Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Heroism of Revision

I am an author with a wonderful agent but I have a question that would be better answered by an editor, and I'd like your input.

My debut novel has been on submission since the beginning of the year. In our first round of submissions the first 'no' came with a very thoughtful, detailed email from the editor that made a number of suggestions about revisions and a request to see the ms again if I made them. At the time, my agent and I felt that since there were other editors reading we should just put those thoughts aside. However, more rejections came in, including some that brought up some of the same issues that first editor had discussed. Two more of the editors who said no said also they would look at the book again, if revised.

So I did the revisions. Not every single thing, mind you, but the major ones. And after some back and forth about them with my agent, she came up with a new list of editors to submit too, including the three who had been willing to see the revised ms.

Here's my question: as an editor, how do you generally feel about an ms. that has been revised this way? Is it something you're more likely to like, now that some of the problems you had with it are fixed, or if you really didn't love it at first then you'll never really love it? The second one is my big fear -- that if these editors really loved the book, they would have bought it first, and then had me make changes. But I don't know if I'm just being negative.
You're just being negative. You know what editors love? Great manuscripts. You know what editors ADORE? Great revisers. Oh dear god, how I adore great revisers.

Also, I've gotten a surprising amount of flak (mainly from non-writer friends) about my willingness to do this kind of overhaul. As a journalist by trade, I'm used to rewriting things based on other people's input (and, honestly, sometimes having them change it to something unrecognizable without telling me, which thankfully doesn't seem to happen in the fiction world). I figured I don't have to make any changes I don't like, but they don't have to publish it, either. What's your response to people who think someone who revises for editors is somehow debasing their work? Because people really do seem to think that.
Morons everywhere think they have a right to an opinion. You tell them that if they think listening to the advice of professionals (advice that you, the author, agree with) is debasing your Art, then they must be under the impression that everyone who picks up a pencil is a Great Artist from that moment on. You know what? When you're Maurice Sendak or Pablo Picasso or are otherwise making a ton of money just to exhibit your work, not sell it, then you are a Great Artist. Until then, you have something to learn. And if you don't think so, then you are never, never going to get beyond being anything but a Great Pain in My Ass.

(Ok, sure, you can be a pain in the ass and crazy and impossible to work with and maybe still a great artist, like Van Gogh. But do you really want your Art to wait to be appreciated until after you're dead? No, I didn't think so. We learn to play nicely with others in kindergarten, and some of us remember that lesson.)


Deirdre Mundy said...

Ignore your non-writer friends.

If you spend some time around Verla Kay's Blueboard (free!) you'll quickly see that a MAJOR part of writing fiction is rewrites, revisions, and then thinking you have it right only to have an editior say--- "But I think it would be better in the FIRST person!" And then crying, gnashing teeth, sighing, starting the rewrite, looking at the finished project and thinking, "Man, the process stunk, but..... SHE WAS RIGHT!"

The whole POINT of an editor is to take your uncut diamond, show you how best to show off its qualities, and tell you which setting will really make it shine.

If this wasn't the case, if revising was the equivelant of selling out, then most self-published books would be great art!

And they're not. Because we NEED editors.....

WV: unpenabil -- I wanted to write a coherent novel about lasers, spider monkeys, and malfunctioning GPS, but found it unpenabil, so I gave up.

Anonymous said...

Re. people who think responding to an editor is debasing your work: If this is their understanding (or lack thereof), I'm not sure there's anything you can say. You' could try drawing a diagram of the publishing process. Or perhaps you could gently suggest they look up "editor" in a dictionary. I think Miss Manners would recommend a "Thank you for your opinion," followed by a perplexed and pitying stare, which would show that you are taking said opinion and discounting it.

fairbetty said...

"Morons everywhere think they have a right to an opinion."

Awesome. You rock with your brutal honesty!

Deren Hansen said...


I suspect many people confuse the art of writing with the artefact of writing. And at a more fundamental level, most people don't understand that the words on the page are only an approximation of the story in your head. If there are other words that give a better approximation of the story, why would we hesitate to use them?

I'm fascinated by the left/right brain dynamics at work when we distil thoughts and turn them into writing. It just so happens that I shared a post about Mindful Writing today, should you be interested in a bit more on the subject.

Leslie said...

Wow! it must have been great to a question from someone who wants to work with editors and do revisions!

Terry said...

Agreed. Even those famous great artists that EA mentions had famous great artist mentors who inspired and critiqued their work! Writing is a collaboration with many people - agent, editor, copy editor, designer. You don't have to go with every suggestion, but you do have to listen and learn. Writers not open to that input should keep a journal and leave it at that. (The question writer seems quite capable of working with editors. That last bit was meant for the people giving her flak.)

Anonymous said...

Oh my, do not listen to those non-writer friends! Wonderful things can happen during the revision process, especially with the input of a terrific editor.

Anonymous said...

About revisions? I'd rather do them now then read about it in a bad review!

A huge part of The Author Fantasy for people is the idea that you get to do "whatever you want" and it "gets published" [hello, that is the internet, not book publishing!]. It seems to be pretty darn surprising that editors 'edit', and yes, the general public can be shocked and confused. Just a heads up: the same people will also be shocked if you don't become rich overnight, if your book is not in every single store they shop in, if you don't go on a book tour, etc.

Anonymous said...

Wait, did you just call Van Gogh a pain in the ass? :)

One time after attending a retrospective of fine art from (if I recall) about 1850 onward, my mom and I had a conversation speculating about why poverty, angst, rage, and poor emotional health became inextricably linked with people's idea of a great artist. We came up with quite a few theories (including one that as photography became mainstream, other forms of visual expression needed a raison-d'ĂȘtre beyond mere representation) (but that was just one of our theories) and we also decided that we didn't see any reason a person couldn't be happy and agreeable and still create beautiful art. And we both felt that some of the most angsty art was tiresome. I appreciate Picasso's genius, but I've also never particularly related to much of what he has to say. (Not that I'm a big fan of anodyne Thomas-Kincade-Painter-of-Light types of art, but I also don't need art to scream and wail at me to find it interesting or beautiful.)

