Letter from an Editor

 

There are a lot of ways to approach this topic, now that I think about it. We revise our work so many times before it’s published, with feedback from so many different people. After I wrote The Dream Peddler, I went through it twice, then I gave it to a few beta readers, and went back in with their feedback in mind. Then I began to query, and I’ve lost track of how many times I edited during that process—not only because agents sometimes gave me helpful suggestions, but because so much time was passing. At least once every six months, I would go through it again. It is amazing how much the passage of time will sour me on my own writing, and I mean that in the best of ways. Mostly what I do is chop. All those unnecessary words, sentences, images that no longer work for me, scenes that no longer work for me, all suddenly pop. They don’t belong, and they don’t belong so vividly that I’m always amazed I couldn’t see it before. And a little concerned that, now that I’m actually publishing the book, I’ll be horrified six months after it comes out that it’s set forever, and I can no longer go back in and change it. (Technically, I haven’t been able to change anything since I sent back my first pass pages, but you know what I mean.)

When I signed with my agent, she wasn’t thinking we would need to do major revisions. She sent me a sweet letter that began with a statement about how she had really tried her best, but she simply couldn’t think of a single way to make my book any better. (I liked this.) And then she proceeded to tell me a number ways she thought it could be better. In all seriousness, they really were fairly small things, and I think I added only one scene.

What I’m really interested in covering with this post is what I think of as the Big One—the dreaded editor’s letter. I was actually on vacation when I got mine, sitting in a hotel room with my two kids at the end of our first leg on the way to visit my mother and stepfather. I saw the email in my inbox. I told myself it would be best not to open it until I got home a week later. Curiosity, however, killed that wisdom. I could not resist. I opened it.

I think the thing that makes these letters so hard to swallow, at least at first, is how bloody long they are. If memory serves, mine ran about six single-spaced pages, and I’ve definitely heard of them being longer. The suggestions were divided into micro, mid-level, and macro concerns. All very sensible. As my editor had warned me on the phone, most of what she wanted was expansion. Funny, I always thought of myself as the kind of writer who blathers on and on and then spends most of her editing time cutting stuff, and I am, but much of what I was being asked to do was add. And that’s a great position to be in, I think. It can be daunting, but what writer wouldn’t want to keep on writing about the story and characters they love? 

The only thing that threw me was being asked to make one major change to the plot. And I didn’t know how to do it, at first. There were numerous possible alternatives, but none of them felt right. I won’t go into what it was because spoilers, but it took me a long time to resolve. I wondered what might happen if I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do it. Fortunately, it never came to that. I stewed over this change all through my “vacation,” bouncing ideas off my mom, who is also a writer, and even my stepfather pitched in. My problem with other possibilities was that they either disrupted the plot, or they felt as if I were forcing characters to do things I didn’t really believe they would do. I don’t plot things out in advance—I created these characters, and the plot grew organically out of the things they wanted, the things I thought they would say and do. Going back and reworking that was an enormous challenge. And a plot can be a very delicate piece of weaving: pull one thread, and you may find the whole thing begins to unravel. 

But no one else knew my story and my characters the way I do. My editor could tell me why she thought this change was necessary, and explore ideas with me, but the only person who could find the solution was me. I went back home. We had agreed that two months should be enough time for me to work through the edits, although—and I don’t know if this experience is common—I felt absolutely no pressure. We were almost two years out from publication, so the message I kept getting was that I could always have extra time as long as I gave everyone some warning that I would need it.

I came down with walking pneumonia. Strangely enough, this did not affect my timeline, although it may not seem strange to people who know me well. I was really, really sick, but it took me a few weeks to realize I was not going to get better without medical treatment. I coughed so hard that I tore all the muscles in my chest, and coughing became extremely painful, yet I couldn’t avoid it. I went to the doctor, finally, but my first round of antibiotics didn’t work. I went back, twice more, before it finally cleared up. 

I believe this is as close as I will ever come to being like Stephen King, recovering in agony from almost being killed by a motorist and still knocking out a thousand words a day. For me, having pneumonia meant I had to take it easy and stay pretty still, but that lack of activity—at the end of summer, when normally I would have been hiking and swimming every day with my kids—was a blessing in disguise. I couldn’t swim or hike. I could barely move, but I could write. I let my mind go to work on my big editing problem while I tackled the other, smaller stuff. Then one night, as I was about to fall asleep, I had an idea. Jumped out of bed (okay, I didn’t exactly jump because of the torn chest muscles, I rolled like a seal flopping into the water), grabbed a notebook to scribble down the changes, sketching the scenes I would add. I was pulling at a lot of threads, but knotting them into a new arrangement. I waited for the weave to fall apart. It held.

I guess all this is just to say that getting an editor letter is hard. It was the hardest part of the whole editing process, for me. But it turned out that reading it was actually much worse than responding to it, than just doing the work it asked me to do. The thing about editors is that it’s their job to get blood from a stone. You think you’ve given everything you can to your book. You know it backwards and forwards, you’ve edited it until you’re cross-eyed, and then your editor asks you to do more. A lot more. And listening to your editor is how your book goes from something you thought you couldn’t make any better, to some infinitely better than you could have ever imagined. At least, that’s how it was for me. I should definitely send my editor some cookies now. 

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Martine Fournier Watson is originally from Montreal, Canada, where she earned her master's degree in art history after a year spent in Chicago as a Fulbright scholar. She currently lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. The Dream Peddler is her first novel.

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This article has 2 Comments

  1. I remember it well, your frustration bordering on anger, your feeling, at first, that you couldn’t do it, you being so very very sick. But as I knew you would, because you always do, you worked hard, again, and solved the problem. So very proud of you. (And yes, I know I used “very” three times when it should never be used at all.)

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