Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Editorial letters

I recently attended a class taught by a debut author who passed around the editorial letter from her publisher. I had never seen one and was eager to read it. Thirteen, single-spaced pages written in dense, long paragraphs. My eyes crossed imaging how difficult this letter would be to decipher. 

Today, I read a different author's experiences signing with her agent. Her editorial letter (from the agent. The book hasn't been shopped yet) was 10, single-spaced pages. Again, my brain nearly melted. 

(1) Are such lengthy editorial letters typical from both agents and editors?
(2) If yes, do you have advice on how authors should best tackle them?
(3) Also, why letters? When I beta read, I use the comments function in Word to highlight and add notes. To my novice mind, it's easier to decipher and act upon comments written in the manuscript than a separate letter with page-long blocks of single-spaced text.  

I suspect your answer to the third question will be 'tradition' as so often happens in this industry. However, knowing what to expect might help us authors avoid an outbreak of hives when we receive our first editorial letter.

(1) Yes
(2) One sentence at a time!
(3) Tradition sure, but also, narrative.

Editorial notes in letter format allow me more latitude than 1" revision notes on the side of a manuscript.

Also, a lot of my notes refer to over all structure: the middle sags, you're explaining too much.
Track change comments are good for specifics, but not things that apply to the whole ms.

Now, my question for you is why on earth are you worried about this?
When the day comes that you get one of these, it's not as though you're sent to a desert island to figure it all out for yourself.  Your agent AND YOUR EDITOR will help you.

This isn't some sort of antagonistic combative relationship where if you don't understand something, your contract will be rescinded and you'll be sent to Bad Client Dungeon to languish forever more.

Get off your rodent wheel, and write a book that has me reaching for the phone not a red pen.


Ryan Neely said...

I'm not worried about and editorial letter. In fact that something I'm looking forward to. However I do wonder about OP's mention of single spaced letters. Isn't it industry standard for authors to submit their manuscript in double-spaced format? (In fact, I believe I recall a certain shark suggesting this had to do with ease of readability.) Wouldn't it seem sensible to "return the favor" to an author? No judgment, just curious.

Liz Penney said...

I have done revisions for an agent and for editors. After publishing 30 books, I have never gotten a letter like that. My agent had a couple paragraphs of points regarding areas to tackle. Same with an editor, for my most extensively edited book.

Lennon Faris said...

I like the letter format. I keep a separate Word Document just for edit revision ideas. That way I can read through the story somewhat quickly, and go back and make cohesive changes after.

It is double-spaced and broken down by chapter, though. Makes it much more palatable.

julie.weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
julie.weathers said...

I think the OP is missing a very important point. The editor and agent alike cared enough about the project to write some very detailed letters to improve the project.

I have a writer friend who was recommended to an agent by a best-selling relative. The friend is also a talented writer. WF absolutely couldn't get any kind of feedback from their agent and finally in frustration hired a professional editor to the tune of several thousand dollars. Relative was in the middle of multi-media projects and swamped.

Anyway, WF decided they needed an agent who was more hands on and they parted ways. Getting these letters is much better than the, "It's probably fine."

Different agents offer different levels of advice. This is certainly something to discuss.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Considering a two paragraph critique from an agent (in a workshop setting) sent me into a full revision of my manuscript, I shutter to think what a 10 page single-spaced letter might do to me. I can't decide if that will be easier and harder.

Based on 10 pages, I received advice to start book earlier in the day, give more motivation to character X. Slow down pace (really, I was told to let the reader catch their breath) and punch up dialog. It is the kind of thing that does not apply to sentence one or two but to the overall manuscript. I find these notes quite helpful because if your dialog is flat in chapter three, it is probably flat in other places as well. Don't worry, OP, the editorial process is a good part of the journey. Because you are one step closer to publication and you are making your book even stronger.

KariV said...

I prefer letter form to Google doc comments or Word comments/track changes. Most of the time when I beta read, I try to offer broader feedback in email/letter form. Sometimes I go line by line and offer comments, but the broad approach is helpful when there are prevailing issues such as character development, fictional accuracy, and dialogue.

Kari Lynn Dell said...

