In which we’re talking about throwing down with your editor

Reader Nancy has another question–and it’s a great one!

What happens when you entirely disagree with your editor? Especially for you since you have a degree in English, you’ve taught it, and are the embodiment of prose itself. On the other hand, how do you not freak out because what if it means you’re just not seeing something you should, but there’s all these trees and a forest and . . . trees . .

First, I’m going to admit that I’ve been in a pretty privileged position so far. I’ve had three editors–four if you count the lovely editorial assistant who had to vet my last novella when it was orphaned after my editor and I both left MIRA. (I’m not counting the delightful Hope Tarr who edited the SCRIBBLING WOMEN anthology because she accepted my essay as written and didn’t request changes.) For all the novels and novellas I’ve written, only one of them was difficult, editorially speaking. And in that case, while I didn’t like it, I do think the editor helped make the book stronger.

Having said that, I don’t think having an English degree confers any special privileges here. (I LOVE my English degree, but it was more about learning to spot the Jesus imagery in anything I read and understanding structure than about teaching me to write. In fact, I didn’t have a single writing course beyond Freshman Comp.) What I do understand is what I want out of a book and how to let an editor help me get there.

In a perfect world, the author/editor relationship is a collaboration. (At least in MY perfect world.) Editing is a talent with a skill set that parallels writing but is actually quite different. Writers tend to be all about the trees; editors see the forest. And the sea beyond the forest. And the shore on the other side of the sea. Some writers do this beautifully as well, but I know I have blind spots. In the case of my current project, my new editor–whom I am LOVING–pointed out that I had put in way too much backstory for my lead male character. I shared four traumatic incidents of his past. Which was four too many. This is a series; I don’t need to give you all the reasons WHY he is the way he is. A few tantalizing hints are enough. She realized that I was clearing out  my own head and writing my way into understanding him because this first book was about world-building and establishing characters. And she called me on it.

So I slashed and burned and the book is MUCH better for it. But what if the writer doesn’t agree with that kind of critique? Well, that’s when it’s time for a plan. First, ego check. Are you resisting simply because it’s your book and you know best? Yeah, ditch that mentality fast. Then, make sure your goals and your editor’s are in alignment. What do you both see as the POINT of the book? Have you discussed this frankly? Because if you see it as a romance with suspense undertones and she sees it as a suspense with a strong element of romance, you’re talking about two different books. This can be a huge stumbling block, by the way. You have to get in harness together right HERE. If you don’t,  you’ll encounter this same trouble over and over again.

If you’ve established that you’re both wanting the book to be the same thing, then discuss–without anger or judgment–why you each feel this particular passage is serving that goal. And when your editor is speaking, LISTEN. If it makes sense, change it. If it doesn’t, stick to your guns. With this current book, editor was not a fan of the word “orchidaceous”, but as I noted in the comments of the track changes, I had given her loads of changes–happily!–but I loved orchidaceous and I was keeping it. And she was totally fine with that. It turns out, she didn’t hate orchidaceous. Cutting it was a suggestion. She wasn’t married to the outcome, and it didn’t bother her in the least that I kept it. It wasn’t a hill I had to die on because she wasn’t shooting. So make sure you and your editor are discussing the same stakes. Did the editor ask for the change because it REALLY matters? Or because it occurred to them as a passing note and they’re not invested in response?

And I will note, that the vast majority of the time, the editorial suggestions are spot on. I have learned to step out of my own head and really LISTEN to what the editor is suggesting. If my knee-jerk reaction is to howl and refuse, then I have to go deeper and figure out why I’m so attached to that passage. Sometimes the problem is all in my head…