Writing Excuses 9.35: What to do when you disagree with your editor
Key Points: Beware the mismatch. Publishers usually understand that you and your editor may not match. Is that a risk there? Yes. Conventions are good places to build relationships. As a writer, if things are not working, saying so will not blacklist you and ruin your career. Not saying anything may ruin you. Make it a business decision, not personalities. Lay out the groundwork and offer an alternative. You may be orphaned, or passed on to another editor. When you have an issue, look at your priorities. “It’s your book, you have to be happy with it.” When you disagree, step back and look for what needs to change — it may not be what the editor thought it was. If you disagree, try a phone call and talk it out. Be aware that the editor has marked all these changes and given them to you — but that doesn’t mean they are beating you up with repeated notes, they are just being thorough. Watch for shared visions! Licensed IP is different — it is their book.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 35.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, what to do if you disagree with your editor.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] And I have not had as many editors as you guys have had, so…
[Brandon] Well, fortunately, we have a guest star, Peter Orullian. Say hi, Peter.
[Brandon] Peter Orullian is a Tor author with a book Vault of Heaven and the sequel soon to come out. He’s also had some interesting experiences with multiple editors. He’s a good friend and also a rock star.
[Peter] Thank you. Yes. Know me for that.
[Mary] This is not the metaphoric rock star?
[Brandon] No. He is actually a rock star. We are also…
[Howard] Not the beverage?
[Brandon] Recording live at WesterCon.
[Brandon] All right. Peter. We want to talk about dealing with editors. Now, I get questions about this a lot. Most of the time on Writing Excuses, we talk writing craft, but once in a while, we like one of these episodes where we talk about kind of the real world of writing as a working writer. One of the aspects of working as a writer is dealing with editors. Sometimes you have fantastic relationships with the editors. Sometimes you have less than fantastic relationships with the editors. Sometimes editors that you otherwise have fantastic relationships with occasionally you have a big disagreement. So we’re going to talk about what to do, how you navigate this, how it feels, and what your experiences are. You kind of just went through this. Do you want to outline this to us, what happened?
[Peter] Yeah. So I had this great experience where I had an agent that was not a good match. I fired him because he’d been asking me to write thrillers. So I started to market those thrillers, found a new agent who didn’t want the thrillers but wanted my fantasy which was 10 years old. He sent it to Tor, Tor bought it, and assigned me an editor that was a complete mismatch. He and I… He effectively, in my view, was editing my voice. So as we got into these editorial discussions, it was really, really challenging, because I wanted to do so many different things with the book that was so much older, and he wanted to publish the book he bought. So we butted heads for a long time. Ultimately, it soured to the point where we went our separate ways. What I learned through that… One of the things I learned, with most publishing houses, you have one gimme. They recognize there’s going to be mismatches sometimes. So if your thoughtful about going through your agent and talking to your publisher in a very respectful way, they’ll usually try and find you a better match.
[Howard] I would be concerned… I come from the business world. I would be concerned that firing your editor or asking for a different editor is… You’re letting… You’re getting rid of the person who was passionate about buying this book for the publishing house in the first place, and that seems risky. I mean, was that the job that this particular editor had?
[Peter] Well, my case was a little interesting, in that my agent sent it directly to Tom. Tom kind of was the deciding factor.
[Brandon] And at Tor, Tom is the publisher.
[Howard] So you’re safer.
[Peter] I was a little safer. But the thing that happened for me is, I had been coming to places like this for a long time and meeting editors in the dealers room, etc. So at the time, when I realized this really was not going to be a long-term relationship with this editor, I already knew an editor there with whom I was friends. Literally for 10 years, when I’d go to New York, we’d go to dinner. So I broached the subject with her, and she said, “Don’t feel weird. This happens.” She said, “I’ve taken on writers, and I’ve had to give away writers that… Which this has happened.” So what I found was the most powerful thing you can have as a writer is an agent internally who’s going to be a great advocate. So these kinds… These weekends are great because you get to meet those kinds of people. The friendships really are very, very important.
