Editing Trauma

Writing, by nature, is emotional. Truly wonderful pieces of writing always come from a genuine and engaged author. Authors and their writing are so intertwined that it is nearly impossible to edit your own book—which is why editors are so integral to the publishing process. William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” A good editor knows that this process is sometimes painful to the author because their words are their babies. How, then, is an editor to approach nonfiction trauma manuscripts when an author’s words are their nightmares? When submitting a story that includes traumatic events, especially real-life events, an author bares their soul on the page. It can be a form of therapy for some; a way to get their truth out to the world. But it still needs to be edited if it is going to be a published piece of work.

Publisher and founder of Forest Avenue Press, Laura Stanfill, shared her experiences giving and receiving feedback about traumatic events with me. There are ways we can edit trauma with kindness and without lowering our standards. Based on our chat, I’ve divided this post into two sections: the mechanics of a trauma scene and what to look for, and how an editor should deliver feedback on a traumatic scene.

The Mechanics: An editor must consider how the traumatic event or scene fits within the narrative structure of the story. According to Stanfill, sometimes a trauma scene can be really “loud” if it follows a key plot point. It can overshadow other events that the author might not intend it to.

Another consideration is the pacing of the scene. Does it match what is happening to the character? As an author herself, Stanfill said that pacing is hard because memory can slow or speed things up, and the velocity of the read needs to guide the audience through a similar pattern in order to feel authentic.

Details are an important factor as well. There needs to be enough detail to convince the reader that it is the author’s story to tell, but they also need to mind the “gap” that trauma creates in a person’s memory. Too confident of a retelling can feel like someone else’s trauma or, even worse, trauma sensationalized. There is also the question of chronology. How an author chooses to tell the story can make it feel truer to the experience because memories can sometimes come through in fragments and flashes.

The Delivery: An editor needs to have some sort of trust built between them and the author before offering feedback on their darkest secrets. The author needs to feel like they can be open and vulnerable throughout the process in order to add what details may need to be added, or to cut details that could stir legal trouble. This honesty and vulnerability happens when both the author and editor start from a place of respect.

As an editor, Stanfill starts building that trust and respect in the acquisitions phase by telling the author everything she loves about the manuscript. Then, during the developmental editing stage, along with notes on structure and plot, she reiterates how she sees the book as a whole and what positive qualities she sees. As far as what doesn’t work, Stanfill shared that she makes notes in her margins to look back on when giving feedback. This is to make sure it is consistent, author-centric, feeling-driven (concerned with how the writing makes her feel) feedback. Stanfill added that she gives notes—through email or sometimes a phone call—with an awareness of the toll dredging up old, repressed memories takes on the author.

Sometimes it’s as simple as saying: I see you. This doesn’t work. This does work.

Representation in Nonfiction

A lot of the popular discussion of diversity revolves around representation in fiction. When compared with the American population, white characters are overrepresented in American fiction, and nonwhite characters may be depicted as white on book covers. Different people want to see diversity in fiction for different reasons, but I think common reasons are often related to how this can affect understandings of community. In the American context, one reason representation in literature is desired is so that people can feel recognized as part of the American community. There are concerns about the underrepresentation (as well as poor representation) of minority characters leading the public to have distorted ideas about the composition of American society. The hope is that with representation that better reflects the actual American population, more people can feel they are a full member of American society, and the general public will be more understanding and inclusive.

These concerns can be applied to nonfiction as well. In the American context, US history that ignores nonwhites will be incomplete, leaving nonwhites feeling excluded from the American story while creating and maintaining misleading narratives that ignore nonwhite contributions and experiences. In such a context, I think it makes sense for the benchmark of representation to reflect the demographics of the United States.

However, a lot of people engage with nonfiction for reasons that fall outside of strictly American concerns. And for those engaged with nonfiction for education in world history and global politics, the basis for what constitutes balanced representation is more complicated. Crude metrics don’t seem adequate for the task. If based on population, one in three books should be about China or India (though perhaps one in six books being about the PRC would not be so outlandish, given its political importance). Roughly the same number of books being published about each country is absurd on its face—it is unimaginable to publish the same amount of material about a country like Nauru as one might publish about Russia. Gross domestic product corresponds reasonably well with political importance for the major economies, but it would leave untold the story of why certain parts of the world are poor, and it seems to value money over people.

We can see, then, that there is no clear benchmark one can use to determine what is appropriate representation in global-minded nonfiction. But this doesn’t mean that thinking about these metrics is an empty exercise. Even if it isn’t clear which metrics are best, they show us goals that can be worked toward, and thinking about any of these considerations can work to balance out Eurocentric distortions.

Verso is a publisher I admire a lot. They have published many books on world history and global politics, and they continue to be important for me in learning about the world. Their online catalog has categories for six geographic regions. At the time of writing this post, Europe has 121 books, North America has 105 books, the Middle East has 61 books, Central and South America have 44 books, Asia has 31 books, and Africa has just 10 books. The reasons for this precise composition are doubtlessly complex, and what diversity they have reflects the seriousness they put into providing informative books for those serious about learning about the world.

Still, I can’t help but feel personally dissatisfied with these numbers. Verso’s definition of Asia—which does not include the Middle East—still includes the PRC, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, five of the eight most populous countries in the world. The PRC and India are widely expected to have leading roles in the twenty-first century; so to my mind, even if all thirty-one books were just about these two countries, this number would be inadequate preparation for thinking about the twenty-first century. Only one book is about Japan, a country that has consistently had the second or third largest economy in the world for the past fifty years. Having just ten books about Africa, to my mind, seems inadequate when one considers that Nigeria alone is projected to have a midcentury population of nearly four hundred million. Verso is, in my estimation, an uncommonly good publisher. But I have to feel that even with them, more can be done.

Onto the Next Project, Comin’ in Over the Rock

As you all know, Write to Publish 2016 has officially ended. We’re basically done with the wrap-up, too, sending out the thank-you letters, updating the manual, and making sure the thousands of emails and spreadsheets are organized for the Write to Publish 2017 team. It’ll be an amazing feeling when it’s all completely finished.

One of the great things about Ooligan Press, though, is that we always have projects to do. And our team, so focused on an event for the past ten months, now gets to work on a book project! We’re working on a manuscript called Comin’ in Over the Rock by Peter Lindsey—a series of true stories about Cannon Beach, a history of sorts along with some accompanying photos. It’s a specialized project for us, a second print run of a book published back in 2004. It’s also a very short-term project, intended to be done by June of this year. That kind of shotgun timeline would usually freak me out a little. However, our team only has to do a light copyedit, an interior design, and a proof of the manuscript before sending it to the printers, so it shouldn’t be that bad.

It’s quite a different project than Write to Publish, though. Chelsea and I are still co-managers, we’re still delegating work, and we’re still dealing with emails, but on a much smaller scale. It’s fun to work on a book project, and such a specialized one at that. We decided to split our team into three groups for the rest of the term. One group will copyedit the new manuscript, another will deal with the manuscript photos, and the third group will work on an unrelated assignment, marketing Alive at the Center in conjunction with National Poetry Month. (Chelsea and I are both in the copyediting group!) We need to get all of this done by the end of this term. Over spring break we’re going to send the edits to Lindsey and move on to the next step of the process: interior design. Bring it on, Ooligan Press, bring it on.