How to write a book · Life Form 3

How to ignore an editor’s suggestions and still fix your novel

3500507_8a3ccc0c1eWhen my agent took my second novel Life Form 3 he mostly adored it – but felt the main threat took too long to develop.

A publisher was interested so we had a meeting. In a creative, convivial afternoon, we brainstormed ideas. I took reams of notes. But in the end I did nothing they suggested. Not one thing.

They were right

At home I made a beat sheet (one of my all-time lifesaving revision tools, explained in Nail Your Novel). It had been a while since I’d read the manuscript. The beat sheet showed that too much of the first half was atmosphere instead of story. My esteemed colleagues were right that it was slow.

They were wrong

But they were disastrously wrong about how to pep it up. ‘Let’s have a character on the run, a threatening political movement in the wider world of the book, another sub-plot to keep characters busier’… All sorts of plot fireworks, all out of kilter and unnecessary. I knew the central character had a compelling major problem and that the action must come from that, not from a carnival of chaos around the edges.

So how did I fix the book?

jan2 12 002What was I thinking?

As always, the best insight came from examining why I wrote the story the way I did – made possible by the beat sheet (left, with fortifying accessories). I included those slow scenes for a good reason – to introduce ideas and threats that would emerge later. I’d made them strange and intriguing, but I now saw they didn’t have enough momentum in themselves. They didn’t immediately generate interesting situations.

I’d known I was in trouble
I had even suspected they were weak, so I’d tried to solve it with false jeopardy. I confess I made the main character worry that nasty things could happen. I now clutch my head in shame – these extended periods of worrying were not jeopardy, they were nothing darn well happening.

I even realised this, and tried to atone by making the main threat bigger. In hindsight it creaked with desperation.

Agent and publisher were nice enough not to say any of this. Perhaps they didn’t notice or mind. Perhaps only I knew how bad it was, because I knew my desperate motivations.

Unpleasant as it was to examine my writerly conscience, the answers helped me decide what to keep, what to add and what to adjust.

Better. Stronger. Faster.
I returned with a leaner, stronger Life Form 3. A really compelling read, said my agent – not noticing it was actually longer. He didn’t give a hoot that I’d ignored his suggestions. He didn’t even remember them. Unfortunately the publisher’s imprint closed that month – so Life Form 3 was out in the cold again. But that’s another story.

Editorial suggestions

Some writers hate it when editors, beta readers et al make suggestions. I don’t – I welcome them as oblique illuminations from the surface to the murky deep. And if you’re new to the writing game, or need to fit an unfamiliar genre, there’s much that a savvy editor can do to guide you.

But you mature as a novelist by understanding your own style and your individual ways – which includes how you handle your material and second-guess your own process. In a talk given at BAFTA, screenwriter, playwright and novelist William Nicholson said it’s the editor/producer’s job to tell you something’s wrong, and the writer’s job to find out what that is.

Before you act on revision notes, reread your manuscript and examine why you wrote what you did. This is how you stay true to your novel – and how you come into your own as a writer.

Thanks for the camel pic Loufi

In my next post I’ll discuss in detail how to add jeopardy to a story. In the meantime, let’s discuss –

Have you had detailed editorial advice on revisions, and how did you approach it? Do you appreciate it when editors chip in with changes they think would improve a book?

Nail-that-Novel-TEENYYou can find my beat sheet in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.  A second Nail Your Novel is under construction – if you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.

And – spoon tapping on glass – this week I had an email from CreateSpace telling me that demand for the print edition has been so high that Amazon placed a bulk order so they have enough stocks for Christmas. Who says indies are killing print? 🙂


44 thoughts on “How to ignore an editor’s suggestions and still fix your novel

  1. Thanks, Roz! What a timely post. I just finished the first draft of my second novel, and I’m starting on the draft 2 revisions. I’m incorporating feedback from my Alpha Reader (my wife) as I go. The next step will be sending it out to my beta readers.

