Monday, November 16, 2009

Trusting Your Editor

In an article I posted on Editing and Authors, one reader commented that she was having trouble trusting editors and agents. Her question was, How do you trust an agent or editor when they make an obvious (not subjective opinion) mistake? How do you communicate with them professionally if you feel like you can't say a word or else? How do you clean the coffee off your computer screen when they suggest you rewrite history? And it's not an alternate history novel?

Well, first of all I don’t ever think you should have an editor you don’t feel you should be able to say a word to. You said you don’t feel you could say anything or else. Or else what? An author-editor relationship is a partnership. You’re both trying to make your book stronger. While the author is often primarily focused on the story, the editor has a secondary concern, and that’s your audience. If you really have concerns about suggestions your editor made, then you have to have a conversation addressing your concerns and, most important, really finding out from her what her concerns are. It’s all too easy for an author to misinterpret the suggestions an editor has made. Maybe she had no intention of rewriting history, but was using that as an example of what could be done in an attempt to make the book stronger in other ways.

Every editor is different and edits differently. My style is that I typically tell the author what isn’t working for me, and in my attempt to explain why something isn’t working I give suggestions for how it can be fixed. Frankly, I couldn't care less if the author takes my suggestions or not. The reason I give suggestions isn’t because I think it’s the only way to fix something or because I want to put my stamp on the book; the reason I give suggestions is to better show the author what I’m thinking and hopefully help the author start thinking in a different direction herself. It’s brainstorming for me and the author. I use the suggestions as a way to explain myself and hopefully as a way to help the author start thinking of other possibilities and in other directions and to ultimately make her book stronger.

I think your question is a clear case of why agents can be so helpful. If you find you’re really in a battle with your editor, then it’s time to call in the big guns, your agent. Hopefully your agent can take a look at the book, if she hasn’t done so already, and mediate a solution that will make your book stronger and please both you and the editor. Another option is to get a second opinion from your agent. More often than not a client of mine will get edits from her editor and then ask me to take a look and give edits as well. It’s never that she’s hoping to pit us against each other, it’s that sometimes the problem the editor has can be easily solved by a suggestion from the agent.

As to how you trust an editor when she makes an obvious mistake, I guess you’d have to ask yourself how big the mistake is. I make mistakes daily and I’m thankful my clients don’t hold them against me, just as I don’t hold mistakes against them when I see errors in their manuscripts. None of us is perfect and editing is subjective. Communication, however, can make all the difference.



Heidi Willis said...

I wish I'd read this post months ago! It might have saved me lots of worry. Or maybe it's the kind of thing you have to figure out for yourself.

When I started working with my editor, I was scared to death to tell her if I didn't agree with some of her suggestions. 98% I did, but those 2% gave me awful nervous ticks!

But I did approach her and tell her why I wanted it kept the same, and she was so agreeable and we always worked it out with no hard feelings at all. It truly was a partnership rather than a dictatorship.

It took me a while to figure out she saw my book as mine as much as I did. As a writer, you have to be able to trust that the people helping you out really do want to make your book stronger, and not take it over.

Kimber Li said...

I can foresee this as being a major weakness for me *if* I ever achieve publication. Unfortunately, in real life (not agents or editors) I've encountered far too many people who were more interested in winning an arguement than in finding a solution or the truth. So, I learned to back away slowly instead of speaking up.

Annette Lyon said...

Great post. I've had two different editors, and they've both been fantastic. If we've had a disagreement, we've been able to work it out--the editor can diagnose a problem, but they never insist on THEIR way of solving it. We discuss options, and it's my job as the author to figure out a solution we can all live with.

On the other hand, I *have* run into line editors who are idiots, and I've had my share of arguing with THEM--I had one who INSERTED four misspellings and insisted that "pique" was not a word. I have no qualms in putting on boxing gloves in those situations, because it's my name on the cover, and it'll be ME looking like an idiot if there are major grammar mistakes or typos.

But when it comes to me and my editor, we're a TEAM, out there to make a book the best it can be.

I was terrified when I lost my first editor and got a new one, but while my second has his own style and is different than my first editor, he's just as great in his own way. He's my #1 cheerleader. I trust his judgment and instincts, and he trusts me to find the right answers and get the job done right. It's a 2-way street we both respect.

Kate Douglas said...

Interesting post and it mirrors a discussion we're currently having on a published authors' list I belong to. One of the problems we've all run across is editors who are so young (early to mid twenties) who have never lived outside of NY and don't have the life experience to understand some of what authors who are older might be writing.

