Friday, May 07, 2010

Is What It Is Ism (Or Why You Must Be Your Own Evil Drill Sergeant)

Here is a conversation that is, in some variation, overheard in publishing houses everyday:

Publisher: How's the edit on that John/Jane Smith book?

Editor: Well, John/Jane has sent back his/her responses to my edits. I mean, we did a ton of work--it's much better than the first draft. But s/he didn't really go as far with the second plot line/character development/cultural details as I was hoping.

Publisher: That's a shame.

Editor: It really is a shame. I just... I had really high hopes for this book, but I'm not sure I can get the author to really get it up to 100% of what it could be. I can take the time to do another round of edits, but then we might miss our to-production date.

Publisher: Nah, let's just push it forward. It is what it is.

~ ~ ~

What's your reaction to that phrase, "is what it is"? Does it go blithely buy you as an everyday-ism? Does it strike terror in your heart? Or a little bit of both?

The first time I heard the expression "It is what it is" I was an editorial assistant. I admit my first response was, "Oo, what a cool phrase!" I think subconsciously I had already realized that sentence would be an out-clause, the secret to writing off any editorial changes I would be too exhausted with a book to make. But of course, it's also an ugly sentence--it means we're giving up and moving on. And you know what? At some point it is said about just about every project.

The point I want to make today is about vigilance of craft. Creativity is exhausting. When you're working on a novel, there comes a point during writing, or rewriting, or editing, or re-editing, or hearing back the nitpicky bits from your crit group or agent or editor for the eight millionth time, when you just say "Ug, can I be done with this? I'll fix it later, or someone else can, if they really have a problem with it."

But the thing is, you can't count on anyone to fix anything later. When your editor sends you edits, you may be so sick to death of staring at your manuscript that you do the bare minimum to address the comments and then send that sucker right back. But then your editor may also have run out of steam, will have some version of the above conversation with her publisher, and everyone will move forward with the book as it is--in a permutation that will get slightly worse reviews than it might have received if we'd all pushed it a little harder, will therefore sell slightly fewer copies than it might have, etc.

We ALL run out of steam--writers, editors, proofreaders, marketers, publicists. The best professionals in any sector of the industry are the ones who fight it out a couple more rounds before throwing up their hands. Since you can't guarantee that anyone else who will be working on your book at any other stage will have the time, energy, and bandwidth to give it their all to the bitter end, you, the author, would do yourself a favor by not being the lazy one.

I'm writing this post today because earlier this week I was visiting a friend at her office and overheard one of her colleagues give an "Is what it is" speech. It made me realize these occurrences aren't rare--they're pretty universal. So the moral of this story is, fight the good fight, at every stage of the game. Write, re-write, re-re-write, and edit, then edit again, then re-edit again before you even THINK about submitting to agents. Then do it all over again. And over again.

In the words of Jason Nesmith, "Never give up! Never surrender!"

41 comments:

Holly Dodson said...

Really excellent post! Very inspiring. I never want to be that "it is what it is" person. Never.

nomadshan said...

And over again. I haven't tallied my revisions yet, but my project got stronger with each one. I'm actually looking forward to revising it again, as crazy as that may sound.

I would hate to hear that an editor said, "It is what it is," about my book.

Kierah Jane Reilly said...

That scared me more than you will ever know. I never want to be in a situation where something I created is pushed through just to meet a deadline. Do the editors ever go back and say to the agent or the writer, "It's not 100% but we have no choice but to go with it."? I can't imagine any writer ever being okay with that. Thanks for this - when I get to that stage (I've always been taught to say when and not if) I'll know to rewrite and revise, and revise some more before I rewrite and revise and revise again.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

This terrifies me and is all the more reason to make my work shine.

Rachel said...

Really good advice. If there's one thing I've learned from reading this and other industry-related blogs, it's that perhaps the most important thing is work, work, work.

By the way, I am sick to death of that phrase. When will it go away?

Annie said...

By Grabthar's hammer...what a blog post! ;)

Kirsten said...

This reminds me of Shanghai Noon, "Fight with honor. You will win!"

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I wouldn't say this post was inspiring in the 'wow, I'm amazed!' way, but you deinitely inspired me to roll up my sleeves and get back down to work. Thank you! I'm lucky because I've been blessed with a love of the entire writing process; writing, editing, fixing plotholes, trying to think of how to make things better, etc. But I haven't faced the publishing aspects, hopefully I'll love those too. Once I get my hands into a project, I'm VERY energetic, but I'm sure there will be a time when I'm worn out. So... when it comes, I'll remember this post, and now that it may be the last chance I get.
Thanks again! Great post. :)

Kristi Helvig said...

As one who is re-writing yet again, I appreciate this post! :)

Jeff Carlson said...

Awesome post! This one really struck home.

I'm sure I read my third novel more than 40 times from first draft to copyedits. Of course by then I was thinking YUCK! This book sucks! Every sentence is so predictable!!!

