Business Musings: Writing by Committee
I had a shudder moment yesterday. While researching something else, I read a New York Times interview on leadership with Gina Centrello, president and publisher of Random House Publishing Group. (No, she’s not the head of Random House. Just a section of it.)
She mentions the importance of teamwork in the publishing industry. She’s running a huge section of a major company. Of course there needs to be a team, and of course, the team needs to work toward a common goal.
In the article, she says some of the right things about writers, like:
Authors are fascinating people, and as a publisher, your job is to make their work public
Okay, that’s simplistic, but this is an interview, and one thing about interviews is that the interview’s subject has to simplify major concepts to be clear.
But the article bothered me, not from a business perspective, or even from what’s on the page. Just based on some things bestselling writers have told me about working for Random Penguin. This paragraph bothered me in particular:
Our group is composed of a ton of stars, but they’re part of this bigger galaxy. If you want to be a solo artist, you’re probably not going to be happy in our group. If anyone doesn’t succeed here, that’s usually why.
Again, she’s talking about working inside the publishing company. When you’re dealing with that many employees and a division as large as the one she manages, having an outlier employee might be a problem. (It might also be a boon, but that’s another article.)
However, that line: If you want to be a solo artist, you’re probably not going to be happy… kept reverberating for me. Because novelists are by definition solo artists.
One of my favorite writers, who has been with Penguin Putnam for much of her career (and through many of its different corporate identities) has become such a boring and predictable storyteller that I have finally (finally!) decided to stop buying her books altogether. Realize that she’s been a major influence on my work, and I’ve read her work since the 1980s, and introduced her work to reader after reader.
For the last three years, I’d reach the middle of her latest book and be bored out of my skull. Her writing is good. Her pacing is all right. Her characters are interesting. Her plots have become so predictable that I know what’s going to happen almost from page one. (This last book, the surprise? A character supposed to be dead was still alive, which I knew from the moment his death was introduced on page 10 or so. [sigh])
I’ve had that happen with a lot of books lately. And I’m not the only reader who has had this experience. I’ve spoken to several readers who express great dissatisfaction with the books they’ve been reading the last few years. I just got a fan letter from a reader who says that she’s finding most of the books she reads lately to be predictable. (Fortunately, mine wasn’t one of them, which is what inspired her to write the letter.)
I do read bestsellers—generally, though, I started reading these writers before they became bestsellers—and many of their latest works have become frighteningly predictable.
Some are predictable in the way that writers become predictable once you’ve read a lot of their work. I was the annoying twelve-year-old who read every one of Agatha Christie’s mysteries (in a month) until I saw the pattern: the killer was always the person with the little or no motivation to commit the murder. Murder on the Orient Express was the one that made me quit because… SPOILER…
I had this thought as I read, “No one has a motive. She wouldn’t have all of them do it, would she?”
Turns out I was right.
END SPOILER (although, really, if you don’t know this one by now, you’re clearly not a mystery reader or a movie fan).
All writers have patterns, and sometimes, if you binge-read, you learn what those patterns are.
Those patterns are unique to the writer, so if you only read a few of the writer’s works, you’ll never see the pattern at all.
The patterns that have been kicking me out of so many bestsellers these days aren’t unique to the writers. The patterns aren’t even unique.
They’re storytelling patterns—familiar ones. The kind that tell me if the writer does A, then B will follow. A writer’s job isn’t to move from A to B. It’s to move from A to M, then back to E, and maybe all the way to Z before ending with L.
A lot of these authors specifically thank their “team” for help with the writing experience. Most writers have trusted readers, usually unfamiliar names to the rest of us. These unfamiliar names are friends and family, people who may not be in publishing at all.
But the writers I’m mentioning? They thank their publishing team for the help with the storytelling.
Since I started the blog on publishing six years ago, a lot of #1 New York Times bestsellers contacted me privately to talk with me about indie publishing. Many of these bestsellers had “retired” and all of them, to a person, mentioned the lack of respect at their Big 5 publishing house.
It seemed to these writers that the Big 5 publishing team thought they knew what sold better than the writer did. As one romance writer said to me, “Maybe they do know what sells well. But I became a bestseller without their help, and they have nothing to add creatively. They just want me to dumb things down.”
That romance writer retired, left her publisher, and now has left retirement to publish on her own. Her fans are happy, and so is she.
