Revisions – in which I break down the process and reveal the mysteries

Okay, so, I have to confess that I used to be TERRIFIED of revisions. Just the thought of some editor with a revision quota they had to fill on my book pissed me right the hell off. You hear horror stories, or you make them up in your head, or you just *know* someone’s going to want your main character to have green skin or change genders or go from a bad ass to a wuss. Or even if no ridiculous changes are made, you know they’re going to want to cut your favorite scene or change somebody’s name or have the main character end up with the love interest you hated. Because if there’s one thing you know for sure about revisions, it’s that something about your book’s going to have to change, period.

You know what didn’t help my paranoia? Author’s websites where they got all defensive about it and were like, “You think you’re so great that you won’t have to do revisions??? Well, you will–I DID–so get over yourself!” The tone of those posts were probably never as harsh as I read them, but I still felt they had *attitude,* and even if they didn’t, they certainly didn’t make revisions sound any less scary.

And then, even worse, were the authors who claimed they LOVED revisions and that it was somehow the part to look forward to. Ew. I mean, for some authors the hard part is getting words on the page and they just need to get to the end, then fix up what they’ve got, and that works for them. But for me, the fun part is the new stuff, and if I don’t get it at least close to right the first time, the whole book is going to be too big a mess for me to fix. Both ways work for different people–it just depends on how your brain works. I revise as I go, shaping the book to be what I need it to be and what feels like a good story. I can’t ignore big glaring problems, because I base what happens next off of what’s already happened, and basing what happens next off a big glaring error only screws up the rest. For me. But that’s a different post.

Anyway, for years and years I was terrified of what it would be like to have an editor tell me what to do and take over my story and make me do things I hated. Because even if your book is perfect, they have to change something, it’s the rules. But, I mean, if they loved the book enough to buy it, why would they want to change everything??? HUH???

Within the last year I’ve had the chance to work with several editors, AND EVERYTHING I EVER THOUGHT ABOUT REVISIONS WAS WRONG. So I’m going to explain the process a little bit and tell you why you don’t need to have nightmares about it. (Based pretty much only on my experience, but that’s life.) Ready? Here goes.

Okay, so, first off, when an editor wants revisions–whether they’ve already bought your manuscript or are just thinking about it–they send you both a Word file of the book where they’ve marked sentences or concepts that weren’t quite coming through–line edits–and another file of their notes on the big concepts. The big concepts might be something like “I didn’t buy the romance, why would those two end up together?” or “I LOVE x concept, can you develop that more?” Whereas the line edits might be notes like “Why does the character love strawberry ice cream so much?” And you’ll read it and go, “BECAUSE THE CHARACTER’S MOM ALWAYS GAVE HER STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM WHEN SHE WAS SICK! Grr! I spelled that out!” But they’re not really asking *why,* because, like you said, you spelled it out. They’re asking what meaning this gives to the story and how can you bring it out more and make even more use of it. It’s a hidden compliment, but editors aren’t going to stop and say, “Oh, I like this” first for every single comment. And maybe they don’t like everything they’re commenting on, but usually all it takes is a tiny tweak to change their feelings about it. (And sometimes you’ve just got a stupid line in there. I had one that made really made it look like the main character’s mom had just slept with their house guest to change his mind about something, and that’s NOT AT ALL what was going on. So I’m glad someone was there to go, “Uh, what just happened? Why is she smiling and out of breath?”)

So after your editor sends you these notes, and you have a chance to think about it, then you have a phone call about it. You discuss the parts they were confused about or thought needed to be stronger or tweaked a little to bring out some other aspect. And since you both love the book and working with the characters, a lot of it is, “YEAH! Oh, wow, that’s awesome… I could totally do that.” Some of it is more, “Uh… so what did you mean here? Because that’s not how I saw it. OH. That’s how you saw it? Okay, one sentence will fix that whole mix-up.” I’m seriously not kidding when I say a lot of misunderstandings and concepts that need clarifying throughout the book only need a sentence tweak here and there.

There might be some big changes needed, or a concept that your editor thinks of and you’re like, “Whoa–that is so going into the book!” that means you have to tweak A LOT of things, or maybe add in another scene or two. But the price of adding another scene or two is nothing compared to how much better the book will be.

And I want to emphasize that I have never in this process felt like it wasn’t MY book. My editor even made it very clear to me that he didn’t want to change it from being my book, and that any notes he had were discussion starters, not direct orders to change anything. I never made changes I wasn’t comfortable with. In working with two editors throughout the whole submission and publishing process, I never cut anything. Both editors wanted me to add to the book and further develop the cool concepts I’d introduced. (In fact, I added 25k total.) My editor did ask me to cut one of my favorite scenes–and one that had been a favorite with readers–and I was baffled and not about to just straight out cut it, but we talked about it, and GUESS WHAT? It needed a few little tweaks, and tada, we were both happy.

There were a couple spots (yes, two) where my editor made suggestions–like Damien needs to be more villainous in this scene, etc.–and his suggestion on how to change these parts didn’t click with me. The suggestions didn’t fit my writing style or the way my thought process worked. Those were the hardest changes to get through, until I realized he liked my writing style, he’s not trying to write it for me, just give suggestions any way he knows how, and that all that really mattered was the ends, not the means. So I changed them my way, and one of those scene changes turned out to be his favorite of the new material. (And it’s one of my favorite parts, too. It’s hilarious and I loved telling people who’d already read the book about it.)

