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Marissa Lingen

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Worst boss [May. 18th, 2015|07:38 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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One of the questions that novice writers ask established writers a lot–like, really a lot–is what to do if your editor asks for a change you don’t want to make. I think they may ask it so often because they’re not satisfied with the answer we give, which is basically, “Well, decide how important it is to you and do it or don’t do it, accordingly.” In some ways it feels like they’re asking for reassurance of a just universe–that writing the book the best way you know how will turn out to have been the right thing in a way that is recognizable to everybody, or that there is a magical incantation you can do to have control without responsibility. And neither of those things is true. Control and responsibility go hand in hand, and very smart people can completely disagree on how a story should go. These are things to roll with, and you can’t really tell what someone else will come up with and how much it will matter to you until you’re in the middle of it, so there’s no closed-form answer. Make the changes or don’t, remembering that it’s your name on the cover.


But honestly, there’s a reason this is a novice question, and it’s because it’s about controlling other people. Almost all the novice questions are about controlling other people. How do I make sure that people imagine what I’m imagining, exactly? You don’t. How do I make sure that my story/book/poem/whatever doesn’t get lost in the shuffle before it even gets read? You don’t. And so on.


The journeyman and pro questions are about controlling your own efforts. I think a bigger problem than, “What if an editor wants me to do something with a story that I don’t want to do?” is, “What if my past self wants me to do something with a story that I don’t want to do?” Because that past self–that selfsame self–sometimes gets published. And then you’re stuck. Never mind working to editorial specification! You have to work around the limitations that that idiot kid (=you two years ago) put on your characters and plot. And you will see brilliant, amazing authors thrashing around trying to figure out a way around this problem. Long series are the absolute worst for follow-on consequences that you brought on yourself, that you can’t blame anyone else for–and that you still need to try to weasel out of. And yet the entire process of writing narrative is one of choosing and accepting the consequences of your choice.* Ramification is the name of the game. Try to skip out on that, and you’ll skip out on the reader’s trust and attention along with it. And yet argh, that one thing, if only it wasn’t set down in print!


*This is why it can be so difficult to write narrative while depressed, or one of the reasons. Layered on top of all the stuff that’s first-order stuff, you are making a choice per word and then more choices about going back and changing stuff so that it fits the larger scale. Writers with clinical depression have all the respect in the world from me.


I know a bunch of professional writers who joke about our “mean bosses” or our “incompetent bosses” or variations on this theme. We’re never, ever talking about editors. Editors aren’t our bosses. We are our own bosses. We are the ones who decide that character A should really be an only child when we desperately need her to have grown up with a brother in book three; we are the ones who leave a major villain alive so that the reader expects that villain will get dealt with when we are SO BORED with that villain in book six. Nobody teaches writers all sorts of useful skills, but management as self-management is one of the huge ones.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: fadethecat
2015-05-19 05:46 am (UTC)
It's been fascinating watch this exact process happen in the Foreigner series. Cherryh has been writing this series for decades now, and in the current books, you can just see her doing a very skilled tapdance around some things she set up in earlier books. Adding nuance, stuffing in a near-retcon in some places that weren't technically locked into place, just implied, adding characters to balance some demographic issues the earlier books had... It's impressive and makes me feel very sympathetic all at once.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-19 10:56 am (UTC)
Yes! I'm only on Inheritor on my reread, but it's definitely an interesting example.
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[User Picture]From: ellarien
2015-05-19 08:05 am (UTC)
If I asked that question -- and I'm so timid a novice that I've never quite dared ask anyone who might give me an actual answer -- I would mean: Will the editor still let me be published if I won't put that thing in? There are some things that I feel quite strongly don't belong in anything with my name on the cover, that seem to be expected in most fiction written for adults in the last fifty years or so, and one of the issues that has always put me off getting serious about writing for publication is that I'm afraid of some editor giving me the choice between putting those things in and not being published, because I'd have to say no and that would be a waste of everyone's time. (The bit where I can write a coherent 90,000-word narrative and have no idea which character is the 'protagonist' is another, but that's a more recent worry and one I might be prepared to work with someone to fix.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-19 11:09 am (UTC)
The problem is that it will vary from editor to editor and book to book. No one can tell you for sure. I understand that that's frustrating, and I'm sorry, but every editor has an understanding of what a particular story or book "needs" and what it just "could use." Most of these are flexible/up for discussion, but some are explicitly not. At least in the short field, some editors won't make an offer at all if they have any intractable suggestions, and others will be quite explicit that if they can't work out X issue to mutual satisfaction, they would love to see your next one etc.
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[User Picture]From: ellarien
2015-05-19 11:52 am (UTC)
Thanks! The self-pub route starts to look more attractive -- I'd have no hesitation in overruling an editor I hired, if they wanted to put the thing in. I might try to stipulate that at the hiring stage, though.

(Let's just say that I prefer the kind of romance that wraps up with the first real kiss.)

