Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Burning Question

What do you do when your editor or publisher has requested a certain plot element, you write the story with that requested element, but it simply doesn't work? Do you leave it in and turn in an inferior story? Or do you remove it knowing the book could now be turned down?


Nonny said...

If the requested plot element does not work for the story, no matter what way I look at it, I won't write it like that.

As I view it, my first obligation is to the story. Which means I have to get over myself and look at it with an objective eye (or as objective as one as I can manage). If I don't believe that said suggestions work for the story I'm trying to tell, and my critique partners / beta readers agree with me, then I'm not going to make the changes.

Sometimes people have different "visions" for what the story should be. I found that to be the case quite often in critique groups; suggestions would be made that fit the critiquer's "vision," but not mine.

Ultimately, it's my story. If I can't stand the editor's requests... then I'd rather take the story elsewhere and see if it sells. I don't see that being desperate enough for a sale to make changes detrimental to the story does anyone good.

If I still run into problems selling it later, then I'll revisit the issue then.

But that's me. YMMV.

Helen Brenna said...

Nonny, you raised some excellent points and made me rethink my original answer.

I was going to say that every writer needs to answer this question for him/herself.

But a substandard story--and that's what you'd end up with if the plot element absolutely doesn't work--is going to hurt the writer more than anyone. In the long run.

In the short run, what do you do if you're financially depending on that sale?

anne frasier said...

like nonny i would say my responsibility is to the story -- and ultimately myself. but if the writer is already under contract and depending on the acceptance payment -- that's tough. my choice would still probably be to write what works best for the story and hope they accept it anyway. if they turn it down and refuse payment then maybe someone else will pick it up. but from what i've heard being picked up by another house is highly unlikely. nobody wants a book that's been thrown out no matter how good it is.

Kathleen Eagle said...

This is such a tough call when your mortgage payment is due. With my last publisher I was able to turn in the first half of the book and get a payment on that, which also meant getting feedback at that stage. On one book that had no Indians in it--was clear in the proposal--my editor's boss came back with "But where's the Indian?" on the first half of the book. It didn't take much to make the hero part Indian at that point, didn't change the story much. I felt like I was adding it gratuitously, but was able to make it work and stay true to the story. Turning in half the story worked for me, and I'd do it again, but my current publisher doesn't do it.

I should add that with my first single title, I sold a complete book and got big revision suggestions, mostly for cuts. This was a cut-to-the-chase editor who had "made" a couple of big-name authors. She said she had no problem with the material she wanted to cut--loved the writing--but wanted to, yes, cut to the chase. Most of it was character. Editor said that ultimately it was my book, so I looked at it very carefully, agreed with some of the cuts, revised some of her revisions, and STET a few. I won a RITA for the book. The editor left the house even before the book came out. I often wonder whether she would have continued working with me if she'd stayed. Editors are people with likes and dislikes, like everyone else. A good fit is a godsend for an author, but it doesn't guarantee sales or success. We're balancing what is basically an art form against the demands (whims?) of the market. And we're trying to make a living. And we'd rather not be cutting off an ear.

Debra Dixon said...

Part of being an author is being your story advocate. You've got to be able to articulate exactly why you've had to omit or vary something the publisher has specifically requested.

It helps to understand why a publisher might request your story go in a certain direction. Have they asked you to add a dog to your adventure romance because their surveys show readers like dogs? Or did they ask you to add a dog because the heroine needs softening? If the dog is a softening element, there are other ways to soften a heorine without lugging a poodle through Panama.

I'd say that dialogue with the editor is the first order of business. If you're articulate and your rationale is sound, most editors are going to be reasonable. They want the best book they can get from you. So, ask questions, listen and then advocate once you understand the editor's pov.

If, as Kathleen suggested, the change is something you can live with, you live with it. Pick your battles.

Betina Krahn said...

One thing is not clear to me: has the editor seen the changed ms. or not? Maybe when the editor reads it, she/he will agree that it's not working. Most editors will only suggest changes they believe enhance a story or address a true deficiency.

If I were asked to make changes that I truly believed harmed or ruined the story, I would have to speak up about it. I think I would have to ask the editor to give the changed copy to another person or two at the house to read. . . while I gave it to my agent and a fellow writer or two to read. If the editor refused to agree to this, then I would have to decide between leaving the book as it was or withdrawing it.

Withdrawing a book that is finished and under contract is risky. Selling it to someone else, with a history like that, is an even bigger question. Agents should help mediate such a dispute. . . weigh in on whether the changes helped or hurt the story. Sometimes they can turn the tide. It seems to me that this kind of problem has to be the result of the editor and author differing over what kind of book it really is.

Much as I'd love to back artistic integrity, I do know that sometimes I go off on a wild hair and have to be reined in. . . which I appreciate later. Usually much later. There are many roads to Oz. . . and sometimes my view of my story needs to be broadened. . . with the buying public in mind.

As Helen pointed out, if you're supporting yourself with your writing, you have a decision to make. I usually come down on the side of eating and paying the light bill.

:) Betina

Anonymous said...

The plot element was requested at the proposal stage.
I agreed to it, they approved the advance, but now that I've finished the book I can see that the plot element doesn't work, and i know the manuscript would be stronger without it. No, they haven't seen the manuscript yet.

gal with the burning question

Betina Krahn said...

Well, Question Gal, that's a horse of a different color. If it's not working and they haven't seen the book. . . I'd have a talk with my agent and then call up the editor and have a talk with her, explaining the difficulty. She may want to see the ms, or --based on your description-- may agree and suggest you take out the plot element.

Don't despair. . . unless your editor is a gorgon, she wants the best book, too.

Helen Brenna said...

What Betina said.