Another New York Times bestseller, who is still with a Big 5 publisher, told me that the publisher had demanded that the writer revise the ending to the writer’s most recent book. The ending the publisher wanted? The writer says the ending was a rescue of a strong heroine by stronger men. (The publisher is female, by the way.)
The writer, who values her strong heroine, refused to make the change, and upset the publisher in doing so. The writer is trying to decide whether or not to stay when the current contract ends.
A bestselling mystery writer told me that his treatment the last several years with his Big 5 publisher was so disheartening he thought he’d never write again. Again, he was told he didn’t know what sold and that he had to write the way that the company told him to, so that he could sell his books. Like the romance writer, he got angry. He’d sold a lot of books before these editor/publishers had even had a career in publishing.
So, rather than deal with that, he retired.
But he couldn’t stop writing. Also like the romance writer, he revived his career and his passion for writing by self-publishing.
I’ve run into this in the last few years as well, with my hybrid career, and rather than deal with these people who believe that novel writing is a committee activity, I’ve bought my way out of contracts and refused to work with those companies again.
Initially, I had thought this unique to the editors involved. The more letters I get (and those three are representative of the dozens I’ve received), the more I realize that the Big 5 traditional publishers have moved to this model across the board.
Do I blame them? Not really. Corporate publishing has changed the game. With the emphasis on quarterly profits, the decline in a real sales staff, and the lack of institutional memory (due to so many in-house layoffs), the folks who work in traditional publishing are trying to make a fast buck by selling sure-thing products.
The problem here isn’t just with the publishers. It’s also with the writers who acquiesce. I know how seductive it is to have someone tell you what to do with your writing.
Even strong personalities, like the writer whose work I just quit reading forever and ever, can be seduced with the right language.
Your fans expect you to have a strong romance
Your fans won’t like a graphic murder scene
Your fans read your work for comfort; this book isn’t comforting
And so on.
Writers in these situations will often say that they and their agent are partners or that they and their editor will hone the book into the best book it can be.
But they’re wrong. And that’s why the books are starting to sound the same. The suggestion that the writer who is still with the Big 5 company received from her publisher was so trite as to be the kind of cliché that movie-goers make fun of.
Big 5 publishers are patterning their business on the Hollywood model in a variety of ways. They want blockbusters, so they’re demanding that their writers produce blockbusters according to formula, even in original work. (Tie-ins are another matter; the writer is under contract to produce formula.)
In the last five years, I’ve told several editors that I had many job offers in Hollywood and I always turned them down because I did not want to write by committee. It would piss off the editor who thought she knew better than I did, but I didn’t care.
I’m a fiction writer, not a screenwriter, because I want to control my own vision.
That’s a tough road to walk in traditional publishing, and getting tougher as each day goes on. If traditional publishing were the only game in town, then I would probably be choosing to retire from writing novels as well. I’d go back to nonfiction or write only short fiction.
But the world has changed. I don’t need to go to a Big 5 publisher to get my books into bookstores or into the hands of readers all over the world. I’m selling more books and having more success than I ever did through a Big 5 publisher.
Many writers with long-term careers in traditional publishing don’t know any of that. They hear the myths, think indie publishing is too hard or too time consuming or still has the stigma that self-publishing used to have. I spoke to several unpublished writers with that attitude just this past weekend.
Last month, I spoke to a long-time bestseller who told me (like so many other bestsellers) that he doesn’t have time to deal with business or publishing his own work. He doesn’t deal with business now—his agent and his business manager do, so he can just write books.
I found myself wondering how much money his assistants helped themselves to over the years. But I’m too polite to ask questions like that in public. Usually I don’t say a lot to people when they tell me in person that they’re too busy as writers to handle things like finances. Sometimes I can’t shut up, though, as in the case last year of a writer who told me how much she adored the agency that represents her. It’s one of two that I caught embezzling from me.
I gently told her to pay attention to the accounting and to make sure that all payments she receives are split at the publisher—85% to her and 15% to the agency.
Honestly, though, the reason I’m writing about this topic now, even though I’ve known about the fingers-in-the-pie aspect of traditional publishing for years now, is because the biggest shock I had at the writers conference I attended last weekend was how many unpublished writers felt they needed “an editor” before they submitted their work to any publishing house at all.
And if those writers wanted to indie-publish, well, then they all wanted to know how to get an editor to look at their work before it hit print.
