Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Exactly Is Editing - Part V

Part One of this series was posted on August 3, 2010,

followed by Part II on Aug 10

and Part III on Aug 17,

Part IV on Aug. 24, 2010

I started this series on Editing actually in response to a question I got on Twitter, but I have forgotten who originally asked.

There was an exchange with a professional writer who had a rewrite order and a deadline and was just going nuts over it, and some others who chimed in. Finally someone asked what were the most rewrites other writers had to do.

I mentioned that my first award winner was published as 5th draft, a record for me that I never equaled again. And I said something (in 140 characters or less) about how quickly other rewrites had gone for me -- even extensive rewrites. And then came the question about how I did that.

I intended to write answer that question - then lost the questioner.

Recently, I decided I had to write up the answer I had so far (this is Part V, and there could be more), and asked on twitter for Questions I could answer in How To Rewrite To Editorial Specification On Deadline.

In response, I got the following from @DreamsGrafter

1)What is your process? What do you look at/tackle first?

2)Apparently the trick is to dig deeper. How do you do that when the scene structure already works? How do you enrich a scene?

3)What is the biggest lesson you've learnt over time re editing to a deadline and how do you deal with it now?

4)How do you know which notes to follow? What if your instincts are telling you something else?

And from another blogger on aliendjinnromances, professional SF/F Romance writer Rowena Cherry provides the following:

A) Is there a standard etiquette for attacking revisions? Is there a formula for how many hard-to-take edits you swallow for every one you argue against?

B) Is there a length of email that is optimum for making your case, but ensuring that the busy editor "gets" it without tuning out or getting annoyed?

Now if you've read Parts I-IV of this little blog series, you may see where these questions lead you astray.

Look again at the questions. Think about the focus, the implicit subtext.

Remember that in solving any problem, phrasing the question correctly is at least 90% of the solution.

Remember all the word-problems you did in grammar school math? You have cherries, and apples and boats on a stream, and you have to make an algebra equation out of it all.

If you get the initial algebra expression wrong, you'll never get the correct answer.

Phrasing the question is most of the solution.

Are these questions phrased in such a way as to get the answer you need in order to look at an editor's rewrite orders (or what screenwriters call "Notes") and know immediately what to do to make your manuscript publishable or producible?

Do you see that I've already answered all those questions in the first 4 parts to this series?


Do any of those questions take into account what an Editor's job is?

Do any of those questions focus on what the editor is trying to accomplish?

Do any of those questions address the real key issue to figuring out what to do with your story to make it "acceptable" to that editor?

No, they don't.

They look at the rewrite order, and at the story -- totally ignoring the Editor's PROBLEM.

Here's a glance at the problem the Editor knows this novel will face in the marketplace.

Again from twitter, a random selection of comments from a chat on publicity.

@BookMarketChat Another thing I think is true - get help. You may not see yourself, your work as clearly as a coach, publicist or honest friend. #bookmarket

@BookMarketChat Yea!RT @publishingcoach: Things change so quickly these days, and peoples memories are short. You'll lose some fans, gain others. #bookmarket

Two key take-aways: CHANGE and a perspective on yourSELF, what you're doing and how you're doing it. Keeping your eye on a changing market, and changing your behavior as that change happens is a major key to understanding the rewrite orders an editor is sending you -- even though you wrote exactly what the contract required!

Between the time you sign a contract or even seal the deal with a handshake via email -- things have changed in the editor's office!

When an editor (or producer) takes time to give you "Notes" or a rewrite order, direction, or marginal notations on a manuscript, the editor is asking you to finish doing your job, and to solve a problem the editor has, not a problem you have, and not the problem the editor had when you signed the contract.

The editor is not asking you to solve YOUR PROBLEM.

The editor (or producer) is asking you to solve THE EDITOR'S PROBLEM.

Worse, you have to solve the new problem IN TIME to get the product into the pipeline before things change again for the publicity department.

Consider that the way those questions that were sent to me are phrased focuses the attention on the writer's problem ignoring the entire issue of whether the editor has a problem and what that problem might actually be and how it's changed lately.

In those questions, the Editor and the Writer are talking past each other, not even at each other. Certainly there's no communicating going on.

These questions are by are professional writers who have done this work with professional editors. And look what they're asking.

