Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Re comments about revision

Great comments to last thread--- go and read! Here are parts of a few, but they're all important and thoughtful.

Thus I think that as long as the parties are open with each other and the agent is trying to be helpful, an author would be foolish not to seriously consider the suggestions.

I could always go back to the version I had pre-editorial changes, and I'd like to think I'd have learned a good deal through the process.

Pat W
I guess I'm wondering why an agent/editor would put a writer through multiple rounds of revision, only to turn it down. If the writer wasn't doing a good job with the revisions, wouldn't the process have stopped much earlier?

So, while I'm sure you're great at your job, and a real asset to the authors you work with, there does come a time where I think you need to assess if your revisions are tailoring the book to the needs of you and your house. If so, I think it's fair for you to contract the book before those revisions happen. Because another editor might be turned off by what's cut or added at your request.

But, as Laura said, the author can always go back to the original, can't she?

A couple comments makes me realize that what I might consider "free advice", many writers will consider "unasked for interference without a contract."

The downside is, of course, that if I have to send out a contract before it's "right," I'll turn down stories that I think have promise, because I can't gamble on the author being able to reach that potential, and I won't go to contract before I know that. So... I think if Stephen's suggestion is helpful-- be absolutely upfront about what your expectations are.

But I also think the AUTHOR has to be the one to broach this, as it's clear many authors are happy to get free editorial advice whether or not it leads to a contract. (And most editors assume that, I think.) So if we editors have the perhaps silly notion that any feedback is helpful, the writer might say, "I'm happy to do this revision round, but after that (whatever)."

Now the question is, how would editors react to that. I probably would respond (having been through the whole contract/revision refusal situation) that I have no idea if this story will be right until I see all the suggestions enacted, and thanks and good luck placing it elsewhere, and you don't need to worry that I'll send a bill for my advice, because I did offer it freely. :)

That is, if I were a writer who really wanted to sell to this publisher or this editor, or to be represented by this agent, I wouldn't make any ultimatums. But if this was the book of my heart, one I couldn't imagine changing, especially for market reasons, I wouldn't even do one round of revisions, probably. I think I'd even be a bit resentful if the editor suggested I change something about the plot or characters, because if I love it Just Like This, I don't want to hear suggestion for improvement. And I have a book, actually, that I love Just Like This, and I won't change a word, and that could be why it's never sold.

What I'm doing now is asking with the initial rejection letter (and only when I can identify some aspect for improvement that isn't "write better" -- I mean, something useful-- "I have some suggestions on how to improve the (aspect), so let me know if you want that advice."

So I'd only give advice if it is asked for. So far, everyone's asked for it.

I should say there are two basic scenarios where I'd ask for major revisions:

1) There's some big issue that if the writer can fix, then the story will work for me. For example, a lot of writers start with a chapter or a scene which really is disposable-- it adds very little to the story, and maybe even detracts or sends the wrong initial message to the reader, like "this is going to be a book about two girlfriends and their bond," when it's really an action/adventure novel. This is very common, and it's also pretty easily fixable, because the story will go on very well without it, or maybe with just a bit of that first-scene information sprinkled in. In that case, if it's a pretty easy fix, I would suggest that and say that I'd like another look afterwards. And if it comes back, and I think it works, I'll probably offer a contract, and might say that further revisions could be needed, but we can get to that after the contract. The danger is, of course, what if what I think of as a minor revision after the contract-- and I'll be reading the book again (and doing the line edit) after that, and I might then notice other problems... it does happen-- might be a dealbreaker for the writer. And breaking the deal AFTER the contract is a pain for all concerned. But that's never happened yet, though I have had a couple painful post-contract wrangles that made me think, "I don't want to go through this again." :)

2) But just as common is a story that has promise, but needs a lot of work, and I doubt one round will do it. Maybe the writer has a great voice, but the plot is too contrived or over-complicated, or too much of the action is committed by secondary characters, or there's no control of point of view. I know this is going to take real advanced work on the writer's part to fix, and he might not get it perfect the first time-- or maybe ever. If I say, for example, that he's headhopping a lot, and he needs to get control over his POV, well, he might be one of those writers who need only to have this pointed out to them to suddenly grasp POV and make it work. Or he could need a couple manuscripts to practice on before he gets POV right. I don't know. And he might fix the POV, but in doing so, make a character unsympathetic (nothing like internalization to reveal unpleasant personality aspects, huh?). Or he might have terrific deep POV in one scene, and then the rest of the scenes are distant, making for a jarring contrast. So at any point here, I really can't know if the manuscript's going to end up as something I want to contract. And I must remember, I'm employed by my publisher, not by the submitter, and my job is to bring to contract only manuscripts she'll want to publish-- not to reward writers for their hard work with a contract. We can both work very hard on a manuscript and it's still not going to be ready for our contract (though of course, another publisher might be happy with it). So what then?

