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How To: Edit Letters
Ah, the dreaded letter. What do you mean I haven’t perfectly executed this book?
Years and years ago I was at an author talk and they went over how they deal with edit letters. At the time, I didn’t know what an edit letter was and had never received one before, but for some strange reason their process stuck with me. Read the letter, mourn the letter, black out points that they knew they weren’t going to address, and keep going.
I think I dwelled on this because of the “mourn the letter” step. Sometimes critique is so easy to receive, and sometimes it’s difficult and daunting. When I received my very first edit letter after signing with my agents, I remembered that step—mourn the letter—and I let myself do the same. That didn’t mean I couldn’t take critique. But giving myself the space to be sad, disappointed, or frustrated was like writing a little love letter to myself. I love you, Kvita! I declared. Your feelings are valid! You are only human!
This other author had a standardized process for working through edit letters and knowing that gave me a push right off the bat to figure out what mine is. So I’m going to share my process in this newsletter in case it helps any of you with developing yours. So that when you receive your first edit letter, be it 2 pages or 20, your brain doesn’t completely short circuit.
Overview of Steps
Receive the Letter
Ignore the Letter
Destroy the Letter
Check the Letter
Receive the Letter
Ah, the dreaded letter. What do you mean I haven’t perfectly executed this book? I always know I will receive an edit letter and that I must revise my book, but secretly I always hope the edit will be 1 page singing my praises and telling me I’ve done everything perfectly.
So anyways, I get the letter, and I read it immediately. It’s important to me to read it ASAP because otherwise I will spend my time worrying and wondering what it is, how bad it is, what the scale of revision will need to be. This is a skim read to pick up on the major points and gauge how I feel—is my initial reaction that I agree with these points or disagree? When I close the letter again, what do I remember?
Then I close that letter. I don’t even read it twice. I read it once, fast, and put it away.
Ignore the Letter
Everything else in my life is suddenly more interesting than this letter. I will do anything else. I will watch TV and talk to friends. I will ignore the letter for at minimum 24 hours, more typically around 72 hours, and occasionally up to a week. This is a critical step (for me) because it allows me to work through my feelings. This is my closest step to “mourn” the letter, but “ignore” is usually better for me because I am actively trying not to work on it.
I’m eyeing it from the side, keeping it in my peripheral. I get catty about the points I don’t agree with or don’t feel like implementing, and I chew on what I might have to work on. I ask myself lots of questions. I go on walks. I wait for the excitement to build, and in doing so the muddy water of the edit letter settles like silt.
On the bottom, things to discard.
On the top, the fresh waters of revision.
I tend to only think about what I understand to be the main points. I turn them over when I’m washing the dishes or when I’m feeding my cats or doing any other mundane task. I connect them to each other, all mentally, thinking and thinking and then eventually not thinking and ignoring. I give myself time.
And with time comes a plan.
When my thoughts begin to loop around a general vision of the major changes I’ll need to make, that’s when I get to work.
Destroy the Letter
My agents are so nice and say such pleasant things about my books at the beginning of their letters. This is the first section I destroy. Sometimes I keep only a single sentence if it that captures the heart of what I wanted to achieve. Sometimes I delete it all. Bam, gone. I save a version of the original letter elsewhere and start hacking away.
I delete praise, I delete the connective tissue of sentences. I turn the points of revision into a short bulleted list, usually separated by section (Plot, Character, Miscellaneous). I take a 6 page edit letter and make it 2 pages. I combine points that I think can be answered in the same way. I delete points I don’t agree with. All of this planning is guided by the general sense I developed in the Ignore the Letter phase. This is my north star, my guiding compass. When I am valiantly facing the onslaught of very good suggestions in my edit letters, I don the floaties that are this sense of what’s most important and organize around that. Have I thrown in enough metaphors? You get the idea.
I make the letter work for me in this phase. I structure it so it works for my brain. I answer things how I want them to be answered, and if I have to ask the letter-writer clarifying questions I do that too. I don’t just write out what needs to be changed, I write out how I’ll do it.
At the end, I am left with a specific series of things to change. A game plan.
I’m leaving this section under the general title of Revise but some degree of Ignore the Letter comes into play here too. Once I’ve created that wonderful, perfect new document, I close it and usually don’t open it again.
This is a nightmare for some people—you just made a plan, what are you doing? But it’s important for me when writing to allow room for unexpected maneuvers on my part. I’m a pantser, and I write to find a story. I can only stay engaged with the writing if I feel like there’s flexibility, like the story is alive instead of just being recited. So I rely on my memory (which is very flawed, but like that muddy water the unimportant stuff falls away and the major stuff rises) and I begin to revise.
Sometimes, I start with the smaller bits that can be knocked out of the way, but usually I start with the major stuff. Things like restructuring or scene rewrites, because they’ll affect everything else. After a while the revision takes on a life of its own. There’s a tipping point wherein I’ve moved from mentally checking off a list, to having changed my story enough that I’m now writing to fill in the gaps. I’m drafting and the book is no longer what it was. I’ve tipped from the D1 file designation to D2 and I’ve archived the last version of my book somewhere. This is a brand new thing, and I need to make it work on new terms.
This move to Save As and rename my file is mentally a great help to me. The edit letter has shifted the pillars of the story, created new gaps to fill, new scenes to write, and things to delete. I take my book as it is in its new form and I go all out.
Check the Letter
When I’ve finished revising, I go back and check the letter. I can gleefully delete all the points I’ve addressed and reorganize anything remaining. Of what’s remaining, I either see that it no longer fits whatever direction I’ve taken the book, or I go back in and implement these remaining points. This is a spot check and doesn’t usually take me too long because whatever I forget is usually small potatoes, but this could be a longer step for anyone else. I delete my letter down to zero. I leave that one compliment I kept, if I have it, and I file it away.
I’ve simplified my process a bit, I admit. For instance, after this Check the Letter stage I’d convert the manuscript to PDF or send it to my phone and read it in a new format. There I’d catch typos and continuity errors. So my work doesn’t end with Check the Letter but the main revising does.
This is actually one of my only writing processes that does not change book to book. Perhaps because it’s dictated in large part by outside forces. I find it comforting that I will always know how to tackle an edit letter, no matter how long, no matter the book, and I hope that you all will develop your own set of steps to guide you.
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