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Ethical editors

My husband isn't a writer, but he's lived with me for long enough that he's had to develop an interest in all aspects of the profession. It was actually his idea that I start these ramblings because he thought they'd be of interest to people; I've worked in bookstores for more than half my life now, and he thought what's invisible to me because it's so ingrained wouldn't necessarily be invisible to everyone else. It's been interesting because I'm certain I still make assumptions while trying to break things down into component parts.

Bookstores were my haunts; when I was first allowed to go downtown by myself, it was to bookstores (and libraries) that I went. Getting a job in a bookstore was like a dream come true, and if some of the wonder eroded with time -- and the shock of things like stripped books -- there's still a particular thrill when a shipment of new books comes through the door.

Which actually has nothing at all to do with tonight's ramble. This is a writing ramble, start to finish, although it has nothing to do with process. But it's happening in part because said husband thought it would also be informative. Just so you know where to send the hate mail <g>.

There's a lot of very good advice out on the web, now. There's a lot of advice which is probably so particular it's only good to a narrow wedge of the writing population, and if taken generally, is actually very bad advice.

When I decided to write prose for publication, I was in my mid-twenties, and at that age where I suddenly realized I had to have something to do. I wrote two short stories first, and sent them to F&SF when Ann Jordan was, I think, the managing editor. They were rejected, and I felt a terrible pang and set them aside; they were form rejections, and told me nothing at all about why, but I knew enough at least to know that getting any explanation at all was actually a good sign, so I assumed that these were essentially unsalvageable. Anyone will tell you that this is a bad idea.

I've mentioned this elsewhere, and I'll mention it again, because hey, it's my LJ <g>. When we first start out, and we're not so certain of all of the elements of structure, plot, character presentation & development on the page, we want approval. Rejection is something that toughens the hide, in theory -- if it doesn't, it's still something we have to learn to endure. And it's not actually all that much fun. Although intellectually we really want to make the story better, emotionally we want the story to be loved as is. Over time, that goes away; we want the story to be better because it's going to be out there, and once it is, there's no revising.

Anyway, I started my third short story, and it ended up being four novels. Not, of course, that I realized it would be, or even intended it to be, but it just kept growing as I laid down structural foundation for the emotional ending. I was, of course, still learning the difference between modern blank verse and prose, but I did finish the novel.

I submitted it to Del Rey, as I've mentioned elsewhere, and it was read by Veronica Chapman. She returned it, with a lovely personal letter in which she said two things: She was caught immediately by the strength of the opening, and she loathed the main character. She told me a bit about why the main character didn't actually work for her, and then finished with "I would love to see anything you write in the future." It was written on one of those half-size pieces of buff stationery.

I brought it into the store, and I handed it to andpuff, who read it as carefully as she ever reads anything. "So where are you going to send it next?" She asked. This was, of course, a reasonable question. It was met with a blank stare. "Send it next?" I replied. "Ummm, I was thinking of starting something else and sending that instead."

There was no face-palm in general parlance at that time, so andpuff made do. She told me that yes, I could start something else while the book was making the rounds. "But … but she didn't like it. And she thought the main character was bad. And I can fix that in another book." Did I mention lack of general face-palms? While this was happening, Veronica Chapman sent me a message asked me to phone her, collect.

Obviously, I did. In fact, I did it pretty much right away. At work. It helps when your manager is sympathetic enough that she doesn't actually mind you taking your lunch Right Now in the middle of the working day and spending an hour on the phone.

I spoke to her for an hour. She was more elaborate in her response, and I couldn't figure out why she'd asked me to phone her. In fact, I spent some time on the phone trying to get an answer to that very question, since she certainly wasn't prepared to buy the book. Part of the reason for the length of the phone call was in fact that confusion. Part of it was that she insisted on telling me that she loved my writing. The writing that she wasn't buying.

