Revision and critique

A little while ago, when I was commenting on my blog about how unsure I am about the book I just finished, someone asked me how I would respond to my editorial letter when it comes. Would I stick with my vision? Would I change things? The question seemed to me to be a little bit about author integrity and the idea that your artistic choices are important, and whether or not you should let anyone, even your editor, tell you to make changes.

First, editors are very skilled readers. They know the market, they know the readers, and more importantly, they like the genre you’re writing in, and they usually like your writing. When your editor sends the letter, it will often give an overview of what they liked and saw working in the book, and then what they didn’t. These are usually larger, global issues, nothing nitpicky. Then they’ll often list out page numbers with more nitpicky issues–and some of these are gold. Things that make you want to do a facepalm and ask, Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot? What was I thinking? Sometimes the letters are short, sometimes they are pages long.

It does happen that editors don’t get what you’re doing. They didn’t follow your plot or your characterization. Do you blame them, snarl and snap and accuse them of trying to wreck your art, your baby? (BTW, your writing is not your baby. The less you think so, the less painful this process will be.) Not really. If these very skilled readers didn’t see things, then either they weren’t paying attention, or you didn’t do it well enough. Likely the latter. The question is, how do you fix it? Sometimes editors will offer solutions, many times authors ignore these. Many authors have better fixes in mind. Editors have no problems with this. They want you to write a good book. They want it to work. Anyway that happens is good.

If you think you did it well and the editor didn’t get it, then you pick up the phone and start talking. Not yelling. You ask questions, explain, get to the heart of things. Sometimes they do just miss things. Every editor I’ve worked with has been extremely approachable and not dictatorial at all. Because in the end, you and s/he have the same exact goal. A good book. A good story.

So yes, I do make changes based on that letter. I depend on that letter to provide me with feedback so that I know if I did what I wanted to do or not. Particularly with this book. Because I tried new things, uncomfortable things, and I am entirely uncertain it all hangs together. Also, I believe that revision is necessary, at least for me. Some people can write and their first draft is brilliant. There aren’t a whole lot of those. I’m not one. My work is much better after I go back in and hammer at it. Mind you, when I turn in a manuscript it’s been hammered on quite a bit, but it always needs more.

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  1. 1. Kate Elliott

    I’ve done heavy revisions and light revisions in my time based on editorial feedback, but I’ve never changed anything that went against my vision of the work. I have an internal measure in my head that goes something like this:

    1) stuff I knew ahead of time needed work, which I didn’t fix earlier because it needed to be fixed in the context of the larger revision (thus, I waited for the editorial letter) or because I wanted to see if the editor picked out the precise thing that was bugging me and how s/he discussed it as a way to possibly influence how I decide to fix it

    2) whoa! glad s/he caught that big error! (or minor niggle)

    3) hmm. well. let me think about it.

    4) uh, I don’t think so.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    As a mark of just how good editors can be, mine was adamant that I had to cut the second book big time. “But,” I whined, “it’s only ten pages longer in draft than the first!”

    “Cut it,” he replied.

    In my despair, I compared it to the previous draft one more time. Turned out I had accidentally widened the margins of the second book by a mere quarter inch. Adjusting for that, the new book was 90 pages (about 11%) longer than the first!

    I cut. My editor knows what he’s doing.

  3. 3. Jenna Black

    An author friend of mine, has this to say about referring to your book as your baby: You don’t SELL your baby! You DO sell your book. There’s a difference. I always thought that summed it up rather nicely.

  4. 4. Mitch Wagner

    A seasoned science-fiction writer of my acquaintance advises beginning writers that there are three types of changes that editors ask for:

    1) Those that will improve the work.
    2) Those that make no difference.
    3) Those that harm the work.

    All of these are subjective judgments, of course, made by the writer receiving the requests.

    The veteran writer advises beginners to accept the first category of requests.

    The second category is where the editor asks for a change, and the writer thinks, “That editor is crazy. It really doesn’t make any difference if we do it the editor’s way, or my way.” In that case, the writer should make the change, to keep the peace. (Because, all things being equal, it’s better to keep the peace with the person wielding the checkbook.)

    This leaves the writer free to fight Category #3 changes, having not spent time and credibility in pointless battles over #1 and #2.

    I have found this to be true in my journalism career as well.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    I confess I’m curious to know whether anyone’s ever gotten into a serious conflict with an editor over their refusal to change something as ordered. (The answer is certainly yes, over the history of publishing; I’m wondering if anyone here has a story they’re willing to share publicly.)

  6. 6. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Kate: great list. And agreed. Especially #2, which always leaves me with a feeling of . . . uh oh, what else did I miss? And then a hurry-scurry effort to dig through everything all at once.

    S.C.: Sigh. So get where you’re coming from.

    Jenna: I really need to remember that one. I like it.

    Mitch: Way to keep us from sounding nutso. It’s all great! Can’t change a thing! Really. why won’t you believe me?

    Marie: I wouldn’t say serious conflict. In PoH, I did this thing where in the middle of the action, I slowed the pacing to nothing, then revved up again. I didn’t like my editor’s fix, so I suggested another one and she hated that, and finally I figured out what the real problem was, and managed to get rid of the sag. It worked. But it was a struggle because it took us both awhile to pinpoint the actual problem.

    Di

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Di, I know exactly the kind of exchange you mean; I’ve done that any number of times with critique feedback. “You should fix this thing.” ::thinks:: “No, I should fix that other thing over there.” “Oh. Yeah. That does it.”

  8. 8. Alma Alexander

    Major biggies in my life so far: yes, I had eight – yes, EIGHT – protagonists in “The Secrets of Jin Shei”. But there needed to be that many. I did a whole slew of editorial changes and suggestions for that book but when the editors suggested I condense two of the characters into a single one – two characters, what’s more, whom I saw as a matched pair but polar opposites with one representing Knowledge and the other representing Wisdom and each acting in the context of their theme (and could not act in the context of the other) – I said, quite simply, no. That would have been a different book. The editors said, fine.

    In “Embers of heaven”, they had me change the entire ending. I didn’t particularly want to do it, but I could see my way open to doing it so I did what they asked, and it worked just fine.

    You have to choose the hills you want to die on, that’s all.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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