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The Dreaded Editorial Letter

By Rodger Evans, via Flickr's CC
By Rodger Evans, via Flickr’s CC

Please welcome back guest Densie Webb [1] whose first novel is You’ll Be Thinking of Me [2]. Densie is currently working on novels two and three, and she’s also a nonfiction writer/editor, mainly about health and nutrition. She has written for The New York TimesParade, been a columnist for PreventionFamily Circle and now writes for industry and trade organizations. She added fiction to the mix about six years ago and never looked back. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, SheWrites, the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Romance Writers of America. She’s a music lover, walker (not of the dead variety), dreamer, warm-weather enthusiast, and has now acquired all of the usual writer quirks, including the uncontrollable urge to write about people and things that live only in her head. Connect with Densie on Facebook [3] and on Twitter [4].

The Dreaded Editorial Letter

I recently received the Editorial Letter from my developmental editor for my second manuscript. Eight debilitating pages, single-spaced, in addition to imbedded comments on almost every page. As you probably know, either from experience or hearsay, editorial letters can be traumatic. They are not for the faint of heart or the easily discouraged, but they are a necessity. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

With my first manuscript, I waited a month before I worked up the courage to open The Letter (without a deadline, I was afforded the luxury). This time, however, I ripped off the Band-Aid and clicked “open” with equal parts excitement and trepidation.

It was like someone telling me I’m beautiful, while punching me in the gut, knocking the air out of my lungs. As with any good editor or critiquer, my editor provided positive feedback “This is a WONDERFUL framework for what I think can be a compelling, romantic and affecting story.” But there were lots more, “What is this?” “I don’t understand?” “This is a recap.” “How does this move the story forward?” And plenty of, “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”

On your first read through said letter, thoughts of self-flagellation may be front and center—as they were for me—as well as doing harm to said editor. (How dare she call my protagonist weak?) It’s only after you’ve had time to digest your editor’s words will you be able to step back and nod in hearty agreement and forgive them their perceived sins, even if you haven’t a clue how you’re going to address any of it.

Not long after receiving my letter, I enrolled in and binged on Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass on scriptwriting. He said that he himself always works with someone to get advice on what needs to be “fixed” in his drafts. And he said that he always nods in agreement during the meeting. But, he also said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “By the time I’ve left the office and am pushing the down button on the elevator, I want to kill myself, because I have no idea how I’m going to fix anything.” Even the esteemed Mr. Sorkin finds the process difficult.

Everyone’s approach to addressing the Editorial Letter is different, just as everyone’s approach to writing differs. Granted, this is only my second time up at bat, but I think I can offer some useful advice for coping with that dreaded letter that will keep you from committing hari kari or editorial homicide. 51-tzmndwlSo far, it seems to be working—both my editor and myself are alive and well. But bear in mind that if you’re lucky enough to land an agent and/or a publisher, you get to do this all over again! At least twice.

  1. When you spot the email from your editor in your inbox, breathe deeply, make a cup of tea (or a stiff drink) and brace yourself. No matter what your mom, your best friend, your neighbor, even your crit partner told you about how wonderful your story is, a good editor is going to be brutally honest and tell you things you’re none too pleased to hear about the story you spent the last two years nurturing. Just remember, that’s what you’re paying them for.
  2. Go somewhere free of distraction before you click “open.” And go there alone. This is too personal and often too painful to share before you’ve had time to process it.
  3. Read the letter with the “macro comments” first. Save the specific comments imbedded in the draft for later. Otherwise, your head will explode. Trust me on this. I’m still picking up bits of gray matter from the floor.
  4. Get a yellow highlighter and mark the good stuff. “This is a great character trait,” “I love this backstory” and reread them when you’re feeling especially discouraged, overwhelmed or despondent.
  5. Once you’ve had time to process the letter and decide the editor might just know what she’s talking about, open the marked-up manuscript. Think of those comments as footnotes to the items in the letter. They’re specific examples of what you’re already been told in more general terms.
  6. Now you’re ready to jump in and “just do it.” If you wait until you have it all worked out in your head, it will never happen. Kind of like waiting until the “right” moment to have kids. The result would be zero population growth.
  7. Tackle structural problems addressed in the letter first—timelines out of whack, inciting incident too far back in the story, getting rid of irrelevant secondary characters, changing or strengthening the motivation of a protagonist, adding conflict, reworking the ending. Use index cards, corkboards, Scrivener, Donald Maass workbooks—whatever works for you.
  8. After the big picture problems are “fixed,” then take on the individual comments within the pages. As you address the comments, other problems will jump out like pages in a pop-up book. They can’t be ignored.
  9. When that’s done (three more difficult words were never written) go back, reread the editorial letter. Make a bulleted list of things you’re not sure you’ve addressed thoroughly and reread your manuscript for the thousandth time.
  10. Address the items in your bulleted list, read the manuscript for the 1,001st time, hit “send” and hold your breath until it comes back, pointing out problems you were so confident you had fixed.

The key to keeping your sanity as you tiptoe through this manuscript minefield? Approach the process with an open mind, a willing heart and a deep desire to make the story the best it possibly can be. Nobody said it was going to be easy. They just didn’t say it would be so hard. Or so satisfying.

What are your tips for…or experiences with…editorial letters? We’d love to hear!