On Writing: Revisions and Editors

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On Saturday, Kalayna wrote a terrific post that described her revision process and offered tips for improving the way we approach the inevitable rewrites on our manuscripts. As she was the first to point out, her process might not work perfectly for everyone — she and I have very different approaches to writing drafts, and so her editorial process and mine are dissimilar in many ways. But still, much of what she suggests in her post are things I do, too, things that will prove useful to any writer. I urge you to read it.

Her post was especially timely for me, because I’m in the middle of a second round of revisions on Thieftaker, and have also been working on rewrites for a couple of other projects. I would guess that these days, given that I write faster than I used to, I spent at least 40% of my “writing time” actually RE-writing. There is no escaping it: Revisions are a fundamental element of what authors do.

As it happens, though, the Thieftaker rewrites that I’m doing come in response to a critique of the manuscript from my editor at Tor, and so I thought that I would use today’s post to write about revising a manuscript (or story) in response to comments from a professional editor.

In our discussions of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, we MWers have raised one point again and again: What sets the traditional process apart from self-publishing in any medium is the involvement of what we sometimes call a developmental editor. What is a developmental editor? A developmental editor is also often referred to as an acquisitions editor. She or he works for the publisher and actually finds books for that publisher to print and market. In other words, this is the person who is going to buy your book and shepherd it through the writing and production processes. This person is with you every step of the way. S/he is your liaison to every other department of the publishing house — accounting, publicity, art, typesetting, etc. This person is also the one with whom your agent negotiates contract terms, including advances. This is one reason why an agent is so valuable. Your editor is someone with whom you HAVE to have a good working relationship. Having an agent there to deal with the contentious, money-related stuff allows you to keep your rapport with the editor smooth and professional.

A good developmental/acquisitions editor may help you with your writing — I have, on occasion, called my editor to say “Hey, I’m stuck on a plot point. Can I bounce an idea off of you?” S/he will also help you improve your writing by commenting on stylistic points as s/he encounters them in the manuscript. But the editing letter is where your developmental editor really earns her/his salary. When I turn in a manuscript, I generally get right to work on my next project, because I know that it’s going to be a while before I hear back from my editor. Stating the obvious: different editors work at different speeds. Mine would be the first to admit that he’s somewhat slow. But when the manuscript finally comes back to me, covered with red ink and accompanied by a lengthy editing letter — well, it’s worth the wait. It’s worth it’s weight in gold.

Some comments from my editor, without context, just to give you a rough sense of the issues he addresses:

“This whole conversation seems tacked on — needs a better connection to the previous scene.”

“[In response to my mention of the smell of spermaceti candles] What kind of smell is this? Make it more immediate to readers’ senses.”

“Disjointed.”

“???”

“Find a better word for this.”

“It occurs to me that Ethan must have known Kannice’s husband. He has NEVER come up. Odd.”

“Have you actually checked Colonial Era prices [for food]? This sounds very high for way back then, even for two nights worth of meals.”

“This is too honest and open. Make it more grudging, less forthcoming. Remember there are huge class differences between these characters. Use that tension.”

Not all of his comments are this lengthy. Sometimes he’ll cross out one word and suggest another. Sometimes, as I indicate in this list, he’ll just put a question mark (or three) in the margins. Sometimes, on the other hand, he’ll write me notes that are far, far longer than this and that point to much more involved and lengthy rewrites. And of course, he also includes a letter in which he delves into the key issues that need to be addressed in terms of character, plotting, worldbuilding, style, etc. With the second round of rewrites we’ve been doing for the last week or so, he has been focused far more on line editing. The book is written in limited 3rd person POV, and much of what we’ve worked on has been making the POV character’s voice and perceptions sound more like those of a man of the 18th century. In other words, we’re working on historical authenticity.

Later, when I begin working with the copyeditor, I’ll address more mechanical issues — typos, grammatical stuff, consistency issues (making sure that a given person’s eye color remains the same throughout the book, and keeping dialects consistent). But the work I do with my developmental editor can touch on that stuff, too. In a way, a good editor deals with everything that contributes to the telling of my story, be it substantive or stylistic.

