Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Guest Post: Ryk E. Spoor

Welcome to the Pearls of Wisdom Author Tour! 

Today's guest is our very own Ryk E. Spoor. Ryk is the wonderful fantasy and science fiction author of Phoenix Rising, Spheres of Influence, Grand Central Arena among others. His post today is titled "Don't Fear the Editor."

Ryk's post:

One of the fears new authors – and even experienced authors, sometimes – often have is that someone – "the editor" – will make you change your book, or worse, change it on their own.

Now, I won't lie and say there aren't bad editors out there. Certainly there are, and that's where the horror stories come from. But like most horror stories, they're deliberately selecting those aspects of the truth that we fear, and blowing them out of proportion.

It is a scary process to hand your story – especially if it's a story you love – over to someone else, and then know that this person may want you to change something, maybe even something vital to the story, for whatever they think your story should be.

But the truth is, that's not really what an editor does. A good editor's job is to help you tell your story… better. Now, admittedly, "better" may well be, at least in part "in a more marketable fashion", but – speaking honestly – if you're submitting your work to be published by even a middling-sized publishing house, you presumably do have an interest in being marketable and selling your work.

I'm going to show you what a good editor does, from the point of view of an author who's been through it a few times, and hopefully show you why an editor can be, not an adversary or an obstacle, but one of your greatest allies in your quest for publication and success. 

My most recently published novel (as of this writing) is PhoenixRising, an epic fantasy set in my original world of Zarathan. Phoenix Rising has its origins as an actual story in stories I started more than twenty years ago (in 1991) and takes place in a world that I started designing about thirty-five years back. It's a story I've invested a huge amount of effort into, and one that means a great deal to me as the first real exhibition of my fantasy universe to the world.
So one can imagine my trepidation (mixed with triumph) when I knew that the story was to be published, but also knew that it had to pass real muster by the editors.

To begin with, the original novel was titled Fall of Saints (and I still tend to think of it that way). The main character's last name was Ross, and her first name was Kyrie, not Kyri, while her big brother's name was Michael.

Larger differences included the fact that – aside from the Prologue, which remained unchanged – the story started much earlier, with a younger Kyrie and her siblings coming home to find their ancestral house was burning and their parents dead, and following events for some time after that; the chapter that now begins the main portion of the book was actually Chapter 13 in the original (although, admittedly, several of the intervening chapters remain, just moved slightly, as they were for the other two main characters, Tobimar and Poplock). The secondary character Xavier played a much smaller part, showing up sort of as a sideline whose only real purpose was to show that this world was much bigger than just the quest of the main characters, and in fact there were other, equally vital quests going on in other areas, involving other people. The "villain" point of view which was being used was actually that of the true Big Bad; and the ending was significantly different – there was no second, larger battle after the fight versus Thornfalcon, and no confrontation with the other Saints in Evanwyl, and the heroes had left Evanwyl and traveled back to meet the Angelsmith by the end. Perhaps most importantly in many ways, the Big Bad – as yet unnamed – was the actual murderer of Michael (later Rion), rather than the treacherous Saint, Thornfalcon.

The book actually went through not one, not two, but three sets of significant revisions, and I will not pretend that each set of requests didn't hit me in the gut and make me worried about the book. There were indeed times when I thought that I couldn't do the revisions.

Part of that was simply reaction against "going back to do it again". Some writers do many drafts of a work, and I would suspect – though I don't know – that they might find such revisions easier. In my case, I write once, and once only. I don't do multiple drafts, except in very rare cases under unusual circumstances. So going back to try to rewrite a story I've already done is something of a traumatic idea by itself.

Another part of that reaction was the at least somewhat more reasonable concern that I might damage the story – or, more important to me, the world and logical consistency I'd developed for it – by doing the changes. When I do worldbuilding, I try to make the world work. It may not work like this world, but it will be self-consistent and reliable – and even small changes could damage that, since self-consistency is all about even the small things fitting with the big things. I never change something just because it might make more dramatic sense, at least not without figuring out how I can make that change fit with the world.

So the most important step I had to take in examining the requested edits was to calm down. Removing the emotional component and looking at the edit requests from a rational and practical point of view was critical.

I'm not going to go through the three waves of edits in order, but more in a general overview of the kinds of things that were asked – and of some things I chose not to do.

The latter's an important point to keep in mind when being edited. There will be some changes to your manuscript that are, pretty much, not negotiable, but in many cases the editing directions are more requests than demands. Refusing ENOUGH requests can be a problem, but if you're reasonable, there are times that refusing an editorial request, especially with a good explanation, shows that you are as an author able to understand what it is that you're doing and why some things will and won't work.