    Unlike some authors, I look forward to revision. My beta readers were a great help on my last novel. They helped me create a much stronger book. But I agree with you regarding how to take advice. When reviewing beta reader or even editor comments, here are the questions and rules I apply:

    #1. Do I agree? Asking that question first saves me a lot of time. I won’t make changes to my manuscript that I don’t agree with. If I did, I know those changes would bug me forever.

    #2. What is the root of the complaint/suggestion? Sometimes I had to read between the lines, so to speak, to see exactly what was behind the comments that were made. I wasn’t afraid to ask for clarification if I had trouble figuring it out.

    #3. Ignore suggestions for the most part. The book needs to be the story I want to tell, and rarely did anyone make suggestions for fixing something that fit into my vision for the book. The suggestions were still useful for figuring out #2, but I always solved the root problem the way I thought it should be done.

    #4 View all criticism and suggestions in the spirit they were intended (and that I asked for): they are just trying to help. The way beta readers choose to word things may sting sometimes, or they may not qualify their statements with niceties like “in my opinion,” but that is really all criticism is…opinion.

    These rules have helped me avoid taking criticism personally, and they allow me to maintain the integrity of the story as I envisioned it. My readers will ultimately decide whether or not that vision was a good one.

    1. Hi Daniel! Some wise points in your comment. Especially #4 – these are (usually) genuine attempts to help you write a better book. Although it can be hard for us to accept that we haven’t hit the bullseye immediately (especially because no one knows how much angst we’ve already gone through) they do intend to help.
      Good luck with your revisions. Hope it’s proving positive, even if it’s rocky.

  2. Great post, Roz. We’re always stressing over how we’re going to deal with editors and/or publishers wanting to change our book around. I’m staunchly to the side of not changing anything, while my mom believes we should be able to compromise. You found a perfect medium for us to follow! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Inion. It’s a question of striking a balance – especially if you’re relatively new to all this. I’m not so sure it’s compromise – that’s usually a half-way point that satisfies no one. You don’t want a book that’s a monstrous hybrid of a few people’s visions. You want a book that is yours – and advice to help you do it well.

  3. Very interesting post. I’ve often wondered about whether editors sometimes make suggestions for changes which aren’t in the best interests of the story. Drawing a distinction between the identification of a problem and the specific solution proposed seems like a good way around it.

    1. Hi Dom! Yes, editors certainly do make suggestions that aren’t the best option for the story. For many reasons. Sometimes it’s because they want it to fit a more predictable – dare we say ‘saleable’ – hole. Sometimes it’s because they know how they would do it, or how another author would do it and they’d be more comfortable if it did that. Sometimes they’re floundering to say what, exactly, is wrong, and the most natural way to demonstrate it is to have a stab at correcting it. And when, as a writer, you get some duff suggestions, you are at least able to gauge the depth of the editor’s unease and the scale of the change they’re looking for.

  4. “The editor/producer’s job to tell you something’s wrong, and the writer’s job to find out what that is.”

    Truer words have never been spoken. I too take readers’ complaints seriously, but try to find out the reason *why* for myself. As I discovered with my own novel (and I’m drafting a blog post on this at the moment), what the readers tell you is wrong is not necessarily what is *actually* wrong. But their feelings are perfectly valid, and should be heard without taking it personally.

  5. I’ve had a similar experience. I call my agent my “book doctor” as she has an uncanny ability to diagnose the problem. The slow start diagnosis seems to be one of those symptoms of many, many different literary diseases — with many treatments. I always listen to what the book doc says. But sometimes I solve the problem with “alternative” medicines. She may suggest moving certain actions closer to the start of the book or a similar “treatment” but I’ve usually find another solution.

    As long as the problems gets fixed (or the disease gets treated and your book gets healthy) than it’s all good!

  6. Oh, yes, I’ve had plenty of advice on how to “fix” a project, and it’s always appreciated, even if my jaw is clenched and I can feel arteries about to blow 🙂 You’re so correct in saying that an editorial eye can detect a problem, but it’s not their project and don’t always correctly identify the problem or present solutions that make sense. We’re the only ones who can sweat out how to fix what’s not working. I generally take the route of putting time between me and the project so I can grow my own set of objective eyes and a mind that’s fresh, as well as a reader’s mentality–ah! a new book! Wonder if it’s any good.

