Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How Other People Edited My Novel

I spent over ten years writing my novel. There was a lot of self-editing that happened during those ten years. From tweaking sentences to throwing out chapters and even whole drafts, I edited pretty constantly as I went along. I edited based on my own opinions, and based on suggestions from my critique group. I edited when Susannah told me on an early draft, "No, this isn't right. You haven't got it yet."

But in this post I'm going to talk about the editing that happened between the point that I slammed my hand down beside my laptop and shrieked "DONE" and the point that my editor at St. Martin's said, "Good job, we can move on to line edits." The major, conceptual edits that came from my agent, my editor, and my beta readers.

Lots of people have asked me how much influence my agent and editor had on my book, and if that bothered or upset me. The answer is that they had a lot of influence, and all of it was good in the end, and none of it ultimately bothered me. There were changes that made me hesitate, and some that I thought might be impossible. I had decided that I was not going to be some sort of annoying prima donna. I told myself that I was going to be a good girl and not argue, and that I would take every suggestion and try and make it work in the book. There was only one suggestion that I could not find a way to do. All the rest of them made the book better, I strongly feel. So when I look at the book I don't see my darling book underneath the mean changes and ugly edits forced on me by other people. I see a book that's so much better than it was a year ago, I hardly recognize it.

So what was the last year like, in edits? Here's how it went:

At the end of July, I finished my novel. I sent it to several friends, some of whom are writers. The friends who are writers had some feedback -- some suggestions for pretty deep structural changes. My novel was built in three big chunks, and they felt that the sections should be mixed up more. One friend passed it on to a friend who is an agent. The agent agreed with the structural changes and had some other suggestions too. We did not sign a contract, or get married to each other as author/agent, but I really like her and wanted to try these changes for her, especially since they were agreed on by the other writerish friend types. Thus began revision #1. I blew up the major sections of the book, and started shaking out the pieces.

Revision #1 ended on November 17 when I had made all the changes discussed. I sent the revised book off the the beautiful agent, hoping she would love me and want to marry me in a literary way.

Here is a real, true fact for you: Very little happens in publishing over the winter holidays. Very little happens in any industry.

On January 21, the beautiful agent told me she liked my revisions and on January 25, she sent me a contract and we were literarily entwined. By the first week of February, and the book appeared to be done, only six short months after I had proclaimed it done.

This piece of paper was stuck to my refrigerator during the months of February and March, and it shows the notes I made during phone calls with my agent -- scenes to be written or revised. I would march around my house during the calls, writing notes onto this paper. Some of the notes are in scrawled onto the paper in big scratchy CRAYON. This is proof that I am mentally unstable, or that I have a seven year old daughter and I had a crayon handy. If you click on it, it takes you to a bigger version.

Unfortunately at this point I had a major idea, an idea which sort of demanded that it be not only included in the book but included into almost every part of the book. This tiresome, obnoxious idea of mine endeared itself to the beautiful agent, and increasingly endeared itself to me, although I wrote several emails to various people shouting that it was impossible and ridiculous to even consider doing it. Email evidence shows that I resisted putting it in until March 22. Eventually, with the help of a mathematician (real) and a crowbar (metaphorical), I incorporated this idea. In doing so, I turned up a few more things that needed revisions. An additional scene here, a tweak there, a shift of emotional content over here, and it was done by April 2. Done, done, done, never to be edited again. Completely finished.

Beautiful agent wrote the pitch letter (It's like Eat, Pray, Love, but in SPACE!!!) and compiled a list of editors. On April 26, she started pitching it, and in a couple of weeks we had a deal. And an editor. You may notice that the word "edit" is prominently featured in the title "editor." Unsurprisingly, my adorable editor had a list of things she wanted tweaked and twirled in the book. One character was to have a much larger role. One subplot was to get a much more complete treatment. We talked about the edits on the phone, and I pondered and toiled over them in the manuscript. Here's a screen shot of the notes I took on our phone call. You can see a checklist I added later, when I had boiled down our conversation into discreet tasks.

The checklist helped, but it was not until we were sitting around a table at lunch in New York, that is adorable editor, beautiful agent and I were sitting around this table (the tallest people in the room, it is to be believed) that adorable editor came up with a very specific, tangible idea that really lit up the whole problem and got me excited to get into the manuscript and tear it up a bit.

I finished my revisions on July 9. A week or so later, adorable editor wrote back that she liked them. And that's where we are at this moment.

The next step is to get her line edits and start working on those. I'm hoping to get an astronaut to read the manuscript and give me some input on the space scenes. But I have the strong feeling that the book is in its final shape in terms of the scenes and characters, the plots and ideas. Many hands have touched it and changed it. I feel like every suggestion, whether to change something, to add something, or to take something out, was essentially the same message: This isn't working. Writers should never ignore a reader who is telling them "this isn't working." Even if I didn't know how to fix it, or how to implement the change, and even if I felt strongly that it shouldn't be changed, I really tried to address every single issue and respond to every suggestion. From my early readers in my critique group down to my editor at St. Martin's, I valued all the input I got.

No novel falls perfectly from a writer's head. Mine has maybe been through more changes and permutations than most. But when the cover goes on and the pages get numbered and the release date finally comes, there aren't going to be any more chances to fix it. This is my chance to make the book as perfect as possible, and I'm taking every opportunity I get.


  1. Thank you for writing such an insightful post! I really enjoyed reading through the process.

    By the way, I love the crayon. ;)

  2. Thanks Carrie! Sometimes a crayon is the first thing that comes to your hand, you know? Heh.

  3. As an editor, I feel like the short version of nearly all my comments is "I think you mean this here. Is this what you mean?" then the writer can say "Yes, yes!" or "No, I mean that"--but hopefully they're thinking, "Why does she think this? Maybe I should rework that." Translating any of this from brain waves to words is hard, and it takes a few passes.

  4. Ann, yes! I think a lot of times writers (myself included) find themselves chasing the symptoms of a problem without really looking for the root. Maybe if I rush around and bandaid everyone's issues, it'll be fixed! When really there's something more significant lurking.

    Like you mentioned, the response "Why does she think this? maybe I should rework that..." is the proper diagnostic approach, especially if more than one person has a problem with something in the book. A lot of writers get, I think, frustrated by conflicting opinions from early readers. However, if you back up (of course easy to say but hard to do!) and look at the big picture, you can usually say, hmm, trouble is swirling around this character in multiple ways, maybe something needs to fundamentally change here. And sometimes that's even easier to execute, once you identify it, than it would be to rush around sticking fixes on all the little manifestations.

    And, welcome to the blog! Thanks for reading. :)

  5. Lydia, did you ever say, "No"?

    Because as a writer who's been on several peer review sites, I know advice can range from suggestions so good you can't wait to incorporate them, to the deranged from people who clearly don't 'get' the first thing about your book.

    And it is ALWAYS a mistake to try to be a good girl.

  6. Fantastic post!! Thanks so much for sharing. Writing is a craft, and many people touch a book before the end. :) It is a team effort.

  7. I'm asking the same thing as Lexi, did you ever say no. The impression that you give is that you took every suggestion and incorporate it.

    Every suggestion could not have been infallible.

    But also, did you not feel that you have a specific story to tell in a specific way. Didn't you say things a certain way even though it felt wrong to every reader because that was the way you wanted to say it because that was what the story needed?

    Just asking. I don't respond well to suggestions from people who read something else than what I am writing.

  8. Lexi and Gehri, hi! :)

    First let me clarify that here I'm talking about responses and suggestions from my editor and my agent, and also three beta readers (all of them NYT bestselling authors) who had been "saved" to read the book until I considered it done. So it's not like I was slavishly executing every change recommended by a critique group or random people strolling by my novel. ;D :D

    But I hear what you are saying. Even from these people, all of whom did "get" the novel and were definitely in sync with what I was trying to do, I couldn't incorporate every suggestion they made. However, the important thing is that I responded to every suggestion in some way.

    If someone you trust, or someone who has authority in some way (like your editor or agent) has a problem with something in the novel, you have to address it, or you're being foolish. Even if you can't do the fix that's been recommended, you have to work very hard to find *something* that helps. Rather than looking at the fix and figuring out "will this work, oh my goodness, this will never work!" you look at the root of the problem and figure out a way to improve whatever is causing the issue.

    When you're drafting, I firmly believe in keeping to your vision and never doing anything to your book that doesn't come straight from you. However, when you get to editing, and you get to the end stages of your process, things change. Digging your heels in and saying "It's my novel, I'll cry if I want to," is a naive and irresponsible. When trusted readers raise an eyebrow, you have got to think hard about the reason why.

  9. Lydia, I'm fond of advice, and always consider it, but I believe in trusting my gut. My book will go out under my name, not a beta reader's, an editor's or an agent's (should I have such a thing).

