Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Friday, December 31, 2010

Topic 4: Dealing with Editorial Suggestions

Response 1: David

If an emerging writer sends out enough manuscripts, sooner or later an editor may jot a brief note on the rejection slip. Hopefully, it will be a helpful note even if it’s nothing more than, “Keep trying us,” or “Better,” or “If you rework this for more action, I would read it again.”

Harry Mark Petrakis taught the art of the short story one summer when I attended his workshop at Indiana University in Bloomington. He told us about his early days when he set his sights on getting a story accepted by Atlantic Monthly. He submitted one story after another for years and every one came back without comment. At some point when he was growing discouraged, a brief editorial comment re-energized him and kept him going. I think the comment was, “This one is better,” or maybe it was, “Don’t give up.” Anyway, he went on to publish numerous stories with Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere and loved to recall how much that editor’s note helped him along the way.

But let’s get back to the type of comment that offers specific suggestions. I’m not talking about editorial direction given after a contract is signed. Sandy or I will deal with that scenario later. For now I’m sticking with the kind of free advice that comes back with a rejection. What if the comment you receive suggests that your masterpiece is too long or too short or needs more dialogue or the second chapter needs to be thrown out entirely and a new one written? What if this person you don’t know, sitting at a desk in an office you’ve never visited, offers advice that requires you to rethink your basic premise or essentially rework your entire piece without any assurance that you’ll be accepted when you’ve finished?

Such dilemmas happen. If it hasn’t happened to you already, your turn may be coming. What should you do? How much should you trust this stranger who seems to mean well and takes the time to tell you how to make your script more acceptable, at least to that house? Other authors may respond to this differently, but my rule was always simple. If an editor opens the door the barest crack, go for the light. If you have a real, live person on the other end willing to give you some advice, take it. Not out the window. Not if it’s something you simply find too repugnant to do. Not if it goes against everything you stand for and you would lose sleep over it and feel compromised. Not if standing on pride is more important to you than getting published. I don’t remember ever suffering from any of those objections. I figured it was an opportunity to be published and I had nothing to lose but a few more hours and a few more words.

My position was that I knew more about myself than the editor but the editor knew more about my manuscript’s chances for being published than I did. If you follow the same practice that Sandy and I have suggested in earlier segments of WRITERS AT WORK and keep a list of houses where you’ll send your manuscript if it comes back from its current reading, then you may decide to ignore the helpful editor’s advice long enough to try a few more houses. Or you may choose to jump at the chance to work with the editor before she or he moves on to other projects and becomes too bogged down to get back to you again before your hair turns gray(er).

Remember that not all editors are equal and not all houses look for the same kind of work to publish. Before you agree to give your story a complete overhaul, it will pay to seek a bit more assurance that this editor of yours is fairly serious about the free advice you keep holding in your hand and biting your lip over. But as a general rule, I prefer to have a positive relationship with that person at that desk in that office. Many of my books have developed because of such relationships. I say go for the light.

Sandy, over to you.


Response 2: Sandy

Ah, yes, David, those sometimes thoughtful, often cryptic messages that editors tack onto rejection slips. Those are the rejection slips I save, because those editors have noticed me and I may just want to notice them back.

I talked a bit in our last go-round about how to interpret those comments and suggestions. But that was all about reading between THEIR lines and figuring out what THEY’RE trying to say. There’s also the challenge of reading between my own lines and making sure I know exactly what I’m trying to say. Then I can decide whether those particular comments and suggestions are going to help me clarify what I’ve written, or discover I really should be writing something else (it happens!), or mess up what I want to say entirely.

I realized long ago that a story is only half written when I’ve put it down on paper; the other half is created out of what each reader brings to it from his or her personality, tastes, and life experience. Sometimes what a reader brings, even a highly experienced reader, is not helpful. Sometimes it’s very helpful. I’ve learned that I need to be the judge of that.

True stories that illustrate my point: The first has to do with a YA novel I was writing just about the time the bottom fell out of the YA market. Editors were becoming very cautious and, for the first time in my experience, were insisting that even established authors do considerable revision before a contract could be offered. In fact, the contract often didn’t arrive even after the considerable revision. (Sad to say, though the YA bottom has been in good repair of late, this is a trend that has not gone away.)

My novel centered on a young teenager dealing with an aging dog while also mourning the loss of her mother and adjusting to the changes in her sister and her father. Over time, the manuscript went to several editors. Each saw enough strength in it to offer detailed suggestions and an invitation to resubmit. One liked the mourning strand of the story, but disliked the dog strand. Another wept copious tears over the dog, but didn’t care for the sister and father situations. A third related strongly to the father but not to the sister or the dog...You get the picture. Eager for publication in hard times, I revised. And I revised. And I revised. Until I could no longer remember what the story had meant to me in the first place. Though there was one more “If you revise, I’d like another look” editorial letter, I didn’t have the heart or the will to go on. The manuscript has long been buried in my basement. R.I.P.

