For the past week or so I have been slowly making my way through a revision letter from my editor — his response to the first Thieftaker book. When this book is released, it will be my thirteenth published novel. That’s thirteen revision letters, not to mention the revision letters I’ve gotten on half a dozen short stories. You might think that I’d be used to this by now, that I would take the criticisms like a professional. Apparently you don’t know me very well….
I’ve probably said this before, but I have always thought that it would be great just once to receive a revision letter that said, “David, this is perfect. Please, don’t change a word.” But of course, that never happens, and never will. There is no such thing as a perfect novel, and certainly no such thing as a perfect first draft. I KNOW that I’ve said that before. And yet, I still find myself mildly disappointed when I get those revision notes and starting reading through all the things my editor thinks need fixing. I also still find myself arguing with my editor on just about every page. Not literally — something I learned early on: upon receipt of a revision letter, I immediately contact my editor, make sure he knows that I received the manuscript, and thank him for his hard work. And then I don’t call him or email him until I’ve had time to read through and digest what he has said in his notes. Why? Because by the time I’m done reading through the book and my editor’s remarks — after I’ve screamed and torn out my hair and cursed him and called into question his ancestry and suggested terrible things about the nature of his relationship with his mother — I’ve usually decided that he’s right about most everything he said.
There are several reasons for this, not least among them the simple fact that my editor is very good at his job and has been doing this for a long time. But more, I know that his goal for the book is exactly the same as mine. He wants it to work. He wants people to buy it and read it and love it.
As a parent, I often set down rules, or stop my kids from doing things, for reasons they don’t immediately grasp. Admittedly, sometimes I tell them to stop doing things simply because these things bug me. I don’t have a better reason than that. But more often than not, it’s because I have a better sense of the long-term consequences of actions than they do. In other words, I know better. And when I can sit down with my kids and explain my rules or decisions to them, they often understand. They may not agree, but they at least know why I made the rule.
In the same way, when I sit down and consider the changes my editor suggests — when I look for the reasons behind them — I usually come to see their logic. For instance, my editor is currently driving me nuts with his questions about the historical information in the book. In the little imagined conversations I have with him every so often (imagined being the key word) I have reminded him that I possess a Ph.D. in history. I assure him that I really did do a lot of research while writing the book. But I know that he wants me to be sure. He wants to be confident when we go to press that we haven’t left ourselves open to criticisms of the book’s underlying assumptions. And on at least one p0int, he has forced me to question the accuracy of what I did. The result is that I now feel like I’m on sounder footing with a key plot point. Another thing my editor does (and I think many editors do the same) is suggest changes in my wording when something I’ve written doesn’t work. Sometimes I accept these changes — a different word here, a change in the syntax there. Often though, I hate his changes, and those are, quite often, the things that get me screaming. But eventually, after I’ve called him a few dozen horrible things, I remember something he told me some time ago. “You don’t have to use my wording,” he said with maddening equanimity, when I complained about some change he had made to a previous manuscript. “You’re the writer; I’m sure you can come up with something better. I changed it because the original wording didn’t work. It wasn’t clear, or it didn’t work with the rest of the scene. I was just trying to draw your attention to it.”
Uh, right. Okay. Well, that’s reasonable.
Most of his comments are like that. Reasonable, helpful, annoyingly well thought out. And that’s why, in the end, I wind up listening to almost all of his suggestions. But not all of them. With every manuscript, there are certain issues on which my editor and I fail to reach an understanding. He’ll feel, quite strongly, that I need to change this or that. And I will be just as convinced that it should remain as written. And almost invariably, on these issues, I prevail. It’s my book, and my editor is always the first to say so.
So what sorts of problems does my editor find with my work these days? You name it. He’s very good at spotting my crutches — this time around “clearly” and “he stepped…” among others. In a few places I’ve allowed my action to get ahead of my descriptions, so that my character is reflecting on the exterior appearance of a particular building or tavern, but he’s already inside. There are also larger issues — one in particular involving the encounters my MC has with his nemesis. I need to limit these and make them more effective. I agree that all of these matters need some attention. On the other hand, my MC has one particular haunt where he spends much time. At times I call it by its formal name. At times I use a nickname for it. I think it’s perfectly clear what he’s referring to. My editor thinks I should use the formal name always, or the nickname always, but not one and then the other. We’ll see who prevails on that one.
Ultimately, there are two things that I hope you’ll take away from this post. First, the editorial process is absolutely essential to effective writing. Even if you feel comfortable editing your own work, in the end your story or book will benefit enormously from being read and critiqued by an experienced reader. I don’t care if you’re finishing your first book or your eighty-first, you have to be able to listen to and accept criticism. That doesn’t mean you have to make every change that’s suggested to you. But you should be able consider these changes without ego and without defensiveness. If you’re going to reject them, make sure you’re doing so for the right reasons. And second, after you have gone through the editorial process a few times, it will start to inform your writing. You will be able to anticipate problems as you write, and thus avoid them. In other words, the editorial process will make your writing — even your writing of initial drafts — better. And that’s the best reason of all for taking it seriously.David B. Coe