I went home to Indiana for a few days recently, flying out and back so quickly that it already feels unreal. I was there for a number of reasons — library talk, awesome alumni visit, showing off the resident organist and saying “I got me a good one!” — so writing wasn’t the main point of the visit. But it did come up several times, in a social context, and one exchange stayed with me. I was talking with several friends of the family, and I mentioned the changes that my agent and my editor had requested, and how many stages the book had gone through to get to its finished state. And one of the gentlemen there patted me on the shoulder and told me that next time they ask for changes, I ought to stick to my guns and say no.
My first thought was well, no, that’s not how it works. And my second thought was hang on, what makes me say that?
In both the short stories that have been closely edited and the novel drafts that went through several rounds, I tend to follow the same process: read the edits, rage and storm and insist that the editor knows nothing about my Art, and then sit down and make the edits anyway. And, in general, I have had very good experiences with editors, even when we’ve had to do the back-and-forth emails at the last minute and during a convention. The stories always turned out better, and that’s what’s most important.
It’s possible that this is all because I’ve been lucky enough to have good editors and no one who torches the manuscript and then insists I add more boobs and explosions. (Boobs and Explosions: the next summer blockbuster.) And it’s entirely possible that I’m still being naive about the whole matter and will, in about ten years’ time, look back at this post and shake my head in disgust.
But overall, I think it’s because at the heart of it, an editor is there to (among other, more taxing jobs) make a writer’s work look good. It’s like having someone on hand to check my outfit before I go on stage and say “okay, your stockings aren’t straight, your bra straps are showing, and if you take more than two steps in those heels you will fall on your face.” I do sometimes feel defensive about it — I can so dress myself! I can so write a good story! Really! — but I’m still very, very glad that someone knows what to look for and how to fix those things.
However, I know that the gentleman who told me to stick to my guns meant well, and so I’m still chewing over what the difference is between what he meant and what I’ve experienced. Is it just a matter of picking one’s battles — hanging on to one or two things that have to remain unchanged, and giving way on the rest? Or does it have to do with the difference between constructive criticism and heckling? Or am I too willing to change a story, thus making it more calculated, less heartfelt? What’s the tipping point between being accommodating with edits and losing the central purpose of the story?
I suspect some of this has to do with how many times I revise a story before it even makes it to the editor, and so I no longer see the words as immutable, perfect things. But I’m not certain about that. Writers, what makes you willing to either change something or hang on to the original? Readers, what do you see as the important things for a writer to stick with?