On the other hand, there are things that it's pointless to argue about even if you probably COULD get away with it. For Fall of Saints/Phoenix Rising that would be the request to remove all Christian-associated phrases and imagery from the novel. That meant, specifically, changing the name of the Saints to … something else, changing the name of the Angelsmith, and rearranging other things to fit. Among other things, that of course torpedoed the title, as "Fall of Saints" only works when there are Saints to do the falling.

On the other hand, it was just renaming things. Making more than a kneejerk reaction against it was stupid. Yes, I think it was a silly change in that case and I really don't think it would have affected the book's sales one whit. But with global search-and-replace and modern word processing, those changes were a matter of a few minutes, and made one of the editors happier. So I had to take the name "Justiciar", move it over to the former Saints, and then figure out a replacement for "Justiciar" – which eventually was "Adjudicator", and make the Angelsmith into the Spiritsmith.

Kyrie's name lost her ending "e" because I had not realized that "Kyrie" was a word in real religious ceremonies (seriously, I didn't; I had no religious background at all) and (A) meant "God" or "Lord", and (B) was pronounced roughly to rhyme with "weary", instead of with a long-I sound which was how I envisioned it being pronounced. Again, an easy change, as was changing the last name from "Ross" to "Vantage". Originally the name had been "Ross" to parallel that of Xavier Ross (there are a lot of very deliberate parallels in the book) but I realized there were limits to how much you can parallel things before they become either unbelievable, or anvils hitting people on the head with "SEE? SEE HOW SIGNIFICANT THIS IS???", so I changed it.

However, a more substantiative set of comments were that the book started slowly and that Kyri herself seemed to be more dragged from point to point for a large portion of the novel, rather than being an active force. I, personally, rather liked showing the progression from an older girl to a young woman and the way in which the events affected her, but I couldn't argue that it did slow things down. I have a tendency to prefer to do lots of introductory setup (I've had to cut chapters from the beginning of Phoenix Rising and from Spheres of Influence), and so I had to grit my teeth and do some serious cutting (about six chapters' worth). This also required me to rearrange certain timelines and sequences of events, and to this day I'm not quite sure I got all the consistencies smoothed out there.

But when I was done, I had to admit it did work better. I had to stuff a bit more expository material into later chapters, to cover information that had been excised from those earlier chapters, but overall it moved better, brought the story to the fore.

Making Kyri more active required that I think about what that meant, and give her more opportunities to choose to drive the action rather than be driven by it – this with reducing the chapters. But I realized, after a bit, that I could give Kyri an initial battle at a point where, originally, I had her simply come out to find the battle concluded. This would allow us to see her reaction to combat, her skill even as a young woman, and more importantly put her on the scene when her brother – now renamed Rion – was killed, giving her a direct and much more compelling attachment to the whole event.

The problem of the mysterious boy from Earth, Xavier, was a bit tougher. I realized that I simply couldn't remove him – his presence is key to recognizing that you cannot isolate adventures and events from each other, that quests are not always self-contained, and in fact the quest that Kyri, Tobimar, and Poplock are on is related to that of Xavier and his friends.

At the same time, I had to begrudgingly admit that the editor was dead right in saying that, as things stood, he felt like a complete loose end – he comes in, he does two things of significance, and disappears, even though he's clearly a person of considerable interest and his group has had several chapters touching on who they were and what they were doing.
With that, I recognized that I had to give some sort of a secondary plotline that gave Xavier a purpose in the book.

My first Aha! moment for that came when I realized I hadn't done anything much with another subplot that was relevant to Tobimar – the demons that were said to pursue his people. Once I realized I'd sorta dropped that ball, it became clear that there was certainly a bit of room in the book for at least one encounter with the demons… and so why couldn't I find a way to work Xavier in there?

Once that occurred to me, there was an obvious way; instead of having Xavier set out for the Archmage (who was in the wrong direction), have him go towards the Wanderer, who is close to Evanwyl. The Wanderer and Archmage were the two obvious choices of people he needed to consult, and choosing the Wanderer would make it a no-brainer that he'd choose to travel with Tobimar for a while, and get involved in his problems. Moreover, since the Wanderer's stronghold wasn't that far away from Evanwyl, I might be able to have Tobimar show up again to tie things up neatly.

That "show up again" was triggered by a sudden realization that Thornfalcon's personality was the sort to want to make sure if he died, his attackers died too. Given that – in the same set of edits that gave Kyri that first battle – I'd established he had some kind of monstrous allies, why not have his "screw you" attack unleash a horde of monsters – and let Xavier show up to help save the day?