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-19 11:58 am (UTC)
Self-publishing is a reasonable option if you don't see your sub-genre represented in traditional publishing. My understanding is that there are some romance lines that share your preference? but I mostly am not visual enough to read romance successfully, so I couldn't say if that's actually true, or which ones they are, or whether they come with additional caveats that you don't want to meet.
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[User Picture]From: ellarien
2015-05-19 12:34 pm (UTC)
Well, I'm not actually writing romance -- I run more to soft SF or fantasy, but one feels obliged to put in some kind of romantic thread. Though why it should be necessary, when the people are mostly there to get a job done, I'm not sure ...
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-19 02:30 pm (UTC)
I both agree and disagree here. I agree that being more awesome is always the best policy, and that sticking things in because they seem fashionable is not good for books. The last book I finished, I had put in a half-hearted boyfriend relationship for the protag for weird reasons, and my smart critiquers were smart enough to give it a thumbs down, and when I looked at it, they were right. Out it came.

On the other hand, I think that editors quite often--quite understandably and ethically--reject books that they are not the right editor for. And I think that there are not infinite editors. So if you have an awesome book that isn't right for any editor currently working, you have a very real risk of an awesome book that does not sell, or does not sell in the year that you write it. And this is okay. Because you still have the awesome book, and you can still self-publish it, or wait and see what happens with time, or whatever, and having the awesome book is better than not having it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-19 03:56 pm (UTC)
You've said above that if you're awesome enough, editors won't even want changes or will accept stories with opposite changes to what they said, and I just don't think that awesomeness is the sole factor there. If it was, you would have found a British publisher for your books much sooner than you did. I've had some stories published completely without alteration by the editor, and I've had some where we went back and forth on a lot of things--and a few where I couldn't agree with what was suggested and later sold the story to another, equally good market--and I don't think that these different stories could be easily ranked by their inherent awesomeness. Possibly you could take the position that I have simply never been awesome enough, because if I was I wouldn't ever lose a sale due to disagreement with an editor. I think that makes awesome far too one-dimensional and independent of editorial style/personality/taste. It is too much of a just universe hypothesis for me to be able to sign on.
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[User Picture]From: ellarien
2015-05-19 04:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you! You've certainly given me plenty to think about. I seem to have this naive pair-bonding notion very deeply ingrained in my idea of what makes a story; thank you for reminding me that it doesn't have to be there.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-19 01:55 pm (UTC)
Just off the top of my head, The Goblin Emperor is on the Hugo ballot and comes from a traditional publishing house and is not romancey. So Jo's example is not the only one.
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[User Picture]From: ellarien
2015-05-19 03:31 pm (UTC)
I liked The Goblin Emperor a lot. Come to think of it, there's not a whole lot of romance in Ancillary Sword, either, though there is some adolescent yearning on the part of a secondary character.

Now I'm wondering how much of my perception that the shape of a story generally includes two people coming together is based on things I read in my early teens ... like those 'career' novels where the main character goes into a profession and inevitably ends up getting married as soon as she qualifies.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-19 04:05 pm (UTC)
I hope this brings you hope.
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[User Picture]From: ellarien
2015-05-19 04:17 pm (UTC)
It is helping, thanks! Now if I can just get that pattern out of my head ... it seems to be very deeply ingrained in my process, far deeper than any notions about three-act structure and the like.
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2015-05-19 04:18 pm (UTC)
My first published novel had no romance in it. The sequel had a nod toward "these two people will get together," but it didn't go into detail (much to the disappointment of some of my readers).

And that was 2006, so it's a relatively recent data point.
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[User Picture]From: ellarien
2015-05-19 04:56 pm (UTC)
Ooh. I may have to try those. Thank you! (I liked the London Faeries, and I like Lady Trent even more, but I hadn't gone looking for your backlist.)
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-05-19 03:36 pm (UTC)
I don't think I've read a series in which that's been an issue--which is to say, I guess I've never read a series that was started when the author was new(ish) at writing and then continued through to the author's maturity. I've read some of the Discworld books, but randomly, with no regard for the order in which Pratchett wrote them. I've definitely heard people *talk* about it as an issue, though. I've sometimes felt that an author's interest has drifted during a series or book, which is maybe sort of similar? They thought they were going to write one sort of book, but slid into something else, only the front end of the book (or series) is still the other thing.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-19 04:04 pm (UTC)
Do you read a lot of mystery? Because I see this a lot in mystery.
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-05-19 04:19 pm (UTC)
No, almost never--but I can definitely see how it would apply. Same protag, many, many books.
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[User Picture]From: vcmw
2015-05-20 12:54 pm (UTC)
This bit about long series is particularly interesting for me to think about at the moment, as I just recently had the first idea I've ever had that feels inherently long-form in the series-length sense, rather than the novel-length sense.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-05-20 09:52 pm (UTC)
And you can't get too hung up in potential future problems or you won't have any current book! But it really is a limitation that's internally imposed.
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