Thursday, November 08, 2007

Surviving the Editorial Letter

What is an editorial letter? It’s the letter your editor sends you after she’s read your manuscript. Anywhere from a week to a couple of months after you send in your manuscript, your editor will send it back. Minor corrections or questions will be noted on the manuscript, but more detailed or involved suggestions will be spelled out in what is called an “editorial letter.” I just received my editorial letter for WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. It’s six pages long. Single spaced. Gasp.

My first reaction, whenever I receive an editorial letter, is consternation. Chagrin. Dismay. Despair. And, always, always, Tears. I think, “I can’t do that! There’s no way I can make these changes!” It’s not that I think my editor’s suggestions are wrong—she’s always spot-on. In fact, many of her suggestions are things that niggled at me when I read through the final draft, but my thoughts ran along the lines of... I don’t know how to fix it. Or, I don’t have time to fix it. Or, Maybe no one will notice.

Editors always notice. They always start out telling you how much they loved your manuscript, how they think it’ll be a great addition to your series. BUT… Don’t you hate the Buts?

So, what kinds of things do editors put in their editorial letters? Here’s some samples from my latest:

“TOO MANY DEAD BODIES. By the end, there’s an incredibly high body count. I understand that there are many reasons why that can’t be avoided in this novel, but at one point it seems that in every new chapter we hear of another death. I wonder if some of these people might be allowed to live…”

“MORE FULLY EXPLAIN REFERENCES TO PREVIOUS BOOKS: In the few places where you mention or refer to characters and events from previous books, I generally feel that more explanation is needed. For example…”

Sigh. At this point, I am sick to death of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. The last thing I want to do is pick it up again, but tackle it I must. Some of these suggestions are not going to be easy to implement, but I know I’ll figure out a way in the end (although there’ll be a few tense moments when I think, “This is never going to work!”) I also know I’ll have a better book when I’m done. My editor is brilliant—one of the best in the business—and I know I am lucky to have her.

But editorial letters ain’t pleasant.


Steve Malley said...

One comics project I did for hire, the 'editorial letter' involved a big stack of my art with little notes in pencil in the margins. 'Change that eye', 'hand looks wrong', 'don't like this suit', 'he should look meaner here', and so on. I ended up redrawing something on every page...

Hardest was, every point was spot-on. The second version did look much better, though by the time I finished it the publisher/editor had folded up his tent and moved on...

cs harris said...

Ouch. That would hurt.

Charles Gramlich said...

In response to Steve's comment, I once wrote a whole novel that was solicited by a publisher, but by the time it was done they were getting ready to fold. However, one of these days it's supposed to come out as "Witch Over Talera."

As for the editorial letter. I feel your pain, Candice. Not as intensely as you do, I imagine, but I feel it.

Lana said...

My theory is that "more fully explain references to previous books" is the long-winded way of saying "dumb it down." Remind readers of what you're talking about, because they're too stupid to retain much on their own to begin with. With editors like these, who needs a lobotomy?

Steve Malley said...

Actually, I think those bits of recap are very important in a series, and easy for the authors to overlook.

I started the Travis McGee series, and the Harry Dresden, and the Discworld and John Connolly's Harry Parkers, in the middle somewhere. I *needed* to know who Meyer was and what McGee's 'salvage' business meant.

As a later reader, I politely skipped those bits of pipe when they were laid in the later (and earlier) books.

By the time we've written a whole novel, let alone a series, we know our characters intimately. It's easy to forget that at least some of our readers are visiting Slip F-18 in Bahia Mar for the very first time...

(and the Amazing Folding Publisher wasn't that big a deal. They're dead common in comics...)

Chap O'Keefe said...

Agree fully with Steve's last comment here. The way books are distributed these days seems more haphazard than ever -- even books intended for libraries. For instance, the local authority that buys for the libraries in the city where I live seems to make a point of sending its one copy of each of the westerns I write to a different one of its eight branches almost every time. Thus it's essential when I'm writing a story that features a series character -- like Misfit Lil or Joshua Dillard -- to reintroduce the person fully every time. I hope the loyal readers who make a point of tracking down each title don't get the notion I think they're dumb! As Steve says, they can always skip-read the bits they already know.

Quillpenz said...

Hi. I think you should title the book "TOO MANY DEAD BODIES", and plow ahead. Trust your instincts. I am a writer and I understand.

Victoria Mixon said...

Now I'm laughing out loud at Quillpenz' suggestion you simply re-title it TOO MANY DEAD BODIES.

So you won't feel alone, you should know Dashiell Hammett had this same problem with his first novel, RED HARVEST. The bodycount got so bad he eventually started naming chapters after it.

I'm an independent editor---I write those editorial letters to writers. I know it's scary to get them. And I swear we do not mean them to drive you to drink.

That's why we follow the Golden Feedback Rule: First say something nice. We know we need to build your confidence in your skills so you'll be able to tackle the mountain of work ahead of you.

It's just that it's always a mountain of work. This isn't because you did it wrong the first time---it's because writing a book is far more work than any sane endeavor should ever be.

Your editor is taking as much of the burden off your shoulders as humanly possible, but even with the both of you giving it your all. . .writing a book is still just a huge ole mountain of work.

That's why you have to love it to do it. And I do love it! I'm guessing you do too.

(Oh, and 'clarification' is not an issue of dumbing anything down. It's is just one of those issues you deal with when you're dealing with a series.)