Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, November 30, 2009

How to Respond to a Manuscript Critique/Editorial Letter

I'm in the midst of editing JACOB WONDERBAR, and as always it's been very very interesting to be on the writing side of the process.

As my clients know all too well, I'm a hands-on agent. I'm willing to go through multiple rounds of revisions until the manuscript is just. right. Even when I can tell my clients would rather have their toenails forcibly removed than go through another revision. It just pays for things to be as perfect as possible.

Dishing out so many editorial suggestions myself has actually been very helpful as I approached revisions for my own work - I know that the (brilliant) suggestions my editor made are nothing personal and I know how important it is to take the changes to heart and try my absolute best to make the manuscript better.

So, having gone through this on both sides, here are some suggestions for handling critiques:

1. When you get your editorial letter/critique, steel your resolve, read it once, put it away, and don't think about it or act on it for at least a couple of days.

An editorial letter is kind of like a radioactive substance that you need to become gradually acclimated to over the course of several days. It needs to be absorbed in small doses and kept at arm's length and quarantined when necessary until you are able to overcome the dangerous side effects: anger, paranoia, excessive pride, delusions of grandeur, and/or homicidal tendencies. Should you find yourself experiencing any of these side effects, consult your writing support group immediately for an antidote.

It's hard to have your work critiqued, and it's tempting to take it personally. Just know that it's a normal reaction and in a couple of days you'll feel better. Once you've calmed down and are able to consider the changes without your heart racing: that's when you know you're ready to get working.

2. Go with your gut.

You don't have to take every single suggestion, and I'm often very glad when my clients don't listen to all of my suggestions and take only the best ones. If you don't agree with a change, big or small, it's okay to stick to your guns if you have a really good reason for it.

Only: make sure it's really your gut talking and not your lazy bone. Or your bull head.

And on that note...

3. Don't simply ignore the suggestions you don't agree with.

Often when someone makes a specific suggestion for a change to a certain scene or plot line you won't always agree with it and you'll throw up your hands and say there's no way you're going to make the change.

But! Even if you don't agree with the specific remedy the editor suggested, something prompted them to suggest the change, and that something could be an underlying problem that needs to be addressed, even if you don't agree with the one the editor proposed.

For instance, you may not willing to get rid of the homicidal bald eagle in your novel, even if your editor or critique partner suggests it. But surely there's something you can change to alleviate their concerns. For instance, the homicidal bald eagle may need to have a conscience.

4. Be systematic

Confronting a revision can be extremely daunting because of the Cascade Effect: when you change one plot point it necessitates two more changes so that the plot still makes sense after the change, which prompts still more changes and more and more. Ten or more changes can cascade from a single change, even a minor one.

In order to avoid Cascade Effect Terror, I find that it's helpful to work on only one change at time. Make the change, and then trace it through the book making all the necessary subsequent changes so that everything makes sense.

This way, instead of having to keep every single editorial suggestion in your head as you're moving your way sequentially through the manuscript you can be targeted and efficient with your revisions.

5. If you find yourself getting mad it's probably because your editor/critique partner is right.

Great suggestions are easy to accept: you usually smack your head and think, "Why didn't I think of that??"

Bad suggestions are easy to reject: you just think, naw, I'm not doing that.

I've found that when the suggestions make you mad, it's probably because they're right. Your brain is just having trouble admitting it.

6. Listen, listen, listen.

Easy to say. Tougher in practice.


Do you have any suggestions for how best to incorporate feedback?






125 comments:

hannah said...

Perfectly timed, thank you--I'm expecting an ed letter any day now.

Cardiff Sparrow said...

It really is great having you on both sides!

Megs said...

I'm in the middle of needing this. Just got my opening up on Evil Editor. Thank you!

Melissa said...

Great article! Even though I don't have an agent at this time, I still find these points relevant because of the critiques I've received from my writing group. I'm nodding my head at every one of your suggestions, and I'll file this post away for future reference.

nomadshan said...

Even when I don't agree right away with a suggestion, I still try it on for size--and follow the consequences for several steps--just to be sure. The goal is to have the strongest story possible!

a cat of impossible colour said...

Thank you so much for this. It's perfectly timed for me, too: I'm getting my first editorial letter soon.

a cat of impossible colour said...

Oh, and does being on both sides of the agent-author relationship make you a double agent?

Nathan Bransford - Double (Literary) Agent!

Would make for a great business card, yes?

JohnO said...

There's a video version of this, you know. Sung karaoke style to the tune of Corey Hart's "Never Surrender." It's called "Editing Letter."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKkR9S2lq6Q

Steph Damore said...

I have a tendency to read any critique Really fast to get a general overall feel for the feedback. Then I close the email. Then I reopen the email, read it really fast again. Then close the email.

Eventually this craziness stops and I'm able to think about the changes analytically and get my butt to work.

owlandsparrow said...

When it comes to accepting constructive criticism, it helps me to assume the best in whoever offers input, and remember that it's not always easy to be honest about something so personal as writing. If someone is painfully honest, it must mean they care more about my work being the best it can be than about any awkwardness they might feel in giving hard-to-hear advice.

And, in those few instances when I've been given obvious insincere, tactless criticism, it helped to remove emotion and search out the comment for truth. Regardless of where criticism comes from, if looked at objectively, it can be quite revelatory of things that need to change.

Finally, it helps me to remember my goal: turning out the best possible work I can. That means feedback, changes, revisions, and tweaking. Criticism is merely another set of objective eyes that see more than I can, being so close to the story.

debutnovelist said...

Heck - I know that radioactive stuff all right. I've been known to be in denial for months never mind days after some critiques! That said, I have learned that the harder it is to take, the more sense it usually makes in the end.
Greetings from a regular reader but first time (I think) commenter. AliB

Travener said...

First you gotta get the feedback...

Jil said...

I often find that the critique someone offers hits on an area I had an uneasy feeling about in the first place but told myself I must be wrong. I guess that comes under laziness!! I am learning to pay as much attention to "me" as to anyone else.

