Chapter Fifteen - Editors24 August 2010
Editors—some writers love them, some hate them!! But the vast majority of us can’t thrive without them!! If you’ve written a first draft, and edited the book into shape, and want to see it published, at some point you’re going to have to deal with an editor—in fact, you’ll probably have to deal with more than one, as if you have a good agent, he or she will very likely chip in with some of their own suggestions before it gets accepted by a publisher. Editors can seem like frightening beasts to writers who aren’t used to their ways, but really they only want the same thing you want—to make your story work. Here are some of my own editing tales.
I received the following email from a girl called Amy: A long while ago we wrote short stories in my english class. I wrote this really cool story that I really liked and enjoyed writing. Then when I got it back, the grade was okay, but I decided to do a rewrite on it. I talked to my teacher about my story before I set out to rewrite it. She told me she liked it, but wanted me to change my entire story! Well, except for the characters and the vampires and stuff. But anyway, I was kind of upset when I found out that in order to get a higher grade, I would have to change just about everything!!! I almost didn’t even do one because I was offended by what she wanted me to do, but I decided to do a rewrite, and see how it would turn out. Well, I have done my rewrite now, and my story has improved a hundred and ten percent. I changed the whole thing, while keeping the basic outline of it and the characters. Do you ever feel offended or upset when editors tell you that you need to change things in your stories? How do you manage to revise without losing the things that you like most in the story?
This is a question every writer will face—how do you react when somebody tells you your story isn’t working? It’s never a nice thing to have to deal with—I think every writer wants everything they write to be brilliant, to be met with gasps of awe and lauded to the heavens. I doubt if any of us sit there, when we’ve sent our work off to an editor or agent, thinking, “I hope s/he really hates it and tells me I have to re-write it entirely!!!!”
When you’re starting out, it’s very important that you take on board the views of people who read your work, whether that’s a friend, parent, teacher, whoever. If you choose to show your work to somebody, you need to listen to what they say. If there’s something they don’t like, look at the story again and see if you can see what they see. Don’t make the easy mistake of dismissing their comments automatically, of thinking they just don’t see the brilliance of what you’ve created. In most cases their criticisms will probably be justified.
I’ve always been of the opinion that, if you can see lots of flaws in your work yourself, it’s probably not a good idea to share that work with other people. I wrote a long blog about this just a while ago, about each of us having to choose to show our work when we feel ready to show it. If you know your work is flawed, I don’t think you can gain much by letting other people read it—they’ll only confirm what you think, and that can be depressing!! But if you think you’ve created something good, and you’re ready to show it to someone to see if they agree, you have to be realistic and accept their negative feedback if there are elements about it that they don’t like. You might not like what they say, but if you consider their comments fairly, and go away and do a re-write on the basis of them, you’ll probably find, as Amy found out, that you’ll do a better job next time.
But of course, you won’t always accept the criticisms. If you’re serious about being a writer, a situation will almost certainly arise where you disagree vehemently with another person’s view of your work. It happened to me with Cirque Du Freak. When I first tried to get it publish, loads of publishers turned it down and said very negative things about the book. I didn’t agree with what they said, so I ignored them. Sometimes as a writer you have to do that—you have to stick to your guns, stay true to your vision, and stand by your work no matter what. Sometimes people just don’t share your vision. That can be lonely and frustrating and heart-breaking, but if you’re convinced that your work is good, you just have to keep on fighting and hope somebody finally takes your side.
But the most important thing is that when somebody does take your side, when an editor expresses interest in your work and wants to take it further, but has some reservations about it, you need to consider their reservations very seriously. You have to be able to recognise your friends from your enemies, to separate constructive criticism from plain negativity. For instance, I have a great agent, Christopher Little. I always respect his opinion, and even if I don’t share it, I will always make the effort of seeing his point of view. When I first sent Hell’s Horizon to him (the second book of my D B Shan trilogy), he said he didn’t like it at all. So I re-wrote it and sent it in again. He didn’t like it that time either. Now, I could sense a really good story. I was certain this could be a good book. There was no way I was going to let it drop. But Chris wasn’t seeing the quality that I could sense, and I figured that if he couldn’t see it, other people wouldn’t either. So I went back and did a third complete re-write, trying to help Chris see what I could see in the story—and this time he loved it.