[Brandon] I’m picking up several really important things that I’d like our listeners to highlight you just said. The first off was know that making a little bit of a disturbance as a writer is not going to blacklist you and ruin your career. If you honestly get to the point where this is not working, you’re not being a prima donna to kind of throw your weight around. Even if you have very little weight. It’s okay. I think new writers… I was like this. I’m still kind of like this. It’s like, “Oh, don’t make waves. Agent, don’t make waves. I want people to be happy and to like me. Let’s not make waves.” But sometimes you need to, and you need to be okay, and you need to understand that this is a business and all the editors are treating it like a business. Maybe there will be some hurt feelings, but it will be okay in the long run.
[Howard] We had an episode… I don’t remember who said this, but I think it was an editor who said that he recognized that the very cheapest way for us to put this book into print is for you, the author, to be the person who writes it for us. So you always have that as leverage. You are still the very best way to make this book happen.
[Peter] I mean, there’s definitely a risk, to underscore what you’re saying. You can become the problem.
[Brandon] You can.
[Peter] That reputation will follow you. But I think the inverse is true. Like what I did. I had the same fear. So I spent a lot of time having conversations with writers, with other editors I knew, and approached this sort of as very thoughtfully as I could. So they knew, by the time I got to the point where I said to my agent, “I really do think we have to make a change.” When we approached Tom, it was like, “We understand.” We kind of laid out what the issues were. It wasn’t Peter having a problem… I need… You’re not doing well enough for me. So I think a lot of how you approach it is it.
[Mary] I think one of the things that… When you say you laid it out for them, that it’s very much about making it a business decision.
[Peter] It is your career. Right.
[Brandon] You were proactive. This is the other thing I highlighted I think is really important. You talked about going and meeting other editors, knowing the business and saying, “Here is an alternative. Here is…” You had laid out your groundwork and I really… That’s, I think, very important to this. You aren’t coming off as a prima donna because you’re saying, “This is not working. Here’s something I think will work.” You’re offering an alternative.
[Peter] It should… I would say this. There are definitely personalities in the sort of larger writer-editorial pool in New York. Some of them are challenging. Some writers are a great fit for the particular editors. But when I started to approach this, it was easy for me to sort of convey my case to people because the editor had a bit of a reputation, right? So that worked in my instance. I’m not going to say that’s going to work for everybody, but…
[Brandon] Now I’ve had an experience similar to this with my middle grade books which were at Scholastic. What happened to me is, I got orphaned. Which is an industry term for your editor leaving and you getting handed to a new one. I had done one book of a four book contract with an editor who was passionate and excited about my books, who had bought them and been my advocate, and then she moved to another editorial house. I was given to another editor who acted very excited. They always do, it’s part of their job. But we were a bad match. This editor did not fight for my books, did not really edit my books, kind of had this problem of the stepchild thing, which doesn’t happen to all stepchilds, but the fear is, and what happened to me was that the editor’s books that they had found, that they were passionate about, were more important than my books. My series just completely bellyflopped. First book did gangbusters. Second book, complete just vanish. We had this kind of had experience for the next few years, until finally we bought the books from the publisher and took them somewhere else. Which is something I was able to do in the state that I’m in. But there were two… Three… Really two books in there. The last one got no editorial. It was just sent in, they said this is good. But there were two books where I had to work with an editor with whom I disagreed. You got your first book out working with the editor that you eventually moved on from. Let’s talk about this idea of how to work with an editor.
[Brandon] But first, Howard is waving at me, we need to stop for the book of the week. Peter, you are going to promo Unfettered to us.
[Peter] I am. So Shawn Speakman is a friend of mine and he’s a cancer survivor. He published this anthology called Unfettered of great fantasy writers who donated short fiction in order to subsidize all of his healthcare. Because as a freelancer, he has none. So one, that’s a really great thing for him to do rather than to declare bankruptcy. But the book itself is wonderful. It features Brandon. I’ve got a story in there.