I appreciate hearing that others need that pause after hearing their "baby" attacked before settling down and realizing there is merit in the criticism.Making the changes can then be fun.

chaff said...

Along with being systematic, I've found it helps to make the small changes first (catching those little inconsistencies, too many adverbs, whatever.) It lets you get the toes wet before wading into the huge honking flot plaws.

Rhiannon Hart said...

The first time I received a critique from an agent I almost cried with relief. Someone was taking me seriously, and by golly, they were right! Now I'm out on submission. It's been twelve days. I started freaking yesterday. You cracked before me, hehe.

Natalie Whipple said...

Great advice, as expected. I think the letting it sit is the most important for me. I tend to, uh, freak out right after reading. But once I have a plan it's all good.

Susan Gable said...

Chocolate. Chocolate makes the revision notes go down a lot easier. I just finished some major revisions. You're spot on with the waiting. It does take a few days for them to settle in. I usually have a panic attack to start with, so...

The worst thing is...now I have more changes that I'd like to make, and the book is already back in my editor's hands. Maybe on the next pass we can make just a few more tweaks that will really strengthen things.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

When being edited, the only question I ask the agent or editor is... How, in your opinion, does your edit strengthen the work?

Usually I get an insightful answer and am happy to oblige.

Haste yee back ;-)

Marilyn Peake said...

Love your humorous descriptions of how this all works. My current approach to receiving editing suggestions is to view them as a learning experience, kind of like a graduate school class in writing. I get to experience the reshaping of a novel I’ve written, turning it into something more saleable. Of course, it helps to have a good Editor with sound judgment. When you have an Editor capable of offering suggestions that will make your book a much stronger work, it’s easier to calmly accept their suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Going through this right now. Your post is spot on, on all points, with one exception. YOu left out a kepy player when there is conflict with an editorial "suggestion".

The morning I received my "edtorial letter" I almost simultaneously received an email from my agent saying "I will be here all day if you want to talk."

Yup. Over the course of two or three days my agent guided me through my response to the editorial letter.

And, yes, I disagreed with a major suggestion and, yes, we looked for the underlying problem and, together, worked out another approach to solving the problem other than by the initial editorial suggestion.

Btw, it is impossible to discern sometimes when an editorial "suggestion" is truly a suggestion you may or may not accept and when it is the boss telling you to do something in a nice way by using the word suggestion.

My agent is a critcal and primary partner at all steps in this process and a final defense against my inadvertently offending my editor.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Very good point. When in doubt talk to your agent.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes defending one's work or own editorial choices in their own work strengthens convictions.
I have an editor I have worked with on four (very) small pieces she wanted to publish.
One, I made the changes suggested.
One, asked for no changes.
Both were accepted for publication.

But for two others, we went back and forth. Quite a few times.
I researched her staffs' opinions extensively rather than just accept or reject the suggested changes.
The research argued both ways, but much was ambiguous. There were strong arguments for my original writing that were modernists and postmodernist opinions. The publishers were old school.

Some of the staff were also in disagreement. What several were moved by, others wanted changed.
So,even they were conflicted. But their conditions for publication were that I make the changes.

In the end, (another writer and I discussed this at length), a writer needs to ask if being published is more important than conviction in their work.

I was grateful for the exercise and learned a lot. We all behaved ourselves. (Important!)

I decided to leave the two works in their original form and shop them further.

Kellion said...

How much work is usually in an editorial letter? Major stuff? I kind of figured that it would be somewhat minor stuff because the editors liked the book enough to publish it. At any rate, that knowledge would get me through the process. I didn't find agent revisions onerous for that same reason -- I knew my agent was working with me because she LIKED my work, not because she thought I was a no-talent dunderhead.

Michael said...

Great post, Nathan, as usual.

And, just so you know, I'm ready now to get one of those editorial change letters.

Someone send me one.

Richard Mabry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jo Anglezarke said...

That's great advice - which I will try very hard to take - holding fire for a few days is so true!

Nicole said...

Thanks for this. I'm expecting my last full round of edits from my publisher in a couple of weeks, so this is timely advice.

Anonymous said...

Changes!! Changes?!

Sell out!

They're stealing your vision!

Wait, they didn't steal it. They paid you. So... change can be good.

Lisa Dez said...

Great advice, as usual.

I’m in the throws of revisions for an editor before she takes it to her editorial board and I’m finding there is one major revision request she had that is impossible to make. (I’m not saying that in the heat of the moment. I’ve mulled it over and given it the old college try.) I’m hoping she doesn’t think I’m being “difficult” or I didn’t take her request seriously. I sent the revision off to my agent with a lengthy explanation as to why I couldn’t comply with all her requests. Her others were right on target, though, and the mss is much better because of them.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually an oddity in that I tend to get upset if I get a piece back that DOESN'T look like somebody slaughtered a chicken whilst reading it.
When I get a critique of my work I'll sit down and make a list of every single point brought up and then address it in the work point by point (crossing off the list as I do so). I tend to get really excited and view it as a challenge.

Anonymous said...

I think of critiques as evidence that I’m not getting my point across. I don’t have to take their suggestions, but I better find a way to make what I’m trying to say clearer.

Anonymous said...

I cried. Literally. Then I took a long homicidal drive on the highway and cursed the day I was born. Literally.

In my case, having to delete characters, add entire chapters, and delete a subplot and "magically" come up another subplot that was "better(?)" was made that much more difficult because the ed didn't get the revisions to me in time, and my supposed eight weeks to change things was whittled down to five.

Compounding matters: I was very green and no one bothered to tell me what an ed letter was -- not even my agent -- I was under the impression that they would publish my book as it was. Imagine my surprise, and then terror and confusion, when that five page, single-spaced letter showed up out of the blue.

Fun times, people, fun, fun times.

Calista Taylor said...

Great advice, as always!

I actually love getting critiques, even if my manuscript ends up looking like it's been used to mop up a crime scene. To me, it just means that when I'm through I'll have a much better book than when I started. I don't necessarily take every suggestion, but my agent always does a great job, and I trust her judgement.

