Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Submission Puzzler

One of the more complicated issues in submitting to publishers is the revise-and-resubmit letter. I've had a couple exchanges recently that raised puzzling questions in my mind, and I thought I'd share them with you.

Many, if not most, of the good submissions I get could be right for us, but only with some work. Generally the disqualifying issue isn't mechanical-- if the manuscript has a lot of grammar and punctuation errors, I return it with a cheery note that I know the writer must want another chance to edit before submitting it, and when she does go through the manuscript again, she should look especially for (most egregious errors 1 and 2).

Fortunately most submitters aren't in that situation, or at least the first reader at my house snares most of them and rejects them before I can even see them. :) But often there's some structural or presentation issue, and, if that is fixed well, the ms will be more in line with what we publish, and I can evaluate it without going with that quick dismissal, "Not right for us, thanks."

Anyway, here are a couple recent exchanges that illuminate the complications of this "between not there and there" position (I'll do the first here, and then another post on the second, because I have a meeting to go to)--

First, I had an interesting submission with a lot of pluses-- clever premise, effective style, and just the right length (which is important right now). But there were some development lapses-- that is, some threads weren't really pulled through, some characterization was inconsistent, some later scenes weren't set up, and the opening was one of those "protagonist and best friend talking about the situation" scenes which can almost always be deleted without pain. Except for the last, each of these revisions required a fair amount of work. That is, if you have in Chapter 9 the revelation of an internal issue, you might need to go back and "seed" that in Chapter 2, and that's more than a matter of sticking in a new paragraph.

Of course, the original revision letter took a lot of time, and then when the revised version came back, I noticed some other aspects that could be deepened or expanded or set up, and in all, I think there were three revisions. A lot of work for both of us. After the second, the submitter asked, and I don't blame her, if this meant I would buy the story once everything had been fixed, as she had never done so much work before contract. I was a tiny bit stung-- I thought we were having fun :)-- and replied with something like, "Well, you get what you pay for." That is, I thought she was getting free editorial advice, and how lucky was that, huh? And whether or not we went to contract, the story would be better for my input. That's what I thought, anyway. She quickly responded that of course she was happy to do the revisions, and she did, and we did go to contract with a story I think will please us both (and will please customers).

This revision-before-contract process was a direct result of a couple experiences where we took a story to contract with a mere promise to revise afterwards-- and then the author had trouble doing the revisions, or was unhappy with the issues raised. I decided that with new-to-me authors, I'd really rather fight that battle beforehand rather than do it after the publisher had already committed money and contract. And if a writer doesn't want to do revisions, or is incapable of doing them, I want to know before I send a contract offer.

(Now this might not apply to authors whose revision history I know already. I'm more likely to go to contract on a promise from an author I've worked with before, and so far that hasn't been a problem.)

Getting the book nearly perfect for us before contract has ended up being the most effective process for me the editor. But let me toss this out for discussion. How does it feel to writers? Consider that you're asked to revise and resubmit, and the revision requests are fairly extensive, and the letter comes with not a promise of a contract, just a promise to take another look. What's your reaction to that? Would you feel differently if you were, say, previously published than if this were your first submission, or if you'd submitted a lot, but hadn't sold yet?

Now let's say you happily do the revision and resubmit, and the editor comes back with even more suggestions. What's your reaction?

At what point (if any) do you demand that the editor fish or cut bait?

Hey! I actually had a similar-- well, not really, but it was illustrative of how dim I can be when it comes to my own business-- experience as a writer! Someone emailed me-- on recommendation from a friend of mine-- asking if I'd consider ghostwriting a book. The money dangled was pretty good, and I can always be bought, you know. Anyway, I said sure, and they wanted credentials, which I sent happily, and then they wanted a sample --published-- of my work, so I sent them a copy of a book, and then they wanted to see how I'd fix a chapter, and so I fixed one of their chapters. And sometime about here I realized-- or they revealed-- that there were THREE OTHER people vying for this job, and dumb me, I hadn't realized I was competing. And I had this flash memory of some guy who had advertised for editorial help, and as an "audition," he sent a chapter of his book to each of 20 applicants. A -different- chapter. After the audition chapters came in, lo and behold, he had the whole book edited, as he'd planned all along. And of course he never hired anyone-- he didn't have to-- though I've always wondered how well all those differently-edited pieces fit together. Editors, like writers, have voices.
So I told the writers about this experience and asked straight out if this is what they were doing. They weren't-- everyone had gotten the same chapter-- and by their lights, they were simply interviewing different applicants for a job and using tests to determine who was best. By my lights, of course, I'd already done a lot of work for nothing, and I said I wasn't going to do anything more, that they had enough information to make a decision. (I guess they did... I never heard from them again.)
Not really the same thing, in that it wasn't a story but my skill and future work that was going to be bought, and so there was never any moment of certainty-- "Here! It's right!" But I know the frustration that came of that back-and-forth. The difference is, of course, I had nothing to show for it-- there was no improved story for me to take elsewhere.

