What A Writer Has To Do

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.

How come?

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.)

11 thoughts on “What A Writer Has To Do

  1. It would be “interesting” to see if those editors (who want your story completely rewritten) could write a sellable story. [Very Big Evil Grin]

    1. Actually that’s neither here nor there. Most writers make lousy editors. Both the edits on ANA and ones I refused to make on the other book were handed down by people who also had writing careers. Part of the problem is that they wanted me to write THEIR books — not that I think they were aware of it. It’s just they’d found one way to write and that’s what “felt” right, and they hadn’t slugged enough to know the difference between “good for me” and “good.” The writers who can be detached enough to edit as should be done, and not as they’d write it are very rare. Amanda seems to do it easily enough. I CAN do it, but not easily, and if I’m tired I default to “how I’d do it” without noticing. This can have disastrous results.

    2. Paul, what I’ve found as both an editor and a writer is that I have to literally “turn off” the writer side of my brain when I’m editing someone else. Otherwise, I do find myself thinking what would I do if I was writing this, etc. That’s bad for the piece I’m editing, whether it’s a short story or a novel, because how I’d write it isn’t the way someone else would. I shudder to think what sort of harm I’d do to something by Dave Freer or Sarah if I let my writer-self try to “improve” their work. Not only would Dave be more than justified in pelting me with coconuts, but NRP would be justified in firing me.

      Honestly, I think that is part of the problem. Most editors who are writers — and the same can be said for agents who are writers — sometimes forget that they aren’t the author of the piece they’re editing. What’s worse is when the editor is a frustrated writer and can’t divorce that side of themselves from the editor side.

  2. The path of every creative person has always seemed to me to be twofold. There is the outer path, the place where we do the work that we show to other people, and the inner path, the place where every step leads us greater self-discovery. Perhaps you are different but I know of no creative person who does not struggle down both paths, who does not find success on the outer path without first finding success on the inner. Ever novel, every painting, every poem, every song is an expression of this duality. I think this is also why most creative types usually work in more than one area. They may write during the day for their outer path, but at night they will paint to work on the inner one.

    From over here in the cheap seats it looks as if you have gotten pretty good at your inner path, so much so that when asked to move beyond your path you sense it strongly. Good for you. Follow your voice. I’m sure you’ll do fine.

    I firmly believe our greatest work is learning to be better at being ourselves. I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more practice I have at hearing my own voice, the less I’m inclined I am to to take bullshit from anyone else. The rest of the world doesn’t always appreciate this, but WTH, they’re not making my decisions. I am.

    “I think thats how it ought to be,
    but not how it was taught to me.”

    1. Tolladay – once again, Terry Pratchett nailed it. “The important thing was to be yourself just as hard as you could”.

      I can honestly say I’ve been so much more comfortable in my own skin – and more confident – since I decided to hell with what other people thought, and to hell with trying to be “good”, I’ll stick with basic courtesy but I’m calling it the way I see it, and if someone else doesn’t like that they can shove it. Sideways. Possibly backwards as well.

  3. This post pretty-much defines why I have never even tried to Get Published. Perhaps the Rise of the Indies is actually a Good Thing for me.

  4. Lenny Bruce (the legendary Lenny Bruce, not the actual one — I am not old enough to have “known” the actual and, for all I know, he may fall into the same category as the Hollywood 10: in actuality traitors but in legend martyrs) was wont to complain that he was being put on trial, not for his act but for a (bad) imitation of his act as performed by the arresting officer testifying in court.

    You will probably fail as a writer (most do) but wouldn’t it be better to fail as the writer you are rather than the writer some editor thinks you are? When an editor gives good, appropriate & constructive advice, wonderful!!!! When an editor doesn’t understand what you, the writer, are doing — and is acting as gatekeeper — better you don’t sell to that editor, because it is your brand on that book and, unless you want to keep changing your stage name, your name that will be slimed.

    Doesn’t it seem that the publishing industry’s trying to sell their books as Art but wants to produce them like sausages?

  5. When it comes to writing I am such a newbie that I’ve yet to deal with an editor. That being said I work with the graphics arts equivalent of editors almost daily. We call them art directors or creative directors. My standard for their input is always the simple rubric, do their comments make the art better? My ignorant assumption about editing is that editing comments should be viewed though the same lens. Does the suggested edits make the story better?

    Mind you, this raises at least two big questions: What do you mean by better, and who gets to judge? In both cases I think the author should be the final arbiter.

    After I’ve said all that, I will also admit that here is room here for a whole truckload of ego on the part of the author. I know I have fought against major changes to a piece of art I worked on, because I though they were not improving the piece, only to be proved wrong by the final result. Sometimes we cannot see what the editor sees, and we might be wrong. I call this useless ego, although someone has probably come up with a better term.

    I know of no way to “fix” removing one’s useless ego from a project short of doing years and years of professional work, and engendering a professional attitude. Nor do I know how to separate “useless ego” from the “useful ego”.

    When I push pixels I have learned that I have to love a piece enough to demand that I do my best work with it, but not so much that I cannot give it up when the time comes. By no means has this been an easy balance to find. I suspect I will find it equally difficult with writing.

  6. My very meager experience so far is just two pro sales, both for the same editor. And the second time she said I barely made enough mistakes to even edit. (I think it was a total of 3 typos plus 7 or 8 differences of opinion on comma placement. I’ve decided to not even try to get commas “right”, because everyone seems to have a different idea of what “right” is. I figure this gives copy editors something to do.)

    But the first time… She made similar changes in commas and punctuation, stuff I expect. And then in one place she broke a paragraph in two. In another place she joined two paragraphs. And in another four or five places she changed a word. And in every one of those cases, I as a reader found her changes to be inarguably better. It was a first-person story; and every change she made sounded more like the voice in my head than my own words did.

    I will gladly seek out any editor who can hear my fiction voice like that and enforce it on me. She made me more me.

    But an editor who tried to make me more not-me? Pass.

  7. Some years ago Mark Evanier wrote a column about the state of the script writing industry. Everything was ‘green.’ It had been ‘green’ for a while. They were looking for something new. He came in with ‘blue.’ They loved it, it was such a great ‘blue’. But they had one problem, they weren’t sure the public would get it, so, could he just add a little ‘yellow’?

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