After we'd discussed what she didn't like about the book for the third time, I suddenly felt a little wattage, and I said, "Ummm, If I rewrite this and address these problems would you, ummm, I know you're really really busy but maybe, you know, I could send it back and you could read it again?" Except that I was a lot less intelligible. Gibbering, even. And she said, "Of course!" And I said, "Why didn't you just say that at the beginning of the phone call???"

Her answer was a bit complicated, and probably makes a lot more sense to editors than it did to me at the time. She couldn't ask me to revise the book for free. She was not in a position where she felt the book was strong enough to buy as was, and she was also uncertain about my ability to revise it to make it strong enough that she could. I told her that I'd be happy to try to fix things, because in fact, I loved the character so much that she was the only character I didn't build carefully enough; it never occurred to me that someone else wouldn't. But.

She explained that she could ask someone to revise a property she owned; she could not ask them to do the work unless she owned it. It wouldn't be ethical, because in the end, I could do a lot of work for nothing. In fact, I think she felt a bit awkward about the phone call for that reason as well -- I wasn't guaranteed the sale, and I was obliquely being given information that might lead me to revise to her specifications when she couldn't be certain she'd take the result.

Fast forward. I'm me, now, and I'm reading an unpublished manuscript by a friend who lives in Toronto. I love, I adore, his writing. Word for word, it's flawless. It's very, very dense; far denser than anything I've ever written. The phrase 'rewards careful attention' is misplaced in his case; it demands attention. Without it, everything gets lost to the lack of exposition (the phrase he uses is in-cluing). There are places where it needs cutting -- and it's sort of painful to lose those perfect sentences -- but it's always easier to see flaws of that kind in someone else's work. The objectivity of being a reader is entirely unlike the subjectivity of being a writer.

An editor at a different house read his first book, as I also mentioned elsewhere, and loved it -- and as I did, felt that fifteen other people would love it. Which meant that she had to turn it down, and not without a great pang of regret, if I'm any judge. He then decided to write something accessible. (I asked if I could tell this story here, and promised to file of serial numbers, but people who know him will snicker at this because, well, his idea of accessible isn't really). The second novel, cheerfully called the doorstop, came in long, and he sent it to the same editor.

End of story. Sort of. He came back one day with a cover letter with which he intended to submit his novel. The letter was riotously funny, and I read it and laughed and then said, "Lose it all." (bobafet was in the store at the time and said, "If I ever decide to write anything, remind me not to ask you for advice.") But while we were discussing why I thought the cover letter was inappropriate, I asked him why he was even writing it given that he'd already submitted the novel to the editor, and he said that the editor in question had made perfectly clear that the house policy forbade purchasing any new author's first work if it were longer than 140,000 words. This was closer to 320K.

So he said, "she bounced it for reasons of length", and I assumed that she had, indeed, tendered her regrets. But I also told him that a) he'd have to cut the book in half to send it anywhere else and b) if he were going to cut it in half anyway, might he not contact an editor who clearly already had a great deal of respect for his work and ask her if she might look at it again.

His unequivocal reply was, "If that were a possibility, she'd have mentioned it." (It was longer, and I'm being brief. For me. Humour me, here.)

I did a little figurative hair tugging, and said, "No, she wouldn't." And because he's a fairly practical person, he argued this a bit, and then said, "Why?"

And in the end, it's the same reason, some fifteen years later, that I first encountered. She's an ethical editor. Telling an author to rewrite something that she hasn't bought and can't be sure she can buy, sticks a bit in the throat. It certainly made me think more highly of her (I'd never met her). I explained this, and at length, and made him promise to at least call her and ask before he sent it anywhere else.

Which he then did, with some great misgivings. To his bemusement -- but not, I think, upset -- I was right. Had he not come to talk to be me about the cover letter, he would have tried to send it elsewhere, and I think that would have been a mistake. Even given no guarantees.

Loving the writing isn't a guarantee that one can buy the book, which must be its own heartbreak. Not discussing the book editorially is actually responsible in a professional sense because the editors -are- in the business of paying for such work, and you don't ask a professional in any field to do something for free.

