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So, that happens

I’ve recently read a couple of drafts written by more-or-less novice writers who had asked me for feedback, and as a result I’m now contemplating the best way to write tight, compelling movement into a story without making it too action-driven. The first recommendation I’ll always have is ‘don’t listen to me. Go read a book you really like that does it well, and pay attention to it.’ A good story will catch you up in the world and you’ll miss the way the writer pulls you in and hooks you. Also… style is very much A Thing. Different writers are going to do this in different ways, so read several good stories, and make notes, and then go back and look at your draft. Me? I tend to be wordy. I need to literally tighten up my sentences. Other people? Might want to consider condensing their introduction of character and setting into something more cohesive and perhaps even have it happen alongside plot. Sprinkle it in like stage setting with dialogue. But not too much!

There are no real rules to writing, but there are an awful lot of ways you can do it wrong. Having an editor to help you is good, yes, but what happens when the editor asks you to make changes you don’t think are going to help the story? Say you chose to give only one side of a conversation. This can be a helpful tool in keeping a hint of mystery in a story. Or it can simply be a way to keep from bogging down a scene by having all the minutiae brought into it. I think all of us can recall a conversation where we only heard one side, and that was enough to cue us into what was going on. I’ve certainly had those where I wasn’t even really listening but by the time my First Reader put the phone down I knew we were going to be going to visit the Moms, or not, as the case may be. Stylistic choices are up to the writer, and sometimes the writer may need to gently push back at the editor to maintain their style.

Also, turn track changes on in any document you send to an editor. Every word processing program is different in how you do this. Google is your friend, here, to find the specifics for you. I think I’ve told the story before of how I hired my first editor, paid an amount I could ill afford, and much later, realized that the changes I naively assumed were necessary were… well, my later editor who helped me restore the manuscript pointed out that my authorial voice had all but been stripped away by the work done. And because I’d not saved an earlier draft, there wasn’t a way to easily undo that expensive mistake. It is your story. You told it. Yes, taking critique is very important and especially if you have submitted it, you should be listening to the editor. But editors aren’t perfect, no one is. Ask for help, if you’re not sure. Find a trusted friend who knows what they are doing and is willing to be critical if need be, and check your gut. Chances are, you’re right. You know how I know that? Because if you were that wrong and arrogant, you’d not be doubting yourself so much!

Got a bit you’re not sure of? Put it in the comments and I’ll look at it along with the other commentators. Keep it fairly short, please, and remember: you don’t have to make changes based on anyone’s recommendation. Trust your own instincts!

12 Comments
  1. Because I focus on short fiction and because I also focus on indie publications, I have worked with a quite a few editors.

    Generally speaking I accept proofing changes–spelling, grammar, punctuation–without much thought. Even if I think that my way was more proper, when a piece is going to be part of a larger project it’s important that there is a consistent style, and if the editor is a Chicago Manual guy then that’s the style that all the stories are going to follow.

    I’ll take more time with corrections made to dialogue because people don’t talk in complete, grammatical sentences. I also tend to mix up action and dialogue in ways that drive editors batty, because people also don’t talk just with their voices. But I don’t automatically reject corrections in dialogue because sometimes what’s clear in my head doesn’t make sense to someone reading it cold, and a good editor can pick up on what I mean to say and show me a better way of saying it.

    Structural edits take more time to work through. By that I mean moving sentences or paragraphs around (“You should explain why the elevator is on fire before the dolphins arrive” kind of thing.) Or deletions of unneeded explanations (“You don’t have to say that, it’s obvious from the context.”) With those kinds of edits I read through both versions and decide which works better. And I usually end up siding with the editor, but not always.

    Story edits can be a problem. I’ve walked away from a couple of sales because I was unwilling to change what I felt was an element integral to the story.

    I had one SF/Horror story about a man trapped in a self-driving car that had dumped its programming and kept driving around in circles. The editor liked the basic concept, but wanted me to rewrite it so it had a happy ending. I said no, the central conceit of the story was that trusting your life to a machine you can’t turn off is a really bad idea and if the main character ends up okay it nerfs the whole point.

