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How to Please Your Editor—Without Losing Yourself

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Today’s guest is Katharine Britton [1], author of the recently released LITTLE ISLAND (September 3, 2013, Berkley Books/Penguin). Little Island, her second novel, is a family drama about four generations who gather for a weekend on their small island in Maine. It doesn’t take long for the tragedy that has defined this family to resurface—and for painful secrets and old resentments to emerge.

According to New York Times bestselling author Nancy Thayer,

 Katharine Britton’s Little Island flows with such luscious writing I wanted to slow down to savor it and a plot so compelling I tore through the book as if I were reading a page-turner mystery.

Follow Katharine on Facebook [2], Twitter [3], and Pinterest [4].

How to Please Your Editor—Without Losing Yourself

My first novel was (note the past tense) about two sisters, ages seventy-two and eighty, estranged for sixty years who reunite in their childhood home on Boston’s south shore. The story unfolded in shifting time frames, with chapters alternating between the 1940s when the sisters were young, and present day. An editor liked the story and was interested in buying the manuscript, with one or two changes: She suggested I make both sisters younger and the older sister nicer. Since this was the first bit of interest I’d had in a manuscript (twenty-five editors rejected my first one) I considered her advice and realized that, one: if I made the changes, the story would be stronger and, two: if I didn’t, she would reject it.

I made the sisters fifty-eight and sixty-seven, set their childhood in the 1960s (making the estrangement forty years rather than sixty), and softened the older sister. The editor bought the manuscript, and then suggested I change the title.

My goal was to be a published author. False pride was not going to help. I had to be practical. Still, I wouldn’t have made the changes if I hadn’t agreed with them.

My second novel was about Grace, a sixty-four-year old woman whose mother has recently died. (Again, note the past tense.) She’s planning her mother’s memorial service, based on a note she found beside her mother’s deathbed: Grace, flowers, by the water, have fun! Grace loves to garden and lives on an island, so the first two requests present her no problem. “Fun,” however, is not a word Grace associates with her family gatherings. She has three grown children, who arrive on their small island in Maine with significant baggage—as well as their luggage—in tow. My editor liked the manuscript, but suggested I make it, not Grace’s story, but her older daughter Joy’s. The reason for the change was not inspiring: the publisher wanted to sell more e-books. (Younger readers enjoy younger protagonists and younger readers buy e-books.)

Still, her request presented me with a challenge and the opportunity to learn more about this older daughter, an empty nester with a fear of the water, who had played a small, but important, role in the events of the weekend. The premise of the novel remains the same. I simply expanded and elevated Joy’s scenes.

Each time I go back into a “finished” manuscript and start to ask questions, I discover new facets to my characters. These lead to new connections with other characters and create interesting plot twists, which I then get to resolve. Each time I’ve followed my editor’s advice and revised a manuscript under her guidance I’ve grown as a writer. And sold the manuscript.

Do I think Little Island worked the way I originally wrote it? Yes. Does it work better this way? Very possibly.Little_Island.finalcover [5]

My advice: Write your book. The one you want. Take your time with it. Enjoy the process. For most of us, there’s not a lot of money in this profession, so we need to love the writing. When an editor becomes interested and makes suggestions, take them to heart. No one forced me to make those changes, and no one will force you. There are lots of editors out there, and also many self-publishing opportunities. Make the changes only if you agree with them and will still love your story and characters during and after the revision. Because, remember, when the book is published, it will be your name gracing the front cover.

Would you consider making changes to your manuscript based on an editor’s suggestions? A trusted reader’s?