The changes you DON’T want to make, part III

For those of you joining us mid-series, I have been writing for the last few days about the unfortunately not unheard-of dilemma of a writer’s being asked by an agent or editor to make changes that the writer not only does not want to make, but believes might do serious harm to the book. As I keep saying, I sincerely hope that none of you find yourselves in this situation, but it happens to enough writers — especially first-time ones — often enough that all of us should probably think twice about condemning relatively newly-published writers for big, gaping holes in their plots and/or logic. Amongst published writers, editorial whims are legendary, and now that agents are expected to have books and book proposals all but print-ready by the time editors see them, they are starting to get the reputation for being rather whimsical, too.

Before taking ANY of the steps I am about to discuss, go back and read my last two postings, because today’s advice is to be reserved for ONLY those situations where you have tried tactful, non-confrontational approaches to ironing out your differences with your editor or agent FIRST. If you leap to these later steps — as, alas, too many writers do — before you have tried the preliminary ones, you run the risk of being dismissed as unable to take criticism. If your objections to the advice you’ve been given are justified (and you will have to judge for yourself whether they are), the book will be best served by your clearing the discussion of all extraneous elements; Steps 1 — 5 (explained in my last two blogs) will achieve that for you. From here on out, I am going to assume that you have already done that, and have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver.

Okay, so now you have been so reasonable that you feel as though your head is going to burst if you have to be polite for a single additional second. What do you do if all of this has not been enough to get your powerful critiquer to drop his most ill-conceived demands?

(6) Present your case.

Please note that I have not advised your arguing the point until this step. Up until now, you have been as cooperative as humanly possible, right? All you did before was ask for clarification, thus leaving your critiquer a face-saving way to back down from his silly advice. Since that did not work to your satisfaction, you are well within your rights to make a sane, well-organized argument in favor of your position.

Be polite in your discussion, and reiterate up front (and without whining) that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes. Identify each change, making it clear precisely what it is you think you have been asked to alter, and give your reason for believing each will not help the book, but try to do so without making your critiquer look stupid for suggesting such a ludicrous thing. Instead, state your fears about what such a change will do to the integrity of the book. (Try to avoid using words like disembowel, destroy, or decimate; they inflame tempers on both sides of the discussion.)

Let’s say you’ve been asked to remove a strong secondary character, Ellen, because twice in the course of the book, she makes feminist statements (yes, it happens). When you asked your editor to explain why, he said that the character was too political, and that male readers would not like her. He advised, instead, that your 40-year-old protagonist, Natasha, should have a teenage sister who resembles Natalie Portman in many significant physical respects, in order to make your book more filmic. Your instinct might be frame your answer like this:

“You sexist idiot, you have missed the entire point of my novel! What are you going to suggest next, that the courtroom scene take place in the middle of a Girls Gone Wild video taping?”

While emotionally satisfying in the moment, such a response is unlikely to elicit the kind of let’s-work-together vibe conducive to problem solving. It would serve both you and the book better if your answer went something like this:

“I’ve finished almost all of the revision that you asked me to do, but I am still having difficulty conceiving how I can remove Ellen from the plot entirely. She is the voice of ethics in the plot, and as a neurosurgeon, she is able to speak with authority about their mother’s dementia. If Ellen were a high school senior, I fear that her statements about brain chemistry might lack credibility. How would you suggest that I get around this problem?”

BE BRIEF, refrain from invective, and ALWAYS end with a request for advice. Asking shows respect, and even if you don’t understand how your editor could possibly have graduated from a decent elementary school, given his language skills, you need to maintain a professional mien.

It is almost always easier to make these points in writing, rather than on the phone or in person. Most of the writers I know prefer expressing themselves in writing, anyway, and it permits you to state your case in its entirety before your agent or editor has a chance to interrupt you. (If you do have a verbal discussion, it’s a good idea to send an e-mail immediately afterward, recapping what you believe the mutual decisions to have been.)

(6) Suggest alternatives.

If you are presenting your arguments in writing, it makes a lot of sense to incorporate this step with the previous one. For each requested change, offer to make a DIFFERENT change that you think will better achieve the goal. Could a scene that was not cut go instead of the cut one, for instance? Could your argument be made stronger if you simply added another example, instead of deleting a point? Be practical, and offer your editor a smorgasbord of appetizing choices, so he can feel good about changing his mind. Be up front, though, about any plot or argumentative problems these changes will cause — and never suggest any change that you are not willing to make.

In the case of the novel about Ellen’s sister, you could simply add a paragraph to the previous one:

“I have been considering giving Ellen a husband and a couple of children, to make her more sympathetic to the male readers you mentioned. This would require substantial revision of the timeline of the flashback sequence, where Natasha and Ellen are children together, which I am not sure I can complete by our two-week deadline. (Were you anticipating the flashback being cut entirely if I incorporated a teenage sister? If Ellen is 25 years younger than Natasha, they could not have been children together.) Alternatively, if the deadline is indeed firm, I could give Ellen a wacky hobby, such as beekeeping in her attic, to make her bon mots come across more as a general sense of humor, rather than political commentary. Do you think this is a good idea? I am not convinced that the head of neurosurgery at Manhattan General would have the time (or the attic space) for such a hobby, but that could be part of the humor.”

If you cannot come up with alternatives that please you, offer trade-offs from your list. If you make a less detestable change, can you keep something that your heart is set on keeping? If length is the issue, is there something else you could cut that would allow you to keep your favorite scene?

If you want to play hardball, look at the book from the editor’s perspective: is the change he is suggesting at all likely to make it impossible to keep a part he particularly liked? Is there a compromise you can suggest that would allow both of you to be partially pleased with the outcome? Here’s a strategic solution to the Ellen problem that would make everybody happy:

“Since Ellen’s medical expertise saves much exposition in the book, I am reluctant to remove her entirely. If I don’t have a fairly significant character working at the hospital, I don’t know how I can justify keeping that scene in the nurses’ locker room; as we both agreed, it is a highlight of the book, but for the joke to work, a female doctor has to walk into the room. However, I have had a bright idea that would allow keeping that scene and give the book a teenage girl character without eliminating Ellen: what if I gave Ellen a teenage daughter who is a candy striper?”
Listen carefully to your editor or agent’s response. If you are contesting a major point in the critique, you probably will not gain a total victory, but you will probably pick up some minor concessions along the way. Don’t turn your nose up at these; they add up.
Make sure to express gratitude for any concessions you do win.

In 99% of the cases, steps 1-6 will get an author to a point where she can live with the suggested revisions, without engaging in bloody battles for dominance. In my next post, I shall discuss the hair-raising possibility of dealing with an editor or agent who refuses to negotiate, but rest assured, those cases are rare.

Preparation is power, my friends. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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