Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Writer Question: When Should I Take Revision Advice, and When Should I Listen to My Gut?

So I'm finally returning to that question from a couple weeks ago--when should a writer take advice on his/her manuscript, and when is it better to trust the gut?

This is the classic conundrum, and one you will be confronted with again and again and again if you seek and secure publication. You will have an editor, and that editor will have viewpoints that may differ from yours, and the editor is only one of many potential viewpoints that will inflict themselves upon you. Some of them will be professionals, some amateurs; some will be right, some will be wrong. Also, the first half of that sentence doesn't directly correspond to the second. Ultimately, you're going to have to decide when to fight for what you've already got, and when to ask yourself if maybe the critique is correct.

There are several stages here, and the opinions you'll half to negotiate will differ at each stage.

when you're working on writing a book but have no agent or contract

Craft development is tough. No one can do it alone. Literally, no one. Even Shakespeare was heavily edited by peers before the First Folio came out.

The thing is, your friends and family know you too well to be good objective guides in many places. They may not know your genre well, and give you bad advice based on the genres they read. Or they may tell you everything is awesome and perfect and provide no helpful reflection at all.

It will take some hunting, but the best thing to do is find a really compatible writing partner or group. I personally like groups--although they are rather a lot of work to put together--because you get a variety of opinions (some of which are always crappy and obviously wrong, but the perspective they provide helps you realize that there are GOOD comments in the group).

Writing a book is not (and definitely should not be) a democratic process. But public opinion (in small doses) is really great to see how various people react to your writing.

Do you take their suggestions or trust your gut? Well, it's your call. You have to trust your gut on whether or not to trust your gut. But. Make yourself be open to the idea that you might need reworking. I can't tell you how hard this is, or how many otherwise reasonable people fail at it. Do you keep hearing the same criticism over and over and over? Because then it might be time to start listening.

when you've secured an agent but haven't yet signed with a house
Your agent is going to look at your ms not from a craft point of view (well, some agents are great prose editors, but not all of them). Their primary focus is going to be marketing, on making your book be salable to an editor who acquires in the category that most closely fits your book.

You gotta be able to trust your agent. If your agent gives you advice that you can't take or that frustrates you, take some time to reflect and calm down, then see if you can talk about it with your agent. Your agent should be able to clearly explain why these changes have to be made. You HAVE to be able to talk with your agent.

Do you always have to take their advice? No. But your agent's a professional. And ultimately the only person who is entirely on your side (or should be, at least). SO if you can't trust your agent, you have to ask you if there's something wrong.

when your book has been contracted by a house
The thing to remember about publishing a book is that although you are the author and you hold the copyright, ultimately someone else is paying to publish that book, and has licensed your intellectual property from you in what is, at least in theory, a business scheme. This means a publishing company has--by default--corporate, political, and ethical interests. If it's publicly traded, one of the chief interests is the stockholder opinion. If it's a private company, god only knows what specific agendas might be.

During the in-house editing process, these are the people who will or may ask for changes on your manuscript:

-your editor
-your publisher
-your copy editor
-your proofreader
-the house's legal department

As with any business relationship, there is push and pull during the editing process. If you really, really disagree with a change, you should tell your editor. But remember that no one is making changes willy-nilly; they made them for reasons. So make yourself step back and try to think about it from their perspective.

Even editors are fallible (shocking, I know, right?!). If you clearly (and calmly) elucidate the reasons you disagree with a change, your editor will probably listen. If she doesn't--and yes, as much as I hate to admit it, some editors are close-minded and argumentative, too--call your agent, and explain it all to your agent. Your agent can run interference--and also tell you if maybe you're being unreasonable. (That's the agent's job, to know when to push hard in one direction or another. That's why I love agents; please go out and give your agent some love today on my behalf.)

The point is, pick your battles, and keep your head no matter what. This is a creative industry, and passions run high, but it's also a subjective industry by the same token. The pros may or may not be right, but you may or may not, either. You know your book a lot better than they do, but they know the business end better. You must meet in the middle. You are in a business contract--don't let things get sour between you and your editor. It will hurt you now and later and forever. If your publisher starts thinking of you as a high maintenance author, you will get avoided by all the teams in house who start to wonder if their energies are better allocated elsewhere.

Did this help, or just make it worse?


