WRITERS AT WORK, Editorial Suggestions (Part 3)

Greetings all,

Today it’s my turn to respond to our topic for this month with WRITERS AT WORK: Editorial Suggestions. I went first on December 7 and Sandy Asher responded on December 14. Sandy will close out the month on December 28 with her second response. On that day I will also post a guest author piece by Mara Rockliff that I know you will enjoy.

Topic 4: Dealing with Editorial Suggestions
Response 3: David
December 21, 2010

Hi Sandy. I liked your closing advice last week about not sending to everyone on our list before we’ve given ourselves a chance to benefit from editorial comments and suggestions that might improve our story and our chances. I don’t know about you but one way I can tell that I’ve grown more patient and open over the years is that I’m more willing now to think carefully about the pros and cons of advice from an editor (or anyone else for that matter).

One of my writer friends questions the merit of attending writers’ conferences. I think it’s always a good idea to put ourselves in places where we have opportunities to visit with editors and hear more about what they seek in a manuscript. I bet at one time or another we’ve all been guilty of sending a story to an editor who is not in that market. Or an editor who just recently published a similar story. Or an editor who simply doesn’t like animals that talk. Remarks from editors who are basically not interested are likely to be short and to the point, and not necessarily aimed at improving our work.

On the other hand, when I go to New York each year to make appointments with editors with whom I’m working on a project, I always come away with a clearer sense of what is going on in their world. Once I have a contract on a book, things change from general comments to specific ones. At this point I’m even more more likely to follow advice when I’m working with my editor-partner. Recently I completed a manuscript, submitted it, and received my editor’s suggestions.

His general comment was filled with enough praise to send me strutting around the house for a few minutes feeling the rush. Then I opened the attachment and took a long look at those specific and inevitable critical suggestions. Why that! Who does he . . . How? No I can’t do that! . . . Impossible! Hmmm. This makes me so . . . Hmmm. Well that makes sense. I’ll be darned. Oh come on! Hmmm. I do like that better. Huh. Oookaaay, let’s start at the beginning.

Sandy, I don’t know what percentage of the editor’s ideas I eventually adapt into the revised manuscript. It’s a significant number. And not all of the good ideas come from the editor. One time I wrote a poem about a ladybug with a beard and made the crack that I could tell it was no lady bug. The copy editor sweetly reminded me that some women do indeed sport quite a lot of hair and that her hirsute daughter was sometimes teased by the boys. I apologized for my thoughtlessness and insensitivity and wrote a different poem.

I guess the issue of how we respond to suggestions about our work — whether from an editor, a spouse, or writing buddy – boils down to this. Does the suggestion make sense to me? Will I like the work better after making the change? And do I think the quality of the story will benefit.

Back to you to wrap up.


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!

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?