Hmm. That's another question. I assume that my suggestions will improve the story, or at least that the process of working through my suggestions will help the writer learn more about the story or more about writing. And that even if we never go to contract, the writer hasn't wasted her time, and I haven't either-- I didn't get paid for my work if we don't go to contract, but heck, I've built up some karma points by helping, right?

But what if I'm wrong? (The next post will deal with a situation where the writer disagreed with the revision suggestions, btw.) What if after all this, we don't go to contract, and you secretly think-- I do hope you refrain from telling me this :) -- that it was a whole lot better before I mucked with it? Do you think of the time as wasted, as I did with my unsuccessful foray into ghostwriting? Or what?

What do you think is fair here?



Ian said...

I had a revise/resubmit request a couple years ago for one of my manuscripts. I did the revisions and I think it made the novel better. Then I got a request for further, deeper revisions which I felt would transform the story away from what I wanted it to be. In other words, the agent wanted me to remove one of the fundamental aspects from the story, without which would essentially make it meaningless to me. I politely refused. I now have an agent who loves that manuscript how it is, so my advice would be to stick to your guns. If you are asked to make more changes than you're comfortable with, you can refuse.

Steven Levy said...

I think it's fair for the author to ask, "If we do these revisions, is this the kind of book you could take to contract?" It would be frustrating for an author to do multiple revisions of a YA fantasy for an agent or editor only to find that the agent really doesn't want to rep YA fantasy.

Even so, if the agent said, "No, this isn't my kind of book, but I think there's promise and I'm investing a bit of my time trying to help you realize that promise," as an author I'd listen and work from the suggestions.

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. Even if I thought they were the wrong direction for my book, I'd probably spend some time implementing at least one of them. I might hit the big Undo button after a few hours, but maybe I'd be surprised by either the unexpected value of the suggestion or some new direction in which it leads me.

As Ian suggests, I don't have to accept that new direction, but I think there's value in evaluating it, trying it on a bit to see how it feels.

Laura K. Curtis said...

What if after all this, we don't go to contract, and you secretly think-- I do hope you refrain from telling me this :) -- that it was a whole lot better before I mucked with it? Do you think of the time as wasted, as I did with my unsuccessful foray into ghostwriting? Or what?I don't think learning to revise to expectations is a bad thing, even if the expectations aren't quite the ones one first envisioned. But I also can't imagine being willing to revise to the point at which I no longer felt something was true to the original.

I am currently considering hiring a professional editor to look at my latest manuscript because it's in a genre I haven't written in before and I am pretty sure there are some weaknesses. I am hoping to learn from that process so that I don't have to pay someone to help me again with the next book.

So I'd be ecstatic if an editor volunteered the help...even if it didn't lead to contract. 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.

PatriciaW said...

Definitely a puzzler. I guess I believe that if an agent/editor is going to put that much into the project, they'd like to see a return as much as I. So it should be a bit more than taking another look.

As you said, "Editors, like writers, have voices." Your edits might not work for another agent/editor, so I view it as the agent/editor shaping the book into what he feels he can best represent/publish. If that's not strongly the intent, I think that should be clear from onset, giving the writer a more complete vantage point from which to choose to engage or bow out. Still no promises, but clarity around intent.

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?

Todd Newton said...

My take is more like "what a problem to have!"

I'm going to lurk the comments just to see how common this "problem" is for folks. Personally, I don't think I have enough experience to say much else.

HWPetty said...

So, this is completely from the writer's perspective:

We want to sell our books.

Many of us are willing to hop through as many hoops as it takes to get there, but we really have our eyes on the eventual prize... the contract.

The truth is that the editor is not our most sought after audience... the general public is.

