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?

What Yoga Taught Me about Writing, and Writing about Yoga

Yoga has seen me through various injuries and a years-long bout of chronic pain, but I don’t maintain nearly as regular a practice as I’d like. The same holds true for writing. I’m writing more now, and more often, but there will be times when I simply hit a wall. I’ve always tried the “one book at a time” approach for fear that allowing something else in would eliminate forward momentum completely. (Yeah, don’t probe that too deeply for logic.) Lately I’ve discovered that I really enjoy having a second project to switch to when I come speeding up to that wall. It’s temporary avoidance, but it gives me space to think without feeling like I’m standing still.

St_Thomas2008Aug 198

A leaf bends in the wind and floats in the air. It goes, unprotesting, with the flow.

If one thing isn’t working in my writing, I no longer beat my head against it. I shift gears.

Lately after a yoga practice, I experience pain flare-ups from an issue I’ve dealt with—and beaten back—for years. The current fix is to change my practice and make it different from what I prefer. I don’t want to do that. I have it in my head what my yoga practice will be, what it should be, and damn it, that’s what I want to do. Except I hurt later, and I am so very over that. I found myself avoiding yoga to avoid the hurt, ending up in less pain but still unhappy because I wasn’t getting all the other benefits of my practice. The solution, I realized, was to shift gears.

It’s time to stop fighting. I need to set aside my idea of what my yoga practice should be and let it be what my body is demanding it become. The sooner I do that, the sooner I’ll feel better. The sooner I’ll get over the honestly unnecessary angst and move on. My body may feel some discomfort, but the true suffering is in my head. Just like when you get to that scene you’ve been waiting the whole book to write and it’s not working. It’s falling flat. Now that you’ve written everything that comes before, it doesn’t fit the way you envisioned. But this is the way you want it! No way are you going to end this book without cramming that scene in The Way It’s Supposed To Be.

Much hair pulling and teeth gnashing later, and possibly a wise writer-friend giving you a verbal slap upside the head, you realize the futility of your resistance. That scene has changed. Your vision carried you right up to it, and then it took flight, altered into something different, something that’s more than a spur to keep going. It’s now a vital, necessary part of the whole. And you’d have realized it a lot sooner if you’d just stopped insisting that what you wanted was still the same thing as what was needed.

There are times when we need that slap to wake us up. And there are times of quiet revelation. However we receive them, we should remember that their lessons can be recycled. Maybe we’ll benefit more from them in the future.

Handwriting versus Typewriting

It was brought to my attention via Twitter a few weeks ago that the Common Core education standards don’t place much emphasis on legible handwriting. The wave of the future, as you might guess and The New York Times reports, is the keyboard. Kind of obvious, right? But the decline in handwriting isn’t something to write off as a sign of our technological times. The article states:

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.”

KnowledgeIf schools teach students how to write the alphabet and make a signature, but then focus more exclusively on keyboarding skills, what might we be losing beyond the physical act of handwriting? I love to write. Books, letters, lists, doodles. (I have an earlier post on letter-writing.) If there is paper and pen, I want it in my hands, so this article got me thinking that “what if?” The relationship between hand, pen, and paper—and the way the hand, eye, and brain engage in that format—is different from hand, keyboard, and screen. I don’t even need to see the keyboard to use it.

With a keyboard, I can type more quickly and scroll all the way back to the beginning and correct something before I ever reach The End. Despite that, this format always feels more official and formal to me. In contrast, writing by hand is a subtle sign to my brain that I’m allowing myself to be messy. It’s okay to scribble things out, to take the whole thing less seriously. I can always tear off the page and throw it away.

I’ve identified some consistent reasons behind when I switch to paper:

  • Screen fatigue
  • A difficult or emotional scene
  • I’m stuck and my perceived formality of the file on the screen feels too constraining

Whatever the motivation that gets me to switch from keyboard to pen and paper, these handwritten scenes are always my better ones. I’m finding the computer and keyboard fine for originating words on setting and structure and all those little in between details. For action and emotional resonance, I want to pour it onto paper. On paper, it becomes more about the story and less about the producing of the story and how many words I’m getting out. (Because who doesn’t like to check their total word count at the end of a writing session?)

Given everything I feel I gain from handwriting, I wonder what younger generations may lose if they’re less inclined to pick up a pen. What value does handwriting have to you? (Does it?) When do you turn to it?

Creating Habits

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. I believe that every day, every moment, is an opportunity for change. Start tomorrow or right now, but do it. That said, the change of the calendar can be a good opportunity for a lot of things: flip the mattress; clean out the spice cabinet (which is really just an excuse to buy new spices); vacuum the cobwebs out from that one corner where they live. Because the new year comes during the holiday season, I had time to catch up on my sleep and, for once, did not check my work email on vacation like a zealot. Those things combined provided an opportunity to reflect.

2014 was an overwhelming year for me professionally. I struggled just to tread water amidst all the deadlines and demands and found little room left for the things I enjoy. Still, in the few non-work hours I had last year, I managed to complete revisions on one novel, finish another, and begin a third.

2015 should bePen 009… calmer in the workplace. I hope like hell it will be. And with that hope, my new year’s reflections found opportunity for creating new habits. I read something once that said a new habit takes at least thirty days to establish, and common sense says that if I want to write more, I need to write more regularly. Schedules work well to keep me disciplined, so I’m establishing certain days and times to write. I’m also going to seek out more resources to feed my creativity, like a March lecture at the Smithsonian on art fakes and forgeries. (That kind of screams plot idea, doesn’t it?) I want to query one novel, revise a second, and finish the new one begun last year.

That list of wants could be overwhelming. I’ve set expectations in the past to write so many words in a day or weekend, and the failure to do so made the next goal feel all the more oppressive. This time around my goal is simply to write. One step at a time – one word at a time – I can do it. By the end of 2015, I’d like to say that success is my new habit.

What habits do you want to create?