Writing Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder: Should you trust your editor or your instincts?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, provided suggestions on the Little House books, acting much as a substantive editor would. Laura appreciated Rose’s input, but she didn’t always agree with it. And sometimes their differences took a while to work out.

Take a blizzard scene from On the Banks of Plum Creek. Pa is gone when the blizzard comes, and Ma goes to the barn to do the chores. It appears that Rose caught a POV error where Laura was seeing what Ma was doing without being there with her. Rose suggested that Ma take the character Laura along, but Ma would never have risked it, and the author Laura wasn’t willing to write an unrealistic scene. Laura and Rose eventually agreed on a third approach. Instead of going to the barn physically, Laura follows Ma in her mind as she imagines what Ma would be doing each minute she is gone.

Laura and Rose’s biggest disagreements involved By the Shores of Silver Lake. Here is just some of their correspondence:

January 26, 1938 Letter from Laura to Rose

            Just a word more about Silver Lake. You fear it is too adult. But adult stuff must begin to be mixed in, for Laura is growing up.

            * * *

            We can’t spoil this story by making it childish. Not and keep Laura as the heroine. And we can’t change heroines in the middle of the stream and use Carrie in the place of Laura.

January 28, 1938 Letter from Laura to Rose

            I like your idea of the beginning less and less the more I think of it. That was the way I tried to start it but all the objections I have mentioned cropped up as I wrote it. It made too much of Plum Creek. We don’t want to go back there. . . .

            It made an unpleasant beginning, a tale of sickness and failure and death. We don’t want to tell of Jack’s dying. Nor of Mary’s sickness. Nor of Pa’s failure so that it was necessary for him to make a new start because he hadn’t gained anything by all his hard work. The readers must know all that but they should not be made to think about it. The story of Silver Lake is connected with Plum Creek close enough in Laura’s mind and her thoughts are given to the reader, but it is second hand and the knowledge isn’t even sad, as it would be your way. It will be passed over lightly by the reader in the interest of the new adventure which is already begun.

            I’m afraid that I am going to insist that the story starts as I started it.

February 3, 1938 Letter from Rose to Laura

            You certainly are handling the material much better all the time, and if you don’t want this book touched, you’re absolutely right not to have it touched. . . .

            I don’t say that Harper’s won’t take this manuscript as it stands. They’ll take it on your reputation, and publish it; any publisher will. But you’ll lose your audience for future books, and cut your income, unless you work it over, and work it over by concentrating on every word and sentence until you know precisely what its values are, why you use it. . . . There’s a lot of fine stuff in it that doesn’t need to be touched, and there is deadwood, and clumsy spots and a lack of sufficient sharpness of identification with Laura.

            * * *

            It’s your book, and if you want to send it to Harpers as is, that’s all right with me. I’m only telling you what will happen if you do. You can do that, or you can work at the manuscript, till you bring it all up to the level of its best parts now. Unless you want to do that work on it, my advice would be to make it your last book and not do any more. This book as it is will go on your reputation, but it will not add to it, in my opinion.

February 19, 1938 Letter from Laura to Rose

            You don’t know how much good your letter did me and I can’t tell you. You see I know the music but I can’t think of the words.

            * * *

            Anyway your letter picked me up and gave me courage. It is sweet of you to say the nice things you did about my writing and I will try to deserve them more.

In the end, Laura and Rose reached a compromise. Rose basically got her way on how the book began, but Laura got to keep some of the more "adult" material, such as rioting by the workers constructing the railroad. Both may have been toned down, but I can't tell without the original draft for comparison.

The dispute didn’t harm the close relationship between Laura and Rose, and Laura was always gracious about receiving criticism. Here is an earlier letter, this time to her publisher:

March 21, 1933 Letter from Laura to Ida Louise Raymond

            Indeed I am very grateful to you for giving me your frank opinion of Farmer Boy.

            An honest opinion even though not favorable is much more to be desired than one more flattering if insincere.

Sometimes you have to trust your editor, and sometimes you have to trust your instincts. But always accept the editor’s critique with careful thought and good grace.

That’s this week’s lesson from Laura Ingalls Wilder.


The picture shows Rose Wilder Lane and, according to Wikimedia Commons, it was taken sometime before 1921. The photo is in the public domain because of its age.

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