Similarly, Khoros' appearances through the book had been minimal, but one of them clearly was extended and highly relevant – yet I had somehow neglected to actually show it, in violation of the basic rule of Show Don't Tell that most of us hear at one point or another. I realized that this was a terrible mistake and I needed to add in a section or two showing Kyri's encounter with the mysterious mage, his strange powers, and end with a rather creepy conclusion that showed why people were wary of him even when he was on their side.

The editor also pointed out that the book didn't actually conclude. Since it was intended to be part of a trilogy, at first I didn't think that was a significant problem, but the fact was the publisher didn't want to commit to a trilogy sight unseen,and I admitted I couldn't blame them. Given that, the first book had to at least end on a partially satisfying note. 

The original plotline had Thornfalcon's death merely demonstrate that he was a monster, and the one who served as the best intermediary for whoever their true patron was. But I realized, as my editors pointed out, that he was a perfect choice for a real, main villain – even if behind him was a Bigger Bad who'd be the main villain for the next book or books. All I needed to do was give him the chance to actually be an active villain. So I made him the actual killer of Rion Vantage – and that gave a chance for a real conclusion, by letting Kyri Vantage get real vengeance for her brother's death, killing his actual murderer in a very satisfying combat.

I was helped in doing these changes by the fact that there were, in fact, some changes requested that I refused, and that I was given no trouble over. For example, there's a part in one chapter where Kyri and her sister Urelle have a pretty long conversation which is – quite inarguably – there to make sure certain information gets to the reader. But I refused to cut it, despite its being somewhat long, because (A) it incorporated a lot of vital information that had been cut out from the earlier, now nonexistent, chapters, and (B) it was one of the few interactions we get with Urelle prior to the next disaster, and we needed to see this. The editors didn't argue, just accepted my reasoning. 

These were all changes that I would never have though of left to myself; while some people are pretty good at it, I'm virtually incapable of seeing flaws in my own work unless I literally wait for years before re-reading it – and by that point I probably rewrite it more for the fact that my writing skills and my view of the fictional world have changed a lot in that time.

It must be emphasized that these were – for the most part – changes that improved the book, some of them immensely. Phoenix Rising is a vastly, vastly better book, overall, than the original Fall of Saints, though I was at the time perfectly happy with Fall of Saints. At the same time, Phoenix Rising is still very much my book. This isn't something that Baen rewrote to fit their preferences, it's my book, just better than it could possibly have been if I'd been left to myself to publish it, or if they'd been unwilling to edit it to that extent.

I still twitch when I'm asked to do edits – the same reaction, the same nervousness – but now I have the much more powerful voice reminding me just how much my work was improved by the prior advice, and I can use that to help me look at my work through fair, unbiased eyes and see what it is they're really asking me to do: make it the best book I can write.

If you get even a halfway decent editor, that's what they're trying to do for you, too. Not take away your book and make it theirs; show you how to take your book, and make it more yours than it was before.

Don't fear the editor!

About Ryk E. Spoor

Ryk E. Spoor was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and has lived in South Dakota, Georgia, New York, and Pennsylvania. Severe asthma forced him to spend most of his childhood reading and, by the time he was six, writing. While he began reading fantasy such as Oz and science fiction starting with Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it was his 5th grade teacher that sent him on the course that would make him a science-fiction author, by lending Ryk a battered copy of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Second-Stage Lensmen; this sent him on a reading spree that devoured every science-fiction book he encountered for the next ten years, and instilled in him the conviction that being a science-fiction author was the greatest possible profession anyone could aspire to.

At the turn of the 21st century, Ryk succeeded in achieving this ambition by first launching a clever plan to be published through the diabolical strategem of insulting Eric Flint in public. (Note that neither Eric nor Ryk recommend anyone else attempt his strategy.) Subsequently, Eric brought Ryk's work to the attention of Baen Books, culminating in the publication of Digital Knight, and subsequently two stories with Eric Flint ("Diamonds Are Forever" and Boundary). His next solo novel Grand Central Arena was released in April 2010, followed in June by the sequel to Boundary, titled Threshold. Most recently, his solo epic fantasy, Phoenix Rising, was released in November 2012, and the third book in the Boundary series, Portal, is to be released in May 2013.

I'd like to give Ryk a huge thank you for sharing his pearls of wisdom. I love that he wrote about not fearing the editor because I feel that a lot of authors worry about what editors will do to their work... this is a testament that when you work with an experienced professional, your work can only get better.

Happy writing my friends! 

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