[Full disclosure: Some of the links in this story are affiliate links which means that if you follow them and buy the stuff, I get a percentage of the payment made with no extra cost to you.]
During the opening monologue of the 2018 Oscars, Jimmy Kimmel spoke about the discrepancy in the payments made to Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams in a movie. The fee for the actress was paltry while the actor received a huge sum of money. They had the same agent and Kimmel said, “[I]f we can’t trust agents, who can we trust?” This reminded me of what I call the ‘Edi-Mission Process’ which involves interactions with agents, editors and commissioning publishers. Today, I laugh, but there was a time I did nothing but cry.
There are also two reasons why I choose to share these stories with you now. First, is that a subscriber wanted a recommendation for an editor he could work with. Second, I’m ready to venture back into self-publishing ‘the novel’.
Broadly speaking, the editing process can be divided into three parts which are writing and preparing the manuscript for editors, editing the manuscript and where I am now.
Perhaps, some background is necessary. I completed the novel in 2010 and started the submission process. By 2012, since there was no response, I decided that something wasn’t right and reworked the novel from scratch. Then, life happened. Between 2013 and 2016, I lost seven people (including the dog) and didn’t have the heart to work on it. I spent 2017 picking up the pieces of my writing life and now that we’re in 2018, it’s time to look again at this project. Quite simply, the novel deals with issues that arise because of two concurrent legal jurisdictions.
Round 1 of Edi-Mission Process: Font, Spacing and Numbers
Today, there are books, websites, tutors, mentors and even software that can help you write a novel. When I started, I turned to books such as Artists and Writers Yearbook and First Draft in 30 Days. They taught me about the usual requirements like use 12 Point, Times New Roman font, double spacing and only on one side of numbered pages.
The biggest problem with the novel was its plot and structure. The one resource that helped me was James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish. I learned about Doorways, Disturbances and the amazing power that comes from putting things in the right place.
Round 2 of Edi-Mission Process: Being Insulted
Once I was ready, I sent the novel out into the world. My first option was to go local. This meant asking writer friends for their professional opinion about the novel. They gave their feedback and helped me re-work the piece. But I wanted something more. I wanted someone who had no clue about my world to tell me if the story would work. I chose to work with some editors from the UK. This proved to be half a mistake.
Before that, you may ask why the UK and not the US? Well, I was trained in UK English and write in that manner (meaning I write ‘colour’ rather than ‘color’). It seemed easier.
The half that wasn’t a mistake was because the editors identified a fundamental issue and asked me a simple question – why was I highlighting this jurisdiction issue in the first place? The answer is something Malaysians take for granted which the British, with their single legal system, can’t understand. I worked the answer to this question into the novel.
The half that was a mistake related to blindly working with an editor because he was ‘supposed to be the best’. This editor insisted that I change my story fundamentally by removing the legal issue altogether and concentrating on a murder-mystery instead. I told him that it didn’t make sense as if I did, all my fellow lawyers would laugh at me. He then said two things that still annoy me. First, no one cares what Malaysian lawyers think. Second, I should insert a ‘white’ element in the story (such as a half-Caucasian character or make the setting somewhere in Europe) so that it would appeal to British readers.
Desperate to please the editor, I tried to do what he asked. But the story didn’t make sense at all and he scolded me for not following his ‘strictures’.
After shedding some tears and paying his demand for full payment (including all bank charges and fees), I reached out to writer friends. One explained something important to me: When an editor avoids addressing the queries you’ve raised and starts picking on nitty gritty, he does not understand the novel. Unwilling to come across as stupid, he’ll pick on your abilities as a writer. More often than not, he will go back on what he’s said previously.
Here’s a perfect example. One of the characters in the novel is Papa Aunty. In the opening pages, I explain that ‘Papa’ is a Tamil word that roughly means baby. In fact, my grandmother’s nickname was ‘Papa’. A year ago, the editor had said he loved these exotic names. When I couldn’t follow his instructions, he wrote to say that British people would be confused by the use of the word ‘Papa’ for a woman.
I wondered if British readers were, in fact, so dim-witted that they can’t fathom a world where one’s grandparents are referred to something other than Grandpa and Grandma. I mentioned this when I contacted the people at www.writersworkshops.co.uk. In particular, I wanted an editor who would help me make this story understandable to the reader, not change the focus so it was a commercial success.
I was so lucky to be paired with fabulous editors like Debi Alper and Susan Davis. I also signed up for the self-editing course. By the end of 2014, I was ready to begin the submission process again. But, as I said, life happened.
Round 3 of Edi-Mission Process: Level Playing Field
That said, once I started re-submitting the novel in earnest, I had some luck. For one, Legend of Nagakanna, which is a chapter in the novel, was accepted as part of the anthology called We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture.
While I am delighted by this success, I am aware that my desire to have the novel published in the UK is no longer as intense, especially when I receive comments and feedback like the ones below.
- Thank you for sending novel. … Aneeta doesn’t know how to write a novel.
- It was nice to meet you [recently]. I’m sorry. I don’t think this is a right fit for our agency. I’ve put the [books you gave me as a] gift in the post and am returning them to you.
- Aneeta’s legal knowledge is a bonus, but she has made the good character good and the bad character bad.
- Anita, I apologies. You can’t hammer the story down your readers’ throats. You have to seduce them with your words like Charles Dickens.
The least they could have done was to get my name correct. Or worked on their grammar and punctuation.
Two months ago, I was grateful to be rejected by a particular publisher because the day after I received his email, I learned that he was publishing the memoirs of a politician the world hated. Imagine! The politician and I could have had the same publisher, much like Wahlberg and Williams having the same agent.
Laughter aside, here’s what I’ve learned from all this:
- Honesty is important.
- Don’t insult me, my dreams, work or people.
- I admire the publishers who rejected my novel because they were scared the issues in it were too sensitive.
- I will still work with an editor who refused to take my money because she didn’t know my part of the world and thought she wouldn’t do justice to the novel.
- I respect writers who write about their world, rather than a world that their editors think will sell.
- With the internet, we’re now on a level playing field.
Ultimately, it’s wonderful to work with agents and publishers because our combined resources allow for a project to reach far more of its potential than going it alone. This, however, should never be at the expense of insulting each other.
I would love to know your stories of working with editors, agents and publishers. Please share them. You can send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or place your comments in the box below.
(15 March 2018)
Aneeta Sundararaj fears social media and aims to ‘go local’ with ‘the novel’. Read mores stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).