Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On Editors, Editing and Etiquette

On Monday afternoon I received a solicitation for a writing opportunity that is, in my Minor Writer view, akin to getting picked for American Idol (but without the snark and the singing). I don’t want to get into details until contracts are signed, so for now just trust me when I say that I really am grinning from ear to ear.

Since I can’t just brag for the whole post, I thought I’d talk about editing etiquette. Bear with me: this will relate to that first paragraph eventually.

If you submit something to a publisher, at some point an editor is going to look at it. Let’s assume the editor likes what he sees, that the work meets whatever criteria he has, and that you remembered the obligatory self-addressed stamped envelope.

If you are very talented or very lucky, the editor doesn’t just like your work, he loves it. The SASE comes back the next day with a juicy, ego-stroking letter and a check. If this happens to you, then congratulations! You’ve won the gold medal. Cash the check, call your friends, go party.

A more likely result is that the editor sees some room for improvement. He reads over your story a few more times, puts together some notes on it, and uses that SASE to send them along. In a few weeks you open that envelope and read the words “We like your story, BUT...”

Sounds a bit too close to a rejection for comfort, doesn’t it? You read over the editor’s constructive criticism, and it doesn’t feel all that constructive. You’ve sent out your best, and it’s still not quite good enough. Maybe you feel your face flush from embarrassment. Maybe you have to hold back a tear or two.

You might even want to crawl into a hole somewhere and refuse to come out. Resist this treasonous urge. Read the critique again.

This time around, I bet you’re going to feel a bit less embarrassed. Possibly, you might get angry. I mean, sure, the editor’s nailed you on your mistakes, no question there, but look at the crap he’s asking for! He wants you to make your main character’s best friend the villain, for crying out loud! And why do you have to cut all these supporting characters, anyway?

You may be tempted at this point to write back with an angry dismissal of everything the editor has said. No matter what else you do, DO NOT DO THIS. Instead, take ten minutes or an hour to calm down, then go get your story and read it over alongside the editor’s notes.

You’ll start to see that the editor knows what he’s talking about. How cool is it going to be when Best Friend stabs your protagonist in the back? You know just the perfect place, too. And those supporting characters were all cardboard cutouts anyway. Let a better-developed character read their lines.

Do your best to address everything the editor has to say. If it’s all simple cuts, make the cuts. More likely, the editor will state a problem, suggest a vague solution, and expect you to run with it. Do so. If you have to rewrite a whole story to get that knife into Best Friend’s hand in a sensible fashion, do it and don’t hesitate.

Maybe the editor wants you to change something that’s deeply important to you. Try to make the change anyway. If that doesn’t work, and you truly cannot bring yourself to make the change, feel free to fight with your editor over it. But if you want to argue over more than one suggestion in ten, you’d better be willing to submit your work to a different publisher if and when negotiations break down.

Once you're done with the changes, read over your story again. You'll probably be surprised at the amount of improvement you see. You'll be improving yourself as well: you'll know what mistakes you made the first time around, and be able to avoid them with your next work.

And being professional about an editor's requests can pay off in other ways. Part of the reason I received the aforementioned solicitation was that, when I submitted a previous story to this publisher, I proved that I could take the feedback they offered and use it to greatly improve the original story. I didn't argue, and I didn't get lazy about my editing. I used the requested changes as an excuse to improve the rest of the story, and the story was better off for it. (And I still saw some changes from my revised draft in the typeset version, and I ended up asking for one or two small tweaks to that as well. So nobody's perfect.)

Criticism stings a bit, no matter how much you deny it. But if an editor takes the time to send you notes on your work, he's doing it because he thinks you've got the skill to make your work better. So grit your teeth, roll up your sleeves, and give those notes another look. Think long and hard about your editor's suggestions, and take them as an opportunity to make your whole story better. You won't regret it.


Author's Log

Brainstorming session, resulting in about a page of notes thus far. Also did some digging for reference materials.

On top of that, I'm gearing up for NaNoWriMo next month. My profile is all set up with the username "Gauss", along with a quickie description of what I'm planning on writing. Definitely looking forward to November.

Current Reading

At the moment I'm reading Reiksguard, by Richard Williams. This is a novel set in the Warhammer universe, which takes an in-depth look at one of the human Empire's knightly orders. I'm still in the early parts of the book, but it's doing a good job of giving a lot of details on a knight's training without boring me, so I'm expecting to give this book a thumbs up.

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