Revisions

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Last week I received comments back from a short story editor who is interested in buying story of mine.  He likes the piece, but feels that it still needs a bit of work before it’s ready to go in his publication.  Yesterday I received the first 200 manuscript pages of my next book, book II in my Blood of the Southlands trilogy, back from my editor at Tor.  He likes what I’ve done with the book and is excited about where I’m taking the series, but he’d scrawled comments all over the pages — things he thinks I should consider changing or expanding or cutting.

When people talk to me about the process of writing a book, they tend to focus on the initial creative act, the writing of that first draft.  When they ask about the editing process, they tend to think in terms of typos and changes in syntax. Too often, it seems to me, discussions of novel writing ignore the revision stage.  I believe that some of the most important work I do on any book, and certainly the most valuable contributions my editor makes to that finished product, come in this part of the process.

After I turn in a manuscript, my editor takes a couple of  months (A few?  Several?) to read over what I’ve written, comment on it in the margins, and then put together an editorial letter tying his comments together.  That letter isn’t about small wording issues — line edits come later in the process.  Rather, his comments focus on much larger issues:  plotting, pacing, character, dialog, setting.  I should add here that I have an exceptional editor at Tor, Jim Frenkel, who understands what I’m trying to do with my books, who believes in me and in my work, and who finds ways to suggest changes in what I’ve written that clarify without altering my authorial voice.

Upon receiving the manuscript back from him, I read it through once more, taking into account his comments (both the marginalia and those in the editorial letter) and making notes to myself about how I might change what I’ve written to address his concerns.  I don’t always agree with every one of his comments, and I don’t always change everything he wants me to change.  But I’ve learned over the years that he has a good eye, and that once I get over the initial shock of learning that my perfect book is really not so perfect after all, I tend to see what it is he’s trying to show me.  If my editor sees a problem, chances are my readers will, too.  This part of the process usually involves many conversations between Jim and me, some by email, some by phone.  There’s a lot of give and take.  Mostly we just talk; sometimes we argue.  After ten years, we’ve become pretty good friends.

Finally, I begin to revise.  Sometimes this means changing a few words here and there.  Sometimes it means rewriting scenes to make them flow better, or to make them more believable given what’s come before and what follows.  And sometimes it means writing scenes that are wholely new, or deleting entire scenes that simply don’t work.  I still remember the first editorial letter I received from Jim.  This was ten years and nine books ago.  My first book needed a lot — A LOT — of work.  While reading his letter I alternated between defensiveness and despair.  I dreaded the rewrites, in part because there were so many of them and several parts of the book needed so much work.  But once I got over my hurt feelings, and my reluctance to rip my creation apart and piece it back together, I was amazed to find that I enjoyed the revision process.  I could actually see the book improving, becoming the novel that I’d wanted it to be from the beginning.  Proud as I was of my first draft, that was nothing compared with the pride I took in the finished product.  I believe that during those weeks of work, I made the transition from “writer” to “author.”

In many ways, I repeat this emotional progression with the revision of every book.  Just once I would love for Jim to read a book and say, “David, this is perfect.  Don’t change a thing.”  But I know that’s never going to happen.  I’m not perfect, and every first draft can be improved.  Jim’s editorial letters are far shorter now than they were with my first novel.  His comments deal with smaller issues, and fewer of them.  I’m better at this than I used to be.  I still have moments of pique as I read his letter; I still get mad at myself for some of the stupid mistakes I make.  But I’ve gotten used to this and I can laugh at myself.  Ultimately, I find that I still enjoy revising my books.  I still take satisfaction in improving my manuscripts, polishing off the rough edges, fixing problems that I hadn’t seen initially but that become clear to me as soon as Jim points them out.

I’ve had a similar experience with the short story I mentioned at the start.  Once again, I’ve been fortunate to find an editor with insight and a fine eye and a good understanding of what I sought to do with the piece I sent him.  His name is Edmund Schubert.  Chances are you haven’t heard of him yet.  You will.

In any case, I’d love to hear from other writers about their editorial/revision experiences.  And I’d like to emphasize to those authors who are starting out that editors are your friends.  They can help you make a good book better and a great book outstanding.  Taking criticism is part of being a writer.  Using that criticism to make your novel as good as it can be is the first step toward becoming an author.

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20 comments to Revisions

  • Michele Conti

    Tsk. Tsk. David. Never say NEVER!!.

    I think, regardless of what I’ve written that is being edited, a term paper, or a novel, I’d be completely defensive. I have been in the past.

