Too Close to Home: The Dangers of Choosing an Editor
"Honey, where'd you put my book?"
"Which one? The Stephen King?"
"No! Gah! The one you're editing!"
"Oh. It's downstairs. I just finished a few more pages. Don't mind the red ink — there's a lot of it."
The above is a conversation that happens a lot in my house. I've been writing (really writing) for almost four years now, and I've written four full novels, about a dozen short stories, and countless freelance articles and essays. I've worked with all kinds of editors — good ones, not-so-good ones, indifferent ones — but here's the thing: every writer I know needs an editor they love. An editor they trust. An editor who takes their work, their written voice, and somehow, with a few swipes of a red pen, makes it better.
But what do you do when it just so happens that your favorite editor is also...your spouse?
It all started very innocently, a few years ago. Actually, longer than that. It all began in the days before I planned to become a writer, when my husband ran a music/arts/book blog, and he invited me to write something for it. So I wrote an essay that involved a rose — a rose he'd advised me not to plant (roses being notoriously difficult to grow, and me having no experience growing anything), but that I'd planted anyway. Somehow, seemingly despite my efforts to "help it along," it had grown into this gorgeous rosebush with an amazing bloom. So I wrote an in-your-face kind of post. A "you can't tell me what to do because I'm going to do it anyway" kind of post. It was a chance for me to thumb my nose at his doomsday advice.
I handed it over to him, giggling internally, and to my surprise he posted it the next day.
"I made a couple small changes," he said when he told me it was up. "But don't worry. It was just a few."
I, of course, ran to my computer and pulled up the page as fast as my internet allowed. It turned out, his "few" changes were big! They were huge! They took a conversation I'd attempted to explain in paragraph form (gah, I told, I didn't show!!), and actually spelled out the conversation itself!
It was accurate. It was funny.
It was my writing, but it was better.
God, I hated that moment. I hated seeing so clearly what I'd done wrong, and I'd hated seeing that I hadn't known how to fix it.
But it was also amazing. He didn't change my voice, my style, or anything substantive in the piece. He just...made it better.
That's what you want in a good editor.
So let's flash forward, back to the present. Nowadays, I sometimes have actual editors (as in, that's their profession, not their hobby). They hire me to write things which they then edit, and usually they, too, make it better. It's a time-honored process for freelance writers.
But for my books, I still need something different. Something before I submit to agents or editors. Something to tell me if a book is decent, and something to make those pesky words better.
Something? Or someone?
When I finish a book or short story, I'm always excited to show it to my husband. He's very supportive, and he has great taste in books. I know that the day he comes to me, holding a manuscript, and says, "Oh, wow, honey. This is so good," it'll be really, really special.
Of course, he hasn't said that yet. Four books in, I still have a lot to learn. Sometimes, I'll get a story as strong as I can, but I'll still need some help. A little nudge, a little swipe of the red pen to take it to the next level, and sometimes, my husband will offer to do that for me.
I'm always nervous handing off a project to him for editing. When he hands something back, my stomach hurts and I feel all discombobulated and scared. It sometimes takes me a day or two to finally look at his notes.
And then, almost always, I get mad at him.
Because OHMIGOSH WHY CAN'T YOU SEE HOW GOOD THIS IS? WHY CAN'T YOU JUST TELL ME IT'S FABULOUS AND THAT IT'LL SELL A MILLION COPIES? WHY CAN'T YOU JUST BE SUPPORTIVE, DAMMIT? YOU'RE MY HUSBAND!
There's a simple answer, and one it always takes me a few minutes/hours/days to recall. In those moments, when he's sitting at the desk with my pages and his pen, he's not my husband. He's my editor, and a darn good one.
We've had fights over this, believe it or not. We both feel very passionately about my writing — I want my stuff to be better, he wants to make it better, and sometimes we don't see eye to eye on the changes he suggests. It's near impossible for me to not take certain edits personally. He kills my darlings, over and over, and sometimes it makes me cry because I love them so much and it hurts to see them go.
But our end goal is the same, and somehow we always remember that in the end. It just takes us (me!!) some time to get there.
So. Would I recommend hiring your spouse/partner/lover as your editor? Ever? Knowing the fights we've had, the hurt feelings I've nursed for days on end? Would I recommend letting someone you love rip apart your words before piecing them back together in a way that is often better than you could have imagined?
Yes. But only if they're as good as my husband.
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