I just know this-- I can't offer a contract without being sure it's right or shortly to be right. It wouldn't be fair to the publisher, whose reputation, not to mention money, is on the line.

So suggestions? Thoughts? I really wonder if it makes a difference where you are in your career. If you're starting out, maybe it's true, all feedback is welcomed, but maybe later, you are not as eager to take advice because you are more confident? Or more savvy about the market, knowing that what one publisher wants "fixed" (say, Harry Potter), another might want as is?

Now that I think of it, I'm far more likely to trust in the ability of a well-published veteran to do revisions-- and to know what a contract means in terms of revision-- that is, it's not a contract to publish whatever the author wants to send me.

I know I have several times told a submitter that what is needed to make it work for me would change the book too much-- often, by the way, that's what "not right for us" really means, that it's not right for us. There is a difference between "a terrific book that we just can't publish because of subject matter or innovative style or genre considerations," and "a book that might be terrific for us except for these PROBLEMS." And maybe that should be made clearer-- well, actually, I meant to address that in the next post, because often this is a matter of the submission being in the wrong-but-closely-related category, and thus both "fixable" by my estimation while "just right" by the author's estimation. (And we're both right. But not, perhaps, right for each other.)



MrsMusic said...

Well, you already hinted at the solution.
The first case you mentioned is not problematic: you do your one revision round, and then you know how things are.

The second case is the trickier one. But well, just be open. I know authors are vain, I know nobody wants to hear about his flaws, but if I had submitted a manuscript and you'd tell me "I like your voice and I like the story, but there is this POV problem which I consider fundamental. We would be happy to evaluate your manuscript again after you have fixed it"- well, in this case I'd know exactly where I stand. I wouldn't consider this revision as a first round with you, but as one I'd have to go through anyways.

In the other case, if after one or two revisions you are still unsure about me as an author, I would probably come to the conclusion myself, that you and I do not really belong together... no matter whether I have published anything before or not (I, personally, have not)

It's like consultancy. My boss used to say, you have the clients that fit you. I suppose it's the same with authors and editors.

Edittorrent said...

I'm getting the idea that many authors don't want un-"productive" advice (that is, advice that isn't going to come with the product attached-- the contract)?
That's okay with me-- saves time-- but the teacher in me thinks that's sort of a shame.

Let's say you're an author who DOES want advice, who is happy to go 10 rounds and will learn from each, who is (as we comp teachers say) more focused on the process than the product.

How would you go about making that clear, that you want as much feedback as possible?


Jean said...

If you want those comments and feedback, how about a short "line" in your cover letter?

Something like...Thanks for your consideration. Any comments you have would be (totally, seriously, thoroughly) welcomed.

On a more personal note...I'd be grateful for any suggestions that'd improve chances at publication, since that is the goal. However, I'd always remember it's "MY" story and someone else's ideas may not be what I had in mind.

Riley Murphy said...

Holy crap Batman! Just came up for air ( from doing revisions all day) so this is a perfect subject to find on your Blog. Thanks Alicia, for giving the other perspective on the revision ‘process’.

For me? The most important thing that you said is:

I'm employed by my publisher, not by the submitter, and my job is to bring to contract only manuscripts she'll want to publish-- not to reward writers for their hard work with a contract.

As a writer I always remind myself that this is a business. And like all businesses there is a certain level of expectation that comes with hiring a professional ( yeah, you’re a profession - as a writer you are being hired to create a specific project for a particular purpose. There’s form, style, count - just to name a few things, to take into consideration, right?) . Now, speaking strictly of the non- publishing industry - when I land a job at a firm, I don’t go in the next day and say wow, I’m glad that’s over. I go in with the expectation that there’s knowledge to be gained and work that needs to be done to increase productivity or sales or whatever. So, (insert me tapping my lips here) What’s the difference in the mind-set between how a creative professional and a professional view a business? Is it that the professional seems to enter a company empty handed bringing only himself and expertise and the creative professional enters into a publishing contract feeling like they’ve given up something already? All their hard work? Their creative brilliance beautifully typed and agonized over - so somehow they feel they have more say in how it’s all going to work? Probably. But, at the end of the day, both are still BUSINESSES and should be treated as such.

For me, I tell anyone who reads my work, I want to know where the weakness are. Cause let’s face it, you can be stroked all day long on what’s working - but if you don’t understand what’s not - you’ll never grow or improve.

Boy, it was great to find this tonight!:)

em said...