Attempting to glean meaning from a rejection letter is like reading goat entrails. It really is. But if someone says the only reason that they can't consider the book is the length, and you can cut it in half with some massaging, it's probably not unreasonable to attempt to do so. "Not right for our house" is exactly that. "Brilliant, but not right for our house" is also exactly that. Neither of those were the case for us.

Editors are first and foremost people, and also, imho, readers. They'll respond in different ways to different things. Their responses, when put into words, are also different. But in these two cases, the responses were open enough in that grey zone that the door wasn't entirely shut; it just wasn't opening up on a certain contract.

I don't know many published writers who want to write for free. Nor should they. But the close to the story is that I did eventually meet the editor in person, and as I thought this incident kind of funny, I was telling her about it, and when I hit the "she bounced it" part, she did literally pull her hair. With both hands. She said, "I can almost see how it could be interpreted that way, but that's not what I meant."

Comments

( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
msagara
Aug. 9th, 2004 07:09 am (UTC)
When cut in half do you mean cut into two workable volumes? Or literally cut down to half the word count?

Oops. This is me not being clear -- I meant, of course, that the book should be broken into two volumes. Given the general density of the author's work, cutting half of it would have probably rendered it incomprehensible. Besides which, it's me, junior killer-of-trees .
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 08:26 pm (UTC)
Re: ((delurks))
Might I suggest you collect them in your Memories under Writing, or possibly even "ramblings on writing," or something similar?

Done. Thanks for the suggestion -- I'm still relatively new to LJ, and I've never tried that feature before. The name is a bit off because, well, I thought the tags were for searching <wry g>.
robling_t
Aug. 9th, 2004 02:36 am (UTC)
"Not right for our house" is exactly that. "Brilliant, but not right for our house" is also exactly that.

So, um, is there a form-letter for "not right in general" as opposed to "not right for us"? Suspicious little creature that I am, getting "not right for us" always makes me gnash my teeth and wonder if they're just being polite about it stinking...
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 08:34 pm (UTC)
Hi. I did click back on the link; I was going to cut and paste the posted note, but hadn't asked for permission to do so. There are a number of houses that still consider unsolicited manuscripts, depending -- always depending -- on what genre you're writing in.

Part of the problem with my ramblings is that they are very specific. Not so much in the sales rep/P&L/returns sense, but in the background that informs so much of the knowledge that I've sought out or retained; everything is permeated by that.

There's nothing wrong with being suspicious, fwiw; it could indeed be that they're being polite -- but then again, I don't think there's much wrong with being polite, given the alternative. I don't think there is a form letter for "not right in general" vs. "not right for us". I have seen cases where the rejection was a "brilliant, but not right for us", and in those cases, they weren't form letters, but they were still definitive; the editor in question thought a great deal of the book -- but was still unable to find her way clear to buying it.

In the general case, there isn't much to be made. Yes, this is frustrating. It's always frustrating.

In the modern day of the internet, etc., it's useful to have a writer's group, or beta-readers. Not so much because they're instant approval means that the work is good to go as is, but more because if they all have some general problem with specific bits of a book, it's probably a good bet that those have to be addressed in one way or another.

I realize this isn't telling you anything you don't already know. My first two rejections were entirely form rejections, and all I could take from them was: they didn't like it enough to buy it.

In this case, I think it's interesting that the letter makes clear reference to business concerns, though.
robling_t
Aug. 11th, 2004 05:44 am (UTC)
I can understand not liking it enough to buy it themselves, it's the wondering if it's because nobody would buy it that drives me crazy. {grumbles} Seems to me that the publishers/agents would be doing the whole industry a favor by making that sort of a distinction with their form letters, otherwise we're just wasting everyone's time in turn by blindly shopping around a manuscript that no one would want to make a go of...
msagara
Aug. 11th, 2004 07:48 am (UTC)
I can understand not liking it enough to buy it themselves, it's the wondering if it's because nobody would buy it that drives me crazy. {grumbles} Seems to me that the publishers/agents would be doing the whole industry a favor by making that sort of a distinction with their form letters, otherwise we're just wasting everyone's time in turn by blindly shopping around a manuscript that no one would want to make a go of...