Ann Finkelstein said...

This was a fascinating post and I guess I've seen every part of it through my critique group.

I don't know how my blog got linked to this post. I didn't mean to set up a link. How do I remove it? I deleted my linked post.

Lydia Sharp said...

Did this help, or just make it worse?


Terry Odell said...

Good advice. If you want to sell the book, you have to be able to distance yourself and look at it as a commodity. Not easy, not fun, but the business side is part of the game. A Big part.

Michaela said...

The first part is spot on for me as this is the stage I am at. Working with a group and getting critiques from people who are not 'close' to me is extremely helpful. I also suggest befriending a few small press editors and publishers whom you can solicite opinions from as their experience and knowledge is invaluable (although don't be pushy or make a nuisance of yourself)

Charles Gramlich said...

A second pair of objective eyes is a godsend.

Joe Iriarte said...

Good post. One thing my wife and I have run across with writing groups: sometimes the specific advice you receive is wrong, but the problem that prompted the advice is real and needs to be addressed. So I would add a third option. Sometimes you need to neither take the advice nor stick with your gut, but look for a third option.

Samantha Hunter said...

I'd add that listening to your gut is something refined with time. When you are starting out, it's harder -- listening to all the advice you get is probably as bad as listening to none of it. You have to have time to develop your instincts about your writing, your style, and what matters to you.
This is not a quick process.

Over time, dealing with editors, crit partners, agents, and rejections, you find your "place" in your writing, and that allows you to know what to change and what not to. It's a very nice, solid place, when you find it. There's no more flip-flopping around, wondering. It also means that your editors, agent, etc trust your instincts about your work.

I just finished a revision where my editor asked for much lighter revisions than I ended up making. When I went through the book, I decided to change maybe 60% more than she asked me to. But she had no problem with that, because the work was good, and the changes needed to be made. (Also, I find the key quality of a great editor is that they can tell you what you need to do, but they leave it up to you HOW you do it.)

I am now working on a revision of a proposal for a different house. They were interested, but gave me feedback that I don't feel I can use. It changes too much of the book -- they like my idea, but they don't really want my style of writing, so I'm not willing to change that just for a sale. My agent wholeheartedly agreed, and we have other pubs interested who might be better matches -- but this decision came down to me and knowing what was right for me and my book. When you have that certainty, you can work from it, but it takes a while to get there.

IMO, Sam

cvwriter said...

Great advice! I'm going to send the link to a friend, who, based on editorial advice, altered her whole concept and stripped out a lot of what made her MG novel unique, and it didn't get past the board anyway.

storyqueen said...

I think you helped. For me, I take the advice when I understand it, and it makes me think, "Ahhh, yes...I see." Until I have that moment, I really just Can't take the advice because I can't wrap my mind around it. I have been given advice on a few pieces from my editor that I just couldn't "see"...I didn't get how to make the changes because, well, I dunno. I wish I could have had the "I see" moment, but alas, no.

And there you have it.

GhostFolk.com said...

I think it's really tough to argue with an editor because an author expects (and desires) the editor to be right. A writer rather depends upon it, in fact. No kidding. Usually, by habit, editors are right. They didn't get to be an editor by being stupid about writing.

Remembering, the acquiring editor has put her reputaion and career on the line when she offered a contract for your book.

Any sentence my editor draws a red line through is gone. No questions asked.

On the bigger stuff, I talk it over with my agent first. If my agent agrees with the editor, then I'm wrong. Duh. I don't have to risk pissing off my editor over my own short-sightedness.

When the agent agrees with me (it gets scary) and offers to run interference, it's time to defend my approach to the story/character. One does this calmly, politely, and thoughtfully... and simultaneously reminding the editor how wonderful she is and how much you depend on her to guide your creation of a great-selling book.

The ending discussion is just as Editorial Ass says it is. The editor has a certain goal in mind (trying to make your MC more sympathetic, for instance) and you may easily agree on another way to effect the change. Fingers crossed never hurts.

When a writer sticks to her guns for no reason other than not wanting to change something, someone's going to get shot in the foot. And guess who, Barney Fife?


Lisa Dez said...

This helped a ton.

I have an editor at a major house asking for minor revisions prior to taking my mss to her editorial board. I agree with 99% of what she's asking for which gives me a good feeling about her. If she was to aquire my mss, I feel like we're already on the same page.

Larissa said...

Great post, Moonie! Thank you!

I recently posted on my blog about how advice you disagree with can actually be helpful...

My word verification is horlit - Uh, I'm not touching that one.

angelle said...

oh, and here i thought that i was going to be perfect from the get go. no? i'm not? ;)

Whirlochre said...

This is all very helpful, thanks.

Top ratting.

Rebecca Knight said...

Ghostfolk--love your comment ;)!

This was very helpful, Moonie :). Great point and reminder for us that the editor and publisher are basically paying us to get it right--we might want to put more stock in their opinions.

Thanks for the advice!

Malanie Wolfe said...

Moon, this is probably one of my favorite post. Thank you, by the time I find an agent and get this thing going I will be well equipped because of blogs like yours. Thank you!

slweippert said...

Thank you. This is great info.

A. Grey said...

Great post. Thanks for putting it out. I'm still working on getting an agent, and now that I've had a nibble here and there and am waiting for folks to get back to me with interest or without, I'm starting to worry about things just like this.

I think it's going to be okay though. I really do. And posts like this just help solidify that belief. :)

Jess Haines said...

This is definitely helpful. Thank you!

Voidwalker said...

I am really surprised to hear the writer's, publisher's and editor's view of agents as being "The guy/gal on your side." Before I really began looking into the publishing world, I had a skewed perspective of agents. I really felt like they were selfish, snobby, money-grubbing walls between you and your goal. I'm extremely excited to find an agent, because I've finally had some light shed on these elusive masters of their craft. I want one more than ever and hope to find my partner-in-crime of the publishing world, now that I know what they are truly about!

Gary Corby said...

I want to add a point, speaking as someone currently deep in edits on my second sold book.

When an editor tells you there's a problem, then the editor's almost always right and you need to fix something, or else you might conclude after much thought that the editor's wrong.

But if the editor's wrong, that means your writing has failed to persuade a careful reader, which probably means it needs work.

So either way you have a problem, but it might be a different problem to the one the editor thinks it is.

Joe Iriarte said...

Hey, if I have a question I think you can answer, is the protocol to post it in the comments or to shoot you a private message?

I'm going to take a chance on it being the former.

I know ellipses are amateurish; I know most unpublished writers way overuse them. I virtually never use them in any of my stories. And yet . . .

Currently I'm revising a short story where they seem to make sense. The protagonist has a pretty major secret, and he's having to tell a lot of lies to keep it a secret. He's not usually given to telling lies, and so as I wrote the early drafts, I used ellipses to indicate pauses in his replies while he tries to think of what to say answer. I'm not sure em dashes will convey the same thing; I don't parse em dashes as pauses when I read.

Will my use of ellipses make me look amateurish in a submission, or is there a chance an editor will look at the context and say, "Oh wait, these actually belong here"?

Joe Iriarte said...

Oops. Stupid Blogger and its stupid inability to edit comments. *grumble*

sylvia said...

Or they may tell you everything is awesome and perfect

I would like these friends. Is this a service I can pay for?

Robert said...

This is actually very good advice, much to my surprise. For a writer's view, read The Recalcitrant Scrivener, an eccentric and contrarian literary blog.

The Recalcitrant Scrivener can be found at

Robert said...

On the other hand, having worked in publishing, I would say editors tend to be wrong at least 50% of the time...

Amanda11176 said...

Great Advice. I am a Newbie and currently getting ready to begin the process of publishing a new work, so any and all advice is well appreciated.
Anyone have any other pearls of wisdom for me....Let me have it.

cassandrajade said...

Excellent post and thanks so much for your thoughtful advice.

kimberlyloomis said...

This is an awesome post- thanks! It's good to hear someone else saying to not take every bit of advice you get and immediately put it into action- regardless of who it comes from.

For critique partners/groups I also think the same thing applies. The biggest "no-no" for me with these things is the people who reword/write every sentence. This is not good critiquing as it doesn't acknowledge the work for what it is and instead bases its judgment upon what it isn't. I guess that really applies to any/all advice and how it should be weighed. I also think w/in the confines of non-agent/editor related edit recommendations more people should strive to give both positive and negative feedback, but never be cruel or glorifying. :)

Good advice all around. Especially the breathing part. Thanks, again!