Most of these writers didn’t want a copy editor to check their spelling and punctuation. They wanted what they were called a “developmental” editor, someone to tell them if the entire manuscript worked.
I’ve gotten this in e-mail and some recent comments on older blog posts as well. Apparently if you bill yourself as a “developmental” editor, you’ll make a fortune.
Most of these writers wanted one, even though they didn’t know exactly what it was. And—here’s the kicker—they wanted one they could afford.
Not someone who had real credentials. Not someone who also wrote books.
I know a number of good editors who can help writers with special projects. These editors do occasionally work with content, mostly seeing if the book is paced correctly or if it’s consistent—or something as simple as what genre the book is in (because most writers don’t know).
All of the good editors that I’ve recommended are also good writers. If someone wants his book to hit the New York Times bestseller list, then the number of good editors I know dwindles to those I can count on one hand.
Very few editors I know have also hit the Times list with their own books. Most writers who’ve hit the Times list are still busy writing books of their own, and don’t have time to help writers, except in a structured setting like a class.
I get asked a lot if I’ll edit someone’s novel for them and, after shivering for a few minutes, I say a polite no. Life is too damn short.
What most writers need is to believe in their own work. The writers need to finish a first draft, spellcheck it, and hand it to a trusted first reader who is not a writer.
Let me repeat that. The last thing you want is a writer as your first reader.
A writer will critique. A reader will tell you if the book is a good read or not.
Will the reader be able to tell you how to fix the book? Hell, no. That’s not a reader’s job.
Generally, if the book fails, especially in areas like pacing, then the best thing the writer can do is start over. From scratch. Without looking at the previous manuscript.
Because we’re storytellers, not writers. A manuscript is the coded tool that we use to tell stories across great distances.
Think of it this way: comedians are professional storytellers. When was the last time you heard a professional comedian stop and say, “Dang, I screwed up that punch line. I’d better fix it”?
What the comedian does is practice in front of an audience. When a joke doesn’t work, the comedian tries to figure out if it’s the audience (a bunch of drunks who didn’t laugh at anything), the delivery (too fast, too slow, not enough build-up), or the joke itself. If the problem is in the delivery, the comedian doesn’t tell the same joke in the same way, with different words. The comedian works on everything from pacing to detail, telling the joke differently each time.
Musicians do the same thing. They don’t stop and repair a missed note. They continue with the entire performance. In fact, when you watch programs like The Voice in which professional musicians mentor newer musicians, the professionals often work to “get the perfect out” of the other singers.
Perfection is the death of entertainment, just like predictability is.
Once an audience figures out what’s coming next—what’s always coming next—the audience moves to other things. It’s a bad night for a comedian when the audience can say the punch line with the comedian. Humor works on surprise, just like good storytelling does.
That’s why writing by committee is so deadly to good storytelling. Some committees do work well together—a very creative writers’ room in a television series, for example—but most do not.
And no committee composed of business types can help on the creative end. That’s why the suggestions coming from the suits are usually mediocre and why suggestions based on an assumed fan/audience expectation are bad.
Audiences expect to be entertained, but the entertainment should be unique to the entertainer. That’s you, writers. I know it’s scary, but the best writers work without a net.
Many, many, many bestselling authors tell the sales force or the publisher/president to take a flying leap when the suits make suggestions that put the suits directly inside the creative process. Many of the bestsellers who “retired” did so because they didn’t want to deal with that ridiculous attitude any longer, and those bestsellers retired before indie publishing became an option.
Once it became an option, these writers embraced it. Their sales are at the same level (or better) than they were when the writers were with their traditional publishers, and the writers are making a lot more money.
Plus they have control of the work, the covers, the promotion, everything.
If you talk to writers who were traditionally published and left because of the fingers trying to reach into a personal pie, you’ll hear about joy in writing again.
At the same time, beginning writers seem to want someone to tell them what to do. It’s sad. These writers are coming into the business in a time of unlimited artistic freedom, and they spend all of their effort looking for boxes to squeeze themselves into.
Worse, they’re looking to hire someone else to make sure they stay inside those boxes.
There are a lot of editors on the internet now whose only credentials are that they edited for a bunch of writers. These “editors” have never written a book. Most of them haven’t worked in publishing either. They have no credentials at all, yet they claim they can make your book a bestseller.
These folks charge thousands of dollars to tear your manuscript apart. It’s the new scam, folks, and writers aren’t just falling for it—they’re actively seeking it out.
