Let’s ramble about something a bit more #amwriting universal this time around: properly dealing with negative editorial feedback. /1
Caveat that I’ve worked on twelve novels with @DeviPillai and @bhvide , who are both nominated for Hugo editor awards for 2020, so to say I’m lucky and worked with the best is putting it mildly. /2
Additional caveat in that a lot of this involves emotions and temperament, which obviously not everyone will share and I can only offer my own perspective. /3
Also to make sure we’re on the same page, this is how it usually works here in traditional publishing land. You’ll go through multiple rounds of editing, so I’m discussing what is generally the first round, the story edits. /4
Generally when you get your big round of edits, it is accompanied by a letter detailing broad themes and thoughts. This letter may contain nice things in it, but it is very rarely ‘nice’ to read. Let’s talk about how to respond without ruining your career! /5
So you get this letter discussing your wonderful, perfect novel. And it contains something like “I found character Bob tedious, and I don’t understand his purpose to the overall story. Can we cut him?” /6
There is a very common, simple reaction to this: “You’re wrong.” And it’s perfectly fine! You’ll read this feedback and think “but he does X in chapter 5, and Z in chapter 7. He’s irreplaceable!” /7
Maybe the editor messed up, you think. Maybe they didn’t catch the point of Bob’s big speech near the finale. They weren’t paying attention, that’s it! You put the info in the novel. They just missed it. /8
Let me stress this as clearly as possible: do not fucking respond to your editor while you are in this mindset. I don’t care where you are in your career. Don’t do it. /9
Because I’ve found this initial reaction is consistent throughout my entire career. How LONG that reaction lasts is what varies. The more I write and publish, the shorter it gets. Sometimes it lasts only an hour, but it is still there. /10
And editors/agents know this too! They’ll suggest you not respond for a few days. They’ll send edits on a Friday and tell you to email them on Monday. Want a phone call chat about edits? Sorry, won’t be free for…oh…24 hours or so. /11
And if you need to: grumble to a friend. Rant about it over dinner. Tell someone you trust and who will put up with you about how your f’ing editor is about to make you rewrite the entire f’ing book for no f’ing reason. /12
Yet try to remember that no matter how angry or wrong you think your editor is, odds are pretty good that with some time to settle down and nurse your wounds, you’ll look at the critique in a much more open, reasonable light. /13
Bear in mind: some people for whatever reason do not ever get over this. How do you know they never do? Because they will take pages of editorial advice and argue over Every Single Change. /14
Want a scene rewritten? They’ll argue why it’s fine. Tweak a character arc? They want the editor to provide evidence like they’re a lawyer demanding a guilty conviction in a trial. It might even be a single sentence of “are you sure?”, but the protest is there. /15
These authors might believe they work great with editors, because after the arguing, perhaps they change 50% of the suggestions (though that’s probably high). They view the editorial process as concessions to be made. /16
Even worse, every time an editor caves, they might believe they were justified in holding their ground. That meant it was an unfair nitpick, right? /17
It goes like this: 100 suggested changes. You argue all 100. The editor goes “screw this” and starts to triage. They’ll abandon smaller nitpicks and desperately try to solve the biggest problems. It's no longer "make the best book" but becomes "survive the editorial process". /18
These people get reputations, by the way. Editors chat. They share horror stories. And if sales dip, and you’re one of those authors, watch how fast editors will turn cold and be done with you. /19
I know an author who lost representation because they were sent a list of suggested changes to their submitted novel. They argued every single one. The agent said, nope, I’ve got far more I want to represent than is feasible, I’m not gonna pick the argumentative prick. /20
Okay, back on task. You’ve calmed down, and you’re re-reading these negative edits with a clearer, open mind. You’re about to fire off an email to your editor, perhaps have a phone call. What now? /21
Editors will not write your book for you. They will rarely hand you the solutions to your problems. They will not say “Have Bob give Claire a rose instead of a tulip”. They will say “I find it strange Bob gave Claire a rose.” /22
This can, honestly, be maddening if you approach things in the wrong way. But editors are not there to put out a fire. They are there to point to the sky and go “hey, I see smoke, something is burning.” /23
So when you write your email or have your phone call, your goal should always be to nail down the core issues. If the editor feels something is wrong with Bob, your job isn’t to convince her Bob is fine. It is to find out why. /24
If you’re lucky, your editor will rattle off the reasons (Bob is cocky, Bob acts like a jerk yet suffers no consequences, Bob feels like a 2d author insert). Not always. And if you don’t understand why your editor hates Bob, you’re to go chasing that smoke. /25
Ask questions. You’re not challenging the editorial advice. You’re not presenting evidence why they’re wrong. Make sure you’re focusing on identifying the roots of the problem so you can fix it. /26
This leads to the next advice: don’t over-react and think everything must change. Editor didn’t like Bob? The solution doesn’t mean work yourself to death removing Bob from the entire novel. Again, this is why it’s so key to figure out the core critique. /27
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve made small, simple changes to address seemingly huge problems. Stories build, scenes atop of scenes, and a tiny tweak near the bottom can cascade upward. But for this to work, you must have identified the key problem in the first place. /28
Often times it is as simple as reminding the reader of something earlier. Devi once told me “I know it’s in your head. What I need is it on the page.” One of the hardest things to learn is to separate the novel in your head from the novel that you actually wrote. /29
You may have conceived Bob to be a charming when you started. But when you force yourself to see only what’s written, you may discover Bob argues with people in every scene, and is a bit of a douchebag. /30
All right. You’ve figured out the issues. Now set about a plan to fix it however fits you best. For me, I take the editorial note, break it into individual thoughts/issues, and then whenever I feel I’ve fixed that issue I delete that section. /31
The goal is to completely zero out the page, starting with the easier stuff first and working to the harder changes. This is just me, but I find it easier to work on the big stuff once I’ve gotten the other stuff out of the way. /32
And then, once you’re done, and you’ve gotten everything fixed up and spit-polished and all the characters just right…well, send it in, and pray you don’t need to go through a second round of story edits 😁 /33
Or god forbid a third. Looking at you, Soulkeeper. /fin
This, uh, got more eyes than anticipated. If you're interested in living fire pets, time-flickering zombies, cinnamon roll wizards, and bird-woman assassin grandmothers, Soulkeeper's right here: https://www.amazon.com/Soulkeeper-Keepers-Book-David-Dalglish-ebook/dp/B07CWQPGSF/
You can follow @thatdalglishguy.
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