All right: today is the day when I tackle the worst-case scenario. What do you do if your agent or, still worse, your editor has asked you to make a major textual change that you feel would be harmful to the book AND every polite, professional means of demurring has failed?
For those of you joining us mid-series, I have been writing for the last week about dealing with editorial requests with aplomb. If you are new to the writing game, you are, unfortunately, far more susceptible to micro-editing than a better-established author; from the editor’s prospective, you have fewer bargaining chips, and from yours, you do not yet have the market experience to be able to put your foot down with credibility. Unfortunately, you do not yet have a comeback to that all-too-common editorial comment, “Look, I know what sells, and you don’t.”
Before taking ANY of the steps I am about to discuss, please go back and read my last three 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. At worst, your passion in defense of your book may come across to your editor or agent as an ultimatum: take my book as is or not at all.
This is not an industry that takes well to ultimata. Most standard publishing and agency contracts are specifically written to make it far from difficult for an editor to dump an uncooperative writer. Even if you are 100% right, engaging in a pitched battle with your editor after the book is often like a Mini Cooper’s contesting the right of way with a Mac truck: legally, the truck may have to yield to the Mini, but if it does not, the Mini is going to be far more damaged than the truck, right?
So do try your utmost not to allow the situation to degenerate into ultimatum-flinging. You may be hopping mad, and thus have to do violence to your emotions in order to take the early non-confrontational steps I advised earlier, but trust me, it’s honestly in your best interest to be as sweet as pie socially while you are raising hell textually.
If you have taken the steps in order, by the time you are ready to proceed to the more serious argumentative steps below, you will have learned enough about your critiquer to be able to avoid his pet peeves in argument. You also will already have taken the minor points off the table, in order to concentrate on the primary issues; Steps 1 — 7 (explained in my last three blogs) will achieve that.
Even if you cannot resolve all of your contested points, you will at least have learned a great deal about WHY the editor wants the changes — and how flexible he is. If he’s a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, or if he is terrified of symbolism, or if he’s a point-of-view Nazi, you’re MUCH better off knowing that early in the editing process. This may not be someone who is accustomed to compromise.
From here on out, I am going to assume that you have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver. It’s time to up the ante.
(7) Make the changes you have already agreed to make — then reassess.
It’s a good idea to wait a few days, deadlines permitting, before implementing any changes you conceded in your earlier discussions. It’s been my experience that my clients tend to feel rather let down if they make the changes right away, as though they had lost the fight entirely. Taking some time to let the intense feelings subside permits you to reassess the text calmly.
Take a look at the remaining contested points: is there any way at all that you could make those changes, now that you have won some of the concessions that you wanted? In other words, are you sure that you want to push this fight to the next level?
(8) Separate the fact-based issues from the opinion-based issues, and demonstrate that you are correct about the facts.
This may seem as though you should have done it at the beginning of the process, but providing someone who regards himself as an authority on a book with evidence that he is flat-out wrong is actually a fairly confrontation step. Few of us like admitting that we are wrong, and occasionally, one does meet an editor or agent who is on, as we say on this coast, his own little power trip. Until you absolutely have to prove your contentions, try not to humiliate your opponent.
If you have done your homework and can back up your claims, the facts should be non-negotiable; be very clear about whether it is the facts your critiquer is contesting or your interpretation of them. If it is the facts, quietly provide photocopies of reputable print sources for your contentions. (Print sources are better than electronic ones in this instance, as the printed word has greater power in the publishing industry than does electronica.)
On questions of grammar, for instance, simply photocopy the page in one of the standard editing guides — you own a copy of Strunk & White, right? — and mail it to your critiquer. Write a nice cover letter, of course, saying, “Hey, after our discussion about this, I thought I should double-check my facts, and…”
Don’t gloat, and don’t negotiate: you are sending this corroboration as a courtesy, not as persuasion. This evidence is merely your way of explaining why you will NOT be making the requested factual changes. Do it politely, and finish your cover letter with an assurance that you’re already working on the OTHER changes he’s requested.
At the end of this step, you should have a list of all of the remaining contested issues that are purely matters of opinion. Again, reassess: are the remaining points worth a fight?
If they are, proceed to steps 9 — 11.
But where are steps 9-11? In tomorrow’s blog — where else?
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini