facebook twitter goodreads pinterest instagram bookbub email
shana galen

Facing the Editorial Scalpel

Revisions Without Anesthesia

I've read many beautiful metaphors crafted to describe the revision process. Metaphors that compare revision to gardening, carving meat, and even house cleaning. But the revision metaphors that stay with me are the more violent—those along the lines of killing your darlings or hacking away at prose with a machete. To me, revision is a violent process, and it is never so violent as when the killer is not me but a hockey-masked murderer who lives in the woods.

AKA, my editor.

Don't get me wrong. Like most of you, I love my current editor and have enjoyed working with past editors. But try as I might to direct warm, fuzzy thoughts toward my editor when that revision call or letter arrives, I always feel a little like I'm the airhead cheerleader in the horror movie who goes into the dark basement even though we all know there's a serial killer on the loose.

Don't do it! Don't open that letter! Don't answer that phone! Your darlings are going to die!

Imagine my surprise, then, when I spoke to several authors about revisions in preparation for this article and learned not every writer dreads editorial revisions. In fact, some of these writers (gasp!) look forward to them. I'll expose those authors a little later.

The First Time

I still remember my first editorial revision letter. It was at least seven pages long and single-spaced. I remember tearing the letter open with enormous excitement, but after reading the content, I was ready to dissolve into a puddle of insecurity. And that was only through page three. Clearly, the editor had liked something about the book or she wouldn't have bought it. I just wasn't clear what that something might be—possibly the name of the hero's horse?

Bestselling author Kristan Higgins (Somebody to Love) remembers her first revision letter as both "thrilling and terrifying. And long." Kristan's first letter sounds a lot like most of my early letters. "It started off something like, 'Kristan, we love this book and are so excited to have you with us...' and then went into all the ripping and tearing and burning I'd have to do."

Ripping and tearing and burning. Now these are metaphors to which I can relate. I might lovingly hone, shape, or mold my novel, but the editor hacks at it with a cold, objective ice pick. Because somewhere in the recesses of my mind I understand the need for that cold objectivity, I always carefully temper my reaction when my editor gives me notes. Thank God my early revision letters were via letter because I do not think I could have managed not to burst into tears if I'd had to stand by as my baby was gutted over the phone. But after twelve novels, I've learned not to take the revision suggestions personally—okay, not too personally—and to listen far more than speak. Not only does keeping my mouth shut ensure I hear what my editor actually has to say, it means I don't spend the entire conversation defending my book, which only makes the whole process antagonistic rather than cooperative.

Rita-nominated author Grace Burrowes (Lady Louisa's Christmas Knight) reacts to editorial revisions by being "the soul of gracious receptivity every time...right." I've never been present when Grace received a revision call, but I'm willing to bet she at least sounds very gracious to the editor on the other end of the line. What Grace is thinking may be something else entirely. "There are times, I hesitate to confess, when I think Madam Editor read some other book, and my indignation over her failure to appreciate the perfection that was my submission draft knows no bounds...which means I'll think about it for three days and call her back with questions."

In fact, every author I spoke with stressed the importance of tempering that initial visceral reaction. When an editor comes at you with a butcher knife, the instinct is to throw up one's defenses. The hard part comes in not doing so. The hard part is taking a deep breath, remaining professional, and realizing that maybe, just maybe, your baby could use a small haircut or, as in my case initially, a completely new circulatory system.

From Suggestion to Implementation

There are several factors that may make revising a novel per the editor's suggestions difficult. One is that often by the time the author receives the revisions, she has probably not rev iewed the book to be revised in months and may be in the middle of writing a new book. However, this situation may also work to the writer's benefit because it is a truth universally acknowledged that the darling quotient of our literary masterpieces decreases as the distance we put between ourselves and the book increases. Thus, now that time has passed, the manuscript may be read with an eye for the problems the editor has highlighted.

Secondly, revision letters can often be overwhelming. Where to begin? How? What if you don't know how to fix something? Personally, this is my biggest fear and may be the reason behind my anxiety over revision letters. I am always afraid the editor will tell me to do something I can't do. Fear of failure can be paralyzing. Deep inside, many of us fear we are fooling everyone, and it's only a matter of time before someone—like our editor—realizes we are not really talented or creative. I suspect fear of failure may be the reason many unpublished writers never revise a manuscript, even when an editor gives them revision notes and agrees to look at the book again when they are revisions are completed. Looking back at some of my early letters, I might have taken this approach as well, if I didn't have that legally binding contract staring at me.

There are as many ways to approach editorial revisions as there are writers. Some authors have a defined process. Debut author Valerie Bowman (Secrets of a Wedding Night) begins "with a spreadsheet containing a line for each chapter. It includes who is in the chapter and the major action of the chapter. On the right is a column for what to add and what to remove for each chapter." If you're a pantser like me, you're probably hyperventilating right now. Deep breath. You do not have to use a spreadsheet. Grace Burrowes simply addresses "each revision one by one, as presented in the editor's email." Anna Campbell (Seven Nights in a Rogue's Bed) does "the straightforward stuff first. Partly because it builds my confidence before I approach the more fundamental stuff."

I use an approach similar to Campbell's. I often go through the letter or email and number the revision items in the order I will complete them. Sometimes I write S, M, L next to each item, indicating whether the item is a small, medium, or large revision. I usually do the small ones first and work up.

