Making Friends with the Revision Process

BtO reader Lark asks us:
I've heard some authors say they never have them, others talk about 10+ page revision letters. If an agent or editor "loved" the work, what kind of revisions are they likely to want?

That's a terrific question. I well remember, after the initial rush had faded in the wake of my first novel sale, receiving a box from my editor containing the battle-scarred manuscript, which was marked up for revisions. The delivery followed a phone conversation touching on some more general points she hoped I would address. (Throughout my career, I've never received the "revision letter" a lot of authors bemoan. At some houses, they're de rigueur, but for me, phone calls from the editor have always been the way.)

But back to the box in the mail. I decided to go through the manuscript and mark the location of every editorial note with a green sticky note. By the time I'd finished, the manuscript - all 500 pages of it (ten years ago, it was no great shakes if your historical romance was 120 or 125K words) looked as if it had grown moss. Seriously, there were suggestions on nearly every page, and we're not talking copyedits but commentary regarding character consistency, flat or jarring dialogue, sexual tension (or lack thereof), hooks for the end of not only every chapter but each scene, etc.. It was a wonderful and incredibly rare (editors seldom can spare the time or have the patience do edit on this level, especially nowadays) crash course that was the best education I could have possibly received at that juncture.

It was also scary as hell.

"But I thought it meant she liked my book when she bought it!" I wailed after looking at the Mountain O' Moss and trying to imagine how long it would take me to get through it. And what might happen if I failed to address each requested change. Would she yell at me? Bad-mouth me to all the other editors? Fly to Texas, spit in my eye, kick my dog and steal my firstborn child? Or, WORSE YET (cue the gasping) kick me out of the published author club by canceling my book?

As I painstakingly worked my way, page by page, through those revisions, it gradually dawned on me that -- hey, wait a minute -- the editor was actually on my side, the book's side, and the side of its potential readers. The changes I was making were sharpening the book's focus, ramping up its impact, and, what's more, making me a far better writer as I absorbed the lessons gleaned from her experience working on countless other novels. By clapping onto the fact that we were working as a team in the service of my novel's success, I totally changed my attitude about revisions. Instead of dreading them, I came to see them as a sign I had an editor who really cared about the story.

I've never again had to do such extensive edits, but when I do get those calls, I welcome them (after a few minutes of feeling bruised and misunderstood, anyhow) as the chance they are to make my manuscript the very best book I can.


Debra Mullins said…
I just finished with some extensive revisions to my latest book. I've written a total of 12 books for Avon. Number 11 had NO revisions. Number 12-the most extensive I have had since my very first book. After eating a copious amount of chocolate I was able to get to that mindset--that the editor was on my side. Just goes to show that we're all constantly learning, no matter how many books we've written.
I hear you on that, Debra. I'm having to extensively revise a proposal at present, and the toughest part is realizing that I'll probably never have it all figure out. But the challenge is what keeps writing so fascinating.
Lark said…
Thanks for this post, Colleen!! And thanks, Debra. If you two still occassionally find youselves doing extensive revisions, I feel much better! I'll keep reminding myself that the agent or editor is on my side and is trying to get the book to its very best. Initally, a couple martinis may be required.
Joni Rodgers said…
Amen to all of the above. I guess making friends with the revision process is like making friends with a root canal. In your heart you know you'll be better off when it's over.
Anonymous said…
Great post!!!

Vicky said…
Waving at Debra (we're sort of cousins - same agent - lucky us!). Colleen, of course I found this post intriguing since I recently completed revisions on my 1st Sold book. I had a very long, detailed revision letter - and I was Beyond Excited. Years ago (before my trip back to college) I'd done a massive rewrite on my 1st book for an editor w/out promise of contract - and that phone call/revision letter was nonspecific. To be fair, the editor had a lot less to work with.(I never have figured out why that book got so many requests - LOL.)But I've got to say, my editor now is brilliant. A friend has the same editor & told me how fabulous she is - and boy was she right. I may have additional work to do, but you know, I love the story & I want the book to be the best it can. I know I sound like Ms. Starry-Eyed Newbie, but that's OK. You only get to be here once. Off I go, humming Somewhere Over the Rainbow - LOL!
Phyllis Bourne said…
I don't remember when I got "the call" , but I do remember when I got my first revision letter. It was 10 am. I read it and went to back to bed.

Once I started to dig into the revisions, I got what the heck my editor was talking about, and it made it a much better book.
Suzan Harden said…
Thanks for the straight talk, Colleen.

LOL And Joni, I think I'd still rather do the edits.
Jo Anne said…
Great post, Colleen. If I ever have that glorious published author/editor relationship, I shall cherish it. Completing revisions with no contract offer is an exercise in resolve. But it’s also an exercise in understanding story and genre. And I learn every time, every day.

You are so right – that’s what keeps the entire process fascinating… :-)
Thanks for stopping by, everyone. I laughed/winced at the root canal analogy, Joni. Sometimes that really does apply.

Revising on spec, with no commitment from the agent or editor requesting, has to be one of the toughest things writers are asked to do. My advice: do it only when the revisions requested jibe with your vision of the story. It can be a great learning experience and in some cases actually does result in an agency or publishing contract. A lot of times, however, it can be an exercise in frustration for everyone involved.

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