Saturday, September 27, 2008

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth, Jump Up and Down on Your Cake, and Reprogram All of Your Appliances

Once upon a time, a certain house acquired one of my manuscripts. Five years later, it was published. In the meantime, not one, not two, but FIVE editors had worked on revising it. On the day of publication, NOT ONE WORD of the original manuscript remained. This was no longer the manuscript I'd submitted and no longer the manuscript I loved. I'll leave it to you to guess how much effort I put into promoting it.
The editor(s) are not always right. It's possible to kill the spirit of the author, in the guise of adding all those walnuts. (walnuts, here, is a reference to my post "Cakes and Critics"--EA)
Oh, my sympathies. You hear about this happening. And damn it, editors need to be extra sensitive when they've inherited a project that has already seen a bunch of editorial work and revision.

But also damn it, this is why you, the cook, have to protect your creative work. Do think hard about the comments and suggestions editors offer you. Don't use them if, after that hard thought, you don't believe they will make your book better.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a tough break. So sorry about this. That long of a wait, and being jerked around by multiple editors, too.

I have to wonder, though, if not doing an editor's comments is really an option. I've only had one book published but it seemed to me my (then) editor's Editorial Letter was so forceful with why this or that part of the book sucked (in her opinion), I truthfully never felt I could argue with her without being labeled difficult to work with.

This poster was probably scared the book wouldn't be released at all, after getting that horrendous treatment.

working illustrator said...

Agreed, anonymous 1:18. I've also had multiple editors on single projects and this was pretty much the story on those books, too.

It's all very well to say, as EA does, this is why you, the cook, have to protect your creative work. That sounds fine, but it presupposes that you, the cook, actually have any leverage. For most authors, especially new authors, this isn't the case: the minute you sign the contract you go from being an exciting new artist they've discovered to being the entirely expendable office temp who's there to take dictation.

Somehow, the 'trust us, we know best' vanishes around the time the first dreadful sales figures arrive. But by then it doesn't matter because they're no longer returning your calls.

I'd be willing to bet that at no point did one of those editors have a discussion with you along the lines of "wow, you really got messed with here. Sorry."

Anonymous said...

I felt the same way when I expressed concern over being paired with an illustrator who had received bad reviews for previous books. "Trust us, trust us."

Fast forward two years ... guess who's pretty sure his book isn't on this year's Caldecott short list???

christine tripp said...

I expressed concern over being paired with an illustrator who had received bad reviews for previous books.

OK, soooo curious but I know I can never know:)
What I am wondering is, how an illustrator who GETS a bad review be offered other books when Illustrators with good reviews struggle to get work? Weird old world!

The tale of your butchered book is horrid. I can't imagine 5 years of revisions let alone ones you do not agree with and then, after it all, hating what your own book had become. While I agree with EA's advice, I really wonder if most of us would have the courage to say NO to an Editor for fear of them dropping the book all together or branding you as a diva, difficult and a "B"!

Sarah Laurenson said...

I think it's difficult after all of the writing, revising, submitting, getting rejected - for years - to believe that saying No is an option. When an editor finally, finally, says Yes, the gratitude to be on a different level may outweigh common sense. Plus, being a new author, how do we know what's acceptable behavior and what will get us blackballed?

Perhaps a post on how to have this conversation when the author doesn't agree with the editor's suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, great idea about the post on "difficult" conversations!

I'd also be interested in knowing if and when you can pull out of a deal. If you haven't signed a contract yet, and don't like where things are heading, can you say maybe this isn't for me without looking like a total diva?

Clearly, trust is an issue-- we need to hand that over to an editor-- but I do think there are situations when the writer or illustrator is right-on with their instincts about where the project is heading.

I'd also be interested to know how any agent might have made any of these situations more bearable.

As for less-than-critically acclaimed illustrators getting more work, I think as long as previous books sell decently, you get more work. We know from previous discussions that quality books sometimes don't sell and less-than-artful ones do.

Simply cross-reference the Caldecotts with the
best-seller list and you'll see what I mean. And there is a whole class of mid-list illustrators who sell decently enough despite tepid reviews.

Anonymous said...