So, back to my outline of the whole editing process: you’re given these notes to work with and you get a chance to talk about it with your editor and make a game plan. Then you’re given a deadline, which will vary. You might only have a week to get them done, you might have a month. Deadlines in publishing vary a lot, based on things that are out of your control, like how busy everyone is and how many other projects they’ve got going and holdups that are out of their control. (And okay, I’m mostly guessing at this part based on my own experiences working in a business with deadlines, but I think it still applies.)

Once you’ve turned in your round of revisions–on time, natch–your editor rereads the book. They may mark more changes that need to be made, or they may decide everything’s in order. If it needs more changes, repeat the above process. If not, it then goes to copy edits.

Copy editors edit for grammar and consistency. Like did you sometimes write “bad ass” and sometimes “bad-ass” and sometimes “badass”? (I did.) The CE (copy editor) makes sure all the spellings match. They’re also in charge of making your manuscript match the style rules the publishing house uses. So they go through and mark up another Word file of your book and send it to you. You look over it and leave any changes you agree with and make notes for any changes you want to stet (“stet” is Latin for “let it stand” and is an editing term for leaving something how it is) (you see how my Latin skillz are useful for everything). Ideally you want a good balance of consistent, clear grammar and good voice that may or may not make use of proper grammar. I was lucky in that my CEs (I had two–one freelance CE and one in house CE who went over the first one’s notes) were aware of this and left some grammatical errors alone they might not have if they weren’t trying to leave the voice intact. CEs can be frustrating–I’ve heard the most horror stories about copy edits than any other part of the editing process–but you also have A LOT of power to veto them. It’s totally okay to disagree with them if their suggestions mess with the flow of your words or change the voice of your book. I think I stetted maybe 20% of mine–most of them I was fine with.

And then after you turn in copy edits, the next step is ARCs or bound galleys or first pass pages–which is a subject I am still somewhat fuzzy about, since I’m just getting ready to experience it, but my impression is those are all variations of the same thing: a dress rehearsal of your book where you have a chance to find any last typos before it goes to press for reals. But those are their own topic for a different post (in fact, see my last post).

So, tada! That’s editing. There’s no need for dread or hurt feelings or worrying, like I always did, that editors have some “changes to the manuscript quota” they have to meet.

Will you have to revise? Yes, but not because I did so you should have to too, ya punk whippersnapper, and not because your book is so flawed it’s disgusting. A raw book is like a vat of melted chocolate. It tastes awesome and gooey and yummy and you’re so glad you don’t have to test it with that candy thermometer anymore (or guess when it’s done, if you’re like me and still don’t have one). It tastes PERFECT. It is–it’s a super great batch of melty chocolate, and your publisher and your editor and your agent and all sorts of pros involved LOVE the taste of your perfect batch of chocolate. But you can’t sell melty chocolate. It needs to cool, but if you just let it cool by itself, it’s going to be a messy blob. It’s going to look pre-digested (ew), and you don’t want that. You want to pour it into a mold shaped like a rose and stick it on a plastic stem. Or make it into perfect, smooth squares. Or little truffle shapes with glaze and powdered sugar on top, making them look gorgeous and irresistible. The finished product tastes the same as the melted one, minus the texture, but like I said, you can’t sell melted chocolate or hand it to people on toothpicks. You need it to cool into a mold so that other people can enjoy it. The recipe is still yours, the whole vat only tastes as good as it does because you made it, but you need that editor and that publisher to help you pour it into appetizing molds. And you need your publicist to make buyers aware of your new brand of chocolate and how good it tastes. (And you need your agent to make sure you get paid for your chocolate recipe and to help sort things out when you think your glaze should be dark chocolate, not hazelnut.)

So that’s the editing process as best as I know it. Any questions?

6 Comments
  1. Jordyn

    GREAT GREAT GREAT POST.
    As an aspiring author – thank you so much for writing this. All the ‘YOU MUST REVISE, SAD LITTLE WANNABE AUTHOR’ posts have scared me too.

    And also: now I want a bunch of gooey, melty chocolate.

  2. Sara

    Awesome post!
    I never really knew (or could even fully imagine) what went on behind the scenes during revisions. All I knew, was that that as a reader, the final product was wonderful. Having a glimpse at how editors and authors work together to get that final product was interetsting to hear/read. I think it would be so weird as a family member of the author to read through the book at all those different stages…

  3. sara

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    I feel much reassured. I’m so very glad it always felt like -your- book. That is very important.

    Editors are vital but I am nervous of them still. I have yet to submit my story to anybody (for it is not even complete) but I still dread that process.

    This post is great though. Thank you =)

  4. sara

    Me too, Jordyn. I never cared for those posts either. I loved Chelsea’s post.

  5. Bri

    You need to write another book. Nonfiction. The real nitty gritty about writing a book, publishing. So many books make it as easy as one-two-three and then when it comes to editing, they quote the ever-popular Hemingway quote “Kill your darlings!” and say it’s a tedious process. But you expose the heartbeat of the whole thing, and yeah, tackle that with a Non Fic book. I command you. :)

  6. Chelsea Campbell

    LOL. I don’t know if I have a whole non-fiction book in me, but I will keep making these kinds of posts. ;)

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