Over the past few months, I’ve had conversations with several other authors regarding the freedom of being able to tell their own story without interference from an editor. To clarify, none of the authors were suggesting they didn’t want an editor, but rather they didn’t want to have to significantly change their stories because an editor told them to. It felt to them like the editor was, in the words of Janice Joplin, “Taking a little piece of their heart” and changing their story. Admittedly, quite a few of the discussions were related to self-publishing their own books in one format or another, but I do not want to make this another self-publishing vs. traditional publishing knock down drag out fight. Instead I’d like to focus on a single issue.
How do you feel about an agent/editor requesting major changes to your story that you might not completely agree with?
First of all, let’s start with a basic premise. It is the job of an editor, for sure, and often an agent, to help you make your manuscript the best it can be. We might not feel the same about what they are seeing, but I think we can all concur they are trying to help us put out a better product.
Samantha Van Walraven of Covenant Communications describes it this way:
“As an editor, I feel like I have two hats when I am working on a book: I’m a general reader because I’m looking at the manuscript with fresh eyes the first time I see it, just like anyone else picking it up in the store, and I’m also a director, someone who has experience in the field and can sometimes see mistakes others never could, so it becomes my responsibility to help and guide an author to avoid those mistakes.”
But what constitutes better? Is it just proper grammar and getting rid of typos? Is it making the story flow more smoothly and the plot more believable? What if the change is not focused so much on the storytelling as it is on making the book itself more sellable?
I think we’ve all heard the story of the editor demanding more sex scenes in a book. The knee-jerk reaction we tend to have as LDS authors is, “That’s terrible! How can anyone demand I put something in my book that I am opposed to?” (Not saying that Mormons are opposed to sex per se, but . . . okay, I’m not going there.) Is it wrong to ask for more sex in a book?
Anyone who has published an LDS romance has probably had an editor ask them to cut something out because it might be objectionable to the audience buying the book. And even if you haven’t had that experience, you know that most LDS publishers have a set of rules on what you can and can’t put into a book. If it’s okay for an LDS publisher to say their audience has certain expectations, is it wrong for a national publisher to say the same thing, but with the opposite result?
I think every author has to answer that for themselves. I would never put something into a book that I didn’t feel morally good about. But I absolutely do understand that part of an editor’s job is to create a book that will sell well by resonating with their audience. I’m not advocating we all start throwing sex scenes in our books, but I am saying that if we don’t want to write the kinds of books a publisher is looking for—whether that publisher is a Christian publisher with strict guidelines or a publisher of steamy romances—we probably shouldn’t submit to them.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move onto something a little grayer. Should an agent or editor ask you to make changes to your manuscript purely for the reason that he or she thinks it will make the story more appealing to book buyers, publishers, executive committees, etc? And how should you as the author react to that?
I’ll try to illustrate this with a personal experience. I currently have a project out with my agent. It’s not one that I have talked about publicly at all. This particular project is aimed at younger middle grade readers. It’s kind of a fun series of books that are scary, silly, and fifth grade boy gross at the same time. After I gave my agent the first half of the first book and the full outline for the rest of the book, he came back and asked me to make the ending not quite as dark. Personally, I didn’t think the ending was all that dark. I mean come on, it involves candy corn, shooting chocolate milk (and a worm) out of your nose, and a gross out contest. I also know that kids love scary books.
So what to do? He wasn’t saying that kids wouldn’t like the book. Or even that it didn’t work. He was saying that for this particular project, he wanted the series to feel scary, but “safe scary.” And the reason he was asking for it was because he felt that is what would sell. This is exactly what I have heard other authors complaining about. You want me to change my story because “you” think it will sell better? Is that selling out? Is it giving up my integrity if I make the change? Should I go with an agent or publisher who wouldn’t ask me to make changes because they would sell better?
Again, I can’t make that call for you. Only you as a writer can decide where you draw the line. For me, personally, I hired an agent for two reasons. Yes, I want to make more money, and I hope my agent can help me do that. But even more important, I want a career as a writer. I trust that my agent understands the market well enough to know what publishers—and readers—are looking for. I put my writing life in my agent’s hands, and what he is telling me is that he believes the feel at the end of my story is too dark for the publishers he has in mind. I could have responded in a lot of ways. But at this time in my life, at this point in my writing career, I chose to accept his advice and redo the ending. I am comfortable changing my story idea to match the market he has in mind.
Of course, even then, it’s not always that easy. Let’s say you’ve written your book, the publisher has accepted it, but during the writing process you’ve hit a roadblock. Your editor is requesting a change you are not comfortable making. Kirk Shaw, also of Covenant, has this to say.
