For the Good of the Story

by Jennifer Hillier

Of all the relationships I’ve made in my writing career so far, the one I consider most precious is the one I have with my editor. I may write books alone, but I sure as hell don’t edit them by myself. Even the best and most experienced novelist needs the critical eye of an editor whose sole job is to make the book the best it can be. Editors, even if they totally understand the vision you have for your book, still see it in a way you never will. They understand the reach your book will have better than you do, and they don’t have your emotional attachment to the story. This allows them to make suggestions for improvements that aren’t just about the quality of the novel, but also about the appeal of the novel. And appeal, when it comes to the publishing side of things, matters. At the end of the day, publishing is a business.

In my first novel, CREEP, my protagonist’s love interest is a middle-aged ex-NFL offensive lineman. I pictured Morris as six-four, balding, with a massive paunch and bad knees, so that’s how I wrote him. My editor didn’t like it. She felt very strongly that my readership would be primarily female, and she wanted Morris to be more handsome.

“Make him someone your readers will find attractive,” she said. “Right now he’s too bald and too fat. And take out some of the references to him being sweaty. Sweaty isn’t sexy.”

I resisted. I loved Morris just the way I wrote him. He was lovable and real to me, and not at all a cliché knight-in-shining-armor. But after a few days wrestling with it, I realized that having Morris lose a few pounds and giving him back his hair would not hurt the story in any way. My editor’s job is to help my book find the widest audience, and really, if it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the book–which is a psychological thriller, by the way–who cares if Morris is a bit thinner?

In my second book, FREAK, I killed off the estranged wife of my protagonist. Let me tell you, that woman was good and dead, and that kill scene was one of the best things I’ve ever written. My editor hated it.

“You can’t kill Marianne,” she said. “You’ve got the reader emotionally invested in her survival because we want to see them back together.”

“No,” I said, feeling confident in my stubbornness. “I have to kill her. I have to show that my killer isn’t messing around. If she doesn’t die, then nobody will believe that the other characters are in danger. Plus, don’t you like the way she bled out?”

“Don’t kill her,” she said. “I don’t care if you don’t do anything else I suggested, just give me this one thing. She dies, you’ll piss everybody off. What if you leave it up in the air at the end? What if we don’t know if she makes it?”

I was determined to stand my ground. After all, I’d given in to a skinnier Morris in the first book. No way was she getting an un-dead Marianne in the second. But then, after experimenting a bit with the scene, I had to admit once again that she was right. I was able to keep it mostly the way I wrote it, but instead of Marianne’s husband weeping over her at the morgue, he was weeping over her in her hospital bed. If anything, it was sadder and more compelling. Dammit.

About half the editorial comments I get piss me off. What can I say? I’m human, and nobody understands better than me what I’m trying to say. But there are two sides to writing a book: the way you write it, and the way it actually reads. I’ve learned to trust my editor to tell me how it reads. And I’ve also learned that the suggestions that piss me off the most are the ones that always make the book better.

Dammit.

JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.

To learn more about Jennifer Hillier’s novels, click on the covers below:

 

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