What Janet said about the editorial letter (if done well) being for addressing issues regarding the overall ARC of the story, character tweaks, tone, etc. that affect the whole book, not just specific points.

Keep in mind that I have an excellent rapport with my editor and there is a lot of trust and respect on both sides of our relationship. Sadly, this is not always the case, but until you've established otherwise, assume your editor is not just being a jerk.

These are comments that almost always lead me to make changes in places where my editor DIDN'T insert a comment because I can see where adding or revising just a sentence or two will make the most impact. For example, a specific comment in Chapter 18 might say, "This dialogue/action comes out of nowhere. Why is he saying this?" And the problem isn't in Chapter 18, it's that I failed to set it up properly somewhere in the previous chapters. So if her editorial letter says, "Hero's actions/dialogue are inconsistent. He's coming off like a real jerk in Scene X and Y", I know to take a wide-angle look at it and decide whether the problem is in the set up, or the scenes she's referenced, or a combination of the two.

And yes, editorial letters can be a shock to your system. The key, as in dealing with any critique, is to acknowledge that you received it, read through the whole thing, make your own notes about anything that strikes you as totally off base that you DO NOT SEND TO YOUR EDITOR FOR GOD'S SAKE, then set it aside and let it simmer. Or boil. Remind yourself repeatedly that this person's sole purpose is to make your book better. When you've calmed yourself to the point that you can be rational, read the letter again. Then read your notes. Then POLITELY and CALMLY email any requests for clarification, or concerns you have with changes they've suggested. Frequently, once I've gotten past my first, sometimes violent reaction, I can see the problem that prompted her comments, but my solution is entirely different, usually because I have failed to execute what I was trying to do with story or character. I don't want to dive in and make those changes without running them by her first, though, so I'll say, "I see why you're stumbling over this, but I think the fix is do this instead", to avoid taking the book in a direction that doesn't work for her. We may go back and forth a couple of times to find a middle ground. In extreme cases, I may ask for a phone call, which can be much more efficient (BUT TAKE COPIOUS NOTES).

By making it a rational, reasoned discussion and hammering out any points of contention, I am able to approach revisions with an agreed upon plan, which saves us both time and frustration. It gives a frame of reference to comments, which somewhat diminishes the sensation of being pecked to death by crows as you work through all those little bubbles.

Unknown said...

In my experience, the block o' text editorial letter is often used in combination with tracked changes. Trust me, if you think your brain is melting at the thought of reading a dense paragraph, imagine trying to decipher that paragraph if it were spread across the narrative in one-sentence fragments, interspersed with hundreds of other notes. Usually the letter will explain the editor's overall thoughts and then the comments back that up with specific suggestions or questions. My impression is that this author may think the editor's main task is to fix typos and that sort of minor detail. But most likely the book will go through structural editing first.

Barbara Etlin said...

I don't like lengthy track changes. If a critique group member sends extensive track changes it screws up the paging format and I get frustrated. If they're only pointing out one word or sentence that's off, that's fine.

My agent gave short, general suggestions which I applied where necessary. The letter-style format is much better, in my opinion.

Craig F said...

Be sure to make the changes on another copy of your work. That way you can cross-check changes to see if they do too much damage.

The copy is also important because one man's ceiling is another person's floor. Editorial changes can be subjective and mean more to one person than to another.

Do not send revised copies to other agents you have queried. They will view your work differently.

I think that brick of text might be a more useful thing to keep firmly in mind as you edit. Random notes always confuse me.

Brenda said...

Writing is such a lonely profession.

My best friend patted me on the shoulder and said, “if nothing comes of all this writing, just remember that it’s good for your mental health.” Zinger.

Overheard in my kitchen: Should I read it? Is it any good? Beats hell out of the last two she wrote.

Feedback from professional eyes? Heavenly. I don’t care how they format it.

Kate Larkindale said...

I might be alone here, but I love being edited. Anything that helps get my book to a place that's better than where it was before is terrifically helpful, so whether it's in the form of an edit-letter, tracked changes and comments within the MS or a mixture of both, I love it. And yes, those giant blocks of text tearing apart something you're proud of can be hard to swallow. But once you have time to pick it apart and figure out how to fix the problems, your book is going to be better for it.

Rachel Neumeier said...

