Friday, December 14, 2007


That phrase just popped into my mind when trying to come up with a way to describe the relationship between a writer and his editor. You love your editor, but there are times when you could throttle him. Sometimes what he says is soooo right on the money; at other times, it makes you wonder, "Am I hearing right? You're telling me to change that? Why, it's the one thing I can't change. It's the heart of the story."

Last week, I urged you to listen to your editor, to be open and receptive. I did not advise you, however, to suspend your sense of critical judgment. In other words, listen but always realize that the decision as to how and when to "obey," the freedom, and the responsibility, of selecting which changes to make -- or not make -- remains with you, the author.

Let's just take a step back and look at the word in quotes: obey. The fact is, a writer's decision to follow, neglect or outright reject his or her editor's suggestions should never be thought of in terms of obedience. A good editor cares about you and your work, and views your working relationship as that of a partnership, not as one of commander and commanded.

And sometimes, oh every once in a while, an editor will insist on some obtuse change that makes sense to him, but in fact is short-sighted and downright whimsical, like altering the age or ethnicity of a character simply because your current setup doesn't agree with his preconceived notions about a certain age or ethnic group. What do you do? First you ask for an explanation. Then you consider it.

Does the change, for example, pander to certain chauvinist or mildly racist notions? It could be something very simple or subtle. Your editor says he doesn't hold with certain ideas, but believes "the public" does and that a certain change would "make your manuscript more appealing and marketable." He urges you to "be realistic." You think about it. You make a decision. If that decision is a no, then feel calm about saying it, and be prepared to explain it.

A request for a change that reaffirms prejudices is easy to scope out and, I hope for you, easy to reject. But what about those changes that really seem to be harmless?

It's important to remember that a change to any turn or twist of a manuscript could cause ripples like a pebble dropped into a pond. With mysteries, especially, a writer should be careful. The structure of a mystery novel can be likened to a house of cards. Fiddle with one card and the whole thing might collapse. Take the following instance: Your editor has made a suggestion and it seems to be quite helpful. It concerns some little turn of phrase or the physical location of a scene or even whether the scene is at all necessary. The scene is so brief. Why not take it out? We need to cut 10,000 words. Why not start there? The suggestion seems both logical and harmless.

But your inner gut tightens and some small voice tells you to hold on. Something about the phrasing or the location or the very brevity of the scene itself is significant. What could it be? You don't remember. It's been months since you worked on that particular bit of plotting, and you've started work on another manuscript since then. You're appalled to find that you've actually forgotten or even blanked out parts of your own book.

So you sit down and think about it, and it comes to you. Yes ... that's why you put that there, arranged matters in just that way. Following the editor's "innocuous" suggestion would've resulted in an inconsistency that would've emerged later, at some critical moment, undermining the logical and emotional wrenching ending you worked so hard to create.

You gather your courage and tell your editor that you think it better not to make the change. You outline your reasons and you're surprised to find that he thinks that his reasons outweigh yours. Hmm ... What to do?

(1) Discuss it some more.

(2) Tell the editor to go take a flying leap. (But do it much more politely, of course.)

But seriously, if the editor is a book doctor you've hired, then simply tell him, "Nope. I don't think so," (pay the bill) and go on your merry way. Matters become a bit more complicated if it's an agent or an editor within your publishing house who wants you to make some oddball change. Writers often feel themselves powerless against such gatekeepers and power brokers.

My advice: If it's an agent, whether it's one you're with or one you're thinking about working with, then consider the larger ramifications of the disagreement. Maybe you two are not a good match, or are no longer a good one. Maybe it's time to get different representation.

But you love your agent, you say, and don't want to change? Then think about shopping the particular manuscript without her or through someone else. No matter how much you like your agent, you have to understand and accept that an agent is unlikely to do a good job of selling your manuscript if she doesn't believe in it.

What if it's a big, important agent you're desperate to please? The agent has a reputation for getting six-figure deals and this is your chance, your one chance, to join the big league! Well, you can make the change against your better judgment and sneakily hope to undo it once the agent has found you a major publisher. It wouldn't be my way, and I wouldn't recommend it, but it is one way and some folks would feel no scruples about doing it in order to survive.

If it's an editor at a publishing house with whom you're in disagreement, then you might talk things over with your agent. In the classic setup, your agent acts as mediator. He or she can smooth out wrinkles and keep matters rolling along.

The worst thing you can do is to keep mum. If an editor makes a suggestion that truly sticks in your craw, say something. Editors and agents read fast. They reads stacks and stacks of manuscripts and they don't always read them thoroughly. They'll miss things described in terms bigger than life smack dab in the middle of page 21 for goodness sakes and tell you with a straight face that the information just wasn't there.

In the end, you're responsible for your story's content. And it's on you to know it better than anyone else, your editor included. His or her suggestions are always worth listening to because whether right or wrong, they indicate areas of possible misunderstanding. Furthermore, the editor's solution might not be the right one, but it could urge you in the right direction.

My last comment: Don't fear the editorial process. Engage in it! Embrace it! You're finally not alone. You've slogged your way through this manuscript, dedicating months, maybe years of your life to it, spending hours in self-enforced solitude. Now, finally, someone takes it seriously enough to read it, praise it, critique it and tell you how to make it better. View this as your time in the sun! And enjoy it!

Until next week then. Best wishes for the holiday season!

- Persia


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