revising, part 4: agent and editor revisions

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Right. Back to the topic in hand. No time to talk about gorgeous men popping up out of nowhere during my son’s entertainment. Must finish my series of posts about revising. I have two more topics–one about agent/editor revisions, and one, in response to a question from Liz, about the major overhaul revisions I’ve done in the past.

First, agent/editor revisions.

So, I’ve finished a first draft, and then revised the first draft (sometimes in several stages) to fix big things like continuity, character, plot and structure and layer in detail. Then I’ll give it another read-through to deal with any niggling language issues…for example, my propensity to over-use speech tags and adverbs, any sentences that read funny or rhyme unintentionally, places where I should break up paragraphs. Stuff like that. Plus, I’m always looking for things to cut. Sometimes just shaving a sentence or two every couple of pages can make a real difference to pacing.

Basically, the general tendency is to macro-revise first, stuff on a whole-book level, and then micro-revise on a page level. In practice, I micro-revise the whole time, but the focus is on bigger things at first.

A few days before I’ve finished, I’ll ring my agent and give her the heads-up that my book will be coming to her. She’ll generally tell me a good day to send it, so she’ll be able to read it straight away. I print the whole thing out, bung a rubber band around it, and mail it to her.

Within a couple of days she’ll give me a call. I always both anticipate and dread this, because usually it begins one of two ways. “It’s wonderful!” she’ll say, and relief and joy will flood through me. Or, occasionally, she will say, “I like it, but you need to work on it,” and I’ll nod my head in resignation.

Don’t get me wrong–even when she says it’s wonderful, I’m gonna get revisions. But it’s nice to hear good things before we get stuck into the inevitable list of what’s not so great.

My agent gives me revisions by having a conversation with me on the phone, while I scribble frantic notes. She is right 100% of the time, but sometimes it’s up to me to figure out exactly how she is right. That is, she’ll often point out a problem–usually focusing on the larger things like pacing or tone–and suggest some solutions, and then I have to figure out which solution will work for me and my book. Generally she gives me a lot of leeway to do my own thing to make it better. She’s great, though, at suggesting physical revision methods I can use–it was her idea to break down every scene in Girl from Mars, for example, to find the key to the scene, and use that to streamline my pacing.

So my agent revision conversations are like “Here’s the problem, it’s up to you how to fix it, but here’s a technique you can use to help you.”

After I speak with her, I go through my notes and make an action plan to follow, and do another set of revisions. I find this problem-solving to be very invigorating, and I like the way my agent challenges me. Then I gird my loins, and email the ms to my editor.

My editor generally writes me a revision letter. I’ve had six editors since selling my first novel, and I’ve been extremely fortunate in that they have all been wonderful, and work in quite a similar way. The letter will usually give me a nice page full of praise, which I can wallow in quite happily for a while. Then she gets down to business, outlining what I need to work on. This can be just a few things, or a massive letter 12 or 15 pages long.

The best revision letter will show you that your editor totally understands your story, in most cases better than you do. My editor has this knack of finding the things I was trying to do but didn’t quite succeed in, and giving me suggestions about how I can achieve them. It’s like magic how she does this.

Whilst my agent is more “here’s the problem, you can fix it”, my editor is more specific in suggesting individual revisions, added or deleted scenes, which threads to bring out and which to lose. She’s also great at explaining to me why she thinks this, and what effect it will have on my story and my writing skills overall.

For the most part, I do exactly what she asks me to do; I go through the letter point by point, and work on each thing she mentions, ticking it off as I go. About 10% of the time, I’ll agree with her assessment that something isn’t right, but I’ll have a different idea of how to fix it, and so I’ll do things my way instead. Less than 1% of the time, and usually about very small things, I’ll disagree with her, I’ll call her up to discuss the point and explain my point of view, and she’ll normally say that’s fine.

Of course, making even little changes in a story can have ripples through the whole thing, so it’s not quite as easy as going through the letter point by point, but you get the idea. By this time, too, I’ve had some distance on the ms and probably started writing another one, so I make my own changes as I go along as well.

Then I send it back. Sometimes I get another round of revisions, though these are likely to be minor. Then copy edits, where I delete yet more adverbs. Then the book comes out.

Whew. Long post here. Thanks for reading through to the end!

(This discussion started in part 1, part 2, and part 3, and will eventually have a part 5.)

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  1. Was v interested in reading this post as this is the process that I am eagerly waiting from my editor now for my first children’s book. Be interested to see/hear what revisions they want me to do, as they did say in a letter it was only small. I am going to take the opportunity to see if I can enhance the book with their suggestions. (This was suggested in Carole Blake’s book). We shall wait and see what happens.

  2. Funny timing, because I just opened an email from my Samhain editor that went, “I love it, but…” and then went on to say both the plot and characters needed significant work. Gulp. (Also, which part did she love then?)

    Thing is, I know she’s right. Dammit.

  3. Julie, I hope your comments are helpful and inspiring!

    Kate…the thing is, at least 95% of the time, I know what my editor is going to say before she says it, but I’m not at the stage to say it myself. If that makes sense. I think it’s one of the best things about a good editor, that she knows what you meant to do but didn’t achieve.

    That said, yikes! Good luck with the “significant work”. You will be fine, I’m sure.

  4. I know just what you mean, Julie, I knew she was going to say this, but couldn’t have managed to say it–and therefore fix it–beforehand. She asked me a couple of questions and I thought, I’m sure I knew the answers when I wrote the book, but now I just can’t remember. Which doesn’t bode well!

  5. Hmm. I’m sure those answers are in there, somewhere, though. You’ll find them.

  6. Thanks for the insight into the process 🙂

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