When The Editor Says Changes Must Be Made ….

Lea Wait, here. I just returned from a book festival in New York State, weary after meeting and greeting and driving many miles to do so.  My husband welcomed me home with a hug, a glass of wine, and the words, “It’s here.” 

I knew exactly what he meant. My next couple of weeks have just been preempted by the manuscript I finished in March: the sixth mystery in my Shadows series that I hope you’ll be reading next March. My editor’s been studying it line by line for the past month, and now it’s winged back to me to fix the major and minor mistakes she’s found, eliminate the dull spots she located, and add in a tense moment or twelve that I’ve thought of in the meantime.  I haven’t looked at the red-penciled pages yet, but I’m sure she’s made improvements I agree with on almost every page.  I’ll look at her marks and groan, wondering how I could have made such stupid mistakes, or written so awkwardly. Some of her comments I’ll disagree with. Some sections of the book I’ll re-write completely, either based on her suggestions, on my own inspiration, or on a combination of both.  

Both my editor and I want the manuscript to be as strong as it can be, and at this point it’s a joint venture. I welcome improvements.

I’ve had editors in the past who made almost no comments. I’ve also had editors who made only very large, overall comments. One mystery editor felt I’d made an “inappropriate individual” the killer. Sure, I’d explained why he’d done the deed. Of course, I had red herrings, and other suspects. But she just didn’t like that he was the guilty one.  If she was going to publish the book, I’d have to make the killer someone else.  So I did. I added in another character, starting in Chapter 1, and wove that character all through the book, leaving everything else pretty much the same. It only took a few days, actually, and was an interesting exercise.  Strengthened the book too:  one more suspect. 

Another editor looked with smaller vision. She had almost a phobia about commas.  She went through my manuscript, every time, and took 95% of my commas out. The first time I had a small fit.  I’m not in love with commas, but when I put one in, it’s for a reason. But The Great Comma Elimination was clearly not up for discussion. I found myself wonderfully vindicated when, after all other editing was finished, the copy editor went through and put all my necessary commas back in.  After that I didn’t question any eliminated commas on the first editing rounds. I just made sure I had the same copy editor.    

My most frustrating experience with an editor was with one of my children’s books. The editor decided the book was too long, and said the first 50 pages must be cut. Totally. I fought that one. Hard. But it was no use. My problem was, of course, that a lot happened in those 50 pages.  By cutting fifty pages I had to cut several characters, and what I felt was important depth to the main character’s back story, which was now being “told” instead of “shown.” The cut pages also eliminated an entire geographic location which I’d hoped to include for historical reasons. Gone. None of the  “compare and contrast” I’d hope the book would illustrate. The book is a strong one, but I still feel those first pages would have added a depth it never regained.

When I speak to groups I’m often asked if I’m hurt by editors’ changes. (Not if they improve the book!) And if  I agree with the changes editors ask for. As with the changes I mentioned above, usually I do. Hey — the boss is usually right!

But there have been times when the editor(s) have not been right, and, yes, those times I’ve stood firm. The time an editor suggested I change a reference to Monhegan Island to “a real island.”  Or when I described a Maine blizzard in 1838 in which “drifts were above the heads of the younger school children.” An editor wrote in the margin, “Snow doesn’t get this high.” After due thought I wrote back, “In 1838 Maine it did.” The line stayed. 

Directions to places in Maine have sometimes been questioned. (Yes, they were traveling East – not north.)  One editor pointed out helpfully that a woman in one of my historicals was always wearing a blue dress. I’d forgotten to describe different clothing?  No, I wrote back.  She only had one dress. 

I’m a firm believer in critique groups, in critical “first readers” (mine is my husband,) in agents who give feedback, and in editors. Having a manuscript published without first having someone who is trained evaluating it dispassionately and pointing out its weaknesses would be like a woman dressing in her best, applying makeup and combing her hair — and never looking in a full-length mirror before she went out into the world. 

Today I’m unpacking, writing this blog, catching up with other paperwork, and looking forward to tomorrow, when I’ll open that envelope from my publisher, and begin again to make that book the best it can be. I owe it to myself and to my readers, and I’m lucky to have an editor who believes my book and its readers are worth her time, too.

I hope you’ll think so next spring, when SHADOWS ON A CAPE COD WEDDING is published.

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4 Responses

  1. Lea, what a great blog! I keep thinking of similar experiences I’ve had, too, with past editors and copy editors. Makes one feel better to read of yours. An E.P. Dutton editor made me cut 10,000 words of the first third of a YA novel, and I went screaming-crazy doing it. LIke you, had to cut out a character. In the long run though, I didn’t miss those lost words.
    Meredith is simply the best editor I’ve ever had, so although I do sometimes holler “No, no, I can’t alter this!” I’m glad, in the long run, that I did. Good luck to you when you open that envelope!

  2. I once had an editor tell me the book was good to go except I had to change the killer!

  3. I have to say that Merry’s “suggestions” have been right on the money pretty much every time. My books have often been vastly improved by fairly simple changes based on her input. Thank you, Merry!

  4. I’m blushing! You’re all most welcome.

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