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Off panel with Leah Lederman

Written by The Indie Huntress on Tuesday, October 27 2015 and posted in Features

Off panel with Leah Lederman

An interview with the esteemed editor on her job, and what it means to have a good story.

Source: Leah Lederman

Welcome back my friends! Your Indie Huntress has returned from another grueling week of work for Bill Jemas. Pushing the Doubletake kickstarter is no easy task. Door to door sales for the meager pay of keeping my column, half a bag of Cheetos, and the Double Take SuperPack special. Actually... I can't complain. Good Ol' Jemas knows my tastes well. However, in the midst of doors being slammed in my face, I was able to get away briefly to interview Leah Lederman, a freelance editor.

A good friend and mentor, Dirk Manning had hinted at me interviewing her. She has been the editor on several of his works, as well as other highly regarded independent creators such as: Kasey Pierce, Howie Noel, and Headmetal Comics. I couldn't pass over this opportunity. Especially being someone that is beginning to work on her own prose, I'll take whatever help I can get. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure what the various aspects of an editor's job are. I was thoroughly engrossed with her responses after she emailed me back, and learned more than I was expecting to. I hope you will find this as intriguing as I did. Without further delay, here are those bits you crave...


While editing, what does your job consist of?

This is a very good question, because there are many different types and levels of editing. I'm not really sure exactly how to talk about this without being incredibly boring. I think it's important to point out that what most people *think* is editing is just proofreading. If there's a mistake in the book's text and people say "what a crappy editor." Or, people point out typos in a menu and think "I would make a great editor!" Well, maybe they would, but not because they can spot a misspelling.

In ideal situations, actually, someone other than the editor does the final proofing—you know, crossed I's, dotted t's, and so forth. Still, that gets expensive, and so it gets thrown in under the umbrella of editing. I've definitely had people who really just wanted a proofreader. They found my feedback...extensive.

Really, though, in my job as an editor, I am dealing with substantive or structural elements, and stylistic elements. I don't want there to be any inconsistencies or contradictions in the work, and I'm a stickler for unnecessary repetition. I'm making sure your plot lines up, that your dialog is believable, that your facts are straight. This has taken me into some interesting territories with research – taxidermy, 20th century Cockney accents, sports scoring and vocabulary, the Eastern Orthodox Church...I could go on.

The fact is, the job is different for each author, and for each individual project. Sometimes I'm able to offer feedback and ideas when a story idea is just taking shape, other times I'm just giving it a once-over before publication. I've turned work away that wasn't ready for an editor, and I've turned away work that I felt I couldn't contribute to meaningfully.

I know that you have been the editor on several comics. How is editing comics different than novels/novellas?

The medium itself, of course. In a typical prose work, I might, for instance, ask a writer to go into more detail or depth at a particular moment. Quite frankly, as I first learned when I edited Dirk Manning's Write or Wrong (and have seen manifested since), when a comic script goes into great detail and depth in its instruction to the artist, there's the possibility that some creative potential gets stunted. I don't want to step on anyone's toes – everyone has their own style – but I like to see a writer tell an artist to just go nuts, with very little instruction save for the overall "feel" they want to capture. With comics, storytelling is a collective effort.

Encouraging a writer to be vague is something unique to comics. There's a team dynamic to creating these things. In that same vein, there's a definite before and after dynamic in comics that I haven't dealt with elsewhere. Reading black words on a white page, even with extensive artistic instruction, is a heckuva lot different than seeing the thing drawn onto the page. Also, I keep a close eye on each individual panel. There's a tendency to pack too much into those squares, and most of my job is unpacking.

Because dialogue and caption boxes carry so much of the story, I pay really close attention to those words. Comic writers lean towards purple prose, and purple prose is bad. It's overly dramatic and no one talks that way. Stop. The biggest part of my job is cutting out words. You've got a tiny bubble. Each word needs to be specific and deliberate, and driving the story forward.

There's also a habit of bolding words erratically, thanks to Alan Moore. I get it, he's a comic god, or something. Listen, the whole time I was reading Watchmen felt like my inner narrator was William Shatner. Bolding every other word in your script does not create a rhythm, it creates a distraction.

In a novel or even a short story, I read through that thing and I've got the whole story right there, start to finish. In comics, however, I'm plodding through an issue at a time. Granted, I might be a few issues ahead of the general public, but I'm a few behind the author – and sometimes they're not even entirely sure where things are going to end up. This makes it exciting, on one hand, because there's a serial aspect to it, but it can be challenging. I double-check older scripts that I haven't read in a few months to make sure we haven't contradicted ourselves, etc. This can be daunting, to say the least, especially since comic fans are somewhat notorious for memorizing and fine-tooth-combing the plot elements and character interactions of their favorite stories.

leah dirk write or wrong

What do you look for with character development?