It’s very easy to get lost in a story, to feel so close to it that you stop seeing its weaknesses. You need people you can trust to tell you honestly that they can’t see what you see. It’s then your job to try and help them see, by improving your story, by re-writing and editing. I’m not talking about making changes to please other people—I’m talking about making changes that will please the story, that will help it shine for others the way it shines for you. Writers can sometimes have the same view of stories that parents have of children—we struggle to see their flaws. I always think that parents sometimes need to be told when their children are doing wrong—and writers need to be told when their stories aren’t working.
Having said all that, there will also probably be times in your career when you’ve done everything you feel you can do with a story, when you’re delighted with how it shapes up, when you feel you’ve worked on it as hard as you can and are totally content with the results—and yet your agent or editor still doesn’t like it!!! In that case you need to hit them over the head with a blunt instrument, dump their body in the river and push ahead regardless! :-)
I received the following email: Hi Darren, it is Mark xxxxxxxxx here again (Galwayman and aspiring author!). I really need your advice. My agent has got my novel in to a big publisher, who are keen on it but are insisting on major changes, so much so that it would change the essence of the book. I already revised once for them, so I am not afraid to do it, but now they want more. My agent says another publisher is waiting to see it, but they are not as big a publisher as the one my book is at now. So, I am in a quadry. My agent says it is up to me. If I have the book shown to the other publisher, will the current one drop out altogether? Are major changes always inevitable for first time authors? I really would appreciate any advice.
This is how I responded to Mark, and how I would respond to any author in that situation: Only you can decide whether the changes will work for the book or not. In my experience, my editors are usually right when they suggest changes—but not always. Normally we can reach a compromise—but, again, not always. A publisher wanted to publish one of my early books many years ago (before I’d sold any of my other work), but I couldn’t accept the changes they wanted me to implement, so I said no to them. The odd thing is, looking back at it now, I think they were probably right!!! I hated having to say no at the time—there was no guarantee that any of my other books would sell; maybe this was my one big chance, and if I blew it, I was finished as a writer. But I couldn’t bring myself to do what they wanted me to do, so I went ahead, ignored my fears, and made what I believed was the right decision for the story.
My advice, if you can, is to take some time to think about this. Give yourself a little break from the novel. Try and push it from your thoughts. Then, when you come back to it, look at it with a fresh eye. You might find that the suggested changes (or some of them) will actually improve it—as I said above, suggestions from editors are normally pretty accurate on the whole, and they see things that readers are going to see—sometimes writers get too close to their work and need a third party to tell them that it isn’t working as perfectly as they think it is. But if you still can’t live with the suggested changes, and can’t find a compromise that wll keep both sides happy… Well, difficult as it would be, you might have to say no to them. But only YOU can decide that—you have to weigh up the pros and cons, look deep into your heart, make a decision, and be prepared to be happy with that decision afterwards. I would suggest you not let fear dictate your answer, but that you do what you believe is best for the book. Ultimately, it’s all any author in your position can do.
Edited another 50 pages of my fantasy book. My editor’s notes, as usual, are proving extrmely helpful. I always scowl when I get notes through from an editor—I always have a completely uncontrollable, sniffish moment of “How DARE she suggest that my work isn’t absolutely perfect as is!!!!” Then I generally have a quick read-through of the notes, and again my hackles rise and I mutter angrily to myself—“Well, I won’t be taking any notice of THAT point!! Or THAT one!!!! Or….” Then, a bit later, when I actually sit down to edit again, I generally find that pretty much each one of her points is valid, and by paying attention to them, I help improve the book!! It’s one of the things I think a lot of young authors worry about—an interfering editor who tries to make them change everything that they like about their story!!!! Now, that DOES happen, so I won’t say that it doesn’t—but in my experience it’s quite rare. Editors want to help writers bring their work up to as high a point as they can, and usually they can spot things as a reader that you have missed as a writer—it helps to be able to view a book from the outside. There will almost certainly be times when you don’t see eye to eye, but in most cases a good editor is happy to go along with an author’s wishes if an author feels very strongly about a certain point. But you do need to BE certain before making a stand—you should always do as I do, and give yourself time to process an editor’s feedback (or anybody else’s), and really have a good think about it, before replying in haste and regretting it afterwards when you realise that the editor was actually right!