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Should I Do Free Rewrites?

(Thoughts on an Age-Old Writing Question)

By Brent Hartinger

Brent Hartinger is a playwright and the author of four young adult novels, all forthcoming from HarperCollins. The first to be published is Geography Club, about one teen‘s efforts to start a gay-straight alliance at his high school. School Library Journal said this about it: " This author has something to say here, and his message is potent and effective in its delivery. Many teens, both gay and straight, should find this novel intriguing."

Explore the inner workings of Brent's mind at "Brent's Brain," his website, at www.brenthartinger.com

News as of November 21, 2005: Brent's book has been pulled from the shelves at a school district in Washington state. See his response, Banning gay teen novel robs youths of important lessons.

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I still remember my first experience working with a children's book editor. He loved my book and was eager to get it ready for publication. His line-edit was thorough, and his editorial letter was thoughtful and perceptive. After a month or so, I turned in the revised project, and the editor was delighted with the results.

There was just one problem. He wasn't going to publish my book. In the weeks that we had been working on the project together, his house had received a book on a similar theme by an established writer. He said he liked my book better, but they were going to buy hers instead. Unfortunately for me, I hadn't been working under contract.

I was crushed. After all, I'd done exactly what all the "how-to" books tell the aspiring writer to do: if an editor writes a personal reply to a project, or offers specific feedback, take the suggestions very seriously, and send the revised project back to that editor with a note reminding him or her about your previous contact. In my case, it was a little more formal; I was working from an actual editorial letter, and the understanding was that we were getting the book ready to submit to the Acquisitions Committee.

But six months later, I had the exact same experience with another editor. A year after that, it happened again. In each case, the editor was very excited about the project, but had "just a few reservations" before taking it to Acquisitions. In each case, I slavishly made all of the editor's recommended changes. And in each case, I was turned down flat. I didn't even get the price of a cup of coffee for my efforts. (No, wait! Once when I was visiting New York, one of those editors did take me to a nice lunch.)

Sometimes the book actually did go to Acquisitions and was turned down en masse. And sometimes the editor decided he just wasn't excited enough about the book to run the gauntlet of those increasingly brutal modern-day Acquisitions meetings (I once had an editor say to me, "We don‘t have any openings on our list right now for books with low sales projections"--which came as something of a shock to me, because I didn‘t project the sales of my book to be low!).

On the one hand, I told myself, I should be flattered--and grateful. After all, busy New York editors were taking the time to critique the work of a little nobody like me. Other wannabe writers were paying hundreds of dollars to have manuscript doctors and editing services do something I was getting done for free. And while the suggestions of these editors were hit-and-miss, on the whole, they were definitely making my books better.

On the other hand, I still wasn't being published.

Over the years, at least two of my writing friends have come to me with similar stories of initially enthusiastic editors who lost their enthusiasm after a rewrite or two. And of my writer friends who are published, I don't know any who got that way by first doing an un-contracted re-write for an editor. Sure, it's anecdotal, but these experiences must mean something.

I have a friend in Los Angeles who makes a killing as a screenwriter. I once mentioned to him my travails in the world of children's publishing.

"Ah!" he said. "The free re-write. Those editors are like Hollywood producers who want you to work on a script, but they don't want to actually pay you any money."

"No," I said. "This is different. These editors are doing me a favor."

"Oh?" said my friend. "What exactly are they giving you?"

I thought for a moment. "Editorial guidance."

"But they're not buying your books."

"No," I said, "but that's not always the editors' fault. Sometimes they take my book to Acquisitions. It's the accountants who turn me down."

"But why would they buy your book?" my friend said. "It's tainted. You're tainted. You're the writer who no one else wants to publish. You're the writer who works for free. You think that doesn‘t affect how they view the book?"

I shook my head. "That's Hollywood talk. It's different in the world of publishing. It's not about buzz or image or hype. In New York, it‘s all about the quality of the work."

"Uh huh," said my friend skeptically. "Listen, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Hollywood. It has to do with human psychology. People want to work with winners. By agreeing to work for free, you're telling them you're a loser."

"But what else can I do?" I protested. "It's the editors who have all the power!"