Jay said...

The getting mad thing is so true and just reinforces the "put it away for a couple of days" idea.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this - I'm slated to receive my first editorial letter (late) and I have low-level anxiety about what to expect. I most appreciated the tactical advice about the 'cascade affect' i.e., one idea followed all the way through. It's good for me, since I can get pulled into narrative quick sand likethat.

question: are you eating candybars during your revision? The Wonderbar part of your title makes me imagine ... chocolate.

Paul Greci said...

Thanks Nathan,

I'm right with you regarding your advice. My YA novel is on submission right now so this is a potentially timely post for me.

Good luck with your edits. It sounds like you have the right attitude. It's obviouls that you want to make your book the best it can be.

Scott said...

Dude, I'm not trying to suck up and I'm sure you get tired of your "clones" gushing, but you are, in a word, awesome. You never stop teaching. Thanks for all you do.

(And sorry for the Jim Rome reference)

Rick Daley said...

I read something about incorporating feedback here:

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/08/guest-blog-week-critiquing-critiques.html

WORD VERIFICATION: hypepin. To be in the act of creating hype. Like hypepin up you old guest blog post.

T. Anne said...

I haven't crossed this bridge, but it reminds me of that Lara Zielin you tube video "Editing Letter".

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKkR9S2lq6Q

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

This is priceless! And so true! I definitely sit on critique for a while so it doesn't hurt as much when it comes time to write.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever play the game jenga? The one where you pull a brick out of the bottom and balance it on top while trying not to crash the whole tower?

Revisions are like that. My friends and I call that stage of revision "literary jenga."

Original Bran Fan

Beth Terrell said...

Thank you, Nathan. Since I'm about to begin what I hope will be the"next-to-final" edit of the second book in my detective series, the timing is perfect. All the changes that were suggested were fairly small, but you nailed it when you talked out how one small change can lead to many.

Kristan said...

I think my suggestion is to wallpaper your writing space with printouts of this post... And maybe ask someone to recite it to you while you sleep. Osmosis totally works, right?

Adam Heine said...

I'm not allowed to read critiques before bed. If I do, I don't sleep.

Great post, Nathan. As usual.

james said...

I have yet to receive my first one. Hopefully in a few days, but now I have some ideas on how to deal with it. Thanks

RLS said...

When my first choice editor read my whole novel and offered detailed reasons for why she was passing-- I discussed it with my agent and decided to rework my ms before further submissions. I knew said editor was right, but I did not know exactly how to fix the problem. For a day and a half, I walked around in a daze while trying to come up with a solution. (Then it took three months to actually write the solution.)
I learned it's important to accept that I'll be out of commission while grappling with revisions, thus, I'll need help covering my responsibilites. Now if someone could explain that to my kids...

Diana said...

For instance, you may not willing to get rid of the homicidal bald eagle in your novel, even if your editor or critique partner suggests it. But surely there's something you can change to alleviate their concerns. For instance, the homicidal bald eagle may need to have a conscience.

Hmmm. The homicidal bald eagle is an interesting character, since by law, no one could kill it.

You're so right about the suggestions that make you mad. My critique friends made lots of suggestions to my manuscript. Like you said, some where easy, some where obviously not necessary, but some made me stomp around the house, muttering about the idiotic suggestion, then grumbling that it might not be so idiotic, then begrudgingly accepting that it is probably the right change.

Rebecca Knight said...

One piece of advice to add: Friends don't let friends revise drunk!

Great advice overall, Nathan! :D

Ink said...

The greatest critique in the world is useless if you can't apply it properly. The most important part of the critique is what you do with it. So, in that light, I think it's the writer's job to evaluate any and every critique on its own merit and try to a) determine the root problem, b) decide if a change will improve the manuscript, and c) figure out what the most effective change will be. If option one isn't working, and someone suggests option 2... I'm often inclined to look for option 3 that's better than either of them.

A great critique is only great if you apply it.

Steph Damore said...

Well said Ink. Sometimes I think it takes a few days to figure out how to incorporate the suggested revisions too. I know at least that was my case. You get the advice & then think "yeah, good idea. How do I do that though?!"

Susan Quinn said...

Great post, as usual!

I tend to quickly scan through my critiques, making mental notes only (yes, yes, uh wow really messed that part up, WTF?) and then put it away. Hopefully for days or weeks. Then come back and work through it carefully and do as Ink says, and hopefully find a better way to tell the story.


At a recent writer's conference an editor shared the first (from the author) draft of the first chapter of the NYTimes bestseller, and then the final (edited) chapter. It was shocking the depth and kinds of revisions made. And they all, without doubt, made the story better. It was great mental preparation for when that day (hopefully) comes for me.

JDuncan said...

I'm in the minority of writers who looks forward to revision letters. Okay, I'm about to get my first one, but still, I'm excited to get it. I'll be the first to admit I'm not good at editing. I have a very hard time analyzing my own writing. Even after it has sat for a long time, my perspective still pretty much sucks. I do edit as I go along. I pre-plan a lot before I write, so I'm generally pretty solid on what I'm writing, and I try to take care to get down the best words possible for what I wish to convey in the story. So, when I write "the end" it is pretty much the end for me, and I have great difficulty looking for ways to improve. I know it can be, but I just can't really see it. So, I look forward to feedback and revisions because I know things will be seen that I just can't. I'm good at applying other's thoughts into my own and recreating. Give me the edits, I say! Bring it on, but please just give me enough time to do them.

Robin Miura said...

Ah, advice that makes my little editorial heart sing. I can't add much to this except to reiterate that an editor's suggestions are just that: suggestions. I am thrilled when I make a suggestion for a problem spot and the author takes it into consideration but then comes up with an even better way to fix it.

therese said...

What I find interesting about the editor-revision letter is that it arrives single spaced. What's up with that? A professional writer would not dare send a single spaced manuscript to an agent or editor. Supposedly they read a lot and double spaced is easier for them.

