Napoleon bares his breast — a cautionary editing tale


Napoleon Bares his Breast
~ or ~
The Editor Is [almost] Always Right

Two hundred and two years ago — on 7th March 1815, to be precise — Napoleon bared his breast to (what looked like) certain death and lived to fight one more great battle. (And if you’re wondering why we didn’t do this blog two years ago, on the bicentenary, we would plead that this website was a mere twinkle in the hively eye back then.)

A cautionary tale of author and editor

Once upon a time there was an author — let’s call her Joanna — who was writing a trilogy of love stories set in 1814-15, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (He lost, by the way.)

Joanna wanted to write stories full of exotic locations and romantic period detail. And she wanted it all to be as accurate as possible.

St Petersburg - Winter PalaceVenice - St MarksVienna - Belvedere






So she travelled to her exotic locations — including St Petersburg in the far north (shown top), Venice on the Adriatic (below left), Vienna in between (below right), along with her story locations in southern France — and she did loads and loads of extra research, in books, on websites, in museums.covers-aikenhead-honours-trilogy

Research done, and wanderlust satisfied, she wrote her trilogy of historical romances about three brothers spying across Europe for the British crown. She called it after her heroes:
The Aikenhead Honours Trilogy.

Napoleon bares his breast (metaphorically, at least)

Napoleon in battle dress, standing with troopsThe third book in the trilogy was set in southern France around the time of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. That episode began the Hundred Days which culminated in his last, losing battle.

Joanna had in mind a pivotal encounter, where her hero, Jack, actually watched as Napoleon bared his breast and invited the French King’s troops to shoot him.

They didn’t.

Instead, they cheered him and changed sides without a shot being fired. Napoleon continued, in triumph, to Paris.



Joanna wrote her pivotal scenes. She was cautiously pleased with the result. When she sent the completed manuscript to her editor, she was secretly hoping to be congratulated on her vivid rendering of a real historical incident.

And the Editor said…?

The editor said the scenes had to go. She said it tactfully, and kindly, but very firmly. However good the encounter was, it was more appropriate to straight historical fiction. For a Regency romance, it detracted from the love story. Sorry, Joanna. Thumbs down.

After huffing and puffing a bit, Joanna saw that her editor was right. It just didn’t fit the genre. With a sigh, Joanna set herself to finding a solution.exclamation mark in fire

It came quickly enough. The relevant points of what Jack had seen would be recounted to one of the other characters, back in the heroine’s Lyons house. That discussion would be used to advance the romantic plot. Thus the focus could remain on the love story. Simples. Within a week, the revised manuscript was resubmitted and accepted.

Job done.


Except that Joanna still has that extract in her “reject” drawer. She has a soft spot for it. Yes, of course the editor’s decision was the right one for that particular book, but Joanna feels it’s a pity that her key historical encounter hasn’t seen the light of day.

So, now it will. You can read it here if you’re interested — it’s not very long — and you can see for yourself why it was wrong for a Regency romance. Unless you disagree?

And the moral of the tale is — “Murder Your Darlings”

red rose in blood - murder your darlingsSometimes even our best writing has to be ditched because it doesn’t fit with the genre, or the plot, or the characters. A professional editor will find a way of telling the author so, without undermining the author’s pride in her manuscript.

It will still be hard. For both parties. Editors have to remember that authors have invested months of work into their manuscript, and a lot of themselves: a manuscript can be like a precious child. Authors have to remember that editors are bringing a valuable degree of objectivity to their review of the manuscript; editors read with fresh eyes, which the author cannot do. In a professional relationship, both need to understand where the other is coming from and to be prepared to make allowances. With goodwill, it really can be made to work.

But authors should never, never, throw work away. One day, that reject may come in handy — it could provide background for a new story; or perhaps it could even be inserted, unchanged, into a completely different kind of book.

Plus, just occasionally, it may provide subject matter for a blog 😉

2 thoughts on “Napoleon bares his breast — a cautionary editing tale

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Absolutely brilliant piece. I loved it. I get what the Editor says and understand you had to agree, but it’s a real shame it never saw the light of day. Maybe you can write another book and change Jack to a new hero???!!!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you so much, Liz. You give me confidence that I was right to keep liking it, even if it had to go.

      Your advice is thought-provoking. You never know, maybe I will do as you suggest… 😉

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