Tag Archives: editors

Your Book’s Best Friend

Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

The best friend your book will ever have is your editor.  From the moment you have a contract in hand, that’s the most important thing to remember.

Your editor is on your side.  You and she want the same thing: for your book to be the best it can possibly be when it hits the market.  For it to read the best, look the best, sell the best.   And in the process of achieving that goal, your editor brings to the table something you need profoundly . . . perspective.  Remember, you have been in near solitary confinement with that manuscript since its conception.  At this point both your manuscript and you need the light of air only a good editor can bring.

But let me step back for a moment.  Sometimes an editor can be your book’s—and your—best friend even before she has offered that contract.  I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had a developing writer come up to me with an editor’s letter in hand asking, “Does she really mean it?”  It’s always a letter that praises a manuscript and makes thoughtful suggestions for revision without yet making a commitment.

Does she really mean it?  Yes . . . and yes . . . and yes!  Editors don’t have time to encourage writers whose work they don’t want to see again.  Moreover, while we have no legal obligation to return to an editor just because she has invested time and energy in our work, why wouldn’t we?  If the recommendations feel right, run with them.  Thank her for her insights and return to her with the new draft her comments draw forth.  You have nothing to lose and a possible contract to gain.

And once you do have a contract in hand, once an editor is truly yours, I have just one piece of advice, but I’ll say it many times.  Listen!  Listen . . . listen . . . listen!  Yes, it’s your manuscript, and it will remain your manuscript, but it’s better to hear what you don’t want to hear from your editor—while the work is still fluid, still can be shaped and improved—than from a reviewer.  When you hear it from a reviewer your book has been set in stone.  Revisions are no longer possible.

I have a rule of thumb that has served me well in working with editors.  I listen.  I don’t defend.  If I don’t understand, I ask questions.  Then I listen some more.  Even if I’m certain an editor is wrong, that if I do this thing she is suggesting the entire piece will come tumbling about our ears, I never say so.  I just keep listening, keep asking.  Once the dust has settled—and the more dust there is the more time it takes to settle—I find that critical comments fall into three different categories.

Most of them are simply, Of course!  I should have thought of that myself.  Gratefully, I make those changes.

Some are I see what you meanAnd certainly it could be the way you’ve suggested, though I think it could be the way I’ve done it, too.  In those cases, too, I simply, without comment, make the changes. I figure the editor is probably more right than I can see, because perspective gives her a great advantage. Besides, if it truly could be either way, why should the change matter?

Then there is the third category, the occasional suggestion that simply doesn’t fit, no matter how often I turn it over or how carefully I examine it.  That’s where I hold my ground . . . quietly, respectfully, firmly.  I don’t make it a last stand.  I’m always aware that I could still be wrong. But usually, because I don’t take such a stand often, the editor accepts my view.  When she doesn’t, after a careful discussion, we’ve always been able to find a compromise.

Singers need vocal coaches.  Athletes need trainers.  Writers need editors.

If you begin your relationship with that knowledge deep in your bones, all will go well.

When the Fun Begins

playgroundI sold a book yesterday. Well, not yesterday-yesterday. I’m writing this in August, trying to clear uncluttered space for the longer project I’m working on, so I sold the book in my yesterday, not yours.

Not sold-sold, either. No contract. That will be months away. Certainly no advance. More months. But an e-mail to my agent saying the editor “LOVES” what we’ve sent.

And that followed by the remark, “I do have a couple of editorial comments.”

My heart quickened.

Not because I have sold another book. Selling a book pleases me enormously, as it should. A sale doesn’t just mean future income. It means that someone values my work, the first someone living outside my skull to value this particular work. And this sale was an especially happy one because I knew exactly what this publisher was looking for, had tried twice before to produce just that and each time had missed the mark. So I was delighted to be on target this time.

What made my heart quicken, though, wasn’t the sale. It was the promise of “editorial comments.”

