Auteur and Editor

by Michele Callaghan, Manuscript Editor

Part of being married is having to watch your spouse’s favorite films, sometimes over and over, because “you are going to like it this time, I swear!” My husband purchased a DVD a while back of one of his favorites, The Man Who Fell to Earth by acclaimed director Nicolas Roeg, and we watched it for the umpteenth time. About halfway through, we realized that the pacing was slower and that there were scenes with bizarre elements that we had never noticed before. We looked at the box and realized that we had purchased the unrated director’s cut. Another time we were curious about Nicholas Cage’s Academy Award–winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas and rented the director’s cut from our local video store. After a ten-minute scene with the main character sitting on the curb yelling at someone, we decided to swear off director’s cuts for life!

What does this have to do with my chosen profession of editing books? I would say, an awful lot. What it tells me is that the creator of a given project—whether it be a movie, a song, or a book—sometimes lacks the distance to see that creation clearly. “This is the best part,” I can imagine someone saying. “Extending this scene for another ten minutes will build dramatic tension.” “Sampling ‘Singing in the Rain’ in the latest Lil Wayne song will be great!” “This chapter will have my thoughts on the workings of the human cell, Renaissance artists, advances in armaments, and popular culture. Then I will tie it into the broader theme of the book.”

Directors, songwriters, and book authors all have the capacity to make something great. But they usually need help honing their vision so that it can be grasped by others and reach its intended audience. The job of the publisher has many facets. But, for me, perhaps the most important is to provide perspective. The acquisitions editor can be a cheerleader for a book while gently disabusing the author of the idea that he is going to sell millions of copies after his second visit to The Today Show. The peer reviewer can applaud the scholarship while suggesting ways that the author can incorporate other ideas to broaden the approach to a topic. The manuscript editor can help the author believe in the book while making sure that final version allows the reader to follow the argument easily.

If you are lucky enough to get into a rehearsal of an upcoming show or a recording session of your favorite artist, you know you are witnessing a work in progress. The same is true of a manuscript. It is the stuff, as the bard of Avon said, that dreams are made on. The finished product, though, is a lasting reality. And I am happy to be one of the hidden supports behind the curtain and to cheer on the actor taking the bow.