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.”
“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