Many years ago, I worked for Planned Parenthood as a sex educator. My primary work was going into the community and talking to people about things we most often think of as sex ed basics: sexually transmitted infections and birth control methods. Those are important issues, but I’ve always believed that the most valuable thing I taught was negotiation, because one of the more difficult parts about sexuality is getting what you want without being coerced into what you don’t want. This is true for people of all ages, genders, and sexualities. No matter where you are in life, it’s useful to have a list that can be broken down into three parts.
- What you want to do
- What you might be willing to do
- What you absolutely do not want to do
If you have this list in your head, it makes it a lot easier to decide how you’ll respond in a situation where you’re considering having sexual contact with another person, whether it’s someone new or someone very familiar.
Now, what the heck does this have to do with writing? It turns out, that list of three that I learned in relationship to sex has been incredibly useful to me when it comes to working through the editorial process.
In the early days of your writing, you probably got used to receiving feedback from friends, family, or beta readers. You started learning to pick and choose what feedback you were going to use and what feedback didn’t work for you. The further you get into the publishing business, though, the harder it can be to decide which suggestions to implement and which to ignore.
It may be something as simple as a revise and resubmit request from an agent who’s considering representing you, or it may be something a lot more high stakes. You may find yourself on the other side of an email exchange with an editor who has paid good money for your book, and now wants you to make revisions you don’t necessarily agree with.
You may feel a lot of pressure to do the revisions and make the agent or editor happy, because it may seem like this is your opportunity to take the next step in your writing career. Maybe this relationship is the one that will help you get closer to your professional goals. Oddly enough, it starts to sound a lot like how people talk about their romantic relationships, where sex is one of the most complicated negotiations. Similarly, revisions are likely the most complicated negotiations you’ll have in your relationships with editors and agents. This is where having that list of three can come in handy.
As you work on your manuscript, it’s a good idea to think toward a time when an agent or editor will be discussing revisions with you. Evaluate which parts of the story you consider integral and which parts might be negotiable. Above all, think about things that you wouldn’t want to change, even if it meant the difference between getting an agent or selling a book. Perhaps it’s a character’s voice, or a particular plot point, or the emotional arc of your main character. I find that for me, it’s whatever element pins my heart to the story I’m telling, the thing that makes it impossible for me to set a project aside, the thing that wakes me up at 3:00 AM to make notes in the dark.
Once I’ve figured out the foundation stones of my book–the things I absolutely wouldn’t want to change–it’s much easier to complete the rest of the list. Typically, my “want to do” category contains anything to make the story stronger and more engaging, and nearly everything else in the book becomes something I might be willing to change. Not that you have to agree to everything on that part of your list, but that those things are open to negotiations.
After you have your list of three, it’s also useful to make a list of ways you plan to talk about the stuff that you won’t budge on. Sometimes it’s as simple as being prepared to say, “This element is very important to me and I wouldn’t be comfortable making radical changes to it.” Don’t be afraid to use your emotions, either. “This character is the beating heart of my story” may sound mushy, but novels aren’t merely words on a page. They’re built on your feelings as well. Just as a romantic partner should be willing to respect your boundaries, so should a publishing partner.
I won’t tell you it’s easy to say no to an agent or editor, because I know what it’s like to be struggling to get to that next stage, to be trying to build a career. No matter how badly you want something, however, it’s good to have boundaries around what you’re willing to do to get it. As the great rock ‘n’ roll poet Meat Loaf sang: “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” The same should be true of your publishing aspirations.
We get the message of “kill your darlings” so often that we sometimes overlook the fact that what you love in a story you wrote is not inherently in need of killing. The things that matter to you deeply in the stories you tell are worthy of protecting.
What is the most difficult revision you’ve ever had to do for a story? How did you handle it?