[Howard] Wasn’t that the one that launched at Phoenix… ComicCon?
[Peter] It did.
[Howard] There was a lot of noise about that book. A lot of excitement. I was…
[Brandon] There’s one thing at WesterCon, we have copies at my booth.
[Peter] In addition to the sort of great humanitarian purpose that it has come there’s wonderful fiction in there. I also happen to have written a song based on it, so you should check that out.
[Brandon] Great. How can they get a copy?
[Howard] Audiblepodcast.com/excuse, pick up a copy of Unfettered edited and compiled by Shawn Speakman, and written by all of the awesome people.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about working with an editor when you disagree with them. Let’s try and narrow this down, like hopefully most of our readers, when they have an editor… Or our listeners, when they have an editor, they will usually get along with them, but once in a while, have something with the editor that they just disagree on. Have you guys had this, Dan and Mary? I think we all have. Let’s talk about what you do when you disagree with the editor.
[Dan] I have… I love the editor that I worked with at Harper…
[Howard] That always starts well.
[Dan] I know. I love him, but there was one issue on the first Partials book on which we disagreed very strongly. There was, at one point, one draft of the revision that had three or four layers of tracked changes, arguments, going back and forth throughout the book. There’s a friend, and I saw her here earlier at the convention. She asked if she could read an early manuscript, and I accidentally sent her that one.
[Dan] That had this giant argument where we’re yelling at each other. It was awesome. But the… What I learned from that is really taking a good hard look at your priorities. I think that goes back to what Peter was saying about are you willing to stick with an editor you don’t like. Well, you have to decide is having a horrible career that you hate or is having no career at all because you refused to rock the boat more important than rocking the boat? Or, on a smaller scale, is giving up this one thing that you think is great, maybe you should trust this editor who knows what he or she is doing. I had to learn that lesson on Partials, which is embarrassing because it was like the fifth book that I published. But, take a good hard look at your priorities when these things come up and that can help you decide which way to go.
[Mary] I had a situation with my editor where we disagreed on something, and went back and forth trying to understand what it was, and she’s like, “You know what, it’s your book, and you have to be happy with it, so…” We… I kept it the way I wanted it. The book came out and many of the reviews flagged the same thing.
[Mary] As an error. I looked at it again, and I’m like, “You know what, she was in fact right.” So what that has taught me is that when I have a disagreement with my editor, that I take a step back and recognize that the reaction that she is having is… It’s not the reaction that I’m trying to provoke. So what I need to look at is I may not need to change the work to the thing that she is telling me to change it to come but…
[Brandon] But something’s wrong.
[Mary] Something is wrong.
[Howard] [garbled – you need it not to be broken?]
[Brandon] That’s the number one thing I’ve noticed working with the editor, when something is wrong, usually he’s pretty good. Moshe’s pretty good at saying, “This is what’s wrong.” Sometimes he’s not. He’s misfired and said, “This is wrong,” when it’s really problem three. This is something you cultivate working in a writing group, because I’ve noticed in a writing group, most of the time they’ll notice something’s wrong, but most times they’ll be wrong about what it is.
[Howard] It’s a statement, “The customer can always tell when there’s a problem. The customer never knows how to fix it.”
[Brandon] Now, the editor often does.
[Howard] Right. The editor often does, but sometimes he’s wrong.
[Brandon] I think Mary’s right in truly trying to identify what’s going on here. The other thing that I would say is if you start having a really big disagreement, call them. Because what I’ve found working with editors is… Over writing… We in this field generally are really good at writing. Imagine that. We’re very… We’ve been trained, usually with a university education, to make our arguments and our rhetoric is forceful, as pointed, and as powerful as possible. So when you start going back and forth in your track changes, you suddenly start just getting harder and harder and things like this. If you call the editor, sometimes the editor says, “Yeah, it’s not really that big of a deal. I think it’s just this little tweak, if you make that…” You say, “Well, what if I did this?” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, that might work.” Whereas you’ve had like three pages of arguments over whether to use the word lectern or whether to use the word podium, when it was just a simple thing if you talked to the person.