As with just about any other style or element of writing, consistency is key. Human beings are complex, and yet even then most of us tend to operate within a certain set of patterns. The word "character" comes from the Greek for marking or engraving. Start chiseling. A character is formed by their impact on others – their fellow inhabitants in the writing, their audience – and their impact on the story. Each character needs to move the story forward.

If your readers can't rely on the characters to behave in a certain way, whether it's being charming, dastardly, or impish, there's little tempting them to complete the story. That is not saying that a character should never do something unexpected, or "out of character," but that, when they do, there's a compelling reason for them to do so which makes them more interesting, and thus the entire work becomes more interesting.

Along with consistent behavior is believability. Part of making characters believable is giving them depth. So, no cardboard cutouts of villains or heroes. Throw in an element from your sister (villain or hero, the choice is yours), give them idiosyncrasies. Base them in truth.

I can't tell you much more than that. It's definitely one of those "I know it when I see it" sort of things, and even then people can argue for hours over characters' actions and motives. I just know that generally, a character's behavior is governed by a set of rules unique to that character. They can operate within that framework or completely discard it, but in either case there better be an explanation, and they better be believable. I'm not saying likeable. Audiences love to hate characters. Give them flaws, physical or mental.

Oh, and the dialogue better be good. Don't rely too much on meaningful stares. All you have to do is play a different soundtrack to a meaningful (or deadpan) stare and you've got a completely different aesthetic – as Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin demonstrated so perfectly in Thirty Rock.

When you are reading a script or prose for the first time, do you begin editing immediately? Do you read it through once before going back with the knife, so to speak?

That is more or less situational. It depends a lot on how much time I have to work on the project, and what sort of rapport I have with the writer in question. As I develop a groove with each author, I start to know their quirks and habits, so sometimes it's easiest just to start right in.

Truth is, though, I'm always reading with a pen in hand. No, I'm not such a prescriptivist that I'm correcting commas in my pleasure reading (though I do circle them, I'll admit) but I like to mark up my books. I underline passages that confused me, inspired me, or that I just simply enjoyed. It's a longtime habit and therefore it's just not a stretch for me to hit the ground running. I'd like to note here that, in my editing work, I also mark things that I simply enjoyed, or found inspiring etc.


"I'll say this—there are people who hold fast to the idea that there is a very scientific process and formula with which to write a story.

I agree with them.

There are people who just start writing without a single idea in their head and they just take off running, trying to keep up with the words (or beating them out one syllable at a time).

I agree with them."


How has being an editor affected your reading habits? Are you able to enjoy reading for pleasure without your mind going into the zone?

I'm fairly certain that my reading habits are what led me into this. I've taken reading very seriously from a very young age. I've always liked to see the different ways writers communicate emotions and weave plots together. How do we learn about people? Through the words they say and the way they say them. Words are deliberate, and thus must be carefully chosen. They are our currency (think of Beowulf unlocking his "word hoard").

When I read, I pay attention to the ordering of words and the choices authors make. When I edit, I do the same thing. But any time I have to read a sentence more than once, I ask myself – was it me? Or was it the sentence? If poor word choice or clumsy sentence structure throws off the rhythm of my reading, I'm going to ask why I'm reading that book.

I think my dad prepared me for this, and not in the expected "he taught me to appreciate reading" line (although he did do that). We'd watch and rewatch movies together – the man had a knack for dropping obscure movie lines in direct context with whatever conversation he was having. When describing a movie or a show, he'd always comment on whether or not the dialog was any good. If the dialog was good, it was worth watching, often even if the characters or plot were subpar. But he taught me that even with the most interesting plot, and the best actors, if the dialog is bad, it's not worth watching.
okay I'm not sure exactly what question that last paragraph about my dad is answering, but it's an important part of me as an editor.

Just how many red pens DO you go through a week?

I don't think I own any red pens. If they come as part of a multi-pack, I throw the red ones out or give them to my kid. Too many people "hate English" because they had a teacher who "bled" all over their work. I don't like to be a stereotype, even if I'm aware of all the ways that I really am one. I'm not just going to throw red all over your work. I'm going to tell you why it didn't work, and probably come up with an alternative (not to rewrite your story for you, but to get you started on a brainstorm). I'm going to alert you to any changes I've made in your work, and I'm going to give you a summary of the trends I see in your writing.

Before I was an editor I was a Composition Instructor, and as an instructor I was well known for providing copious amounts of feedback on student work. The trouble is, there's only a select few who take the trouble to read through all of it, let alone alter their habits or revise their work.

Editing is remarkably rewarding in that regard—writers are hungry for feedback. I'm dealing with their babies. They've put a lot of work into their stories and there's a real vulnerability to putting themselves out there, and I'm not going to poop all over that. Then again, if something isn't working, Ima let you know.

