What does an editor do?

Perhaps I have the wrong idea about what an editor does for a novel.

I am currently reading a novel that really seems as though it needed a closer level of attention to smooth rough spots away. In an earlier post I wrote about how the misuse of time cues — when the story’s “there and then” become my “here and now.” The novel I am now reading does this repeatedly on every page. Here is a typical example from the middle of the novel:

Rebecca was the only woman in the room. She had seen Charles and Mo hurrying into town moments ago through the school’s windows, right as she was dismissing her charges for the day.

All of that is set in the past tense, which is what most readers are accustomed to in fiction. Yet the word “ago” sounds wrong to my ear. If she had seen them hurrying into town moments “before” I think the sense of the past tense would have been sustained. “Moments ago” occurs in my frame of time. You were reading the first words of this post moments ago. But the novel is set nearly 90 years in the past.

Here’s another typical example:

Really, all Miller wanted to do was put his back to Worthy, to show that their debate was over and that Worthy’s presence here was useless.

The word “here” rings wrong. The author should have used the world “there.” Something that is here is in the room where I am reading at that moment. If it is there, I am able to sustain the illusion that I, too, am there observing.

Shouldn’t an editor point out these things to the writer?

Early in the story the narrator mentions that the remote lumber town does not yet have electricity. Later an important scene is described beneath a street lamp. The shadows it casts portent trouble that soon comes, so it is important to the writer that this scene be written in this way. Well, if the town didn’t have electricity yet, was the street lamp fueled with oil? I suppose that could be the case, but I don’t think it would cast the intense shadows described in the scene. What’s worse is that a couple of chapters later the narrator notes that the town doesn’t have any street lamps!

Shouldn’t the editor have caught this inconsistency?

The novel has been commercially successful, getting lots of good reviews and winning several awards. I think the author is a little too prim about some of the unpleasant details of the story, and I suspect in a more unabashed author’s hand a stronger story would have resulted. I haven’t finished the novel yet, so perhaps my judgment will prove mistaken, but I don’t think so.

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3 Comments on “What does an editor do?”

  1. scgreen Says:

    I sympathize completely with you. I’m currently reading a novel by noteworthy author. This is the second book in a trilogy and the fifth book in the world the author created. I’ve noticed more copy editing mistakes in the first 150 pages than I have in any other book I’ve read. Things like repeated words (“the the”), words missing (not stylistically), and words obviously flip-flopped. Things like that bring me out of the story and diminish the experience for me.
    Anyways, I hope your book gets better.

  2. K.S. Clay Says:

    I’ve read that modern editors do very little copyediting. I think they spend most of their time in acquisitions. It’s mainly up to the author to proofread their work. Often an author’s agent will help them with this (depending on the agent and assuming the author has one in the first place). But step back for a minute as well and consider trying to write and then proofread 90,000 words or more, and not missing anything. Blatant errors all over the place upset me as well. The occasional mistake? I just figure everyone’s human.

  3. Rick Says:

    Give me a book. I’ll show you an error. The English language has far too many ambiguities for anyone to get it 100% right (not to mention all the other elements of story telling).

    Biggest thing for me, if you break my suspension of disbelief, you’re a naughty, naughty writer.

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