By John Gilstrap
I believe that the editorial letter is an art form unto itself. This is the missive that a writer’s editor sends ahead of the marked-up manuscript to give a general sense of direction, and to pass along thoughts for ironing out rough patches in a story.
I’ve had a lot of editors over the years. One in particular loved to hear himself write, producing a 9 page editorial letter for me, single-spaced in 10-point Times New Roman. These were the days when you received an actual letter—you know, the kind with an envelope and postage. It was excruciating to read, and a nightmare to decipher.
For an editor, I imagine that the letter is a balancing act. It’s tough to offer enough input without being too bruising to the writer’s ego. It also means knowing how sensitive your author is to such bruising.
My current editor is Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Publishing—truly the best in the business—and she has granted permission for me to share her letter regarding my next novel, Threat Warning (July, 2011) with our dear Killzoners. Her text is italicized here only as a means to keep her comments separate from mine. (I have omitted sections of the letter that might serve as spoilers to the book.)
I think it’s interesting to note how much of her input to my work parrots what we’ve been discussing in this space over the past year. Here we go:
I have greatly enjoyed rereading the ms of THREAT WARNING. It is an outstanding thriller.
Note to the sensitive among you: This is the last purely positive statement in the letter, and that’s the way it should be. “Outstanding thriller” is plenty enough affirmation from a big honkin’ New York editor. Hearing what works is pleasing, but in this context, it’s a waste of time. This is a repair mission, not a teaching moment.
Cuts are needed for pace throughout. Don’t over-explain. Your action and dialogue speak brilliantly for themselves. Keep pace moving.
I can hear Jim Bell shouting, “You go, girl!” Like authors everywhere, I have a tendency to over-indulge on explanation. She’s not telling me anything I don’t know in principle, but I can’t wait to see the sections she’s talking about. I thought it was pretty damn tight already.
Jonathan’s dialogue and internal monologues sometimes sound pompous. I understand that he’s a thinking reader’s action hero, but I don’t think he should talk or think like a Ph. D. candidate, especially in the middle of an action scene.
Translation: Quit slowing down your own story, Gilstrap! The reader will get it!
Some names struck me as odd or inappropriate.
She goes on to list the names that she thought were difficult, but I cut that section because the discussion gives away too much. The bottom line is that names need to be pronounceable, even when they are read.
Don’t resort to overused gestures such as shrugged, nodded, sighed, shook his head. These are ok occasionally, but in general, seek more vivid gestures that tell more about a character, help set a mood, and create visual dimension in the scene.
Guilty as charged. My problem here is that the ones she notes are the only conversational gestures that I know of. I stipulate that I overuse them, but if anyone has other gesture arrows that I can add to the quiver, feel free to speak up.
You know how I feel about adverbs. I’ve crossed out enough for a small country. Keep them to a minimum.
Comments like this make me smile. They show that my editor likes me enough to make fun outright.
I am also something of a nut about “moment.” It should not be overused. “Long moment” hits the same raw nerve with me as “very unique.” Use it if you want, but not too often, ok?
Again, I know I do this. I just have a hard time stopping myself.
Scenes in . . . need to move much faster. I don’t think thriller fans will want to sit through . . .; and the static scenes of . . . need to be kept short and punchy.
I know that’s a lot of truncation, but there was a lot of spoiler material in there. Note the emphasis on pacing, pacing, pacing. In a thriller, the phrase “static scenes” is synonymous with “scenes that suck.” Also, Joe, note her use of the semicolon. I’m just sayin’ . . .
Some other scenes also got too preachy for my taste. I’ve marked suggestions for cuts.
Language: I suggest deleting the F-word and “Jesus” when used as an exclamation. I was surprised at how often the F-word appears in the ms . . . My advice is not to use it. Some people will object to it. But no one will object if it does not appear in the book. I’ve never seen a reader letter or email saying the book would have been better if it had a few more F-words.
Truthfully, this one surprises me a little. First off, I’m surprised that the F-bomb appears as much as it apparently does, and secondly, Michaela has never objected to it before. I think it’s a point well-taken. Clearly, I’ve got some crossing out to do.
Thank you for taking these comments into consideration. After you’ve had a chance to think about them, and to review the edited ms, please send me a new Word document incorporating all changes. I look forward to turning it in for production as well as rights submissions.
Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t have to make any of these changes. My name is on the cover, after all, and the things we’re talking about in the editorial letter are not of the magnitude that would cause the manuscript to be rejected. I will make the changes, however, because they’re all valid comments. Folks, there is nothing more valuable to a professional writer than a professional editor.
If possible, I would love to receive the revised ms the week of Nov. 29.
Well . . . I’ll try.