In honour of the RNAs 60th anniversary year, we have put together a special series of blog posts on various aspects of writing romance. These will feature advice and comments from some of our bestselling author members, who all have a wealth of experience and expertise. We hope these posts will be informative and interesting to both new and seasoned writers, but please feel free to add your own tips in the comments section below!
Each month we are highlighting a particular aspect of writing romance, and this month our bestselling authors tell us how they cope with the dreaded edits and negative reviews:-
“Edits are part of a professional writer’s life,” says Liz Fielding. “My editor and I have worked together for a long time and I value her input. She hauled me out of a hole I’d dug myself into in a recent book, for which I’m very grateful.”
Editing is not Dilly Court’s favourite thing, but she’s “always open to constructive comments”, while Rachel Hore is “lucky enough to have an editor who is extremely tactful in the way that she expresses her opinions … and atunes herself beautifully to what I am wanting to achieve … For this reason I value her suggestions. It’s extremely rare that I disagree … What she does is to point out difficulties and leave me to solve them in a way that does not compromise the integrity of the book.”
“If you have a good editor, you need to listen to him/her,” is Milly Johnson’s advice, “because they are reading it as a reader and can spot so much you can’t … You can’t get precious. But no one is infallible. If there is something that you KNOW is essential and they want it ripped out, you have to stand your ground. But give reasons why. Maybe between you, you’ll find a compromise.” Jill Mansell occasionally resists, “but 95% of the time I know my editor is right. We’re on the same side and both want the book to be a success. And editing is her job – she’s really good at it!”
“I think writers tend to split into two camps: those who love writing the first draft, and those who prefer editing,” says Dinah Jefferies. “I usually LOVE the editing process … it’s a lot more fun than writing the first draft and being faced with endless blank pages every day … My editor is strict and brilliant, and although her suggestions can be painful, I trust her implicitly and that’s terribly important.”
Rosanna Ley also likes “going over, fine-tuning and polishing, though structural edits can be harder. It’s never pleasant to get negative comments about your work but it’s part of the job.” Elaine Everest is another author who loves the editing stage “as it means there will be another book for readers, polished and ready to go. I’m confident now to say if I’m not happy with structural suggestions or copy editor’s ideas.”
Barbara Erskine says, “If they are critical, I rant and rage and stamp about, but then I sit down and read their comments again and tell myself that it’s their job and they know what they are doing. Which mostly they do. But if I still really disagree with their suggestions at that point, I will fight for my version.”
“No one likes advice, especially constructive!” says Prue Leith. “But I have a great editor … and I probably take 80% of her advice, which is usually that she wants more love, more food, and less business in the novel.”
If the comments are constructive, Sheila O’Flanagan has “no problem with them. It’s always good to have someone else look at your work and point out where improvements can be made. Sometimes writers can be too close to the story and characters and miss things that will enhance the book for the reader.”
Kate Walker‘s view is that “edits/revisions are always tricky. It’s important to be able to trust that your editor is working with you and hope that between you, you can polish this book to be the best it can be. But I always have to read the revisions letter, take a deep breath, go away from it for a while and then go back (hopefully) more calmly.” She adds that “the editor looks at your work with a cool, objective eye in a way that we can’t do for ourselves. I am always too close to my own work and … I know too much about my characters and their feelings so I can forget that the readers don’t know them that well.”
Who reads your work before publication and what does that offer you?
Sophie Kinsella’s husband is the only person who reads her work before she turns it in. “He understands story and plot brilliantly, and we have the same sense of humour, so I wait downstairs while he reads, hoping to hear him laugh!” Jill Mansell also relies on a family member – “my daughter types up my handwritten manuscripts, so she’s the first person to read them. Her reactions are very honest!”
“Apart from the editing team … only my husband will have read the book,” says Elaine Everest. “He simply looks for bloopers … and he does know my books and settings very well so can also suggest something to enhance the story. Of course we argue but that’s par for the course!”
