On Editors

In the beginning, my novel The Good Know Nothing (Poisoned Pen Press, August 2014) was a challenge that weighed me down. At first I conceived of a long and complex historical saga, though not as ambitious as War and Peace or Dr. Zhivago. More like Grapes of Wrath.

On a trip to Scottsdale, I met with Poisoned Pen’s remarkable editor Barbara Peters and ran some of my trepidations by her. She suggested I scrap the complexity and stick with the simple storyline, even if the book came out out very short.

Quite a load off my mind, that was. But when I finished and submitted the manuscript, Barbara informed me it wouldn’t work without my adding lots of historical background.

Opposite as those pieces of advice may seem, they both worked for me: I got the simple story clear in my mind and on paper first, then returned and added what was needed to place the story in context. Who knows, if not for those suggestions, I might still be adding and deleting, cutting and pasting, and grinding my teeth all night.

I attended graduate school at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which was quite selective and therefore enrolled an elite group of students. Admitting me was probably a fluke.

Here’s the most valuable knowledge I learned over those two years: don’t trust the opinions of even smart people. By my estimate, about one out of ten Iowa students could offer advice that truly helped. The others usually attempted to persuade the writer to turn his or her story into something other than what the writer intended it to be.

Of course these were students, mostly young and inexperienced. By now they may all be masterful editors. Still, I’ll maintain that to ask for advice is risky unless we are mighty discerning about whom to ask and even then about the value of what they offer.

A rule I follow and suggest to others is, if somebody offers a suggestion that a week or so later feels as if it came from our own mind, not theirs, follow where it leads. Otherwise, forget it, or at least shelve the idea.

The longer we write, the better we should become at editing our own work, and the more selective we should become in asking for advice. I’ve been writing forever, it seems. And of all the potential editors, I won’t let myself implicitly trust very many.

Which makes Barbara Peters extremely rare and valuable.