The View From the Other Side

When I was an editor and then later a literary agent, it was my job to put authors through revisions. Even if it hadn’t been, I don’t think I would have been able to help it. We learn to read when we are very very small, but it’s possible we learn to edit even before that. My BLB has three, yes, three, toy fire trucks, the poor deprived child. One, according to his imagination, makes a “ree-roo” siren sound. The other two do not. I was driving one of the non-ree-roo trucks around while making a ree-roo sound when he waved his hands frantically like an air traffic controller and said, “No, mama. No siren.”

Oh. Okay then.

All of us do a tiny bit of that when we read. Characters say something we wish they hadn’t said, or do something we don’t believe, and we think to ourselves, “No, Author. No Siren.” Editors foster that annoying habit until they can make vast, painful, 15 page revision letters out of it, and then, when done editing at work, we edit at play. The first time you read a favorite author’s latest installment, just for fun, and think to yourself, “hm, I would have liked to see more of that on the page…” you realize that you are ruined forever. Then you start talking about ‘different choices’ you wish a screenwriter would have made (during a Pixar film), and then ‘character continuity’ in a totally meritless sitcom, and you are sunk.

I am guessing this also happens to most authors after a few rounds of their own revisions… because editing is a muscle. One you may wish you could let atrophy.

Eventually I did figure out how to turn that voice down, and at times, off, so I could write an entire book without crumbling under the pressure of my own unreasonable expectations–expectations that I had no trouble forcing on my hapless authors back in the day. Then I sent the book off into the world, and I got revision letters of my own.

And it was painful. (As in, for me at least, the emotional equivalent of childbirth, but without the awesome new life at the end.)

With this experience behind me, I look back on the hundreds of revisions I asked for from authors, and am dazzled that they were, time and again, able to deliver. Not just deliver, but deliver with grace. I now know that though they were primed and prepared for arduous revisions, they were hoping, by some miracle, not to have to do them. And yet, I never, not once, had an author throw a revision letter back in my face and say, “To hell with you and this insane career! I’m going to go herd sheep!” It’s amazing.

We authors are a neurotic bunch. Crazy, some would say. We wear pajamas to work and have strange superstitions about pens and cry over reviews posted by semi-literate halfwits on never-read websites.

But now that I know just how hard revisions can be, I can say something else with certainty about anyone who has decided to do this for a living: Authors are tough as nails.

And we would really, really like to not have to do any revisions.


9 Replies to “The View From the Other Side”

  1. Oh, but I have thought about herding sheep. I fear that sheep herding would also require some sort of constant herd revision though, and it seems not to have saved the Biblical David from writing poetry. Great post!

  2. The publishing process has made me both more critical and more forgiving when it comes to other writers’ work. On the one hand, I’m like, “How did an editor not catch that? Why didn’t the author trim/add/elaborate/etc here?” But then I also think, “I can see the hard work that went into this, and wow — rock on, my friend.” It’s a strange push-pull.

    1. Well said, Dana. In fact, I sometimes see what I think is a heavily edited book and think, oh, this poor poor writer! Hang in there, author! The next book will be easier!

  3. Great insight – I love the mental image of “No, author. No Siren.” – Only I think my mental voice is a little louder and more insistent. “NO NO NO!!!” I do wish I could teach it that only my work gets to be changed to its specifications, but as you pointed out…once we start down this road, we’re pretty much done for.

  4. Great post. Loved the “No author. No siren” part. It is hard to turn off the revision part of the brain, huh? So far, I’ve been able to manage not to let it get in the way when I’m reading books. It’s afterwards that I start thinking ‘well, if they had done this or that…’

    1. Thanks for saying that! What I find amazing is that there are certain authors who I trust so much my editorial voice actually goes away while reading… But just like you said, after the book is closed I start noodling…

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