My editorial letter: if it’s nice, say it twice

Aya&Mercedes
Me with my Kensington editor Mercedes Fernandez at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference in 2015

I was in a mild panic when I received my editorial letter. I’m grateful that my editor was especially encouraging. In particular, she wrote a glowing opening in the email and then repeated it in the opening of the word doc letter she attached.

I tackled the issues in three parts: 1) the chapter-by-chapter changes she requested 2) the line-by-line edits on the manuscript and 3) the big picture edits.

One of my editor’s greatest suggestions was to change the beginning. As it stood, it started with a sort of introduce-the-protagonist-and-her world scene, and she wanted a more action-packed beginning. Like the way James Bond movies often end with the big chase/getaway from the prior assignment. In addition, she kept asking me why this particular quartet of women did these heists together, and wanted some backstory for them as a group. I decided to blend the two, and the book now opens with the situation that threw the four of them together into a heist team and bonded them for life.

That problem was fun to solve. Overall, however, most of the revisions were not so fun. For example, she caught seemingly endless problems in my timeline. Apparently she has a mind that tracks these things like a computer program. If in one chapter a character casually mentions that it’s Thursday and that day after tomorrow they’re going to have have a lunch meeting then when day after tomorrow arrives and they’re meeting for lunch in the office, my editor will write: “isn’t it Saturday?” How does she keep those details in her head? No one else who had read the manuscript had caught that. Not my agent, not any of my beta readers. But tracking is an editorial super power, and my editor has it. There were tons of these little timeline problems.

I had to do an extensive and detailed timeline to make everything align with reality, in which there are 7 days in a week, roughly 30 days in a month, and where the Oscars happen before Valentine’s Day.

So the timeline was a tedious fix, but by no means the biggest. The most overwhelming challenge was the fact that I had a 114K word manuscript that needed to be trimmed down to 90K. That’s a 25,000 word reduction, or 22%. More than one of every five words needed to be trimmed.

Some cuts were obvious. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my protagonist’s sister lives in Cuba. There was a whole storyline about the difficulty communicating across the US embargo against Cuba. And then, Obama normalized relations with the socialist Caribbean nation. Suddenly, a chunk of my novel demanded that the entire story be set in the recent past, or be revised. We chose to eliminate a large chunk of that part of the story, since the novel was running long anyway.

The first time I went through and did revisions, I cut any scene that I thought wasn’t needed. I also ended many scenes earlier. I cut some of my favorite scenes. I cut some of my favorite lines. Even cutting as much as I could, I only managed to trim several thousand words. This meant that I would have to make micro cuts at the sentence level.

Do you have any idea how tedious it is to go through a manuscript of 100K words and make these teeny tiny cuts from “she was determined that she would go” to “she was determined to go”? I cut every single word I thought wasn’t necessary. It was grueling. And I managed to get it down under 90K.

Thank goodness the book has a sequel. Some of my favorite scenes that involve the secondary protagonist Tyesha can be transplanted into this second novel, particularly some of the dialogue from scenes with Tyesha’s love interest.

Overall, as much as I groaned at first sight of her comments, I think my editor’s feedback forced me to dig deep, pay attention, cut mercilessly, and made my novel much better in every way.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 4 Comments

  1. Thanks much for this post. I really appreciate the details. Now that I am serious about my current project (meaning hard deadlines for myself), posts like this really help. It helps make it real! Thanks.

  2. I was asked to cut my novel, as well, by 15,000 words. I made it to about 9,000. I know there is more to come! I, too, cut major scenes that were important to me. (I used a few in another book.) But when I looked at the story, I felt I cut too much of why I was writing. I was changing my voice. And I didn’t like it! So, in the end, I put back some scenes, did word edits, and got to half of my goal. It is now in the hands of the agent. Like I said, I know there is more to come. But at that moment of choice, to leave in the scenes or to cut, I decided to be true to myself. I know the marketplace is looking for the “commercial” version of reading, that is, fast and furious…not adverbs, no backstory…straight to the point! But in this modern world of publishing, readers have gotten the short end of the stick. I missed that kind of novel, and so do my readers. That is what I wanted to give back to writing. A novel of depth, verbose, and full of lush landscape. In other words…maybe a few more adverbs than necessary! Will it work???? We shall see. But in the end, I feel your pain, and understand the work involved to get your novel to the point it needed to be. Thanks for sharing. And good luck with your book.

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