I'm the person who wrote the original post. Why didn't I speak up? For most of the reasons cited here:

1) I was an inexperienced author and didn't have the courage to stand up against my editor, the executive editor, and the entire publishing house.

2) I was dealing with experienced editors, and I thought they knew what they were doing.

3) I was afraid they'd abandon the manuscript and ask me to return the advance--money I didn't have at the time.

4) I was trying to establish myself as a professional writer and didn't want to be labeled "difficult."

5) Some of the changes they asked for improved the manuscript, and some made the manuscript weaker. I didn't always know where (or how) to draw the line. I kept asking myself, "Is this the hill I want to die on?" The answer was usually "no." What I didn't realize was that I was being nickle-and-dimed to death.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as an editor, all I can say is that we like to discuss books and ideas about them. We aren't obsessed with having our views taken on board - in my experience, the option that's not quite what I suggest and not quite what the author had originally is usually the way to go.

Always query a change you aren't happy with. Do it nicely, but clearly. And have a discussion rather than sitting in silent misery, then refusing to promote a book with your name on it. You can bet the editors will walk away from an unsuccessful book without claiming any responsibility for it, if they were the fourth or fifth pair of hands involved, but it's still your name on the cover...

The thing that sticks out for me is this: out of five editors, there wasn't one you were happy to talk to? Was this publishing house in hell?

Sarah Laurenson said...

Editors hold the power of life and death over a writer's baby. You think it's easy to remember that editors are human and approachable?

On the other hand, a writer does need to take responsibility for her own actions and ask questions at the very least.

An editor I met recently made a suggestion for my manuscript. My immediate response was "sure, I can do that". I'm not sure today how much of that response was from my 'training' that tells me I need to agree with editor's suggestions and how much of it was from the fact that I could easily make that change.

It does get drilled into us at conferences and retreats and workshops that you do what the editor says without arguing. Perhaps that message needs to be changed.

Jill Corcoran said...

I find that when an editor or agent asks for a change and offers a fix, they are actually pointing out what isn't working for them in the manuscript, and their 'fix' is one option for the writer. If the writer can come up with a better fix then write the better fix.

Anonymous said...

Speaking for myself (the editor who commented anonymously earlier), I'd like my authors to think I was infallible, but that would be very dangerous indeed...

There are times that editors' suggestions can save a book. There are also comments that we throw in late in the day because something has been bothering us a little all along, or because they occur to us in passing. I think there are also ways of disagreeing with an editor that don't cause problems. In principle, we should know what we're doing, but that's not to say that you, the author, doesn't. So I would suggest you speak up if you feel the need.

Anonymous said...

Original poster again. Somehow I'm not making myself clear (at least to the editor who replied).

The acquiring editor LOVED the manuscript--the others were assigned it. That made a HUGE difference.

Authors feel that editors and publishers have all the power--they advocate for your book, they determine where it will be placed in the catalog. They choose the illustrator and the quality of the paper and determine how much of the marketing budget your book will get.

I didn't want them to dislike me, or my book. One editor even let me know that HE had pushed to cancel the project, but had been overruled by the other editors. That certainly didn't make me feel empowered to speak up.

I didn't realize that EVERY SINGLE WORD had been changed until the very end when I compared the published book to my original manuscript. These things happen gradually. The end result was that the heart and soul of the book were sucked out--but there wasn't one particular moment in time when it happened.

I'm an experienced author now, and I've been known to refuse extreme editing. But it still isn't easy and it's always a scary thing to do.

Some of the editors were nice people, in fact most were, but they were encouraged to do intrusive editing at that particular house--and they did.

Anonymous said...

"... The end result was that the heart and soul of the book were sucked out--but there wasn't one particular moment in time when it happened..."


You've hit the nail on the head here, I think. Because this is exactly how it happens. If it were just one thing, you could put your foot down. But even when you ony have one editor, you don't only have one set of edits. For a YA or MG book you've got five + sets of edits (including copyedits).

As writers know, sometimes it's not the "edits" per se, it is the editor's inability to realize that in order for you to change X the way they think it should be, you've also got to change Y, Z, and G or the "new X" won't make sense. Changing Y, Z, and G means now Q and W have to be completly rewritten.

