Monday, June 11, 2012

The Feathered Edge: Swords, Souls, and Editing Tanith Lee

What is there to say about editing a Tanith Lee story? You sit there, holding the typewritten manuscript that she sent you, and something in your brain turns itself into total fan-girl jelly. But you already knew that.

To begin with, the first Tanith Lee story I worked on was for Lace and Blade (Norilana Books, 2008). She'd agreed to submit a story in the very early planning stages of the project, before I came onboard as editor. And it was my first gig as editor. Over the years, I'd worked with a bunch of different editors, and had ideas about what worked for me, what didn't, and how I wanted to interact with writers "from the other side of the desk." Marion Zimmer Bradley had been a role model and inspiration about how to encourage new writers. After years of participating in writer's workshops and teaching adult education classes in writing, I was all set to instruct and guide.

None of this prepared me for the experience of holding in my hands an original typewritten Tanith Lee manuscript.

The first, and most important thing, I had to do was to take off my fangirl hat and my fellow-writer hat and affix my editor hat firmly to my head. This involved an excruciating change of gears. I made mistakes. Of course, I made mistakes. (And learned how to clean them up.) I wasn't born knowing how to edit, let alone how to edit iconic authors in whose shadows I have long stood. Tanith herself encouraged me. She wrote to me, "On editing though - like writing, I feel strongly one must do what one feels is right. In me, of course, you run into an old war-horse, 40 years in the field, covered in armour and neighing like a trumpet." Which was a most gracious way of acknowledging that the relationship between an author and an editor is an organic process, when at its best rooted in clear communication, deep listening, and respect. Not intimidation (in either direction), but a partnership in which both people have the same goal -- to make the story the best representation of the author's vision.

By the time I received, "Question A Stone," Tanith and I had evolved out a procedure that worked for both of us. It begins with her sending me a typewritten manuscript. In a 1998 interview, she said, "I have to write longhand, and no one can read my writing, I have to type my own manuscripts, because I'm going almost in a zigzag, across and then down. (I don't write backwards, I've never been able to do that!) I used to throw away my holograph manuscripts after I'd typed them, but I'm keeping a lot of them now, because I'm starting to think, if anyone ever is interested in me after I'm dead, they can look and see, 'My god, this woman was a maniac!'" I've tried scanning the pages into a digital file, but all the corrections and irregularities of type, not to mention the paper being British-sized rather than American-sized, means the result requires an enormous amount of line-by-line clean-up. So I transcribe it (and the print out and send her a copy for review, which amounts to a preview of proof pages.) I've heard this technique suggested for beginning writers -- type out pages from the published works of your favorite authors, to get an inside look at how the story is put together, how the prose works, all the details you miss when you read; the action of typing (or writing out the passages longhand) engages your brain in a different way. Transcribing Tanith's manuscripts taught me an immeasurable amount about how she crafts her prose and weaves together the details of character, setting, dialog, plot, the works.

On the computer print-out, I highlight anything I have questions about, she catches my typos, I catch hers, and what she sends back is ready to go in the final anthology line-up.

"Question A Stone" involves two superb and very sexy swordsmen who, through a twist of circumstances, find themselves committed to fighting a duel to the death, despite having fallen in love with one another. Their swords, being magical, have other ideas. The whole adventure takes place in an inn called The Chameleon's Arms, a delight suggested by Tanith's husband, John Kaiine.

Here's where to buy the whole delicious anthology in ebook or trade paperback editions from Amazon:  or from Barnes & Noble or, if you prefer an independent bookstore, Powell's online (paperbck only).

The chameleon photo is by Volker Herrmann, licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I think I can almost imagine you squeeeing like a fangrrl. Personally, I would've had a fit of the vapours and swooned!

  2. Not only that, Tanith bestowed upon me an enormous leap in status with my otherwise-unimpressible 21-year-old daughter. Daughter saw the envelope in the pile of mail, and her eyes got wide. In a hushed voice: "Mom . . . you get mail from Tanith Lee?"

    I just smiled.

  3. I had the pleasure of working with Tanith Lee on her books of surreal lesbian fiction (channeled as Esther Garber). The experience is the same.