    That would be a difficult process for me, I think.

    Don’t know if I’d like all the work that would come of it either. The end product sure, but the interim, not so much…? 🙂

  • David, I remember my first editorial experience. I won’t say letter because there wasn’t one. I had a newbie editor with *no* editorial experience. OMG. He had scribbled all over every page in heavy pencil, marked out entire pages of text with huge *X*s… I felt violated. So did my writing partner. I literally cried for two days.

    I called my agent. Crying. He listened. Then he gave me the best piece of agent advice I ever got.: Well, you are a new writer. This is the offer we got. You can pay them back the money, or negotiate with him on the points that mean the most to you, It’s up to you. Needless to say agent wasn’t a warm and fuzzy kinda guy.

    I accepted the challenge and moved into the job of author. Yes, it sucks. Every time I get a letter. Especially the 2 page long, single spaceds one, which I get every now and then, still, even after 17 novels. But it makes me a better writer.
    Faith

  • When Tor first showed interest in “Mad Kestrel”, the editor gave it lots of compliments…and then told me what it would need for him to shell out the bucks for it. He wanted a whole extra subplot, something that would require weeks of my time to create and weave into the narrative. I let myself cry for a little while, then sucked it up and got to work. It took me about six weeks (this was in the summer, so I could write all day long) but I came up with something I thought would work. The editor agreed, and the book was sold.

    These days, when people ask how long it took to write, I always include that story, because it was an intrinsic part of the book they’re holding. But now and then I get a reaction of “What? You sold out for the money?”

    Of course I didn’t sell out. I managed to listen to someone who knew whereof he spoke, and used his suggestions to create something better than I had before. Maybe it was easier for me than it might be for others, because I was lucky enough to have belonged to an amazing critique group for years, and through them learned how to have a much thicker skin and a healthy understanding of how the process works. (Thank you again, Faith!)

  • Faith said, “Needless to say agent wasn’t a warm and fuzzy kinda guy.”

    I just fell off my chair laughing!

  • Yeah, I know, Michele. I need to believe….But in this case I’m pretty certain that I’ll never right a perfect first draft.

    As you can tell from the comments posted by Faith and Misty, it’s very easy to take the editorial comments personally. I tend to be pretty thin skinned about some of this stuff. I make a point of not calling my editor for several days after I’ve read his comments, because early on I’m pretty ticked off. But my goal and his goal are exactly the same: we both want my book to be as good as it can be. Once I come to terms with that, I’m able to put my hurt feelings aside and concentrate on the work. It takes some practice. I’m better at this now than I used to be.

    Thanks, Faith and Misty, for sharing your experiences. I need to remind myself all the time that I’m trying to improve, that my editor wants me to improve, and that his comments don’t mean that I suck, but rather that there is still room for me to grow.

    And Faith, I can’t wait to hear more about this “warm and fuzzy — NOT” agent. Carolina here we come….

  • Tina

    Revisions aside — easy for me to say because I have never sold anything to be revised… I don’t go to the writer’s workshop for a month after they slam one of my writing submissions.

    What do you think of Borders’ new policy to put all their books facing forward so the book front is visible? In their prototype store where they do this, sales have gone up 9%.

    The downside is that they are probably going to have 5-10% fewer titles.

  • I still get thin skinned, David. I *know* I am working on a product. But while I am creating it, the work is… art. At least to me. And when someone says, *your art needs a little work* it hurts.

    I always allow myself a bit of time to grieve, then I plunge in. The critique group Misty and I were a part of helped me to continue to see my work in the *product* light. If I wanted to just do *art* I’d self-publish. But I actually want pepole to read my work. So I became a …
    (*grins*) a literay slut. This according to a *friend*.

    We have to have a good brandy and Misty and I will have a cigar. My deck is pretty cool, and Misty has a great back deck. We’ll find a good place and chat and share some editorial stuff better left unsaid here.

    Mind you, I love my agents. But Lucienne is very warm and fuzzy. Jeff isn’t! And if he’s reading this — I love you Jeffy!
    Faith

  • PS
    I had baaaaaad news last week about numbers on a new Gwen book, and then good news this week.
    This business will make you crazy.
    Faith

  • Michele Conti

    “Yeah, I know, Michele. I need to believe….But in this case I’m pretty certain that I’ll never right a perfect first draft”

    I think you wrote it like that on purpose.

