If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a community to craft a book. A finished book belongs to its readers, but in order to get it ready for them a lot of hands help mold the story into its proper shape and form. Beta readers, critique partners, editors for content and grammar -- they’re all vital to the life of a novel. Once an A-team has spent time reading and providing feedback, the author’s ready to put the assessment into action. But how do you know what advice to take, what bits to toss and which to keep?
Neil Gaiman famously said a lot of things, but my favorite Gaiman-ism is his fifth rule of writing, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
This isn’t a universal rule, of course. If you’re hiring someone to tell you what’s wrong and how to fix it, it’s probably a good idea to at least hear them out -- or you’ve just wasted your money. But it’s pivotal to stay true to your story, to make certain your vision stays yours. If your beta reader, editor, or critique partner is trying to steer you toward writing the book she wants to read, as opposed to the book you’re trying to write, then chances are you’re going to both spin your wheels and leave a lot of frustration, and maybe a few tears, in the dust.
The revision process is hard, and a little painful, but it shouldn’t feel impossible.
A good editor isn’t looking for her story in a book; she’s looking to help the author get the one in his head polished and on the page.
“I always recommend trusting your gut, being open and honest, and not being afraid to speak up if something feels off,” said freelance editor Mickey Reed. “Working with an editor can be one of the best things you do for your book if you have the right person/people in your corner. So if your gut is telling you that things aren't working out, don't hold that back. Your book is your baby, and you want the best for it. Your editor should too.”
Reed’s client Elizabeth Lee echoed her sentiments, “Finding an editor who understands the story you're trying to tell is crucial. Someone who not only enjoys your writing, but offers invaluable insight on how to make it stronger while still maintaining your voice.”
After all, this writing of books is a business -- one that comes with pros and cons.
“There are good things and bad things about being an indie and being a traditionally published author,” noted bestselling hybrid author Courtney Cole. “One of the beauties of being an indie is that you don't work for your editor -- your editor is on your payroll. And while you do hire them for their expertise, there are times when you have to trust your gut and just know that your vision for the story is best. There have been many times where I took constructive criticism and made changes because I realized that my editors or beta readers or crit partners were right. But there have been just as many times when I knew that my vision was best. It's my story, after all.”
It’s easy to feel like you’re on a merry-go-round or even the roller coaster of doom while dealing with editorial notes. This past month, I’ve felt pulled like taffy, stretched in both directions, wondering if up isn’t really sideways, and if maybe, just maybe, my story is really a thing made of suck and I should just stuff it in a trunk and spend my days practicing the Vulcan death grip instead.
“The revision process is truly what makes writers a bit neurotic,” CJ Lyons told me. “We have to trust our gut since only we know the story we want to tell…but we also need to be objective enough to know when and where to ‘kill our darlings.’ That’s where a good editor can really make a difference -- protecting the words that work and giving you the nudge you need to sacrifice the ones that aren’t.”
Keep it simple sweetheart, don’t take it personally, go to the mattresses – what are the mattresses? I’ve kept a running tally of mantras and can-do-isms in my head, and I finally realized it all comes down to purpose.
“Trusting your gut depends on what you want out of the writing process,” Hugh Howey said. “Do you want to publish works that you feel confident about or works that your audience feels confident about? If the goal is to reach a lot of readers and offer them a compelling and gripping read, then going with your gut could be a monumental mistake. Successful authors learn when to let go and to listen to feedback. This is why relying on a single editor for advice is a very bad idea. Now you're just going with their gut.”
I want to publish books I feel confident about, ones that are compelling and full of hope and honesty and that my readers will feel confident about too. If one person’s gut is advising me to make changes so the story becomes what they, as a reader, want, does that feedback serve my book or that particular person’s taste? I’m not writing a choose your own adventure book, but there is a certain temptation to try and write for each person who offers his or her advice. I need honesty and constructive criticism, but I don’t (personally) do well with didactic direction. What I’ve discovered is this: if a person feeds my inner critic, instead of helping me to wrangle and defuse it while remolding my book, they’re not the right person to help me shape my story.
The inner critic is a trash-talking curmudgeon made of self-doubt. He can wreak havoc on the mind of a writer, particularly when they’re feeling vulnerable. But there are ways to beat him back.
“Find someone to support you early on. Find someone that loves your writing, and will be able to pull you back up when you've fallen down,” said Teen Eyes editorial director Brent Taylor. “If you're struggling to believe in your talent and ability, then maybe just take a step back and instead pour all of your trust in your characters and their story. Trust that your characters are speaking to you clearly. Trust that they will guide you through their story.”
The story. The characters. The book. This process is not easy, but it’s worth it. My friend Courtney Stevens Potter always says, “You have to write the story only you can tell.” I believe this is applicable for revision too -- in editing, you can’t lose the story you’re meant to tell. The story is for the reader, yes, absolutely, but it has to come from the author’s truth. Once a book is in the wild, it no longer belongs to the author. With your book in their hands, readers apply their life experiences and make your book their own.
So during the editorial process, when the artist is committed to carving the story into art, a like-minded team -- one that sees the same vision and works together (through communication, compassion, brutal honesty, and respect) -- will set that story free.