My response to this is probably unfortunate -- but there are books published now that have sold quite well that I would not, in a million years, have expected anyone would, as you say, want to make a go of <wry g> had I been offered them in manuscript form. So while it does seem as if a blanket statement of that nature should be possible, the reality is that each person reviewing or reading editorially is individual -- and given that the book that I would have dismissed in that fashion is both published and selling, I would have been dead wrong, and have done no one any favours.

If you mean that there should be letters that say "learn to punctuate. Learn to spell. Learn sentence structure, paragraph structure" etc., then yes, those might be helpful -- but I'm assuming that for most people (there are always exceptions), the basic tools of composition have been mastered.

There are also markets that are shrinking enormously (memoirs come to mind, and historicals aren't exactly a booming, thriving niche, and I like both), so books that might once have been bought, aren't. Other genres have expanded -- romance, for instance. It depends on a number of things, one of which being, what you've written, and for what market.
kate_nepveu
Aug. 9th, 2004 05:28 am (UTC)
Snrk. I have a hunch I know the author of whom you speak from a different venue, and yeah, snickering at "accessible," in the nicest way possible!
dendrophilous
Aug. 9th, 2004 11:02 am (UTC)
I think "dense" is what gives it away.
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 08:35 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure that the author in question will find it somewhat amusing as well <g>. In that it's clear to at least three of you who he is <g>.
janni
Aug. 9th, 2004 07:14 am (UTC)
It seems that in kids' books "if you rewrite to address these issues I'll be happy to take another look" letters are fairly common--and offered without apology, although always with the editor being clear that 1, this is no guarantee and; 2, because this is no guarantee, they'll understand if you decide to send the book elsewhere as-is instead.
ladystained
Aug. 10th, 2004 01:59 pm (UTC)
My guess is that most children's books take less time to revise? It's like the difference between telling a visual artist to do another pencil sketch and another oil painting. The difference between asking for a few, days' weeks', 2 months' effort to much more than that (months, a year)?

I'm just guessing. I've also heard children's books are very very very competative, maybe that's why. ::shrug:: That's just hearsay though.

(what age-level of childrens' books were you talking about, btw? A picture book is a lot shorter and often has both a writer and an illustrator, whereas a chapter book is longer and has fewer, if any, illustrations aside from coverart)
janni
Aug. 10th, 2004 02:48 pm (UTC)
For me the time is the same, as I write YA and middle grade. Mileage varies, though.

I think picture books take less time, but are also harder to revise, since the language is poetry-tight, and each change in content can also means reworking the language fairly extensively.
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 08:41 pm (UTC)
This is an interesting data point. I think, on Making Light, Jane Yolen also said that advances for YA/kids books was in general lower across the board than it was for other genres, and given how many books she's sold, I'd trust her opinion without a second thought.

It does go back to the heart of the question you asked a ways back, vis a vis earning out one's advance; if the advance paid is low enough, and the advance wasn't earned out, that would be almost entirely because of the number of books sold. I can guess that picture books are far more costly to produce than standard middle-reader or YA novels. I know that in some cases, the artists were paid on a different scale (flat fee plus royalties, as opposed to advance against).

If an editor did send me a letter saying they'd be happy to take another look at a rewrite, and made it clear that this was not a guarantee or an obligation to either party, this would be fine -- I haven't heard of similar, but then again, people often don't pull out their earlier correspondence to let me read them <wry g>.

And any personal reply, any book over which an editor chooses to take the time and make the detailed response -- even in a rejection -- is still a really good sign. Not as good as, say, buying -- but still good, imho.
janni
Aug. 10th, 2004 09:02 pm (UTC)
If an editor did send me a letter saying they'd be happy to take another look at a rewrite, and made it clear that this was not a guarantee or an obligation to either party, this would be fine -- I haven't heard of similar, but then again, people often don't pull out their earlier correspondence to let me read them

Hmm... I've not only had a few letters like this, but know other writers who have as well, to the point that I thought it was fairly standard practice.

