Surviving The Dreaded Edit Letter

It gets worse before it gets better!

When I imagined editing my upcoming novel, KINGDOM OF SECRETS, I figured it would be grueling, but I never expected it to take a turn toward the dystopian. But just as I’d gotten into my revision groove, the Coronavirus upended life as we know it and threw us all into various states of panic and quarantine. A global pandemic tends to put things into perspective, and with respect to my book, I suspect it could have gone one of two ways:

Why am I wasting my time with this silly kids’ book when there are far more important things going on in the world?

or

In this time of massive anxiety, people need stories more than ever, and I’m honored that I get to share mine.

I’m happy to report that I fell into the latter camp. In this trying time, reading and writing have been my escape, even when I’ve had to do both in a cramped house while stuffing my face with bulk Pringles from Costco. And I have been buoyed by the fact that maybe one day my own book will provide a much-needed distraction for someone. Or even better, much-needed inspiration.

But I digress. Since most of my editing happened under “normal” circumstances, I’m going to write about that part. For those who don’t know, getting a book deal isn’t the finish line in the publishing process – far from it, in fact. Manuscripts go through extensive edits after they’re acquired, and the first, most intense round focuses on “developmental” or “structural” edits. It includes such joys as revising plot points, moving scenes around, adding and removing characters, etc. These are the edits that put the “Dreaded” in the title of this post.

Waiting for an edit letter to arrive in your inbox is like waiting for a jack-in-the-box to pop out – low-level anxiety followed by a moment of paralyzing terror and, finally, realization that the thing you feared wasn’t all that bad. But unlike cranking a jack-in-the-box, getting through an edit letter requires planning and hard work. Here’s my advice for tackling it, based on a whopping sample size of one. The usual disclaimers apply.

•  Prepare Yourself. What calmed me the most when I was waiting for my edit letter was making sure I was ready to hit the ground running. I knew I’d only have about a month to make edits, on top of working full time and taking care of my family, so I needed to maximize writing time and minimize distractions. To that end, I stocked up on everything I might possibly need – printer ink, paper, notebooks, pens, post-it notes, coffee, and several family-sized bags of Twizzlers (your essentials may vary). I declined most social activities and warned people that I’d be busy/absent for a while. I even scheduled some time off work (but be careful being too specific with plans, as I had to adjust my time off when my edit letter was delayed). You can’t anticipate everything or put your life on hold for your book, but the more you can prepare your schedule, your workspace, and your headspace for what’s about to happen, the better you’ll feel.

•  Prepare your Loved Ones. I highly recommend bracing your family for this experience before you get your edit letter. If you’re like me, this will be the first time someone is paying you to write and the first time you’re writing on a deadline. What was once a hobby I did in the margins suddenly became a second full-time job. This was a huge adjustment for me as the author, but also for my husband and daughter. Be upfront about the time commitment with everyone who will be directly impacted, and set reasonable boundaries before you need them. My husband has always been supportive of my writing, but there are limits to what he can (or should) take on while I’m holed away editing. Getting published is an amazing accomplishment, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your family (or your day job or your mental health, etc.).

•  Don’t Freak Out. When my edit letter arrived, I was equal parts relieved (Woohoo, this is really happening!) and terrified (Oh my God, this is really happening!?!). The first thing I did was scroll to the bottom of the letter, my heart sinking a little further with each new page. My edit letter came to a staggering twelve pages long! But guess what? The page count didn’t actually matter. My edit letter was completely different from the feedback I was used to receiving from critique partners. In addition to suggestions about what needed improvement, it also included a detailed plan for how to make those improvements. A significant portion of those 12 pages was devoted to helping me navigate my revisions (while leaving the specifics entirely up to me). When I finished reading it, I actually felt relieved. Not because I didn’t have my work cut out for me (I did!), but because I had a pretty clear sense of what I needed to do.

•  Maintain Perspective. This is a piece of advice I’ve heard frequently, but it bears repeating. Remember that your editor loves your work! He or she enjoyed your book enough to acquire it and put their reputation on the line for it. They are invested in making it even better. Don’t let a long edit letter fool you into thinking otherwise.