I've gotten plenty of editorial letters like that. I'm sure everyone's personal preferences differ, but I like them. The more specific the comments, the better, though broad "the middle sags" types of comments are okay as well if the issue requires that kind of comment.

I read that kind of letter; then I go through it and turn its suggestions into bulleted points; then I address the points from easiest and quickest to hardest and most time-consuming.

Then I read the letter again to see if I missed anything.

I've worked with editors who preferred to use "track changes." While I can stand it, I personally dislike "track changes" and much prefer not to use it.

Bill D said...

I've received lengthy comments from a paid editor and a very kind agent who rejected the manuscript but provided some good feedback. The problem with both is that they employ literary-speak, and it takes many readings to understand what they intend to say. Oddly (or maybe not, and with one key exception), the agent's two page comments did a better job that the six pages of the editor.

Theresa said...

Kari Lynn Dell's comments are right on point, especially about taking some time to digest the editorial letter.

And Kate Larkindale,I'm with you. I love being edited. Anything to make the book better and to educate me more on the writing process.

Kate said...

Just to add to what others have said: length of letter doesn't always = more work.

Both of my edit letters came in combination with tracked changes in the document. For my first book, that was about 2 pages of overarching notes and about 250 notes in the MS. The second book had about a 1 page edit letter and 100 odd comments.

Changes to book 2 were far greater and took longer.

Bear in mind that the length of the edit letter sometimes comes from your editor trying to explain why a change is important on paper so 3 paragraphs could easily be spent talking about 1 change.

Likewise, a tiny, in MS comment like: this isn't working... could mean having to re-think entire chunks of the book.

But if you're still worried, I'll tell you what my old agent told me when I expressed my worries that I'm not sure I'm 'doing it right' or 'addressing everything properly'... she said: this isn't a test, if you get it wrong, you'll be allowed to try again.

KDJames said...

I would love to get editorial feedback. In any format. Someday . . .

This topic reminds me of a comment Lee Child made in a video interview (there are so many Lee Child videos, I have no idea which one it was). Apparently he is famous (infamous?) for not making changes to his work once he submits it. He was asked about that and he said someone once suggested he change something in a story. He replied (paraphrasing here), Well, yes, I could do that. But that's not the way it happened.

I laughed so hard, I was wiping away tears. Mind you, I'm a BIG fan of his writing. But that level of arrogance/confidence in his work was mind boggling. And admirable.

AJ Blythe said...

There's a Bad Client Dungeon? Just when I thought there was only Carkoon to worry about.

Like Kate I have no problems with edits. Anything to make my ms sparkle some more is welcome. Feedback can be tough at any stage, but like Janet said take it one sentence at a time...what every step of being a writer calls for!

DeadSpiderEye said...

Way back, weigh whey back, like 1980 something, word processors actually had useful note recording features instead of those poxy little coloured boxes they use now. You'd get a whole page to jot down your notes and when you run out of space -- guess what, you got another page. Then some bright spark at M...soft decided that software was supposed to make the user tear their hair out, rather than make life easier and so the little yellow box was born.

Kari Lynn Dell said...

I'm just hoping that they've fixed whatever bug was lurking in the newest version of Word during my last round of copious edits. When I hit a certain volume of tracked changes it started locking up and having to reboot about every ten minutes, sometimes losing my most recent work in the process. I finally had to do the edits in a separate document then do a 'Compare docs' so my editor could see what I'd changed. A whole lot of writers were having the same problem, so we assume it must've been a problem in the program.

Or it was just rewriting half a book in tracked changes that smoke start coming out of my laptop's ears.

Laura Martin said...

I am looking at a 13 page version of this very thing as we speak. Getting ready to tackle the edits for book #5, and I would pay through the nose for these thirteen pages. They aren't something to worry about, they are something to be coveted. They are the pages that help me fix, polish, and clarify so that my readers can get the best possible story from me. They are single spaced, and they do make my eyes cross a bit, but you read it, twice, then walk away for 24 hours and let it marinate. Then come back and dive in. They are representative of so much time, effort, and care on the part of my editor and agent that I feel the need to send them Starbucks gift cards and a million thank you notes. Don't worry about them, when the day comes, you will be so grateful for them.