Here’s what you need to succeed as a writer.
You need a work ethic. You need to work as hard at your writing as you work at your day job, maybe harder (since many of you skate through your day jobs). Last weekend, when I told a panel full of writers that they had to put in at least 15 hours per week on their writing, many of them looked at me in horror. I didn’t pull that number out of my ass. I did the math for them on how many hours it would take for them to write a short story per week.
You need to practice. Every new story should be practice for a new technique. If a story fails, you don’t tweak that story. You throw out the manuscript and try again. Like comedians do, in front of a different audience, trying to tell the story in a new way. Practice, practice, practice.
You need to get paid for your practice sessions. Stand-up comedians and musicians get paid to practice. Every single session they perform in front of an audience is practice, and they get paid per session. So mail your stories and books, or put them up indie. Don’t put them in a drawer.
You need to finish what you write and put it out into the world. I think that’s clear in and of itself.
You need to keep writing new material all the time. Also clear.
You need to keep learning your craft. Read for enjoyment, take classes, practice, steal techniques. Always learn.
You need a trusted first reader who is not a writer. Just a reader. Someone who can be honest with you, and who tells you simply this: Did they like the story? Did they find it compelling? Would they have read to the end if they encountered it in an anthology or bought it off a store rack?
You need a copy editor. Not to teach you grammar. You better learn grammar and spelling and punctuation. You have to know the rules to break them. But we all have words we consistently misspell, and we sometimes skip entire paragraphs and we lose track of tiny details like whether or not the cat is in the room through the entire scene. Copy editors flag those things.
You need self-confidence—or you need to fake it well. You need to tell people who want to mess with your vision to take a flying fuck. You should probably tell them that politely, because they’re usually just trying to do their job or they might have your best interest in mind. (Generally, in traditional publishing, they have their own best interest in mind—as well as those quarterly profits.) You have to be willing to walk away from something that doesn’t work for you or wants to remake you into an artist that you do not want to be.
And that’s it. You really don’t need a “team” to tell you what your fans want. Your fans will tell you that directly—and even then, you shouldn’t write for them. You should write for you.
You are that solo artist that Gina Centrello doesn’t want to hire to work inside her publishing house. You are an individual, and your writing should reflect that.
If you’re changing your work because someone else tells you to—even if you hired that someone to “help” you “edit” your book—then you are losing your vision.
Novelists and short story writers should never write by committee. Write what you love, write what you’re passionate about, write whatever pleases you and gives you joy.
You don’t need traditional publishing any more. You don’t need to bend just because someone with a large check tells you to. You can have a career doing what you want to do—if you’re willing to put in the work, and if you’re willing to defend your vision.
Sounds simple, right?
But it’s not. It’s counterintuitive. Yes, there’s no “I” in team. But there’s no “team” in fiction writing. Kick the committee out of your office. Write your own stories. Take that risk.
Now, go. Write a lot. And have fun.
“Business Musings: Writing by Committee,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Kris, I remember posing a question about “what is a developmental editor?” in an e-mail some months ago. Thank you for developing this issue for us all! Meanwhile I found that an old beta reader friend of mine is a starving student, finishing her MFA in fiction writing (didn’t know it existed), so I have a copy editor I can afford. I just hope her mentors didn’t kill her instincts 🙂
Great post. Thank your for continually reminding us to tell people to go take a flying fuck. Seriously, aside from context, the exhortation to “own my work” has made a huge difference to me and has positively translated into my work ethic as well. You two rock.
One of the most important things I ever learned was in Orson Card’s weeklong boot camp where we “workshopped” stories by doing zero workshopping. No critiques. Instead, he asked us to simply provide a report of what he called the three grunts–where it was boring, unclear, or didn’t ring true.
We were to provide a report of our reader reaction. NOTHING more. We were to report our “symptoms.” The writer’s job was to diagnose if it was an issue and prescribe a remedy, if any.
Doing that with 19 stories over three days was amazing. It totally opened up what story was about. And taught me what beta reading was all about. One of the most insightful things I’ve ever done.
Nowadays when I read, I try my best to simply report. And that’s it. If, afterwards, the writer wants to brainstorm ideas together, that’s fine. But I don’t ever want to diagnose and prescribe because there have been too many books that didn’t work for me that delighted tons of readers. My critique or advice would have been exactly the wrong thing.