Dilly Court has “a very good editor and a talented agent who reads my manuscript first of all and gives me her opinion. The finished book has always gone through many processes before it reaches the shelves in supermarkets or book shops.” And Barbara Erskine sends hers to her editors and agent as well. “No one in the family,” she says. “(Only because, to my immense sorrow, none of them are really fiction people).”
Milly Johnson does the same – “My agent, my copyeditor, my editor. I don’t tend to give it to friends for their opinion. By now I know (hopefully) what I’m doing and the editors know what I should be doing.” Liz Fielding and Sheila O’Flanagan only send their manuscripts to their editor. “I don’t believe in having hordes of people reading the book before it’s published,” Sheila explains.
Prue Leith does it slightly differently. “My assistant Francisca corrects the typos but is reluctant to criticise, so my agent and editor get quite a raw version and I fully expect to have to do at least two rewrites.” And Rosanna Ley is “part of a small writing group … we read each other’s work. It’s very valuable to me.”
For Rachel Hore, the process can be more complicated. “My agent reads my work-in-progress and points out any substantial problems … My editor doesn’t wish to see the novel until it’s finished as she prefers to read it in its entirety … I will occasionally consult my husband on particular points as he’s a writer, too, and a good sounding board … and I make use of ‘experts’ when I need to … I offer a reading fee if I feel it to be appropriate.”
What about negative reviews and do they make you change things in your next manuscript?
“A review is just one person’s opinion,” is Liz Fielding’s pragmatic view, while Barbara Erskine tries to ignore them, but is sure that “subconsciously one does take them on board even if one doesn’t actually change things.” She vividly remembers some of people’s more cutting comments “and they hurt.” She adds, “If a book contains some sort of trigger for you, surely the thing is to stop reading that book. And if a writer consistently annoys you, why persistently read all their books and then tick them off for writing them? An interesting reflection of the times?”
When Rachel Hore started out as a published writer, negative reviews would really knock her back, “but you simply have to grow a thick skin,” she says. “I will not change my work because of a review except factual errors. Readers en masse can have wildly different expectations and opinions of a book. You develop a certain belief in your own work – you have to – though your editor’s guidance is very important.”
“You can never please everyone so don’t try to,” is Milly Johnson’s opinion. “So long as the bad reviews are grossly outweighed by the good ones, you’re all right. You don’t need to look at reviews – your editor will tell you if it’s a good book or not and that’s all you need to hear.” She used to answer reviews, but “… really it’s not the thing to do. Walk away … Some reviewers are just evil and thrive on the oxygen of attention, so don’t fall for the bait. As for changing – no.”
Dinah Jeffries doesn’t read them. “There’s no point. In my view, reviews are there to help the reader decide what book to buy. They aren’t there to tell the author how to write… You can’t change your manuscript to suit everyone, so no I never, ever, would. If all the reviews were negative, I’d have a chat with my editor. Don’t let negative reviews drag you down … because it’s human nature to remember those rather than the glowing ones. Of course, I do peek occasionally and then usually wish I hadn’t.”
Jill Mansell, on the other hand, always reads and pays attention to negative reviews, and tries to learn from them. She gives an example: “a couple of Amazon reviewers … commented that they wished they could have seen more of the story from the main male character’s point of view. I made a point of doing this in subsequent books and am grateful to the reviewers for their advice.” And Elaine Everest believes “that if the same point pops up in three different reviews then we should take notice. It doesn’t pay to be precious about our work.”
The only thing that irritates Prue Leith “is the everlasting cooking references of the ‘Prue has cooked up a meaty stew of raw emotion…’ variety, or ‘Elegant and tasty as a souffle, this is a book to get your teeth into …’
For Rosanna Ley it depends whether they are making a fair point. “No one likes a negative review but if it’s unfair it can be very frustrating. I doubt that I would make changes to a future manuscript on the basis of a negative review, but if lots of people said the same the same thing it would definitely make me think …”
“… not everyone likes every book,” says Sheila O’Flanagan. “I’ve hated some lavishly praised books and enjoyed others that haven’t been well received, so I try not to stress about it.”
What about you – if you’re a writer, do you enjoy editing? And what is your view on negative reviews?