Let's frame it all another way.

A) What exactly is this Editor asking me to do?

B) How do I figure out what the Editor really means by this note?

C) What should the finished product this Editor needs look like?

D) How do I figure out what part of my manuscript to change to get the effect this editor needs?

A) You can tell what the editor is asking you to do by looking at other books in the line the editor is editing for. The editor is asking you to make yours "the same but different" - to conform to the better selling novels in the line.

What does it mean "conform?" It means to use the same structure, the same trope, that has sold well before, but be fresh, original and different in theme, twists, character quirks, details, background.

In editor-speak "conform" means be different.

B) To figure out what an editor "really means" you have to know this editor a little bit at least. But it's usually safe to start with the assumption that the editor is an editor not a writer.

The editor will spot and flag a section, character, element, or detail that isn't "on beat" -- a pacing flaw, a bit that's foreshadowed (set-up) but never happens (pay-off).

The editor checks the emotional-tension of scenes to see that they are placed in the correct order - that climaxes (you should excuse the expression) come in the right places.

Some publishing lines have actual page-number formulas for internal climaxes, a set number of pages for sex scenes, action scenes, etc. But most don't have that strict a formula. Still, every genre (even Literature) does have a structure that determines the BEATS.

Blake Snyder showed you, in the SAVE THE CAT! series, exactly how to reverse engineer products aimed at different audiences to determine the best selling beat structures. Good editors know the beat of their line. The others don't stay in the job long.

What the editor "really means" is that "this "beat" right here where I've made this marginal note or on page-this of the MS is "wrong"."

It isn't the editor's job to tell the writer HOW TO FIX IT. The editor isn't a writer.  They often suggest what to change into what, but usually are just trying to express what's bothering them without actually, consciously analyzing what's bothering them. 

It's like a computer user calling tech support and yelling "It Doesn't Work" and tech support asking for the error code number, and the user just yelling IT DOESN'T WORK!!! How should I know why???? And tech support says "Well what did you do before it did that?" And the user says "I don't know, that's your job."

The editor is the USER, and you are her TECH SUPPORT. It's up to you to figure out why it doesn't work and fix it. It's only up to her to tell you THAT it doesn't work, not why or how to fix it. Don't call her and ask.

So if you're going to tech-support your own manuscript, you have to know its "computer language" (the symbolism in which it speaks; it's theme) and you have to know how it works, and where the drop-down menus are where other choices can be made.

You have to know the BEATS, the genre, the conflict, and all the moving parts of the composition.

Then when the editor points and says "this doesn't work" -- you don't call the editor up and defend your ART, you figure out why it doesn't work for that editor's line, and that publisher's purpose.

The reason it doesn't work on page 152 probably lies on page 1 -- maybe page 5 -- of a 400 page manuscript.

The editor can't tell you where the problem IS, only where it became noticeable. If you put the manuscript together, you should be able to take it apart, fix page 5 and see how that changes page 152, and it'll satisfy the editor. The editor doesn't care how you fix it, or how you figure out the problem is actually on page 5. The editor only cares that it be fixed and that it work, on deadline.

C) What should the finished product this editor needs look like? Do your homework. Read other books, novels, stories, in that line. If you're in film, read Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! series.  In fact, if you're in text, read that book anyway.  It's all there.  It's in the beat.  If you can see it in a film, you can see it in a novel! 

D) How do you figure out where to make changes to get the effect an editor needs?  Again.  The editor may not know WHY there's a problem on page 152, or what to do to fix it. But it is the editor's job to know what overall effect the novels in a line (or a film from a production company) should be.

If the effect isn't almost right already, the editor wouldn't take the trouble to ask for rewrite. So the necessary change probably isn't nearly as drastic as the editor thinks! If there's a problem with the "effect" (happy ending, crushing low-point for hero in the middle, a "lighter" or "darker" mood) it's either a pacing problem with the BEAT SHEET structure, or it's just choice of vocabulary. Line editing to adjust where beats fall and/or vocabulary changes can fix a lot with "light" or "dark" mood. Sometimes it can be fixed by deleting a scene or character and putting the information conveyed by that scene or character into another component of the story.

Writing is "magic" to editors. It isn't their job to know how you produce emotional effects, but only to know whether you've done it or not.

