Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Editorial Letter

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

When an author works with a publisher to put out a book, there are a number of steps that happen between that first version of the book that the author hands in and the version that ends up in print.

Most often, the first feedback an author gets on his or her novel comes in the form of an editorial letter. This is a document that lists all the BIG PROBLEMS with the plot and characters. Editorial letters often make authors tremble in fear and anticipation, and, once read, have been known to make authors weep. Why? Because this letter lists problems with the story that the editor is asking the author to rewrite.

But editorial letters are good. They really are. They help make the story better.

Last week when I was in the Navajo Nation of Arizona, I received my editorial letter on King's Folly. I had to go hide in the church bus to read it ASAP. It had been about eight weeks since I'd turned in my book, and I was dying to know what they thought of it.

The editorial letter I received for King's Folly was four pages long. It was broken down by plot threads, characters, and story sections (Part I, Part II, Part III), and gave comments on what my editor felt worked well and what didn't.

As is often the case, especially on the first book in a new series, I have a lot of work to do.

Since King's Folly isn't out yet, I can't share that letter here. But I wanted to give you guys an idea of what a real editorial letter looks like. So I'm going to share my entire letter for By Darkness Hid and the first two pages of the editorial letter for To Darkness Fled. My editor, Jeff Gerke, did not give me an editorial letter for From Darkness Won, nor did I receive one for the book Replication. Every book is different. And the editor's schedule is always a factor. But it's nice when the editor has the time to add this extra step into the editing process. I think it's important.



Please note, By Darkness Hid, which I had originally called Bloodvoices, was in pretty good shape when Jeff Gerke requested the full manuscript. It was the sixth book I'd written. And I had gone through and edited it as well. I felt good about that book when I sent it off. I think that's why my editorial letter was only two pages long.

To Darkness Fled was not in that good of shape when I turned it in. It was my first draft. We were running out of time. And the editorial letter Jeff sent me was thirty-three pages long.

Book one editorial letter: two pages long.
Book two editorial letter: thirty-three pages long.

Yeah.

There are so many things I love about Jeff Gerke's editing style. One of the things he is so great about is starting with positive feedback. He makes you feel good about your book before he rips it to shreds. It's a lovely trait in an editor. Jeff also tends to list things by page number. This saves him time on the line edit. At many publishing houses, different editors might do those two jobs. At Marcher Lord Press back then, Jeff did it all.

Here is page one of the editorial letter for what became By Darkness Hid:

Click here to see a larger version.


And page two of the editorial letter for what became By Darkness Hid:

Click here to see a larger version. Also, I blacked out the only
spoiler for those who haven't read the books.


Here is page one of the thirty-three- page editorial letter for To Darkness Fled:

Click here to see a larger version.


And page two of the thirty-three- page editorial letter for To Darkness Fled:

Click here to see a larger version. And remember... this is only page two of thirty-three!

These pages should give you an idea of what an editorial letter looks like. As I said, each editor does things a little differently. But the point is that they list items that need to be fixed.

How do you, the author, start fixing all this?

I like to read the letter through once or twice, then set it aside and think about it for a few days because there are always a few things that really overwhelm me. And I need to think them over. Depending on the deadline, there may be tears involved. When you've spent 500+ hours writing and rewriting a book, doing a major rewrite in a few weeks can be really stressful. So I think. And I plan. And after a day or three, I sit down and look at the letter again.

I start with the easy things. I print out the editorial letter and treat it like a To Do list. I grab a highlighter and highlight everything that I disagree with, say, pink. Then I open the manuscript, save as "name of my book-rewrite" and get started on the things I'm going to fix—the "Duh!" types of things like:


·         Why did Jax and the other guy take Vrell on foot instead of horseback on their first journey? That makes no sense.

Um, yeah. The noble knights should be on horses. Duh.

When I complete an item, I highlight it a different color, say, orange. Then I move on to the next item. And I work my way through the list. Once I've done all the easy things, I move on to the more difficult ones. And when I've fixed all the things I agree with, I then need to address the other items. How that works depends on how your editor works. With Jeff, since we were working really fast, I might sent him an email about these items, and we'd talk them out. Or, if it's a smaller item, I might put a comment in the rewritten manuscript that says, "I want to leave this as is because..." And then I'd explain. Jeff never fought me on anything. We worked pretty well together. I trusted his skill as an editor. And I only fought him on things that really mattered to me.

It can be scary to disagree with your editor if you don't know him or her very well, but remember, you and your editor are on the same team. You both want to put out a great product. So try to see things from your editor's perspective. I probably agreed with 85-90% of Jeff's suggestions. And Jeff is always a little funny, too, in his edits. I think he knows that laughter makes this process easier.

How about you? Have you ever received an editorial letter? If so, how did you tackle it? If not, what do you think of the pages above? Do you think it would be helpful to get such feedback on your story? Why or why not?

28 comments:

  1. Mr. Gerke sounds like a great editor. I've never gotten an editorial letter before, but it looks like it'd be a big help catching things that the writer and his/her critique partners didn't catch. One question: do agents do the same sort of thing when they take on your book? Or is that left to the editor?

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Williamson!

