Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
March 2009

The Author-Editor Relationship

When I got my first publishing contract, a writing friend, Rick Walton (www.rickwalton.com) gave me some very sound advice. I am going to pass that advice on to you as far as I remember it and the way that I use it. I hope that I am being faithful to it. As I recall, Rick told me there are three kinds of author responses to editorial comments.

1. Duh!
2. Whatever.
3. No way!

#1 is when an editor writes to remind you that you haven't actually written down that part of the novel, not in any draft the editor has seen. Or possibly the editor gives you a brilliant idea to fix a problem that you had or had not seen in the novel. Or you realize that the editor's comment will help you to make the novel even better than you had imagined it would be. In essence, your response as the author is to make the change the editor asks for.

That seems simple, doesn't it? But there are a lot of times that the author's ego gets in the way of making editorial changes, even when they make sense. Sometimes as authors, we love our words so much that we can't see that the editor's change is actually helping us to sound like a better writer.

I recently did a presentation on revision. I handed out, along with a list of tips on revision, about ten examples from novels I had published of the "before" and "after" text after making changes at an editor's request. What happened was what has happened before and which always fascinates me. Attendees came up to me and told me that they liked the "before" text better for one reason or another than the "after" text. That shouldn't happen, right? It doesn't really. But when I take bits out of context, it can seem that way.

So I explained that the problem with the "before" text wasn't that it was badly written. I am a good writer, and most of even my very rush first drafts are pretty good on a paragraph by paragraph level. But that isn't the point. When you have sold a novel and are working with an editor, you as an author have to aim for better than pretty good. You want to make sure the novel will sell, and that the reviews will be decent (though you have only a little control over this). And what is best for a novel may be to change something that is perfectly good, but just doesn't fit as well as something else would.

A hammer is a perfectly good tool, but it doesn't unscrew a screw very well. That's what happens with words. A great paragraph may not be the one to open a novel with. It may not be gripping enough. It may not make the character sympathetic enough. It's not that your writing is bad. It's just that it isn't right for this place in the novel.

Another thing that I was asked at this presentation (and have been asked before) was whether or not I try to find a different place in the novel, or possibly in another novel, for paragraphs or sentences that I have cut out in a revision. I will admit, I do not automatically delete things. I make a file on my computer called "draft x deletions" or something like that. Then I cut and paste all the old bits into there. Then I look at the manuscript as I have changed it and see if I like it better, if it does its work better than before. If so, then I don't need to go back and rework those paragraphs somewhere else in the manuscript. They are simply gone. Occasionally, I realize I changed something the wrong way and go back and put them in. But this is very, very rare. Maybe once or twice in all of the rounds of revision that take place after I've sold a novel.

Recently, a friend of mine read a manuscript and wrote in her comments that one sentence I had written was "the perfect sentence." And yet, as I did my revisions, that sentence got cut. Not because it wasn't the perfect sentence. It was, for that version of the manuscript. But it didn't fit in the second version. It didn't fit further on in the manuscript, either. It was a great sentence, but I had to come up with another one, equally good, that fit the new manuscript. I think as writers we sometimes have this fear that if we have once written the perfect sentence, then we will never write another one. So, I give this advice: Trust in yourself and that you are going to write a better book the second time around.

One last example of this. I got a new contract this month for a book called Tris and Izzie with Egmont, working with my editor Ruth Katcher from Harper who did The Princess and the Hound and The Princess and the Bear with me. I had worked last year on an attempt to retell the German legend of Tristan and Isolde (a variation on Guinevere and Lancelot) but I didn't think it was working. So this year, I gave it to my 14-year-old to read to get her opinion. While she read, I worked on the novel myself. I ended up completely rewriting it. Well, almost completely. The problem was that I didn't have a plot and that was why I hadn't been able to finish it in the first place. But there were some things about the first version that were good. Really good. The first chapter moved along nicely and the relationships were introduced quickly.

I sent my second version, the one with the plot, off to my editor. Then I second-guessed myself and sent off the first version, telling her it was the one my daughter liked better. What happened? She liked the second version with the plot. That was the one she bought. So another piece of advice: your new version of the manuscript will always be better than the old one. Well, maybe not always. So don't delete everything in the old version, but take some risks as you are working on the new one.

