What Kind of Edits Do Editors Ask For?

Depends on the book, author, and editor, of course, but a number of people I know have wondered what my edits were like in the past month, so here’s my answer. I’m cribbing quite a lot of it from an email I wrote this morning, as I am a firm believer in reduce/reuse/recycle.

When asked if my editor’s suggestions were “drastic and invasive”, I said yes, but we had discussed a lot of it even before I was formally offered a deal. It wasn’t a case of an editor suddenly butchering my Beloved Tome. One of the big reasons the deal worked out is that the two of us saw eye-to-eye from the start and believed we could work well together. Which has proven entirely true.

About a month-and-a-half ago, she sent me a precise and thoughtful breakdown of her concerns. I agreed with them all and immediately began devising solutions. I sent her a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis of my planned revision. I wanted to know if I was on the right track before I did tons of work in a bad direction. Once she OK’d my synopsis, I spent four weeks rewriting the novel. Along the way, we had one relatively minor difference of opinion, but I found a solution that satisfied us both. In other words, zero friction.

Aside from revising most of what I already had, I wound up writing 60-80 pages of entirely new material. That’s so much faster than my usual pace it’s scary. I probably altered 90% of the entire book in some way, but the characters, major plot points, structure, vibe, and meaning remained the same. My wife read a version over a year ago and would still recognize the story and characters. It just works better now.

An example of the kind of suggestions my editor made: increase tension. Chapter 1 seemed to work better as chapter 4, so a far less exciting chapter suddenly needed to function as the new chapter 1 (egad, I need a new first line!), and it was a chapter with little action and starring a couple of secondary characters…characters who are vital in the long-term, but not the main protagonists. Once I shuffled chapters and felt it worked, the subsequent chapters had to be adjusted because the exposition was out of order, people had already been introduced and didn’t need to be reintroduced, etc.

Whenever you change something in a novel, there’s a wobble in the whole house-of-cards. A good story ought to feel unforced. There ought to be a strong sense of cause and effect driving the action. Alter the trajectory of a character in chapter 1 and chances are good that she’ll be notably different by the time you reach chapter 10. Think of a conversation in real life: a single word can turn a friendly debate into a heated argument. The argument becomes part of the larger relationship. The altered relationship affects other aspects of the two people’s lives, from their performance at work to their other relationships, in ways big and small, and before you know it there’s a dramatic outcome, all from that one word, that no one could have anticipated.

It is possible to steer your story, of course, and it’s an author’s job to maintain a degree of control so it isn’t all free-writing and spiraling scenes, at least when you’ve reached the revision stages. And it’s the steering that becomes a challenge when you start monkeying around with a nice cause-and-effect draft.

A lot of times, it’s the nitty-gritty logistical stuff that causes the greatest headaches. Another change my editor and I agreed upon: a character had moved to the distant woods and was living in a cabin he bought. In the revision, I moved him into the woods near the center of action to increase tension and interaction. No big difference, it would seem… I still had a man in seclusion. I still had a cabin in the woods. But everything changed.

Before, characters could drive to the cabin, having conversations on the way, or could leave the woods abruptly by getting into their car and taking off. Suddenly there wasn’t a road to the cabin, so every driving scene became a walking scene (rewrite), there couldn’t be abrupt departures or arrivals (rewrite), and the character’s solitude was both increased by the lack of convenient access and decreased by the geographical nearness of other people in his life.

Plus instead of the character buying a preexisting cabin, he had to build one from scratch, a development I had to research as quickly as possible, and well enough to believably convince a reader that he could, and actually did, manage the construction with little help and limited resources. And these were only the practical details to maintain verisimilitude, not the deeper reasons I moved him closer to his old neighborhood. That was where the serious changes happened… the increased interaction with other characters, the tension resulting from a guy playing “unbalanced hermit” in the woods behind a residential street, the creepy neighbor spying on everyone coming and going, the stronger boil of having the whole cast together in the same little pot.

So yes, the changes were drastic, and I’m fairly certain the average book that’s accepted for publication doesn’t have quite the same amount of rejiggering. But I loved the process. Loved it. What a joy to recognize problems the instant a smart, passionate editor points them out. How easy it was, really, to find my solutions once specific problems were identified. Because I think that’s one of the hardest parts of writing a novel… not the finding of solutions, but the identification of problems. You get so close to a book when you’re writing it, it’s hard to see things clearly, and very hard to get honest appraisals from people you know (who don’t want to hurt your feelings, or are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, or know it isn’t quite working but can’t tell you why).

The lessons I learned from my edits will undoubtedly improve my future writing (he says with adorable optimism), and I’m a lot less nervous about sending this book into the world.

Oh, and I changed the title. I’d been calling it Fellow Mortals, which fit the book but didn’t seem to grab people in any way and, I found, was impossible for even my loving aunt to remember. A title needs to be memorable enough for a stranger to request it as a local bookstore and recommend it to friends without stammering. I’ve always loved a good short title, like THREATS, but I’m terrible at titling my own works. Forest for the trees, no doubt. But how to think of a fitting title that’s short, evocative, has perhaps a layered meaning, and isn’t already taken by another author? It’s the reason this site is called Giganticide. Try finding a single-word domain name that’s even vaguely interesting and available for purchase.

So: the new title is Pine.

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3 thoughts on “What Kind of Edits Do Editors Ask For?

  1. CJ says:

    By the way, read the other post first and was going to make this comment, but then I read this and you addressed it. I absolutely LOVE the title. It’s perfect and classic and multi-layered, yet not at all cutesy or precious. If I’m still at my current job in a few years – shudder – I look forward to writing the blog headline: “Movie rights to ‘Pine’ sold for a staggering …… “

  2. Alexis says:

    I agree – “Pine” is an intriguing choice. I can’t wait to get my hands on it, Dennis.

    • Thanks, guys. Sadly, the publisher thinks Pine is perhaps too quiet a title, which yes, I suppose perhaps it is, so I’m changing it again. I’ll wait until it’s 99% definite before updating my info so I can stop confusing people.

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