J. Michael Shell has made his rounds as a writer, having work that has appeared in many publications, most notably BOUND FOR EVIL, which was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. (And, *ahem* TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE, of course.) When he attended the University of South Carolina, he actually studied under James Dickey, who wrote TO THE WHITE SEA, THE EAGLE’S MILE and, most famously, DELIVERANCE.
ME: We became friends because of my old fiction magazine, TABARD INN. I published a story by you, “Dick Dog,” in issue three. However, there was one story that almost made it into issue two. If you’ll recall, I liked the story, but I disagreed with the ending, and I said I’d buy it if you changed the ending. You stuck to your guns and politely declined when a lesser writer would have probably caved in, afraid to lose a sale. What advice do you have for up-and-comers in regards to holding your own with editors?
JMS: If I remember correctly, the story you’re referring to was, “Home to Roost (The Missionary’s Position).” Your objection was that humans as a food source for aliens had been done before. You might even have referenced an old TWILIGHT ZONE episode, but this was some time ago, and I can’t be sure. I do remember being polite about it, and I can almost quote verbatim what I told you: “A writer should never be held responsible for what has been written before by somebody else.” I did, by the way, end up selling the piece, and it was published “as is.”
I mentioned that I was polite about it for this reason—it’s always a good idea. Especially if the venue is one you’d like to break into. TABARD INN was one of those. I knew its editor had an excellent, literary eye (not to mention magnificently questionable taste). I showed respect because I HAD respect (and ultimately ended up with a story in a truly great issue of a splendid magazine).
HOWEVER, I would never tell a writer not to burn a bridge if it needed burning, and I’ve burned a few with some serious invective. Some editors are dilettantes, some are failed writers holding a grudge. These you need to guard against. NEVER let one of these have their way with you just to get something into print. It’s whorish and pitiful.
That said, I have, on occasion, made suggested edits when I found them thoughtful and intelligent, OR when I didn’t think they were harmful to the piece and I really wanted the sale. I have to admit, I never LIKE making changes. SO, when it comes to short fiction, I don’t submit until I’ve read the piece at least thirty times with a red pen in my hand. If the manuscript is clean as a fat-tongued cat’s ass, and exactly the way you want it, you’ll absolutely know if an editor with critical remarks has the wherewithal to diddle your work. If you don’t like what he’s asking for, tell him nicely that you simply cannot make those changes, but the piece is still available as is. If he rejects, fine, that’s his legitimate prerogative. Send it elsewhere. If he still clamors about the changes he wants, tell him to fuck off.
The great author Muriel Spark (who was big enough in her day to forbid ANY editing) said, “If I wrote it, it’s grammatical.” I love that kind of chutzpah! But a good editor—especially if we’re talking about a novel—can be an asset. Let’s face it, if you’re a serious writer, you’re much too close to your work. And even if you edit the thing fifty times, in three hundred or more pages, you WILL MISS SOMETHING. Usually it’s something that will piss you off royally if it appears in print. So don’t be a dick. Listen carefully and think before you explode. If you DO, however, decide on detonation, go ahead and be bloody brilliant about it. If nothing else, it feels good.
Oh yes, Mr. Bruni. If you remember correctly, I DID allow you to change the title of my story “Change of Venue” to “Dick Dog.” See how much I liked you—even when you were rejecting my work right and left! (Author smiles.)
All of the above is true, but it wasn’t “Home to Roost” that I was thinking about. It was another story, “Fishing Whole.” It would seem that the editor in me hasn’t died off, because I asked for a rewrite of the first paragraph. He chose to let his answer stand and added the following:
JMS: Having had my dubious memory (Oldtimer’s Disease) properly chastised, I am now aware that it was NOT “Home to Roost” that John wanted me to change, but “Fishing Whole” (which, to this day, I haven’t sold). “Home to Roost” John rejected outright for the reason stated above, and I simply wrote back to bitch. By that time (this was AFTER “Fishing Whole”), John and I (writers of similar ilk) had a rapport that allowed such bitching. DON’T DO IT WITH AN UNKNOWN EDITOR. If he rejects, suck it up and send something else. Burning a bridge is one thing (on a rare and well-deserved occasion), but bitching to an unknown editor is just stupid, and will get you nowhere.
J. Michael Shell’s recent novel, THE APPRENTICE JOURNALS, is out now and can be bought here.