Madame Red Pencil, the Editor

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!

Do Over

Last week Maggie asked, Do you have any tips on self-editing? Like where to begin? Or a process I should follow?

Self-editing sounds a little punitive to me, like correcting mistakes, so I’m going to call it revision, which seems broader, although correcting mistakes is part of revision. But often I’m expanding or condensing or deepening what I have.

I know of only two absolute rules for revision. One: Always save your earlier versions in case you need to go back. Two: Fix the basics – spelling, usage, and grammar – before sending your work into the world of publishing. If spelling and such aren’t your thing, get help – but try to make them your thing. Neglecting them is like neglecting your teeth, in my opinion.

This post will be about revising after you’ve finished a first draft, but even while you’re writing that draft you can pave the way. Be conscious as you go along of the aspects of your story that are giving you trouble, not in a beating-on-yourself way, but as an aloof scientist who’s collecting data. You can make notes of these aspects to help you later. I put such notes above the first page of my story. When you go back you may discover that what you thought was a problem wasn’t one at all. It’s nice when that happens. But it doesn’t always, and then your notes can be the beginnings of a guide.

When you finish a story, put it aside for a few days at the very least. Oddly enough, the shorter your story, the longer you should let it sit. The idea is to forget it a little so you can come back to it fresh. By the time I finish a novel, I have only a vague memory of the beginning, so a few days’ break is plenty.

Some writers read their first draft through without touching it, just making notes. You can try this and see if you like the method. I jump in and start making changes, and I make little and big alterations as I go.

Much of revising is grunt work, like yesterday for me: I realized that I had crammed too much action into too few hours, and I had to shift time around. Mechanical, but necessary, and it took a whole day in real time.

I go through my story in order, mostly, but I bounce around, too. Something I change may call for corresponding adjustments earlier or later in the narrative, so I make them before I forget.

Revision covers every part of fiction: plot, character, setting, voice, detail. Just thinking about it is daunting. Best not to think, just do. You’re unlikely to catch everything in one run through. I revise my books even when they’re in second-pass galleys. After my editor has edited a manuscript a dozen or more times and the copy editor has had at it half a dozen times, I’m still making changes. If all my books were turned back into manuscripts, I’d definitely do some fixing. The thing is, perfection is unachievable. We do the best we can. This is worth embroidering on a pillow or taping over our desks. Perfect impossible, just the best we can.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you move through your work.

Have I caught up all the threads? You may not want to tie up everything, but you want the loose ends to be deliberate. You can leave the reader to wonder if your hero ever reconnects with Sam, his best friend three years ago, but you don’t want to drop Sam because you’ve forgotten all about him. Some threads may be quite minor. For example, in the mystery I’m revising now I came up with an ejaculation for my main character. She says, lambs and calves! – and reveals her farm roots. I need her to use the expression once in a while, not so often that the reader gets irritated, and not so rarely that the reader forgets it.

Are my characters behaving as I’ve set them up to? If there’s a change in behavior, have I explained why? If your main character’s best friend angers easily, and we’ve seen her explode when she thinks a store clerk has an attitude, then we need an explanation if she lets a direct insult slide.

Can I see what’s going on? In a scene I worked on recently, my main character was on the castle battlements and needed to see down to the drawbridge, but I’d put her at the back of the castle, so I had to move her to the right spot.

Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too farfetched to believe? In my mystery, I want the reader to accept that my villain could have done the heinous deeds but not to see him/her coming.

Are my characters, especially my main character, reacting? If something sad or great or frightening happens, she should show she feels it, through thoughts and physical responses and whatever else is available. In an early draft of Ella Enchanted I neglected to show Ella’s grief when her mother dies. I figured the reader would know, as in, Duh! Of course she’s sad.

Is my main character likeable? (If you want him to be.) I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been having trouble with this. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency, if a disaster befalls another character, to have my main think of the consequences for herself before she reacts with empathy, if she ever gets to the empathy stage at all. I think I do this because the consequences for her are what will move the story forward, but, alas, she comes off as a selfish pig!

Is anyone getting lost in a scene? Suppose your main character’s family is having a meal together, breakfast, dinner, late-night snack, whatever. Say you have Dad, an aunt, an older brother, and baby sister in her high chair. Say the reader knows Dad is quiet because he’s preoccupied with something and the baby doesn’t have many words yet. Older brother, main character, and aunt are having a heated discussion about, say, the best way to apologize. Two pages go by without a peep out of Dad and the baby. The reader will forget they’re there and will get a little jolt if they pipe in. If you need them in the scene, make the reader aware of them occasionally. Have the baby drop her spoon. Have Dad get up for a tea refill.

In brief, a few more questions:

Am I overusing words, repeating sentence structures, starting five paragraphs in a row with I?

Is this scene going on too long?

Have I omitted something important?

Can I give a few characters speech mannerisms that will make them recognizable whenever they open their mouths?

This is not an exhaustive list. Think of your own questions as you take up revision.

I love to revise. It’s my favorite part of writing, because getting the story down is over, and now I’m just polishing. So don’t be hard on yourself. Congratulate yourself for the achievement of finishing and have fun.