For those of you joining us mid-series, I have been writing for the last couple of 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. Again, I sincerely hope that none of you find yourselves in this situation, but it happens to enough writers — especially first-time ones — that anyone currently on an agent hunt or with a book in editorial circulation should be aware of the possibility.
Why? Well, are you familiar with the old truism about a camel’s being a horse put together by a committee?
As I pointed out earlier in this series, a LOT of people are going to have an opportunity to comment upon a book between the time a publishing house acquires it and when it actually comes out. The editor who acquires it, for instance. Her assistants, who will probably read it before the editor does. Other editors on the committee that approves the acquisition. Their bosses. The marketing department. Advance reviewers.
And, increasingly, agents. 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 nit-picky readers, too.
With all of these individuals with widely divergent personal tastes making suggestions on how to make a book more marketable, no wonder authors often become confused — and begin to feel downright embattled.
If this happens to you, take a great deep breath. This is not a situation with which you should be dealing in the heat of anger, which will only render misunderstandings more likely.
And there’s a LOT of room for misunderstanding in any feedback situation — as clever and insightful reader Faustus, MD pointed out yesterday, when first confronted with a list of requested changes, the writer may not necessarily know just how or why the agent or editor is asking for any given revision point.
One reason to go through ALL of the steps we’ve been discussing over the last couple of days is to maximize the probability of any honest-to-goodness misunderstandings coming to light — which I can virtually guarantee you that they will not if the writer storms into a meeting with an agent or editor in a rage.
Hey, let’s take another look at those steps, shall we?
(1) Go through the requested changes one more time, and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.
(1a) Print up the editorial memo or letter from your agent and go through the requested changes one by one, highlighting those that seem reasonable enough to make without further discussion.
(1b) Go back through the revision request document again and highlight the requests about which your considered reaction is merely tepid, rather than raising your blood pressure to dangerous levels.
(2) Go through the manuscript and make every change you highlighted. Right away.
(3) Go through the suggestions you have not yet highlighted and ranked them in order of distastefulness.
(3a) Write down a few specific arguments for and against doing each of the suggestions on the I Don’t Wanna list — text-based arguments, rather than merely the fact that you hate the suggestion in question. Be as specific as you can.
(3b) Go through the I Don’t Wanna list, concentrating particularly on the suggestions that you ranked low in noxiousness and the ones that you have determined would not require major manuscript overhauls. Could you see your way clear to making those changes now?
(3c) Make as many of the changes on the list as you can bear, reserving a couple of particular bugbears for further discussion, if you must.
(4) CALMLY and PROFESSIONALLY, ask your editor or agent for clarification of the contested points, mentioning first that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes.
(5) After politely soliciting this further feedback, reassess.
(6) If suggestions remain that you feel you cannot in good faith implement, THEN prepare to negotiate by selecting the 1-3 points you feel are most important.
A necessary disclaimer before I launch into point 7: Before taking ANY of the further steps I am about to discuss, I would STRONGLY suggest going back and read my last two postings in their entirety, 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. Trust me, you don’t want that.
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 posts) 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?
(7) Present your case for a couple of points — calmly, politely, and in a tone that implies that you are consulting a trusted authority figure for much-appreciated advice.
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 the advice you consider silly. 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.
PROVIDED that you pick only a couple of points to argue. I’m quite serious about this — more, and you’re going to sound as though you’re rejecting the whole shebang out of hand.
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 that you have already made in the text (aren’t you glad now that you took my advice and generated a revision list?), then explain precisely what it is you think you have been asked to alter, and give your reason for believing each will not help the book.
Even if you think the effort is going to kill you, it’s IMPERATIVE that you state our case without making your critiquer seem stupid for having suggesting such a ludicrous thing. Try, for instance, to avoid using words like disembowel, destroy, or decimate; they inflame tempers on both sides of the discussion.
Instead, state your fears about what such a change will do to the integrity of the book.
Let’s say you’ve been asked to remove a strong secondary character, Ellen, because twice in the course of the plot, she makes feminist statements (yes, it happens). When you asked your editor to explain why in Step 4, 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 an extremely non-threatening teenage sister who resembles Natalie Portman in many significant physical respects, in order to make your novel more filmic.
Your original instinct, I’m guessing, might have been to frame your answer rather 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 undeniably emotionally satisfying in the moment, such a response is unlikely to elicit the kind of let’s-work-together vibe conducive to long-term 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. I would welcome any bright ideas you may have for getting around this problem.
BE BRIEF, refrain from invective, and ALWAYS end with a request for advice.
Why that last bit? 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 professional respect.
Unless you already have a well-established working relationship with the agent or editor requesting the changes, 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.
(8) Suggest alternatives.
For each requested change, offer to make a DIFFERENT change that you think will better achieve the goal. If you are presenting your arguments in writing, it would make tremendous sense to incorporate this step with the previous one.
Be practical, and offer your editor a smorgasbord of appetizing choices, so he can feel good about changing his mind. Could a scene that was not cut go instead of the cut one, for instance? Could your book’s argument be made stronger if you simply added another example, instead of deleting a point?
Do be up front about any plot or argumentative problems these changes will cause — and never, ever, EVER suggest any change that you are not willing to make. (Yes, Virginia, writers occasionally do.)
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 the lower rungs of your I Don’t Wanna list. If you make a less detestable change, can you retain a plot element 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?
What you’re trying to do here, of course, is to see 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 Portman-esque teenage daughter who is a candy striper?
(9) Be receptive to — and grateful for — suggestions for resolving the contested issues.
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 absolutely sure to express gratitude for any concessions you do win. This may not seem necessary in the moment, but trust me, your agent or editor will remember it the next time s/he’s warming up to giving you feedback again.
(10) Document your agreement.
If the previous steps involved verbal discussion, it’s a good idea to send an e-mail the next day, recapping what you believe the mutual decisions to have been. It’s not a bad idea to do this even if the back-and-forth was in writing.
That way, you minimize the possibility of — chant it with me now, everybody — misunderstandings about what you have been asked to do.
Keep it brief — you really do not need to present more than a numbered list, accompanied by a preamble about wanting to double-check that you have understood correctly — and again, be as polite as humanly possible. Thank your agent or editor profusely for taking the time to discuss these points.
In the vast majority of cases, following these 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 — sacre bleu! — refuses to negotiate.
So may sleep tonight: rest assured, those cases are exceedingly rare; everyone concerned is ostensibly on the same side here, right?
Keep up the good work!