Saturday, November 10, 2007

Small Press Editorial Changes

There are times in the small press when, as a publishing writer, you'll be asked by an editor for certain changes. Depending on the weight and creativity of these changes, you can find yourself wedged between that age-old rock and a hard place. How to handle these situations, and whether to handle them is up to you, but there are some useful things to keep in mind and that we'll discuss in this post. I'll begin with an example, and we'll move on from there.

I sent three poems to an editor for a publication we'll call 'The Whistler'. I received a response only days later, which was swift, but the response was strange. The editor explained that he'd been rewriting my poems, and had hit a snag, so wanted me to okay what he'd already done before he continued rewriting them. I read this email several times, slower each time. There was an attachment that supposedly contained what he was talking about. What did he mean by 'rewriting' my poems? Was this a misunderstanding, and he meant simply that he was typing them into HTML for his webpage, or copying them in some way into his layout program for the next issue, or did he mean he was literally rewriting my work, you know, going to town and changing whatever he pleased? I read the poems he enclosed and yes, he'd rewritten them, heavily. They resembled what I sent, but had been altered all over the place. Not just a word or two, but entire stanzas moved around, broken up, words simply removed, and most of my punctuation had been removed as well. This was like someone disciplining my kid without my consent.

I responded, of course. I told him I wasn't into my work being altered to that extent, and that I didn't want it printed with the changes he had 'offered'. It was an ethical thing, for me. If I didn't write the poems (these changes were to such an extent that I no longer felt the poems were my own), I didn't want them in print with my name on them. A bigger problem was that I simply didn't like what he'd done with the poems. He'd made numerous changes, not just one or two, and all of them altered the poem considerably. I felt he'd fucked them all up, really, and warped them into his own poetry. I was cordial about it, but I withdrew the poems from his consideration. The changes wouldn't have been so bizarre if the poem had been an objective narrative, or complete fiction, but the poems I had sent were about ME, my life, things that had happened over the years. Changing those details, true ones, seemed ludicrous. So, I rescinded from the publication and began the process of getting it behind me. The story should end there.

It doesn't.

The editor emailed me back very quickly with a barrage of profuse apologies. He was sincere, and felt just awful about the situation, and confessed that he didn't mean to overstep his boundaries, and shouldn't have, and then asked me to reconsider, and let him print the poems. It seemed he still wanted to keep his rewrite version for print, after I'd rescinded. I started questioning myself. Was I right to rescind so quickly? Should I have tried to talk to him first? Oh man... had I been a total dick to the editor?

I felt bad for the guy. He seemed really upset with himself, and my withdrawal of the poems had hit him in a harsh way, which wasn't what I intended. I decided to look over his changes some more, and see if I was able to find a middle ground for which I'd be satisfied the poems were my own, and good, but still allow a few of his changes (I'll add that not all of them were bad, per se, they were just numerous and heavy).

Before I could respond with something like: "Sorry about that, man. Okay, let me think about it", I received another email from him. This was about an hour after the last one. The new email was angry, bitter, and he seemed to think I was being pig-headed for not accepting his changes. He went on to say that anyone would have made those same changes, and alluded to the notion that I should have made them myself. I got the idea that he no longer wanted the poems. I mean, this newer email just came off scornful. This email was 180 degrees in the opposite direction as the email that preceeded it, and given that I received them nearly back to back, without having responded yet... well, they spooked me. I decided not to answer him and move on. Things had become weird. He was pissed and I wanted out, though I was supposedly already out, due to my earlier rescinsion.

A couple hours later, however, I received another email from him. This one was melancholy, down-in-the-dumps, and certainly apologetic. He stated that he had planned on using my poems for the centerpiece of the entire issue, and had done much with the formatting to adjust his issue just for my poems, that they were incredible, and that he felt truly horrible for having offended me. He then began a paragraph wherin it was explained that he'd changed my work for love. Those were his exact words. The changes he had made were an act of love, and love was never wrong. I think he meant it. And I was now creeped out sincerely. He'd gone from apologetic to pissed off to sad, to true, perfect love... all in a matter of three emails over about 3 hours, and without my having responded to any of them. It's not like I ditched this guy for a month without response, we're talking 3 hours. I could have been alseep for all he knew. I remember thinking, Jesus, my cover letter... this guy knows where I live. I'd better check my records and-- Oh shit. I live a day's drive down the coast from this guy...

The following morning, I woke and, sure enough, another email from the editor. This one was more like he was trying to identify with me and how I must have felt having my work altered without consent, and how he felt bad for having done it. He stuck to his guns, though, defending the changes he'd made, stating they were good, that the poem was great, that he needed it for his issue and it was all going to be so perfect and ideal... I'd see, just wait, it would come out great, I'd see...

