Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Difference between Pro and Amateur

People who don't write for a living have odd ideas about editors.

I run into this in fandom all the time. People who are talented and do good work, and people who are not talented and do crap work, alike, recoil from the idea of editing, much less the process. Criticism is just hurtful, meaning either that the work is no good or that the critic is stupid and doesn't understand it.

This places people who occupy editorial spaces in fandom - the monitors of fanfiction websites, for instance, or those hosting custom content for games - in an awkward position. I was recently asked to contribute a sim to a Sims2 fan-based project, and the moderator not only asked permission to run the transgender sim I submitted past a trans* simmer for comment, but was apologetic and embarrassed about asking for changes based on her input. Yet this was only a mild and necessary form of editing, applying creative teamwork to the problems raised by attempting to have a transgender sim at all. (I love this game, but the gender binary assumptions in the coding are rigid.) By contrast with the long editorial letters, manuscripts full of sticky notes, e-mail disputes, and repeated rewrites I expect when preparing a book for publication, the exchange was brief and untroublesome.

I have never dealt with a difficult editor (though I've heard horror stories); yet I've variously cut a book by about a quarter of its length, rewritten an ending five times and cried every time, dug my heels in the sand and refused to budge on one point and given up without a murmur on a dozen others in the same work, gone back for more research, dropped chapters, added chapters, and changed viewpoints in response to editorial input. Sometimes the editor knew better than me and sometimes she did not. In all cases, she brought a pair of fresh eyes and was a great help in presenting the story's best possible face to the world. My name is the one on the work; but the end result owes a great deal to the editor, and each of these books belongs to the editor as well as to me. They have a stake in it, a right to share pride when it does well in the marketplace and disappointment when it does not. And this relationship with the editor holds over into my non-professional creative life, too. My chief playtester for Widespot made significant contributions to its final form; and I could not act as game master to a table top RPG without the assistance of other members of the group helping me out with the math and their grasp of mechanical points of the game in a crunch.

The isolation and autonomy that so many amateurs and fans treat as normal seems alien, cold, unreasonable, and both arrogant and insecure to me. To assume that your work is inviolable and can benefit from no one's advice is arrogant; to be too sensitive to hear and benefit from advice is to be too insecure to improve. The work has its own integrity, separate from the worker's ego, and though the worker is the final arbiter of what is and is not good for it, she does not always, or even often, have all the tools or information necessary to make it the best it can be until she gets input from others.

This is separate from the relationship between creator and audience, though the line gets blurry. An editor is generally a part of the audience at whom a book is aimed; they would not do the job so effectively if they were not.

Many creators who aspire to nothing beyond fannish accomplishments have professional attitudes; yet it is not the norm, and editors in fannish contexts have their work cut out and often seem to doubt that they have any right to do their jobs. It is not often that the opposite is true; that amateur attitudes enter the professional world. I would say that a lot of the time, when you run across someone who produces publishable work and does not publish professionally, the problem is not in the existence of unreasonable barriers to professional publication (as many self-publishers loftily assume), but in the creator's assumption that he should not have to deal with those barriers, that his work has an inviolable right to acceptance by virtue of existence.

Sure, traditional publishing has its weak spots. The marketplace is heavily biased toward certain demographics, labors under some unwarranted assumptions, and requires a lot of shaking up. But the editorial process itself? That's as valid as it gets. That's basic. Without it, publication cannot achieve its full potential. And the rest is just the way the world is. We must all make battering rams of our heads to make our way sometimes.

If you think like an amateur, you will remain an amateur. If you think like a pro, and behave like a pro, you will eventually produce pro-quality work.

Whatever work it may be that you do.

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