Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Saying yes or saying no

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Today I'm starting to answer questions people have left in the comments and on Facebook. Have a question? Leave it in the comments!

What can an author can say no to during the editing process?

This is a great question. For this one, I'm not going to an editor, I'm going to give you my own experience. I do so because in this case, it's all about the context. What are you saying no to? Here's how I learned when I could say no. It happened with my debut novel, Stuck in Downward Dog.

There are many steps along the way in the editing process. You'd think it's just with the editor, but actually, editing begins right after you've written your first draft. Many writers get beta or first readers, which are exactly that - readers who see the book in its raw form. They offer feedback and the writer makes changes. Then when the writer's done as much as he or she can, it goes out to agents, in the hopes of securing (in the case of a first novel) or to the agent if it's the writer's second or third or twenty-eighth book. More editing happens. Then it goes to the editor. More editing. Then the copyeditor. More editing. Then it's published.

Originally, the heroine of my story, a 25-year-old girl named Mara was a publicist. She also had three friends. And the book was set in New York. When I sent it to my agent, she gave me the excellent advice that far too many heroines of women's fiction are publicists, most books are set in New York, and three friends can be too many to keep track of, and can probably serve the same purpose by combining into two.

I could've said no, I'm not making these changes, but they were all good points and I agreed with her. And so I happily revised, despite the mounds of work and time to do so. Mara got a new job, as a receptionist at a cosmetic surgery clinic. She dropped a friend and the other two became stronger, more distinct characters. Her apartment moved from New York to Toronto.

Then the book sold and my editor asked for some changes. All fine. I said yes yes yes. Then it went to the copyeditor. It was the final step. I thought she'd be fixing typos and adding correct punctuation. But instead, when I got the book back, one of the comments she made in the Track Changes was that she said she felt the friends were too white. Too Canadian. Their names were too common. That they should reflect the multi-cultural aspect of Canada. At this point I felt frazzled. Did I appear white-centric? I didn't want to look racist. That wasn't the point, only that these were the characters I had envisioned. But I didn't want to say no. I didn't think I could say no. And so I changed the characters names to more unusual names. They became first-generation Canadians of mixed-race parents. It was all very bizarre, in retrospect, but that's what went to print.

But that's because I didn't know I could say no. I'd heard of authors who said no to editors, that they wouldn't make changes to their book, but it was usually in the context that they were difficult to work with. They were authors who didn't get signed by a publisher, or if they published the first and they were difficult to work with, the editor didn't buy their next book. I'd come this far, I didn't want -- no, I couldn't risk this happening to me.

A few months later, my editor and I were chatting and the topic of the secondary characters came up. When I brought up the ethnicity/name changes, she was alarmed. She hadn't seen the comment, or she had just assume I'd query it back. She told me I should've told her about the comment, and how I felt. "You can say no! You can always say no. They're just suggestions from one copyeditor!" she told me. I felt silly for thinking I had to say yes, but glad that we'd had the talk.

In the end, I like who the characters became, and I don't regret the changes. I don't know if they make the book better, but they certainly don't affect the book enough to make it worse. It was a learning experience. And now I know I can always say no, or at least ask if I can say no. And that's been well worth it for the three books I've published since then.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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