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Sunday, November 12, 2006


Eeevil editing

I went to visit my old writing class yesterday and talk about getting published, which was fun - lots of nice people and a cheerful drink afterwards, which has to be good. I noticed something interesting in the questions they were asking me. While there was a fairly wide range, only one question kept coming back in other forms. It was, basically, 'How much of your book did editors/agents/publishing people force you to change?'

Well, I think I should answer that question in case anyone reading this blog is wondering the same thing, because it seems to be a recurring rumour: the idea that the minute a publishing professional gets her mitts on your book, she starts trying to change it all around. The reassuring answer, based on my own experience, is that this just doesn't happen.

I'm sure there have been clashes between established authors and editors - I suspect big egos may have been involved on one or both sides, which might lead to people complaining vehemently and getting rumours going. But if you're starting out, at least, there's a very simple reason why this wouldn't happen: if they don't like your book as it stands, they don't have to buy it. An agent or editor who didn't like, say, the ending of your book, wouldn't take you on and try to make you change it, they'd say, 'There's a lot of good things here, but I don't think the ending works; try rewriting it and I'll look at it again.' At which point, it's up to you whether you want to or not. But nobody would take on a new author whose book might be to their satisfaction if they can make them change it: there are too many other books competing for the slot that they like as they stand.

Here's my experience of getting edited. My first draft was much too long, and the editorial consultant at my agency (not a common institution, most agencies don't have one) sat me down, showed me a sample page of my book she'd cut extraneous sentences from and said, 'Why don't you try that for the rest of the book?' Which I did, much improving the style. Once being edited by Random House, the changes fell into four basic divisions:

1. General questions. 'What would happen with your set-up if the following happened?' 'You might want to resolve the relationship between this character and that one a bit more.' These were the most major changes, but they still pretty minor in terms of how much rewriting was called for, and were to do with tying off loose ends and making everything flow rather than working against how the book was supposed to go - and I had complete freedom of movement as to how I answered the questions raised. As long as I resolved an unresolved incident somehow, the way I resolved it was up to me.

2. Inconsistencies pointed out - 'what you say here contradicts what you say later', or 'you say a month has passed but I think it can't be more than two weeks'. Stuff I'd lost track of, because it takes a long time to write a book.

3. Pointing out unclear to incomprehensible sentences. While I object to having my stuff rewritten for me (not politically object, it just never feels right if somebody else tries to match my style - not that anybody really tried), I believe writers ought to be cooperative if somebody asks them to rewrite an unclear phrase. The person who doesn't understand your sentences is a cross-section of your readership, and if they don't understand it, chances are a lot of other people won't either. Because of the Overhead Projector effect (mentioned earlier, http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2006/08/more-lexicon-terms.html), it's easy to think you've written more clearly than you have, so it's good to listen if people are confused.

4. Minor slips in spelling, tone, accuracy and other general mistakes.

See? Nothing to be worried about. Editors generally aren't tyrants who are dying to get into competition with authors about how a book ought to be written; as long as the book is working, they tend to let the author get on with it.


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