Anyway, I can definitely see how editors would prefer to work with humble, reasonable writers.

Melinda Szymanik said...

It would be a big risk for them to say yes to your ms if it still needs work and they have no idea if you are capable of doing that work. Its great news if they want to see your ms again after revising.

Revising is normal but I only make changes I am comfortable with. If I don't make a suggested change I only do this if I can justify why I don't think the change works and often the editor has agreed. You both want the book to do well so its a collaborative process not an adversarial one. Good luck

jjdebenedictis said...

Until then, you have something to learn. And if you don't think so, then you are never, never going to get beyond being anything but a Great Pain in My Ass.

LOL. You do have a lovely way with words.

Christine Tripp said...

I would ask your non-writer friends if they have ever had their work critiqued and have they ever had to make corrections or changes? Illustrators go through this too. You can work on a spread sketch for days, submit it and get a whole chapter book of changes. You make these changes, then another round of changes may be forth coming. Once in a while, you dodge the bullet and you only get a "we love it" but there is usually something to be revised.
I don't know if there is a job that doesn't demand alterations at times.
I'm sure a framer who's foreman comes along and tells him the wall he just put up is crooked, can't say I won't take it apart and do it again, it looks good to me:)

Ishta Mercurio said...

You seem to be feeling especially snarky today, EA.

I agree with those who have advised the original poster to ignore non-writer friends. Find a group of writers to talk to about your book, and use the time with your non-writers for talk about sports, the weather, politics, and whatever other things you think about in your life.

nw said...

Sandy Asher wrote a book called WRITING IT RIGHT: HOW SUCCESSFUL CHILDREN'S AUTHORS REVISE AND SELL THEIR STORIES. For those in the NY/NJ/PA area, SCBWI-Eastern PA is holding a "live" version on Feb 19 in Lancaster, PA, with five authors speaking.

(No, I'm not Sandy, just trying to be helpful!)

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I'm in the process of revising now, based on rejection comments from editors. My agent (and I agreed) recognized a common thread and I am working on that aspect of the novel, even though it was something intentionally left out. The challenge is to add it and not ruffle the integrity of the story or characters.

I am always up for a challenge that improves my book.

Anonymous said...

Even Maurice Sendaks and Pablo Picassos can benefit from the input of others - maybe not as often as a newbie, but no one is ever so good that he/she can never benefit from outside opinions.

Carin Siegfried said...

Only dictators don't have to take direction from others. Did Michael Jordan have a coach? Did he listen to his coach? Does that somehow make him not the most brilliant player ever? Do all bestselling authors have editors? Do they listen to them? (hint: the answer is youbetcha) Editors are always trying to make your work into the best possible work it can be. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Don't you want someone to help with your weaknesses? How can that be a bad thing? Your friends are wrong/crazy. Don't listen to them.

working illustrator said...

Here's why EA is right about this: the practice of art is primarily about decisionmaking: this word, not that word. This color, not that color.

If you write it and you agree with it, you've decided.

That makes it your art, whether the impetus to write it came out of the aether or from an editor's notes.

Which is why, I have to add, you have to be pretty sure about those notes. I'm not as sanguine as everyone else here seems to be about the ability of editors to know what works best.

In my experience, editors frequently have good instincts about what's not working - they're good at flagging problems - but their suggested solutions to those problems are usually only useful as springboards to the more creative fixes I come up with on my own or with the help of my crit group.

An admiring "I never would have thought of that," is one of the most satisfying things you can hear from an editor regarding a problem you've both tussled with.

It's also pretty central to your job as a creative writer.

Make sure you're following advice - anyone's advice, your editor's or your mailman's - because in your best judgement, it's right for your book.

If you're changing stuff just to appease a person with the power to generate a check, then I'm sorry to say it but your friends are right: you're debasing your art.

And maybe that doesn't matter - it certainly happens all the time - but for me, the process of getting a book published is way too much work to end up with something I'm not proud of.

If you think a rejection letter feels bad, try getting a box of author copies that you don't want to open, don't want to show your friends, and throw to the back of the basement without opening.

Because that happens all the time, too.

Anonymous said...

If you have a good match with an editor the revisions should make basic sense and take your book to a better place, or bring about a different but mutually satisfying way to address the issues. If not, then it might not be the best match. Period. It is not about being "debased" or not, but more about seeing if you and your editor can share a vision about your project. In my opinion [as an author] the editor asking for revisions before a contract is giving both sides the opportunity to test out if this is a good match. If it seems good, go forward and hope to develop a working relationship. If not, keep looking. Forget the talk of "debasing", and concentrate more on finding someone you can work productively with.

When you think about it is crazy to assume a publisher will spend thousands of dollars putting out a product that they have no input in, but that is what many outsiders expect. They assume this because many never think of publishing as an actual business, but more like some kind of fairy godmother that suddenly makes people's life magical and romantic and effortless. A publishing contract is not like winning a lottery, it is getting a job and joining a team of professionals.

Journalist said...

"As a journalist by trade, I'm used to rewriting things based on other people's input (and, honestly, sometimes having them change it to something unrecognizable without telling me, which thankfully doesn't seem to happen in the fiction world)."

Oh yes. I know this feeling well. It's especially painful when you read an article under your byline that your editor has 'edited' that can barely be considered english anymore...

Thank goodness they don't do that in the fiction world.

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