Do writers not read a lot too? If the cost of those extra pages and postage are too much for the publisher, it makes me wonder if I can trust their numbers for my royalties.

Editor revision letters are tough to deal with so I'd really like some white space on those pages. It's so much nicer and makes me feel like the editor actually took some time to format a letter to me.

Great post! Thanks for the opportunity to rant!

Anonymous said...

For me, before I incorporate feedback, I first need to figure out what's being said in a critique/editorial letter. More often than not, a comment or suggestion is off target, not necessarily off base or foul balls, but expressing aesthetic hunches without suggestions that illustrate what's meant or couched in boilerplate catchphrases with insider meanings that are not altogether clear enough to address them.

Once I've deciphered the cryptic comments, then I can plan a strategy to incorporate feedback points in my own creative ways.

Literary Cowgirl said...

That sounds pret close to my approach, though I have another step I call bitch to my agent, rant and rave then, let him talk me down off the ledge. I didn't reach that step until the 12th editorial letter, but I was sure glad to have someone to share my pain and mediate between the letter and my feelings.

Stephanie L. McGee said...

Mr. Bransford, have you been hacking into my computer? Seriously, cut it out. Anyways, great post. Bookmarking for future reference.

David Ferretti III said...

I take the position that negative criticism is positive. This is especially true if more than one review comments on the same problem. Willingness to listen, learn and make changes is a smart decision that will help propel my writing to higher levels.
David Ferretti III

Mira said...

These are really good suggestions, Nathan. I really like what you have to say and how you laid it out.

If I'm in this situation at some point, I'm going to look up this post and re-read it.

Nicely said! Thanks.

p.s. If I am in this situation, though, I'll probably re-read this, and then just go with my inital plan, which is to burst into tears, accuse my agent of hating me, accuse my agent of trying to stifle my creative freedom, accuse my agent of giving ME editiorial notes, but not his OTHER clients, whom he likes better, burst into tears again, ask my agent if he's really telling me I have no talent and he's just trying to let me down easily, point out to my agent that his lastest blog post included three typos, and he misplaced a comma, decide to give up writing forever, and go to bed for a week. Then, for variety, I'll burst into tears again.

After all that, I might actually read the notes.

Then I might re-read this post again, and go: Oh yeah. Good points here.

Steve said...

As my novel is at a very early stage (first draft of a prologue and 3 chapters) I don't have direct experience with an editorial critique, nor do I have any good source of informal critique.

However.

An analogous situation occurs as I trawl the Internet collecting evaluating and often rejecting tips, advice, guidelines and even "rules" for how to write well and/or successfully. And, of course, I'm always running a track down at some level where I compare my own work in progress against all these advices.

For a couple of months I've been seeing EVERYWHERE advice about the importance of hooking the agent/editor/reader in the first sentence/paragraph/page. And my response has been okay, my story starts REALLY slow - because that's the kind of story it is and that's THE story I want to tell - not some other - "success" be damned.

And then an odd thing happened. I'd been thinking for about a month - well, if the excitement is all (by necessity) later in the story, why not start at or near the end. And I even sort of knew that should be the answer, but I was too lazy to acknowledge that and make it happen. And, then, suddenly, after the umpteenth reiteration of the same advice, it just came to me that now was the time to do it.

So I took an hour or two, and wrote the scene that I'd been imagining almost from the very beginning of starting the project. A climactic and even triumphal scene. And I avoided letting the action of the scene complete, but it ended with my main character on stage with her band with thousands (well, maybe hundreds) of the audience yelling for the song she had never expected to perform again. And in a flash of revelation she realized that she was compelled to tell the story of how everything happen=ed, and who she and her band were REALLY.

And then we flash back to the beginning and proceed with the necessary-but-boring parts. I'm not going to say that this change miraculously created the great YA novel of the twenty-first century. It did, however, produce an infinitely more "grabby" beginning, and strengthened the story rather than weakening it.

The interesting point relative to this blog post being the months that I struggled with the issue on a semi-conscious level, and how suddenly it happened when it decided to be ready.

-Steve

Amanda Acton said...

giggles. This post reminds me of a rather entertaining one on How to write badly well - Regard editorial input as a personal attack

http://writebadlywell.blogspot.com/2009/11/regard-editorial-input-as-personal.html

On a side note, I like getting crits, especially the harsh ones. Should I go see a psychologist now, or now? :P

Claude Forthomme said...

As always, a great post! I haven't ever received a manuscript critique/editorial letter for the simple reason I haven't even got an agent and I'm only now finishing my first novel, but I sense that you are spot on!
I've written all my life (much of it as a professional in a big organization) and, let me tell you, critiques from one's boss have exactly the same effect. God, you feel like kicking him/her in the you-know-what... To avoid any unpleasantness, I'd always take refuge in the toilet. Then, after a long moment of solitude and numerous splashes of cold water on my face, I'd go back to my desk,refreshed and ready to tackle the problem...
Bottomline, the source of the criticisms were invariably a misunderstanding: I had not made myself clear. I think that's true for novel writing as well: the really hard part is to come across with what you really want to say.
So a criticism - any criticism - should act as a RED light. It means danger! The suggested solution may not be the right one, but one thing is certain, baby, you've got it wrong. You're not coming across, so you need to rethink the way you're saying it and try again...And that's where you come in, Nathan, with your good advice!

anne said...

nice one, nathan! one other suggesion: put regina spektor's tune, edit, on a loop and play it over and over again ("you don't even have good credit, you can't write but you can't edit") and remember that only amateurs can't take criticism ;-)

Nick Barnes Knows Books said...

Two items.

1) I agree with you all the way from here to infinity about the prudence of absorbing and implementing editorial advice. What amazes me ("me" being a writer somewhere between "having procured an agent" and "having not yet signed a book deal") is how much a fresh set of eyes can see. My agent has offered suggestions that I never would have considered -- some suggestions miniscule, other suggestions that seem as if she is saying, "Uh...what were you thinking here?" -- and nearly every suggestion has been exactly what the manuscript needed. Well said!

