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Brendan O’Brien

The Perils of Blabbing

Copyright: gmast3r / 123RF Stock Photo

As a freelance editor, I’m lucky to work on some interesting books and journal material as well as dull and tedious stuff. I sometimes come across something that I would like to share, but resist the temptation, as publishers and authors naturally don’t like the contents of books, etc. to be disclosed before publication. I once landed myself in hot water by blabbing.

Back in 2000 I was working on a massive job: a six-volume reference resource on Irish history, containing millions of words, which included biographies of the 2,000 or so members of the 18th-century Irish parliament. Its author (now deceased) saw it, quite reasonably, as her life’s work, and her attitude was highly proprietorial: she resented the least change and fought tooth and nail to keep her prose exactly as she had written it, even when it contained mistakes. (I remarked to the publisher: “Her style of responding to specific comments/queries tends to be dismissive, and often highly indignant.”)

I happened to be chatting one day to a casual acquaintance with an interest in history. He mentioned that a friend of his was descended from a couple of the 18th-century MPs and would be extremely interested in seeing the potted biographies of his ancestors. I thought, “What harm can it do?” and showed him the two short biographies (the ancestors were not major figures).

A dilemma arose for me when the descendant noticed a couple minor errors of fact. I couldn’t correct them without consulting the author, and I couldn’t consult the author without disclosing that I had shown a small part of her work to a third party.

The easy thing would have been to ignore the descendant’s intervention and let the errors stand: no one else would ever have noticed. But I don’t like errors in a book — especially one in which I’ve invested hundreds of hours of my time — so I decided that the honourable thing would be to notify the author.

She was furious. The editorial committee met to consider my lapse of judgement, and the publisher (out of form more than feeling, I think) reprimanded me sternly. I had to make grovelling apologies orally and in writing. But the errors were corrected, and the finished work was infinitesimally more accurate than it would otherwise have been.

This, for me, was a satisfactory outcome. I had learned my lesson: there would be no more premature blabbing.

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Previous post from Brendan O’Brien: The Perils of Not Knowing

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6 Comments on “The Perils of Blabbing”

  • As a fiction editor, I often have the similar but opposite problem that writers assume we are out to steal their brilliant ideas for ourselves. This is most prevalent among the unimaginative whose single flash of insight strikes them as amazing but usually strikes me as a cliche, as when the novice SF writer concludes their interminable post-apocalyptic novel by revealing that the last surviving man is named Adam, and the girl he has just rescued, Eve. These stories make me want to shoot myself, but arrive with a five-page confidentiality contract and long threatening cover letters about what they will do to my pet rabbit should I try to use their idea in my own fiction. Professional and successful authors realize it’s about the writing and not about the idea, even in SF, and have enough new ideas waiting in the wings they don’t worry too much about people stealing their idea, and certainly don’t suspect their editors or publishers of such things. But I was taken aback at a convention once when an author I knew and respected complained about an editor who had turned down his short story for a magazine, but then won an award for a story he described as «eerily similar» –by which he meant both stories took place in a forest cabin. Head::Desk.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      That’s an interesting situation that, luckily, I haven’t had to deal with yet. 🙂

  • I think you did the honorable thing, when all was said and done. It’s difficult to work with someone who resists any change—even the most needed ones. In your situation, I may not have thought it was a bad thing to show that information in a private setting, but of course there’s always a complication when we do those things, isn’t there?

    I’m chuckling a little at Robert’s comment regarding the obsession some immature/newer writers have about their work. There are times I want to scream, «You’re not THAT original!» when reassuring them I wouldn’t dream of stealing their work. As if I’d have the time and energy to bother reworking someone else’s idea to claim as my own, even if my morals didn’t stop me in my tracks already. We each do what we do well, and leave it at that.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thanks, Lynda. It was an interesting project overall, and I learned a lot (not just about 18th-century Irish history). 🙂

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    Sure, the content of the publication should be protected before publication, but the editing process must be confidential forever. No author or client wants the editor to reveal those before and after secrets! Your example is a tough one, Brendan – you served the cause of Truth, and that’s important in a reference book.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Yes, I can console myself with that. 🙂 I have the six books on my shelf: they really turned out well.

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