WRITERS AT WORK: Dealing with Editorial Suggestions (Part 1)

Hi everyone,

We’re back with another episode of WRITERS AT WORK. Sandy Asher and I started this informal chat about the nuts and bolts of writing three months ago. This is our fourth subject. We’ve talked about The Care and Feeding of Ideas, Dealing with Obstacles to Writing, and Reality of Rejection. This month we’re focusing on Dealing with Editorial Suggestions. Remember, if you feel moved to join the conversation, jump in. If you are interested in writing a longer piece on the subject, get in touch with me to see about being a Featured Author. At the end of every month, Sandy brings together the total conversation on the subject and posts it on America Writes for Kids. http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu/
It’s my turn to go first, so here goes.

Topic 4: Dealing with Editorial Suggestions
Response 1: David
December 7, 2010

If an emerging writer sends out enough manuscripts, sooner or later an editor may jot a brief note on the rejection slip. Hopefully, it will be a helpful note even if it’s nothing more than, “Keep trying us,” or “Better,” or “If you rework this for more action, I would read it again.”

Harry Mark Petrakis taught the art of the short story one summer when I attended his workshop at Indiana University in Bloomington. He told us about his early days when he set his sights on getting a story accepted by Atlantic Monthly. He submitted one story after another for years and every one came back without comment. At some point when he was growing discouraged, a brief editorial comment re-energized him and kept him going. I think the comment was, “This one is better,” or maybe it was, “Don’t give up.” Anyway, he went on to publish numerous stories with Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere and loved to recall how much that editor’s note helped him along the way.

But let’s get back to the type of comment that offers specific suggestions. I’m not talking about editorial direction given after a contract is signed. Sandy or I will deal with that scenario later. For now I’m sticking with the kind of free advice that comes back with a rejection. What if the comment you receive suggests that your masterpiece is too long or too short or needs more dialogue or the second chapter needs to be thrown out entirely and a new one written? What if this person you don’t know, sitting at a desk in an office you’ve never visited, offers advice that requires you to rethink your basic premise or essentially rework your entire piece without any assurance that you’ll be accepted when you’ve finished?

Such dilemmas happen. If it hasn’t happened to you already, your turn may be coming. What should you do? How much should you trust this stranger who seems to mean well and takes the time to tell you how to make your script more acceptable, at least to that house? Other authors may respond to this differently, but my rule was always simple. If an editor opens the door the barest crack, go for the light. If you have a real, live person on the other end willing to give you some advice, take it. Not out the window. Not if it’s something you simply find too repugnant to do. Not if it goes against everything you stand for and you would lose sleep over it and feel compromised. Not if standing on pride is more important to you than getting published. I don’t remember ever suffering from any of those objections. I figured it was an opportunity to be published and I had nothing to lose but a few more hours and a few more words.

My position was that I knew more about myself than the editor but the editor knew more about my manuscript’s chances for being published than I did. If you follow the same practice that Sandy and I have suggested in earlier segments of WRITER AT WORK and keep a list of houses where you’ll send your manuscript if it comes back from its current reading, then you may decide to ignore the helpful editor’s advice long enough to try a few more houses. Or you may choose to jump at the chance to work with the editor before she or he moves on to other projects and becomes too bogged down to get back to you again before your hair turns gray(er).

Remember that not all editors are equal and not all houses look for the same kind of work to publish. Before you agree to give your story a complete overhaul, it will pay to seek a bit more assurance that this editor of yours is fairly serious about the free advice you keep holding in your hand and biting your lip over. But as a general rule, I prefer to have a positive relationship with that person at that desk in that office. Many of my books have developed because of such relationships. I say go for the light.

Sandy, how about you?

David