I think it's been adult as well as kids' writers who've gotten such letters, but I'm not really sure about that. In the case of the kid writers, sometimes it's been multiple rounds that get asked for. (How much revision it's appropriate to ask for without offering a contract is the subject of some debate.)
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 09:17 pm (UTC)
(How much revision it's appropriate to ask for without offering a contract is the subject of some debate.)

Which is probably exactly why at least the two editors in question, one named and one unnamed have chosen to err on the side of "none" <wry g>.

I have only once had an editor ask for changes in a manuscript (short story) that the editor said, if made, would produce a sale. I did make those changes, but they had decided in the mean-time that they also wanted the ending changed. This was frustrating for me because I had to overnight the edits (and it was about 30.00 to do it at the time, as email was a much less useful conveyance at the time), and had I been told first that the ending needed to be changed, I would have very politely declined, and saved the 30.00.

I do consider this to be both unusual (it's only happened once) and not entirely professional.

I have had stories I've been asked for rejected, otoh, because they were not in the end suitable in tone -- and that, I could accept more easily. I've had people ask for revisions or line-edits (some editors find my work hard to line-edit because changing a sentence breaks two paragraphs, but I digress) in things they've agreed to buy.

But I've never had the "if you revise this, I'd be happy to see it again" letter, and the one time that this was subtext, I had to pull it out of the editor, and it was like pulling teeth, but took longer <wry g>.

But your experience is just as valid as mine, and I'm sure it's just as useful to people who have novels they've not yet sold, so I'm really happy to see you posting!
janni
Aug. 10th, 2004 09:32 pm (UTC)
Heh. I hadn't even been thinking about short stories, but I do remember noting at the time that the first time I was asked to rewrite a short story was the first time I sold to a YA instead of adult market. (For short stories, unlike novels, I've written for both.)

I don't think any adult editor has ever edited a short story of mine, before or after a contract was offered. And I don't think I know a YA or middle grade editor who hasn't edited the stories I've sold them. Most of the short story edits have been post-contract, but a few have been before.

I'm getting a bit off topic here, but this is one of the reasons I think my YA short fiction is (overall--there are exceptions on both sides) stronger than my adult short fiction.

Veering back on-topic, it may really be that there are different takes on revision, and what is and isn't appropriate, in the two fields.
janni
Aug. 10th, 2004 09:33 pm (UTC)
Veering back on-topic, it may really be that there are different takes on revision, and what is and isn't appropriate, in the two fields.

Or, simply, different experiences for each writer (and each editor), too, regardless of genre.
madwriter
Aug. 9th, 2004 07:25 am (UTC)
Wanting to make it better vs. Love it as is
I suppose every writer has that revelation sooner or later: When an editor suggests trimming certain things, you do with gritted teeth...and then suddenly you realize the story/poem really is better.

Of course, I'm still learning that. The last editor who bought one of my stories just asked me to cut 500-800 words from a 3700-word story. I did (the 500 word end), including a favorite piece that I realized objectively added nothing to the story. It hurt, but the story is better, and I'm forced to admit to myself I really don't miss what was chopped out.
trektone
Aug. 9th, 2004 09:00 am (UTC)
While I've been reading these short story length posts when I can, I have to believe your husband said something other than "Please write long, informational, somewhat-entertaining posts to your LiveJournal instead of the next 25 chapters of House War."

Btw, a certain doctor-to-be who will be moving to the West Coast (of the U.S.) for a month and won't be getting to Worldcon asked me to force you to read the next three chapters of the above work-in-progress. I know I can't but I figured you would take pity on this message-bearer and consider fulfilling the request.

Oh,yeah. Now that you have your tentative panel, etc., list, is this a good time to queue up to schedule time with you?
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 08:43 pm (UTC)
While I've been reading these short story length posts when I can, I have to believe your husband said something other than "Please write long, informational, somewhat-entertaining posts to your LiveJournal instead of the next 25 chapters of House War."