2) Short note - a fellow writer and I are attempting to spread the love of literature. Perhaps help us by Tweeting the link to http://NickBarnesKnowsBooks.blogspot.com? Or...perhaps don't.

Cheers.
~J

Elie said...

So grateful for Cascade Syndrome advice - had thought my brain had developed a serious malfunction. Plus, editing on the basis of a literary consultant's report: not a 'real' editor/agent, so harder to take seriously.

Lafreya said...

Thanks for this I'm waiting for my editorial letter in the next month or so. It's good to know how to handle this. My agent was once an editor so I kind of know what expect from the publisher. Still ...

Samantha Tonge said...

I think you also need to be wary of not jumping through too many hopes in the hope of securing an agent.

I dramatically changed a manuscript, following the advice of an agent i hoped with subsequently take me on. She didn't and i was left with a book that really wasn't mine. Not her fault, she meant well, but i should have had more faith in myself and knocked on the head my desperation to get published.

So if the critique is from an agent you haven't signed with, choose your hoops carefully.

Karen Schwabach said...

I'm just sitting down to an edit letter, too. I always put them aside for 24 hrs after reading them.

My writing teacher always said our only response to comments should be revisions. (Whether made or not made.) I've mentioned this to a couple of editors. They seemed relieved to hear it.

Karen Mahoney said...

"Cascade Effect Terror"

This is absolutely perfect. I know this terror SO well at this very moment. I think you should trademark CET! ;)

Cheers,
Karen

Nathan Bransford said...

I strenuously disagree that "great" artists are egotistical/divaish about their own work. That's a stereotype that doesn't mesh with the reality I've seen. Once writers start getting divaish about their work they stop listening to the people who are trying to help them, and their work inevitably suffers.

kdrausin said...

John O. - Thank you for sharing the "Editing Letter" Too funny-

Writers have to have a belief in themselves and perseverance. When I received notes on my second draft of my novel from a trusted editor, I sat on my bathroom floor and cried. I felt like a failure. I felt like a fool for thinking I would ever be published.I questioned my motive for writing. Then I forced myself back to my laptop and read only my notes for chapter one.

It's scary to spend a tremendous amount of time on something that could end up in a drawer. When I saw my notes, that's where I thought my ms was headed. I panicked.I went for a walk and then forced myself to sit down at my laptop.

I recognized the amount of work the editor put into my novel and I thanked her for helping and believing in me. Every day I work on my third draft of my novel knowing there are no promises for publication. I read my editing notes and if any thoughts of giving up cross my mind, I remind myself of the two qualities I need for success. Perseverance and Belief in myself -

Maribeth said...

You summed it up perfectly. I have found suggestions that made me mad at the moment made much more sense after time.

Maribeth:)

DCS said...

The first thing is to work on the MS until you can find nothing else to fix. Then you won't get mad about missing the obvious things and the editor can focus on the few remaining details.

Dara said...

No suggestions here! Great advice :)

ryan field said...

Sometimes you are on the same page as the editor, and sometimes you're not. When you are, it's almost as if you can read each others minds, and everything clicks. And when you work with these editors, you actually look forward to their suggestions, because these suggestions make the ms better. And this collaboration is an outrageous feeling.

But there are other times when you just don't click with the editor. It happens. Not often, but you know it from the start. Dipolmacy and e-mails with nice little happy faces help when you disagree. It's a matter of being professional and trusting your own best instincts.

Chuck H. said...

After reading all the comments, all I can say is I agree with Travener. First, you gotta get the feedback.

victoriaes7 said...

I entirely agree about being systematic. It's easy to get overwhelmed, and it can happen really fast when you try to juggle multiple corrections and trace them out all at once!

This a wonderful, and very well-timed post, Nathan. Thanks!

Ann M said...

Thanks for this great post, Nathan! It's quite interesting to hear this from someone who knows "both sides."

I could especially relate to #3 - Don't simply ignore the suggestions you don't agree with.

I like to think I'm pretty good at being open to suggestions. But, sometimes, there's that certain edit that can't be made. So, after further discussions with my critique partner, I realize that the issue with that paragraph/plot point/etc. is really grounded someplace else. Once I realize this and make that change, then the whole book becomes stronger for having found that weakness.

Kathy Maughan said...

Such excellent advice, and very timely for me! I'm in the midst of doing editor-suggested changes, and I think the best advice in here is to take some time before acting. Two weeks ago I couldn't see how to do any of it, and suddenly a path has opened up. You just need to let it set in for a day or two or twenty.

Nathan Bransford said...

Gordon -

Here's an article for you to read. THE GREAT GATSBY wouldn't have been THE GREAT GATSBY without Maxwell Perkins. Who, by the way, was not a writer.

And guess what - Fitzgerald resisted Perkins' changes but eventually realized he was right.

And yeah, I presume to give people advice about their work all the time. It's my job.

Eric said...

Stephen King recently did a book review on Carol Sklenicka's Raymond Carver, A Writer's Life.

Apparently the book goes into some detail on how Carver was heavily (and often poorly) edited "wide and deep" by Gordon Lish.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/books/review/King-t.html?scp=2&sq=raymond%20carver&st=cse

brian_ohio said...

Nathan... have you ever NOT signed a potential client because they wouldn't take some of your editorial advice? I'm curious.

As far as editorial advice, sometimes we don't know if it will even work unless we actually write it. No?

Oh... and if you need a beta reader for Jacob Wonderbar... I'm available. FREE!!!

Nathan Bransford said...

brian-

I've never actually encountered someone who refused to take any and all criticism whatsoever, but as Tina Fey says on "30 ROCK" - that's a dealbreaker!

Sarah Olutola said...

I'm getting nervous just reading this post and I haven't even started querying yet! Still, it's really good advice. I'm saving this for sure.