It seems to me that if you've gone through one set of revisions, you know the author is willing and able, and you care enough about the story to want to fix it even more--that is the time to sign it.

From the writer's standpoint, I think once the third set of revisions came to me, I'd be asking the same question that the author in the story did. Because at a certain point, I'm tailoring the book to your editorial tastes, not editorial tastes in general, and maybe not even the tastes of my eventual audience.

Is the book better at the end of it?

Probably. But you know as an editor that if I gave my book to three different editors, it would morph into three mostly different animals at the end of the revisions process.

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.

Sarah said...

Good questions!

I feel like I still have lots to learn, so I wouldn't mind a round or two of in-depth revisions. There's great freedom in playing with a copy of your doc. If the revisions don't work, you still have the original. All that to say, I'd be happy for the insight.

However, I think I'd be able to tell fairly soon whether the editor wanted a better, deeper version of my story- or a different story. If I sensed the later rounds. But I'd still be thankful that the first revisions helped.

Adrian McCarthy said...

If the suggestions were designed to make the manuscript better in general, then I think I'd go pretty far (especially since I'm still in the wannabe stage). Even if it didn't work out, I'd have a better book to shop around.

If, on the other hand, the suggestions were to tailor the story specifically to what the house is looking for ("We're not doing vampires anymore, just ogres; can you change your main character and reinvent all the lore surrounding his ancestors?"), then it would depend how extensive the changes were, how much it would transform the story from the one I wanted to tell, and how much it improves my chances of closing a deal.

Edittorrent said...

Foregrounding this-- you know, so I can get a post out of it, and Theresa will owe me a drink. What's that you say, Theresa? That you never heard of that, and if so, I'd owe you more?

Well, it's starting TODAY, this new bargain, and you couldn't possibly catch up TODAY if I make two posts. Ha, ha!

MrsMusic said...

I have never been in the fortunate situation that a professional editor read my manuscript several times. But I have been in situations where I have been asked to work for free to be assessed for a job. This has always been ok for me, as long as the amount was reasonable and I saw that the other side was investing time, too.
When I applied as a copywriter and consultant in an advertising agency some years ago, they asked me to "test work" for one day. It was great for me, because I was very unsure whether this would be the right job for me, and it turned out, it was.
I just recently had to pass a translation and editing test of 2x3 hours, as part of the application procedure. I was a bit grumpy, but well, in recession times you can't be too picky and that procedure is kind of standard. And they were fair: they didn't send me a current text which they needed to have translated anyways, but a real test text. (I have no result yet.)
Btw, every text I wrote as a copywriter was NOT sold until the client was perfectly content. No matter how many revisions it took.

So, to a certain amount, your approach is perfectly ok.
But there are limits. For me these would be:
- more than two revisions (as others have said). After the second revision you really should have a feeling whether you think it could work or not. Or if you are still unsure, take the risk and not leave it completely to the author.
- fundamental changes. As long as you haven't bought my book, I am still God of my book ;-) I certainly would consider all changes very seriously and with the notion that it will serve my novel to the best. But where I get the strong feeling that it won't, that it means a decision to go to a new direction, I would probably not do it without an appropriate commitment of the editor. And you know how profoundly the whole texture of a novel can change if you change one important element!

So I answer with a clear: Yes, it's ok, BUT ;-)
It's indeed a consideration of what I get from you against what it takes me.

Remus Shepherd said...

I had a short story come back from a (famous) publisher, who said they'd like to buy it with some changes. The problem was with the changes they wanted -- it was a science fiction story, with only robots as characters, and they wanted me to add fantasy elements to it to make it more 'slipstream'.

I said that I'd try. I made an attempt. They sent it back and asked me to try again. At that point I gave up, and told them that I could not change this story to their specifications.

I met the editor much later, and asked about that story, and they had forgotten the entire incident. Wish I could have. After that bitter-tasting near brush with publication, I didn't submit anything for four years because I figured the market wanted something other than what I was writing.

Now, if it had been an agent, I think things would have gone differently. An author's contact with a publisher is limited; with an agent, I would have sat down and hashed out what wasn't working and why, and maybe find a better way to fix it. In fact, I'd love a session like that; I get too little feedback about my stuff as it is.

So, my advice? If you suggest modifications, give detailed explanations, and keep a clear route of communication with the author. That can be helpful. Anything less can harm and scare us timid keyboard jockeys back into our caves.

