When should you compromise your writing? What we can learn from Jules Verne.

“When do I compromise my writing?” you ask? “Never! You’ll have to drag this unpublished manuscript from my cold dead hands, and then my heirs will sue before allowing any changes.”

Then you meet the cold-hearted editor who you may have even paid with real money, and what does she do? She tells you to change something near and dear to you. It might be a detailed segue vital to the emotion of the story, a perfectly-constructed dream sequence artfully done in italics, or the balls of your character’s inner monologue-riddled torments. Your blood pressure rises. Bile, too. Your fingers with minds of their own begin a passive-aggressive attack email worthy of an anonymous book reviewer on Amazon.

jules cocoon

But then you remember that change is part of the business of writing. Nonfiction books and articles in the course of trying to be truthful and accurate still have to cut, edit, and overhaul. How much moreso when building castles in the sky as a fiction author.

There probably aren’t many writers who haven’t killed their proverbial darlings via a deep-cutting edit. Of course, you read some of the more successful writers and you doubt their editor can do anything from stopping their overwritten tidal wave of blather from selling millions, but there’s a reason so many authors have heartfelt masochistic thank-yous to their editors in the acknowledgments. Do these people just like the pain or do they do what they need to do to improve their end product?

jules league cover

Jules Verne collaborated with one Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Hetzel, while not an editor but a publisher, had a say in changes for Verne to implement in his stories. The biggest was when Verne submitted Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo, the protagonist, was originally a Polish Scientist out for revenge against Russia because of his murdered family. Hetzel wanted to make an adjustment because he didn’t want sales to die in Russia if they were the target of Nemo’s ire. Verne adjusted the background and Nemo became a character with an ambiguous background. What might seem superfluous character detail was a change Verne was loathe to make. But he made the edit.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of Verne’s greatest works. Did the change need to take place? Impossible to know. Had Hetzel made other suggestions that we don’t know about? It doesn’t matter. What we take away from this is that the change didn’t kill the book. Sometimes an editor knows what she’s talking about. Same with a publisher. A writer can only benefit from the collaborative nature of a relationship with an editor if she’s willing to listen.

jules ears

Not taking the criticisms and change requests personally is the second lesson we can learn from Verne’s experience. Apparently the adjustments to Twenty Thousand Leagues hurt Verne’s and Hetzel’s relationship. Knowing ahead of time that 1) we hire an editor to help us find and change weak points in our work and 2) we don’t hire them to have wind blown up our drawers means that we can listen when we’re told that something needs to be tweaked, adjusted, dropped, or just doesn’t work. We also thank them when the work is done.

So when to compromise? When with dispassion and honesty we realize that it is part of the process of making our writing better. So stop being paranoid that your editor is out to get you.

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