“Typically, if an author strongly disagrees with a proposed edit, I’m always fine with finding another way to solve the problem, but if the problem is important enough, I will push for solving the problem—even if the solution to the problem is one of the author’s making (which I prefer, actually).”
Samantha went into even more detail.
“So what happens when I feel like I have run into a plot or character problem as either a general reader or director (or maybe both), but the author doesn’t agree with me? I take it in steps. First, I express my concern to the author and measure their reaction. I put forth a little bit of an argument in my opinion’s favor and see if they can see where I’m coming from. Sometimes I defend by saying that maybe they didn’t notice the mistake because they’re too familiar with the writing. Sometimes I call it an outright mistake because of the rules or formula of the story. If they can see where I’m coming from, then problem solved and we move on. But if they can’t see it and they keep fighting back, I put forth just a little more effort and a little more defense for my stance. And if that second time, they still come back just as strong or stronger, I either back down then or try one last time. I never try more than three times to convince them that I am right.
If by the third time they are still holding strong, I let them have it. They win. I do that because no matter how wrong or dumb I think they are at the time, it’s still their book; it’s still their brainchild—not mine. I’m just the helper in making their idea come to life. They’re the real intelligence behind it. And besides that, as long as it doesn’t go against our policies, I’m okay with leaving something I think is silly or wrong in a book because it’s not my name on the cover; it’s the authors. So if they want their name on whatever mistake I feel is in there, that’s up to them, and I’ve warned them.
More than anything, I feel like I have to respect the author’s opinion as the real owner of the story. I’m just one reader among thousands. Somebody else might be right in line with the author’s thinking, while I’m not, and I don’t want to ruin that for them if I don’t have to. So I will only point out problems that are really, really problems. I’m not the type of editor who asks the author to change the character’s shirt color because I feel strongly that it should be a different color. I point out changes that really impact the story. So if they don’t agree with me, I just have to remember that sometimes editing takes a lot of swallowing my pride and just accepting that I won’t always get what I want—no matter how important I think it is for the book—and it’s the same with authors. As long as we are both willing to budge on some things, it’s okay. We’ll win some, and we’ll lose some—some bigger wins and losses than others—but the important thing is that we ultimately put something out that sells well, no matter how we feel about every word or idea within its pages.”
I really liked that both of these editors are looking for ways to address the issue while also recognizing that they may not have the right answer, at least on the first try. I especially liked Samantha’s comment, it’s still their book; it’s still their brainchild—not mine. The bottom line is that the story is ours. If we are being asked to make a change so big that we feel it ruins the story, sometimes we may have to say no.
Let me counterbalance that though by mentioning a movie I saw a few years back. It was a smaller independent film. Possibly because of budget—or maybe ego—the same person wrote, produced, and directed the film, as well as doing most of the editing. It was a good film. I liked the story. I liked the acting. And yet, I just didn’t like the movie as a whole. It took me a day or two to decide why, but I finally came to the conclusion that the movie felt unbalanced to me. It felt like I was listening to someone recount a movie they had seen. It all had the same voice.
When I buy a DVD of a movie, I almost always watch the extras. I’m intrigued by the guy whose job it is to figure out lighting. Do you realize they actually film different actors with different types of lighting depending on what looks better for their face type? Next time you watch a TV show or a movie, notice how one actor will almost always have full lighting on his face, while another will almost always have one side of his face slightly shadowed. Then there are the deleted scenes. Scenes that made it from the writer to the director, but got chopped in the editing process because they slowed down or sidetracked the story. A great film has professionals doing what they do best, while the other people back off a little.
For me, writing is the same kind of process. I take my hack at it. My beta readers take their shot. My agent steps in. My editor steps in. And when all is said and done, we’ve hopefully created the best product possible. One that will not only sell well, but will be satisfying to the people who read it.
Is it still my story? Of course. It never would have come into being if I hadn’t dreamed it up. But it’s also partially my agent’s story, my editor’s story, and, ultimately, my reader’s story. I put it on paper, but my readers make it come alive. I do give up a little piece of ownership when I let others shape my work, but if that means it’s going to end up better, I’m more than willing to make the sacrifice.
How about you? How do you feel about making major changes to your story? Have you had good or bad experiences with agents or editors? With the growth of e-books, you can have ultimate control on everything from the cover to the language. Does that excite you or scare you?
Jeffrey Savage is the author of eight published books including the Shandra Covington mystery series, The Fourth Nephite series, and the Farworld fantasy series (writing as J Scott Savage.) You can visit his personal blog at www.jscottsavage.com. Or e-mail him at jsavage at jeffreysavage.com. He does school visits, firesides and book clubs.