Editing, or, Do I have spinach in my teeth?

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?

6 Responses to “Editing, or, Do I have spinach in my teeth?”

  1. April 29, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    With all due respect to the gentleman in question, I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that he’s not a writer. 🙂 I think it’s easy for people who don’t write to imagine that stories or novels emerge perfectly-formed from the head of Zeus (er — the author) and that no back-and-forth is required. But as a writer, and an occasional teacher of writing, I’d say that the willingness to submit one’s work to a wise editorial eye (and, before that, likely to the eye of a good smart reader or two) is probably the most important quality there is. A writer who isn’t willing to be edited might be good; or she might be so full of herself that she can’t take constructive criticism. But it’s a rare piece of work that doesn’t benefit from good editorial suggestions.

    Granted, this presumes the existence of good editors. And if your editor were requesting boobs and explosions, you’d be well within your rights to refuse. But on the whole, I think the well-intentioned gentleman may not quite grok the writing process. “It’s writing, Jim, but not as we know it.”

  2. April 29, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    I agree with Rachel here 100%. Every word.

    An author who thinks his/her work is perfect without alteration shouldn’t be published, and an editor who tries to change his/her authors’ writing rather than improve it should be fired. It’s as simple (and as complicated) as that.

  3. 3 rachelaaron
    April 30, 2009 at 12:19 am

    Hahah, I would have said that considering how much my guns misfire, there’s no WAY I want to be stuck to them!!

    My novel would be nothing like what it is if it wasn’t for some majorly kickass editing on several fronts (Lindsay’s edits from when I first submitted to Matt, suggestions from agents who rejected me, suggestions from friends, everything). It’s not even that I was proud or stubborn or anything, I was just blind. Editors are vital to see into my blind spots.

    Also, “It’s writing, Jim, but not as we know it” is now my saying of the day. Thank you, other Rachel!!!

  4. April 30, 2009 at 12:56 am

    If I trust the person whose opinion I’m seeking, then I’ll usually make changes. That goes for writing-group partners as well as editors; after seeing other people’s work and professionalism, that’s usually enough for me to see if I can trust their judgment. If so, I listen — because they’re probably right. I’m far, far too close to my work to judge it clearly in most cases. I usually sit on a novel for several months before editing it precisely so I can do it with a more objective eye. But that’s still no substitute for a genuine other person’s eyeballs and brain.

    I suspect the well-meaning gentleman was falling prey to a common stereotype about writers (right up there with “we’re all alcoholics” and “gorgeous models fall at our feet begging for sex”) and assuming that our literary/artistic vision is “pure” in itself, and should be presented to the reader unsullied by crass commercial considerations. To which I say, bullpucky — no artistic vision is pure if that art is intended to be put before others’ eyes. I suspect even the biggest literary purists subconsciously moderate their work so that it will be better-received by others.

    And — wait, models? What was that about gorgeous models? I’m sorry, what was I saying?

  5. 5 mlronald
    April 30, 2009 at 2:37 am

    Rachel, if stories emerged from my head like Athena from Zeus’, then I’d have a lot more interesting (and splattery) wall decor in my study. As it is, the things that emerge tend to be more like stunted beast-men, who then need some kind of training/cleanup montage before they can be revealed as the demigods they are.

    Actually, now I want to see a training montage for a story idea. Or maybe that’s getting a little too genrebendy — it’s late and I just spent several hours hitting iron, so my brain isn’t all here.

    Jen, that’s an excellent distinction between change and improvement, and I think that’s one of the keys in deciding which criticism to take and which to work around.

    Seeing into the blind spots — that’s exactly it. I get so up to my neck in the story that I can no longer see out, and I need a reliable outside vision to navigate.

    Nora, I think you’ve got the gist of it — there’s a kind of mythos about the one sole vision of an artist

    Besides, my artistic vision is anything but pure. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to artistically visualize those hot models for a bit.

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