Dear reader, I'll have you know this creeped me out so much that I cowed entirely. I immediately responded. My response was contrived to snuff out what I discerned to be a disturbing turn of events, and to do it in the fastest possible way with the least possible backlash or further communication. It was the biggest solve-all solution I could think of: I told him to go for it, print away, I loved his changes, they were great and I don't know why I didn't see it before. He was great, too. Then I apologized to him for being premature in withdrawing my poems. My bad, all that. I then gave him the all-clear. No problem, buddy. They're all yours. Have a good one. Heh heh... don't murder me in my sleep... right?

The issue came out shortly thereafter, and my butchered poems were present for the world to see. Sure, I wasn't so pleased with the notion that people would read them and think I intended the weird intro, the lack of punctuation, the forced lines... and seeing my altered work on the page certainly bugged me, but hey, I wasn't being stalked or looking over my shoulder, so... it was a fair trade, in my mind.

End of the story, and yes, I'm going somewhere with all this.

When submitting to a publication, it is expected that you have an interest in the publication, and that you feel your work is a fit with their process and production. You think your poem or story fits with what they're up to and you decided to send it. Simple. So you wait for your response and eventually, it arrives. However, what happens if you get a red flag response, stating a 'potential' acceptance of the work in question, pending certain changes the editor has decided you should make? I get these from time to time, and there is no simple solution. It depends on the changes, doesn't it? As a general rule, a minor alteration doesn't bug me much (I.E. An editor asking me to insert 'and' in a line that maybe needs it or maybe doesn't, or an editor letting me know I have a few typos, or misspelled something). However, what if the editor wants more 'creative' changes, meaning, they want you to do some rewriting before they'll accept the piece?

Basically, this is a minefield you have to navigate with care, and the clock is ticking. On the one hand, you shouldn't be so blind about it that you rush to the other end, flinging changes into your poem like mad to suit the editor, but on the other hand, you shouldn't give him/her the finger, either. Again, it depends on the level of change involved. It can be pretty insulting when an editor of a particular ethic or 'school of poetry' tries to change your work to match what they prefer. If they liked your work enough to ask for changes, instead of just rejecting it, there's something you've done right. The differences may be aesthetic, in the sense of general tone or language, or the differences may be strong, as with an editor asking a full rewrite. A 'workshop' editor usually feels that a lot of poetry is open to scrutiny, and I've noticed that most of them tend to forget that not everyone is involved in the workshop manner of things, wherein everything is on the table and open for change. It can be problematic when a more workshop-oriented editor lets this form of learning/exploration effect a writer with a differing style. It can cause much confliction when an editor desires to mellow a poem that wasn't intended to be mellow, or speed up the flow of a poem you wanted to function in a slower measure.

Part of you may be thinking, "Uh, these changes are asinine, overall, and will only disturb what I have going on. They'll only take my poem over and make it one of yours, with me having done only most of the writing." You have to weigh the changes objectively. As I said, this can be tough if you're not into the workshop way of doing things, or haven't been subjected to schooling whereby poems are usually given exacting scrutiny for a particular vein of traits. I'm pretty isolated on my page, and don't like it any other way. The work is mine and I'm on the ball, so more than a couple of suggestions, especially if they're heavy changes, makes me wince. However, I'm not so egoistic to believe I shit roses, and though I dislike it, I will certainly work with an editor if they see something they think will better the poem. I'm critical about it, but not bitter, and on my guard, not a warpath.

I do know poets that hold the more sycophantic notion of accepting everything an editor asks. "Oh thank you! Yes, the poem is so much better this way!", no matter the changes. Think for yourself, but don't forget the editor is doing the same thing, and there needs to be a middle ground if you're going to continue interacting together on or concerning a piece of writing and its publication. It is of high likelihood that you and the editor are seeing the piece from different perspectives. When this occurs, you have to understand that any prospective readers may see it from either, or their own. Tread light: What is it you're trying to do?

Another example:

Editor: "We think the poem would be enhanced if you changed 'sunset' to 'sunrise', and 'midnight' to 'the witching hour'."

Now, you might think, "No, the poem takes place at twilight, and continues until midnight, so 'sunrise' makes no sense. Also, 'the witching hour' sounds out of place when discussing where one day officially and lawfully becomes the next, especially considering I'm not writing some dark, spooky poem, but a poem about officiousness, calendars, and the restraint of living in the present." If this is the case, explain it carefully and kindly. You're sticking to your guns, but not firing them, right? You don't want to get caught in the following sort of banter:

Editor: "We think the poem would be enhanced if you changed 'sunset' to 'sunrise', and 'midnight' to 'the witching hour'."

You: "What, are you stupid? I'm filet mignon and aged red wine. You're hot dogs and a pee milkshake. I'm done with you."

Neither do you want to engage in the following:

Editor: "We think the poem would be enhanced if you changed 'sunset' to 'sunrise', and 'midnight' to 'the witching hour'."

You: "What great ideas! I'm blown away! I'll totally make these changes right now! I'm so glad there are people around who can tell me where I'm flawed!"