All I can do is report my reaction. And then think about what would have fixed it for me.
That’s how Dean & I run workshops as well.
And the one novel workshop I was able to attend was a great help, btw 🙂
Damn,you are awesome. All I can say is Amen Sistah!
This is timely, as it meshes with some things which were said by a New York senior editor at a convention I was at this weekend. She strongly stressed the committee aspect and dropped another morsel I’ve been contemplating ever since…this particular house has a process they consider to be “cutting edge.” They have an editorial committee that meets twice a month to come up with concepts. Once the concept is developed, they hire a writer to create the story. Oh, and this is their “innovative,” “experimental,” ebook line. She gave examples of concept-heavy, gimmicky stuff.
She also said that the editors have to all agree on a book before they buy it–committee purchasing decisions.
Oh, my. Thanks for reporting this, Joyce. Oh, dear.
I know of an agent who gets calls from editors when they want a specific story, and the agent finds the right writer for the story the editor wants. It didn’t set well with me when I heard the agent talking about it. It’s also a point of pride at this agency.
Thank you for an interesting article on so many points, Kristine. I do have to respectfully disagree with the use of a developmental editor though. For years I languished with a RS novel that finaled or won prestigious contests, got me a very talented agent, and every beta reader gushed over. (Indie and digital were not options back then.)
NY rejected it, as well as the full rewrite. Beta readers, CPs and my agent could not tell me what was ‘wrong.’ In frustration (4 full rewrites later, 4 completely different killers and plots) I sent the story to a best-selling friend’s DE, and her insights turned a good read (by everyone but NY’s standards) into one that shined enough to capture a contract.
Granted it’s not with the Big 5; just as you said- each rejection was full of compliments and each ended with “but it’s not a guaranteed breakout.” Duh- I’m a debut. Take a chance.
Anyway- I had a great experience with this developmental editor, who is not a writer, but saw niggling motivational issues that no one else could point out. No one. 9 years, 5 full rewrites. The kind of comment where you slap your forehead once it finally IS pointed out.
I’m convinced, as I stand on the precipice of my digital pub debut in 3 weeks, that it was mostly because she stepped in and helped. It was worth the money. In these 9 years I have other novels written, (and will self pub from now on,) but I did throw that RS story out a total of 5 times and start over, and believe I’d still be doing so if not for the DE. I don’t think it’s as black and white as DE’s are the newest scam, especially if they are not writers. This woman is getting a doctorate in theology; and just happens to have a unique talent.
So let me get this straight: It won awards. Readers loved it. And you still continually revised to get a traditional publishing contract?
I would have trusted the folks who loved it, and kept it on the market until I found an editor who loved it as is. Or I would have indie published it. But each writer is different and makes different choices.
Um. I’m just a beginner, so please don’t hate me but, after five “full rewrites” including “four different killers and plots”(!)how is it still the same book?
Could the “niggling motivational issues” have been only recently discovered because… they only recently arrived?
I would imagine that four killers may have four motives and that might muddy the waters a bit?
I’ve been a long-time reader of your articles (I’m a comic book artist, though currently doing a mix of prose and comics), and I’ve never really commented on your blog before. However, given the topic of you current article, I feel you really need to read this 2013 article from the NYT:
It talks about big Hollywood studios using a computer formula to streamline new movie scripts, so that they resemble the scripts of movies that has (a) been released, and (b) financially successful.
Since this was picked up in the NYT in 2013, this practice has probably been widespread in the movie industry since before 2010.
I imagine that this practice has spread to the book industry since a few years ago, and is now the norm there.
Thanks, Queenie. I’m heading over there now. I appreciate the link!
This, then, explains all those recycled superhero movies. I mean, I’ve nothing against superheroes–I’m married to one. But come ON, man! How many times have you whispered in the movie to spouse or friend: “Totally predictable! I could write this stuff!”?
I’m an indie romance author and I do have an editor. But she’s not a developmental editor! She looks at the big picture and tells me where and why my heroine has gone off the rails. I really struggle with heroines, and my editor sees the heroine issues no one else has ever seen.
She never tells me how to fix it, though, just where it went wrong and what her reaction is. How to fix it is entirely on me. She’s been right every time so far, and after she forces me to look at it from another angle, I end up with a stronger, better novel.
My goal is to eventually be able to do all of that without her. Right now, she’s teaching me things I’ve never learned anywhere else, and I love it. She’s not just some lady who hung her shingle out when the indie world exploded. She went freelance after working for several years in romance publishing. She’s worth every penny.
