Over at Mad Genius Club yesterday we got into what good editing was worth. Oh, okay, Dave Freer (aka Doctor Monkey) did. But I got more into it in comments, because – and this is not JUST me – in this age of turmoil and strangeness, it seems like editing is becoming a point of contention.
Perhaps it always was. The bad edit not only shall always been with us, but you bet your bottom vowel it has always been with us, now and forever, world without end. Part of this is that publishing houses (and in my time in working traditional) and agents had a vested interest in “making it more marketable.” (We won’t go into how “marketable” when it comes to books, in my time, mostly meant “I want to appeal to the two or three reps who determine if it goes on shelves.) This of course might or might not have anything to do with the writer’s vision or what the writer is trying to get across.
Look, I’m the first to say, speaking as a variety of writers, genus compulsive, sub-genus intuitive, that my people aren’t the most rational things around. Our relationship with our ideas is mostly that of cats with a fast moving object across their field of vision. We cannot help but follow, and we will eat it even if it happens to be a roll of string, and not the tasty earthworm we thought it was. Guilty as charged – to an extent. I’ll also admit that my people, collectively, have the sense of business that G-d gave a gnat. A gnat who has gone bankrupt several times.
But now that we’re done talking in general, let’s talk in specifics, shall we? I’ll admit I fit some of the “artistic” stereotypes. No, not by choice, but as my grandmother used to say “we don’t make ourselves” which is true either case, whether you believe the divine (or, er… the other side) had a hand in, or whether you think that we are the result of nature plus nurture. There are things you can’t eradicate, even if we try. And I’ve realized at some point that getting rid of the irrational compulsion to create would also get rid of the writing altogether, which, considering how central it is to my personality, might lead to a nervous breakdown or worse.
So I have a compulsion to write, and sometimes I have a compulsion to write things I know will never find a market. Listen, I have written things that not only aren’t marketable, but which will never be shown to anyone, my closest friends and my spouse included. They were in head and that was the only way to get them out. (And if the kids try to publish them after my death, hauntings WILL be real.)
HOWEVER – and it’s a big however – aside from that compulsion and other minor stuff I can’t control about the writing — I’m a rational, not to say a hard nosed person. Which is good because – this is still part of that however, as it applies to my entire generation of writers – I came up during REALLY tough times. Your chances of getting published at all were minimal, and your chances of continuing to work — as I am to this day — past book three, or even book two, were well… In this environment, I’ve been continuously under contract (save for a few months in 03) for ten years. If you think this was dumb luck and chance, let me tell you you’re dreaming.
It isn’t that I’m so smart, either, but I’m good at knowing “what will sell” – that is, I’m good at knowing where my insanity intersects with that of the people I’m aiming to sell to.
And that’s what’s changed. I have – for years now – learned to sell to agents/editors/publishers. In the last two years, I’ve been tuning to how to sell to the public. Which, no, is not the same as selling to publishers/editors, because well… THEY’ve been selling to reps and not to the public. And most of them still are.
This is where we get back to the matter of edits – you knew we would, right? – by a circuitous route.
I’m not a prima-donna, though I can default to prima-donnaish attitudes as a reaction/defense. Let me explain: when I started in the field I rewrote everything the way they told me to rewrite it. Rational. Without passing the gatekeeper, I could never get read. Besides, I never think I have the ultimate answer, and while I admit to some artistic quirks, I’m more craftswoman than a’tist.
So, when my second agent said “rewrite this” for All Night Awake, the middle book of the Shakespeare trilogy, I did. And I wrote it to his specifications.
Not only did I hate the result – which he loved – but people who read my stuff/liked my first book, hated it too. Of all my books even the other-name-deep-secret-small-press ones, that one sold the absolute worst. Was my original version better? I don’t know. Both are available in one volume from Baen Webscriptions, so if the question bothers you, go find out. BUT I know the original second one is more my own. It might have needed editing, but it didn’t need a radical plottectomy and formula transplant, which is what it got.
This has served as an object lesson. Since then, even when it meant alienating a publishing house, I draw the line when the editorial letter starts by telling me how much they love the book, then asks me to change it… in a way that requires I scrap everything but a few pages and write it again from page one to make it a different type of book.
Around the house the guys have learned to read my expression when I receive one of those letters and they call it (from the Code Monkey song) “Maybe editor wants to write g*ddamn book herself/Novelist does say it, outloud/Novelist is crazy AND proud.”
I’m perfectly aware this might come across to some people/houses as my being primadonnish. And that’s too bad. It’s not that I think my book is perfect – most of them aren’t, mine or others – it’s that I’ve learned through my own experience that people who buy my books want… well… my books. While a book by someone else might sell way better, it won’t sell way better if it’s a book by someone else written by me. For instance, All Night Awake got a thriller plot shoved in. Have you guys noticed the distinct lack of thrillers in my line up? Yeah. That’s because while I read them (I read everything, including want ads for professions I don’t know) they’re not… vital enough for me to want to write them. They just don’t INTEREST me enough. So, when I write them, they come out second best, at best.