By the way, how long does the editing process usually take once you have an editor? Because so much editing happens at that stage, how much time should people take in editing their manuscript on their own before sending it off (assuming they already have an agent and this is, say, the second or third book in the series)?

DG said...

Great topic Nathan

When you spend the kind of mental and physical energy required to complete a manuscript, it's sometimes hard to hear anything other than what a great job you did.

I don't have trouble hearing the negative comments because I let them in with the idea that they will/can improve my manuscript.

There seems a strange interface between writers and editors. When I first heard the idea of someone editing my work, I thought: If they know so much why don't they write their own book. Then I learned what it is they do and was at peace.

My editor is nearly finished with my first manuscript. I've learned so much about the kind of things I do wrong when I write. So often, she has suggested a single word change, and the effect was terrific. This of course, was without changing the meaning of what I was trying to say. She didnt try to make it her book.

Ultimately, I want my book to get published, to sell and to do well. I must tell my story. If listening to those who know more than I do is required, then I'll gladly do it.

Mira said...

Gordon,

First, I've noticed a real change in the way you write your posts. It makes it much easier to read them - thank you! Props to you!

In terms of what you're saying, I used to feel the same way. I remember I went into my first writing class, and announced that no editor would ever touch a single word of my writing. Not a WORD. It was MINE, and I would not be dictated to!

Then I started to get feedback on my work, and did a 360 degree turnaround.

Boy, did I need that feedback. :)

The thing about writing is it's not just self-expression, it's communication. And there is no way to know how the person on the other end is recieving your words without asking them.

That's really what editorial notes are - feedback on how well you communicated your work.

Now, I think there is danger here. I get upset when I hear people changing their work drastically until it becomes something else. I think the writer has to hear feedback, but ultimately trust their own muse. I agree with Nathan when he says: Trust your gut.

But there's great value in getting feedback from the reader. And that's what anyone reading your work is - a reader, whether they have another title (agent, editor) or not.

You can always choose to ignore them. But it's good to hear what they have to say.

Lea Ann McCombs said...

Great reminder and well put! Thanks!

Mary Ann de Stefano said...

There is a nugget of truth in every criticism. As Nathan says, this too is, "Easy to say. Tougher in practice." But believe it's true.

Mira said...

Oh, and Nathan, I think you're right about the dealbreaker.

If an agent or editor gave me feedback on my writing, and I didn't agree with ANY of it, we obviously shouldn't be working together.

We have a different vision; it's not a match.

Jo said...

I think your suggestion to read the editorial letter through and then put it aside for a couple of days, is very sound.
Even though rationally I knew that my editor was merely trying to get the best book possible out of me, my initial reaction was one of defensive aggression and wounded feelings. When I was calm enough to think about what she had said, I was able to see it for the good sense and valuable advice that it was.

Anonymous said...

I have come to believe that a good editor–who is well matched to the writing-is essential. In some cases, not so much is needed, in other cases, much. But in either, it is a pair of professional eyes looking at the product, buffing and polishing it up.
Much of poetry, love letters, personal writing would seem wrong (to me)to edit.
But fiction and non-fiction?
The single most glaring sign of an amateur self-published book is the lack of finish, both in editing and design.So even if an author decides to go the self-pub route, these services seem often vital.

Linda Godfrey said...

Very good timing for me, too. I started last week to revise my very first novel, a women's fiction magic realism, that I wrote 4-5 years ago.

A very well-known agent had requested a full and then asked me to revise it, heavily, and send it back. I was clueless. It went in that ubiquitous drawer everyone has for hiding work you'd rather not look at. It has taken me all this time and two other novels and lots of research to have the slightest idea how she wanted me to revise it, but last week one of those long-lasting, spiral bulbs flashed on over my head and I pulled that big mess o'pages out of the drawer and got to work.

The bad news is I have no remaining electronic files of it that I can access so I'm rewriting from a print copy.

The good news is that this makes it so much easier to leave out big chunks of dreck. It had good bones, and now they are visible.

I know I'm not really answering the question of the day, but since I can now so easily see the horror of what I once considered a polished ms, I think I would pay lots of attention to any editor's suggestions. And I would not refuse any of them without a darn good reason.

Sarah Olutola said...

Oh, also another question for those of you who have gotten The Letter. Is it just filled with what the editor thinks needs to change or are there positive things in it too? Sounds like a stupid question, I know, but I'd really love to know what to expect when I (hopefully) get to that stage. Plus I think I'd cry in a corner if my (hopefully one day) future letter was all crit.

Janny said...

Nathan-

As usual, spot-on. Except that line about the homicidal bald eagle...I mean, if I'm brilliant enough to concoct a homicidal bald eagle...I dunno...I think I'd kinda want to keep that. (sigh)

I remember my revision e-mail after the editors involved enthused over my novel and said, "Oh, yeah, this won't need much work AT ALL!" 11 pages and one loooong Labor Day weekend later...

It was a better book. I know it, and they know it. And I've found that a really good editor will catch every single one of those places where I'm thinking, "Yeah, well, yanno, it's good enough"--when all the time I KNOW it's not "good enough," I'm just lazy enough to tell myself "it'll pass." Every single one of those spots, they nailed me on. Every single one of them, I sweat blood over. Every single one of them was better once they forced me to do my BEST work rather than just work that I'd perceived as "okay" and "good enough."

My two cents,
Janny

word verification= "henolar." I think that's the name of the homicidal bald eagle...

Ink said...

Gordon,

Just because William Faulkner said it doesn't mean he's right. And it sure doesn't mean he's right in regards to everyone else. That's one approach, one opinion. And it's dangerous to confuse the notion of great writing and great editing. They're different things and don't always go together. Both depend on a deep understanding of story... but one is primarialy creative and the other primarily analytical.

Susan Quinn said...

Ink - in your editorial past, have you been on the other side, issuing editorial letters? I imagine a variety of editors take different approaches, but do you think it common that editors will suggest deep edits (pulling whole paragraphs, changing character traits, rearranging material) for all their book deals, or just the ones they think have the potential to drive big sales (i.e. NYTimes bestseller material, however they may judge that).