    So I wasn’t in that collection. No biggie, I sold that story to someone else who liked the downbeat ending.

    On the other hand, sometimes an editor can make a suggestion that I think improves the story. More than once this has resulted in me doing a major rewrite. I don’t mind doing that for a story that hasn’t been officially accepted yet because if I think the change is for the better and the editor who suggested it ends up not buying the reworked version, I still have a stronger story to send out to the next market.

    I can think of two occasions where that exact thing has happened, in fact–I rewrote a story on the basis of one editor’s suggestions and then sold it someone else later on.

    September 14, 2019
    • I once pulled a story I’d submitted on the request of an editor. Unfortunately, the editor who’d asked me to sub wasn’t the one the story was assigned to for editing. And the very young and inexperienced editor it was given to (I looked them up) came back and asked me to change the very nature of the story, from Man V Wild, to Man V Werewolves. I pulled the story. There are things you just should not be willing to do for an editor.

      September 14, 2019
      • Yes, that’s a bridge too far. Sort of like the non-fiction review I got that recommended “just” adding another state’s history to the book. Which would have required at least a year of research to be able to do. The boss-editor said, “What? Nopity no! Don’t do that, focus on this, that, and this.”

        September 14, 2019
    • I walked away from a sale one time because the editor wanted me to add something that made it clear that the two specific characters in the central story did indeed have a happy ending after they blew up the evil alien overlords’ temple. The frame story made it clear that the evil alien overlords left the planet after that, even if *they* tried to frame it as “you are unworthy of us” rather than a surrender, and the rebels built the dominant society of the frame story. However, I could see there was no way to get in information about the ultimate fates of those two characters after they abandoned the item the frame story’s protagonist was using to learn their story without introducing a second “gimme,” which to my mind was one too many.

      I later sold the story as it stood to an anthology.

      September 14, 2019
  2. I’m OCD about saving drafts, both in my day job and in my fiction writing. Dropbox or another cloud backup service is your friend. So is clearly labeling versions in the name. (Like “Romans In Space draft 20.06.2019 before copy edit”, or whatever.)

    September 14, 2019
  3. Zsuzsa #

    I will say that I think being indie is a nice clarification of the proper relationship between writer and editor. On the one hadn’t, you personally are paying for the editor’s advice; why are you doing that if you’re just going to get indignant and throw a fit every time the editor tells you to change something? On the other, the fact that you’re paying the editor also makes it clear that they work for you, not the other way around. You need to take the editors suggestions and use them to construct the best story possible, not do what the editor wants because this is 6th grade, and you just got a homework assignment.

    September 14, 2019
    • Mary #

      Well, there are some people who do that because they expect to be told their stories are perfect in every way. Once ran into someone like that in a writing site, who later joined an online writing group I was. . . .

      To be sure, we rejoiced, loudly, when we heard he had sold to PublishAmerica.

      September 14, 2019
    • That’s why I want to keep going Indy – that the experts that I hire report to me, not to some faceless and unseen mysterious publisher with their own agenda.
      I own my work, dammit. I want to be able to hire good people who report to me.

      September 16, 2019
  4. I think the biggest thing an editor can do-outside of actual grammar and spelling correcitons-is make sure that they put up signs and flags around the worst plot mistakes, so you can fix them.

    The trick is, for the editor, is not to try and write over the author’s shoulder-which I’ve seen before. Hell, I’ve even done it before.

    September 14, 2019
    • Yeah, pretty much this.

      September 15, 2019
      • It’s a tricky line to walk. Too little, you let the author color way outside the lines. Too much, it’s like the Heinlein juveniles-the process to get to final manuscript is fraught with pain and tears.

        September 18, 2019
  5. Draven #

    I had to deal with an editor/translator for the German version of the tech site i was writing for. I spent hours on the phone with him running something by me ” well how about this? it means this… ” – rephrasing things so they translated better. Problem was sometimes the rephrasing was changing the meaning of the sentence and in a couple point they were changing the meaning of what was begin said so that it was technically incorrect.

    September 16, 2019

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