Katherine Hajer said...

This is the first time I've heard about this from the editor's viewpoint instead of the writer's. It's also the first time I've ever heard a happy ending to the story.

What I usually hear goes like this: Editor contacts author, dangles the promise of a contract if the revisions are made. Author cheerfully works through extensive revisions. This repeats a few times. The story is dramatically changed, and the author wonders if they can even recognise it anymore.

That's about when the editor stops responding to calls and e-mails.

Now the author is left with their original MS, a much-changed version of the story that they're not entirely comfortable with claiming as "theirs", and a lot of work that led to a dead end. Sure, they may have learned a lot about revising to spec, but they've also learned to be very suspicious of edits on spec.

I've never been in this situation before. I think so long as the constraints were reasonable, I'd do the edits, but then again I enjoy revising and am used to external input. I can see how people would feel betrayed or suspicious, though.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

Well, the first one is free. The second one is free if it actually works for me. The third... let's talk money. It also depends on how well I like working with the editor and my impression of the value added for their suggestions. I never turn down free stuff; even editorial help.

Genella deGrey said...

Great post, Alicia.

One situation comes to mind for me. I submitted a story and got some very helpful revision suggestions back. However, some of the revisions I wasn't happy with. I think my story was too sexy for them - but not sexy enough to be an erotic romance. I got the impression that she wanted me to un-sex it a bit. I just couldn't do that to my characters, so I thanked her for her time and submitted elsewhere.

Like I said, some of her suggestions were spot on, and I'm totally grateful for our interaction. I'm always happy to have a professional set of eyes peruse my MS - even if it's 3 or 4 times and I get the dreaded "R" at the end. The next time I drop that shiny hook into the water I bet I'll catch that big fish!


Edittorrent said...

Remus, the problem is, the publisher publishes specific types of stories, and maybe you just needed to make sure to submit to a place that didn't want any fantasy.

That is, no publisher is going to change its focus for your story, and so letting you know, "This is what we want this story to be," is actually of benefit to you. It's not taking your story. That still exists. But it's saying that maybe you need to submit elsewhere, somewhere that wants this sort of story. But forgive me-- that's your own responsibility and completely under your control, where you submit. If they're saying, "Do this XYZ, as that's what we want," and it's not right for you or your story, then no hard feelings-- this just isn't the market for this story.

Let it go and find the right market. It's probably out there. But you know, every publisher gets many manuscripts that aren't right for them, and a few that could be right with some changes. You can decide then if you want to make this change. But it's good to know that the story isn't being rejected for quality, that they want to publish it, but... isn't that good? Or have I defined "good" downward? (g)

Edittorrent said...

"Editor contacts author, dangles the promise of a contract if the revisions are made. Author cheerfully works through extensive revisions."

Actually, WRITER contacts editor by submitting the manuscript. No one makes anyone submit anywhere. And I for one don't "dangle" anything, even modifiers. :)

Okay, here's the question:
Would you rather do some revisions and risk "wasting" that time, or get a quick and uninformative rejection without any chance to get a contract at all?

I'm just not sure how to do this that would seem fair. And I've been a writer for a lot longer than I've been an editor, and have done lots of revisions in my time, and gotten lots of rejections, so I do know what it feels like. But I don't think I ever felt like it was a betrayal. I'm sort of surprised, because I can guarantee, no editor would think of it that way. We think dumb things like, "Oh, maybe this will help... let's see!" No one is in this business to make writers miserable, so... so what would you like to have happen? How would you like the editor to respond, if the manuscript isn't right, but could be maybe but we can't know until revisions are done?

Kimber Li said...

Thankfully, I have a few published author mentors.

I think revise-and-resubmit is wonderful. Yes, it's free editing feedback which is priceless to an aspiring author wanting to grow. Otherwise, she'd have to pay a fortune for professional feedback or keep spinning her wheels in the sand getting nowhere in Queryland because all her critique partners are at the same stage of development as writers.

My mentors simply advised me to save a draft of the original since editors and publishers vary on what they like.

Genella deGrey said...

Aside from form rejections - that aren't remotely helpful and do sting some I'll admit - I'm very happy when a publisher takes the time to let me know what needs to be fixed or what more they're looking for.

If no one ever said anything, how would we grow as writers?