July 12, 2006

Play It Again, Sam!

A friend recently asked me, “What do I do when I disagree with my editor’s revision requests?”


There are several things you learn pretty quickly when you get into the novel writing business, if you want to STAY in the novel writing business. Let me count the ways (with abject apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning):

1. First, you’ve gotta lose the attitude and the ego-trip you’re on right now because you sold a book, especially when you’re dealing with your editor or agent. (Family and friends are fair game, at least until one of them mops up the floor with your mouth or jams the ten thousandth promo item you’ve been bombarding them with, straight up your–oops, forgive me, I almost forgot this is normally a G-rated blog.)

Agents and editors talk to each other and word will get around fast if you’re dubbed The Author From Hell. You don’t want that baggage following you around, trust me, you don’t, so play nice. You might as well, because they have all the good cards.

2. There are almost always going to be revisions of one kind or another if you have a good editor (or if you’re lucky, often a good agent). Contrary to what your ego has been beating into your head for several months (or maybe years), almost no book written is so perfect that it can’t benefit by having something written differently. A lot of how you handle this depends on your attitude. You can make it fun, and learn a ton from doing it, or you can make it hell for everyone concerned. You get to choose.

3. Most of the time revisions are not up for discussion. These people are giving you money up front (if you’re dealing with a traditional publisher) to give them a publishable book. Once they’ve made that investment, the book is no longer yours. Surprise! It’s theirs! (Another big surprise: It’s theirs even if they didn’t give you money up front but you signed a contract.) If they ask you to revise something, you have to do it or give them back their advance money (or contract) because it’s not really *your* money until their final acceptance of your final product.

The manuscript you originally sold them is usually not going to be your final product no matter how many times you’ve re-written it before they bought it, no matter how many printers you’ve worn out re-printing it, no matter how many reams of paper and containers of toner you’ve used on it, no matter how many friends and family have read it and loved it.

So if they give you money at the git-go, if you have any misconceptions at all that your will is going to prevail over theirs, you’d better not spend a dime of your advance yet, because you may be giving it back. Again, it’s up to you.

4. Revisions can be fun. The truth is, I like doing revisions better than I like inventing the original book. I’ll explain why below. Nah, on second thought, I’ll explain why right now.

Forgot to add this the other day when I first posted. Blame it on a huge gas explosion in my brain. 😉 The really good thing that happens when you have to revise–for instance, changing a whole scene in some way, or adding more scenes for a character you originally felt wasn’t all that important–is that it forces you to accept possibilities that you hadn’t thought of until an editor or agent–who DOES see the possibilities–pointed them out to you. This is the real value of revising your book. The sum of its parts becomes multiplied. Revisions add layers that weren’t there before. That’s the main part I love about revising. You have a second chance to enhance your book.

Also, one of the things you learn is that at the beginning of any association which may generate a fair amount of money for all parties concerned, editors and some agents generally like to have a little input into the process. It makes the book feel a little more like theirs, therefore they have a vested emotional interest in it. Here’s a thought: There’s a world of difference between an editor who loves your book and will go to the ends of the earth to help you promote it, and an editor who grudgingly allows you a few minutes of her time and then lets your book tank because she doesn’t care one way or the other. So the smart thing to do is, let her feel like part of the process. If she wants revisions, give them to her.

And here’s another thing to consider. As someone smarter than I said, this is not rocket science. It’s a book. Face it. It’s just a book. Not your baby, your own flesh and blood that you’re going to hold and nurture for the next eighteen years, going goo goo over it the whole time, so don’t let your attachment to it run away with your common sense. It’s a book. The world’s full of books. If you’re lucky, yours will be among them.

5. Revisions can also be excruciating. Yes they can. You had one concept. They have another. Remember the money they gave you? Guess what. Their idea will prevail.

After my very first mainstream novel sale, I learned that the fast-moving suspense I had submitted was not really what the publisher wanted. What they really wanted was a glitzy lifestyle, a heroine who was working in an industry heretofore dominated entirely by men, and they wanted her to age eleven years throughout the duration of the book. They chose the book I submitted because they could see I was already a strong writer and most of it was fine. They just had a different vision than I had for the last third of the book, that’s all.

Now. The hard part, for some. A lot of authors would go up in smoke at the very idea of compromising the integrity of their heroine and her lifestyle, as well as thousands of other reasons why new authors protest changes requested by the publishing house. And a lot of authors are still unpublished because of that unprofessional attitude. But it’s your choice.

I figured out fast that my editor was a lot smarter than I, and I wanted to change that equation some if I could, so I sat down and learned how to revise a novel that I loved as it was, but which now belonged to someone else. Another surprise: In doing so, I learned how to write a publishable mainstream novel. Imagine that. I learned how to pace from that editor. I learned how to insert scenes, move them around, age a heroine, keep a hot love affair going for eleven years. I can’t begin to tell you what all I learned from revising that novel. It was an education in itself, the same as when I wrote my first romance and had to do revisions there, too. You can’t BUY a writing school like that, and I knew it. So I did it, and I learned.