So, do I accept every change my editor suggests? No. There are times when we disagree, and he is always quick to acknowledge that it’s my book, and that the final decision on any point rests with me. When I first get his comments and edits, I’m often quite resistant to a lot of what he suggests. That’s why I usually read through his comments several times before I speak to him or begin to revise. Because more often than not, after I’ve had my temper tantrum, I am able to remind myself that his goal is the same as mine: He wants my book to be as good and as successful as possible. Even if I don’t agree with a change he has suggested, I will recognize the reason for his comment, and will find some other fix that addresses his concern while hewing more closely to my voice and style.

Almost all of the comments I listed above led me to change something in the manuscript (the exception: I actually had checked the food prices, and they were accurate). And each of the changes I made improved the book. But what about when he identifies a problem and I don’t agree that the problem exists? This is rare, but it does happen. It actually happened this past week with a key scene in the book. He felt that I had handled something the wrong way, and I KNEW that I hadn’t. I made a small change that de-emphasized one element of the scene, but I argued my case, made it clear that I wouldn’t be changing the fundamentals of the scene, and we moved on.

It’s important to note here that I don’t do that often. Sometimes I’ll grow attached to a certain turn of phrase, and I’ll fight for it. But that’s pretty rare, too. And if my editor REALLY thinks that it doesn’t work, I’ll usually follow his advice. My editor is a professional. He has been doing this for a long time, and he’s very, very good at his job. Most of the time, I am blown away by his insights, his ability to understand what I’m trying to say and find a clearer way for me to express it. When I get my back up about a particular issue, I try to remind myself of this, to see the passage not as I wrote it, but as he read it. This will sound counterintuitive, but with a very few notable exceptions (this week’s argument being one) the larger the issue, the LESS apt I am to resist the change. I know. That sounds weird. But the truth is that usually when my editor raises a really big issue relating to plot or character, I have already sensed the existence of a problem. I might not have a clear diagnosis yet. I probably don’t have a cure. But I am aware that there’s something wrong and I’m actually grateful to him for pointing it out. The smaller stuff — wording, a snippet of dialogue, etc. — tends to be stuff that I thought was fine, and so the criticisms catch me off guard. And so I fight them, at least at first.

Ultimately, the author-editor relationship is about trust and empathy. I have to believe that he has my best interests and the best interests of my book at heart. I have to keep myself from taking his remarks personally; I have to set ego aside and understand that accepting criticism and turning it into positive revision is part of the creative process. Those red marks in the margins aren’t indicative of failure, but rather are reminders that any manuscript remains a work in progress. For his part, my editor needs to read my book not simply as a text to be criticized, but as a story to be optimized. He needs to put himself in my head and figure out what it was I was trying to say when I wrote a given passage. Again, the art of good editing is not in finding something to critique; that’s easy. The art lies in identifying and correcting issues in a manner that meshes seamlessly with the author’s creative vision.

It’s hard work on both ends. At it’s worst, it’s contentious and wrenching and painful. At it’s best, it is a partnership that results in a book that is still mine, but that is better than anything I could have written alone.

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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18 comments to On Writing: Revisions and Editors

  • “…he is always quick to acknowledge that it’s my book, and that the final decision on any point rests with me.” That’s one of the hallmarks of a top-notch editor.

    “That’s why I usually read through his comments several times before I speak to him or begin to revise. Because more often than not, after I’ve had my temper tantrum, I am able to remind myself that his goal is the same as mine: He wants my book to be as good and as successful as possible.” And that’s one of the hallmarks of a professional writer.

    Put them together and you have a highly productive working relationship. Glad you have it with your editor at Tor, and thanks for letting us peek in the back door to see what it looks like from the inside.

  • >>>I have to keep myself from taking his remarks personally; I have to set ego aside … Those red marks in the margins aren’t indicative of failure … For his part, my editor needs to read my book not simply as a text to be criticized, but as a story to be optimized. He needs to put himself in my head …>>

    The first time I got a rewrite letter I cried for three days. Yes literally. It was the most horrible experience of my writing life. I grieved myself sick. I even considered taking the book away from the company and giving the money back. Of course I’d spent it all…

    I will say, that my first editor was my worst editor. He had zero empathy with what I was trying to do and had a vision of my book that totally did not match mine. It was a steep learning curve dealing with how to negotiate my way through the morass of his changes and back to a book that somewhat matched my vision.

