Revisions

Last week I received comments back from a short story editor who is interested in buying a 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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There are 8 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Laura Castelli

    I am glad to know that editors are friends.

    I am in the learning stages of writing and my family and friends don’t make good editors. They love me too much and they don’t want to discourage me from trying.

    Although at this stage of my learning curve, some constructive critism would be more help than hurt.

  2. 2. S.L. Farrell

    I love the revision process — it’s where a good book can become a great one. Like you, I feel lucky to have an editor that has, for every book I’ve written for me, given me an “Aha!” moment with her editorial comments. Yep, we don’t always agree, and I sometimes go another direction rather than taking her suggestion for a fix, but that process is invaluable.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Laura, you’re right in thinking that family and friends don’t always make the best editors. You want to work with someone who respects you enough to be completely honest in their assessment of your work. And you need to trust his or her judgment on these matters. It’s a complicated relationship and it takes time to develop. But guidance and criticism from a good editor are priceless.

    Steve, once again I have the sense that we have very similar approaches to this part of the process. It’s like you’re my artistic doppelganger…..

  4. 4. Maria

    Revision is my favorite part of writing. I’m in round two of edits with my editor and I feel like she’s opened my eyes.

    Even though it was a pretty clean manuscript technically, she raised issues that helped me kick the story up a notch.

    I love my editor. Whatever she makes, it isn’t enough.

  5. 5. Kate Elliott

    I used to prefer writing first draft for the rush of it all, and did not so much enjoy the revision process. Now I’m the opposite: I often struggle with the first draft (never quite able to get that pure rush of forward motion I used to have for first drafts) but I really adore the revision process. I really like getting editorial comments because it’s just more wrestling with the beast to get it in shape.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    I’m not certain that I’d go as far as Kate and Maria do here. I can’t say that I like revising more than I do writing the first draft. There’s something about that act of creation, of discovery, that I just love. But revision has its own rewards. And the key, as Maria implies, is having an editor who not only understands what it is I’m trying to do with my book, but also can help me tease out elements of the story that deserve more exploration.

  7. 7. C.S. Cole

    I’m still in the “I dread revision” stage but what really gives me grief is trying to sort through critique group suggestions and comments that, seemingly to me, sound like they want a completely different short story from the one I wrote. I often comptete the line changes suggested but entire plot courses off my chosen path are another matter for me.

    I know I don’t necessarily have to agree with the changes suggested but where does one draw the line? Where does one stand ground on what was originally written if one has a gut feel that it would be better left alone? I also know that if readers and critiquers alike keep stumbling over the same parts time and again, that’s a good sign the scene needs work but when no one can agree which part is flawed, it’s frustrating. (I’m still not quitting though.)

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    Good! Don’t quit. You’re right in thinking that if there’s a section of your story or book that keeps on tripping up readers, you probably need to rework the section. But you also raise an important point. This is YOUR story, and in the end, whether you’re dealing with a writing group or a professional editor, YOU need to decide how it’s going to be written.

    If you have a problem section that lots of people identify but no one knows how to fix (or for which no one offers fixes that you like) you need to rework the passage on your own. It may be that you can draw on specific elements of different critiques. Good ideas don’t necessarily come in clusters, if you follow. One person might say a bunch of worthless crap about your story, but within that crap there might be one little gem of good advice. You need to sift through it all, decide which pieces are gems and which ones to throw away. Ultimately it’s your choice, your piece of art. It is frustrating, and it’s not easy. As Tom Hanks says in “League of Their Own,” “Of course it’s hard. If it was easy everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”

    Good luck!

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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