WRITERS AT WORK, Dealing with Editorial Suggestions (Part 2)

Hi everyone,

It’s Tuesday, time for another segment of WRITERS AT WORK, the ongoing chat I’m enjoying with Sandy Asher. This month’s subject is Editorial Suggestions. I went first last week and today Sandy brings her thoughts to the conversation. Each of us will add a second round of comments and we hope to hear from you with your thoughts and experiences. At the end of each month Sandy gathers the WRITERS AT WORK articles into one document and posts it on America Writes for Kids where you can refer to it any time you wish. http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu/

Now, here’s Sandy.

Topic 4: Editorial Suggestions
Response 2: Sandy
December 14, 2010

Ah, yes, David, those sometimes thoughtful, often cryptic messages that editors tack onto rejection slips. Those are the rejection slips I save, because those editors have noticed me and I may just want to notice them back.

I talked a bit in our last go-round about how to interpret those comments and suggestions. But that was all about reading between THEIR lines and figuring out what THEY’RE trying to say. There’s also the challenge of reading between my own lines and making sure I know exactly what I’m trying to say. Then I can decide whether those particular comments and suggestions are going to help me clarify what I’ve written, or discover I really should be writing something else (it happens!), or mess up what I want to say entirely.

I realized long ago that a story is only half written when I’ve put it down on paper; the other half is created out of what each reader brings to it from his or her personality, tastes, and life experience. Sometimes what a reader brings, even a highly experienced reader, is not helpful. Sometimes it’s very helpful. I’ve learned that I need to be the judge of that.

True stories that illustrate my point: The first has to do with a YA novel I was writing just about the time the bottom fell out of the YA market. Editors were becoming very cautious and, for the first time in my experience, were insisting that even established authors do considerable revision before a contract could be offered. In fact, the contract often didn’t arrive even after the considerable revision. (Sad to say, though the YA bottom has been in good repair of late, this is a trend that has not gone away.)

My novel centered on a young teenager dealing with an aging dog while also mourning the loss of her mother and adjusting to the changes in her sister and her father. Over time, the manuscript went to several editors. Each saw enough strength in it to offer detailed suggestions and an invitation to resubmit. One liked the mourning strand of the story, but disliked the dog strand. Another wept copious tears over the dog, but didn’t care for the sister and father situations. A third related strongly to the father but not to the sister or the dog . . . You get the picture. Eager for publication in hard times, I revised. And I revised. And I revised. Until I could no longer remember what the story had meant to me in the first place. Though there was one more “If you revise, I’d like another look” editorial letter, I didn’t have the heart or the will to go on. The manuscript has long been buried in my basement. R.I.P.

The other story makes me smile to this day. It’s about the genesis of TOO MANY FROGS!, possibly my most successful book ever. As required by contract, my agent submitted the manuscript to the editor who’d done my previous picture book, STELLA’S DANCING DAYS. She liked it. Not enough to offer a contract right off, but she saw room for improvement. I agreed with her suggestions and rewrote accordingly. Yes, she felt it was better, but not quite “there” yet. Still in agreement, I rewrote again. Yes, yes, much improved, but maybe . . . ? Sure, why not, said I, and went at it once again.

The Surprise Ending: Yes, yes, yes, it was improved, and it was good. But it just “wasn’t for her.” Can’t argue with that. So my agent sent the manuscript off to Philomel, where editor Michael Green snapped it up. Some time later, I was in New York City and stopped by his office to say hello. “You know,” he said, “this is the first time I’ve ever received a manuscript that didn’t require any editing or revision.”

I didn’t say a word. Just smiled. Smiling still.

Which brings me to one last word, David, about that list of publishers appropriate to each manuscript. In this era of multiple submissions, it’s tempting to send the story to everyone at once. I say, “Resist that temptation!” One or two or maybe three at a time are enough. That way, if Editor A or B or C writes a really helpful comment on a rejection slip, a comment bound to do your story – and your heart – good, you can use that insight to revise and impress Editor D!