#2 is when an editor asks for changes that don't matter to you one way or the other. Make those changes. If an editor asks you to rename a character and it doesn't matter to you, make the change. If the editor asks you to change the color of the character's dress in the wedding scene so it matches the cover, make the change if it doesn't matter to the book. If an editor asks you to use more commas or fewer commas because it's their house style, and it doesn't matter to you, do it. Get the idea? Be an agreeable author to work with. I am not talking about making changes that you hate and not telling the editor what you think. But I think you earn a certain amount of capital with the editor on the things that matter to you (#3) if you give a little here.

#3 is the changes that you cannot make because they will change your vision of the book completely or simply ruin it or perhaps only make it so that you don't love your book as much. Don't make these changes. Not even to be agreeable. Your editor truly does not want you to. A survey was done recently asking editors what kind of authors they liked to work with. They didn't say they liked to work with authors who did everything they said. They said they liked to work with authors who listened carefully, and then stayed true to their own vision of the novel. An editor doesn't want you to take everything in a letter as gospel. It is a conversation.

And so that is why I recommend talking directly to your editor about any #3 changes that you come across as soon as you see what they are going to be. On the phone. Or in person, I suppose. But writing a letter or an email doesn't work nearly so well. Sometimes I admit that I have simply made the changes that I felt needed to be made and then sent the manuscript off to the editor and waited to see if the editor even noticed that I hadn't made a few of the others. Sometimes the editor didn't. Most of the time, the editor did and we ended up having the conversation anyway. So you might as well get it out of the way to begin with.

Just as you the author like to have an editorial letter begin with things that you did well, you should begin a conversation with the editor on an agreeable note. Mention things that you thought the editor got exactly right, and only afterward bring up the things you are struggling with. You should not have a long list (say, more than a dozen) of these things. I hope you don't. If your editor is doing a good job, I don't think you will. Bad editor relationships aren't in the scope of this article, though I know they happen. This is advice for when you are working with a fabulous editor, as I have been lucky enough to do several times.

You should mention the problem that you are having, and own it as your problem. Don't accuse your editor of being stupid. Then try to talk to the editor about the cause of the problem or possibly some other solutions besides the one suggested that you don't agree with. This isn't rocket science; it's basic management skills, but sometimes authors don't realize that they need to use them with editors. Perhaps because many authors tend to be solitary and they haven't perfected their people skills. At least, not the ones that aren't in books and can't be honed to perfection over multiple drafts.

During this call, you should talk about your vision of the book and why each #3 is an important point for you. In the end, it is your book and it's your name on the cover. You have the final say. But you can make your editors happier to work with you if you let them feel like they are helping you in the process. Also, editors are often right. Not always. On some occasions, they are absolutely wrong. At least for my vision of the book. But the editor is only concerned with making a better book. Well, and with making money for the publisher. And keeping her/his job. But mostly with making a better book because editors aren't in the business unless they love books to begin with. They just don't get paid that well to stay in a job they hate.

I have one example of #3 from The Princess and the Bear. I remember that I kept having a problem at the end of the novel, with the wedding scene. There was going to a happy ending, but the question was what kind of a wedding dress was the hound/princess/queen going to wear. This may sound like a trivial argument to have, but it mattered to me. I wanted her to wear something rather plain. A hunting outfit even, complete with boots. My editor wanted a more traditional wedding dress. After all, she argued, this is a wedding before all the subjects of the kingdom. It's not a private wedding. The people will expect a royal wedding.

But my character hated dresses. It was an important part of her character. She had become truly human, but she did not get fashion. It was part of her that was still hound-like. In the end, we worked out a compromise. I put her in a white silk dress, no frills. And she wore the boots underneath. I think my editor still doesn't like the boots, but I decided they were actually the perfect touch. The hound had learned that being human meant playing parts, but allowing yourself to turn them into what was true. And that's what I had done, too.

Three simple rules to making an editor's life happy. These are the most important rules. But if you want to send chocolates at Christmas or on the occasion of your book coming out, I'm sure those will be warmly accepted, as well. After all, the book is yours then. You get to bask in the praise while the editor steps back and lets you take all the credit. Be nice and give a little of the spotlight back.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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