    It also depends on who’s giving the advice. There are some people who have the gift of developmental editing, and they’ve sharpened what I consider their art to a brilliant sheen. There are some who can see through the work of others with an uncanny ability to detect the “why” and “what” of the writer’s intent better than the writer. It really is a gift and an art form, and if someone like that knocks me out with their talent, I listen and obey.

    1. Cyd You have obviously found treasures! I have found bright and shiny egotists, convinced that my book would have been so much better if they had written it. As a meta reader I try hard not to impose my views but indicate only where I stumbled and turned back pages, or turned them more quickly forward. It is a delicate business from both sides of the equation. There is a relief in being ignored, because then you know that the vision you could not quite share, had an inner strength. With regards to slow starts…slow is often defined by the skill of the writer ( or absence of it). Like watching the ripples in a pond before plot breaks the surface. It can rise fully formed, or rather decomposed by too much caution. ‘Tis a high-wire act, is writing, and those sensitive enough to nurture the balance are rare and precious. ‘ Editor’ hardly does them justice. Book doctor gets much nearer…book botanist?

      1. Hi both! I thought you’d have something to say here.
        Cyd, distance is utterly essential. Not only so that you can see the book afresh, so that you’re not still carrying the scars of all the battles you’ve done with it. When I put a draft away, everything is raw and I’m not in the mood to have my frazzled judgement questioned. Once the book has settled, I’m perfectly willing to have a civilised discussion about what may or may not work.
        As to the simpatico editor, you’re dead on. I always try to put myself in the writer’s shoes. If necessary I question them about what they are trying to do. In reports I often present several options, making it clear that they are options. (Some of my reports are very long…)

        Philippa, you highlight the ugly flipside. You’re spot on – there are people who go bludgeoning a book so much, they’re obviously just putting their mark on it. Not the same as helping the author.
        Your method of critique sounds like the one I advocated in Nail Your Novel bk 1 – ask beta readers where they got bored or lost, and the bits they liked.
        Actually you said meta reader – was that a typo? I like it.

      2. Book botanist. That sounds wonderful. You may have created a new niche those with the talent can fill. (I know they’re out there.)

  7. Love this post, Roz! Yes, going back to the beginning (*why* we did something and understanding what we were trying to accomplish) is a great way to see the other options for how to fix an issue. I’ve done this with beta notes several time–ignore *what* they said and try to solve the problem behind *why* they said it. 🙂

  8. Hi Roz,

    I’ve definitely had the experience of driving home from writing group thinking I can’t do that–some large revision task they had set before me. And then, taking Eleanor Roosevelt’s words to heart…”You must do the thing you think you cannot do…” I was able to make changes that really enhanced the work.

    Other times I chose not to take the group’s advice–my group tended to be more genre-focused, and I was writing genre/literary hybrid. Or I had an African American character say, “Tell me you is okay,” and a midwestern editor wanted to change the verb, which I, an urban dweller, knew was not appropriate to the character. So, I think you have to decide, My challenge is to seriously consider suggestions before deciding. Waiting helps.

    1. Hi Deb
      It’s even more difficult if your brand of book is out on a limb. People can only guess what to tell you. And they may not even be right about you being wrong… if you see what I mean. Sometimes only time will sort out the mess.

  9. I had a similar experience with my forthcoming novel. My editor felt that the return of one character at the end sewed things up a bit too neatly. (I have a penchant for doing that, alas.) She suggested handling it one way, and I began the rewrite fully intending to do so. But as I wrote, another route showed itself–and that’s what I followed. My editor loved the result and so did I! When I make editorial suggestions to students, I tell them to argue with me and back up their reasons for what they wrote. As long as there’s sound reasoning that works with the story, I’ll buy it!

    1. Hi Charlotte! What an interesting reminder that sewing things up neatly is not always the best option. Although we probably do that while seeking the right sort of closure – or at least the reason why the story ends where we say it does. Enlightening anecdote – thanks for dropping by.

  10. What a great post! I recently went through a similar rewrite process. One of the agents I had submitted to gave me feedback that my main conflict took too long to appear, and she was absolutely right!

