When editors say ‘Yes, but . . .’







An editor (or agent) writes back saying, “I love your piece, but for it to be a success in today’s marketplace, you’re going to have to change . . .”  The writer’s initial delight spirals down and goes splat. What to do now?

Where does ‘refusing to compromise’ and ‘being true to the story’ become ‘arbitrarily refusing editorial advice’?

First of all, the function of editors and agents seems to be evolving, at least so I perceive from my distance. They seem to be curiously polar for people who are to interact so closely: these days, many agents appear to be less daring, more about finding the project that will perform best in the marketplace, than many editors. I came to this conclusion partly from an episode of personal experience, mainly from hearing editors on panels talking about what they would like to see but aren’t–and hearing writers say that they write that very thing, but can’t seem to get it past an agent.

I realize there are many factors involved, of course. Probably the first thing anyone is tempted to bring up is the quality argument. Oh, yeah. Anyone on the net longer than a day hasn’t seen some lively (or nasty) exchanges in which Party A finds a book brilliant or entertaining and Party B thinks it a total stinker, and who was the idiot who published that?

For writers who want to sell their fiction in the traditional markets, dealing with difficult subjects and breaking rules is risky, as editors’ parameters seem to roll back and forth along this tense, never-resolved axis between what they are sure will do well in the marketplace, and what might be new, and a big hit. “New” is so often difficult to describe: what one reader thinks new and daring, another reader will say, “Henry Miller did that, and better, back in 1963.” Also, “new” can fall flat: readers don’t like it. Readers didn’t take to Moby Dick until how many years after the author was dead?

Rules: when one goes back in literature, the rules of character behavior really stand out. At one point in Jane Austen’s Emma, she makes brief but acid fun of a then-popular trope, of a heroine nobly refusing the hero in favor of her friend who is also in love with the hero, even though the friend is “unworthy” in some way. Female noble sacrifice was as “in” as utter innocence in emotional love, until Austen held that particular trope up to be as ridiculous an idea as it really is. You don’t find it nearly as much in literature after Emma came out.

The rules in romance have gone through enormous sea change during the past thirty years. I remember the rigid requirements of Harlequin back in the early eighties: there had to be kissing closing chapter one, there had to be sex (but problems) by this chapter, etc etc. Ten years before that, the heroine could be kissed until her lips bruised, but no sex until she got the ring on her finger–sex was left to the narsty and evil Other Woman.

Romance is a tremendously dynamic category. Women readers have made it a top seller, but they are also vocal about what they want, and so the category has broken those rules as it reinvents itself again and again. There are publishing lines all over that feature this or that type of storyline. But still they are romances, there are certain things the characters do that don’t emulate real life–because for the most part, readers read romance to escape from the sharp shards of real life. It feels good to relax into a book knowing that the problems won’t be horrific, or if they are, all will be right in the end. When character behavior dips skillfully into reality a little more–pushing the rules–editors can get scared that the book, even if beautifully written, will tank. Market versus art.

Difficult subjects. There is a LOT of “I’m writing risky subjects” going on that I see. The problem seems two-fold, as far as I can see: there is handling it well, and then there is marketability. In other words, editors might not have an objection to the subject itself, they would rather have something that they are sure will place better in the marketplace.

Then there is how the subject is handled. It was interesting to watch the launch of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, which now has prompted a zillion echoes. When they first appeared, some thought the books incredibly daring and risky, while others wrote long reviews saying variations of, “What’s risky about long descriptions of torture-sex when the central character is never harmed, but magically fixes all problems just by letting herself be tortured?”

Some editor got the feeling that the time had come for this story, and was right. I wonder if Jacqueline Carey had to make several tries before she sold that first book—if she was advised to tone down her subject matter, or tell another story altogether, making her central character into a swordswoman, or something that would be more easily marketable.

Back to compromise. How can you tell when advice to change things is good advice, and when not? In refusing advice, how can one tell the difference between ego-massage and the high moral ground of protecting the integrity of one’s art? I guess one can say that the writer who is constantly endeavoring to reach for some kind of truth through art, C.S. Lewis’s “lies breathed through silver,” is the one who is making the right choices, but what about the fact that so many people’s truth varies so much? One has only to look at election rhetoric in this country going on right now to be reminded that “the right thing to do” can look different from various vantage points.

My feeling is that we can’t be sure, but that doesn’t excuse us from trying—and many are going straight to self-publishing to see if the marketplace wants their vision after all. We’re a species of mimicry as well as imagination, we build our civilization by echo soundings as well as trial and error. Art is a mirror; it not only reflects our fascinating selves, but also the stars.



When editors say ‘Yes, but . . .’ — 14 Comments

  1. Doesn’t it all come down–not entirely, but in large part–to the artist’s instincts? Good advice feels right. One can see how to follow it or address the issue in an entirely different, yet satisfying way. Bad advice doesn’t lead anywhere else.
    Same with editing? But so much is subjective. As you said what works for person A won’t for person B.

    • One of the vexing things about instinct is that a writer can feel justified in choices, especially immediately after the heat of composition, but feel very differently some time later. The “white fire” novel–the one that takes over and writes itself–can feel as if it’s perfect and true after the heat of composition. But that can turn out to be problematical.

  2. But when the fire is out, won’t the writer reread in a cooler and more objective mood?
    By the way, saw your comment over on the main blog. Agree Death at Pemberley is a travesty. A friend who enjoyed it gave it to me.
    And it rained here this morning–a little–but still!

  3. One thing that helps me decide about compromising is, Will this let the story be the story that it is? Or is this trying to make the story into something it isn’t? An editor said to me about one story, “If you could only change this, then I think I could publish it”–but I thought that thing was a deal breaker, so I was writing my regrets, and even as I was typing the email, I saw how, no, it wasn’t at all. And got very excited at the thought I could make a change that would let the story still be the story I had in mind–only publishable.

    If, on the other hand, someone’s advice makes you feel like you’re turning the story into something that no longer feels like the story you want to tell, then it hardly matters if that allows the story to get into print—-if it no longer feels like your story, or if it loses something that’s important to you.

    • I agree. And that breaking point can be very difficult to articulate to someone else. But that is the point when art turns into product, if one goes ahead anyway, to make a buck.

    • One thing that helps me decide about compromising is, Will this let the story be the story that it is? Or is this trying to make the story into something it isn’t?

      Yes. This.

      I find it useful to step back for a week or more. My initial reaction is often resistance, and I know that. I need some time to let the ideas bubble around while I get perspective so I can see the story more clearly.

  4. Don’t authors also sometimes write to the market without editorial prompting? I wonder if the internal editor and marketing manager aren’t sometimes harder to answer than the external.

    • They do indeed. \However, the writer, at least, perceives a difference between the complications of inspiration, whatever the parameters, and being told to change something because the ‘market demands it’.

  5. In his book ‘On Writing’ Stephen King recommends leaving a manuscript for 6 weeks before looking at it again. I’ve found this helps.
    With my beta readers I found I was able to incorporate most of their suggestions without trashing my story. It comes down to WHY you are writing that particular story, the driving theme in the story, and whether the changes will make your whole purpose in writing meaningless.
    It also comes down to how keen you are to sell or look elsewhere.

    • I’ve found the problem is often that six weeks isn’t enough to really wipe it from my mind, but I imagine once one is professionally published, there are deadlines to consider.