So to fulfill a rewrite order on deadline and on schedule, you START by structuring the story with precision beats before you write.

In fact, since most of a writer's work is done subconsciously way before "having an idea" for a story -- the smooth, quick, professional rewrite order response actually starts before you have the idea.

If you know what you did, what you chose, how you chose it, and why, and you know the editor didn't "get" the effect you worked for, you have to make a choice.

Either the effect you worked for has to be deleted entirely, in all its parts. Or something else has to be deleted to make room, and the effect worked up into the foreground.

Now, given this approach -- listen carefully to the editor, understand that this rewrite order is an attempt to conform your product to her Imprint's line, understand that it isn't criticism and has nothing at all to do with your Art, and everything to do with marketing, getting good reviews, and starting buzz.

Doing a fast, smooth job on rewrite is all about listening to the editor, and that's just like listening to any other person. Stop listening to yourself and start listening to the other person.

Now let's go through those questions submitted and answer them:

First @DreamsGrafter

1)What is your process? What do you look at/tackle first?

First- listen. Look at the overall pattern of rewrite notes and find the connecting mechanism built into the story while writing it.

Understanding that the actual problem with the manuscript is very likely NOT at the point where the editor noticed it, find the actual problem and fix that. Often 15-20 scattered complaints sprinkled through a 400 page manuscript can be fixed with one or two tweaks.

2)Apparently the trick is to dig deeper. How do you do that when the scene structure already works? How do you enrich a scene?

To "enrich" a scene that's locked into a nice paced sequence of scenes you don't want to mess up, go for SUBTEXT.

Plant a foreshadowing or "set-up" long before the scene you want enriched. Tiny tweaks to the scene you want to enrich will then make it a super-huge pay-off to the previous setup. And be sure to end the scene with a set-up for a pay-off that'll come several scenes later, maybe at the end.  When there's a difference between what the viewer knows and what the character knows, you get rich. 

Make sure the reader learns something they have wanted to know for an excruciatingly long time in that scene but still knows they don't know everything - and it will be enriched.

3) What is the biggest lesson you've learnt over time re editing to a deadline and how do you deal with it now?

Sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation.

How quickly and efficiently you can rewrite depends on how carefully you prepared TO REWRITE before you wrote.

It depends on how you kept your own notes and what is connected to what and what foreshadows what, and where the tension builds and where it's released.

Rewrite orders that aren't simple story-logic tweaks (he put his hat on twice without taking it off) are almost always related to adjusting pacing to fit the genre.

Understand how you paced it to begin with, and you'll know what you can delete now to tighten the pacing, and what to add to slow it down.

Editors don't always just tell you the problem is pacing. They may say it's uninteresting or complicated or abstract, or I don't like this character or I don't believe that character would do this -- and it's up to you to understand, as their tech-support, that the real problem they are having is with pacing.

A character who would NEVER do this will do it if in a big HURRY.

4)How do you know which notes to follow? What if your instincts are telling you something else?

Then retrain your instincts if you want to work for this editor. Otherwise find another editor.

Actually, that's not all the choices available. The true professional who has an editor whose rewrite orders violate their "instincts" doesn't throw away their own instincts - but rather just acquires a new set of instincts to broaden versatility and increase chances to hit in other markets.

Your instincts may be perfect for one genre, and mean failure in another. Do you have to spend your own life writing one genre under one byline? Or can you take this opportunity to learn what this editor knows - so later you can choose to use it, or not?

And from another blogger on aliendjinnromances, professional SF/F Romance writer Rowena Cherry provides the following:

A) Is there a standard etiquette for attacking revisions? Is there a formula for how many hard-to-take edits you swallow for every one you argue against?

Yes. It's simple. NEVER ARGUE. If the editor is WRONG (and they can be, especially if the MS is badly messed up) then fix what's really bothering the editor, not what they're complaining about.

It's for sure, SOMETHING is bothering the editor. Fix it so nothing bothers the editor. It's their job at stake - and yours too for that matter.

This is a point where sometimes you have to impose again on your beta-readers, or consult a fellow professional writer. But don't take up the editor's time.

When you figure out what the problem really was and fix it -- then never make that mistake again.

It isn't your job to do what the editor wants. It's your job to do what the editor needs. It isn't their job to know what they need, except that this MS has to work, and it has to work by deadline.