I agree with Jean as far as it's 'MY' story idea but as Murphy says, it's a business. Which makes me wonder. Does the creative element in all this create the huge grey area? I can probably say that better and I'm drawing a blank. I do know that I would like constructive critism, after I've taken the time to send something in. PLEASE!:)

Anonymous said...

Yes it's a business, driven by the creative process of the individuals who work in the industry. That brings a bunch of ego - on both sides of the table. Most editors I know are writers to. They have their own creative thoughts about a story. Is it their desire to get the best story for the purpose of the business or is it their writers ego that gets in the way. This would explain why some stories fall apart during the revision rounds.

Jean said...


I had added something to the effect that "However, this is a business and if I want to be published, sometimes I might need to balance the my story vs revision thing but deleted it.

PatriciaW said...

I don't think it's so much that writers don't want "unproductive" feedback. In fact, I believe most writers would welcome any feedback that will help them to grow and move closer to their goals.

As others have pointed out, I think its about expectation setting. Writers understand that different agents/editors want different things, and they're willing to do the work that either moves this particular relationship forward (contract) or moves their writing as a whole forward. Unfortunately, most writers will believe that each round of revision is moving them closer to contract. Not getting one will result in disappointment at best.

It's hard for a writer to know what to do. General stuff like holes in the plot or POV, a writer can get and will want to fix. But, wholesale changes that shift the tone or focus of the story might work for you but not for another agent/editor to whom the writer tries to submit after not contracting with you.

To be fair, it would help the writer to know whether you intend to move his relationship with you forward (contract), or are just trying to help overall. If your interest in contracting is not strong enough to do so, but strong enough to give feedback, the writer is a bit in limbo. Perhaps he could better spend his time working with an agent or editor who has a stronger desire to work with him. On the otherhand, perhaps he'll miss out by not doing the work you suggest.

I get that you need to be sure, especially with new writers. So your expectation setting has to be adjusted so that there is clarity about what might happen (or not) and why.

What's a writer to do?

PatriciaW said...

Sorry that was so long, but I hear writers moan so much about agents/editors (and vice versa). I think it's all about good communication and expectation setting.

Unknown said...

I think there are some really brilliant points here! Professional vs 'creative' professional, I never thought about it like that before and this may be true. When you create something its close to your heart and emotions so its hard to rememeber to be professional when someone is telling you that it isn't good enough. This is where expectations come in to play. If you expect to have to work harder, even after you go to contract, (Murph, I liked your example of going into a company with certain expectations and this should be no different) then I think the agent/editor/author relationship will be better prepared to have a meeting of the minds over content.

Always a pleasure to read this one.
And Em, I told you she couldn't stay away;).

Julie Harrington said...

Bwha! You too Murphy? I feel like I've fallen off the planet while doing my revisions. *G*

I haven't had a chance to really dig into this topic (as timely as it is) but it struck me the other night at 2 am... How would the publisher feel if - after three or four or five rounds of revisions and helping a non-contracted author -- that they pulled said revised MS from your consideration and after all that help and sold it to someone else by using all the revisions and help you gave them?

I don't know why that question popped into my head. I guess I was curious about the "from the other side of the fence" scenario.

...okay, that question actually made sense at 2 am. Hm.


Edittorrent said...

JT, I'm sure that's happened, as a matter of fact! I don't think I'd care all that much. It seems such a waste of emotion to take these things personally. Usually (not always-- there are self-destructive types) writers are doing what they think is best for their careers, and who am I to tell them they're wrong? Until we have a signed contract, I figure neither of us have a lot of obligation to each other. Be polite and do what seems right, and what else can we expect?

When I make suggestions to improve a manuscript, that's what I'm doing. The author isn't under any obligation, anymore than I am. We have to be sensible about this situation. It's free advice. Take it or don't, but when I offer it, it's a gift. (That means you shouldn't go off fuming that I had the temerity to suggest changing anything.:) If you want to take the corsage and go off and dance with someone else, that's okay.

You can, of course, acknowledge my help in the acknowledgments in your book. :)

Julie Harrington said...

LOL Alicia! :) Thanks! I was just curious, and that makes sense to me.


Riley Murphy said...

Hahaha, Alicia! Can I use the corsage line?

And JT: Yup...I um, just handed mine in and I can tell you that I haven't stayed up burning the midnight oil this consistantly since I was in college. Well, now that I think about it, I was burning something else back then...those were the days (Insert a huge sigh here).

But JT, seriously, the best of luck with your revisions:).

Edittorrent said...

Yes, the corsage line.

But I do expect to be acknowledged. :)

Riley Murphy said...

You got it!:)