[Dan] One thing related to that that I run into all the time, and I have to always remind myself, so I want to point this out, is you have to remember as you are going through an editor’s changes to your work that they have written all of them at once and then given them to you. So the changes that you come upon in the manuscript, they don’t know that you already fixed the earlier comment.
[Brandon] Oh, that’s so annoying.
[Dan] So I’ll read through and I’m like, “This is the 50th time you’ve told me that this thing is wrong. I’ve fixed the other ones. I know it’s wrong.” Then I have to remind myself, “Oh, yeah. He wrote this before I fixed all the other ones. I won’t get mad.”
[Brandon] Well, in his mind, he’s like, “It’s the 50th time he’s done this thing. Why won’t he fix it?”
[Dan] When he hasn’t given any of it to you yet to fix.
[Peter] Many of the things you’re describing, I think are part and partial of an editorial relationship. You’re going to hit these things. For me, the thing that I learned going through this sort of rough process with my… A misalignment, and I heard this actually from Jacqueline Carey, she… This is what like hit me because I asked her for the same advice. She said… She talked about sharing the same vision. So what I realized is that the editor that I had… We didn’t share the same vision for the book. So no amount… It’s like getting into the weeds, the comma splices and this… That was not where it was at. It was at the highest level, we were not aligned on what this book and series was. So when I moved to the next editor, that was the first thing I said to her. I said, “Look. You and I are great friends. I know you’ll be professional. But we need to share the same vision on this book and series.” So she read it and the last… Like this is totally gratuitous, but the last thing she wrote me after my last… She says, “You take editorial input like a dream.” So night and day. But we share the same vision on the series now. So that’s… At the highest level, you hope you get that. You don’t always.
[Brandon] That’s awesome. That’s really helpful.
[Howard] The flipside of this… The first thing I did for Privateer Press, Extraordinary Zoology, the editorial process was kind of a train wreck because it got handed off midstream. I was meeting with them to talk about doing other stuff and the conversation we had… I’m going to mirror what Mary said. The conversation I had with their continuity guy and their editor and one of their marketing people. I came out and said, “Guys. It’s your book, you need to be happy with it.” It’s licensed IP. The editor looked at me and was like, “What? No, no, no, no, that’s not what authors say. You mixed those up.” But it’s… I had had a bad relationship, or not a bad relationship, a bad experience, and I wanted to make sure that I was writing the book that they wanted, that it was their vision. That’s just the opposite to what you’re saying.
[Brandon] We should point out licensed IP is different. Working on the Wheel of Time was very different than working on my own books. The Wheel of Time, I would sometimes make these arguments, but then at the end, I would say, “Harriet, it’s your call. It really is.” With my editor in New York, it’s my call. At the end of the day, I will still do what Mary says. If I think… I will say, “This is my vision of the story, this is staying.” I will make that call. You should, I think, have that right as the author to have the final say. You should just listen really, really well to people who have been in the business a long time. All right. We’re going to go ahead and stop. Peter, I want to give a big thank you to you. Vault of Heaven is out right now and the sequel…
[Peter] The sequel is turned in. It will come out in April or May of next year.
[Brandon] Excellent. Dan has a writing prompt for us.
[Dan] Yes, I do. I had one. I forgot what it was.
[Brandon] I even prepared you ahead of time.
[Dan] I know. I remembered what it was and then… Okay, I remember what it is now. Totally unrelated to anything we’ve been talking about. Okay, you’re going to write like a sword fighting scene or a fencing scene à la Princess bride where they’re kind of jabbing wittily at each other with every stroke. But then, you’re going to make the witty jabs part of the magic system…
[Dan] That makes the fight possible.
[Brandon] That’s really cool. Well done.
[Howard] Suddenly he really isn’t left handed.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.