Monday, February 05, 2007

And in this corner, Authorial Integrity...

I got an email back from an editor of a small run literary journal to whom I sent a story, stating that he wanted the story and asking for some rather extensive changes. I know that it is quite normal for an editor to request changes, even ones that seem intrinsic to the plot, and I could treat this as an opportunity to practice rewriting to work with an editor's requests, which I will invariably end up doing at some point anyway.

However, the nature of this request strikes me as odd, and I want to offer it up for discussion, because the ethic of authorial integrity comes into play, perhaps, as well.

The story (which you Wyrdsmiths have seen, at any rate) is "Eyes of God and Man", a short about an observant Musilm, gay, colony ship captain who is confronted with a couple of gay crewmembers who are applying to have a child, which, according to the charter of the colony they are going to establish, means that they must be married. He is bound by both Sharia law and the colony's founding rules not to permit any gay marriages, and is willing to ignore the colony's founding rules--once they are on their way, the politics of getting the money for the trip are out of the picture. He can't so easily reconcile sidestepping Sharia law, and finds that he is confronted by a situation where his devotion to his traditional faith and his belief in human rights are in direct conflict with each other.

The editor wants me to make him a traditionalist Christian or Jew. The stated reason being that "it seems a little insincere" for me to be writing from a Muslim point of view.

Now, I'm not opposed to writing this particular story from one of those POV's--I could quite easily make him Jewish, since there are so many behavioral and religious parallels between the observant forms of Judaism and Islam. That's not really the point, though. When I met the character (and this was one of those "Hi, who are you and why are you in my head today?" situations), he was Muslim. I think I was respectful of his faith and beliefs throughout, but the concern expressed was that I am not Muslim.

I am not a woman, either. Should I never write from a female perspective? Some would argue that. Without the ability to exptrapolate our experience, though, SF wouldn't exist. Jules Verne had never seen the moon, or been in a submersible, yet he wrote of experiencing those things in a convincing way.

(I should clarify that I was raised Christian, left, and after about ten years converted to Judaism, though I would identify myself as an agnostic, since I have no evidence of anything and find the need to ask unanswerable questions an amusing trait, if a very human one.)

I may pull the story, anyway. Some of the changes that the editor is asking for would minimize the SF nature of the story, and he doesn't want the character to commit suicide at the end (which was a key point for me, but remains one of the most contested points in the story, one which I may need to concede, anyway). I don't disagree with all of the changes that he is suggesting, but I want to ask: What is too much to change when a editor makes requests? Where does that line exist? What elements do you take into account when you're making that decision? (pay rate, potential audience, etc.)


lydamorehouse said...

Shawn and I talked about this after leaving your party last night, and we both agree you should pull this story.

First of all, it is my completly inexpert opinion that this editor (and your friend) is a bigot. Either that, or he's afraid to publish stories with sympathetic Muslims in the post-911 world. In either case, he is, at best, a poo-poo head.

As for the sucide at the end... Shawn had a brilliant thought: why not make one of the two men who want to get married his BROTHER? I think that the contention about the suicide in Wyrdsmiths was the fact that the captain didn't appear to have sufficient motivation (especially given the [greater?] sin of suicide). However, if his choice is to be a good Muslim or a good _brother_ his decision to kill himself for his brother's happiness becomes personal and poignant. What do you think?

Anyway, with that fix, I totally think you're wasting this story on an art market that isn't going to have decent circulation or pay you particularly well (if at all.) Plus, the guy is a SF-hating ninny.

Don't sell youself cheaply for a quick by-line. You will sell to bigger and better places. Do you really want to have thrown away this opportunity?

Remember my story about "Everything in Its Place"? I sent it to TOTU (a fine market) and completely changed the ending so Eric would buy it. Later Gardner Dozois picked up the story for his long list of stories he also liked in that year's Year's Best. I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had I actually sent that piggy to market. Could I have gone over the transom at Asimov's?

tate said...

Oh, and my other personality has to chime in to...

Of course you can write convincingly about Muslims. If we could only write about the things we ARE we could never write SF... and all my characters would have to be fallen-away Unitarian Universalists who now practice Wicca. How on earth would that be interesting?

Kelly McCullough said...

This sounds like more change than I would be willing to make given your description of the market. But, of course, as with everything, it depends.

Is this a market you really want to crack? If not, why did they get this story before other markets you're more interested in?

How much does the market pay? Who is the editor? It would be one thing if Gardiner Dozois or Ellen Datlow asked me to make those changes, and something entirely different if it's a penny-a-word market and an editor with limited reputation. Which is not to say that there aren't some splendid semi-pro markets and editors, just that those are things you have to weigh.

Where are you in your career arc? There was a time where I might have made that sort of changes for the right semi-pro market. Now, I'd be reluctant even for Analog. Doesn't mean I wouldn't do it, just that I'd think long and hard first.

How is the editor going to take it? Does that matter to you?

It's all relative. If it were me, and given your description, I would probably just say no. If I didn't want to completely close the door, I might tell the editor that the changes were too extensive for me to accept at this time and ask if he/she would be willing to consider it again at a later time if you can't place it elsewhere without the changes.