Sometimes small pieces such as this one—a baby board book—move from submission to contract to publication without a word being changed. In fact, the manuscript may leave my hands and not reappear again until it’s nearly a book. And that’s fine. I work my manuscripts closely before I show them. Sometimes nothing more is needed. But how pleased I am when an editor out there, someone I usually haven’t even met, LOVES this closely worked manuscript, enters into it, and discovers possibilities I hadn’t seen myself.

That’s when the fun begins.

I’ve said it here before. Revision can be the best part. When I’m writing anything for the first time I have nothing before me except a blank screen and nothing to write out of except the swirl of my own brain. I’ve never been of the writing-is-easy-all-I-have-to-do-is-sit-down-at-the-typewriter-and-open-a-vein school. I enjoy writing. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be doing it, certainly not at this time of life when my days are so precious by being more clearly limited.

But the fun only grows—what does it grow . . . deeper, larger, funner?—when I get to climb back inside what I already love and play there again.

I haven’t worked with this particular editor before, so I don’t know what our process will be like. But from the comments she made on the two pieces she turned down, I know she has a clear vision, and I’m confident my small manuscript will grow stronger in meeting it.

Editors aren’t always right. We all know that. I have just been through an editing process with another picture book in which the editor, while being confident and competent and making many good calls, also asked that I pull back some language in a way that would have diminished the work. The solution? I agreed, agreed, agreed, following his lead to a stronger, cleaner manuscript, and stood my ground on the language I knew would enrich my readers. I don’t know that I convinced him, but he let me have my way.

In forty years of working with editors, though, I have found that most of them are right most of the time. They not only approach my manuscript with insight learned from wide-ranging practice, but they approach it with something I can never have, no matter how hard I work . . . objectivity. They are like vocal coaches who have the clear advantage of standing apart from me to hear my song.

And to have someone else there with me in the playground of my creation, someone who cares as much as I do about the choice of each word, the flow of the language, the intent of the piece . . . well, fun doesn’t get much better than that!

I can hardly wait.

Working with an Editor

12_17It’s a question I have heard many times: How, folks ask, can an editor tell you what to do? It’s your story, after all. Surely you know better than anyone else what it needs!

And, of course, it is my story, and before an editor ever sees it I’ve invested everything in it that I have to give. Or at least I think I have. But I’ve learned to equate what an editor brings to my story with what a vocal coach does for a singer. She stands outside my piece and hears/sees it whole. Especially, she sees what’s missing, often what lives so deeply inside me that I don’t recognize that it isn’t yet on the page. Her questions reopen the door to my story so I can climb back inside and discover it new.

That, of course, is the ideal, and editors are human, just as writers are, so not every interaction is ideal. But in a career that spans forty years I have worked with dozens of different editors, and nearly every encounter I’ve had has strengthened the piece we worked on together. Some editors have simply let my manuscript stand without requesting revision, though that’s been true only of picture books. When I submit a picture book manuscript it has been closely worked, and it’s possible to polish four-hundred or so words to so high a shine that they don’t need revision. But I would be disappointed if an editor accepted a longer work of mine without bringing her own insights to the page. However long I’ve labored over it, I will, inevitably, have missed important pieces, and when I hear what’s lacking from reviewers I’ll no longer have a chance to respond.

The only editing I find difficult to accept is the kind that tries to fix a problem for me instead of merely defining it so I can do the fixing. I want to be told what works and what doesn’t and then given the room to climb back into my story. Most editors do precisely that.

Over the years I’ve often been told that I’m a “real professional.” What that means, I’ve decided, is that I don’t make trouble. I listen and keep my mouth shut and do what’s needed. And it works. I’ve never had any book published where I regretted changes I’d made under an editor’s supervision.

Here’s the simple rule I operate under that gives me the label of “professional.” First, when an editor speaks, I listen. I don’t challenge or defend even if there is a challenge going on inside my head. I just listen. I ask questions, and I listen some more. Then I sit down with the edits and go through them thoughtfully and with care. They fall, I find, into three categories.

