Working with an Editor...And Learning How to Learn
by James Scott
Question: I had a story accepted and the editor wants me to make changes. This is my story. I’m torn… What should I do? - Brian
First of all, congratulations, Brian. Take some time to enjoy your success.
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about editors a lot lately with the tragic passing of Jeanne Leiby on April 19. Jeanne was the editor of the Southern Review, the Florida Review before that, the fiction editor at Black Warrior Review before that, and a crossbow aficionado always. (What does that have to do with anything? Nothing! It’s just fascinating.) I did not know her well. From everything I’ve heard, long before her death and since, I wish I had.
My biggest interaction with Jeanne came during the Manuscript Mart at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace conference in 2010. We’d met once or twice previously, and as I sat down, I noticed that the comment sheet she had in front of her was blank. I was annoyed. It seemed as though she hadn’t done her work. She then proceeded to have some very nice things to say about my writing, but as to the specific story, she said, following my gaze to her blank sheet, “You have the wrong point of view.” That’s it. And I opened my mouth to say something, thought better of it, and understood that she was right.
There are many lessons to this story, Brian.
Be a Team Player
As fiction editor of Redivider, and through my work with One Story, I’ve seen authors bristle at even minor changes. Sometimes there are words that are off-tone, or phrases that don’t seem to suit the character or situation. Often, as an author, these are hard to see in their current context. You remember sitting at your computer or with your quill and ink and coming up with this wonderful phrase. But stories are—and should be—under construction for a while, and as they shift and settle, they change, and this makes some things obsolete. A new set of eyes can make this clear. So when an editor tells you to change something, it’s not because they want to disrupt the perfect picture that is your art, it’s because they’re trying to do the best thing for you, the magazine, and the story. Keep that in mind.
When I encounter an author who views my edits with suspicion or outright opposition, it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. The chances I’d publish them again go down precipitously, even if I move to another magazine. With hundreds of stories to choose from, why would an editor choose to work with someone who responds to suggestions for improvement with anything but gratitude?
Sitting in front of Jeanne, exhausted from staying up too late the night before, knowing she’d spotted in about the time it takes someone to sneeze what I’d failed to notice in four years, I stalled. I thanked her for reading it. I thanked her for her advice. I said it was an interesting thought. I recited pi to as many places as I could (this did not take long). I knew, from experience, and from the expression on her face, that she only wanted to help. And in that time, I understood that if I did make the change she’d suggested, and put the story in first person, everything that felt inert about it would come to life.
Avoiding Your Inner Hulk
It’s easy to react with passion. The story Jeanne read I’d been working on for four years and in the moment it felt like she gave me one comment on it. I’m glad I took a minute to shut my mouth and stall and think about what she’d said instead of flipping the table over and storming out of the Park Plaza. I hadn’t had time to think about the change; I’d seen the story in a certain light for four years, and she’d radically altered that in one sentence. I make it a rule never to respond to changes right away.
I tell my workshop students that when they’re given their time to speak after the cone of silence is lifted, they should limit their response to questions about things people have said and to refining what they’ve heard. Responding with defensiveness ends up making everyone uncomfortable and leaves your readers feeling as though they spent their precious time formulating thoughts on your work simply so you could shoot them down without thought. The same goes for responding to editors: it should be a conversation, but give it some time to let the suggestions roll around in your brain for a while.
Wait, It’s a Conversation?
Yes, of course. I wouldn’t expect an author to take every suggestion, just as I, as a writer, wouldn’t take every suggestion. In the case of Jeanne, there was only one, and it was absolutely on the money. It struck the right chord in me. Easy enough. I have argued over individual words for the same reason, because they struck the right chord. But I have only done so in light of allowing or making a dozen or so other changes.
For example, I published a story in American Short Fiction, where the wonderful editor at the time, Stacey Swann (it’s now edited by the also wonderful Jill Meyers) had me change a lot of individual words, but I argued over one. I remember the word, dragged. I don’t remember what the rationale for changing it was, but I also don’t remember my rationale for keeping it. If I’d changed it, would I remember? Probably not. Which is something else to consider: In the end, are you going to remember a couple of words, or are you going to remember being published?
I don’t mean to suggest I don’t care about individual words, because I do, deeply. When I opened myself up to the criticism, however, I realized that, more often than not, Stacey was right. She was fine with me keeping my one baby, considering I gave everything else up without a fight. So, yeah, it’s a conversation, but pick your battles. And when you do battle, make sure it’s a pillow fight, and not a Cold War.
It’s a Learning Experience, Too
Remember those old commercials for Remington with Victor Kiam where he said, “I loved it so much, I bought the company!”? I loved being edited by One Story so much that I offered to work for the magazine, and have, now, for the last three years or so.
One Story editor Hannah Tinti and I worked on my story “The Strings Attached” through six or seven major revisions and dozens of the little clean-up revisions that those changes necessitated. Throughout, her insight not only made me understand my own story, but writing in general. I felt like I could read and comprehend any story more fully for what Hannah taught me through the editing process (it’s this quality that earned her the PEN/Nora Magid Award in 2009). Editing “The Strings Attached” was better than any class, and it came with the greatest diploma ever, my very own One Story.
A prolific writer writes a handful of stories in a year at most. Most editors read hundreds and sometimes thousands of stories in a year. The idea that you have the attention of someone with that kind of experience—and it might only be for a couple of emails—is a great opportunity. Use it. Learn from them.
Hug an Editor Today
Someone like Jeanne or Stacey or Jill or someone like Hannah or Heidi Pitlor, who sifts through thousands of stories to find the Best American Short Stories with her guest editor each year, don’t get nearly enough credit. The editors who care deeply about what they do, and I’ve been so very fortunate to work with a number of them, determine the course of literature. I believe that. I know Hannah believes that. I know Jeanne believed that.
When an editor selects your story, they’re putting their name behind yours. They’ve pulled your work from the darkness and are shining a light on it. Work with them, not against them, and understand what they’ve chosen to do for you.
Jeanne gave me her advice, and—after the aforementioned adjustment period—I told her how right on it was. We still had quite a bit of time left, and so we discussed literary magazines, One Story and my work there in particular (it was that conversation that led me to believe it’d be okay to write this piece). I remember the Red Sox came up, though in what context I don’t recall. I wish I remembered every word. What I do remember, though, more than anything, is how much she loved what she did, even at the end of a long day, even when faced with telling someone that years of work hadn’t been enough. Well, it hadn’t, and I’m glad she told me so.
I hope for your sake, Brian, that when someone tells you something similar, you know to thank them.
Thanks for your question, and best of luck.
James Scott earned his MFA from Emerson College and his BA from Middlebury College. His fiction has been published in One Story, American Short Fiction, and Memorious among others, anthologized by flatmancrooked, and nominated for the Best New American Voices Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. He has received awards from Yaddo, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, New York State Summer Writers' Institute, and Millay Colony for the Arts. James has worked for various production companies and publications, Bob Vila productions, and the Boston Red Sox. A former fiction editor of Redivider, he currently works for One Story and the music magazine Under the Radar. You can find him at www.jamesscottwriter.com.