In the throes of writing a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, it’s pretty easy to lose sight of your target readership, isn’t it? Although we writers seldom admit it in public, deep down, most of us do like to believe that there are people out there, bless them, who will rush out to buy our books simply because WE have written them, not because they contain information that the reader wants or a style the reader finds appealing. “My God!” our ideal readers cry. “I hadn’t known it, but I have been searching for this authorial voice all of my life!”
One of the cruelest awakenings inherent in the major step of sending your work out to agents for the first time is the cold realization that in fact, there don’t seem to be readers out there clamoring specifically for your particular prose stylings or wryly unusual worldview at the moment. Or if there are, the publishing industry does not seem to have heard their faint cries. How a writer deals with this first significant disappointment — whether she takes it as a challenge to refine her work, her pitch, and her bag of writer’s tools instantly, curls up in a ball and never sends anything out again, or chooses a path somewhere in between — is, although hidden from the world, one of the best indicators of future writing success.
I don’t mean to say that you will be best served by pretending that rejection does not hurt — it does. But hurt can lead to reevaluation, and reevaluation can lead to the breaking of bad habits. Not to mention toughening you up for the sterling moment when your agent tells you that five of the first ten editors who read your book ALMOST bought it, and the rest hated it. The farther along you get in your writing career, the bigger the slap-in-your-face realizations become. (Imagine being the first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize!) The earlier in your journey that you learn to accept rejection as a learning experience, the better off you will be later on.
I preach better than I practice on this point: I am still abjectly furious about the first high-handed editorial change anyone ever made to my work. I was ten years old, and as crossing guard of the year, I had been selected to write and give a thank-you speech at the annual luncheon honoring parent volunteers at my elementary school. (Actually, they’ve never asked the crossing guard of the year to give the speech before or since, so my appointment to this coveted post may well have had more to do with my writing abilities than with my whistle-blowing acumen.) I wrote the speech, a rather florid little piece jam-packed with superlatives, and submitted it to my teacher and the principal for approval. On the day before I was to give it, the manuscript was returned to me, unwisely marked with red pen at the end. If I close my eyes, I can still picture it: my teacher and principal had conspired to change, “We send you much love and many kisses” to “We send you mucho love and kisses.”
Instantly, I set up the time-honored writer’s howl of protest. “It’s stupid!” I cried. “And it isn’t grammatically correct in either English or Spanish!”
My teacher stared at me, puzzled, then had the temerity to pat my shaking hand. “It’s cuter that way, dear,” she assured me. “Everyone will love it.”
This was my first experience with editorial pigheadedness, so I actually said what all of us think when we’re edited badly: “I don’t care if they love it. I’m afraid that they’re going to think that I wrote it wrong!”
For the record, the average fifth-grade teacher does not like to be told that her students have a better grasp of grammar than she does. Even when it’s true. Perhaps even especially when it’s true. I was loudly and harshly overruled, and the bad edit stayed.
My teacher watched me like a lynx in the hours leading up to the speech, muttering threats under her breath as she led me up to the microphone, lest I revert to the pre-edited, grammatically-correct version. And, to give her her due, the adults in the room did burst into loud guffaws when I said the dreaded line in her version. It brought down the house.
When the speech was reproduced, word for word, in my hometown paper, there was the hideous edit, in all of its ungrammatical glory. There, for all the world to see, was the utterly unjust implication that I did not know how to construct a sentence in English. Or Spanish.
I’m not an unforgiving person, but I have never forgiven my teacher for changing it.
I did, however, learn two valuable lessons that have served me well throughout my subsequent writing career. First, when people who are bigger and more powerful than you are decide to be wrong, they can generally get away with it. From schoolhouse to publishing house, I have found this to be consistently true. Second, most of the time, when you make a small mistake, readers do not generally howl down the house or toss the publication straight into the fireplace. As my long-ago ballet teacher was fond of saying, the audience doesn’t know the steps; it’s your style that they notice, not your technical perfection.
The latter may seem like an odd observation to those of you who have spent the last few months reading my repeated exhortations to make your submissions to editors and agents letter-perfect, but it is nonetheless true. The readers who are out there waiting to buy your books are not going to hold a few stray editor-induced lapses against you; everybody knows that the writer doesn’t do the final proofreading on a piece. While it’s always annoying and hurtful to have your words changed before your eyes, chances are, the changes you are being asked to make will not brand the whole work as illiterate, or destroy your hard-won style. Relax a little, and realize that your agent and/or editor are, in schoolyard terms, far bigger than you are.
How I responded to that first editorial jab — with an initial fight, a begrudging acceptance of the inevitable, a workmanlike willingness to make the best of bad advice, and apparently, decades of residual resentment — has been, I must confess, absolutely indicative of how I respond today. I have been able to professionalize my behavior, but in my heart, I am still that irritated ten-year-old whenever I see the swipe of an editorial pen.
Ask me in thirty years what I was asked to change today in my memoir. I’ll probably be able to tell you. But I made the change.
Mucho love and kisses, everyone, and keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini