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The Book He Wasn’t Supposed to Write

24 August 2017

From The Atlantic:

I had written five books for Scott Moyers, following him as he moved from editing jobs at Scribner’s to Random House and then to Penguin Press. We worked well together, and in part thanks to his strong editing hand, my last three books had been bestsellers.So what happened when I finished years of work and sent him the manuscript of my sixth book stunned me. In fact, I was in for a series of surprises.

They began about 18 months ago, after I emailed to him that manuscript, a dual appreciation of Winston Churchill and George Orwell. When I had begun work on it, in 2013, some old friends of mine thought the subject was a bit obscure. Why would anyone care how two long-dead Englishmen, a conservative politician and a socialist journalist who never met, had dealt with the polarized political turmoil of the 1930s and the world war that followed? By 2016, as people on both the American left and right increasingly seemed to favor opinion over fact, the book had become more timely.

But two weeks after I sent him the manuscript, I received a most unhappy e-mail back from him. “I fear that the disconnect over what this book should be might be fundamental,” Scott wrote to me, clearly pained to do so. What I had sent him was exactly the book he had told me not to write. He had warned me, he reminded me, against writing an extended book review that leaned on the weak reed of themes rather than stood on a strong foundation of narrative. I had put the works before the two men, he told me, and that would not do.. . . .

Partly, I was crushed. But even more, I was puzzled. How could I have been so off in my perception of my manuscript? This wasn’t a hurried work of a few months. For three years, I had steeped myself in Churchill, Orwell, and their times, reading hundreds of books, which were scattered in piles across the floor of my office in the attic of my home in Maine. The biggest of the piles was books by Churchill himself. The second biggest was diaries, memoirs, and collected letters by British politicians and writers of the 1930s and ’40s.

Scott followed up with a lengthy letter—I think it was about 10 pages—detailing his concerns.

. . . .

I spent the next five months, from mid-January to mid-June of 2016, redoing the whole book, rethinking it from top to bottom.

I began by taking his letter and his marked-up version of the manuscript with me to Austin, Texas, where my wife and I were taking a break in February from the long Maine winter. (Austin is a great town for live music, food, and hiking—and its winter feels to me like Maine in the summer.) I sat in the backyard and read and reread Scott’s comments. I didn’t argue with them. Rather, I pondered them. If he thinks that, I would ask myself, how can I address the problem? I underlined sections. At one point he pleaded in a note scrawled in the margin, “If you would only defer to the narrative, you could get away with murder.” I liked that comment so much I typed it across the top of the first page of the second draft, so I would see it every morning as I began my day’s work.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic


9 Comments to “The Book He Wasn’t Supposed to Write”

  1. I don’t know what to say about this, except I really liked reading it. Whether the editor’s judgment is better than the author’s original, I couldn’t say, and for them to work out.

    What I did like was the idea that occurred to me when I read the last paragraph, where he says:

    “I liked that comment so much I typed it across the top of the first page of the second draft, so I would see it every morning as I began my day’s work.”

    My idea is: to take an important guiding statement like that (one that matters to me and the book I’m writing and, while it remains a WIP, add it to the header so that the reminder is there at the top of each page–of course, to be removed in the final edit.

    God bless us, every one.

  2. “You are right,” it said. This wasn’t so much an apology as the beginning of the next phase of work.

    “Only a good writer would be able to say that,” he graciously responded.

    I had an issue with the editor’s response. Not only did I find it condescending but, quite frankly, wrong.

    Sometimes an editor doesn’t know best. Being a “good” writer doesn’t mean that you always kowtow to someone else’s wishes. Personally, I think part of being a good writer is knowing what works and what doesn’t. And that the interpretation of “good” is subjective.

    And yes, I see that in this particular instance the author agreed with the editor’s remarks and felt that it made it a stronger book. I’m not speaking solely to this one instance, but rather in general.

    I know it’s anecdotal, but I’ve spoken to many (bestselling) authors about this subject and there are times when you have to know for yourself whether or not something works. It’s probably something I love most about my current publisher – this is my work with my name on it and they treat it that way. While I typically go along with a lot of editorial suggestions, there have been quite a few times when I’ve said no because I didn’t agree with the assessment or suggestion.

    For example – with one book that was told in first person from the heroine’s perspective – the hero and heroine knew each other and had spent time apart before reconnecting at the beginning of my story. I wanted to convey that the hero had been texting the heroine the entire time they were apart. And I wanted to put in sparks of his personality – that he was funny and romantic. So I began each chapter with texts from the hero (that also matched the action happening in the respective chapter). At each stage of the editorial process (and there were a lot of stages) I was told to take the texts out. That they contributed nothing to the story, were distracting, etc., etc. I disagreed. I left them in.

    Amazon allows you to see what people have highlighted most in a story. And guess what has the highest number of highlights? Those texts that I was told over and over again to leave out. I’ve seen reviews where the readers talk about how much they loved those texts, that they were entertaining and gave them a chance to hear the hero’s voice.

    Or with my first indie book – a developmental editor absolutely eviscerated it. Tore it to minute shreds. She hated everything about it – from the structure to the characters to the plot to the dialogue. Hated it. Told me it was garbage and I would have to start over and rewrite the entire thing. I disagreed. I published it the way it was – the way I wanted to tell that story.

    That book has sold nearly 100,000 copies to date, has over 850 reviews on Amazon with a 4.5 average and when it came out finaled in several different book awards. Obviously it wasn’t garbage and didn’t need to be rewritten.

    Editors have opinions. Sometimes they are spot on and sometimes they’re not. Being blindly obedient doesn’t make you a “good” writer.

    • “I had written five books for Scott Moyers”

      Almost sounds like the writer was writing what the editor figured they could get the publisher to buy in on. In which case writing a sports car wouldn’t meet the minivan requirements.

      The beauty of indie is that you can write for yourself and your readers – not just what some editor/publisher expected of you.

      • That same line confused me at first; I thought the OP must be a ghostwriter or was doing some other type of write-for-hire. Agreed about the advantages of indie.

      • The expression is factually correct.
        In gatekept businesses you perforce write to market and the market is the gatekeeper, not the readers. Before readers ever get to pass judgment on a tradpub book, you have to sell it to the acquisitions “editor”. And, of course, you have to write it their way. That is why he asked the agent if the editor wanted to back out of the deal.

        If you run into vintage WRITER’S MARKETs, you’ll find descriptions of what types of stories different publishers would and wouldn’t buy. If you deviated too much from their tastes they wouldn’t buy. Or, if they’d bought it and didn’t like what it looked like, they would make it fit. With a sledgehammer if needed.

    • Yep. A writer has to be willing to stick to her guns. It’s tricky, because I could picture an inexperienced writer wrongly sticking to something that would be detrimental, and it’s hard to tell if the OP falls into that camp or not. But when you reach a certain point you have to be confident in your own work. And have the spine to stick up for it.

      The editor sounded manipulative in that quote, but since the writer agreed I’m going to assume the best. I dropped a writing group once because I quickly saw how much I hated all their stories — lousy craft, characters who deserve to get eaten by a grue, stupid plots — I basically don’t want to fisk anyone’s novel. I wonder that the editors in your case and his didn’t take a pass on the books rather than shredding them.

    • I totally agree. It seems to me that when analyzing feedback, it’s most helpful to look for consistent critiques across multiple readers. A single reader’s comments can be analyzed to see if the author agrees with them, but an author shouldn’t make massive changes based on one reader’s opinion (unless the author has analyzed it and changed their own mind about the thing). Only when a large percentage of your readers have an issue with something should you seriously consider changing it.

      A family member read my current WIP recently. From one of her comments, it occurred to me that maybe she just doesn’t really appreciate the way I write and what sorts of stories I tell. I certainly wouldn’t change those things because of her comments alone. There’s a market for the way I write, and she apparently doesn’t fit very closely into that market. And that’s okay. This is where it’s good to remember that one person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion.

      I’m glad this situation worked out well for the author of this article, but I agree that the editor’s response rubbed me wrong too. The implication being, “If a writer doesn’t agree with my opinion of their work and doesn’t make the changes I said they should, they’re a bad writer.” Which is so very smug and condescending. A better response would have been, “I’m glad I could be helpful. I look forward to seeing what revisions you make.”

  3. Ashe Elton Parker

    “If you would only defer to the narrative, you could get away with murder.”

    “[D]efer to the narrative”? What does that even mean? Clearly, the author got something out of it, but I don’t. It tells me nothing. Granted I don’t have the context (the marked-up MS and 10pg letter) the author had, but I doubt I’d understand any better even if I did. It’s just too vague and like self-important jargon meant to impress the lowly author with the editor’s superior intellect.

    • I also found that an odd/confusing comment, but we shouldn’t be too harsh in judging communication between two people where the intended message was successfully communicated, just because we on the outside, with our limited context, don’t understand it. The comment could have been, “Boink boink ba-doink” and if the intended recipient of the comment understood and received the intended message, then it was a successful communication.

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