The changes you DON’T want to make

I have written quite a bit in the last couple of months about self-editing your work, both on your own initiative and in response to comments from your first readers, to come up with a new draft that fulfills your vision of the book. From time to time, I have discussed dealing with revision requests from agents and editors. Today, I would like to talk about how to handle authoritative revision requests, the ones that are non-negotiable because they come from your agent (or prospective agent) or editor.

I wrote in a previous blog about how to respond in the moment to being confronted with agents’ and editors’ negative comments (please see Cultivating Patience, October 11), but I would like to reiterate: it is vitally important that you do not blow up when asked to change your work. At least, that you do not blow up in front of the person asking for the changes. While it would be merely impolite to snipe at a well-meaning critiquer of your work within the context of a writers’ group, it might well harm your reputation if you snarl back at an agent (even after you have signed with her) or an editor, NO MATTER HOW WELL JUSTIFIED YOUR RESPONSE MAY BE. Even when confronted with the world’s biggest buffoon screaming in the world’s loudest voice, if you reply in kind, it is YOUR reputation that will be hurt, not the critiquer’s.

You need to maintain the reputation of being an easy-to-work-with writer, because it is a serious selling point for any future book you write. In the shorter term, being calm in the face of criticism will also bring rewards. You want your agent to send your work out eagerly and to speak of it positively, don’t you? You would like your editor to look upon your next draft with favor, don’t you? However friendly your agent and/or editor may be, until you are a relatively well-established writer, they honestly do have power over you. So don’t insult them if you can possibly avoid it.

Among other plusses, if you remain pleasant when criticized, you will have the element of surprise on your side. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but writers have a simply TERRIBLE reputation amongst agents and editors as crybabies and whiners. As a group, they think of us as people who will instantly begin howling with outrage if they suggest that we change so much as a semicolon of our precious work. (This is one of the reasons, by the way, that it is easier for writers with even the most minor journalistic experience to find agents and sell their work. Journalists, the publishing world believes, have learned through hard experience how to take critique without quibbling. See why I keep urging you to try to place pieces in your local community paper?) They believe that we so fall in love with our own words that we bleed when they are cut.

We have all met a few writers like that, of course; they pop out of the woodwork regularly at writers’ conferences. They are the ones who tell horror stories about how an agent — get this! — had the nerve to ask for the book to be revised! Clearly, the agent was an idiot who did not understand the brilliance of the book. They are the ones who sent out a query letter once, got rejected, and never sent another because they were too furious. Clearly, there is a conspiracy to keep great work off the shelves. They are the ones who unstrategically begin their pitches with, :We”l, I know you’re going to say that this is too radical/too conservative/too original ever to sell, but…” They are, in short, inflexible.

But as inflexible writers tend not to be the ones searching the internet for advice on how to improve their chances at publication — and certainly not the ones who join fine organizations like the PNWA, dedicated to mutual assistance amongst writers! — I don’t need to harp upon why a flat refusal to revise is undesirable. I suspect that all of my readers are savvy enough to know that belligerent resistance to editorial advice is one of the FIRST signs agents look for as evidence of unprofessionalism in a writer.

We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable people, but what if you, after struggling for months or years to make your work market-ready, receive an editorial order so misguided that you firmly believe, after you have thought about it long and dispassionately, that you feel will ruin the book if incorporated?

I would love to be able to tell you that this never happens, but sometimes it does. Just as not every agent will be the best advocate of your work, not every editor will have the judgment to maximize its potential. Yours might be that editor’s first book, or the first book of its type, or the editor’s heart might not be in it. Remember, although junior editors have a lot of power over writers, this is a poorly-paid job, often held by people in their twenties. (So the next time you hear an established middle-aged writer complain that too many editors are just barely out of their college English classes and thus lack the life experience to understand serious writing, don’t be too quick to dismiss it as sour grapes.) I have — and I tremble to say this, but its true — actually seen friends’ and clients’ work CHANGED by an untalented editor from being grammatically correct to being grammatically incorrect.

No, that wasn’t a misprint. Within the last week, I have had a rather pointed argument with an otherwise reasonable editor at a major NYC publishing house who insisted that “everyone and his Uncle George” was wrong. He thought it should be “everyone and their Uncle George.” I referred him to Strunk and White, of course, and privately cursed his high school English teachers, but my point here is that it is not very uncommon for the writer to have a better grasp of the rules of grammar than junior editors.

I know. It’s awful, and the universe really should not work that way. Shame on it.

While you can always part company with an agent who seems to misunderstand your work, after a press buys it, you will have considerably more difficulty walking away from an editor with whom you do not click. You do not want to earn the reputation of being a contract-breaker, any more than you want to be known as someone who blows up over every suggested change.

So how can you handle this ticklish situation? Let’s assume that you have already exercised the patience of a saint, and not immediately said, “Wow, that;s the stupidest idea I have every heard!” when your editor first vouchsafed the suggested changes. Let’s assume that you gave yourself a few days to calm down, then re-read the contested passages. What should you do next?

In the interests of high drama (and because my practical advice is lengthy), I shall break off for today, but an 8-point plan of attack follows in tomorrow’s post. Same bat time, same bat channel.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini

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