There. That’s it, Rachel. Thank you for saying this. She’s giving you a reader reaction, which is what the best editors do. They don’t “develop” the plot or change the characters. They react to the story you’ve already written. Whether or not you take the advice is your option, as it should be. Nice.
With no apologies whatsoever to Bill W.:
And there’s the real problem, and it’s one that’s almost unique to conglomerate publishing: Because there are multiple publishing industries under a single corporate structure, Management (most of which, these days, has no or virtually no editorial background, as either a writer or an editor) imposes the same structure and process across all of those industries. That means that personnel are deployed exactly the same in trade fiction as they are in STEMPro reference… and since the money is in STEMPro reference, you can guess which model gets imposed on trade fiction.
A developmental editor is fundamentally necessary in STEMPro and specialized nonfiction. It’s not just that academics and quasiacademics often have, umm, writing problems; it’s that there is so much more to making a project a book in those areas than there is for trade fiction (which is not a slam at trade fiction as “simplistic,” just a note that it’s different). Permissions; design and illustrations; documentation style and correction; appropriate consistency across multiple authors contributing discrete parts to an integrated whole; potential liability for injurious instructions; even page size and margins are all project-by-project, content-sensitive decisions in STEMPro reference, and all require a developmental editor (or, at minimum, a managing editor being supervised by a developmental editor). The corporatist problem is that this model doesn’t work for trade fiction (or literary fiction, for that matter) — but anyone with ambitions for promotion needs to adapt to it and appear to make it work, because they’re going to be judged against those who are working where it makes sense.
None of this is to say that developmental editors can’t be helpful in trade fiction… as required by a particular work or author at a particular stage of his/her career. (John Carver needed and benefited from Gordon Lish, at least for the early works; by the end, not so much…) Part of the problem, too, is how developmental editors in a corporate environment are required to communicate with authors, and how that rigid memo format specified from on high (even if it looks like a chatty letter, it probably isn’t) subverts the decisionmaking process and the author’s investment in integrity of the work.
And at a greater level of abstraction, one must recall that two of the Big Five are subordinate in their respective corporate hierarchies to H’wood — the dubious epitome (nadir?) of the a-product-exists-only-through-money-bearing-supervisor-directed teamwork meme.
This is really interesting, but it’s anonymous source after anonymous source. You don’t even name books and authors that you’re simply citing your own personal opinion about. I’ve learned not to trust that sort of article, whether it comes from a friend’s blog or the New York Times. You need to figure out how to get people on the record about this, or how to write about it with information that is publicly available. Attributed sources are critical for reliability.
If you read my blog regularly, Rusty, you’ll see that I generally link and attribute. I’m not going to do so here, although attributions are in my files if I end up with legal issues. Since I’m a sole-proprietor blog, I generally do not put names into pieces like this (on the personal opinion stuff) because the US has become lawsuit happy, and I’m not opening my blog up to it.
Whether or not you accept my opinion is your business.
Your post is well timed for me, because I’ve been vigorously submitting to SF/F magazines and anthologies, where I gather (you know more about this than I do) that content editing is frequent.
It’s been years since I was traditionally published, and never for my fiction, so I’ve been worrying about where the line lies between appropriate requests to an author for content change and inappropriate requests. You give several examples in this post of what you consider to be inappropriate requests by editors for content change, but could you say more about what sort of content-change requests (as opposed to copyediting requests) you consider to be appropriate, especially in regards to the editing of stories for magazines and anthologies?
Good question, Dusk. As a short fiction editor, I do a lot of content editing, but with as light a hand as possible. A good editor tries to bring out the story, not change it. So usually what that means is “You’re missing a paragraph here.” “This isn’t clear. Can you write a line or two clarifying?” “The last sentence doesn’t work. You didn’t set it up in the beginning. Add a line.”
Almost never do short fiction editors ask for the kind of revisions that developmental “editors” ask for.
You also need to remember, as you submit stories, that you should only do the revisions you agree with. If you don’t agree–if you feel the asked-for changes make the story into something you don’t like–then you politely say that you appreciate the suggestions, but that’s not the direction in which you want to take the story. Thank the editor for her time, and, if she hasn’t said, ask if she’d still be interested without the changes. If not, then move on with the story, and promise to send your next.