Or maybe Nathan could weigh in on this? Do you find all your clients get the same editorial "attention" or does it vary?

Mira said...

Gordon - cool! I completely agree.

:)

S. M. Carrière said...

Very true, and thank-you for the suggestions. I hope that when my first reasoned rejection rolls around, I'll be prepared.... after the horrific hissy fit....

Moira Young said...

How do I respond to criticism? Very carefully.

Honestly, lately I've been working on not taking criticism personally. I try to be in a calm and detatched state of mind when receiving the ctiticism in the first place. And then I mentally quarantine that criticism until I'm ready to deal with it.

That's not to say that the monsters don't rear their head -- the automatic raging mother-instinct ("Don't you DARE criticize my baby!") comes to mind -- but I'm of the belief that if there's something wrong with my manuscript, then somewhere in my subconscious, I already know. So really, part of learning to deal with it is, for me, learning to listen to myself. Perhaps the painful rage comes from the fact that another person is able to see straight through to that part of me, when I can't see it myself.

Melanie Avila said...

I especially love #5. I've already figured that out about myself and learned I need to step back from the advice for a couple days before re-reading it.

Ink said...

Gordon,

Okay, I agree with that more than your previous comment, but I wouldn't go so far as to say agents shouldn't be mucking about with that stuff. Yes, some agents are probably more deal brokers than editors, but many will be great editors - for many that's probably part of what drew them to the job. Heck, many agents are former editors from major or minor publishers. And why wouldn't an agent see a great manuscript that has a couple problems that might hamper its selling but that the agent thinks they can help the writer correct? It's the same thing the editor will do before putting it before the public. If they have the skills they have the skills - and I'm guessing that many of them do.

And it's still up to the writer to determine the course of action, what suggestions to take or not to take. The agents editorial comments should speak for themself. If they're spot on and will help you make the manuscript better, great. If they don't, then don't take them. I don't think you can fault an agent for offering editorial suggestions... it's the writer's task to sort and evaluate such comments, and apply where needed. It's up to the writer not to take bad advice.

Ink said...

Susan,

I'm guessing it's more case by case, based around what they think a particular book needs. But I say that without much experience of big publishers. My editing background is mostly freelance (where people pay me specifically for that deep cut) or as a lit mag editor, where there's lots of vetting (selection) and copyediting but only a little deep editing.

Anyway, that's my guess, that it's more about the specific thoughts of the editor on a particular book (though editors are human and if a low priority book needed some editing when they were swamped with other stuff...)

Jenn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenn said...

First off, I've had both a non-editing agent and an editing agent, and I much prefer the agent who's willing to put on the editing hat from time to time. It helps that she's good at it, and is open to conversing about matters when I don't agree.

Next, about Faulkner's quote...can you imagine how a local or even online writer's group would tear apart his or Vonnegut's work if submitted by an unpublished writer? I agree that you need a bit of arrogance and commitment to your vision when writing breakthrough fiction like theirs, but for us genre writers, our goal is to entertain, write characters readers can care about, and (hopefully) throw in a few lines of brilliance every now and then. Input and editing can only enhance that.

Finally, I suggest writing an email in Word or save it in Drafts when upset about feedback from someone who can impact your career. DO NOT SEND IT. EVER. The letter is for you to vent and sort things out.

Lucy said...

This is getting to be an interesting conversation, is it not?

Gordon, I appreciate the elaboration on certain points. My feeling is that no matter how great you are, no matter how firm you have to be in defense of your work, it's possible to be polite and considerate of the people on the other end. Sure, you have to make considered judgments, and trust your own instincts in the end. As you pointed out, there's a risk of losing there. That risk is massively reduced if you're nice to the people you're dealing with.

I don't believe that it's possible to separate arrogance about your writing work from arrogance in your personal life. One will inevitably spill over into the other. I agree that you need a lot of faith in yourself and what you are doing, yes. Faith and confidence and endless determination. Arrogance, on the other hand, will slowly but surely strangle your connection to the human race, and in the end, be the death of any good you might otherwise do.

I'm looking forward to having an agent read my work and offer suggestions. I expect to value what this second pair of eyes can point out. I also expect that I'll be willing to make certain changes, while standing firm on others. To me, that won't be arrogance, or ruthlessness, but a matter of principle. There are some things that matter to the integrity of the story (and even to my integrity as a writer), but not all.

My operating rule is: proceed with confidence and consideration, and pick your battles wisely. :-)

Wordver: necorcos

Um, I don't even want to know....

Ian Wood said...

My equivalent to #5 is "Always pay special attention to critiques that you immediately reject." I find that defensive speediness is almost as reliable as anger.

Leigh Lyons said...

Every critique comment I get, usually sends me into the 5 Stages of Grief:

Denial: "What? Of course electric blue unicorns who spit fire are still 'in'! The person has no idea what (s)he is talking about."

Anger: "the %*@^#^% wouldn't know a blue unicorn if it bit him/her on the @$$!"

Bargaining: "Getting this critique doesn't mean I'm a bad writer right?"

Depression: "I love my blue unicorn and it makes me the worst writer in the world for liking, nay, loving them!"

Acceptance: "Yeah. That unicorn really has no place there."

I have found that I go through these quicker when I can bounce the big 5 off a friend.

Steve said...

Nathan,

(If you're still reading this thread.) Maybe we mean something a little different by a "great" writer. I'm talking about people who come along maybe just a handful per century. Somebody like Mark Twain, for instance. Not sure if we even have any living right now.

Could you imagine Sam Clemens rewriting to editorial order?

-Steve

Ink said...

Steve,

It seems like you're misconstruing the editorial process. We're not talking "writing to editorial order", but a writer receiving feedback and applying it where they deem appropriate. And, yes, certainly I think Mr. Clemens/Twain would consider feedback. Being aware of how people receive your writing (and using that knowledge to make your work better) is simply part of the job. I think the idea of the "untouched" genius who has never had help from another person is a romantic fallacy.

