When somebody describes themselves as an ‘all-purpose editorial mercenary’, you know they’re probably worth talking to. Rachel Edidin – writer, editor and publishing consultant – speaks to us about her work in both literature and comics, pointing out what writers should be mindful of when they embark on their forays into fiction, her work as an erstwhile equality activist for the comics world, and her irrational but enthusiastic love of the labyrinthine tangle that is X-Men continuity.
What was the first book you ever had read to you and what do you think about it today?
I have no idea – I literally can’t remember a time before my parents read to me, and when I asked, they couldn’t pin down a single first, either. The earliest I distinctly remember are Frog and Toad are Friends, by Arnold Lobel; Bubblebath!, by Fran Manushkin and Ronald Himler; and the Maple Hill Farm books, by Alice and Martin Provensen. I still have my original copies of all of those – and a whole lot of other picture books, some of which I grew up with, and others I’ve accumulated since – and revisit them pretty regularly.
When I was one or two, there was a period during which I was obsessed with a coffee-table book about composers. I learned all of their names, and, according to my parents, spent hours pretending to feed make-believe grass (actually the green shag carpet in our apartment) to a picture of Antonio Vivaldi.
What brought your entrance into the world of editing and publishing consulting?
In 2006, I was two years out of college, and I’d spent them directing the Writing Center at my alma mater, trying both to get it to a point where it had the institutional support to keep going if I left, and to convince the administration that they needed to budget for a director more qualified than I-someone with a terminal degree and full faculty status. My plan at that point was to go to graduate school for literature; but I’d also been corresponding casually with Scott Allie-now EiC of Dark Horse Comics, then a senior editor there-who asked if I’d be interested in applying for an assistant editor job that had just come open.
I never expected to stay in publishing, but I fell hard in love with it, and with editing. Dark Horse was amazing – I learned a phenomenal amount, and got to work on a tremendous range of projects and media-and during the seven years I was there, I gradually worked out both the areas I most passionately wanted to work in, and the circumstances that would let me do so. In February of 2013, I left Dark Horse to go freelance.
I love editing and publishing, particularly work that involves uncharted territory and complex problem-solving: building publishing programs, working with complex adaptations and cross-media storytelling or works in models so new that there’s no real formula for them yet. It’s a fusion of creative and technical that never stops being engaging for me.
What is your approach to hybrid fictions, that cross media? Are there any difficulties specific to this?
The challenge of cross-media fiction-beyond the narrative hurdle of integrating cross-media or cross-work storytelling-is matching form and function. In any medium – or media – the best stories are the ones that are in that format for a reason. When you’re telling stories across multiple platforms or media, that challenge is multiplied-not only for each medium, but for the ways in which they interact, and the way the audience moves between them.
As an editor you’re often living and breathing the writing at hand from the heart of the process. Even the lightest touch of restructuring or advice often feels like co-writing. How do you balance the dual responsibility of being completely honesty while also giving the writer their own space?
Under the best of circumstances, editing done right is creative midwifery, not creation. My job isn’t to build the story, nor to chisel in its details. My job is to look at the work and quantify what I see in a way that accounts for both the creator’s intentions and the audience’s probable reaction; the limits and potential of the medium or media; the logistical necessities of publication. How directly engaged I am varies significantly from project to project and creator to creator, but that detachment – the recognition that these are not my toys to play with nor my world to build – is, I think, what distinguishes good creative editing from co-writing.
Often, acting as editor to a writer is a process that can cause creative conflict, but if both ends are well-matched and are open to the process, something like watertight story magic happens. Do you find that many editor-writer relationships are forged in resistance but progress towards a strong working relationship?
It really, really varies. The best editor-writer relationships often involve a lot of push and pull: writing is a fundamentally dialogic craft, and editing even more so. My favorite editor-writer relationships – and the ones I think result in the best final works – are ones built on mutual trust: in each other’s intentions and skills, and in our own.
You’re one half of Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, a podcast about, well, the X-Men. How does one even start to X-Plain such a series, not to mention work through the whole thing?
Very, very slowly. I imagine we’ll catch up in about a decade.
That said, my relationship to media I love has always been granular-bordering-on-obsessive. I love the challenge of picking apart impossibly intricate (and contradictory) continuities; and of making the forbiddingly complex accessible. Miles is less micro-obsessive than I am, but he’s been reading X-Men since he was a little kid, and we’re both really into both the continuity minutiae and the world and characters.
Above all, I think diving into that kind of work for any length of time takes a lot of love for the stories and characters and world. It’s silly and profoundly impractical – I mean, you’d have to stretch pretty far to find information that was less objectively useful – and without that genuine affection and enthusiasm, I suspect it would start to feel pointless pretty fast, to us and to listeners.
Could you tell us a little bit about what spurred you on to kick-start the ‘We Are Comics‘ campaign? How far do you think the comics community has yet to go in order to achieve complete tolerance for diversity?
I’ve written about this at some length in Apex, and of course at We Are Comics itself, but it came out of the sum of a lot of built up frustration. I’ve been working in the comics industry for eight and a half years, and reading comics for far longer; and the perception that comics are and always have been of, by, and for straight white men is an incredibly damaging and persistent fallacy.
I think comics need to be more diverse, creatively and representationally – hell, American media in general needs to be more diverse – but I’m sick of calls for diversity that inadvertently erase huge swathes of the existing industry and community. My comics community is women. It’s queers. It’s people of color. And I wanted to make that visible, to highlight that comics, as an industry and community, does not and never has belonged to one narrow demographic.
Finally, what are the most common issues you find in the fiction you edit? How can writers avoid said issues?
The most common issue I find by far is basically creative myopia. This is, I think, fairly universal to anyone doing creative work-it’s certainly something I experience as a writer, for instance. When you’re very close to a work-when you’ve created it, when you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of hours building a world, imagining characters, making art-it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between your intentions and what you’ve actually made.
I mentioned above that writing is fundamentally dialogic. The best way for writers to get past that speedbump is to externalize that dialogue: with an editor, certainly; but also with friends, mentors, colleagues-anyone whom you can trust to give you thoughtful and useful feedback.