    I think it's a mistake to be too deferential or trusting. Yes, an outside opinion can be hugely helpful, but unless one agrees with a suggestion, however august the source, there's no reason at all to make changes. It's your book, not anyone else's.

  10. It's all good to stand up for your book and to own your ideas. However, here is something to consider: You need whoever is out there selling your book to absolutely love it and not have any "Well, if she had only fixed this" reservations. So whether it's an agent selling it to editors, or an editor selling it to booksellers, or whatever, it is definitely in your best interest to have that person feeling very confident in the novel, and not hung up on what they consider to be glaring errors.

    Let's break it down even more than I did in the original post. When my editor came back with changes, she had about six things she wanted me to work on. Two things I did exactly what she said. Two more things I addressed the problem she was having, but in a different way. One thing I really worked around and around, and struggled with, and finally a friend came up with a different solution that everyone loves. The final thing, I ended up telling her I couldn't really do. She was fine with that -- when she gave me the revision note on that, she told me it was not absolutely necessary. But you can bet I considered it seriously, turned it over and over in my mind, and really tried to find a way to make the book better.

    Authors who ponce around saying, "My little darling diamond-studded heart-covered bookypoo is perfect in every way, and no mean dumbheaded editor is going to change it!" (not saying this is you! just some people!) are doing their own books a disservice. It can always be better. It can always weather changes to improve it. And if the industry professionals who are going to bring it to market have advice for how to do it, it's a good idea to listen hard. :)

  11. Lexi, I respect your viewpoint. It is YOUR book, in the end. But wow have you read Lyd wrong. :)

    I think you mean REALLY well and want to protect the idea of the artist's ownership of their work, but I think you are maybe reading your own fears into her experience?

    I will say this: I've known Lydia for YEARS, and as her crit partner, it is kinda hysterical to think of Lydia being deferential, or changing a SYLLABLE if she did not believe in EVERY molecule of her being that the change will help make HER vision clearer and more whole. HERS. Not mine. Not her other critters'. Not her Editor's or her agent's. HERS.

    For me, your comment is like...Say we are watching a tiger eat a little grass in order to make the whole antelope carcass it swallowed earlier move along, and a person comes up during the grass eating part alone and says to the tiger "Hmmm, I dunno... maybe You don't want to go WHOLLY vegan, you know? Maybe keep CHEESE."

    Meanwhile, the tiger is burping hearty, satisfied meat burps and saying, LOOK AT ME COMPROMISE!"

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  12. Joshlyn, as I said, I don't have a problem with advice, whether I decide to take it or not.

    I don't know Lydia. But she said,

    "I had decided that I was not going to be some sort of annoying prima donna. I told myself that I was going to be a good girl and not argue, and that I would take every suggestion and try and make it work in the book."

    To me, that sounds overly accommodating. But then it's none of my business; it's not my book...

  13. PAX, Lexi, PAX! Stand down! -- This could turn into an e-peen experience if we are not careful! LOLSY I have not been in one of those since I was a dewy 25, and the internet was even newer and pinker than me. We are better than that now, you and I!

    You are speaking in the general. And you were applying your personal general rule to her specific. As a person living inside the world of her specific, I am saying to you, "If you read this as her giving intellectual and emotional control of her book away, man, you do NOT know Lydia..."

    It isn't a point for discussion. You do NOT know Lydia, and pull quotes won't change that. That's just a fact. I was not challenging your general point at all...I was just making an amusing and apt tiger metaphor about my particularly ballsy friend.

    Although, NOW I kinda wanta challenge your assertions, if it can be an interesting discussion and not a snippy REDDIT style thing about preening...

    I do actually, respectfully, not-snippily, and fundamentally disagree with you.

    I think I have to go blog about this and explain why.

  14. I think--I defer to Lydia, of course, since these are HER words--but I think key word in the passage: "I had decided that I was not going to be some sort of annoying prima donna. I told myself that I was going to be a good girl and not argue, and that I would take every suggestion and try and make it work in the book." is TRY. She doesn't say she was resolved that she WOULD make all suggestions work, just that she would seriously consider them and try them out to see if they in fact did work for the story she wanted to tell.

    I think it's VERY important to find an editor that you trust and who loves your story. But an editor who has been willing to pay actual cash to buy your book? You can pretty much bet that they DO love the story. Which means that you should seriously consider their advice, since it comes from a place of love and wanting the book to be the best it can be.

    Just from my own experience of working with my editor, I would say that she was right 90% of the time. And that was cool with both of us--my editor (and I think any really great professional editor) will be very clear that her comments are suggestions, not commands.

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