The red pen/grammar nazi thing kills me. It insists that language is fixed and forces English into some antiquated woodshack. Yes, there are standards we need to follow, and great writers follow them. You know what else great writers do? Throw the rules out, turn them upside down and inside out. The quote is often attributed to Picasso, but I'm not sure if it was him who said "Learn the rules like a pro, break them like an artist" or something like that. The point is, learn the art. Be disciplined. If you want to dance Modern, know your Ballet. If you want to improvise Jazz, learn your scales and your Classical pieces. Study the greats, understand how a comma works, and then write the hell out of your story.

Too many people never even get started because they're too afraid of misplacing a semi-colon, all because they've been beaten down by so-called grammar Nazis who can't write a lick themselves but build themselves as know-it-alls. Some of the smartest people I know get "your" and "you're" mixed up. I can never spell "unnecessary" correctly.

I've read beautiful things that were riddled with grammatical errors. You know what I did? I pointed them out, explained them, and fixed them! Because that's my job. I didn't beat them down, I built them up. You know what else I've read? Drivel. Perfectly grammatical crap. Way to go.

What do you feel are the main components of a GOOD story? Can we draw one of those idea trees or is that out of the question? (laughs)

This is one of those questions that is impossible to answer. As soon as I start to, I'm already disagreeing with myself. The conflict, the turn, the neatly wrapped and packaged conclusion...the "snowflake method." Sigh.

I'll say this—there are people who hold fast to the idea that there is a very scientific process and formula with which to write a story.

I agree with them.

There are people who just start writing without a single idea in their head and they just take off running, trying to keep up with the words (or beating them out one syllable at a time).

I agree with them.

Leah Howie

(The zombie with pencils in her head is based off of Leah. Illustrated by Howie Noel, creator of the webcomic Tara Normal.

How long have you been a freelance editor?

The first person that ever called me an editor is my mother. We're still working together on some of her poetry and musings. I couldn't figure out why she wanted my feedback, and then other people started asking me for help on an official capacity, though, my first editing gig was the Write or Wrong book, and that was 2010. Wow, I guess it's been five years then.

Have you completed any books yourself, or have plans to?

I have written many words. I have many plans, and oh, they are grand. It's a slow road, though.

Once upon a time, I had a very short-lived column in a local paper. I hated it. Not for me.

I've had two short stories published, and a few are ready to be submitted once I've found the right place for them. Somewhere down the road I'd like to put them together into a book.

I am working on my cousin's memoir, currently. I say "working on" because I'm not completely writing it—I'm transcribing it, arranging it, editing it...but I'm doing my best not to write it. I want her to. She can't though, because she can't type. She is a quadruple amputee and has a hell of a story. Katy Hayes. Look her up. She went to the hospital with stomach pain after the birth of her third child and woke up from a coma two months later. She'd contracted a Strep A infection that took her limbs. Now she paints and raises her kids and sings back-up in her husband's band. And it's hard. Every day.

I want Katy to tell the story, and so I'm just trying to stay out of the way while putting it together. I met with an agent at a writer's conference and got the green light, so things are moving. It's pretty exciting. Honestly I just hope it can generate some revenue for her family.

This November I'm going to try the Nanowrimo thing to tinker with an idea. I'm trying to process something about the alteration of memory—can you retain a happy memory if the person who gave it to you turned out to be a monster?

Finally, I've got about 40 thousand words written of a memoir that I've been piecing together for the better part of five years. I think it might need another ten.

What are some of your favorite pieces you've worked on?

Yeesh...I'm not really sure I can answer that without enraging everyone I've ever worked with. Let me blanket it by simply saying how much I've loved working with people in the comic arena. They are really passionate about what they do, and really embrace the entire lifestyle of what they're doing – hell, some of them even have personas! Knowing that I can contribute to something they are so passionate about is very rewarding. Having said all that, the piece that has probably been most inspiring to me is a phD dissertation about education. So there.

Where can people find you on social media/website, and are you
currently open for hire?

I'm like a 7-ll...I'm not always doing business, but I'm always open.

What are some books you would recommend for those looking to improve their writing?

I've taught English at the college level for seven years and I've never met a writing textbook that I liked. I'm from the school of "if you want to write better, write more. And read." Read Jane Austen. Read Beowulf. Read memoirs. Read biographies and history and comics. Read.

I know I talked about how I'm not a prescriptivist, but I don't know any author who wouldn't benefit from owning (and reading) a copy of Strunk & White's Elements of Style. It's the classic. For quick online reference, I'm a big fan of Grammar Girl.

If you're talking specifically about comics, I'm partial to Dirk Manning's Write or Wrong book (and online column) because, even though I'm not a comic author myself, the attitude and discipline he describes are essential to writers and thinkers everywhere.

Lastly, I want to plug an author I just met, Chuck Sambuchino. His work is not geared towards comics, but he offers great practical advice for creating manuscripts and finding agents. He's also just a pretty nice guy who is very approachable and genuinely interested in helping writers get their voice out there.

You can follow Leah on Facebook here:

Come find me on social media! 



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