Again, it comes down to working as a team, feeling confident enough in your work to defend your writing--and knowing when to call in the big guns. ie: your agent!

I can't imagine wading through these waters without an agent!

Suzan Harden said...

Jessica is so right! Communication is the key!

Eons ago, when I was still practicing law, I had a writer come to me with her agent contract, wanting to know how to get out of it. I asked her why and got a litany of problems. When she finally ran out of breath, I asked, "And what did your agent say when you brought all this up?"

(insert chirping crickets)

Needless to say, she had a very loooong talk with the agent, and they are very happy together to this day.

This does not mean there aren't idiots in any profession, but you've got to be able to stand up for yourself as a writer.

The Daring Novelist said...

I think this is one place where publishing short fiction can help give an author experience.

I've had great and terrible experiences with editors, but I've found that even those who just don't see things at all the same way I do are open to negotiation.

And most of the time, the edits are totally practical, or as you say, just good suggestions that give an idea of how the reader is seeing it.

C. Patrick Schulze said...

Before launching into my writing career, I was self-employed as a business coach.

I was always amazed at how people would pay me a great deal of money and then not so much as consider my advice.

As with editors, they're the professionals. Why wouldn't an author listen?

Good post. Thanks.

Kate Douglas said...

C. Patrick Schulze: to answer your question as to why an author doesn't always listen to an editor--it's the author's name on the cover of the book, not the editor's. If an editor insists on a change that is not consistent with the author's voice or intention, it's something that needs to be discussed. As an author, it's important that any book released with my name on it is in truth, my book, not my editor's.

Sheila Deeth said...

Storing up information, in hopes I might one day have an agent and/or editor. Thanks for all the shared experiences.

Anonymous said...

For me, it's super-simple. If a publisher is paying me for a book, and their editor wants me to make certain changes, then I make the changes, no quesitons asks. As long as they show me the $.

Now, if they haven't yet shown me the $, I write whatever the dammn hell I want.

For a situation where an agent or editor hasn't contracted with you, but say they will or might if you were to make cerain changes, then it's a judgement call on your part. If you're goal is to sell the work and you don't have any other takers, then it's probably in your best interest to make the changes, esp. if they're not too extensive.

In general though, unless I'm under a contractual obligation to the party requesting edits, I don't do edits. I do sales, meaning I try to sell what I've already written to someone who does want it. Once they buy it, if they want me to make changes, fine.

Show me the $.

Anonymous said...

Also keep in mind that the more you argue with your editor, the more you are delaying publication.

Bill Peschel said...

I'm in the midst of working with an editor (actually two) and it's been a wonderful experience. They've pointed out sentence structures that have been too tangled to make sense, and given their opinion when they thought an essay head or a joke didn't come off. They've also made rewrite suggestions that, for the most part, make sense.

That said, one factor that works is that we both know what effect we're trying to get with my book of essays. We want each story to be informative, funny and insightful, and I think I have enough experience in my judgment to look at a story objectivly, without ego, and decide if it really worked that way.

So for a new writer, they may be two sources for hesitations: because you're afraid to stand up for yourself, or because you don't have enough confidence or perception to know when your writing is working.

If it's the former, it's time to push yourself out of your comfort zone and politely raise the issue. If it's the latter, you'll need to work on your writing and gain that confidence and self-knowledge.

Thus endeth the lecture.

Alexis Fleming said...

I think the biggest problem for me is that I'm Australian but I write for American publishers. It has caused a few problems in the past and the editor has wanted to change my story so it comes off sounding like it was written by an American. I had to battle before we came to an agreement. If my story is based in Australia then we use Aussie slang but I always make certain it's written in such a way that overseas readers can understand what I'm referring to. If the story is set in America with no Australian characters, then you can bet it will sound American. It's become automatic for me to use American spelling and terminology now, so much so I have to edit my business letters here in Australia.

The only time I really refused to do something the editor suggested was when she wanted a psychic horse in a love scene. Sorry, not into bestiality.

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Anonymous said...

So many great comments to an even greater post. Wish I could find an agent like you, BE. I'm not published yet, but I'm one of those writers who really wants an editors comments and suggestions when they read my ms. Most of the time I can see their suggestions are better than what I'd written. I'm yet unpublished but not because of anything other than my ms is not yet ready to submit. Hope I can find a good agent and editor when the time comes. I personally have trouble with confrontations.