At last, I hit Control Save on my revision of my second thriller, Red Sky, and emailed it to my editor. Woo hoo!! As writers I’m sure you all know how great it feels to type the end and know you’ve finished a scene, a chapter, a book. You also know how painful it can be to have someone critique your work.
I am a true believer of critique, but it didn’t prepare me for the editor.
When I sent in my first completed manuscript in 1999, I was sending it to an editor who hadn’t bought my series. The editor who had signed my three-book contract had moved on and a new editor inherited my series. To say she was less than enthusiastic about the book I turned in is putting it mildly. She sent me a three-page single-spaced revision letter that told me to remove one character completely from the story. She never wanted to see him again.
I cried, then I called my agent.
My agent, being a wise man, explained to me how I had two choices. Do the revision or let the editor pay a “kill fee” (essentially the advance money I’d already received) and revert the rights to the series back into my name. Of course, I wanted to have my book published, so I tackled the revision. It took me a month and half and, after I turned it in, my editor told me she was surprised that I had pulled it off, then offered me two more books on the contract for a total of five.
With her, my longest revision letter was the first one. The second book didn’t have any revisions. The third book a few minor things, the fourth book needed a thread tied up, and the fifth book went straight to copy edits. None of it prepared me for the revision letter I received on DARK WATERS, the first book in my thriller series. That revision letter was over seven pages long single-spaced and the manuscript looked etched in red track changes.
I cried, then I called my editor.
I asked him why he had paid me for a book he didn’t like. He laughed. He said he loved the book, but he thought it would be improved by a few small changes. The “small changes” turned out to require a total restructuring of the first half of the novel and some not so small changes to character and plot. Again, I buckled down to the work, finished the revisions in a month and half AND I got back another three page single-spaced revision letter.
I cried, then I called my editor again.
He calmly assured me that he loved the book, that we were almost there and then complimented me. He told me that I had shown the mark of true writer. When I asked what he meant, he told me that often authors dig in their heels about making changes. They like their book the way it is, they resist any changes or suggestions, and they insist their purple-ist prose is golden. From his perspective, an editor is there to make your work the best it can be.
For what it’s worth, I agree.
DARK WATERS ended up nominated for multiple awards, sold to book clubs, sold internationally, sold in audio. That book got wonderful praise from colleagues, friends and authors I respect and admire. The book was better for my editor’s work and suggestions, and I thank him and share with him the credit for how well that book has done.
The second book went to a different editor for the first go-round. She was a bigwig at HarperCollins and now does freelance editing. She had four single-spaced pages of revision suggestions and the manuscript was etched in purple track changes.
I cried. (Have you noticed the trend?)
Then I didn’t call anyone. I complained to my husband, stomped around the house and complained to my dog. I let the revision letter sit for a week, took another look at it, let it sit a while longer, and then I picked it up and got to work. I didn’t agree with all the recommended changes (I never do) and I didn’t make every suggested change (I never have), but she was dead on with about 90% to 95% of what she felt didn’t work. The issues were different than the issues my editor had with the first book, and yet some things had a familiar ring. I’m a quick learner, and I’m not. This time it was the second half of the book where I needed to do some restructuring, fortify character motivations, and lay things out more clearly.
Now my original editor has the book, and I truly expect to get another revision letter before we’re done. I look forward to it. Having finished the hard work of going through the manuscript and making the first set of changes, RED SKY is a much better book. If going through it again will improve it more, I’m game. In fact, the final edit is sometimes the best. It’s when you can tweak the words, change some of the passive verbs to more active verbs, rewrite the clichés and make the similes and metaphors more original. It’s when you can put that final polish and touch on the book making it stand out as yours.
It’s my belief that every book is better for having a good editor—someone who takes the time to look at the big picture of what you’re attempting to do, who scrutinizes the story line and is willing to point out where things go awry. It’s also better for having a good writer—someone willing to take a hard look at their own work, to dig in and to make the necessary changes.
Go forth and revise--and if you have any revision stories of your own, I'd love to hear them.