Oh, and finally, is the editor right? If an editor suggests extensive changes that I agree with, I'm much more likely to make them. Doesn't sound like that's the case here, but it's a factor in this kind of decision.

Douglas Hulick said...

My off the cuff thought is: if the editor's suggestions would make it a better story, they are worth serious consideration; if they would make it a different story, they are more worthy of question.

This isn't absolute, of course - some times stories DO need major changes or overhauls in their direction or voice or character or.... But just because someone suggests them doesn't mean they are in the best interest of the story itself.

We aren't building & selling lawn mowers, we'll crafting & selling our ideas. In the end, it is YOUR NAME that people will associate with the work, not the editor's. You have to be comfortable with the vehicle that carries you forward as a writer and into someone else's head. It sounds like the suggested changes will take you beyond that comfort zone.

Find a bigger, better SF market.

Anonymous said...

You are all accurate in some ways, and, given how little I said about the actual market, quite insightful as well.

I have pulled the story, though I will likely use some of the edits he suggested because they do make the story better. My primary reason for pulling the story was that if there was no difference between writing the character as a Muslim or as a Jew or Christian, as he implied, then the problem is clearly not with the character but with me and my own experience in life. Or, potentially, with a presupposition that he would have about someone who converted to become a Jew writing about a Muslim; his phrase was "slightly insincere". Either way, it is an insult.

Secondarily, I noted to him that I found it offensive that he would want to vet my story with someone who had grown up in Morocco and who is "both a Muslim and an intellectual". This either suggests that it is unlikely for a Muslim to be an intellectual, or it suggests that I am incapable of being reasonable and fair to Muslims because I am not one, and at a minimum, it suggests that a regular Muslim would not have done the job well enough at reading the story, that their opinion would somehow not make the cut.

I noted that I would give the story a rewrite with some of his suggestions, and that since it was framed as an SF story, I'm going to let it bounce around out in the SF markets for a while, and that I'll write something in a more literary genre vein in the future to send him.

Much less harsh than I feel, because I'm practically livid, but this is also my longest standing friend, so some sort of gloves, kid or otherwise, are necessary, too.

Kelly Swails said...

Sean: Here's my take on the Muslim/Jew/Christian thing: The whole point of being a writer is writing from places we've not been, physically or emotionally. This goes for any genre and not just SF/F/H. I can write about being on a cruise ship or in Alaska or from the POV of an elderly man confessing a 50-year-old murder without having done any of those things. It's called research and imagination.

That said, you know my stance on the suicide thing. Lyda's idea sounds like it's got potential, if you're married to that ending.

I'm glad you pulled it. No one wants to be a diva, but ultimately it's your name attached to the work forever.
Stick to your guns.

Anonymous said...

So, here's the update on the story. (I've become so Minnesotan. It seems like every freakin' post I start begins with "So, ..." Pretty soon, all my questions will end with "..., then?", too.)

After an exchange of polite, terse emails yesterday, my friend and I spoke on the phone for a little over an hour. We got out of the way a couple of misconceptions that we had brought in to the conversation--some on each side--and then talked shop. I am now going to work some of the rewrites and send the story in to him, and the Muslim element is staying intact.

I'm going to rework the story so that he doesn't commit suicide because he can't, not becuase he doesn't want to. Since the ship is already coded to verify his identity and psychological stability, I'm going to take it one step further and say that one of the safeguards that the traditionalist politicians worked into the design of the ship was that it is solely keyed to him, and that if he dies of anything other than natural causes--old age, extreme disease (which would only be after they reach the new world), etc.--the mission dies and the ship shuts down. This way, he has to make a decision based on the continued existence of everyone on the ship, and they need to know that any kind of coup or mutiny will be ineffective since the ship won't function without him and the ship can tell if he is making a decision rationally and not under duress.

I should note that this is not for a by-line, and that this story, while fun to write, was never one that struck me as "send it straight to market while this little piggy stays home". I had actually intended to include this one in the Wyrdsmiths anthology this year, should we decide to do one. I would still be able to do that, and this provides me an opportunity to publish something with a good friend, get him to put out an SF story, and also practice reworking a story based on an editor's requests, in a ddition to having just practiced telling the editor that no, I will not change the main underpinning of the main character of the story.

I'm pleased with the outcome all around.

P.S. Thank you for waiting so patiently. NOW you can start yelling at me.

Kelly McCullough said...

No yelling. The decision is yours to make.

Anonymous said...

Oh, no, Kelly... guilt? Not a guilt trip! Aauugh!

Oh, wait, I work at a synagogue, grew up in Puritan New England, and have Catholic grandparents... so I guess I'm as close to immune as possible.

Bring on the guilt! (In smallish doses, though. Like the arsenic in tonic water.)

Kelly McCullough said...

No guilt. Not even implied. I meant exactly what I said: it's your decision. You solicited advice, weighed what people had to say, talked to the editor, and figured out what works best for you and the story. That's how it's supposed to work.