Unbounded genius and talent is great, but success requires a huge amount of work, and a large part of that work is the continuous act of grappling with weaknesses and flaws in an attempt to improve a sentence, a paragraph, a story. No one is just hatched into a writerly version of perfect grace. Feedback is part of the journey.

Nathan Bransford said...

Steve-

The great writers listen to feedback and make their work better. No one is such a genius that they can't improve their work with good editing.

Julia said...

Great post & great timing, Nathan, as I am expecting my first ed letter any time now. Thanks!

Jenn said...

I can't believe I'm arguing for arrogance...I'm not, really!! I do agree with the person who said arrogance disconnects us from others and is counterproductive, but there are breakthrough writers who are trying something different and will not be understood by publish-hungry critique partners and some publishing professionals to begin with.

What if Stephen King was told not to make us care a about a character and then kill him/her off? That might be sound advice for beginning horror genre writers, but I'm glad he broke that rule and endured rejection after rejection until he found someone who got it.

And Jodi Picoult, what if people told her she can't have characters we care about who do unlikeable things? She, also, broke the rules and endured more than her share of rejections before she got published.

I wrote two edgier YA books that got nibbles from agents, but no takers. Then I wrote a more innocent one and got a lot more nibbles and an agent. So, at some level I sold out to fit into my genre better, but now my agent is trying to sell my edgier books too, so it turned out for the best.

For those trying to buck the system, especially at the critique partner level and with potential agents who want revisions before signing, you need to decide if going against the grain is worth it sometimes even though it's a harder row to hoe...and maybe that takes a more stubborn belief in your vision and talent, if not arrogance.

Seren Wade said...

No 5 - is the most applicable to me ... you just have to simply take a number of deep breaths and calm down - my agent always seems to be correct, when I stop and really think about what has been said, but I rarely think that to start with!

A wonderful piece - with brilliant advice .... thank you!

Seren

marthz Ramirez said...

Great post, Nathan! I joined a crit group in Oct. Wish I read this when I first joined. It was overwhelming at first, depending on which crits were given. You are so right about taking a couple days and then going back to it. That is what I did and it sure helped.

Hope you had a great holiday! So thankful for your blog:)

Ink said...

Jenn,

Being receptive to criticism does not mean taking every bit of advice. It means evaluating the advice and using whatever will help improve your story (by whatever standards you, the writer, choose to apply).

If someone told Stephen King something stupid it's his job as a writer not to take the stupid advice. (I'm sure he gets a ton - I bet reading his fan mail is an interesting experience) But that doesn't mean he's never taken advice, critique, editorial suggestions, etc. His wife, if I recall, is always his first reader and critter. And I'm sure he has an agent and editor.

It's not, I think, a matter of arrogance (and ignoring any opinion but your own) but rather a confidence in your vision that allows you to discern what will be useful and what won't.

Lucy said...

Yep, that's what I meant. Thank you, Ink!

Demon Hunter said...

It's difficult to hear from a critique partner, especially mine.

My CP was an editor for a small publisher, so on my last WIP when she told me that I had "moustache twirling" dialogue from my villian, I nearly fainted. LOL. :-D But when I read the dialogue aloud, it did have that, "Aha, I've got you now" feel to it. LOL. So, she was right and my dialogue on my current WIP is WAAAAY better. :-D

vjc said...

When a change is suggested that I don't agree with, it's often because I haven't made some underlying cause/effect/condition clear earlier. So if I find myself explaining at length (even if it's only in my head) why that change is impossible, usually those explanations haven't been made in the manuscript. So I have to go back and make sure the framework supports the whole - again!

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Thank you for such an honest, relatable and important post. It's good to remember that the editor and the writer are on the same team with the same purpose: make the book its best. You did an excellent job pointing that out.

You know, your look at this is critical for both seasoned and beginning writers, but especially for beginners who don't understand that *all work needs editing.

One thing I usually do differently than you suggested, especially with fiction, is #4: tackling one editing change at a time. I do tackle them all at once. I'm not saying my way is better. Neva-neva! It's just that my *process works best when I tackle all at once. Let me tell you why.

If I went through the whole ms. and changed one element, I'd ultimately waste lots of time rewriting rewrites. During *my rewrite process, convos and other character's motives/actions might change the course of the original string of corrections, so tackling together creates the best corrective synergy in *my brain.

Does it cause extra checking? Yes. But it saves multiple rounds of editing the edits. However, I am a "pantser," so file that where you will. :)

Again, excellent post. Just excellent.

doctorquery said...

I'm sure you've seen The Intern's recent reaction to her own editorial letter? Very interesting.

G. Jackson said...

i guess it boils down to:

trust. trust that the professional you've received feedback from is good at his or her job (which, hopefully, is why you picked him or her) and knows how to bring your work to market.

gut. go with your gut if you know a suggestion is changing the integrity of the work, but try to get to the root of the suggestion rather than dismiss it. there might be an underlying thread that is important.

great post, nathan. thanks.

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

I learned about this blog through "Anita's Edge." BTW, I enjoyed reading your post. Anywho, it's funny how things work out.

Yesterday, I posted a draft of the prologue to my novel on my blogsite. I hoped that my "five followers" would give me some insightful and thoughtful feedback.

The first response I received was indeed helpful, but vague. When I read it to my husband, he echoed your sentiments, "Listen to your gut." Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something. Maybe I need to quit second guessing myself and just stick to the writing. I'll worry about the rest later.
Best wishes on your novel.

sophiabennett said...

This is sheer genius. It should be essential reading. I'm about to go through a line edit of book 2, but before I do I'm blogging about this post and how important it is for any writer who's lucky enough to be read by professionals. It's surprising just how painful it is and you make it much easier to manage.

Editing services said...

Good material, thank you.

C. S. Lakin said...

Critiques can be really painful. For those writers considering getting a professional critique before submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher (which often is a great idea), this is a great post:
http://wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com/2011/12/one-dish-of-critiquebut-hold-criticism.html

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