The editor spent a lot of time on the piece, so you need to acknowledge that. If you handle the “no-changes” part well (not defensively), then you still have a market.
Remember, though, most short fiction editors don’t want to change your story–they have too many choices for that. They just want to tweak it a little. If you get angry about the tweaks after reading the letter from the editor, wait a day or two, then read it again. If you still disagree, write the letter I mentioned above.
You should all know that although I’m a successful, award-winning editor and a bestselling writer, I still get revision requests from short fiction editors. I welcome them. I don’t always do all of the changes, but I generally do most of them. Short fiction editors, especially in the major fiction magazines, are super beta readers. They never tell you how to fix, just what needs fixing. Rather like your beta reader.
Different kettle of fish, imho. For me, the changes must be tweaks that improve the story, not things that rip the heart out of the piece.
I hope that’s clear.
This is wonderfully helpful (and reassuring). Thank you.
The writing world is led by fads and fashions (& myths). Like:
* You need a developmental editor
* You don’t need to understand business, you are an Arteeste
* Being successful is about learning the latest tip to trick the Amazon charts, and not work your butt off, like your would in any other business.
I thought things would be different in the Indie world, since we are so enlightened(ha!), but evidently, not. People have all this freedom, which they use, as you say, to hide more tightly in the box.
You need to get paid for your practice sessions. Stand-up comedians and musicians get paid to practice. Every single session they perform in front of an audience is practice, and they get paid per session. So mail your stories and books, or put them up indie. Don’t put them in a drawer.
Thank you for this. The quest for perfection–or near-perfection–has been a mental stumbling block for me for years. I’ve struggled with the pernicious idea that publishing even one “bad” story would ruin my career for ever and for ever. It’s so freeing to realize and internalize that it isn’t the case.
Spot on! Thanks for the advice. It’s so absolutely terrible when the editor tells you something like “You need to cut down your manuscript by 50% because our sales force… bladybla…” Makes you feel like you f’ed up completely in your work as a writer. Then they come ringing you back because your self-published novel is number one in its category, you just look at the calling number and you don’t pick up anymore.
Excellent post (as always).
For clarification: when you say “fifteen hours per week” do you mean fifteen hours of writing new words, or are you including minor edits and reading?
Writing new words, Karl. I assumed 500 words per hour is how fast that person typed.
1k new words per diem, seven days per week ad infinitum. 🙂
Karl, you may find that as you get used to the 1K per day you can do more.
8 years ago I could only manage 300 – 500 words per day before my brain fried on me. But I did those 300 – 500 consistently every day.
And then I found I could manage 500 – 700 per day. So I did that.
These days I always aim for 1200 per day and often hit 2000 or more. Occasionally I fall below my minimum. When I find myself hitting 1600 or so regularly, I’ll move my word goal upward.
Just my experience. YMMV, of course.
Thank you for pointing that out, J.M.:-)
I do hope to increase to about 2,000 wds eventually.
I tend to write about 750wds every other day, so the new goal of 1k per diem is a slight increase. Yesterday was “day one”.
I wrote the first 1,020 wds of a new story. 🙂
Today is day two. Once I have gone a week without sliding, I plan to increase the count by about 250 words, and then continue increasing every few weeks until I reach 2k per diem. I doubt that I can do more than that 2k a day, but who knows? 🙂
Congrats on a productive day one, Karl! Write on!
I’m one of the writers last weekend who listened as you talked to us about writing. I came away with a renewed determination, and confidence that I was on the right path. Not sure about the one short story a week, but it’s certainly a goal I can work toward. Thanks for your common sense and honest writing.
Thanks, Cathy. I sure enjoyed being there. Glad you found it helpful.
I’ve always considered the feedback from my first readers to be a sufficient replacement for developmental editing. I always make it clear that I welcome whatever feedback they care to give me (and never argue with the criticism that they give), but I also make it clear that the only things I NEED to know are these:
1) Did you like the story?
2) Did you finish it?
3) If you didn’t finish it, where did you stop?
From that, I can get a pretty good sense for whether the story is ready to head out, or whether it has problems that need to be fixed first.
I have to say, though, I disagree that the best way to fix a broken story is to start over from scratch. Toss out the broken scenes and recycle the rest, sure, or reorder the scenes that you have to find and write the missing ones, certainly. But toss the whole thing out? I do that very rarely.