You have to navigate what you're willing to change, versus what you're not willing to change, and you have to use a bit of diplomacy in explaining yourself. Remember, the editor saw something in your work that they appreciated, otherwise you would have only received a rejection. Don't make them sorry they liked your work, simply because they want to try and better it (whether their changes are apt or not). Confidence and competence don't always agree.

When it comes to changes in your work that occur without your knowledge, things can be a bit dicey. There are several reasons that can cause these nonconsentual changes to appear in the publication that accepts your writing. Most are innocuous, and related to simple transcription or typographical error. Your poem 'The Sandal Pearls' appears in print, after a long wait, and you notice that the title has been changed to 'The Sandal Petals'. If you submitted on page, by post, it is more than likely, the editor was compiling the issue and your poem was around the 40th poem the editor had typed up in a day. His/her eyes were bleary and numb from reading poetry all day, and it's possible he saw your title peripherally and simply typed what he though he'd read. The words are similar in this instance, yes? If the publication is a bit more automated, they might be using an Optical Recognition Program through a scanner, and your poem is being transcribed by a computer. This can create errors at times. It's also possible the editor spellchecked the issue and a typo in 'Pearls' caused it to come up with 'Petals', and the editor may have clicked 'OK', not realizing the error being made. These are trivial and to be expected. If the publication is an electronic journal, changes can easily be made to a poem that comes to print with mistakes in it, but if we're talking a print journal, there's not much you can do but make a fuss with little resolve.

In your favor as a poet, many online web journals send a customary email out before an issue goes live, asking you to go over your work and get back to them if you find any errors. There are some print journals that do this as well, though more and more of them are abandoning the practice. For those publications that let you examine a work and its layout before it enters complete print, this is a great service, and you should use it, if offered. If it isn't offered, and you later notice an error in your printed work, consider the weight of the error before contacting the editor. Is it just that some random letter in your poem happens to be in bold-face, or the all too common 'teh' appears once instead of 'the'? Likely, not a big deal. For small things like this, readers will know what's up, but what if the publication did produce something very wrong (Dear Editor, your spellcheck muddled up a couple of things- My last name is 'Succre', not 'Soccer', and in the last stanza, the squash is called 'butternut', not 'butt nut'). If so, you should contact and mention it. Again, be cool about things. It is more than probable that the editor had no malicious intent and the problem is a simple typographical disturbance, and if electronic, easily remedied, so don't get all insulted and throw an e-mail hissy-fit at someone you don't know.

I've met poets who will stonewall an editor at the mention of changes (I'm posessed by genius!), believing it to be insulting, and I run across some more passive writers who will generally acquiese (Whatever you say, just print it.), being publication hungry. It's common that these mindsets can be altered by the amount of time the poet has been publishing, and how many publications he/she has under their belt. You're hungrier when you're starting out, and you're more confident when you've succeeded enough times. I think the most effective and least damaging approach is to travel between these two formats, giving a little when needed, standing rigid at times, and keeping your head on no matter what. It's a good idea to remember that most of the prolific writers throughout history had an editor of some sort that gave their work at least a once-over before it saw print. These days, and especially in the small press, this dynamic can get convoluted because there is a huge surplus of writers and editors, and an even larger resevoir of opinions about poetry, what it is, what it's supposed to do... schools of thought, yeah? More confusing is that any of these manners of thought regarding poetry can be augmented easily to fit a particular aesthetic in an editor or writer. Couple this with the notion that most of our small press editors are also writers, and you have a vast gamut of situations that can arise during submissions to publication. Keep that in mind when approached by an editor that wants to talk shop on a piece of your writing.

There are editors who will take it upon themselves to ask a tremendous amount of revision, some of which might be unacceptable to you. This situation is rare, but it does happen. In these cases, there comes a point where a line has to be drawn. You might not know where, at first, but you'll definitely know when it's been crossed. An editor edits a publication, and to some extent, can help out with a piece of your writing, however, not to the point of rewriting it entirely. That's no longer editing, but co-writing. I do know poets that get insulted too easily, will start a pissing match with an editor over even a minute alteration, and I know poets that do the opposite, lapping up whatever they're told or asked to change and smiling all the while. The thing to remember is that, in most instances, these are suggestions. Granted, not making an effort to follow them may bar you from the publication in question with the material you sent, but you can easily turn away and go elsewhere. However, as suggestions, you may want to take heed and give them a shot (within reason). When an editor asks me to make an alteration to a piece, I weigh it with much thought. Does the change requested ruin my poem? Is it inconsequential enough that I wouldn't even notice if I didn't know about it? Is the poem enhanced in a way I'm okay with? Putting myself in a reader's shoes, and keeping my writer self out of it for a moment, do these changes help catch my interest without overly catering to me? As a writer, can I make the changes, or my own, alternate changes to suit the editor, and still maintain my own thing without neutering my stylization in the poem?

Tough questions when you're under the scope, but keep your head and think of your place in the piece, and your station as a writer. What's the worst that can happen? Keep it in mind, and remember that principle is mostly invisible. What are you willing to give or take for it?

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