    My main conflict didn’t come up until chapter seven, more than halfway through the book! Before that, I thought that the main character’s grief was enough conflict to keep the reader interested. But I was wrong; the book dragged at the beginning.

    So I did a rewrite which mainly just rearranged everything. Now my main conflict comes up in chapter four, much earlier than halfway. I also adjusted the beginning to raise more questions. Now the whole book is more compelling.

    I always appreciate critiques, and I usually find that there’s a way to incorporate them to create overall stronger writing. Sometimes I’ll adjust the advice to fit my vision of the story or characters. But when someone offers me constructive criticism (emphasis on constructive), there is almost always a good point or two in there. The key is finding the balance.

    I actually asked the agent to give me her input. Her original email declining my book gave me no reasons for her doing so. I had to assure her that I understand why she didn’t give me a critique (because many writers can be pretty awful about accepting criticism), but that I would truly appreciate her advice. After she sent me her opinions, I was sure to thank her for them and inform her that I would use them to rewrite a (hopefully) stronger novel.

    1. Sierra, it’s so interesting how much time we can spend throat-clearing when we should be getting on with the story.
      It amazes me how many agents are willing to give detailed criticism. When they’re drowning in workload, they still have time to single out a few things that might make all the difference to a writer’s development. But you must have made an impression too.

  11. “I now clutch my head in shame”

    That strikes me as an unnecessary overreaction with which, however, I can definitely relate. The truth is, I can’t even bear to look at many of my first and second (and third) drafts. But even worse than those are my first fledgling attempts at a novel — the mere memory of which still causes me to wince.

    Painters of the representational school have a saying that if the neophyte knew in the beginning how much she has to learn, she’d never undertake the task of becoming a painter. I think this is equally true of novel writing.

    Early on in my “writing life” — if I may use that bullshit terminology — I experienced some small literary success, when I was twenty, and I stupidly assumed from this early success that in choosing to be a writer (which I very consciously did) I’d have no real trouble succeeding. It was over a decade later that I finally published again, and even that was nothing much. Several more years passed. I’m still a bartender. Well, at least I’ve never stopped writing, despite all those winces, and my love of literature has only deepened.

    I once attended a lecture in which an English actor, a Shakespearean no longer young, said (and I quote): “When I was a teenager, I was the greatest actor in the world. Then I went to acting school and for about ten years I forgot how to act.”

    He might easily have been describing me, the arc of my writing life.

    “the veining resembled the muscled hindquarters of a Grecian horse”

    “like clouds into a mackerel sky”

    “Music, the language of souls”

    “walls cracked like eggshells”

    “fawn suede”

    “the sky darkening as if the day was closing down.”

    “Tiny, ghostly fishing ships”

    “Slimy rags of seaweed”

    “Red smudges in the tempestuous sky”

    “a greenish tint like a stagnant pond”

    “shadows creeping behind the clouds”

    These and so many other such lines from your book are among the reasons you need never clutch your head in shame over what you’ve written. You’ve given us something beautiful.

    1. This comment resonates very deeply! Oh the desperation of hope over no experience! When I was in my twenties a manuscript found its way onto the desk of an Editor for Alfred Knopf, and it started the most important correspondence that probably kept me writing in the teeth of repeated failure. The Editor was a marvelously generous woman who read my long scripts in bed, and wrote me letters running to ten pages, on every aspect of writing and the philosophy of life in general. When she read my first novel she said ‘It has everything, and it is an important work…for YOU. But please don’t publish. You will regret it.

      I was devastated, but looking at it now, she saved me from much cringing. When she died I was invited to her memorial, along with John Updike, William Burroughs, William Buckley etc. So her generosity extended to saving me from myself. She knew about literary maturity, and knew I didn’t. I owe her everything.

    2. Thank you, Ray – not just for the (completely unexpected) quoting of my work, but also for your incisive examples of the writer’s journey. What that actor said puts our dilemma brilliantly. It’s a wonder we ever dare to do anything after a while.
      Thank you also for your smart and heartfelt explorations of what moves you in literature – not the usual path of most writer-bloggers.

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