It's like dominos. Tip one, and you're rewriting huge, huge section of the book. I think that editors are naive sometimes. Many of them edit for what they "wished" the book was instead of what it IS. But the writer doesn't know that until after the contract is signed and deadlines are in place.

When edits don't match the spirit of the book to begin with, (such as the original poster's book) that is a receipe for disaster.

Anonymous said...

A much larger point here is that to an editor that one manuscript with "iffy" edits is just that, one manucript out of 10-15 they are juggling at the moment.

It seems there are two separate situations. Books that are lead titles, where the red carpet gets rolled out for you -- your thoughts and opinions suddenly matter and your every question is catered to; or, they've already pegged you as a mid-lister, since they didn't pay you that much for the book to begin with, and you should sort of shut up and know your place.

I do know and understand that editors are very, very hardworking and that they don't take on a book to see it fail. But they can afford to have an outlook that the writer can't -- By the nature of their job the editor can say, "Oh, well, that book didn't make a bestseller list. Next!"

But the author then faces spending a year writing another book and maybe won't even get another book deal.

working illustrator said...

Amen, Jill Corcoran! I think your point is key: there is a difference between identifying a problem area and solving it.

I've found that both editors and crit groups are at their best in doing the first; only the artist, ultimately, can do the second.

Anonymous 9:45 is also very right in pointing out that you can't ever change just one thing: the Rubik's Cube is a worn-out analogy here, but that doesn't make it wrong.

This is why it's really, really important for creators to understand what the heart of any given story is. Serious changes will have to be made by returning to it and re-imagining. Chances are, nobody will do that as well as the author him/herself.

emmadarwin said...

What a tough story. So hard.

Amen from me to Jill Corcoran too. If they say something isn't working, then it isn't working for them, and you can't argue with that. What you can argue with is what you do about it: their solution may be way off beam, but they'll be just as happy with your solution if it solves the original problem.

But I also know that it can be really hard not to see an editor as Teacher, telling you it's right, or it's wrong, and that's it. To which most of us either knuckle down meekly or rebelliously, neither of which is a good place to do really creative work. Whereas actually what they're saying is an opening position, as often as not, from which you can jointly work out a meeting place.

Anonymous said...

I never had any trouble with teachers. I DO have trouble with a series of editors rewriting my manuscript until not one word of the original remains, then putting my name on the resulting book and expecting me to own it, praise it, and promote it. I'm apparently not alone in my feelings. Raymond Carver's estate is now engaged in a lawsuit about the extreme editing of his stories.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me while I bitch...

The longer I try to make it in this business the more I realize I don't have a clue how ANYTHING gets published.

It't not that, "Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth," as the title of the original post stated, but that the broth doesn't even have a chance to BE broth by the time you've got one person telling you it should be steak and another demanding it should be pudding.

I've never in my life felt so jerked around. From agents to editors you revise and rewrite, jump through hoops for these people, get praised up and down, and in the end it all gets rejected anyway.

There's so little respect, that after a while you don't respect yourself anymore.

*rant over*

Anonymous said...

This has been such an interesting thread to read; I wish I'd had it years ago. Once, years ago, I signed a contract for a mg series, and immediately, my editor and his editorial assistant directed me to change everything in the first novel -- characters, plot, etc. I tried to comply with their demands, trying to be the "team player" (a series!!) but they were never satisfied with what I did, even though I followed their directions. Then they proceeded to completely rewrite my mg novel and by then, I was a nervous wreck -- and as a junior high teacher, it took a lot to make me quail. At that point, I didn't care if the series was ever published. I decided it was not worth losing the characters' souls -- or mine -- for a series contract. I talked to the head publisher and the editorial director and they were nice, but backed the editor, although they did say that there had been problems with him before. Finally, I couldn't even deal with the company anymore; I punted and had my husband (the Killer Negotiator) call and say I wasn't making any more changes, but that I was not breaking the contract, and if they wanted me to continue, that under the circumstances, I was not going to be able to do my best work, so it was up to them. They asked him to have me return my piddly advance, and he said no, we would keep it for the year's worth of agony I had gone through, and if they wanted to come after us, they were welcome to do so. End of story. Incidentally, I have over three dozen published books and this had never happened before or since. All my editors have been wonderful. So, it is possible to just decide the heck with it and get on with your writing life!