For most my response is, Oh, of course. I should have thought of that. And those I fix with gratitude.

For some I think, Well . . . I can see that it could be the way you are suggesting, though I’m not quite convinced your idea is better than mine. Still, your way wouldn’t diminish what I’m doing here, and since you have the advantage of perspective, I’ll do it. And I make the change without comment.

And then comes the final—and much smaller—category. That’s where I’m certain the editor’s suggestion isn’t a fit, where I believe making the change would actually diminish my work. That’s the place, and the only place, that I hold my ground. And because I’m not arguing every other point, because I’m clearly responding fully to the editor’s intent, those points rarely become a matter of contention. In the few cases where an editor continued to want a change as strongly as I didn’t want it, we always found a compromise.

We’re told again and again that editors now have little time to edit, that the day of Maxwell Perkins and Ursula Nordstrom is over. But however they find time to do it—in the evenings at home is my best guess—I have rarely felt that an editor paid insufficient attention to a manuscript of mine. In fact, again and again I have been grateful for the improved book that has emerged under an editor’s guidance.

Working with an editor? It’s one of the blessings of this good career.

What about Branding?

Writing BooksOnce you’re published, you hear a lot these days about “branding,” about getting settled into and known in a single genre. No one talked about branding when I came into the field forty years ago. But then my peers and I almost always started out under the guidance of a single editor, and that editor usually did his or her own shaping of our careers. If you succeeded with your first novel or your first picture book or your first work of nonfiction, your editor was very apt to want more of the same next time around. The result was that we usually did start with one genre and stay there. All my early work was in middle-grade novels, and my first editor had little interest in seeing anything else from me.

A shift that he did support was to a trilogy of books on writing, What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction; A Writer’s Story: From Life to Fiction and Our Stories: A Fiction Workshop for Young Writers. I was a writing teacher as well as a writer and the how-tos of writing were what I knew, so it was a logical step and a reasonably successful one.

I only began to be able to experiment further when the unwritten, unspoken rules of the publishing world shifted, and it became possible to publish with more than one or two houses. Then the door to real experimentation finally stood open.

Was I impeded by being confined to my middle-grade novels (and that writing trilogy) in my early years? I was sometimes annoyed by the limitation, but I suspect I profited by it. I was getting grounded in the novel. I was also getting known as novelist.

Now few writers feel confined to a single publisher, nor does a publisher invest in shaping each writer’s career. So unless you have an agent guiding your choices, you are pretty much on your own deciding when–and if–branching into new territory is a good idea.

My own opinion is that, once you are established–and established, I acknowledge, isn’t always easy to define–branching into new genres is the best way to sustain a long career. It gives you a chance to try out what you didn’t think you could do, to discover new topics and new genres that interest you and to develop new strengths.

I have now published in just about every genre in the juvenile field except graphic novels. I’ve written novelty books, board books, picture books, early readers–both fiction and nonfiction, novellas for younger readers, middle grade and young adult fiction. For what it’s worth, I suppose I’ve become my own “brand.” I continue to survive–financially, I mean–without having to do other work on the side precisely because I keep myself open, keep experimenting, keep looking for new opportunities and new challenges. Editors sometimes come to me wanting a certain kind of work they have seen me do before. And I feel privileged, having just celebrated my 74th birthday, to still be working, to still be publishing.

My advice for those who come behind me? Don’t play it safe. Try something you’ve never done before. You might crash and burn. If you do, no harm done. You put it on the shelf and try something else. But there is a good chance that you’ll discover another kind of writing you love to do, another kind of work you can do.

So . . . keep challenging yourself. Keep learning to write what you never thought you could. It’s the best way I know to stay fresh. And if writing for young readers isn’t fresh, what possible use can it be?

Leaving your “brand” behind and trying something new may not be the key to instant success, but it is certainly the key to a long and fruitful career.