The Red Pen of Doom

by Ari Marmell

I can’t help noticing that an awful lot of these guest blogs are focused, in whole or in part, on the process of getting published. Finding an agent. Using an agent. Finding a publisher. Dealing with rejection. Making yourself write even when the mood isn’t on you. And so on.

I also can’t say that I’m surprised at that, since variations on “How do I get published?” are among the most common questions I’ve been asked. (Second only, in recent months, to “Is there going to be a sequel to The Goblin Corps?” Which, obviously, isn’t exactly a question an author can complain about.) What I haven’t seen covered as much is a mistake that many authors, amateur and professional, make on a regular basis. It’s a mistake I myself have made in the past, and may, in fact, have delayed my success in becoming a published novelist by several years.

So, one of the big secrets that every one of us should know, yet so many of us forget: The editor is not your enemy.

(For the record, I’m also referring to other “official” feedback here—not just from editors, but agents, copy-editors, and possibly even fellow authors—but as editors are the primary source of such feedback, it’s to them that I’ll refer specifically.)

It’s not surprising that so many writers think of editors that way. Most of us have heard horror stories. The editor who altered the ending of a novel; who cut an entire chapter; who went through the manuscript and changed one particular character from a person into a badger. The editor, basically, who “just didn’t get it!”

…it takes a bit of ego, just the smallest touch of arrogance, to believe that someone else wants to read the ideas, the stories, the words that you put down on paper.

It’s also true that most authors (and yes, I absolutely include myself in this generalization) have something of an ego—maybe not in all aspects of our lives, but about our work. It’s almost a job requirement; it takes a bit of ego, just the smallest touch of arrogance, to believe that someone else wants to read the ideas, the stories, the words that you put down on paper. (Or on the screen.)

Said ego is also, however, often fairly fragile. Everything we do is about putting ourselves out there for others not only to see, but to judge. An attack on our work is an attack on us, or at least often feels that way. Our level of success is measured entirely by whether more people like our work than don’t.

Is it any surprise, then, that many of us react negatively to the idea of someone else coming in and changing our work? I’m not talking about correcting typos or the like, but tweaking the story? The characters? Word choice? Many authors have an almost knee-jerk objection to the notion. We crafted the story as we wanted it to appear, damn it! Who are you to change it? You want to shape a story, go write your own! And get off my lawn!

Okay, but here’s the thing. In the first instance, yes, there are some bad editors out there, and horror stories do happen. But that’s the case in any business, any industry. Judging all editors by those examples is like judging all movie directors by Ed Wood, or all swords-and-sorcery by the Gor series, or all politicians by… Well, okay. Bad example. Point is, those bad apples represent only a minority, and if you get stuck with one of them on one book, well, you’ll probably be more fortunate on the next.

But the part that really gets in some writers’ way, the part that often takes time and painful experience to learn, is this: Your writing’s not perfect. It has faults. It has places where it can be tightened up, or where changes are beneficial. The best writer alive, the best writer in history, wasn’t so flawless that a decent editor couldn’t improve their work somewhere.

The best writer alive, the best writer in history, wasn’t so flawless that a decent editor couldn’t improve their work somewhere.

It’s just the nature of the beast. We get set in our ways. We know our story so well that we don’t see the cracks; our brain just fills them in. Our eyes gloss over the errors. We get so attached to a great turn of phrase, a great description, or a great character, that we fail to recognize how wrong they are for the book.

It happens no matter how good we get, how creative we are, how certain we are, how famous or successful we are. And this applies equally to self-published books as to traditionally published ones. If you’re not going through a publisher who employs editors? Hire your own. But however you do it, work with one.

My first published non-tie-in novel, The Conqueror’s Shadow, includes short vignettes at the start of each chapter that fill in bits of the characters’ and setting’s history—mostly during an earlier period that’s often referred to in the book, but only lightly explored. Because of these vignettes, the characters are far deeper—in terms of growth, personality, and motivation—than they ever could have been without them.

They were a late-draft addition, and the idea of including them came not from me, but from my editor. I will happily go on record saying that The Conqueror’s Shadow would be a much lesser book without his input. Yet I was absolutely certain, when I submitted it, that it would almost certainly not change dramatically in rewrites.

I might have published an earlier draft of The Goblin Corps quite a few years ago, if I’d been willing to make some hefty alterations to the book. I’m actually glad I didn’t—I think it’s a great fit at Pyr Books, far better than it would have been for the publisher in question—but the fact remains that I wouldn’t even listen to said changes, let alone consider making them, because I was so thoroughly convinced that my writing didn’t need someone else fiddling with it. It took me years of growth, and of learning how to accept feedback thanks to my freelance game writing, before I was in the proper headspace to recognize that my fiction wasn’t some sort of holy writ.

(That innate writer’s arrogance I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that’s what happens when you let said arrogance grow too big.)

Any reasonable editor can and should be willing to debate with you, and explain their reasons if you don’t agree.

I’m not saying that even the best editor is flawless either, of course. Any reasonable editor can and should be willing to debate with you, and explain their reasons if you don’t agree. The same editor who elevated The Conqueror’s Shadow? He and I went back and forth something like six times on a particular chapter of the sequel, The Warlord’s Legacy, which he wanted to cut and I didn’t. Ultimately it stayed (and, I still feel, for the better)—but the point is, it was a discussion and a conversation, not a unilateral refusal on either side to consider the other.

Bottom line to all this? If you share the tendency with so many other authors (especially new ones) to assume that the editor is an adversary, rather than an ally, then not only are you less likely to see your books succeed, you’re less likely to be happy even with those books that do make it to shelves. The author’s ego is a rough beast, but one of the best things you can possibly do, if you want to be a writer, is to train it to play well with others.

Ari Marmell is a fantasy and horror writer, with novels and short stories published through Spectra (Random House), Pyr Books, Wizards of the Coast, and others. Ari’s most recent novel, The Goblin Corps, was released July of this year from Pyr Books and will be followed up with Thief’s Covenant due out early 2012, also with Pyr. Although born in New York, Ari  has lived the vast majority of his life in Texas—first Houston (where he earned a BA in Creative Writing at the University of Houston), and then Austin. He lives with his wife, George, two cats, and a variety of neuroses. For more information on Ari, please visit his website, www.mouseferatu.com.

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