I missed posting yesterday, because I was so busy getting my computer up and running again. Lots of programs to be reinstalled, iTunes to download (again! They change the program fundamentally every 20 minutes or so, apparently), and of course, backed-up documents to re-install. Because I am positively religious about making back-ups, I lost only about 4 days’ worth of work; phew!
And because I haven’t nagged you about it in a week or so: when’s the last time YOU backed up your writing projects?
I have also been letting some editorial feedback sink in: an editor at a publishing house has asked for a second round of revisions, some of which, at least at first glance, appear to contradict the last set of revision requests. Naturally, I’ll make the revisions, but I’ve learned from long experience to let them float around in my consciousness for a while before I head back to the manuscript. Much better to get the inevitable period of post-feedback grumpiness out of one’s system before rolling up the sleeves, I find.
Why is this a good idea? Well, a writer’s first response to critique tends to be emotional, rather than practical. Understandable, certainly, the need to trouble the air with bootless cries of, “Why does no one understand me?” for a day or two, but while in that neighbor-disturbing state, it’s hard to see the manuscript in question as a product to be marketed, rather than one’s baby who has just been attacked on the playground by a great, big, blue-pencil-wielding bully. And one does definitely need to think clearly and strategically in order to turn a manuscript around quickly.
Say, by Epiphany.
Naturally, that’s a bit of an exaggeration: I could probably get away with taking 3 weeks to rearrange the book completely, rather than 2.
Shocked? Don’t be: I really haven’t been kidding all this time about the wait-wait-wait-wait-read-I NEED IT NOW-wait-wait-REVISE THIS AND OVERNIGHT IT! rhythm of the publishing industry. Writers often panic at the wrong points — thinking, for instance, that they have to get requested materials out the door within a week of receiving the request, because that agent or editor is holding his breath, waiting for it.
Just so you know, there is no case on record of an agent being carted off to a hospital due to having turned blue in such a case.
The British comedy team of French & Saunders does a wonderful sketch, a scene between an author and her editor. They’re negotiating when the author needs to produce particular parts of the manuscript (“I could give you the first letter by the end of the year.” “Only a letter?” “Well, it would be a capital letter…”), and the editor is becoming increasingly agitated. At the end of the scene, she confesses that the book in question is their only book on contract, and the staff at her publishing house have absolutely nothing to do until the author turns in the manuscript.
You may laugh, but actually, this isn’t all that far from how many submitting authors think about agencies — or how many agented writers think of publishing houses, for that matter. It’s hard for even very experienced writers not to expect a more or less instantaneous response to their submissions, as if the agent or editor did not have any other projects. But realistically, they do.
This is not to say that it isn’t important that you meet your deadlines, of course, and naturally, you will want to get your requested materials in before you fade completely from living memory. But over the course of my writing and freelance editing careers, I have spoken with thousands of writers in I-must-get-this-out-the-door-now frenzies, and in the vast majority of cases, it’s the writer who has set the stress-inducing deadline — not the agent, not the editor. You may think that you have to revise your entire book in two weeks, because you received a letter asking to see the rest of your manuscript, but the fact is, if you send it in three or six, that’s within the same ballpark, as far as the industry is concerned.
And that’s why, in case you’re wondering, folks in the industry consider a 3+ month response time on a submitted manuscript acceptable. Particularly on novels. Their rationale is that, no matter how talented a writer is, or how marketable a story may be, the average reader is not on tenterhooks, refusing to buy any other novels until that writer’s comes out.
Go ahead, be appalled by this attitude. But you must admit, it does explain a lot about how agents and editors treat aspiring writers.
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 most good writers have when they first start sending their work out to agents is the cold realization that in fact, the agency is not being overrun by editors clamoring specifically for their books’ particular prose stylings or wryly unusual worldviews. Nor are there necessarily already-established market niches for every well-written book.
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. Because the ones who are willing to acknowledge that writing isn’t just self-expression, but also a business, stand a better chance of ultimately being able to tailor their work to an agent or editor’s liking.
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.
Or, to put it in terms of me, me, me, if I hadn’t spent years developing revision, editing, and speed-writing skills, I would just have to throw up my hands right now in despair at meeting me very un-imaginary deadline. I hadn’t trained my kith and kin to respect the value of my work to me enough to expect that I would disappear into a revision frenzy at times like this, even with Christmas so few days away, everyone concerned would be far unhappier at the moment. And if I hadn’t schooled myself in recovering from the shock of critique rapidly, so I could get to work rationally and well, my book would be toast right now.
I did not acquire these skills overnight. In fact, if I’m honest, I have to report that 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 already fairly well-established writing abilities than with my whistle-blowing acumen.) I wrote the speech, a rather florid little number 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!”
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. “It’s cuter that way, dear,” she assured me. “Everyone will love it.”
This was my first experience with editorial obtuseness toward authorial feelings, 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!”
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.
Much to my astonishment, the adults in the room did burst into loud guffaws when I said the dreaded line in her version. It brought down the house. My teacher, mirabile dictu, had been right about what my target market wanted: a little girl in braids, spouting grammatical incorrectness. Who knew?
If you’re reading this, Mrs. Strong, I still think you were wrong. I was more than cute enough to have pulled off correct grammar.
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 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 in my novel today; Iâ€™ll probably be able to tell you. But I will make the changes.
Mucho love and kisses, everyone, and keep up the good work!