writers I’m working with realize that I’m working with them, not against them. It’s hard to receive feedback about something you’ve put a lot of work into without taking it personally. Editors are always looking for ways to make their suggestions diplomatically. A suggestion that something in a work be changed doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It just means that it’s not working in the way that it could. A lot of editors especially struggle with this after sending a completely edited manuscript to an author. All of the tracked changes and comments can be daunting and defeating. As a writer myself, I know what that feels like, so I’m always questioning my suggestions — “Have I worded this as nicely as possible? Have I made sure to highlight what’s great about the manuscript, not just the things that aren’t working?”

VS: Do you also enjoy writing? Do you edit your own work?

LB: I love writing. I have two degrees in creative writing. Poetry was my first love, but I’ve been drawn to genre fusions lately. I do edit my own work, but only to an extent. When I’m done writing, I take a break from my manuscript for a month to distance myself from it. Then I try to look at it with fresh, critical eyes. However, that’s just the first step. I then get feedback from beta readers and edit it again, and after that I get someone else to edit it. A completely fresh, impartial pair of eyes is always more valuable than my own, especially because my emotions are always tied to my work.

VS: How important is it for writers to share their work with readers/other writers before they hire an editor?

LB: There are different kinds of editing, so the amount of work and feedback that a manuscript needs before its editing depends on what stage it’s at. The editing that comes at the earliest stage of the process is developmental editing. It will help point the manuscript in the right direction and often starts while the book is being written. The editor helps the writer shape and refine the book as he or she writes. It’s a very good way to prevent becoming overwhelmed about the writing process. However, later stages edit the structure, style, or grammar of a more polished draft. Most editors who work on manuscripts at these stages won’t work on a piece until the author has received and incorporated feedback from beta readers, to ensure that the manuscript is ready for editing. This ensures that the developmental editing stage has been completed, and the editor can focus on the stage that they’ve been asked to do. For example, if an editor is asked to fix punctuation errors but finds plot holes, the manuscript isn’t ready for copy editing (the last stage) yet. Beta readers are very helpful if they’re part of your target audience. They help you understand how your book works for them and how it doesn’t. They also help you smooth out your manuscript and eliminate things like plot holes. If those reading your manuscript aren’t part of your target audience, or may have a bias, though, you need to take that into account. A family member won’t necessarily provide you with the feedback you need to improve your book, but will help boost your confidence if you’re feeling overwhelmed. During the developmental stage asking other writers for their feedback can also be very helpful, as long as you know they’ll provide you with feedback that’s critical and constructive. Writer’s groups are wonderful for bouncing ideas off of other people, but the feedback you receive might not always be something you can build on. If you know that the other writers will be critical and honest when editing your work, though, then their feedback will likely be helpful during the developmental stage.

VS: Do you see (feel?) a change in the industry for editors with the shift towards self-publishing?

LB: Amazon, print-on-demand, and other self publishing avenues have definitely changed the shape of the industry. While editors traditionally worked for publishing houses or worked for authors looking to appeal to agents and publishers, the increase in authors looking to self-publish means that many editors can now focus solely on helping self-publishing authors, if they wish. There are more opportunities to find work, which is good because publishing is a very competitive industry. Editing for a self-publishing author is different than editing for a publisher, so it also provides editors with a different kind of work. When editing for a publisher, the edits need to fit the publisher’s vision. Sometimes the author’s vision of the manuscript may fall to the wayside in favour of being able to market the book particular way or appeal to a particular audience. Often, books edited for publishers need to generate a lot of profit, so they need to appeal to a mainstream audience. However, self-publishing authors sometimes choose their route because they want more creative freedom, and they aren’t constrained by goals to sell thousands of copies by a particular deadline. This means that editors can pick work that speaks to them creatively but won’t necessarily speak to the masses. Most importantly, they can focus on editing a work to fit the author’s vision instead of a publisher’s.

VS: Do you love grammar? Is your internal editor always ‘on’?

LB: I don’t have a passion for grammar, but I do enjoy polishing language and making it easier to understand. I am definitely descriptive, not prescriptive, when it comes to grammar. I believe that whether or not language needs to be correct is completely dependent on the work’s rhetorical situation. I don’t correct grammar or spelling on social media, for example, as correctness isn’t necessary in informal situations such as Facebook posts. That being said, my internal editor is usually on. I often edit my own writing and fix any errors I’ve made, and when I’m watching TV, reading a magazine, or even walking down the street, I usually notice errors. They usually only irk me when they cause confusion. If I’m reading the rules for a board game and a grammatical error makes a rule vague or confusing, I’m going to say, “They really should have gone over this one more time.”

VS: What do you love about editing?

LB: I get to spend my days reading! I’m always learning something new, too, so my work is never dull. In a single week I could learn about fruit flies, Greek mythology, and what it was like to travel the world fifty years ago! I also just plain love the twists and turns of language, and immersing myself in them. Language is fascinating and calming, all at the same time. Most importantly, I love helping authors reach their goals. When they submit something and it gets accepted, I’m glad to know that my work helped them succeed and that I helped put a smile on their face.

VS: Who is your favourite writer? Do you know anything his/her editing process? If so, what is it?

LB: My favourite author is F. Scott Fitzgerald (so it’s no surprise that my favourite book is the Great Gatsby)!  He put hours and hours of work into his writing, and his focus was putting his heart, and his strongest emotions, into it. He listened to and respected the opinion of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, but also edited his work by himself a great deal before sending it to Perkins. Sometimes he would make changes even before his editor had finished with the first draft. He was ruthless when editing his work, and wasn’t afraid to cut something out of a book if it wasn’t working. He wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 and admitted that he would sometimes decide to completely throw out parts of a draft out and start over. He said that “What I cut out of [The Great Gatsby] both physically and emotionally would make another novel!” He also took the editing process slowly — he knew that it might take a long time to get a book right, and that the editing would only be done when the book was perfect. He wrote to Perkins that  “While I have every hope and plan of finishing my novel [The Great Gatsby] in June, you know how those things often come out, and even if it takes me ten times that long I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I’m capable of in it, or even, as I feel sometimes, something better than I’m capable of.”

Here’s how to make contact with Laryssa!

Website: http://www.laryssabrooks.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/laryssabrooks.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/windsor.writes/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laryssa-brooks-768a4b41

Tumblr: http://lilli-bee.tumblr.com/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/laryssabroo0337/

THANK YOU LARYSSA!! I look forward to your editorial notes on my *top secret* manuscript!

Writers, think about gifting yourself an editor this holiday season….!

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