B) Is there a length of email that is optimum for making your case, but ensuring that the busy editor "gets" it without tuning out or getting annoyed?

Yes, again simple. "Here attached is the completed MS. Thank you for catching all my mistakes."

How do I arrive at this insane conclusion?


The editor is your customer. The editor is always right even when they haven't a clue what they're talking about. Never argue with a customer. Figure out what they really need and give it to them without hassling them. Make them happy and they'll come back for more.


So what exactly is editing?

It's the process of packaging a piece of art to fit into a delivery system with standard sized tubes that whisk the art to the consumer in a frictionless medium.

Think of a Christmas Giftwrap station in a department store. They have an array of standard sized boxes to put your odd-shaped gift object into.

That's what editors and publishers do for a living: put odd shaped art objects into standard sized boxes, wrap them up pretty and mail them off.

The most onerous part of an editor's job is dealing with writers who somehow think their art has anything to do with publishing.

Publishing is the business of mailing off those standardized boxes. What's inside the box is irrelevant to the business model as long as it fits inside the box. Think about the USPS advertisement "If it fits; it ships for one, low flat rate."  That's the publishing business model to a T.

Learn to look at it that way, and you'll never have any problem deciding what to do in response to rewrite orders.

The rewrite orders are the editor's attempt to get you to make your product fit inside the box that their schedule says they must fill at a specific date. It mustn't stick out, and it mustn't rattle too much.

If there are a lot of rewrite orders on a single MS, it's because you did something very wrong. Fix it. Learn from the mistakes and never do them again.

It is a process and does take a few times through the system, often with a couple different editors and agents to get the hang of it.

But you'll learn faster if you can grasp this single fact.

What you're doing isn't what they're doing, and they don't care what you're doing as long as it doesn't get in their way.

It's not your job to convince the editor they don't know how to do their job (even if they don't).

It's your job to give the editor what they need to keep their job, and their job is to drop identical boxes into the tubes.

In Part VI on September 7, we'll look at this from another angle.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Anonymous7:31 AM EDT

    Question: Have you ever had a novel published which you disliked because you were obliged to change it so much during editing?

  2. Anonymous:

    It always seems you're going to hate the result as you're pulling out material and tossing it, replacing it with something else, or just line-editing for space requirements, losing nuances, rhythm, style, atmosphere -- art!

    My "writing style" has been called names because of the line-editing necessary to meet length requirements changed between contract signing and publication.

    In fact, such length requirements have been changed on me DURING copyediting, after the editing process and acceptance, because of increasing price of paper (due to demand for cardboard in China or manipulations of the dollar by "The Fed.")

    So I feel "Reviewers" of books & films should be experienced and knowledgeable in assessing what is the writer's product as opposed to the result of carving-to-order for the publishing or producing process.

    In film, reviewers likewise must be able to separate what is the product of the Director's hand, the Actor's interpretation, the Producer's financial decisions etc.

    The WRITER will be happy (or miserable) depending on the reader/viewer's ultimate response to the finished product.

    If your editors get you that response, then your anguish over losing material or art pales in comparison to your reader's satisfaction.

    If the writer is skilled in the craft, the writer will be able to get that personal artistic vision across to the ultimate consumer despite anything the fiction delivery system mechanism does to mangle the work.

    That's the point of this series on EDITING -- the writer must understand what the editor is doing and WHY in order to deliver the artistic vision to the consumer undiluted, but still help the editor keep her job.

    Working with an editor is a separate skill-set from creating the vision and from writing down the story in words or pictures.

    Without that separate skill set, no amount of artistic excellence will get your vision into your consumer's mind and dreams.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Anonymous:

    Personally, I've been very lucky to have fans ready, willing, and able to disseminate the "out-takes" from my work so that for those who really want it, the cut material and the original vision are available. Others who are just readers have been very satisfied with what they bought.

    So, no, I've never had to regret any editing decision.

    Here's an example. Compare the published version of my first award winner, UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER (a 5th draft) to the 2nd draft which fans love much more than the published version.

    The published version is available on Amazon. Here's the 2nd draft up for free reading:


    Here's a blog entry about that very heavily rewritten and edited novel that won me an award. I probably should have included this link in the EDITING Part V post:


    Jacqueline Lichtenberg