LOL!! You're right; that's not exactly what he said <g>. He did, however, suggest that I spend a little bit more time talking about the various states of a novel from the stores perspective: In print, Out of Print, OSI, etc.

So I'll probably do that later tonight. After, you know, the pesky deadline writing.

Oh,yeah. Now that you have your tentative panel, etc., list, is this a good time to queue up to schedule time with you?

Yes. Never a better time, in fact, although I'm still waiting to hear back on the DAW plans for the convention, so things are still tentative but forming up. I forgot to ask the last time I saw you if you were much of an Iain Banks reader.
rachelmanija
Aug. 9th, 2004 10:00 am (UTC)
I think I know who you're talking about. His name has a color in it, right? I've been dying to read his novel/s for quite some time, and was wondering why none of them ever seemed to get sold when he was so incredibly talented.

Has he tried submitting in England? Like to whoever first published Alan Garner's RED SHIFT?
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 08:46 pm (UTC)
Has he tried submitting in England? Like to whoever first published Alan Garner's RED SHIFT?

The person who first published RED SHIFT may well be retired at this point in time; it came out a long time ago <g>. And no, afaik, he hasn't -- but the UK market would also have a problem with the length of the current book, regardless. Fwiw, I'm certain he'll see print one day, but publishing is not exactly the world's fastest business; it occasional rivals geology for time periods...
mmarques
Aug. 9th, 2004 10:32 am (UTC)
I just wanted to let you know that I love your "ramblings". You don't know me, but I saw mention of your postings in one of the writing communities.
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 08:47 pm (UTC)
Thanks <g>. As I mentioned after the first post, I really do need very little encouragement; you just kind of press the right button and I ramble.

Getting me to stop usually requires a more determined effort, though <wry g>.
zencuppa
Aug. 9th, 2004 10:42 am (UTC)
I find your discussion fasinating and truly worth reading.

Thanks for talking about this Michelle :-)

I hope you can attend ConClave!
avt_tor
Aug. 9th, 2004 04:22 pm (UTC)
She couldn't ask me to revise the book for free.

This is advice I hadn't heard before. Thanks.
ladystained
Aug. 10th, 2004 02:03 pm (UTC)
Just wanted to say, "Ditto". I've been in such moral dilemmas myself, but haven't run into any business people before who'd act in such a way, so I never even considered they might not say anything about a piece because of this.
msagara
Aug. 10th, 2004 08:49 pm (UTC)
This is advice I hadn't heard before. Thanks.

I would caution against taking the annecdote as advice per se. It's an example (or two) of an editorial attitude that I think is not uncommon in the field -- but editors do vary, and some perfectly good editors may not have the same qualms or the same sense of professional etiquette.

It is, otoh, one of many factors, and were I now faced with something like my first rejection, I would query the editor in question without hesitation.

avt_tor
Aug. 10th, 2004 10:01 pm (UTC)
I have a bit of background in journalism, so I'm used to being told what and how (and when) to write. The notion that the editor would want changes but would not want to say so just hadn't occurred to me before, but it makes perfect sense.

I tend to take all feedback as just one person's opinion. What I try to do is find ways to address the reader's concern while keeping to my own intent and vision. Usually if someone has a problem with what I've written, it means there is a delta between the story in my head and the story on the page that I didn't see. I just need to understand how the reader is interpreting what I've written, and then I can usually come up with something that works for them and for me. In almost all cases, the changes I make in response to feedback improve the story, not just for the specific reader but for the majority of readers.

Even when different readers give apparently contradictory advice, e.g. "it's too long" and "it's too short", they are usually talking about different problems and it's usually possible to address both issues in different ways.

What you're saying is that sometimes they don't give the feedback and I'd need to ask. Seems obvious once you explain it. An editor can still choose not to give feedback. You're saying it's important to listen to the nuance of the feedback one is given, and that's true of any business transaction.
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