    Why did I even bother? I had my foot in the publishing door. I had to learn all this rewriting stuff sometime. And I had to grow up as a writer sometime. I was ready for the next step, if I’d just take it.

    When that editor left the company, I got another editor and that guy was wonderful. But I learned valuable lessons that have stayed with me in the delicate negotations between writer and editor.

    Thank you for this very excellent post. Between you and Kalayna you covered it perfectly.

  • sagablessed

    I sent my manuscript to a professional editor, and found her to supportive and informative. Her suggestions and line edits were worded in a way I felt both comfortable and educated. I hope when I finally have it ready for submission, my relationship with the aquisitions editor or agent will be half as good.

  • Great post. When I edit (for money rather than for fun) I try very hard to do a couple things: 1. be positive when positive is possible (i.e. “this scene really works!”) and 2. to be impersonal when negative (i.e. “this section has a lot of telling” not “YOU have a lot of telling”.) But working with editors is important whether small press or large. I recently saw this happen: An author had a story accepted, contract signed. Editor made comments, sent comments. Author sent back a “I think the story is fine as it is, so I just changed the typoes and the grammar errors.” Author deleted ALL comments in the text (comments/edits were made via track changes). Editor went to publisher. Published released the rights back to author and won’t be publishing the story. I’m not certain much else from this author will get published by the press either.

    So that’s the other side of working with an editor–or, perhaps, a what not to do story.

  • Just wanted to note that Mindy Klasky offers some editing services for those trying to get a book ready for professional publication.

  • Edmund, thanks. I think it bears mentioning that I’ve worked with a number of editors, including you, and you’re one of the finest, most insightful and thoughtful editors I know. Just sayin’.

    Faith, I happen to have a good relationship with my editor, and have from early on. But the very first editing letter he sent me was terribly hurtful. In part it was that the book needed A LOT of work, and I had no clue. Part of it was that I wasn’t yet used to the tone of his comments. There is nothing easy about this process. But as you say, it is something every writer needs to go through. It’s part of “growing up” in the publishing world. Thanks.

    SagaBlessed, it sounds as though you had a great experience. Good! The thing to remember, though, is that hiring a free-lancer to look at a book, and actually working with the acquisitions editor when — WHEN — you sell your book, are two very different experiences. One of the things a good acquisitions editor will try to do (and in this way a good editor is like a good agent) is help to develop your talent in a long term sense. I have learned a ton from my editor over the years, and have become a far better writer because of him and the work he’s done with me. Now, not everyone is with the same editor for as long as I’ve been with mine, but all good developmental editors try to do this; hence the name “developmental.”

    Emily, wow. Just wow. Yeah, definitely a cautionary tale. If a writer is not ready to be edited, he/she is not ready to be a professional. It’s as simple as that. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the writer in that story you tell is an idiot. Wow.

    Christina, thanks. I had forgotten that Mindy edits when she’s not writing. And I have no doubt that she’s really good at it.

  • I used to hate, hate, HATE rewriting. This time around I’m revising my WIP and last night came across a major plot problem. This is going to require me to back track about 6 chapters, move events, rip out scenes (including one I really like -sniffle!) and replace them with new scenes. And yet I feel more excited than defeated by this. I think the difference is that I’ve started to think of the first draft as the thing I have to bang together in order to get at the second (or third, etc) draft, rather than seeing it as my baby, my vision, my perfect work of art that then has to be beaten up by changes. If I keep focused on the idea that rewriting isn’t redundant and it is writing, I enjoy it more. It feels like succeeding better the second time, rather than proof that I failed the first time.

  • This is timely for me, too. Thanks, David.

    I’m starting to suffer from a bit of editing burnout, and once I fix this last set of problems, I want to send it out (after I send it to/hear back from a special beta reader who’s offered to take it on). Is it possible to reach a point where you can’t see any more problems and you *need* to send it to the editor/agent? (Or in the unpublished case, where hopefully it’s decent enough that an agent will take it on?) I’ve been held back from sending out my WIP by this constant vicious cycle of “it needs more work”, but it’s starting to grate on me.