No matter what your process, one point every author I spoke to made was the necessity of waiting before beginning the revisions. Bestselling author Sophie Jordan (Hidden) puts her revision letters "aside for at least 24 hours...often even two days. I just let myself absorb and mull over the feedback floating around in my head. In that time, I'm usually seized with several solutions to the 'problem' areas my editor identified. When I approach the revision letter again, I always feel vastly less intimidated." Campbell also suggests writers faced with editorial revisions "let them sit for a couple of days while your subconscious grapples with the issues." I've found time and again the best time for me to figure out a difficult point of revision is when I'm busy not revising. I've been known to gasp in the middle of folding laundry, throw the socks down, and rush to my computer to work on revisions because the perfect solution to a story problem has just occurred to me. A lot of thinking happens when we're not thinking.

Lastly, implementing editorial revisions can be difficult because sometimes the editor asks the writer to fix something, and we honestly don't know how. There's my worst nightmare again. But here's a truth that has sustained me through twelve rounds of editorial revisions: the editor doesn't always know what she's talking about.

I don't mean to say that editors aren't competent or can't pinpoint a problem in a novel. What I'm saying is that sometimes the problem an editor identifies isn't what's actually causing the problem. And here's another truth: editors don't care how you fix the problem, as long as you fix it.

When I asked Anna Campbell how she approached revisions, she said, "Sometimes I think, 'I can't do that'...Usually once I stew on the problem for a while, I come up with some way of addressing the issue even if not exactly as the editor suggested." When I can't seem to implement an editorial suggestion, I try to look deeper and consider what story problem the editor is really addressing. Is it pacing? Characterization? Plot? My editor may reference the problem on page 150, but I may need to go back to page 73 to fix it, thereby rendering the comment on page 150 moot.

Sophie Jordan agrees. She notes, "I find that if something didn't come across 'right' or as I intended, it's because I need to tweak something somewhere else in the manuscript to justify what it is I'm doing." Jordan's statement highlights my take on revisions perfectly. I often look at my editor's comments as pinpointing the places where I've miscommunicated with my reader. I've been misunderstood, and the revision I do will serve to clarify that misinterpretation. (Note that you will react far less defensively to criticism if you are only "misunderstood," as opposed to taking the criticism as proof that you are a failure as a writer.)

But She's Just Wrong

Can an editor ever be wrong? Yes. Are they usually wrong? No. But occasionally during the course of a lengthy writing career, an author will encounter an editorial suggestion she disagrees with. So then what? Then it's probably time to pick up the phone and chat with the editor.

When Kristan Higgins disagreed with an editorial suggestion she "slept on it, rather than just leap to defend my choices. Then I thought about how I'd handle the issue, how the rest of the book would change because of that, and if it would still feel true to me. When the answer was no, it just didn't feel right, I told my editor the reasons it didn't jive with me, and she respected that." Most editors are willing to listen when an author disagrees and most are even willing to brainstorm possible solutions with an author. You are the author, and it is your job to revise the manuscript, but if you get stuck, you're not in this alone. Your editor should be there to help you.

Another point to note—most of the authors I spoke with disagreed with their editor at one point or another, but all of them also stressed the need to carefully consider each editorial suggestion; the need to compromise with the editor, if possible; and the need to discuss the point of disagreement. Remember that your editor is your ally, even if she does carry a blood-stained hatchet.

What about when the editor asks the impossible? We've all heard horror stories of ridiculous deadlines, requests for major rewrites, or editorial reassignment midway through the process. My first two novels both required extensive cutting. I'm a recovering over-writer, and I had to cut upwards of 150 pages in those first two books. I wasn't given any additional time to complete such major revisions, but fortunately I was young and eager to please and the adrenaline of being newly published got me through it.

Kristan Higgins has agreed to tight turnaround times in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities. After sitting at her desk for 10 hours a day for a week or more, she says, "I emerge from my office like a baby possum in the sunlight...That being said, I'm proud of being able to pull that off. Those are the hours that make my manuscript into a book."

Final Thoughts

You don't have to love revisions, though some of you, like Valerie Bowman and Kristan Higgins (told you I'd out them), are delighted to receive them. If your reaction is less than ecstatic, here are a few suggestions to get you through the process.

First, don't be afraid to call your editor to discuss the revisions, brainstorm, or propose an alternate direction. Bowman admits suffering from "the newbie challenge of not wanting to 'bother' my editor. I know she has a ton of other authors and things to do. That's something I'm working on getting over." As long as you don't call every week, your editor will probably be happy to hear from you.

Burrowes suggests a proactive approach. "Before you sign with an editor, you ought to be asking their authors what their typical experience with revisions is. Are the requests reasonable? Do the authors get enough time to implement them?" Some editors are known for having a heavy hand, while several authors I know complain their editor doesn't edit them enough. The happiest authors are those who feel like their editor "gets" them and their books. They believe their editor is on their team and wants their book to be the best it can. Jordan says, "Remember that your editor wants your book to be a success! I always count myself fortunate for revision letters that push me to write the best book possible."

Finally, always keep in mind that you are the author. The editor's suggestions are exactly that—suggestions. Higgins counsels authors to remember "that's your name on the cover. You need to be happy with what's inside."

In the end, pride over a well-written book is what it's all about. That's why I subject myself to the editorial scalpel over and over again—because I know editorial input will make my book a better book. I know each time I grapple with a particularly difficult revision, I'm becoming a better writer. I know the patient needs the surgery.

© Shana Galen

Back to the list of articles

Follow Shana
  • goodreads
  • bookbub

Sign Up For Shana's Newsletter