Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cakes and Critics

I have friends (agented and unagented) who sold their first book and then received 10+ page editor revision notes, while others have revised more than once for an editor before they received their contract. How does an editor decide when to offer a contract to a new writer? Why would an editor offer, and sales, marketing, publisher, etc., approve that offer if they know they are going to ask the author to overhaul most of their book?
1. Let us first pay tribute to the Truth that there are revision letters, and then there are revision letters.
2. Let us secondly pay tribute to the Truth that the highest compliment an editor can give you is a very thoughtful (and possibly long) editorial letter.

Jackson Pearce (my favorite new video blogger) recently compared writing and revision to making a cake:

So, to put Truth 1 into this analogy:
There's a difference between the food critic saying you should have whisked the eggs and sugar together before putting them in the batter... and the food critic pointing out that you have no eggs or sugar in your cake.
I have sent very short letters to people that said, essentially: I love this flour. I love this sugar. I love these eggs. But I think this cake would be better with milk rather than sour cream, so let me know if you decide to bake it again.
This is a short letter, but A Hell of a Lot of Revision... and revision I can't be sure the author can achieve. This is a letter before a contract.
And I have sent very long letters to people that said, essentially: I love all your ingredients. And your wrist, when you use that whisk! Where did you learn that technique? But there are a few places where you could try something different, and maybe the oven should be a touch cooler. And have you considered the addition of walnuts?
This is a long letter, and it may still be A Hell of a Lot of Revision... but it's revision I am confident is within the author's scope, and (hopefully) within the author's vision of the cake she wants to serve. This is a letter after a contract.

And, to put Truth 2 somewhere near this analogy:
Editors are people who love books. We feel passionately about them, and think good books are worth thinking about hard. A (possibly long) thoughtful editorial letter is an editor's way of saying: This Book Is Worthwhile. It is worth the hours (and perhaps days) that it took us to think carefully about it, and weigh ideas, and try to put ourselves in your shoes, and try to put ourselves in the readers' shoes. It is worth our thinking about each ingredient you know you put into it, and the ingredients you may not have realized you put in. Ideally, a good editorial letter is your chance to see your manuscript through new eyes: eyes that love what your manuscript is, but love what it wants to be even more.


Unknown said...

Great analogy...that really makes sense.

Anonymous said...

I've wondered the same things. Thanks for a wonderful answer using a great analogy. :)

Unknown said...

Thanks EA!

Kimbra Kasch said...

Love the analogies. It really paints the picture for me - or - maybe I should say bakes the cake (12) sheesh! ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking me, EA :) And I'm glad you liked the cake video!

lkmadigan said...

I LOVE this entry.

Are you my editor? Because you rock as hard as she does.


Disco Mermaids said...

Wow! Jackson' video was adorable. Great analogy and your explanation following was so helpful.

But it's 9 a.m. and I want cake!!!

Anonymous said...

I've had two revision letters on my current ms., totaling about 6 pages of comments.
But the comments are all about refining the existing book. It's still the same book, the same voice, the same overall plot--just better.
I think the acquisition/revision process is like buying a house. Some houses are move-in condition. With others, you know you want the house, but you also know you'll be changing the wallpaper and carpeting.
And with still others, you want the house, but you know you'll be knocking out some walls.

Stephanie J. Blake said...

Cool! Thanks EA!

Sherryl said...

There is nothing better than a great editor who can see how to make your book the best it can be, and then helps you do it.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Somehow this post lost its link to the comments (unless you click on the title).

Thanks for the analogy. Lots of, um, food for thought.

Kristi Holl said...

Your last line said it all to me: "Ideally, a good editorial letter is your chance to see your manuscript through new eyes: eyes that love what your manuscript is, but love what it wants to be even more." There is such a ZING when you get a letter like this, when you know you're on the same wavelength, but with someone who will help your baby grow up and become all she's meant to be.
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid

Anonymous said...

I've received only one lengthy letter. It was from an agent and when I saw it I literally gasped. I subbed my revision to her and got a no. I showed it to another agent who said it was strong writing but got a no.

But my point is, that that letter made my script so, so, so much better and I think saleable from the standpoint of half the job being done ( as an illustrator).

She'll (first agent) never have me as a client but she will always have me as a revisionist fan.

And if and when this book comes out......hah!! She is to blame!!

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, a certain house acquired one of my manuscripts. Five years later, it was published. In the meantime, not one, not two, but FIVE editors had worked on revising it. On the day of publication, NOT ONE WORD of the original manuscript remained. This was no longer the manuscript I'd submitted and no longer the manuscript I loved. I'll leave it to you to guess how much effort I put into promoting it.

The editor(s) are not always right. It's possible to kill the spirit of the author, in the guise of adding all those walnuts.