Ha. But we went through it again, again. ;)

What keeps me going is the idea that a book is forever (yep, even e-books.) 5000 years from now when the sentient raccoons rule the earth and they dig up one of my novels, I want to them think Wow! Perfection! If that comma in the seventh line of page 114 wasn't *exactly* in the right place, this book wouldn't be the masterpiece that it is. How well it represents their species. Let us erect a statue to him on the radioactive coastline of The Forbidden Zone...

And so I sweat through the ms. yet again.

Ello said...

I hate that phrase. It drives me crazy. And fabulous post as usual, Moonie. I hope to never hear that phrase used in conjunction with my book.

Sara J. Henry said...

I have tweaked my first novel at every step - before submission, before turn-in, before revisions, and now at copyediting. I was afraid my editor would think I was insane. But, ah, I was just being my own drill sergeant.

Ulysses said...

Yes, it is what it is, but...
By Grabthar's hammer, by the Sons of Warvan, it shall be avenged!

Lisa_Gibson said...

Great post. There is something to be said for polishing your work to the best that you possibly can. There are those writers who delay querying a work to edit, and edit and edit and fear sending it out. They knit-pick everything and before you know it, years have passed and that ms has never even been queried. It's a balance you have to strike. Great advice in your post.

Bernita said...

Ther frightening thing is that after exhaustion and a "it is what it is," one eventually regains energy.
Now that my novel has passed copy edits and is beyond recall I've thought of tweaks here and there I think might improve it.

JES said...

From further down on that IMDB page:

Sir Alexander Dane: You're just going to have to figure out what it wants. What is its motivation?
Jason Nesmith: It's a rock monster. It doesn't have motivation.
Sir Alexander Dane: See, that's your problem, Jason. You were never serious about the craft.


There are a couple ways to look at that in the present context. Including that the author is the rock monster, and Jason and Sir Alex are two editors discussing him/her -- a newbie and a journeyman, respectively. :)

There are so many psychological games authors can play when they're just completely sick of the book: I'll leave it as is and fix it during copy edits... during proof edits... in galleys... in the second printing... in the 2nd edition. It all sounds so nice and neat and logical, as though each of those steps is no more significant (or costly, or time-consuming) than just running off the updated pages on the old LaserJet.

But it's a complicated balance to strike. At some point, for some books, it seems that all parties do have to simply agree to stop iterating the fix-and-discuss cycle.

(Er, right?)

JES said...

From further down on that IMDB page:

Sir Alexander Dane: You're just going to have to figure out what it wants. What is its motivation?
Jason Nesmith: It's a rock monster. It doesn't have motivation.
Sir Alexander Dane: See, that's your problem, Jason. You were never serious about the craft.


There are a couple ways to look at that in the present context. Including that the author is the rock monster, and Jason and Sir Alex are two editors discussing him/her -- a newbie and a journeyman, respectively. :)

There are so many psychological games authors can play when they're just completely sick of the book: I'll leave it as is and fix it during copy edits... during proof edits... in galleys... in the second printing... in the 2nd edition. It all sounds so nice and neat and logical, as though each of those steps is no more significant (or costly, or time-consuming) than just running off the updated pages on the old LaserJet.

But it's a complicated balance to strike. At some point, for some books, it seems that all parties do have to simply agree to stop iterating the fix-and-discuss cycle.

(Er, right?)

Sandra Gail Lambert said...

Well. I guess now I'm glad to be the daughter of an actual Drill Sergeant.

Sarah said...

Yay for Galaxy Quest quotes! I identify with Fleegman's, "You don't KNOW!" most of the time.

(Gotta love Sam Rockwell.)

And yay for this quote as well:

"The best professionals in any sector of the industry are the ones who fight it out a couple more rounds before throwing up their hands."

I wonder if some of what causes folks to regress to What It Is Ism (or I-tis?) is focusing too much on publication. If the goal is to have a book on the shelf, then you'll do just enough to get it there. But if writing is part of your life- and writing well a priority- then you can afford to go a few more rounds.

Of course, I haven't gone through editorial rewrites, either, so it's easy to talk about not giving up.

cindy said...

thank you for this, moonie. it couldnt have come at a more appropriate time.

WendyCinNYC said...

Good post. I'll keep those words in mind as I revise my ms for the zillionth time.

INSIDE THE SHRINK said...

An artist is her own worst critic. If the editor and publisher are saying "it is what it is" the artist has not done her job. If I am passionate about what I write, it will be tedious and burdensome to a point, but it will be a labor of love for what I love doing--writing. And there's also something to be said for commitment and determination. Good qualities in a writer. "it is what it is" is not in my vocabulary.

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

I'm in the process of rewriting and editing right now. I'm taking a litle break to clear my head. I've rewritten my wip at least 12 times. Every time it has gotten stronger. I've just had it line edited before I send out a round of submissions. Some of the comments filled me with dread, but they were spot on. So I've been staying up till midnight rewriting again. For me, its not good enough to have a great story, I also want to be a good writer.

Jane Steen said...