Every writer is different, and what works well for some will not work for others. I’m extremely skeptical whenever someone says “this is the way it must be done,” and frankly, that’s the main reason why I stopped following Dean’s blog. But other than that, I generally agree with you here.
The predictability thing is why I haven’t gone to many movies or bought many trad published books in the last couple of years. As a reader/viewer, too-many-fingers-in-the-story drives me to tears of boredom.
But the need for an editor’s approval is just another form of validation. One night, my husband (who’s my first reader for my fantasy because he’ll tell me what’s not working) told me I should start editing other writers. When I asked why, he said, “Someone’s going to shear all these folks lining up to be fleeced. You might as well take their money.” Luckily, he was teasing me, but it’s a scary thought, isn’t it?
I always thought a “developmental editor” was a made up position for out of work agents looking for a new job when lots of writers moved to indie publishing. 🙂
THANK YOU. You’ve articulated my growing unease with this particular facet of the indie publishing world.
BUT…what about the bestselling author whose publishing house gives in to their insistence that they have no editor (since they have a gazillion fans who will buy whatever they write) and whose books become a self-indulgent, rambling mess? I’ve seen this happen a few times.
Yes, the writer in this case is in the fortunate position of having a publisher AND being able to be true to their own vision. Everyone wins…except the reader. What’s your take on this?
Some readers like big rambling messes. These writers continue to sell as well. I’d rather see the big rambling mess than the truncated and cliched things I’ve been reading lately. YMMV
Thanks for writing this. The whole “developmental editor” movement has been bothering me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. As usual, you’ve said it beautifully.
I’ve got a couple of first readers who give me great feedback and also tell me when my character got on the Metro in one scene and drove home in another. I love my readers and would be a poorer writer without them!
Yes, the “everyone needs an editor” meme – meaning developmental editing – has been circulating something fierce in the blogs I read. My head wanted to be persuaded by their arguments – was persuaded. My heart kept saying, “No, that just isn’t right. I cannot tell you why, but it isn’t.”
Kris just articulated why! And I feel so relieved. I had no intention of hunting up an editor – I’m sticking with a first reader and a proofreader – but now I don’t have to worry that I’m making a grievous mistake. (Which is what the pro-editor crowd tends to imply.)
This is a great post and so true. I’m very happy that I chose indie and have complete control over the entire process. I’ve worked with one editor and that has been it. She did teach me some things I was doing so that was good but at the end she proved to be disappointing and I’ve never worked with one again. I’ve done everything on my own since. I don’t even have a first reader. I just create what I do and put it out there. I have not had a lot of sales and I know that will take time so right now I’m just concentrating on the writing. I’ll let this journey go where it goes.
I just had a story copy-edited. I shopped around for a copy-editor that met some requirements I’d come up with (I’d had a class in editing, so I came into it knowing exactly what went into each). I really needed one because I tend to flip words, and it’s darn hard to spot. I’ll think “chest” and a different word will pop out. I also will be thinking that I’ve said the characters are inside a tent and then never mention the tent.
Yet, there’s a writer who is pounding her fist telling me that I’m going for “second class” by just getting copy editing and that my “cheap edit” will scream to the world. It seems like everyone’s been programmed to head straight for developmental editing on the assumption someone else needs to tell them what’s wrong with their writing. I even sat in on a workshop at a con and the pro writers were saying, “Everyone needs a developmental editor. It’s a big mistake to just get a copy edit.”
No one seems to think or ask themselves what they need. They assume everyone else is correct.
I’m on a shoestring budget, but if I had the money I would absolutely hire a copy editor over a developmental one. I just finished a copy edit on one of my novels, and find that I have a greater appreciation for someone who would track the details (like making sure characters’ names and eye colors don’t change partway)and impose a consistent style guide (I found myself wondering several times how I *really* felt about the Oxford comma).
There’s a large subjective element to developmental editing. I have real trouble spending a lot of money for an opinion that I may or may not agree with. For now, I’ll stick with the beta readers I’ve cultivated over the years who get my work.
You need to tell people who want to mess with your vision to take a flying fuck. You should probably tell them that politely (…)
“Hey, Mr Suit, that’s a nice suggestion for a plot twist. I’d really like to see how it works out in YOUR book.”
Great article. Though I sometimes wonder if I find your and Dean’s advice so good because it often confirms what I think and do or at least try to do. 🙂
(Was that a humble-brag? Probably.)