Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are editors evil?

I haven’t been on the published side of the fence long enough to forget what it’s like to be subbing and waiting and waiting… I still have all my unpubbed haunts bookmarked. All those blogs and boards I read trying to educate myself about this business. And yes, those include the places where the rejected, disillusioned, and frustrated vent.

The one thing I saw a lot of on those boards/blogs was editor bashing. Not necessarily a specific editor, but editors in general. Yes, publishing can often move at a glacial pace, and waiting six months to hear from an editor can seem like an eternity – even worse is if after six months you get the dreaded form rejection.

Hey, I can relate. Really. Been there, done that, and I have the extra ten pounds on my thighs from all the chocolate I ate in my misery to prove it.

But what disturbs me are the people who seem to think editors are evil beings, only here to make a writer’s life hell. Interestingly enough, the vitriol seems to come most from people who have been asked by an editor to make changes to their book.

Gasp! Horrors! How dare some editor think your book needs changing! Dog forbid you should be told your characters don’t have enough emotional conflict to sustain your story or that your pacing is dragging. (Trust me, they’re right 99.9% of the time. If the editor says it isn’t there, it’s not there. This isn’t a graduate seminar where you’re supposed to sit around a table and second-guess whether the bird on page 23 is a symbol of the Resurrection or not. You don’t get to explain stuff to your readers outside the words on the page. It has to be there. We wouldn’t be arguing about that bird if there wasn’t something in the story already to suggest that it might. )

These are often the same people who turn to vanity or self-publishing because they don’t want one of those evil editors “messing” with their story. (But that’s a whole ‘nother rant for another day…)

I’m reminded of this recently, because I really, really (heart) my editor right now. She’s fab, and I (heart) her every day anyway, but especially now. See, even with all the fun of field trips and plotting sessions with the Fabu CP (and everyone else who made the mistake of having coffee with me), I was really struggling with this book. And by struggling, I mean I was being sucked into the Giant Black Hole of Crap (tm) from I was sure which my book (and my career) would never return.

These are the times, my friends, when your editor becomes your Most Favorite Person Evah. Editors can make your book better – that’s the purpose of revision letters. They see the thread in your plot that didn’t get tied off, the motivations that seem crystal clear to you because you know your characters but aren’t actually clear to anyone else on the planet, the part that just doesn’t ring true, or the part that you left out. By pointing these things out to you so you can fix them, they help you make your book stronger, more interesting, and well, better.

And you’re the one that gets to fix them, so it’s still your story.

Most importantly, though, editors know the line and they know you. Thirty-something minutes of brainstorming with my editor solved weeks of angst and worry and crap-production. What we came up with is different from my original vision of the book, but hey, that vision wasn’t working real well for me anyway. Plus, it was producing large amounts of stress (as those who live with me can tell you). The new vision of the book fits me better, fits my voice better, and I’m pretty sure will produce a much better book in the end.

I’m going to be rewriting a lot. Many of those golden drops of brilliant prose (snort) will be sent to the deleted scenes file. And that synopsis thing? Gone. You know what, though? I’m looking forward to it. Simply because my editor can look at the line, the book, and me and see the place where they intersect. When they don’t intersect, she’s able to point me in a different direction – probably one I couldn’t see before – and that pulls me out of the Giant Black Hole of Crap (tm). I’m happy, she’s happy, my readers are happy. There’s no bad there.

So, no, editors are not evil. No one likes to hear there’s something not working in a book, but the fact someone pointed it out to you doesn’t make that person evil. If I told you that you had spinach in your teeth, you wouldn’t think I was evil, would you? I hope not. I’m just trying to help.

I’m a much happier camper this week. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but it should be easier because I’m not fighting my own voice and style and comfort level to try to write the *other* book.

How well do you handle constructive criticism?


J.B. Thompson said...

Fabulous post, PC! Constructive criticism is key, and those who don't handle it well don't need to be doing anything that subjects them to it in the first place. I would be nowhere without my wonderful critique group and especially my critique partner, who is a brilliant (and becoming a big-name) writer - my own writing has improved by leaps and bounds because of her.

Admittedly there are times when I don't necessarily agree with some of the comments from my group members, but that's why they're there - to discuss why something doesn't work for them. And I take it pretty well (at least graciously - I hope). In most cases, they represent your target audience, and getting feedback on the front end as opposed to having someone throw your book across a room? Easy choice.

Because my first two books are one step above self-published, I know firsthand what it's like to let your baby out into the world WITHOUT the guiding hand of a good editor. They say hindsight is 20/20, and looking back I do wish I'd known then what I know now. That's why I'm on a different road today, looking for an agent and subsequently a new publisher, one with one of those wonderful editors who will make my stories sing.

Congratulations on your success, on your relationship with your editor, and thank you for expounding on the truth - that a good editor is an invaluable asset for a writer to have. =) JB

Anonymous said...

Good job PC explaining all that. And I do see where you are coming from even though I don't write books but read them. It's very disappointing to start reading a book and it basically goes nowhere and I am ready to put it back down unread. I hope that as a person I can take constructive criticism well, as this makes me a better person and employee.

Playground Monitor said...

Great post. So far my only experience with an editor was last week when she said "I would definitely like to see the full ms for this. Can you send it to me at the New York office?"

Yes ma'am, I most certainly can and will. And when the constructive criticism comes back, I will remember your post and take it all in stride.

Carol Burnside said...

I'm much better at taking constructive criticism now that when I first started writing. Lordy. I felt like I was being attacked, like the person was saying "You suck!"

I've learned to take it much better, and while it sometimes still stings, I know that if I just let the comments marinate for a few days, I'll see my work differently and be able to fix it.

Interesting post. Wish I had an editor to *heart*. :)

Smarty Pants said...

Criticism used to bother me. Now, its more of the criticism with the rejection that gets me. I have no chance to redeem myself. I'm sure when I get the chance to revise, my angst will be over how exactly to execute the changes.

Instigator said...

I won't say that I'm good at taking criticism...yes, rationally I realize it's there to make me better. However, I won't lie and say it doesn't still hurt. But can I take it? Deal with it? Learn to process it and use it to make myself better? Absolutely. Will I wallow in self-pity for a few hours? Probably :-) That doesn't mean I don't appreciate it. I think it just means I'm human.


Problem Child said...

Oh, the wallow is important.

I play the "I suck" game a lot. I moan, I groan, I stomp my feet. No one likes to hear their baby is ugly -- me included.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I heart my editor too. Even though she makes me work, she is often right. When I really, really feel strongly about something, she lets me keep it. And I guess I've learned to tell the difference between when I should feel strongly and when I shouldn't. Truthfully, it's happened once, and after I addressed the issues she raised, the thing I wanted to keep worked.

It is hard to accept constructive criticism, especially at first. And sometimes it's hard to tell what is constructive and what isn't. I'm talking about contests and fellow writers, mostly. When your editor tells you something is wrong, she probably knows what she's talking about.

I've had the same experience, re the line and my voice, etc. My editor knows what the line is, knows what works, and helps me shape my story to take advantage of my voice and the expectations of the line. She is my partner in this, and I'm happy to have her. We've even agreed, after two books, that it's best for her to have input during the first three chapters so she can help me avoid those wrong turns you talked about. Once she gives me feedback there, I incorporate it and move through the rest of the book.

ALL unpublished writers need to realize that what they write isn't sacrosanct. There can and will be changes. If not to the first book you have accepted, then to a future book. It's as inevitable as dying and taxes.