Facing the Editor

Picture taking a baby for its first check-up. The doctor says, “You know, this child has six toes and is missing a finger.”

“Doctor, really?” You respond in surprise. All along you’ve seen the extra toe and the missing finger and honestly done your best to ignore them. Maybe no one will notice. Maybe they’re supposed to be that way. Maybe it’s a brand new look, an advance in natural selection that will become the better, more perfect norm.

“No.” The doctor shakes his head. “That toe’s got to go. Just be brave and move it.” Then he takes your hand. “Trust me. It’ll be fine!”

That’s what it’s like as I wait with trepidation for a meeting with my friend and now editor, Marina Budhos, about my latest manuscript, Pasture of Heaven. She’s only the second person to read this new draft, and though she and I have spoken briefly while she’s been reading, today we get to “roll up our sleeves.”

It will take several hours to discuss my next steps. I already know she’s got suggestions and “ideas.” I love when she uses that word because it tells me I’m not alone in my efforts. She won’t just say, “I hate it. Cut that whole section. I don’t like the voice.” She’ll give me suggestions and options that will help me figure out how to fix the problems.

No writing is ever perfect, not even when it’s tucked between hard covers and assigned an ISBN. Though I cannot help but wish that mine will be the exception, I go to this meeting knowing that it won’t be and preparing myself to embrace why.

Not too long ago, I did the same for Marina, reading her latest adult novel, Sweetness, a sweeping historical that crosses two continents and touches a third. I adored it, and yet I had “ideas” for her, too. We spent hours reviewing my comments and considering the directions she could go. Together we mapped out a path for revisions that she now tells me she’s actually enjoying setting into action!

I can only hope I’ll feel the same way soon.

No one can see, truly and critically, their own writing. Most of us turn to fellow authors or hire freelance editors for this kind of facilitation and fortitude.

Gone are the days when we could rely on the publishing house’s editors or agents, when they would spend hours discussing a manuscript, lend authors their isolated beachfront summer houses for a month, or when they’d rush out of bed at a drunken midnight call to pick an author off the floor of their grubby apartment vestibule, inject them with coffee and prop them up at their typewriters, nursing them through to the final period of their latest, greatest masterwork.

In the movie, Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson plays a famous novelist who’s been blocked for so many years that her publisher sends her an assistant, played by Queen Latifah. Acting as part therapist and part literary drill sergeant, this Godsend stands by the author’s side night and day as she finishes her manuscript which is late, as I recall, by almost a decade. I adored this movie which is about art, life and the strange line where the two cross, though I couldn’t help but snicker at the absurdity of such authorial indulgence!

But I have Marina, which in every way is better. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with my work. Without the pressure or expectation of the commodified publishing world, she and I will work together, tossing her thoughts and mine like the salad she’s promised us for lunch until the mix is just right, the recipe prepared and my creative juices flowing to jump in and devour the next revision. We’ll share tea and manuscript pages covered with arrows, cross-outs and strange short-hand that requires an interpretive key. Along with substantive suggestions, we’ll also share the anxiety that only another author can fully comprehend when we finally come out from our solitude to reveal the strange child we’ve been incubating for years.

As I face this trial, my greatest comfort is knowing that Marina is a more than my friend; she’s a professional. She’ll make fair, logical and educated suggestions, not couched in kindness or sympathy, fear of hurting my feelings or a need to be right. She’s a peer and a mentor, as I have tried to be for her. So I will take my courage and my car keys in hand and face the editor who only wants the best for me, as I have always wanted for her.



  • Maria Clara Paulino

    Dear Judy, What a luxury to have such a good friend be your equally good editor … and vice-versa. I am happy for you that this is happening and hope the salad is as delicious as you deserve (loved how you started the post – six fingers, indeed)

  • Maria Clara Paulino

    I meant six toes, of course – non-native speaker that I am! We do not differentiate between fingers and toes in Portugal. (I wonder why.) Obviously, children’s songs like ‘head and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes’ are beyond us. Fancy having to translate that line! :-))

    • Judith

      Clara, lovely to hear from you here! Yes, the lunch was delicious and made the critique go down easier. There’s work to be done, but many were problems I knew existed (thus the fingers/toes – I love that you make no distinction!). She helped me see it all more clearly. Now to take the huge pile of paper on my desk, sift, digest, and find the courage to go at it again.

  • Julie Hazzard

    It’s kind of funny that you used such a personal metaphor (to me) as extra fingers, because my daughter was actually born with an extra finger on each of her hands. It turned out that they were only connected by skin and not bone and were easily removed by the plastic surgeon when she was just a few weeks old. Now only she and I know where the tiny little scar is on the outside of each her hands and the only thing remaining is my traumatic memory of holding her during the surgery (she was too young to recall and actually slept right through it). It made me think of you as the mother, your book as the child and your editor as the surgeon making little adjustments to things that may only hurt you (and you will never forget) but in the long run will be better for your child. Nice piece.

    • Judith

      Hi, Julie! Fascinating. I didn’t know that! I can only hope that my end result is as lovely and beloved as yours is. Yes, it’s traumatic, especially with a real child. I’m grateful to say that after all these years of mothering, I actually believe that a real child IS more important than my writing…! (You may recall my blind devotion and anxiety over “my art” from the old days.) Having real live children to distract me keeps everything in much better perspective. I’ll never regret it. Love to all of you. Thanks for chiming in.

  • citiesofthemind

    Great blog! It’s so nice to see someone who’s made it to the other side of the hill I’m climbing–and, can’t lie, a little intimidating to hear about all the work that lies beyond.

    • Judith

      Hello and welcome to The Writers Circle. I’m so glad you found us! Yes, I was also dismayed to discover the truth that, even after reaching the pinnacle, there’s another mountain to climb. I’ve been watching the Tour de France and can only sympathize with those riders in the mountain stages. It never gets easier; you just get used to the pain.

      Hope to hear from you again. Please add a bio on your blog so we can get to know you!

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