I’ve had the pleasure to work with or receive criticism from a number of wonderful people. Lyn Perry of Residential Aliens, for example, is one of the most gracious people who has ever published one of my stories. In fact, when I was rather harsh about the stories in one of his issues last year, he didn’t react as you’d expect (getting in a huff over it). Instead, he was happy for the criticism, and offered up the next issue for my perusal. He and I are likely to disagree on all kinds of things (personally and religiously), but our relationship has, however brief, remained friendly.
I’ve had similar experiences with Bruce Bethke, who will be publishing one of my fantasy shorts this year (“In the Shadows of the Empire of Coal”), and Nick Mamatas, who ripped one of my stories a new one, but in a way that showed me what I had done wrong (in a way that was irrefutable). I’ve been fortunate to have these experiences, and the many others I don’t have the space to talk about here. The vast majority of editors are in that “nice people” bin.
But this post is about a bad experience. No names. No specifics beyond the event itself.
Some time ago, one of my friends pointed an editor with an anthology to fill in my direction. I
read the details, thought it sounded pretty nifty, and set to writing a story. There were a few hiccups on the way — personal issues and so on — and I spent a bit of time facetiously hyping up the story (I tend to do this with people I’m friendly with — “This is the best thing ever” and so on, though it almost always comes with a 😛 face; my friend thinks the story is brilliant, and I trust his opinion on almost anything. Plus, it got an honorable mention in a major award recently, so there’s that). I appreciated having the extra time and said as much. Eventually I got the story done and submitted it.
As with any submission, I expect a preliminary “acceptance” to come with the caveat of “w/ edits.” This is (usually) a normal process. Most of the time, the edits are minor. You need to trim this. You need to add a little emotion here. And so on. In this case, the edits were extensive. The story I’d written was a tad long, with a lot of attention paid to the world and the characters. So I went to work. I cut the beginning and sucked relevant details out and moved them down into the second half. I trimmed quite a bit from that story, to be honest, but there were some aspects of the edit requests that I didn’t understand. And if I don’t understand something, I have to ask about it. That’s what I did. I sent the new edit back and asked for clarification: “I don’t quite know what you mean by X. Could you give me an example?”
What follows is one of the most unusual experiences I’ve had in the writing world. The editor decided to do the edits themselves, along with their co-editor. I assumed this was their “deal,” and let them do it. A week or so later, I receive a heavily-edited story. The vast majority of the edits made sense. Trim some worldbuilding here. Trim some of this here. Get to the meat quicker. I accepted most of those. But then there were the edits I didn’t agree with. These edits required cutting a lot of character development in order to reduce the story into the theme, moving details where they didn’t make sense, or cutting details entirely, which you couldn’t remove without tossing the whole world out of wack. The crucial point, however, rested on whether to keep a secondary character’s motivations apparent (the editor wanted to cut that out; I wanted to keep it in, even if trimmed excessively, because otherwise that secondary character would be little more than a shell).
The editor and I argued about this until he finally said that unless I accepted all their edits (the implication being that the publisher would ask for more edits anyway, so why bother haggling?), they would not accept the story and would have to find another fill the anthology. Shortly after, they proceeded to tell me that I was one of the most difficult writers they had ever worked with: I had forced them to edit my story, refused to accept most of the edits, and had wasted their time, etc. It got worse. I was told that their other reader didn’t finish the story (why accept it, then?), that if another story came in, they would take it over mine (umm, ok), and, the icing on the cake, they denied that what actually happened (I asked for clarification in an email I still have in my inbox) didn’t happen because “that’s not how [they] recall it.”
The reality? I accepted 90% of the edits (or more), and wanted to rework other suggested changes so as to avoid losing important details. I never asked for this person to edit the story for me, nor refused to accept the majority of the edits. There is no evidence of that ever happening (I have almost all of the emails and tweets). This same person has since written their imaginary version of the experience (granted, without names). It is just that: an imaginary version of what actually happened. The facts don’t lie.
The result of this experience? I will never work with this person again. Ever. I’m sure they would rather not work with me either, but for reasons founded on a reality that never existed. And that’s fine. Because in the grand game of writing and publishing, there are a lot of people I’d rather work with anyway. People who I’ve already had the pleasure to work with. They’ll get my stories. Some of them will publish them. Some of them won’t. I’ll get rejections, calls for edits, and publications because I’ll keep at it, keep working on my writing with my friend, and keep pushing forward. But I did learn something important from all of this: not all editors are nice people.