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Lines on the page, in the sand

So. I’ve thinking about editing again. Or maybe still. And my thoughts have turned to ownership.

Ownership’s a big deal for me, so I’m guessing it’s the same for a lot of writers. And though my experiences with editing have been mostly pretty darn positive, I’m gonna stretch this basket to include all feedback. Feedback from friends, writing groups, rejections, all of it, to take a look at what I think about ownership.

When editing first cropped up in the recent discussions, I said I liked the idea of constructive editing, but I didn’t want to wind up in a position where a story seemed to owe more to the editor than it did to me. We tossed that around for a while, & then Ellen Datlow stopped by to say this:

Part of the editor’s job is to get the story to the point where it does indeed express exactly what the author wants it to.

Yay, I like this a lot!

So then I wondered: how do you know? How do you know when an editor is working with you & when an editor (remember, I’m including ALL feedback-sources here) is subtly undermining you? Because I’ve had similar experiences with different ‘editors’ that have resulted in vastly different results — not just for the story, but for me, my attitude, my (dare I risk overstating this) trust.

I’ve had people line-edit stuff for me, re-writing sentence after sentence. And hey, this can be an interesting exercise. It can give me an insight into a different style. But the problem is, I’m one of those pathetic ‘style monkey’ kinds of writers. I like prose. If I go with a particular prose style, it’s because I think its rhythms or shape or sound, colour, movement suit the story. I’ve written stories that have been described as ‘baroque’ in style, but then I’ve had more spartan-styled stories, because the story world is more spartan in my head. Sure, it’s likely some editors will spot a ‘cleaner’ way for me to express a sentence, but clean isn’t always what I want. And don’t get me started on the ‘wah, wah, adverbs are EVIL and must be DESTROYED’ school of thought. Yeah, we need to destroy all adverbs, because WE ALL NEED TO SOUND THE SAME. That’s what the world needs, for all writers to sound exactly the same, thanks.

I’ve digressed. OK, so I’ve had line-editing, & sometimes I’ve thought, ‘well, that doesn’t sound like what I want it to sound like’ & sometimes I’ve thought, ‘ok, that’s pretty cool’. I’ve not exactly been called precious (to my face), but one editor did once tell me I was .. what was it again? … ‘careful’ about my words. It’s true, I’m afraid. I think a story starts at the micro level, with words. If I’m reading someone else’s story & I find its prose grating or ugly or unwieldy, chances are sooner or later I’m gonna switch off. I mean, they say there’s only, what, 7 major plots in the world anyway, right? Chances are I can find that plot with more attractive prose elsewhere. So, sure, mess with my prose a little, but be prepared for me to examine each & every supposedly minor alteration. Some you’ll win, some I’ll win. Actually, one editor once said to me, ‘I will make a lot of changes. You should reject at least 30% or I’ll think you’re spineless!’

Cool, I said, bring it on. We got nowhere near 30%, I’m pretty sure, but man, that was some exchange! :) The italics stayed! So did most of the sentences beginning with ‘and’. I was not spineless. Neither was the editor. It was invigorating, but it could easily have been intimidating if I didn’t have, shall we say, a certain attitoood when it comes to how I want to be read. You’re only as good as your last story, you know what I’m saying? I could be hit by a bus tomorrow. Do I want to be remembered thus: ‘She had so much potential, right up until that last story, you know the one, it’s kinda like she stopped caring, you know, like she gave up on life’.

That wasn’t a digression, that was a ramble. I’ve heard tell of writers who refuse to change even one word once it’s in an editor’s hands. ‘That’s the word I’ve chosen, therefore it is the best word,’ they argue. I dunno, I personally see writing as a bit of a give-give relationship. I give something, audience gives something. It’s not all about me, after all. But those writers are possibly quite correct. Maybe there really is only one best word. Hey, they’re on their path, I’m on mine. Go for it, writer-types. You won’t get the ‘spineless’ label either. Though a spine is also meant to give you some flexibility, I’m sure, but that’s just my opinion & many of those writers are no doubt far more accomplished than me.

I’ve had bigger editing than word-wrestling, of course. I’ve had people suggest quite radical changes, my least favourite being ‘I think you’re using the wrong point of view character’. This is a suggestion I can rarely deal with responsibly. See, that’s where we hit my particular wall. If I’ve told the story from one point of view, I tend to get stuck in it. Because to me, story is character. I can *add* points of view, I can *reduce* a point of view (probably), but I can’t necessarily remove a POV. You know why? The story has been told in that character’s words already, & if you change the character, you gotta start thinking maybe you’ve got the wrong style, and by that stage, it might be a great story but it’s a different story. It’s not the story I started out with & I’m gonna have to go home & re-think this & let’s face it, I can write *that* story, but first I want to write this one…

Have I digressed again? Sorry, I have a lot on my mind. My brain is rolling & I’m having trouble choosing which ideas I’m trying to express. I cannot pinpoint editing in all of this. Let’s try again.

I’ve had experiences where I’ve felt the input is irrelevant to the story I’m trying to build. I’ve felt that the person doing the feedback has drifted off & is talking instead about some story inside their head, some story I would _never_ write, some story that has themes I don’t even like or ideas I don’t relate to. My story is not about that. My story does not relate to what you’re saying.

That is not the story I own.

But how have I known this? What gives it away that we’ve crossed from My Story to Your Story?

I’ve had other experiences where, though the suggested changes have been large, they’ve made sense & they’ve still allowed me room to manoeuvre. I’m still trying to think up a formula to tell when an editor (critiquer/ feedback-provider /well-meaning friend/ writing group cohort) is On Your Side & when they are fantasising instead about a world where they own all the good stories themselves. I can’t, though.

I’ve realised I go on gut instinct. I know an editor is working with me mainly because they listen when I say, ‘Oh, right. I guess what I was *trying* to do was this.’ They invite engagement, their comments make me want to get back into the story (my story), & get it back to them & to see what they might come up with next. Like feeding pennies into one of those creepy, old-fashioned fortune telling machines, I want to see what out-there predictions, what challenges to my thinking they can find that I can match. Those partnerships are exciting, & too rare.

I’m not sure how or where I draw the line, I just know it when I see it. Some things matter (italics sometimes matter, sometimes a lot), some things can be traded. I am not sure how I know the difference. I am not sure I *do* know the difference, of course. I am not sure my newbie status as a writer gives me a right to say any of these things anyhow, but it’s too late to start worrying now.

I have not yet cracked editing, but you’re right. Two paragraphs ago I did compare editors to creepy, old-fashioned fortune telling machines. That could really come back to bite me.