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Two Coins in the Hundred

Harold Abrahams at the 1924 Olympics

In the classic film Chariots of Fire, Olympic sprinter Harold Abrahams hires a coach, Sam Mussabini, to help him win the 100-yard dash.  Mussabini first lays out a string of coins, representing the steps Harold takes in a typical race.  Then he pushes the coins together slightly and says, “Can you find me another two coins, Mr. Abrahams?”

This is what editors do.  Because we can bring years of experience and fresh eyes to your manuscript, we can spot weaknesses that you didn’t know you had.  An editor can see where your characters act out of character.  We can spot when you aren’t including enough detail (or including too much) when you set your scenes.  We can tell you that the subplot that you thought highlighted your main character actually slows your pace more than it’s worth.  We can find you two coins in the hundred.

Unfortunately, some editors try to do more.

I recently had a client come to me after working with three other editors who had all left distinctive marks on her manuscript.  One suggested that she take what was, in fact, a prologue and make it into chapter one, because books nowadays shouldn’t have prologues.  Another told her she needed to humanize her main character more, so she added a scene at the beginning that delayed the start of the real story.  The third said the story started too late, and she should jump ahead, losing much of the humanizing material she’d just added.

The point here is not that the editors offered bad or contradictory advice – we all get it wrong from time to time.  It’s that all of their advice pushed the client to make changes she didn’t feel comfortable with.  They weren’t just adding steps to her race.  They were trying to run the race for her.

It’s at least partly up to clients to prevent this.  I never expect a client to agree with everything I recommend – as I say, we all get it wrong sometimes.  And even if we get it right, even if our changes would genuinely improve the book, it never works to pressure a client to make changes they don’t really believe in.  The result is almost inevitably worse than the original.  If a client doesn’t feel comfortable making a change I’ve suggested, I need them to tell me so.  That way, I can accept their vision of what the story should be and make it work as well as possible.

Sometimes your editor does damage with the best motives possible – to make your book sell better.  In fact, a lot of editors consider it their duty to help you tailor your book to the market.  Which can be a good thing.  But an editor who keeps an eye on the market – on what’s selling at the moment or what might land movie rights – rather than on your manuscript is much more likely to make suggestions that will push you beyond where you can go.

Years ago, I had a client whose dystopian YA was bought by a major publishing house.  The editor she worked with at the publisher made some suggestions meant to better tailor the book to the market.  The client rewrote the book, only to have the editor tell her it wasn’t working.  They went back and forth several times, with the client practically begging the editor near the end to tell her how to put her suggestions into place.  In the end, the book deal fell apart because the client just could not find a way to make the suggestions her own.

One moral of this story is that writing the book you need to write may result in something that’s hard to market.  Understand, I think that helping a manuscript become what it should be on its own terms will also help it reach its readership more effectively.  But I’ve worked with a number of clients with unique visions that ran counter to the market, or that would appeal to a limited readership.  I’ve encountered others who were heavily invested in a character or a stylistic approach that, in my opinion, weakened their stories.  But I couldn’t force the major changes that would be needed to make their manuscripts stronger without either undermining the integrity of the book or the client’s vision.  So I warned the clients that marketing the book would be an uphill battle and explained why, then we went to work, making the books as strong as possible.

I don’t mean to sound discouraging.  The editor/writer relationship is usually wonderful.  It’s strangely intimate and supportive for the writer and often enlightening for the editor – I’ve learned an immense amount from clients over the years.  If you can manage it, I’d recommend that you find a good editor, one you can work with and trust.  But when you do work with an editor, be aware that you have to keep an eye on your story’s integrity, too.  Even the best of us step on toes sometimes.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.  After all, you hire an editor to tell you to change your book.  And while you can sometimes tell whether or not a change goes too far– the best suggestions leave you excited to start rewriting — the line isn’t always clear.  You’ve got to balance being open to change with an awareness of the core values of your story.

A good editor can help you with this, too.  A lot of writers need editing because they aren’t really aware of the core of their story.  They like what they’ve written, of course, but may not have the experience or self-awareness to really understand it.  One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was the client who said, “I didn’t really know what my book was about until I read your report.”

So listen to your editor. Try making the changes they suggest, to see how they feel.  But don’t be afraid to disagree, to challenge your editor, even to flatly refuse to make changes.  Be open to change but not passive.  Be willing to strip away the dross, but keep your eye on the core.

Tell us about your experiences with an editor — or a beta reader or a writer’s group.  Have you ever had to push back against suggestions?  Have they helped you become more aware of your story?

About Dave King [1]

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website [2].