  • >>It feels like succeeding better the second time, rather than proof that I failed the first time.<< This. Sarah, that's a great attitude to have, and one that will be enormously helpful to you as your professional career progresses. Being able to accept criticism and, more to the point, see revision as a positive part of the creative process is hugely important.

    Laura, yes, there is absolutely a point after which further revision doesn't do you any good. This is particularly true with pieces that have not yet been submitted. If THIEFTAKER was still unsold, I never would have done this second set of revisions. No matter when you sell your book, and no matter who you sell it to, you're going to have an editor who wants to make changes to the book. Every editor is different; every editor will identify different strengths and weaknesses, and there is no way for you to anticipate every criticism. At some point you just have to send it out and trust that while the book is not perfect, it is good enough that an editor will recognize its potential.

  • Great post, David! I find revision letters are always painful on the first read. (Especially my very first which was six pages long–single spaced–and started “Now remember, we love this book, this character, and your voice . . . /” Oh, I knew I was in for it.)

    My practice is to read the entire revision letter (and notes in the manuscript if my editor does both)and give myself the freedom to growl at my computer and reality as much as I want the first day (but never to my editor or agent). By the next day, I tend to see the genius in at least most of the suggestions in the letter and with the suggestions that don’t work for me, I’ve usually started to form ideas of how to improve what caused the issue.

    You’re dead on with the statement that the editor’s critique is focused on optimizing the text. It can be hard to remember over initial the sting of a revision letter, but just like you said, putting our egos aside and assessing what it is the editor is seeing when they read the book and then making revisions accordingly, truly does make our books better.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Your experience with resiting comments and then appreciating the spirit of them and accepting the ones that works sounds SO familiar…which makes sense. ;-P

  • *sigh of relief* Thank you. I’ll do that. I am ready to be done, and I think I do trust that it’s enough for an agent. 🙂

  • Thanks, Kalayna. And thanks for the inspiration for this post!

    Jagi, yes! What a coincidence! (For the rest of you, Jagi and I have the same editor.)

    Laura, glad to help.

  • So I’m guessing that one thing I have on my side…
    I’m new at this, so I know darn well I’ve a lot to learn. I’ll get brutal feedback. I just hope it’s feedback that’ll be educational.

    Its time pressure that scares me. I’m finding that my self-imposed revisions are going slow, and I darn well want them to be done. How do you deal with the “you need to rethink 50% of your story and clean up the pacing and language in these 100 pages. Can you have it back to me by Friday?”

  • Roxanne, it may be that you’ll have a lot to work on with your revisions, but if your editor is good, the comments won’t be too brutal. A good editor finds a way to be thorough and clear without being cruel. As to your second question, editors are usually pretty reasonable in giving ample time for revisions. That said, you will be expected to turn around the revisions in a set amount of time and you may have to work faster than you’re working now. Deadlines have a way of motivating us, so you’ll probably find it easier than you think. But on those occasions when I’ve had to do extensive rewrites in a relatively short period of time, I just . . . do it, I guess. You work at all hours, you force yourself to push through fatigue and burnout, and you focus on fixing one scene at a time. Just as you’re better off telling yourself that you need to write 20 chapters of 5,000 words each, as opposed to “Oh My GOD, I have to write 100,000 words!!!” you’re also better off approaching rewrites in discreet chunks. “I have to rewrite these 10 chapters” is easier to deal with than “I have to rewrite half my book!!!” Know what I mean?

  • Heh heh, yah. I’ve set a goal to rewrite one chapter a week, hopefully having my first set of revisions done by the end of the year. I’m, uh, way behind. Darn day job burnout.

  • You’re far too kind, David. As always.

  • This is exactly how I feel about a certain critique partner I have had the fortune of exchanging critiques with, right now. I’m working on a short story/novelette, and her thoughts have been beyond invaluable. Almost every issue she’s brought up are things I intuitively had a sense were wrong, but wasn’t clear about until she articulated the problem. I don’t always solve it the way she suggests, but I try to solve it. The only problem she pointed out that caught me off-gaurd was the comparative weakness of the MC’s voice (as compared to the very strong characterization of the other characters), which is something I’m currently struggling to fix.