My friend released a very long sigh. "My friend, that attitude is so pathetic. The editors aren't the ones with the power; you are. They're not the ones who are writing all these terrific books; you are. You can't see it, but they're treating you like dirt. And they're treating you like dirt because you're letting them. You think they'd ever ask Judy Blume to revise a book on spec? Of course not. You're not being treated like a professional because you're not acting like a professional. If you don‘t believe anything else I say today, remember this: the most powerful word in the world is ‘no.'"

Easy for him to say, I thought to myself. He'd just come from lunch with Barbra Streisand.

I didn't believe a word my Hollywood friend said, not even the bit about the most powerful word in the world being "no." New York publishing was different from Hollywood. These editors were doing me a favor by giving me their time and their editorial opinions. The things he was telling me had nothing whatsoever to do with me.

So I carried on, doing more of what the "how-to" books said I needed to do to get published: free re-writes, groveling thank-you notes, front row seats at conferences and seminars--everything short of actual prostitution in order to help me grab the great brass ring that is novel publication by a New York house.

Then the day came when I received an offer to write a book on a specific topic. The editor was passionate. Of course, she wasn't so passionate that she was willing to pay me any money. No, it would be entirely on spec. If she liked it, she'd take it to Acquisitions. If they liked it, I'd get paid.

A year earlier, I would have done it for sure ("Gotta follow up every lead! Gotta be home when opportunity knocks!"). But I'd had a frustrating week. So for some reason, I listened to that editor and said, firmly, "No."

My friend was right. Suddenly, I did feel pretty powerful.

Hell, I felt flippin' fantastic!

To my amazement, the world didn't end. In fact, shortly after that, in 2000, I met my current agent, Jennifer DeChiara, who took one look at my work and said without hesitation, "You're going to be a seven-figure author someday. And that's exactly how I'm going to pitch you to editors."

Since then, the book contracts haven't stopped rolling in. We're not at seven-figures yet, but we are up into five, which ain't chopped liver, especially in children‘s publishing.

Maybe my success since then--and my lack of success before that--was just a coincidence. But I think it had more to do with my change in attitude.

That wasn't the only thing that got me an agent and a contract, of course. I can't stand those writers who are unable to accept honest, valid criticism. All the time, I hear authors bristle defensively whenever their work is critiqued. I'm never surprised when their work is consistently stinky. Every book ever published either benefited from at least one top-to-bottom revision, or would have been a much better book had it received one. Maybe one of the reasons I finally got an agent was because at least one of my manuscripts had received so much feedback from editors, and they‘d helped me make it better.

I also think there's something to be said for paying your dues. Editors don't always treat would-be authors like professionals, true; but then, a lot of would-be authors don't act, or write, like professionals. In other words, busy New York editors really are doing some writers a favor by giving them time and attention. Hell, maybe the editor just wants some reassurance about how the writer works before making a major publishing commitment. One editor recently told me that the reason he sometimes encouraged novice writers to revise a potential project was because he wanted to get a sense of how well they responded to editorial guidance. It was like going out for coffee before arranging an actual date.

That said, I still think there's a lot of truth to my Hollywood friend's words. Attitude matters. Editors can sense how we view ourselves, and our projects. And the other editors--and the accountants--at publishing houses can sense how our editor views us.

So what's the upshot? How should an unpublished writer respond to an editor who wants a free re-write? I wish I was as confident as my Hollywood friend, and I could say, definitively, "Tell them ‘no'!"

I can't say that. Some writers do tell positive stories about such offers--and that they feel these opportunities were an important part of the process that led them to becoming a professional writer. And no matter what choice a writer makes, I don't judge (I say, whatever gets you onto bookshelves!).

But if you do take such an offer, don't quit your day-job. No matter how exciting it may feel, keep in mind what you're really being offered: basically, diddly. Also keep in mind that the odds are very much against it actually leading to publication. I also think it's worth noting the power imbalance your acquiescence is creating between you and that editor, and the toll it will take on your own self-esteem. After all, I wrote everything short of a ransom note in order to get published, and nothing worked. Only when the reek of my own desperation began to dissipate did it finally start happening for me.

Copyright 2003 by Brent Hartinger

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