One of the most common questions authors get is this: “How much of your book did your editor make you change?” (Sometimes it’s “agent” instead of “editor”, but the question is the same.) And there are unspoken questions behind the spoken one: how much did you give up? How much of your vision did you sacrifice? How much of your book isn’t yours anymore?
If someone asks, “How much did they make you change?” I answer with the truth: “Nothing. They didn’t make me change one thing.”
Did my agent have suggestions that shaped the book? Absolutely. Did my editor? Oh yes. (I assure you, the new old saw that “editors don’t edit anymore” is very, very much a myth.) Is it a better book because of their involvement? No doubt whatsoever in my mind. They picked out weaknesses and issues. They found slow sections, rushed sections, dead-end plotlines, opportunities for higher emotional stakes. They asked pointed questions: have you thought about this? What’s the reason this scene is here? What about if X were Y and Y were Z? They found ways they thought the book could be better, and trusted me to figure out how, exactly, to make that happen.
But there was an earlier stage in the process too, and I remember it well. There were several agents interested in representing The Kitchen Daughter, and when I was trying to make my decision, I talked to them about their vision for the book, to see if it squared up with mine. And more than one agent said, “I love the ghosts, I love the food, but — do you think you could get rid of the Asperger’s?”
No, I said. No, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
So what I’m trying to get at is this: it’s easiest to take an extreme position either way. You can say, I’ll never change a single thing about my book because I have a pure vision and it’s my name that goes on the spine. Or you can say, I’m happy to make whatever changes an agent or editor wants as long as it means I get published.
The problem is that neither of those extremes is the best position to take, and the spot in the middle is a much more uncomfortable, and ambiguous, place to be. People will want you to change things about your book, and you will have to decide whether or not to take their advice. It’s hard to know what changes are the “right” changes to make, and the truth is that any premise could become an infinite number of books. The premise of my book — woman discovers she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes — could have gone in any number of directions. It could be a cozy mystery, or a light-hearted wedding-cake romcom, or a dark and introspective meditation on the nature of grief.
So if a publishing professional suggests changes, how do you know whether to make them or not? What’s the rule? I wish I had one for you. Heck, I wish I had one for me. The truth is, sometimes I attempted to fix a problem in the manuscript only to introduce a new problem, and the book got worse before it got better. I didn’t have an instant sense of what would work and what wouldn’t, what changes were wrong and which were right. Sometimes only trial and error will get you there.
But at other times, you’ll just know, like I did with the agents who wanted me to change a key aspect of my narrator’s character. You’ll think of the word “compromise”, and how it has two meanings, one to embrace and one to reject.
Is this change a compromise between what I originally envisioned and what someone else envisions? Yes? Then it’s worth exploring.
Does this change leave me, or my book, compromised? Yes? Then you and your book are probably both better off without it.
(Photo credit: Nina Matthews Photography)