    Well, I got my winnings today so I’ll be able to compare 😛 It’s purdy…. I think I’ll keep it in a plastic bag. 🙂

  • I barely even look at my revision letters when they come in. I sort of glance at them, get all pissed off, sulk for days, then grind my teeth and actually read them, at which point it turns out my editor is right, the changes aren’t that bad (except in the case where I ended up completely rewriting the book), and it will be a much better story for the revisions. But oooh, those first few days! 🙂

    -Catie

  • Tina said, “I don’t go to the writer’s workshop for a month after they slam one of my writing submissions.”

    I don’t know your specific circumstances, so I hope you’ll forgive me if this comes out the wrong way, but you’re really cheating yourself by doing that. It’s hard to accept criticism, I know – I’ve wept bitterly over critiques before. But it’s better to thicken your skin now than to wait until you’re staring at an agent’s rejection or an editorial letter that’s three pages long.

    Now if this group isn’t functioning as it should, and you think they’re slamming you for other reasons than the writing, it might be time to search for a new group. 🙂

  • Misty is talking about me. I made Misty cry once. Really. Like…for hours… It broke my heart because I thought she would quit writing or hate me.

    She forgave me. I clearly have not forgiven myself, though I know her book sold, partly, because of the critique and the changes she made in the character.

    Critique groups can teach you to have a thick skin so the editorial letters don’t hurt so much.
    Faith

  • So much to respond to: First of all, Michele. Yikes! Not only was my error not intentional, I had to read what I’d written twice before I saw it! I wish I was as clever as you seemed to give me credit for being. But I’m not. I’m just getting old…..

    Tina, I have to agree with all that Faith and Misty said. I don’t have a writers’ group, mostly because of where I live, and because I don’t have time enough to put together an online thing. But learning to take criticism is absolutely essential to being a successful writer, and groups like yours are great for that. Editors can’t sugarcoat what they say in order to save our feelings. They can make it clear that they like the book, and that their criticisms are intended to improve it, but after that it’s up to us to take their critiques at face value and use them to better our own work. As Misty points out, sometimes groups break down and the criticisms cross over into something more personal, more destructive. At that point it makes sense to restructure the group or just find a new one. But if the problem is that you simply don’t like hearing your work criticized, you need to get over that. Pardon me for being blunt. But it’s the truth. This is NOT a profession for thin-skinned people.

    As for your question about Borders, I have mixed feelings. I like to see my books turned face out, and I do believe that such displays help sales. But I’m a midlist author, and my backlist could well end up being part of that 5-10% that loses out. Anything that limits the marketplace is bad for the average author (as opposed to the bestsellers).

  • Tina

    I understand what you are saying about being able to take criticism. But, umm, a little poetic license (I don’t go for a month after being criticized) is allowable for writers, right?

  • Of course it is, Tina. Sorry to take it so literally. Writing is hard; taking criticism is hard. And when we hear a writer say something like that we want to take it seriously and encourage them to stick with it. If we take it as a joke or an exaggeration and it turns out we’re wrong, we could really upset someone. Sorry if we came down on you too hard, but we were erring on the side of taking your comment at face value.

  • Tina

    In the spirit of March Madness, no harm, no foul.

    Actually, all of you gave great advice to those of us who are beginning. Thanks.

  • Excellent post. Actually when I read it and though well how the hell people won’t know what revisions and editing really mean and that it involves far more nerves and what not. then I remmebred that I am in the whole writing scene and community so I know, which doesn’t mean everybody else.

    I somewhat dread the revisions, not because I can’t handle criticism, but because it’s a lot of work and I am lazy and procrastinating, so it’s a challenge to me. I hope I master it someday and enjoy it like some claim.

  • Writing is one of those careers people understand in only a vague sense. Hollywood has made it out to be one thing, and those of us who actually write know that it has a lot less to do with waiting for inspiration and then going on 72 hour writing binges, than it does with sitting down everyday for a set amount of time and just doing the work. So I assumed that people weren’t all that familiar with the revision process. I may have been wrong.

  • Nobody can be sure about that. I know people with the notions taht writing si easya nd everyone with basic grammar skills can pull it off. What can i say, retarted much? Truth is that there are many people out there who have no idea about writing. I mean a lot of writers, new unpublished ones, me too until a few months or so, thought that oublishing is a breeze.

  • David said, “Hollywood has made it out to be one thing…”

    No kidding. Ever seen the remake of “Cheaper By The Dozen”? Near the beginning of the movie, the mom’s publisher calls – her book has been sold. Over the course of a few weeks, the book is published, in stores, and Mom’s being sent on a multi-city book tour. All before the weather even gets cold.

    It was enormously irritating to watch. 😀