Remember that thing I did, way back, about some ideas aren’t yours? Well, the fact that it’s your publishing house telling you that this idea is what your idea should be does NOT make it yours to write. And look, while Sarah A. Hoyt might be a niche brand, while J.K. Rowling or Stephen King are massive blockbusters, I can write D*MN good Sarah A. Hoyt. I can at best do subpar J.K.Rowling, and I doubt I could do King at all. (Throws book at head of giggler on back row.)
There are other things I’ll stick at. I’m not a pantser. I think I’ve mentioned that. However, some pantsing bits always fall in to my writing. For instance, while needing to make my character do something relevant with communications, I found out I’d already seeded that detail in the first book, in a throwaway line I put in without knowing why. This could be said as “the subconscious has reasons the mind doesn’t know.” So when an edit wants to remove a detail and that feels WRONG, I’ll put both feet up against it and say “NO.”
So, do I take any edits? Sure I do. Toni Weisskopf told me to add a whole section to Gentleman Takes A chance, and the minute she said it, it was like the skies opened, etc. Also, with Darkship Thieves, it felt fractured till she told me it needed to be divided into sections. And then it made sense. (Does this mean she’s always right? Probably not. She’s not me. Ultimately I’m the best judge of what I was trying to say/do. Also, after 21 books I’m the best judge of whom I appeal to, and more importantly, whom I CAN appeal to, given ideal circumstances. People who read Doc Travis or Ringo might like my stuff too, but they would be very put off if I tried to BE them.)
Also, a friend of mine who is possibly the best editor I have ever worked with, does edit some of my books and stories. I listen to him very closely, partly because he’s not intrusive at all, and never tries to superimpose his own ideas of what the story should be. Instead, he tells me when I’m repeating myself, or when my meaning is not clear, or suggests I make something more obvious. And I take it.
He also copyedits. This is what most people call “editing” but it’s not. It’s at the word level. He’s very good at that too, and can make my clunky sentences sing, while keeping my style. I’ll confess I’m if anything overeasy on the copyedits. Most of the time if you want to use flare instead of flash, I go “whatever.” It takes a lot to make me scream on those (a recent copy edit on an historical managed it, but it was only the second book in my career to do so. I mean, there have been the occasional spit-takes on the occasional line, but only two that I said “Not only no but h*ll no” to most of it.)
In fact, lest you think I REALLY am primadonnaish, out of 21 acknowledged books and – mumble – unacknowledged ones, there have been exactly three rewrites I’ve stuck my feet in the dirt and said “you can’t make me.” One of them I ended up doing, anyway, the aforementioned All night Awake – and lived to regret it. The other one I did the Code Monkey variation and killed my relationship with that house, possibly for good. (BUT — and this is important — the book sold much better than ANA.) And the other one … eh… I’ll tell you when the ulcer subsides whether compromise is possible.
But the thing is, both the edits and the copyedits I’ve got recently are tipping the scales of “we want something else completely different” and from what I hear through the grape vine, so are everyone’s.
Well, I think the reason is twofold. First, houses are running scared. They are now not marketing ONLY to the reps, and they simply don’t know what to do. So they’re doing everything. At once.
Second, houses are running scared. Writers are jumping ship to indies. They realize that for years, they’ve done nothing for writers but get them on shelves, and now they can’t do that reliably. So they want to offer something, and they can offer – they think – quality editing.
To quote The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress “Oh, Bog.” They’re doing the exact wrong thing. Because they don’t know how to sell to the public better than the writer – particularly if the writer came up in the last ten years and have learned to psych the buyer, be that the public or the publishing house – and they surely don’t know the writer better than the writer knows him/herself. All their panicky effort to make everyone “better” by making them more like other writers will do is… frustrate a lot of writers into going indie.
As I’ve said, I don’t intend to be under contract again, if I can help it, and I don’t intend to do drastic rewrites on any books not under contract. If a drastic rewrite is required, book goes to my friend to edit, and then goes indie.
Does this mean I’ll be digging my own grave? I doubt it. Yes, we’re all familiar with writers who should be edited and aren’t. Weirdly though, they usually sell very well, nonethless. Which, I think shows that it’s better to be a better yourself than an ersatz someone else. (And besides, I’ll be edited. Just not “reshaped”.)
However, even if I fall on my face, at least I’ll fall on my face under my own power and through my own hand, and not because I was trying to be what someone else wanted me to be.
(And, under this, is Mika’s Grace Kelly. I first heard this song when my kids were playing it and I was going through heck with the mystery house who wanted me to change my name, yet again and write “a craft mystery.” This was the third name change, and that song resonated. Under that again, is Leonard Cohen with Going Home. It’s from the new album Old Ideas. I’ll completly admit Cohen is an acquired taste. I have acquired it. This particular song baffled a reviewer as in “who is speaking to him?” and “what does he mean he has to say what whoever it is wants, even though it isn’t welcome.” This reviewer, my dears, is NOT a writer. Or at least not my kind of writer. We often write what has to be written, not what we want to. Which is why edits can be so jarring and so wrong, even when they don’t seem to be… From the outside. Which is all that editors have access to.)