Friday, April 2, 2010

The Deepest Cut of All: Wherein Jason Does Rewrites

We'd like you to make a few small changes...

So, a couple of weeks ago I got my very first rewrites back on a recent project I did for Fantasy Flight. Now, this may sound strange to you gentle readers, but I was stoked. I know, right? What a weird-ass thing to be excited about, that I got back every document I sent all marked up for corrections and changes. It's true though. I was excited to see what I'd done right, what I'd done wrong, and how I could improve. So here I was with a stack of rewrites, marked up documents full of both praise and criticism, and a few days all to myself in which to work. Here's how it all went down.

Now, first things first, I'm a firm believer that I'll never learn a thing if I don't know I've made a mistake. With my writing, when I make a mistake more often than not I'm not aware of it. That's because, and this is just between us, I'm pretty much self taught when it comes to writing. I've had a few classes since high school, but that's it. I write by feel if you will, and rely on regular reading, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the one-two punch of dictionary/thesaurus to get me through. With this being the case, as you can probably imagine, mistakes are made. More than I'd like actually, but that's the way it goes. Anyway, it's largely a case of not knowing what I don't know, you know? And if I don't know that I don't know something, how will I ever know? Well, that's where editors come in.

Every writer needs a good editor. They curb our excesses, catch our mistakes, hold our hands, and generally put up with our petulant bullshit as both writer and editor work toward the same goal, i.e. having fun, making art, and getting paid. The writer/editor relationship, as dysfunctional as it can be at times, is one based on trust. The writer has to trust his editor. Trust him to know his business, to be able to clearly communicate what he wants and expects, to understand what the writer is trying to say, especially when it isn't clear, to lead and sometimes educate, and to lead the writer in the right direction when he's gone astray. On the other hand, the editor has to trust the writer to know his business, to be able to consistently produce, meet deadlines, and to be able to take input and criticism without throwing a screaming wobbler. Trust is the key, as it is in most relationships. And, as with most relationships, a relationship between a writer and editor where there is no trust is doomed.

Which, of course, leads me to a salient point regarding editing and rewrites. Writers, please, scooch closer. Don't make me tell you again about the scooching. Yes, that's it. Now, listen. When an editor, a good editor that you trust, comes back to you with rewrites and edits, it's your responsibility to listen, take the advice, discuss what the editor wants or needs, and to not act like an over entitled, petulant little shit. Seriously. Edits and rewrites are not indictments of your skills, they are not affronts to your obvious genius, and they most certainly are not personal attacks levied against you, your family, and your dog by people who just don't understand your vision, man. Well, at least not too often. What they are is part of the creative process, an important part that when done right ensure quality and entertaining products that people will want to spend their scant and hard earned folding money on. Every writer worth a damn, big time writers who stomp on the terra and are paid in huge-ass canvas sacks with dollar signs printed on, has a good editor behind him. I mean, if editors are good enough for the likes of McCarthy, Pratchett, and O'Brian, they're certainly good enough for the likes of you and me.

Now, make no mistake friends, there are editors out there who don't know passive voice or third person omniscient from their asses. Uneducated hacks, bitter, failed writers, and vindictive assholes with axes to grind certainly exist in the business, but probably in no greater concentration than in any other business. These are the guys you can't trust, who don't know their business, who can't cut a manuscript, who can't communicate, who can't lead, and they're fairly easy to spot from a mile away. Sadly, they're a fact of life, and there's only so much we can do about it. Luckily, with as small a business as this is, news like that gets around, and trust me, that kind of behavior reaps its own rewards.

Okay, so I guess that was a kind of ranty, roundabout way of getting to the story about my FFG rewrites. It was pretty great. The documents came back to me marked with these cool electronic notes in the margin. Detailed notes telling me what worked and what didn't and how to fix the things that were broken. They also came with a deadline, which I was sure I'd be able to hit, as long as my daughter wasn't born over the weekend. Of course, my daughter was totally born that weekend and Sam was kind enough to, as he put it, make an exception for new family members. Luckily, I had them about 90% done before the kid came around, so I was in decent enough shape vis a vis the deadline. Now, after ten solid days of sleepless nights and general fathering, I'm finally finishing them up, and after a good and super productive call to the Mothership, I feel even better about the direction I was going with the work I was doing. This is how it works, kids. A trusting writer/editor relationship with open discourse, strong leadership and a clear vision. It lets me know that I'm on the right track, and lets them know that I understand their vision and that I'm the kind of writer they can rely on to know his business.

So that's it. Suck it up, snowflakes. Edits and rewrites are a natural and inevitable part of the writing game. Listen to your editor, take criticism, constructive criticism, with tact and grace, don't throw a tantrum, don't talk about your overriding genius, pick your battles wisely, stand up for things you think need to stay, but above all be a pro. Lord knows we need more pros in the business. And if you can't take criticism, if you can't take the fact that people won't love 100% of your work 100% of the time, and if you think that every word you write is perfect and precious then, well, maybe this business isn't for you.

P.S.: During the initial email conversation with Sam regarding my rewrites, I was requesting further instructions on this and that. Since I'm relatively new to doing rewrites, I asked him at what point was I expected to throw a fit about my edits and claim that they were stifling me creatively. He informed me that I had, in fact, missed my opportunity, and the time for the tantrum was at least three emails prior. Luckily, he graciously said that he'd let it slide this time. See? I still have so much to learn.


Anonymous said...

I'll bet you sure are thankful you've never had the displeasure of working with as poor an editor as you describe... Man, wouldn't THAT suck.

-Mark said...

I would kill Steve to get rewrite instructions. Seriously, Steve. You'd be amazed at the number of things I'd kill you to get.

Citizen Lazlo said...

This may be some of the best advice any writer can receive. I have been on both sides of that coin myself and the difference is like using salt instead of sugar when making a pie.

No writer should be his or her own final editor. This is a maxim I have always believed in even when others have liked to add "Except for me" when I have stated this belief.

Novastar said...

Thank you Jason!
Far too many people don't get this about writing; it's inevitable you have to do re-writes. Nobody writes "in perfect voice", and what makes perfect sense to the writer may be as clear as mud to the reader.
Good editing can be taxing to a beginning writer; I've literally gotten articles backed where I've quipped "Is there anyplace on here, that isn't circled in red?!?".
But that's less common now, because I had people that were direct, but honest with me.

Levi said...

You would think this would be common sense, but it isn't. Good post Jason. I need to do some writing so I can get some re-writes...