Sunday, 27 March 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 3: Editorial Intervention

I always get a little nervous when an editor lets my story through without suggesting any changes.

Maybe that seems a strange thing to be stressing about.  Possibly it would make more sense if it was the other way round.  But the thing is - and I don't think I'm being overly modest here - I've never written a perfect story.  I've never written one, and I've never read one.  I don't believe that such a thing exists.  And I've never had an editor suggest changes that didn't help to make a story better.

Again, that's a grand and maybe slightly crazy statement.  Nevertheless, it's true, and there are any number of examples I could give to back it up.  Those changes haven't always been big things, sometimes it's been a half-dozen words here or there, but the crucial point is that someone else picked up on things I couldn't have seen myself.  There comes a point with any story where you develop blindspots you might never see past, no matter how hard you work on redrafting.  They might be simple typos or they might be crucial plot points. I've done everything from tidying up some phrasing to juggling a few lines around to adding five hundred words of new endingon the back of editorial suggestions, and I'm glad I did, because in each case it lead to something that was a bit - or in a couple of cases, a lot - better than it would otherwise have been.

Am I suggesting writers should always feel obliged to go along with editorial suggestions?  Not at all.  There have been a couple of occasions where I've argued my case - though never without giving ground where I thought it could reasonably be given.  Am I suggesting I'd always expect an editor to propose changes to a story they'd accepted?  Yeah, I guess I am.  But I'd settle for an e-mail saying they'd had a good read through and couldn't find anything that needed changing.  Like I said, I've never written a perfect story, but a second opinion that there was nothing gapingly wrong would be some comfort, at least.

My point isn't that I expect an editor to madly hunt for potential changes whether they're needed or not, or that as a writer I feel obliged to make any amendment that's thrown at me.  It's that I want to feel confident the person I'm entrusting my work to has read it critically and has made an attempt to improve on it before chucking it out into the world.  Because, while writing short fiction isn't generally a collaborative medium, getting published should be.  I mean, that's a big chunk of the idea, isn't it?

So how is this different for the small press?  I guess, like most of the points in these articles, this one comes down to time and resources.  If you don't have sub-editors or assistants, getting intimate enough with a story to make useful suggestions is a big time sink.  That's especially true because small press markets seem to tend towards a higher volume of stories per issue than their professional counterparts.  I've never entirely understood why this should be the case, except perhaps that it's easy to conflate quantity with quality.  But I can see that providing valuable editorial feedback on, say, twenty stories would make for a hell of day's work.

All I can say is that I've failed to enjoy many a story that could have been saved by a little judicious editing.  This is a personal thing, of course, but I'd always far prefer to read ten really polished tales than twenty that were let down by careless, easily-fixable mistakes.  In fact, of all the points raised in these ten posts, this is the one that most often ruins magazines for me, and the one that editors most endear themselves to me by getting right.  It's a rare treat to read a piece of fiction that's been dragged to its full potential by a second set of hands - and it usually shows.

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