The other story makes me smile to this day. It’s about the genesis of Too Many Frogs!, possibly my most successful book ever. As required by contract, my agent submitted the manuscript to the editor who’d done my previous picture book, Stella’s Dancing Days. She liked it. Not enough to offer a contract right off, but she saw room for improvement. I agreed with her suggestions and rewrote accordingly. Yes, she felt it was better, but not quite “there” yet. Still in agreement, I rewrote again. Yes, yes, much improved, but maybe...? Sure, why not, said I, and went at it once again.

The Surprise Ending: Yes, yes, yes, it was improved, and it was good. But it just “wasn’t for her.” Can’t argue with that. So my agent sent the manuscript off to Philomel, where editor Michael Green snapped it up. Some time later, I was in New York City and stopped by his office to say hello. “You know,” he said, “this is the first time I’ve ever received a manuscript that didn’t require any editing or revision.”

I didn’t say a word. Just smiled. Smiling still.

Which brings me to one last word, David, about that list of publishers appropriate to each manuscript. In this era of multiple submissions, it’s tempting to send the story to everyone at once. I say, “Resist that temptation!” One or two or maybe three at a time are enough. That way, if Editor A or B or C writes a really helpful comment on a rejection slip, a comment bound to do your story—and your heart—good, you can use that insight to revise and impress Editor D!

Response 3: David

Hi, Sandy. I liked your closing advice last week about not sending to everyone on our list before we’ve given ourselves a chance to benefit from editorial comments and suggestions that might improve our story and our chances. I don’t know about you, but one way I can tell that I’ve grown more patient and open over the years is that I’m more willing now to think carefully about the pros and cons of advice from an editor (or anyone else for that matter).

One of my writer friends questions the merit of attending writers’ conferences. I think it’s always a good idea to put ourselves in places where we have opportunities to visit with editors and hear more about what they seek in a manuscript. I bet at one time or another we’ve all been guilty of sending a story to an editor who is not in that market. Or an editor who just recently published a similar story. Or an editor who simply doesn’t like animals that talk. Remarks from editors who are basically not interested are likely to be short and to the point, and not necessarily aimed at improving our work.

On the other hand, when I go to New York each year to make appointments with editors with whom I’m working on a project, I always come away with a clearer sense of what is going on in their world. Once I have a contract on a book, things change from general comments to specific ones. At this point I’m even more likely to follow advice when I’m working with my editor-partner. Recently I completed a manuscript, submitted it, and received my editor’s suggestions.

His general comment was filled with enough praise to send me strutting around the house for a few minutes feeling the rush. Then I opened the attachment and took a long look at those specific and inevitable critical suggestions. Why that! Who does he...How? No I can’t do that!...Impossible! Hmmm. This makes me so...Hmmm. Well that makes sense. I’ll be darned. Oh come on! Hmmm. I do like that better. Huh. Oookay, let’s start at the beginning.

Sandy, I don’t know what percentage of the editor’s ideas I eventually adapt into the revised manuscript. It’s a significant number. And not all of the good ideas come from the editor. One time I wrote a poem about a ladybug with a beard and made the crack that I could tell it was no lady bug. The copy editor sweetly reminded me that some women do indeed sport quite a lot of hair and that her hirsute daughter was sometimes teased by the boys. I apologized for my thoughtlessness and insensitivity and wrote a different poem.

I guess the issue of how we respond to suggestions about our work—whether from an editor, a spouse, or writing buddy—boils down to this: Does the suggestion make sense to me? Will I like the work better after making the change? And do I think the quality of the story will benefit?

Back to you to wrap up.

Response 4: Sandy

Editorial suggestions AFTER the contract is signed? Who knew?

We all thought that after “yes” came “and they lived happily ever after.” Right?

Uh...’fraid not.

David, you described that head-spinning response to editorial communication so well—euphoria (She loves it!), disbelief (She wants me to change it?), and slow realization (Well, maybe she does have a point there...or two...or three...).

My personal favorite example is a four-page, single-spaced letter I received from Bebe Willoughby, the editor who worked with me on Just Like Jenny and many other books back in the days when such letters were delivered by snail. I still carry the letter with me to show around at workshops. Just Like Jenny was my third YA novel, but it was Different. Or so I thought. It inspired a bit of an auction among publishers, a head-swelling, once-in-a-lifetime situation that led me to believe the book was already as perfect as perfect could be. The first page of Bebe’s letter confirmed that it was, indeed, pretty darn good. The next three pages (single-spaced, remember) were filled with questions and suggestions for rethinking and revising it.

