The Editor plies her passion with precision. In one hand is a bestselling mystery, in the other that notorious scalpel.
She removes offending text like a surgeon excising a tumor, cutting so deftly that when she lifts off the malignant word, the other side of the page remains intact. She generally files these words, but glues the most offensive choices onto postcards and mails them back to their authors.
She catalogs the expurgated words, perhaps 20,000 by now, in a gray metal coupon box. She rummages through, sometimes for an hour, looking for the right word, and then slots in replacements with droplets squeezed from a sticky bottle of Elmer's. Fonts often don't match and her work resembles a ransom note.
Weeks later, exhausted from her labor, she cradles her triumph and reads it softly to herself.
It all began years ago during her weekly drive to Barnes and Noble when she heard John Grisham describe his writing process on NPR. "Oh please," she thought, "you just vomit on the page. I could write your goddamn novels better than you do."
Eventually they would describe her own mysteries as combining "Angelou's vision, Parker's wit, and Woolf's psychological trauma," but at the time, The Editor's books languished in the remainders bin, disfigured by red clearance stickers.
Still muttering over the interview, she slammed her door. A car nearly hit her when she crossed the lot without looking. Inside, a shimmering pyramid of Janet Evanovich hardcovers confronted her. Her breathing became shallow, her head tilted down and to the side, and with a low guttural sound, she charged the pile and scattered the books across the floor. Despite the sharp words of an indignant 19-year-old store clerk, she knew her attack was righteous.
At home, she remembered something her mother had told her: "If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself." Her first session--with a Grisham, naturally--was merely a lark, just to feel the blade slice open the page, but she found herself short of breath and her heart racing, and the sunset came and went twice before she stopped.
With the entire amount of her next advance, she made five photocopies of the revision. On the covers, she wrote, "Grisham as it ought to be--The Editor." She dropped the copies in a dusty bin for free magazines at a dark, forgotten non-Starbucks, hoping someone would find respite in her work.
Instead, some mystery aficionado found it and uploaded every page. Praise from the Internet chat rooms came immediately. "Each sentence was the purest of air," one wrote, and another said, "The mystery genre is reborn." She taped up this acclaim in her office next to her M.F.A. diploma. She dissected James Patterson next, and then Sue Grafton. As she completed each manuscript, The Editor would leave it in the same dusty bin, and it always found its way online, with widespread distribution guaranteed by a disciplined corps of bloggers. Like a serial killer consumed by reactions to his gruesome hobby, she covered her walls with the bloggers' accolades.
Sales of new bestsellers fell because the genre's most dedicated readers preferred to wait for The Editor's revisions. Publishers were alarmed. In a twenty-eighth story boardroom, men in suits studied the panic across each other's furrowed brows. When one suggested "eliminating" The Editor, there was a long pause before the idea was rejected with guilty chortling.
The New York Times Book Review condemned "this meddlesome middling who fancies him or herself a writer, but is in fact nothing more than a cowardly collagist." She stuck the article under a refrigerator magnet that read, "You've come a long way, baby."
And if she only knew that James Patterson spent his nights tossing, kicking off the sheets, turning on the bedside lamp to read her revisions, astonished by his works' now realized potential.
Now, The Editor watches a store clerk return some Jonathan Kellermans to the storeroom to make room for The Editor's own novel. The Editor is now The Author, and sits atop the bestseller list. Her book graces the cover of The New York Review of Books, which reports, "Never before has truly classic literature emerged from the mystery genre."
Triumphantly she awaits readings, book tours, and an interview with Matt Lauer, her secret crush. However, when she discovers the bloggers circulating a rumor that she is The Editor, she nearly vomits, knowing The Editor must remain anonymous for her project to continue. Despondent, she stops granting interviews and pours a congratulatory bottle of champagne from her agent down a sewer grate.
Collecting herself, she decides that to avoid exposure she must edit her own book. She has already used up her best ideas on the original, and she becomes desperate. Her editing turns chaotic, reckless, and in a sleepless delirium, she starts mailing amputated words back to herself.
The final product is garbage and her cult reputation vanishes overnight. The bloggers carp: "Pop-psych trash" and "A childish parody of the genius original." Not only doesn't she add the blistering censures to her wall, she tears down her trophies.
She reminds herself she is now a bestselling mystery novelist who has crossed over into literary fiction, what she's always wanted, but it doesn't fill her with the pristine pleasure she could once buy for the cost of a few simple blades from the local medical supply wholesaler.
She cancels a book tour to slave over Grisham's latest, and cries tears of relief when she finishes. She drops it in the old bin and searches the blogs for news of her triumphant return, but finds nothing. When she stops for coffee a week later, her masterwork is still there. She wants to throw it away, but she can't. Instead, she reaches down, brushes away the dust, and leaves it there. Although she promises herself she won't, she will check the blogs again tomorrow.
About the author:
A former journalist, sociologist and labor union president, James A.W. Shaw is now studying law at Northeastern University to gather material for the legal thriller he's determined to write. He has studied writing at Grub Street in Boston, and this is his first publication.