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    1. Depends on the agent. Many do this. Rachelle Gardner is one. Here is a link to a post she wrote on the topic: http://www.rachellegardner.com/the-editorial-letter/

      My agent does not do this, though. At least we've never had time for her to. It could be she does it for other clients. But my deadlines have always come too fast (or I write too slow) to allow her time to read before I have to turn in the book.

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  2. Wow, I must say seeing an editorial letter was pretty awesome. Thanks for sharing, Jill! I have never received one myself, but it looks like that would be one of the best helps in writing!

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    1. It is! Having an editor help you with your story is an amazing gift, Megan. Very helpful.

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  3. I read through his editorial letter and thought "OUCH!" -- I could totally apply the things he said to my own works.

    It was also an awesome opportunity to see what an editorial letter looks like. Thank you so much, Jill, for sharing.

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    1. Yeah, I learned some great things from Jeff. Glad you found it helpful. :-)

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  4. There aren't many authors who would actually share their editorial letters so that someone else can learn from them. This is super cool of you, Jill :)

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  5. Cool! This reminds me a lot of critique partner comments, or at least how I've always written them.

    I could see how it'd be both helpful and "ouch" to get a thirty-three page document of editing notes. Helpful because it gives specific things to work on (one of my most hated parts of editing is trying to figure out what needs fixing and how), ouch because if you've already put so much work into it... :)

    Thanks so much for sharing, I think like "wisdomcreates" I learned a few things to apply to my own writing. Totally guilty of the repeated words, talking head syndrome, etc. :P

    Also, this made me laugh: "Need a better description of Tara the first time she’s onstage. I thought Achan had stumbled into a group of small children playing a game. I thought Tara must’ve been 4 years old. To have him finding her attractive was a little weird." :)

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    1. Yeah, Jeff always made me laugh in his comments. That made it fun.

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  6. I'd heard of editorial editors but had no idea what they actually covered. I think I'd be the person to love getting one. Starting in on majorly revising a first draft. Organized notes would be a dream right now. Thank you so much for sharing your letter! Your editor sounds fantastic.

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    1. You're welcome, Kelsey! It is very helpful.

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  7. This sounds terrifying! And helpful! Your system of dealing with it sounds really good. I like to-do lists and crossing things off makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere.

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    1. Me too! Crossing off is my favorite. :-)

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  8. Wow, that was really interesting! Prior to reading this I knew nothing about editorial letters. Thanks for sharing!

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  9. Patience BledsoeApril 1, 2015 at 5:47 PM

    Wow, thank you so much for sharing this with us, Mrs. Williamson! :) I found it very interesting and helpful. I can definitely see how helpful an editorial letter would be, but also understand how it could put one in tears. That's a ton of information to digest and work through! Especially those big changes that affect the entire novel. :) Thank you again for sharing! :D Loved the glimpse!

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    1. You're welcome, Patience. Yeah, it can be daunting, so it's important to remember that it's all to make the book stronger.

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  10. This was SO interesting. And terrifying. But mostly interesting. xD
    I honestly knew nothing about editorial letters until you wrote this post. I really appreciate that you give us looks int o the publishing process that most other blogs and authors don't. It's neat to see what to expect when the publishing time comes. :)

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    1. Terrifying... Yes, it can be. I often get a little sick to my stomach when I first start reading one. But it's so helpful to make the story the best it can be. I'm glad to be able to show you guys what's to come! I always wanted to see this kind of stuff way back when.

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  11. Wow, those editorial letters do look pretty daunting. I've never received an editorial letter for a book, but I have received one for a magazine feature article. Well, actually, it was more of a markup of the article. When the editor said she had some suggestions, I thought it was just going to be a few punctuation suggestions or something. HAHAHAHA NO. :) It was really daunting when I got the revisions back, but I worked hard on them anyway because seeing my words in print was so worth the tears.

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    1. Yes! It's always shocking the first time. And, for the edit on Replication, shocking not to see this stage or as many comments and changes. You never know what you'll get. I always want hard edits because I feel like they challenge me more and make the book stronger. And, yes. It's so worth it to see your hard work in print! Congrats, Ana, on your article and getting through the edits too. :-)

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  12. Can I just say this is like SO SO SO awesome? Aaak, I DO want to be an editor. Lol, this sounds so cool (the editor's side as much as or more than yours). Thanks so much for sharing!

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    1. Oh, yeah. Great editors have such a blast, I think, discovering new authors and helping those authors make their great stories even better. What a fun job.

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  13. Whenever I finish one of my books, and I go through it and reread it, I always keep a paper and pen nearby to make a list of anything I want to add or change :) so, that is interesting how they do that :)

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    1. It makes sense, doesn't it? And this process goes fairly quickly. In my experience, I usually get anywhere from two weeks to two months to rewrite. The longer, the better, of course.

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  14. I want an editorial letter. :) That would be so helpful.

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  15. Congratulations Jill!
    Besides helpful tips you show that we can rethink in our stories, you had the courage to show some of the errors in your "first" manuscripts!
    Many proud writers would be not able to show some duh mistakes, but you showed and this demonstrate how you are a good writer apart from helping us!

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