Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes. The Edit Letter

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I had planned to do POV today, but I got my edit letter back for Darkfall (yay!) and it seemed like a good time to talk about that. I know folks are always curious about what an editor asks for and how revisions at a publishing house work.

So what is an editorial letter?

It's a letter from your editor that covers all the thoughts, comments, and suggestions about your manuscript. Edit letters vary according to who's writing them, but mine have been very straightforward so far. This last one had four paragraphs of overall thoughts, followed by a chapter by chapter breakdown, about one paragraph for each chapter. Additional general comments were interspersed through those as well.

My letter comes in an e-mail as opposed to a Word file, but I pasted it into Word for a page count to give you an idea of size. It was ten pages, single spaced, with breaks between paragraphs. From what I understand, this is pretty average. They also say it's better to get a long edit letter, because those usually have specific things to fix, which means the book only needs revisions. A short letter often means the changes are major and rewrites are needed. (As in, it takes fewer words to say "the whole first half needs to go")

There's a good example in the overview that I can share that doesn't give anything away about the book:

But perhaps because we are wrapping up the fates of so many characters and trying to build a new story, I did find that things got a bit confusing in places. So as you’ll see, overall I’m suggesting streamlining and simplifying quite a bit: the number of characters involved in various situations; Nya’s motivations and arc; the focus on the enemy; and some of the action. The latter you are especially so skilled at describing, but sometimes I am going to suggest a breather here and there so we feel the full emotional impact of various scenes. I’m also suggesting tightening up the beginning quite a bit…

Those who have heard me talk about the challenges of book three will clearly see she mentioned things I knew were going to be an issue and things I knew I'd have to work on.

Then why did I turn it in without fixing those?

Because I wanted her feedback on what things were working and what she felt could go. The manuscript came in at 95K words, which is about 25K longer than the first two. I can see book three being a little longer since it's the final book, but it was bloated. Streamlining was utterly expected. Plus, I've worked with my editor long enough now to know that she has an exceptional eye for pacing and story development. Before I went to all that work to hack and slash, I wanted some ideas on where the best places were to cut.

Important note: Turning the manuscript in knowing it needs work is not something you do if you are still trying to get an agent or editor. My editor already bought the book. It's her job is to help me make my book better. That was our deal. It's also the last of a series. Deal or no deal, had this been a stand alone book, I would have made darn sure it was as perfect as possible before I gave it to her.

I'd also like to mention that, for me, the "cool" subplots were often ones that introduced new characters, so they felt fresher than the ones that are the story's core. I was reluctant to cut those new ones because they felt more exciting. But now that I've been away from the story, and I read my editor's comments, I can clearly see the fresh stuff was just bogging down the story. They were my way of working on something "new" while writing a story I've lived and breathed for the last three years. Stuff you've read over and over never feels as fresh as stuff you just wrote. This is why folks advise letting your work sit for a while before you do any revisions. You really need that distance to be objective. Things you didn't even see while you were writing, jump out after a month or two away.

Let's look at the comments and what they mean for me as a writer.

I did find that things got a bit confusing in places.

She gives specifics in her chapter breakdown, so my job is to clarify those areas and make sure they read as intended. Some of these spots will be simple text edits because I didn't explain well enough, but others will be be motivation issues. Why was Nya doing X? Character actions that didn't seem plausible. And just instances where too much was going on at once. No matter where the critique comes from, I always fix clarity issues.

I’m also suggesting tightening up the beginning quite a bit…

She had some later comments about this as well I can share:

In general in these first 8 chapters (which I’m hoping can be boiled down to maybe 3-4 (grin) let’s keep introduction of characters to a minimum – for instance do we need X, X, or X?
The first eight chapters are Act One in this book. So I need to focus on ways to tighten up the first act, and she suggested a few ways to do that, and a target size to shoot for. I find it interesting that four chapters is what my typical Act One is. So those extra 25K words I mentioned earlier? Get rid of those and Chapter Four is exactly where the first big catalyst moment usually occurs. Odds are, the final draft of this book after I tighten will be the 70K-ish words like the first two.

She also suggested characters that can go. Cutting one of them would easily save a lot of words because he involves a subplot that takes place in Act One. He's also a new character, so there's no ties to past books that would be affected. I need to look at the whole story in more depth of course, but my first reaction is to cut that character and his subplot, which frees up a lot of words.

Questions were another common type of comment:

Should we know earlier that there is a clear plan here – to (XXX). I feel like the goals are becoming a little obscured in the various episodes.

Obviously I didn't lay enough groundwork or set up the motivations well enough. It's not what's happening that she has issues with, it's how I got there and why. Odds are, tightening up the beginning and getting the character arcs lined up more strongly will have fixed this, but it's something I'll need to check on and make sure that Nya's motivations and plans are unfolding in a clear and logical way.

I hope everyone notices that these comments are pretty casual. They're just like things your critique group or beta readers would say. They're specific, but not about how I do something. She never says "cut X character." She sees characters that aren't serving the story and asks if we really need them. Of the three she mentioned, one can certainly go, one will definitely stay, and one is iffy. I'd like to keep the third, but they might just muddy things up. But I can also keep an eye out for places they can show up later that might serve both sides: tightening the first act for my editor, and keeping that character for me.

I'll probably go into more detail about how I'm going to tackle these edits, but that's for another Wednesday. Anyone have questions about this process?


