Monday, July 8, 2013

Tackling the Infamous Editorial Letter

by R.C. Lewis

You've queried for years with more than one manuscript, and finally signed with an agent. That agent submits to editors—maybe one round, maybe several, maybe moving on to another project—and finally sells your book to a publishing house.

You're going to be published! This is dream-come-true material, right?

Indeed. But to get there, you must survive the editorial letter.

(You may deal with this earlier if you have a highly editorial agent. Self-publishers may deal with it if you hire an editor to do something broader than a line-edit. Most of this applies pretty equally.)

First, what is an editorial letter? Pretty much what it sounds like. The editor discusses various aspects of your manuscript—some that they love, and some they think could be improved. I've heard of them running anywhere from one page to 20+, but many seem to hover in the double-digit range. Different editors will have their own approach. Mine broke it down into sections: Characters (with subsections for each major player), Romance, World Building, Plot Development, an overarching element specific to my story, the Aftermath, and (since mine is a retelling) connections to Snow White.

Our job as writers is to take this document and use it to help us revise our novel to beyond-brilliance. (Because we made sure it was already brilliant before it got in the editor's hands, right?)

Like everything else in writing, there's no one right way to tackle this hefty task, but here are my suggestions from my own experience.

  • Don't Panic. When reading a lengthy edit letter, it's easy to have moments of, "Why did you even buy my book if you hate it so much?" The editor doesn't hate it. The editor loves it. But the editor wants it to be the very best novel it can be. That's a good thing.

  • Bask in the Compliments ... Briefly. They may be out there, but I haven't yet heard of an edit letter that didn't have a decent amount of "I loved this, and here's why." Take a minute to enjoy that. It helps me get a feel for the good things that should be preserved as I revise. But then it's time to set that aside, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

  • Engage Your Voice (Part I). I opened a copy of my letter and inserted my own comments in a different color. Sometimes my editor posed questions, so I laid out the answer for myself. Sometimes I wrote down my first gut-reaction on how to address an issue. ("What if my characters did this? ... Or maybe this ... Oh, wait, THIS!") In a few rare instances, I disagreed about something. So I wrote down why, and tried to think of ways I could address the editor's concerns without making the change suggested.

  • Engage Your Voice (Part II). Most editors will invite us to chat with them if we need clarification or want to bounce some ideas around. In my experience, they mean it. After doing my own commentary on the letter, I found I knew what I wanted to do with most of it, but had follow-up questions on a few points. ("If I changed it so Event A happened this way instead, would that resolve Issue X?") My editor was happy to brainstorm, and my anxiety went way down once I knew she liked my ideas.

  • Two Heads are Better than One. Sometimes an editor will suggest changing something that we feel would be detrimental to the core of the story. If you're a people-pleaser like I am, this can be a very uncomfortable feeling. Before approaching your editor, it might help to discuss it with your agent or a trusted critique partner. They can help us voice our thoughts and reasoning in a professional manner so we don't result to a four-year-old's response—"No, you can't make me!" Or they might help us see what we're too emotionally invested in the story to realize.

  • Break It Down to Bullets. You may find your own method for this, but I found it easier to digest the edit letter's suggestions when I boiled them to very brief To-Do-List form. ("Insert mention of Character A sooner." "Clear up consistency issues between X and Y.") Editors give a lot of reasoning in their letters, which I found great for helping me understand, but once I get it, I just need a note of what to do about it. A lot of my To-Do gets drawn from my inserted comments or the ideas I bounced off my editor.

  • Remember that Elephants Get Eaten One Bite at a Time. This one is taking some practice for perfectionist-me, but I have to accept that I'm not going to get everything taken care of exactly right on the first pass. You'll have to find the way that works for you. Maybe one issue at a time, biggest to smallest. Maybe grouping similar issues and tackling them together. For me, I do a pass taking care of whatever jumps out most at me, then see what else I need to catch by going through my To-Do list more systematically. Sometimes things jump out at me, and I have an idea, but I don't feel like I want to handle it right then. That leads me to ...

  • Leave Yourself Some Breadcrumbs. As I make my revision passes, I leave margin comments with ideas I'm not quite ready to incorporate and will deal with later. Often it's something I want to insert into the story, but I'm not yet sure where the best place for it is. I know I'm done when my To-Do list is all checked off and I don't have any comments left in my manuscript.

Remember that an editorial letter's job is to help you take something that's already pretty awesome and make it even better.

Do you have any tips or questions about dealing with an editorial letter? Share your thoughts in the comments.

R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—sometimes in sign language, sometimes not—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. That may explain why her characters don't like to be pigeonholed. Coincidentally, R.C. enjoys reading about quantum physics and the identity issues of photons. You can find her on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website ... at least, you can when she's not in her revision cave.


JeffO said...

My first 'editorial letter' was for a short story. I let that e-mail sit overnight, because I was afraid of what it might say (never mind that the 'hard part' was over--I'd been accepted for publication). It wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared.

I think the most important thing to remember is what you pointed out in the beginning: don't panic. You haven't been selected to fill some quota, they want to publish your work, and you're both aiming for the same thing: the best story possible.

Riley Redgate said...

Thanks for this post, R.C.! Definitely needed it today.

R.C. Lewis said...

@Jeff, definitely, not panicking is huge. For me, panic is a really tempting response.

@Riley, happy to oblige. :)

Kate Brauning said...

Great advice! Love it.

jwtroemner said...

This is great advice! Thank you for sharing it with us~

Martina at Adventures in YA Publishing said...

This is so timely. I am waiting for my edits to arrive, and I am going to print this out and keep it ready. I'm not really much of a panicker though--I actually love revisions.

Thanks so much for the post!

Jennifer Ibarra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer Ibarra said...

Fantastic advice! And so timely, as I just got my editorial letter two weeks ago and am starting to make my way through my revision plan. I'm lucky that my editor encouraged me to talk through her comments with her and I took her up on the offer--we had a great conversation and I was able to run some ideas by her, as well as probe further into some of the comments that confused me and/or I didn't necessarily agree with.

Revision is never going to be easy--fixing issues ends up creating new ones that need to be fixed--but I think I may be getting closer where I need to be (even if I have to crawl to that finish line, rather than sprint across :)).

Maris McKay said...

Great advice. I haven't had to deal with editorial letters yet myself (hopefully soon), and this will be a helpful post to re-read when the time comes.