If you’ve written much at all, you’ve had someone edit your work. Sometimes this is a semi-enjoyable experience, an exchange of ideas between two like minds who both have a professional attitude and healthy mutual respect. Sometimes it’s more like having a root canal with a dull red pencil.
Many writers (including me) look for beta readers, kind souls who are friends, relatives, or fans who will do an advanced reading of a piece to give you some feedback. These people are, at least for me, critical to the editing process. I find that when I’ve re-read something a lot, say a hundred times (or it just seems like that), I lose my perspective. Having an outsider read something helps give a fresh viewpoint and often helps identify potential problems or confusions before the piece is sent to someone in professional publishing.
Once you’ve taken into account the feedback of beta readers, your will likely send it on with hope to a higher authority: an agent or editor. This is where the stakes become a bit higher; these people may like you and your work, but they’re probably not your friends. They are business people who want your book to be successful, and their feedback may or may not be in synch with your vision of your book. When a book is accepted by an agent or editor, they will inevitably identify areas they’d like you to consider changing.
Someone asked me the other day if I got upset when asked to change something in a manuscript, and the person also asked if the editor or agent can “make me”. I had a flashback to third grade on the playground, with an agent in place of the school bully. I told the person who asked that in my experience, agents and editors rarely tell you you have to change something. They may suggest. They may suggest strongly. They may tell you that if you don’t change whatever it is they may not sell or publish your book. But they can’t make you change anything. You are the author. It is your baby.
And this brings us to a question of artistic integrity and choice. Where do you draw the line? Surely it doesn’t work for most of us to take the attitude that whenever we put pen to paper the word is sacred. I don’t know about you, but nobody has sent a burning bush to my house (unless the Fed Ex truck carrying it was consumed in a holy conflagration and lost my tracking number.)
But to retain your vision and to be true to your work, you can’t just change everything just because someone suggests it. This would be impossible for several reasons, the most primary one being that if you put nine editors in a room with one monkey and asked them to make suggestions about your manuscript, you would have ten totally different opinions (and the one from the monkey might make the most sense—no offense to editors. Monkeys are just notoriously intuitive.)
I once had an experience that tested this boundary. I had sent a manuscript to a publisher of paranormal YA fiction, and the editor really loved the story and the writing…but wanted me to change the whole book from first person to third person. It was tough to say no; I had not been published at that time, and I desperately wanted it. But in the end, I declined. Third person was just not right for that book, so I painfully had to tell the editor I wouldn’t change it.
So, where’s the happy medium, or the semi-contented large? How do you decide when to hold ’em, fold ’em, and walk away in terms of professional literary feedback? Would you walk if an editor or agent asked too much of you?