This week’s topic: the edit letter. Before I published The Queen of Hearts, I’d assumed the edit letter was just that: a letter with some suggested editorial changes, but that turned out not to be the case for me. I never actually got an edit letter.
When I got the call from my agent that we had an offer on my book, I was out of the country. Cell reception wasn’t great, and I was standing by the ocean with an excited preschooler clamped to my neck. But I got the gist: a Big Five publisher liked the book and wanted to acquire it.
I’d known this was a possibility, because I’d spent a good hunk of time on the phone with the editor from that house the week prior to my vacation. We’d chatted in the slightly artificial way you do with strangers when something big is on the line: her, undoubtedly engaged in an assessment of whether or not I might be trying to hide any ghastly personality problems; me, trying hard to seem normal. We talked through the history of the novel’s conception, the plot, and some minor changes the editor thought would strengthen the novel. I liked her ideas. I liked her.
Here’s what I didn’t know: the next step in the process, which occurs completely out of view of the author, is an acquisitions board meeting at the publishing house. The editor who wishes to buy the manuscript presents an acquisition proposal to an assembled team with representatives from all areas of the company: other editorial staff, publicity, marketing, sales. Apparently any of these people can torpedo the deal. They take a lot of things into account beyond the writing: comparable titles, their budget, their current and former lists, how they could market it. If all of these people agree, and the numbers make sense, then the editor can go back to the writer’s agent with a proposed deal.
So. Back to me, standing on the beach.
My agent, yelling into the phone from New York: Kimmery, we have an offer. A very nice offer.
Me: Yeah!!! Whoo hoo! This is fab—
My Agent: There’s a catch.
It turns out my advance, which would be paid in three chunks, was contingent on me delivering a version of the novel with the second half re-written. The publishers liked the concept of my novel and they liked my voice and writing style, but they wanted the book to include an entirely new plot point, and they wanted to amp up the drama, both medical and interpersonal. I’m not sure if this came from sales or marketing or who—I never asked—but there weren’t a lot of specifics given. This meant I’d have to eliminate a key portion of the original plot. (For those of you who’ve read it, I’ll just say that originally Zadie’s husband Drew was a much bigger character, and Emma was less significant.)
So my new editor and I talked through some of the proposed changes and I said I could do them. (This was an optimistic guess on my part. I had no idea how to go about this; The Queen of Hearts was the first novel I’ve ever written.) She had some suggestions but the mechanics of the changes were up to me.
Here’s an email I sent to my agent right after I finished my first effort:
Here’s my first pass at a revision…as requested, it has a considerably more dramatic ending and incorporates an additional plot line. I tried SO HARD to get the word count close to 95K—every time I cut a scene, I feel like the obese guy in the Brad Pitt movie who has to slice off his own body parts or the serial killer will terminate him. Aargh. But I got it down to 98K, which is good, considering I added more than twenty-five thousand words.
I’m sure pacing and flow still need some work. The tricky thing about adding a new plot line was managing the complexity—as you know, there are two POVs, and two time periods, which means a lot more exposition than is normally written, and throwing another complicated plot line into that worried me. But I think it works. I axed a lot, but I still worry cutting too many domestic scenes, or too many funny hospital scenes, will make the novel too grim and the protagonists too unrelatable. But so far so good.
Luckily my editor was amazing to work with. We passed the manuscript back and forth with Track Changes on, and she’d make comments and suggestions. I mourned every time I had to hack out another original scene. Every change also required a reread of the entire novel to trace the story threads to be sure everything was still consistent—-no unanswered questions, no timeline discrepancies, etc.
In the end, I’m incredibly lucky they took me on. It was massive undertaking on my part, but also on my editor’s and publisher’s: they devoted an immense amount of time to restructure the work of a debut author with no following.
So that’s the story of my edit letter… er, edit book.
You can purchase The Queen of Hearts HERE
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