I've written about some of this before, but it bears repeating. And it especially bears repeating right now, just as I work on the final stages of another novel, standing on the threshold of one of the most difficult times of a writer’s life: The sending-stuff-out part. When we put our messages in bottles and cast them out to sea, hoping someone will find them—and not simply toss them back.
This post is about writers and editors and the relationship between them. It is about two editors in particular, and three novels, and about that nearly impossible task of figuring out what advice to listen to and what to disregard.
Many years ago, I sent my very first novel to an editor. I already had an agent who liked it—who loved it, in fact, enough to pay to have it edited.
The editor I sent it to was experienced and came well recommended. But, when I got her response to my work, my first thought was, huh? It wasn’t that she didn’t like the novel—she did like many aspects of it. It wasn’t that there was a lot she wanted me to change—that’s what editors do, after all. What made me flinch was what she wanted me to change. It seemed to me was what was unique about my novel—what was fresh and different and experimental—had to go. It felt as though what had made my novel my novel was to be cut away. As if I had to drain the life out of it.
You might wonder why I went along with all this. Why would I humbly hack away at the work I had labored on for six years on the advice of a single editor? But I had a strong feeling about the importance of editors—I still do—and it seemed to me that a sure sign of the wannabe who’ll never make it is the tendency to ignore advice. I wanted my book to be published, and I had put it in this editor’s hands. So I did, literally, everything she suggested, even under the sinking feeling that what I had left was no longer my work.
When my agent read the new, edited version of my novel, she decided she didn’t want it after all. No one wanted it, in fact, and why would they? It had become pallid and ordinary and hollow. And there it sits, today, on a collection of floppy disks somewhere in my attic.
You know the old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”? Well, shame on me. Fast forward several years, and you have me completing novel # 2. This one had already been read by three writing teachers who were also successful fiction writers—and it had been through many revisions. It wasn’t quite where it needed to be yet, but it was almost. And who should I hear from out of the blue? My old editor, looking for work.
Why, you ask, would I hire her? I have no answer. Perhaps, like the woman who returns to the abusive lover, I was operating under some subliminal desire to fail. Or perhaps there was something about her sudden reappearance in my life just as I was finishing another novel that made me feel like our collaboration was fated. Whatever the reason, I sent my novel off to her, with the instruction that it didn’t need close editing, that all I wanted was a little advice on plotting and pace. She gave me an estimate and went to work.
Weeks later, I received the manuscript back in the mail, along with a bill for nearly twice her estimate, an elaborate and pointless collection of line edits none of which made a whit of sense to me, and a twenty-page critique that began, “Although there is much of merit in your novel . . .” Those were the only positive words she had for my novel—a novel that had already received some glowing praise from three highly skilled writers.
So, let’s put this together: I ruined a novel by listening to an editor who didn’t understand or respect my work then sent a second novel to the same editor, who overcharged me, paid no attention to my instructions, and offered only crippling criticism. That, finally, is where it ended. I had no intention of making the changes the editor suggested on my second novel and threw her entire 20-page critique into the trash.
And why am I writing about this now? Because last month, I sent my third novel to an editor—no, not the same one—and I just got it back. And how utterly different it was reading this editor’s comments! Instead of feeling like she wanted me to drain away what was unique in my novel, she gave me suggestions for bolstering its distinctiveness.
Instead of trying to change my work into something she thought it should be, she caught real weaknesses that prevented it from being all I wanted to make it. Instead of reading her critique with anxiety and confusion, I found myself growing excited and energized as I saw new ways of shaping my work to make it sharper, cleaner, and more focused.
This is what an editor should do: Not try to change your vision or overlay hers (or his) on top of it, but pull the curtain back on your work, shine a clear light on it. When you work with an editor, you shouldn’t feel like your work is losing the special qualities that makes it your work. You should feel like your editor is bringing you close to the vital core that makes your work unique.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...