With each book I’ve written I’ve learned something new. How to avoid that middle of the book sag when you think everything’s going straight down the tube and can’t figure out how to haul it back up. How to pull out emotions much, much deeper than you ever imagined were there. What I mainly learned, though, was (and is) that editors and agents know what sells, while authors don’t. We don’t, not really.

Some write to the market, always a mistake because the market changes so quickly and there you are, left with last year’s flighty chick lit heroine who mainly only thought about her next pair of Manolos, which has changed substantially by now, or maybe last year’s serial killer with first-person murder scenes so ugly that the first time one came out and was successful, there was a big rush by the industry to find more of them, but now, if you watch the big email lists, there’s a backlash against that now, so to sell one, it had better be great. Or maybe last year’s Nascar romance. But that was last year, when they were selling to the publishers and are just beginning to come out now. Next year, when your book comes out, they might not be. Then again, they might. I don’t know and neither do most authors. We’re not the ones looking at the stats day by day, trying to figure out what to look for in a hot new book. That’s a crapshoot, and guess what. The publishers hold the dice.

Some brand new authors write a book, think it’s a masterpiece, and then find out their entire manuscript is riddled with grammatical errors they never spotted, and they didn’t know until someone told them. If they’re lucky, at least one of their rejections will point those kinds of problems out, and they’ll listen and fix them. If not…well, you know.

My point (and, as Ellen DeGeneres says, I do have one), is that people intimately connected with the publishing industry pretty much know what they think will sell to their customers. That’s one reason why the category romance industry has such strict guidelines, in case you were wondering. They know for sure what their readers want, and they’re going to give it to them or else face losing a lot of money. So when category publishers ask for revisions, there’s no compromise. You have to give them what they want.

The same is pretty much true of other publishing houses. They have a pretty good handle on what their customers want, and if you’ve noticed the termination of certain lines or types of book sales recently, it’s because they they see the stats and we don’t. So the same is going to be true of mainstream publishers. They know what they’ve just published and what they already have on board to be published. If you’re lucky and have a great book that needs re-wiring to accomodate their needs, they may ask you to revise, maybe even before they offer a contract. I’ve had that happen. I did the revisions. I sold the book.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who winds up with a contract, it’s a good idea to just go ahead and give them what they want even if you have to rewrite the majority of your book, and you may have to do exactly that to fit into the market they want to hit with your book.

Even if you have to change the personality of your heroine or hero. Even if you have to add new scenes or delete scenes you love, because publishers and agents don’t ask for revisions just for the hell of it. They ask for them in order to make a book that they see great financial potential in more marketable.

So in answer to the original question, “What do I do when I disagree with my editor’s revision requests?” my answer will always be: Do them. Sit there and cry while you do them if you must, but do them.

On a lighter note, Count Babbalallapallozo read my 100 Things page a couple of months ago and found out I always wanted to be a Broadway singing and dancing star, so he’s arranged for a big NY choreographer to spend the weekend with us in NY, teaching me how to sing and dance. It’s obvious, even to the Count, that I need some serious help there. We’ll be heading for New York, staying in a luxury hotel, seeing a couple of shows, dining out at some five star restaurants, and in general having a great time. We would have left sooner, but Beth is working on…yes…revisions, and you know how she is, she wants me here every minute of the time she’s working. Well, somebody’s got to do it.

So ta ta for now, I’m sorry it took so long to get today’s blog up, but you know how it is when you’re…gasp!…Doing…Revisions.

I Love Y’all, and thanks SO much for stopping by. Come back soon, ya hear me?

The Hotclue, who will soon know exactly how to at least do the soft shoe shuffle. Or whatever they call it. Don’t y’all just LOVE the Count for thinking of this?

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6 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. Hots, you’re spot on in the revision thing. There is no such thing as ego when the mortgage comes due.

    I know I’m a writing whore and will obey my editor to the nth degree. I wrote the story I wanted. The publisher and editor loved it. They bought it. I changed it. No sweat, no tears. It’s simply good business and Hots, I intend to be in this business a long time.

    Have a great time in NY. Do a bump and grind for me!

  2. Hey Hotclue,

    Great advice for the newbies (okay, for me). I don’t think I’ve told you how much I enjoy your blog. It’s terrific.

    Tell Beth “hello”, too!

  3. Sloane, I expect you to be in the business for a long, long time. You always did understand that it\’s a business, not just an excuse for a massive ego trip.

    A bump and grind, eh? Ha, I already know all about that. How do you think I snagged The Count?

    Hugs, Hotclue

  4. Hey, Ingrid,

    Glad you liked the blog today. I’m also happy you like to read it once in a while, very happy about that.

    Beth says Hey!

    Come back again, we’ll crack a bottle of Chablis next time.

    Hugs, Hotclue

  5. Amen! To all your good advice, thanks for sharing. I’ve already learned a lot of it – the hard way, of course! (And since I’m going to write as long as I can see the monitor – there’s going to be a lot more bruises…)
    Write on,

  6. Hey, Jackie, we all learn a lot of it the hard way. Just every once in a while I think about something I wish I’d really understood from the git-go, and the blog is the perfect place to put it since this is where everyone seems to head first over here in bethanderson-hotclue.comland. Thanks for stopping by, and come back soon! We’ll heat up a pizza!

    Hugs, Beth







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