The Edit Has Landed

(photo via GoDaddy stock)


The edit has landed. I repeat: The edit has landed. This is not a drill.

This refrain runs through my head every time I get an initial editorial letter from my editor after I’ve sold a manuscript. For the uninitiated, the editorial letter contains detailed comments and suggestions for changes the editor would like to see in the next version of a contracted manuscript.

On Sunday evening, the editorial letter for One Last Secret, my next suspense novel, arrived in my inbox.

I’m going to gloss over the agonizing hour or so I spent actually analyzing my letter. Imagine cheers or tears or cringing or reallys?! or ack–how did that get through? or yays! It’s a private moment that you are already familiar with if you’ve workshopped your own writing, or have had editors or truthful friends comment on it.

There’s a fine line when it comes to accepting or rejecting an editor’s suggestions. Ego can get in the way. Unless we’re collaborating with another writer, our stories have incubated in our own heads for months or years. Perhaps the initial drafts have been read by friends or spouses, etc, but they’re still essentially ours. It can be hard to let go, to be willing to let the manuscript change. But while an editor is also a reader, and often a fan, they are not just any reader/friend offering suggestions. They’re professionals who have a financial interest in seeing that the story appeals to a large number of readers.

An editor or reader is attracted to a novel or story as a result of the writer’s ability to successfully communicate a vision of the story that exists in the writer’s head.

But as we know, no two visions of a story are even close to identical. The best writing speaks loudly to people for myriad reasons, and tugs at the chords deeply anchored to our souls. And no two souls are alike. It’s a huge compliment for a writer to have a reader say a writer’s work resonates with them, whether it’s something as simple as a character with whom they identify, or a whole new world into which they can escape for an afternoon  and beyond.

An editor is an agent of the re-visioning process. (I’ve probably mentioned re-visioning before as a concept mentioned by Joyce Carol Oates.) In a re-vision, the vision of the story becomes something totally new for the writer. This new vision will change with each new addition or deletion or deepening of the story. It can be brought about with mechanical precision by making sure the story has all the necessary beats, or meets and even enhances the conventions of the genre. Or it will change when the writer combines characters, kicks the hero(ine) into higher gear, or tweaks the emotional impact of a scene. It’s a birth process that goes on and on until both the editor and the writer agree that their mutual visions meet on the page and are compatible enough to be presented to the world. They’re both happy. (Or they run out of time!)

For me it’s both wrenching and exciting to work with an editor. In theory—and it’s a theory I extoll frequently—I want to write and edit in service of the story. I write toward that Platonic ideal that exists for every story. The ideal we can only ever express as a shadow. But I want to at least make it a shadow that lives and makes other people see it as an ideal thing in their heads. It should have no visible seams, no dull moments, no unnecessary details, clear ideas, smart dialogue, and compelling images. In other words, as close to an ideal as possible.

Occasionally though, the old ego wants to dig in its heels when the suggestions come. My story! it cries. Mine! Mine! Mine! It begs me to leave it alone. Very occasionally there are story elements that I feel are integral and necessary to the story, and I try to negotiate their continued existence. Now that I think about it, the very few times that has happened, various editors have been very supportive. But I generally keep my ego in check. It really is all about the story. And a good editor knows how to balance the writer’s need for respect/story integrity with her own need to make the story more appealing to the marketing department and readers.

Not everyone likes the revision process. As I said, it’s both wrenchingly difficult and exciting for me at the same time. Change is hard, and changing our stories can be particularly tough because edits often feel like judgments. I just keep telling myself that an edited story is something shiny and brand new in the world. A new creation. And who doesn’t like the feeling of having created something new?


How do you approach the editing process—whether suggestions are from reader friends or paid editors? Do you love it, hate it, or see it as just one more step to be endured?

Or tell us about an editor you’ve loved working with…

The Art of the Editorial Letter

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:

Dear John,

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.

Pacing again.

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.