•  Let it Marinate. Ok, I’ll admit it – I can get a wee bit defensive when I first receive feedback on a manuscript – even when it’s spot-on. And I have it on good authority that I’m not the only writer who reacts that way. I suggest letting your edit letter sit for a day or two after you receive it. I got mine on a Friday evening, read through it once with a glass of wine, and didn’t look at it again until Monday morning. That gave my ideas time to coalesce in whatever subconscious part of my brain does the heavy creative lifting, so by the time I sat down to work, ideas were bubbling up all over the place. And it gave me time to mellow out so I could approach my revisions with an open mind.

•  Treat Writing Like a Job (Because It Is Now!). This was my favorite part of the whole experience. During my time off work, I woke up in the morning and got ready as if I were going to my day job. But instead of heading into the office, I sat down for nine solid hours of writing. I won’t lie and say I enjoyed every single minute of it, because there were definitely low points. But even when I was banging my head against my desk, I felt like an actual, professional writer banging her head against a desk. And that was pretty awesome. Enjoy that feeling. But also: use that time to write. You’re going to need it. 

•  Make a Plan. I spent my first two full days of editing doing two things: making a spreadsheet and staring into space. Both of these activities were essential. First, I broke up my editor’s comments into small, manageable tasks and put each one into a separate row of a spreadsheet. Then I rearranged them in the way that worked best for me – in my case, by act – and added another column for my own notes. And then I sat down and… thought. Even though I didn’t actually revise anything in those first two days, they were arguably the most important part of the whole process. That’s when I worked out specifically how I was going to tackle my revisions, which served as the basis for everything that came next.

•  Communicate with your Editor. As my editor made clear to me from the start, the editing process is a conversation. Once I had a clear plan of attack, I sent my editor the spreadsheet, which allowed her to quickly see how I intended to address each of her comments. We went back and forth a few times trading ideas and feedback until I felt comfortable implementing the plan we’d agreed on. The very last thing I wanted was to spend a month revising my book only to have my editor come back and tell me it was all wrong! I made sure I had her buy-in before I made a single edit to my manuscript.

•  Tackle the Easy Stuff. Finally, it was time to start revising. Even though I had a plan, I was still daunted by the task ahead. So I started with the low-hanging fruit – like changing the POV from first person to third in certain chapters. This allowed me to start checking things off my list and feel like I was accomplishing something.

•  Tackle the Hard Stuff. Eventually, I had to wade into the big revisions. Having a game plan helped immensely, but even the best outlines can fall flat when translated into an actual draft. Several times I had to go back to the planning stage and rethink my approach, but in general, I followed my outline. I focused on one act at a time. I started with all the major rewrites and new scenes for Act 1, then re-read the entire Act 1 for flow and consistency. Then I set it aside and moved to Act 2, and so on. Again, dividing it into sections to make it feel more manageable.

•  Take Walks. The corollary to “letting it marinate” is to take breaks at regular intervals when you’re in the thick of it. Get up and stretch your legs. Feel the sun on your skin. Remember that there’s a big world out there. And clear your head so you can come back to your laptop refreshed.  

•  Read it Again. I set aside roughly a week at the end of the revision period to re-read the entire manuscript one last time from start to finish. This is when I was able to focus on the big picture revisions my editor suggested, like fleshing out characters and layering in world descriptions. It also allowed me to catch lingering inconsistencies caused by all the changes I’d made.

•  Let It Go. Finally, revisions were done! It was unnerving to hit send on a manuscript that had changed so dramatically without letting my critique partners pore over it first. But here’s the good news and the bad news: this was only the first round! I’ve still got line edits and copy edits ahead of me (more on that later).

•  Marvel at What You’ve Done. If someone had told me two months ago that developmental edits would be fun, I would have rolled my eyes. But I loved working on my story with a fresh perspective, alongside someone who loves it as much as I do (and also happens to be an editing genius). I’m thrilled and amazed at how far it progressed in such a short time, and I’m more excited than ever to get it into the world.

And that’s it! That’s the approach that worked for me, and hopefully others can take away some useful tidbits from it. If you have tips on how you prefer to tackle edit letters, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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