where the writers are
Learning To Read Your Editorial Letter

Yesterday, I had a quick phone chat with my editor at Algonquin books. She called to tell me that she was finishing up her edits of the latest version of the manuscript. As Octavia in Leaving Atlanta said, "I call myself being cool, calm, and collected, but my stomach balled up in a knot while I waited for her to tell me..." Sensing this, Andra said, "I really like it. You nailed it." Oh relief, relief, relief. I will now post something I journaled when I was working on the manuscript after seeing her first round of comments.

 How To Read An Editorial Letter

So, I am working very hard to revise the novel using the guidance of my "editorial letter" which was submitted to me by my editor. The editorial letter is a long documents-- about five pages, single spaced, telling the writer what to do to make the book stronger. Some of it is praise, but most of it is criticism. No matter how much you know that it's necessary to receive criticism, it's never exactly fun. (Girly metaphor: It's like getting your eyebrows waxed. You want it, but it's gonna hurt.)

 When I got the letter, I scanned it. I didn't have the nerves to read it closely yet. I just read it really quickly to see what jumped out at me. I saw mostly plot type issues. Then, I put the letter away and started going through the manuscript with my green pen. I made a lot of changes, listening to my own impulses, rather than being guided by the editorial letter's specific concerns. The next step was finally reading the letter closely. I used my pink pen to write my comments and questions on the letter itself. I really analysed and digested it. Some of the issues I had resolved already, which made me feel sort of happy. Others still needed tending to.

For the last month or so, I have been going through the manuscript AGAIN, chapter by chapter, consulting the letter as I went along. This is MUCH harder. The biggest challenge is learning to read the letter. Editors are not writers and they don't exactly know how we do what we do. Because of this, it's hard for them to give instruction.

It sort of reminds me of when I go visit my dressmaker. Sometimes, the dress hangs funny or is too tight, or gaps somewhere. I will say "The sleeve is too small!" And she will then fix it by doing something with the dart at the bust. Because I don't sew, I can't quite tell her what needs fixing, but I know something's off. Or it's sort of like going to the dentist. Sometimes I am sure that I am having pain in one particular tooth and my doctor eases the pain by treating a whole 'nother tooth. Editors are good and knowing when something is off, but they can't always tell you how to fix it. It gets tricky because unlike dentists, writers can get prickly when someone tells you what's wrong. Even professionals have feelings. And editors don't mean any harm, they really want you to write a better book. But they can still hurt your little feelings.

My pet hang up is the phrase, "I'm not buying" this or that thing. I always want to snap back, "It's not for sale! You don't have to buy it." Still, I have learned that "I don't buy the mother as a thief," really means, "Can you provide clearer motivation for the mother's stealing." The first sentence gets my ego all riled up and the second makes me want to work. But here's the thing. A professional writer doesn't have time to be all sensitive like that. You have to do the translation and go forth to improve the book.

Of course, there are going to be some things that you just won't change. (For me, it's the Al Green chapter. I need it.) But I am going to try and make the connection more relevant. But that chapter stays. My editor doesn't like a technique I applied at the end. I dug it but I can see how it might not be working. I am going to try to apply her suggestion because nothing is lost by trying.

 I think that's the thing to remember. You don't lose a thing by taking advice. Remember, you always have your original.