  1. This was really great of you to share your process. Thanks. And I can understand why you would send a "bloated" manuscript to an editor. They DO know what to keep and what to get rid of.

  2. Janice-
    I love love love love your blog! Through reading it, I have gained the confidence to finally start my book. I'm in the beginning stages, so I'm learning everything from you. I wanted to know what I need to look for when choosing a crit group?

  3. That was fascinating, thank you for sharing!

  4. I'm taking an editing course right now and it's really intriguing to see the process from the perspective of the author. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. No questions, but just wanted to say how brave and totally generous it was for you to share that with us. Before I got to that last para, I thought to myself, this sounds very much like the exceptional feedback I have gotten from my BETA readers. It's such a relief to see you, a successful author, struggling with and experiencing some of the same things that I have experienced in my own work. It gives me hope that I'm not a total disaster after all and that I do have a chance to make it in this biz. It sounds so silly, but having you share this kind of info, makes you realize that published authors don't pump out perfect, flawless, ready to go novels. Thanks Janice. I look forward to hearing more about this process.

    Oh, and I just started Blue Fire. LOVING IT!! :-)

  6. Great post Janet. It's so nice to see firsthand what an editor's letter would look like and as Mel said, it's interesting to see that even published authors get a lot of the same comments as we unpubbed (unagented) ones. Good luck with the revisions!

  7. I can't believe I just called you Janet. So sorry!!!

  8. Anne: If we didn't have a two-book relationship and a plan for what we wanted from the series, I would have just cut it down first, but in this case, I wanted her input first.

    Norman: Thanks! I'm so glad I could help. I did a post a while back on finding a crit group, so here's the link:

    Just let me know if this doesn't answer your questions.

    Becky: Most welcome.

    Danya: Every writer (and editor) will have their own process, but I think it's all very similar. Editing is part of writing, no matter what level you're at.

    Melanie: That's the whole point, that if you work at it, your chances are good. And you're building valuable skills for when you do get published. There *are* authors out there who can dash off perfect drafts, but those are few and far between and usually have been writing professionally for decades. Most stories take work to bang into shape. Shifter 3 was pretty easy to write, and the revisions probably won't be that hard, but it's still wrangling thousands of words into a compelling story. I've found I can write a much better book when I get feedback from good critiquers. And they all start out a rough draft mess.

    So glad you're liking Blue Fire!

    Angie: Manuscripts are manuscripts. Writers can be really hard on themselves thinking they need to be perfect out of the gate, when all they really need to do is keep striving to make their story the best it can be. And no worries on the Janet. My father-in-law has called me Janet since the day we met -- 18 years now. I'm kinda getting used to it (grin)

  9. Oh, I loved this look behind the scenes! I've always been curious about these things. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Your editor seems really friendly, too!

  10. This post got me thinking about we view our own writing.
    So you've invested years in writing Nya's story. A part of her is with you forever now. And all of us who read this blog regularly, sense how passionate your are about writing and know that this charterer Nya has changed your life for the good.

    So my question is.
    When you were writing the first draft of the shifter did you know that this story was different than the other stories you had written? Did you have a sense of yeah, this feels right.

    Maybe this is little deep and way to long, so feel free to ignore it. It's just that I love hearing authors talk about the early stages of their stories.

  11. Janice, your editor mentioned you were especially skilled at action scenes and I have noticed the same. Congrats. I have never written action but it looks like I'm heading that way in my new plot. Eeek. Are there any hidden techniques or does it just come naturally?
    Also I love one on one emotional scenes but find myself tripping up on conveying the, 'he looked (deeply) at her', 'she looked (deeply) at him' which is something that would happen in reality but when written sounds forced or false. What am I doing wrong? Over writing? Thanks as always.

  12. Connie: My editor is awesome. I really hope she likes my next book, too.

    Sam: I did feel something different about The Shifter very early on. Maybe four or five chapters in, it just *felt* better than anything I'd written before. The first person POV felt more natural (I'd never written in first much before), the voice just came to me, the story flowed easily. I had a feeling I'd finally gotten it right. It was really the first time I'd written something where I had a solid character trying to solve a problem and not just characters acting out a cool plot idea I had. I could see it.

    It's hard to put into words how I knew, but now, I can also tell when what I'm working on *doesn't* have that. I think it's something you develop over time, that "writer's ear."

    Anon: Those are both great questions and worthy of their own posts. I'll give a quickie answer here and go into more detail on the blog soon. Basically, it comes down to POV. When I'm solid in my POV's head, I can describe things as they would see and react to them, which makes scenes shown and makes the reader feel there in that see. When I'm not solid in my POV, I tend to describe what I know is there and what's going on, so it feels told or flat. The reader feels outside looking in. Same with the emotional stuff. Looking deeply at someone is outside, being aware of what's happening. Having someone you love look at you in that fashion has a much greater impact and you'd see and react to it differently.

  13. Thanks for sharing. It's so helpful to see the type of comments an editors makes. I'd prefer to have an editor like yours who gives specific suggestions for improvements chapter by chapter. It's so much easier to revise than a general comment that you need more character growth or something.

    BTW, I just bought Blue Fire at Barnes & Noble. The last copy. I can't wait to read it though I'll probably read The Shifter first so I'm sure I get everything.

  14. Thanks so much! I hope you like them.

    My editorial experience so far has been great. Dead on comments, great suggestions, open to my suggestions. I know every editor is different, but I hope my experience is more typical than not. :)