In corporatespeak "it is what it is" means "f**k it, nobody cares any more". It's what you say when you all know that the issue didn't get the boost it needed from on high, and is therefore going to go nowhere. So putting your time and energy into the issue will earn you nothing at best, and trouble at worst.

If your book's at stake, though, don't you have to care? It's the basis of your sales, your reputation and your future as a writer.

I hope I remember this when the time comes. I'm really good at giving theoretical advice. :D

ggwritespoetry said...

Wow... this is really hitting home right now because I'm in revision (book 2) and have been for several months...but I expect that I will have to revise my revisions several more times before I submit to agents. Things just keep popping into my head as to how to improve the storyline...Not ready to say IT IS WHAT IT IS yet...so thanks for reminding me that I am doing right by my ms by not rushing through and sending it off before really polishing it! Great post!

storyqueen said...

As I await another editorial letter, I probably needed to read this.

Shelley

Sarah Laurenson said...

Thanks, Moonie. Awesome reminder. It's my baby after all.

Peri1020 said...

I absolutely HATE that phrase. I have a friend who uses it as least once in every conversation we have. She's the kind of person who just accepts things as they are and has no hope that anything will ever change and is not willing to put forth any effort to make any changes. It's gotten to the point where I can actually predict when she'll say it. But on the good side, my angst toward that phrase pushes me not to accept things as they are and see what I can do to make changes.

Nancy Coffelt said...

I've been so lucky to have fabulous editors. Over the years I've learned to trust what they have to say, especially around areas I know still struggle with.

So when they say "Ten more push ups" I put on my big girl pants and do just that.

Larissa said...

EXCELLENT post, Moonie. Awesome.

Karen Mahoney said...

Oh Moonie, I think I must be the only person in the world who doesn't know your true identity... and yet time and time again you write posts that rock my world.

I'm on my second editorial letter right now, and this is perfect timing for me. Thank you. :)

on Life and Literature said...

I needed this post. Right now. When I really am fed up with yet another revision. And if I'm fed up with revising etc... my own book, I can only understand how an editor may be too. Thank you for being so candid. I have not read/heard this, to date, on any other publishing industry blog.

FLJustice said...

Thanks so much, just what I needed as I face another rewrite!

Anonymous said...

I think there are a couple of other ways to think about this.

1. Sergio Leone. When A Fistful of Dollars came out, many people were outraged by the amorality and annoyed by the mannerism. As it turned out, though, Leone hadn't fully worked out what he was capable of doing: by the time he made The Good, the Bad and the Ugly he had ratcheted up both the amorality and the mannerism to produce a work of genius. No amount of extra work on Fistful of Dollar would have enabled it to equal the later film: on its own terms, it was about as good as it could be, and he needed to make more films to do everything he was capable of doing.

2. Bill Gates. My understanding is, IBM asked Gates for an operating system within a certain period of time, he managed to rush DOS into something like working order and hand it in - and was able to build Microsoft on the back of an OS even he never claimed to be THE perfect OS. Even people who hate Microsoft have to admit that this pragmatic start gave him the chance to dominate the PC market and do all kinds of interesting things.

If the writer has real talent, getting the book published on time may put him or her in a position to write other books of greater significance, artistically or commercially or both. So it may not always be a shameful compromise to let the book go out when more fine tuning could be done.

Hillary said...

Great post, good reminder to get back on track.

I'm running into so many aspiring authors who say "I'm ready to send my ms out. I know I have some problems, but I'm sure the agent/editor/fairy godmother can help me sort them out". It's dumbfounding.

"It's good enough " should not be the norm.

Emily Casey said...

I don’t get tired of the nitpicky stuff. Not yet anyway. It’s more of a relief when I see that someone else caught something I missed. I may change my mind when I get copyedits, etc..
“It is what it is” made me sad. And it scared me. I don’t want that to be me! Thank you so much for posting this. I could easily make that mistake, but I’ll double my efforts now. You’re a lifesaver!

Elizabeth West said...

Oh, this is so true. I'm deathly afraid I'll publish my book and pick up the copy in the bookstore and open it, and a GREAT BIG MISTAKE will leap out at me!

That, and learning and improving craft as I go, is why I keep tweaking.

Bruce Pollock said...

Words to live by, as I await notes from my new agent on my new novel.

lkmadigan said...

I have become so very, very weary of my current WIP ... but I am so very, very stubborn that I refuse to send it to my agent until it's RIGHT, at least in my mind.

Thank you for the sobering reminder.

Lisa

Makya McBee said...

My personal assault on "it is what it is"

http://makyamcbee.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/it-is-what-it-is/

John Torres said...

Wow I too was stunned to hear this phrase BUT it came out of the mouth of an person who unlike myself was unskilled in our profession(service station construction) this was the owners son-in-law who overly used this statement whenever a situation did not suit him or for the betterment of the workers I was just as stunned when the OWNER started to put this phase in his dialogue with myself/coworkers... to me" it is what it is"... is a phrase of self defeat....one can ALWAYS improve on a situation regardless of the out come and that they attempted the best to their abilities ....not take the easy path...the path of laziness.... but that's my opinion...jt