I went ballistic. “What is wrong with these people? They said they loved the book! They gave me a two-book contract! And now they want me to change the whole thing? That’s crazy! I can’t do it! I won’t do it!”

My agent, the late, great Claire Smith, heard me out and firmly instructed me to calm down, reread my manuscript, and then reread the letter. So I did. And slowly but surely, I came to understand that Bebe wasn’t forcing me to make a wrong manuscript right. She was helping me to make a good manuscript better. As only a totally objective, experienced, knowledgeable reader—not a friend, teacher, spouse, or neighbor, not even a colleague—can do.

So now when editors are busier than ever and not always able to give each and every manuscript their full attention, I worry. I’d rather have an editor call my attention to problems before publication than have a critic or, worse yet, reader catch me out later. I’ve learned to cherish that objective response, not just the opening love letter, but the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, every single-spaced page of it.

That doesn’t mean I follow every directive slavishly, or even willingly and joyfully. I tend to adore the ones that turn on spotlights in my head, illuminating quick and easy fixes that make the story amazingly better. I tend to balk and grow sullen over the ones that show me something’s got to be done but leave me in the dark, trying to figure out exactly what and how all by myself. (Have I mentioned earlier in these chats that I’m basically lazy?)

I’ve also been known to defend my words, politely, against suggestions that make no sense to me at all. If I can make a good enough argument as to why not, the editor will usually accept my preference. An example: In my picture book Stella’s Dancing Days, Stella starts off as a kitten who loves to dance. Time passes, she grows up, gets busy with other things, and dances less. The human beings in her life miss her dancing days. But, I wrote, “Stella did not miss her dancing days.” The editor asked me to revise that sentence so that Stella would miss her dancing days, too, because not missing them sounded harsh. I thought about it, as I do all editorial insights. Finally, I said, “No. First of all, Stella is a cat and cats are not nostalgic about their kittenhoods. They live in the moment. Second of all, Stella represents her young readers, who are not nostalgic about their babyhoods. They won’t find it harsh that Stella doesn’t miss her dancing days. They’ll understand she’s simply far more interested in growing up—just as they are.”

The editor understood. The children understood. And Stella eventually has six kittens—three boys and three girls—who all love to dance.

Speaking of dancing, David, it’s my turn to lead! If you agree, I’ll tackle “The Perils and Joys of Writing in Different Genres” next.

Topic 3: The Reality of Rejection
What I Love about Rejections
by guest Mara Rockliff

Okay, nobody really loves rejections.

But when that storm cloud of rejection drives its icy needles down my neck and soaks my socks, here are the hints of silver lining that I spy:

Rejections are fun!

Okay, not always. But sometimes they can be pretty hilarious, like the time I sent out a picture book story and it was rejected—two and a half years later. (With a form rejection!) Or the agent who turned me down, saying she didn’t think she could sell my manuscript—even though I’d told her I already had an offer on it from a major publisher.

Rejections are educational!

Think of a rejection letter as a free bit of professional advice. Six editors say the same thing? If it’s “the plot is thin,” maybe you should consider working on the plot. Six editors say six different things? No point revising now, unless one of the comments really clicks. Otherwise, keep submitting. Even a form rejection tells you something: that whoever sent it wasn’t interested enough to spend much time. Twenty form rejections is a good hint that your manuscript needs lots of work—or that it should be put aside while you move on to something else.

Rejections are terrific practice—for rejection.

Every aspiring writer dreams of that magic moment when a manuscript is accepted for publication. Break out the bonbons! You’re a real writer now! You’ll never be rejected and ignored again!

Then months go by with no word from your editor. Or years. Or she calls to tell you that the illustrator they were hoping for turned down the project. In fact, every illustrator on the planet has turned down the project. Your editor points out cheerfully that scientists may still discover life—and illustration talent—on Jupiter’s moons.

Your book is published, but no one reviews it. Or it’s reviewed, and the reviewers hate it. Or reviewers love it, but the big chain bookstores decide not to carry it. Or they carry it, but no one buys it, so the books get sent back to the publisher and eventually shredded to a pulp.

Luckily, you’ve learned how to deal with rejection! So you don’t waste time dwelling on these setbacks. You go straight back to your writing desk. After all, the sooner you finish another manuscript, the sooner your mailbox will start filling up again with more fun, educational rejection letters.

Rejections are The Way.

As Lao Tzu pointed out, there can be no light without dark. (I’m pretty sure he said that when the twenty-third editor finally called with an offer on the Tao Te Ching.) And if you eat nothing but ice cream, it loses its taste. So as you choke down those bitter rejections, just think: without them, the good news you’re waiting for could never be so sweet.

Mara Rockliff’s recent titles include Get Real: What Kind of World Are You Buying? (Running Press Teens) and the picture book The Busiest Street in Town (Knopf). Visit her online at www.mararockliff.com.

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