Before I start the regular post, and in case you missed it, on the website there’s now a color sketch of the cover for A Tale of Two Castles. In your comments after my post about covers, many of you expressed a preference for painted covers, and that’s what this is.
Also, I’ll be signing in Kingston, New York, this Saturday and in Fort Thomas, Kentucky in November. If you’re nearby, check out the details on the website.
Last week I wrote about this question by Erin Edwards: How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them? But I didn’t get to her second question: Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?
Before I had my first contract, when I was sending manuscripts out, most of my criticism came from the teacher I mentioned last week, Bunny Gabel, and the writers in my critique group. But occasionally an actual editor would send a suggestion along with a rejection. If the editor went to the trouble of giving advice, I took this as an invitation to revise and resend – if the advice felt reasonable and seemed a good fit for my story. Way back then I had total freedom: the editor certainly wasn’t eagerly waiting for a revision.
In every case, when I revised and resent, the manuscript was rejected again. Further suggestions might be made, with less enthusiasm, and I might revise and resend again. This wasn’t a fast process. If I was fixing a novel, revising would take at least a month, and the response always took many months to arrive. But with the exception of the picture book I described last week, I always felt that I had improved my story.
However, although I had no success, some of my writing friends did. They established relationships with editors, understood what was wanted, and were rewarded with contracts.
Eventually I did get to work with editors, and of course there are differences. When a criticism comes from another writer or from a friend, I have context. If I’m in a critique group, I know my critique buddies pretty well. I’ve read their stories and seen how they react to other writers’ work. I’ve experienced their strengths and their blind spots. When a critique buddy offers a criticism I usually know how to understand it. Almost the same was true of Bunny. Although I never saw her writing, I did watch her response to my classmates’ material.
With an editor, much of that is missing. Usually we have available to read only editorial letters and emails. The editor – let’s call her Madame Red Pencil – may never have written fiction as an adult – and can still be a marvelous editor. We can’t tell how she evaluates other authors’ work, only our own. If, for example, she hates flashbacks, everyone’s flashbacks not just ours, we won’t know unless she tells us.
In both cases, there’s a relationship to preserve. I don’t want to lose a friend over criticism or to reach an impossible place with an editor. And with an editor, even if there is a contract, she can decide not to publish the book or that she can’t bear to work with me ever again.
Naturally some editors are better than others, and certainly there needs to be a good fit between the editor and the writer. In general, Madame Pencil won’t acquire a manuscript unless she loves it. This is because she has to read it again and again during the editing, and she has to be its booster in the publishing house. So the most important relationship ingredients are there from the start. She adores your work, and she’s primed to adore you because you created this marvel. And, most likely, you’re primed to feel good about her because she gets you. Maybe she’s the only one who noticed how gradually and carefully you built up the cruelty of your villain.
With luck, her edits will be even more helpful than the suggestions of your critique pals. It’s her job to crawl inside your story, to see it from within itself. Then it’s her job to grasp it as a whole too, and also to figure out how it can become its best incarnation, and to present her ideas in a way that you understand, and if you don’t get it right away, it’s her job to rephrase. When all this happens, yes, an editor’s criticism is easier to take.
When I first handed in the draft that eventually became The Fairy’s Return, my editor wrote in her editorial letter that my heroine was a buffoon, and she didn’t mean it in a good way. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew she was right. Luckily she had a suggestion that showed me what to do.
The editorial letter I got in response to Fairest was eighteen single-spaced pages. In it my Madame Red Pencil told me to cut entire chapters. I reacted as I usually do to a long editorial letter – with fright. Could I do what was being asked of me?
Editors don’t have all the answers. Sometimes Madame Pencil can see a problem but not how to solve it. Or she may make a suggestion that doesn’t suit my approach. When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, my editor and I both knew that the beginning was a mess, and neither of us had a clue as to how to straighten it out. Eventually I got it on my own.
By now I’ve worked with a bunch of editors, some more gifted than others. The worst edit – absolutely useless – I’ve ever received was the most enthusiastic. This editor wrote Ooh! and Ah! and Eek! here and there in the margins, and that was it. The only suggestion she made was wrong. Sometimes I have complete certainty, and this time I had it. When I explained my reason, she agreed. This reminds me of the comments from some of you on the last post that friends give you only positive feedback, and you don’t know whether or not to believe it or how to proceed.
But even if the overly enthusiastic editor hadn’t agreed with me about her sole edit, I wouldn’t have done it. Madame Pencil’s edits are suggestions, and this is understood by both of us. Ultimately the book is yours, and you have final say.
My editor and I initially disagreed about The Wish. She wanted a different book and I wanted the book I’d written. For a little while it looked like she was going to reject it. In the end she didn’t, and she edited it, and I took her edits seriously and worked to understand and use them as much as I could –
Which is my policy in general. In minor matters if I disagree with an edit, I just don’t do it, but in major matters, I explain and discuss, and sometimes I can be persuaded, and sometimes the editor can be. Our interests are exactly the same. Your critique pals and mine and Madame Red Pencil all want the book to fulfill its potential and find lots of readers.
No prompts again, but save what you’re writing, and have fun!