Saturday, May 31, 2008

For Love or Money?

Speaking of Harvey Korman, is anyone besides me old enough to remember when he was on the Danny Kaye Show? Korman did one of my all-time favorite recurring characters on that show, the heroic, square-jawed Canadian Mountie Toronto Tom. Everywhere Tom went he was followed by a parade of marching red-coated Mounties who chanted "TorONto TOM TorONto TOM TorON-tatatatata-TONto TOM. I thought it was hilarious. Of course, I was very young at the time.

My friend and fellow author Jon Talton once said that his eighty-year-old editor at St. Martin’s rejected one of his manuscripts because it had too much sex, so he withdrew it and submitted another. Later, after he had switched to Poisoned Pen Press, he submitted the same book that had been rejected by St Martin’s, and was told by his new editor, Barbara Peters, that too much sex was a good start. Poisoned Pen published it. (The book is Cactus Heart, by the way. If you like a good, gritty, noir with a big old dollop of irony and sarcasm, Talton’s "David Mapstone" series is for you.)

And there’s the rub. The editor. We want to be published. A particular editor at a particular house likes your book and says she’ll publish it if you’ll alter parts of the MS to suit her. You don’t want to make the changes she asks for. What to do, what to do?

Every author who has ever submitted a manuscript has had to make changes, I’m sure. (If you haven’t, I’d like to hear from you.) More often than not, the editor knows the market infinitely better than the author, and so knows what’s more likely to sell. The editor is a fresh pair of eyes, too, who sees plot holes, mistakes, overwriting, etc., that the author, who has been messing with this book for months and/or years, can no longer see. I’m lucky to have an editor I trust, (the aforementioned Barbara Peters) and not just because of her reputation, but because thus far, every time she suggests a change, I slap myself in the forehead and mutter, "Of course! Why didn’t I see that!" Off the top of my head, I could list several changes she suggested to me that infinitely improved my stories, but I won’t, since I’d prefer you think me so skilled that my books leap forth from my mind perfectly formed, with no room for improvement.

But like I said, I’m lucky. My editor has never asked me to make a change that I objected to, or felt as though I couldn’t pull off. I’ve heard plenty of tales from authors whose experience has been otherwise. What would you do if an editor said she’d only recommend the book for publication if you make a change that will, in your opinion, change the whole tone of the piece, or totally mess up a scene, or force you to write something you feel uncomfortable with? How badly do you want to be published? Which is more important to you, publication or your principles?

My principles are rather slippery things, so I’d probably try to do whatever it took, at least getting a book out there, so that later I could submit something else to another house and be able say I had already been published. But then, if an author does something he doesn’t really like, I fear it will show in the writing. Besides, if you don’t like your own book, then what’s the point? A friend of mine once showed me a list of outrageous suggestions from an editor, and wondered aloud if the guy had actually read the manuscript at all.

And as for sex and violence ... Well. I’m the dame who said that I tend to grow impatient with lingering sex scenes because I want to get on with the story. And generally speaking, I hate to read about or see graphic violence. It disturbs me for days. Yet, in one of my books, I wrote a scene in which the villain gets a pickax in the chest and sprays gore all over his killer. Like Rick said, sometimes you want to shock, to make a point, to be real. Sometimes, sex and violence are just called for.

1 comment:

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