It’s that time of the week when I answer your anonymous questions about writing and all that stuff connected to it. Every Thursday, I’ll be answering two questions from the Big Damn Writer Question Box.
Q: My fiance is finishing up his first book, which has been kicking around his head for roughly 15 years. He’s into the initial editing phase, before he starts looking for an agent, and has asked for my help editing by reading through it. I enjoy the book and editing, but as I get closer to the end of the book, he gets more and more nervous. He is also hypercritical of his own writing and sometimes doesn’t believe that I actually like the book. What were some helpful ways people supported you during moments you were down on yourself about writing? What were some helpful things people did for you during editing to either help you edit or to take your mind off of freaking out about editing/the future?
A: I hate to be the one to break this to you, but your fiance is a writer. There is nothing you or anyone else will ever be able to tell him that will make him feel less nervous or critical about his work. And that’s partially a blessing; writers who believe they’re super awesome writers are goofy, intolerable people, anyway. Out of every writer I’ve ever met, I think a total of ten of them have really believed that they’re amazing writers. They were all super boring and not great writers. I have the same philosophy on this as I do on parenting: If you think you’re doing amazing, you’re probably not. If you think you’re doing awful, then you’re probably doing okay.
The best way you can be supportive is to give him honest feedback. If you spend too much time going, “No, this is really, really good, you’re not giving yourself enough credit, you’re a great writer, etc.” it’s just going to sound like you’re patronizing him, or that you really don’t like it but you’re pretending to because you love him. Whether or not that’s true, he’s going to think it anyway. The nerves, self-criticism, lack of confidence, and generally fatalistic attitude are all part of the writing process. Being straightforward and direct about the material as you’re reading it will go a lot further than trying to build up his confidence through other means. You sound like you already have passion and enthusiasm for helping him see this through, and even though he has moments of self-doubt, I promise that your willingness to participate in his dream with him is the most helpful thing you can do.
Q: Do your stories change a lot due to the conditions of the houses where they were published? I’m concerned that I might have to make unnecessary changes in order to fit into a certain mold, but I don’t know for sure and I’d really like to hear what you have to say about that. Thank you very much.
A: So, this is a question writers hear a lot. How much is a publisher going to change my work? And I don’t really have the answer to that because every writer/publisher relationship is different. But usually, an editor will be upfront about whether or not the book is going to need major changes, and probably won’t buy a book if it doesn’t fit their line already. Publishing houses aren’t going to buy a book they’re not looking for with the intent of making the author change it into something they are. They get enough submissions that if your book won’t fit their mold, they just won’t buy it.
When I originally submitted my first book to Harlequin’s Bombshell line, I got a revision letter saying, hey, this would work better for Harlequin Luna. Here are the changes you need to make for it to fit in with the Luna line. And it was a huge rewrite, so they didn’t want to take a chance and give me a contract with the intent of asking me to rewrite the whole book. I could have walked away at that point and went, “No, that’s too much work, it changes my book too much.” So, there was definitely a stage before a contract was offered where they were upfront that the book would not be picked up in the form I’d shown them and that major changes would have to be made.
But after you sell the book, there are still going to be things they’ll want to change, and that’s where I’m seeing a red flag word in your question. “Unnecessary.” That’s a subjective word. What you believe is necessary and what your publisher believes is necessary might not be the same, and if you’ve signed that contract, you’re not the one who decides what “unnecessary” means. I’ve known writers who’ve lost contracts because they balked at fairly minor revisions, and this is almost always because they’re so enamored with their artistic vision that they convinced themselves any changes would ruin their book. If an editor is asking for a change there’s a reason, and a good editor will be able to articulate that reason. It would be very rare for that reason to be “this makes it more like the other books we publish,” because if your book was so far outside of the style their readers expect, they probably wouldn’t have bought it in the first place. Remember that an editor isn’t there to steal or ruin your work and they don’t want to make it their own or put their own stamp on it. They’re the bridge between your work and your audience, and any changes they make are to facilitate and enhance your readers’ engagement with the story.
Bonus question: What software do you use to write your novels? What are the pros and cons of that program?
A: For my drafts, I use a website called Novlr.org. It’s a subscription-based, stripped down version of Scrivener that stores all of your work online (and syncs copies of your drafts to Dropbox and Google Drive daily). This is a super important feature for me because I don’t have to worry about which version of which file is which when going from my desktop to my laptop or vice versa. After the first draft is done, it gets exported to Word for revisions.
Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!