Responding to Edits

You wrote a book. You got your first book deal. Your editor has sent your manuscript back to you with edits. After the initial excitement and, perhaps, terror, you settle in to tend to things—and come across suggestions with which you disagree. Among your objections:

  • This isn’t my MC’s style.
  • This isn’t my style.
  • This complicates things later.
  • Oh hell no.

Do you have to do everything your editor has marked up or suggested? No.

Is there some magical formula that determines how many edits you can reject before you become a Difficult Author? No.

Will rejecting your editor’s changes make you a Difficult Author? No. Not necessarily.

My background is in academic publishing, but the process is pretty much the same no matter what side of the industry you sit on. The editor makes suggestions that she thinks will improve the manuscript. As I tell my authors, my edits are suggestions. I may raise questions or ask for changes that the author finds are too tangential or will open up a can of worms that can’t reasonably be dealt with. I expect that this will happen and I flat-out tell my first-time authors that I don’t expect them to apply every query or keep every edit. The key is to let me know you considered the query. A little explanation lets me know you took it seriously and decided it wasn’t the best course. I like when you do that. True, sometimes I’m disappointed when an author doesn’t incorporate a suggestion that I thought would be great. In the big picture, though, it’s not a big deal. Unless it is.

So what about the Oh hell no queries? Those are not automatically the big picture items.

The Oh hell no is an author’s visceral reaction to something he feels will weaken, harm, damage, eviscerate, or otherwise gut and burn his story down to unrecognizable cinders. (Isn’t that what “Oh hell no” really represents?) The editor likely has no idea that this will be the author’s response. The editor may just be tossing it out there. “Hey, wouldn’t it be great pathos to kill this character?” Oh hell no, it would not.

You do not have to kill that character. As you encounter these queries, especially the ones that generate a strong negative reaction, consider whether there’s something behind them. Is the editor trying to elicit more emotion from a character or ratchet up the tension? Maybe. And sometimes the editor’s just off the mark.

Don’t wring yourself into knots of anxiety over edits. If you identify a consistent theme to the queries you hate, ask about it when you return the manuscript. (Edits are often not all resolved in one round.) When there are definite changes I want my author to make, I signal this clearly in a letter. These changes are still up for discussion. I want my author’s buy-in. I want her to understand why I want these changes and to agree that they will make the book stronger. And if she has a different approach to what I propose, I want to hear that as well. Because the editor is not always right. But we do like to ask a lot of questions.

Side note: I once included more than 200 queries, plus edits, in one chapter. At the author’s request, I made a second pass to call out which ones I felt were the most important. She focused on those and still didn’t address everything, and it was fine. Perfection is impossible. The chapter turned out great. I’m pretty sure she threw darts at my picture though.

The Noise that Wasn’t There

Last night I heard a noise. Pretty sure it was mechanical, like a garbage disposal left on, except not quite that. It was coming from upstairs (my neighbor loves to share her radio listening). I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what room it was coming from or even be 100 percent certain it was originating from upstairs (but where else?). I set my ear to my refrigerator, thinking maybe it had developed a new tone to run beneath its usual whirring.

By the time I went to bed half an hour later I’d considered that maybe I didn’t hearing anything new. I’m absolutely certain I did, but it was at just the right pitch, what in other circumstances would be called the sweet spot but for me was instead just shy of the same pitch of my tinnitus. That, fortunately, meant that the mystery noise didn’t prevent me from falling asleep. I’m using to the incessant pitch that sings me a private symphony. But it also made me feel like a dog chasing her tail. Where did it come from? Was it really there at all? I couldn’t localize it because there comes a point at which I don’t know if I’m hearing the noise inside my ears or the noise outside of them, and that’s really weird.

Listening for the mystery sound.

Listening for the mystery sound.

A friend suggested that I need a Third Party Hearer. Yes, please. I can think of several situations in which this would be handy. She also suggested that someone develop an app to help figure out where That Sound is coming from. Again, please, yes, let’s have this. Then, the next time I close my hearing aid into its case with the battery still engaged, I won’t call maintenance to figure out how to make the noise stop. (I used to wear my hearing aid nearly every day, but not that day, and now at work it mostly helps me to hear how much louder the keyboard is, and why bother to with that?)

At the same time all of this was happening—or not happening—the writer part of my brain kept trying to figure out how I could use this in a story. It needs a twist, a reason, and that brought me back to the amnesiac alien in my current Work in Progress. Growing up, I always wished I could ascribe some reason to the ringing in my ears. Alien communications malfunction would be such a better answer than “nerve damage/hearing loss” because shouldn’t I hear less with hearing loss? No need for the special sounds, thanks for the offer and all, but I’m returning them for a refund.

Why Not?

I was talking plot with a writer friend a few years ago. It went like this: “My character has to find a way to prevent an attack that will kill thousands, but I’m writing myself into a corner. I can’t kill thousands of people.” She replied oh so matter of factly, “Why not?”

That response, so rationally given, blew through the limitations I’d unconsciously set myself. The truth is, I can do anything in my writing. How well I do it is another matter, but nothing’s gained by turning away from an opportunity to expand a plot, dive deeper into a character, or push the boundaries of my own imagination.

Why not have the gallant hero make a choice that gets him dirty? Why not write in alternating first person POVs or give first and third a whirl? Make the villain the main character. Break up the couple with the great, fated love. Set off a nuclear bomb.

It might suck. It probably will suck. At first. That’s why we research, we revise, we trunk and try again. It’s not going to be golden the first time out the gate. The first time I tried to walk, I fell down. And the second time, and the third. You get the idea. Why expect to master the first time you try a new writing technique or the first time you write a book?

Fall down. Get back up. Try again.

Blow up the plot. Push a character to be more. Because why the hell not?