Lauren Vogelbaum is one of my faveorite people. I know that sounds trite, but it’s also true. She’s simply a joy to talk to and to work with. She’s also a great editor. We worked together on Stays Crunchy in Milk and for the release I wanted to do a quick interview with her for the fun of it. So here we go, mostly discussing editor-y things!
Adam P. Knave: so we met on this project, right? What was your impression of it, or me, before you started to read the book?
Lauren Vogelbaum: I think the only contact I’d had with you before I signed on for Stays Crunchy was on Livejournal, which is a sort of social cornstarch — it allows friendships to thicken pretty quickly. So I had a (fairly accurate) concept of you as this walking bowl of pop culture soup. The book I hadn’t heard anything about, really — our friend Laszlo, who possibly felt bad that the book I’d just finished working on for him had made me scared of assorted things that are difficult to avoid (like y’know trees), promised that the characters were completely non-threatening cartoon cereal mascots and that there was no toad-eating. But you and I agreed that the best way to edit a book is to actually read it, and that the best way to read a book is to not hear all about it beforehand, so that’s all I knew about it going in.
APK: Non-threatening? HA! Well, no, ok, point. And that’s right, you went in fairly cold. Less than readers have, really, because the blurb wasn’t even done. It was just “Pop culture-y madness – GO!” … how’d that treat you?
LV: You really don’t give your readers a wading pool to dip their feet in before they plunge into all that madness… I knew by the end of the first paragraph what I’d gotten myself into. But I watched too many Saturday morning cartoons in the 80s and studied a lot about pop & mass media in school, so the Stays Crunchy brand of surrealism is a brand that I was instantly comfortable with.
APK: What’s your process when you approach a book to edit?
LV: When I was a kid and I had more of that “time” stuff that’s so elusive these days, I always read new books twice, straight through. (This is relevant I promise.) The first read would go super-quick ’cause I just wanted to find out what happened, but the second go was always sloooow ’cause I wanted to study the language, dissect how the author had put their words and ideas together to construct the whole. That’s sorta how I edit — I’ll do a first pass where I’m just familiarizing myself with the story and characters, and fixing silly little typos and clear-cut grammatical mistakes, and then have a second go at it where I’m in up to my elbows, working with characterization, pacing, concept structure, and all that fun meaty stuff.
APK: What is it about editing that, well, makes you want to be an editor?
LV: Editing is like the biggest, most fun jigsaw puzzle ever. So many teensy wordparts! All of them fit together somehow to create a picture! And it’s so rewarding. It’s helping someone realize a dream, make their creation more efficient and complete, speak to the
world more clearly.
APK: Defend, for the people out there who don’t get it yet, why the Oxford Comma is AWESOME.
Bonus round for this one: Come up with the best insult to non-oxford users you can.
LV: Uh-oh, editor’s ’bout to get technical on yo’ ass. Okay! First, a definition: the Oxford comma is that last comma in a list/series of words/phrases, right before the “and”. This is an example:
Ladies, gentlemen, scholars>>,<< and discerning cats love the Oxford comma.
Some people leave it out! I guess because they assume that people read things carefully, or because they work in a field like print journalism where, traditionally, space is limited to the point that saving that extra character or two per piece could make a difference. But I consider it my job as an editor to assume that people never, in fact, read things carefully unless you somehow trick them into doing so, and I don’t work in print journalism. Omitting the Oxford comma won’t lead to any confusion in simple lists like in the example above, but complex lists are complexer. Here’s a sentence without the Oxford comma:
I threw a party last weekend and took pictures of the girls on the slip-n-slide, Jon dominating the beer pong table, my friend’s band, everyone shooting tequila and my neighbor’s annoying dog.
In this case, the reader might understand that everybody drank some tequila and that also I photographed my neighbor’s dog, OR they might call animal abuse and have me arrested. I think it’s better to err on the side of putting in an extra comma and definitely not getting arrested! And because it’s important to do grammatical/punctuational things consistently throughout a manuscript, Oxford commas should go in simple lists as well as complex ones.
Bonus entry: Um. People who use Oxford commas think they’re working with a confined printing space, perhaps rightly so! Uh. And their elbows are stinky.
APK: What misconceptions about editing would you like to clear up, once and for all?
LV: I think that sometimes, people have the idea that writing and editing are exact sciences — that there are right and wrong ways to write. But the brilliant thing about the English language (and the main reason why I love editing) is that it’s quirky, piecemeal, and highly mutable. Nothing you could possibly write can ever be absolutely wrong — only in-style or off-style. There are popular conventions, sure, and the vast majority of works are written to adhere to those conventions. It makes reading easier and meaning more accessible. But you can do anything you want with the English language. So long as you do it consistently within a work (and yes, inconsistency is a style of consistency), people will get it. And that’s where an editor comes in.
Of course, saying that writing can’t be right or wrong doesn’t mean that writing can’t be good or bad. But that’s a matter of taste, and the reason why you should find an editor who actually enjoys your work.
APK: So tell me about how you ended up in editing? Was it always the goal? Were you a wee child putting Oxford commas in your alphabet soup sentences? The world wants to know!
LV: When I was in second grade, I read My Teacher Fried My Brains by Bruce Coville and decided: This is it. I want to do this. I want to WRITE.
I followed that idea for more than a decade! I wrote all the time. In middle school I got into journalism ’cause I figured, hey, that’s writing, and wound up the editor of my high school yearbook, which prompted me to go to the University of Florida for journalism.
About a year into the program, having resorted to begging professors to let me into capped classes and in serious danger of failing Macroeconomics, I realized something: I hate the mass media, I hate pretty much everyone involved in the mass media, and fighting that sort of beast from the inside, Spider Jerusalem-style, has never been something I’ve been talented enough to do, or even particularly interested in doing.
So I switched to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and took more poetry and fiction workshops. Which mostly means that I wrote a lot of terrible things on no sleep, an MSG & caffeine high, and a sense of curricular obligation. But I also peer edited a lot of work. Some good, some awful, some with terrific potential. I learned that no piece of writing will ever please everybody who reads it, that it’s generally difficult for writers to see their own work clearly, and that a few bits of careful, thoughtful feedback can absolutely change a story, make it accessible to the greatest number of people. And I
decided: This is it. I want to do this. I want to EDIT.