Kay: To Revise, or Not to Revise

Image from Electric Literature.com

Some time ago I heard a woman tell a story about how she’d sent a manuscript to her publisher, and her editor sent her a 17-page, single-space revision letter. That would be a revision letter approximately 12 percent of the entire length of the manuscript. Hearing that made me happy, not for the first time, that I didn’t have a publishing contract.

However, self-pubbing is not for the faint of heart, as most of us attest to every day in these posts. The other day I got the revision letter from my freelance editor, a woman with many years’ experience editing romance at a big publishing house, and it was a winner, as far as I was concerned: only six pages for a 269-page manuscript. Not nearly the work of my fellow writer from the first paragraph.

I’m a retired editor myself. I know everybody needs an edit. I have no emotional attachment to my darlings. My favorite key on my keyboard is the delete key. When I ask someone to edit my work, I accept that their changes reflect their best effort to clarify and improve.

So I made all the small changes she asked me to make, many of which were “duh” moments, which increased my confidence in her skill. And then I started on the big changes. “Your character has been suspended from her job,” my editor wrote. “You can elevate her stakes by making her be fired altogether.” So true, I thought. How did I miss that?

I went to the page where that issue first appears, and, well, it’s not that simple. My book is light-hearted, and my character is in the CIA. Right now, to gain authority, she tells everyone she’s in the CIA, which, if she’s suspended, isn’t a lie. The book’s running gag is that no one ever believes her, to her immense annoyance.

If she’s fired from the CIA, though, she has not even the thinnest veneer of authority when she asks questions. And I lose the running gag. The stakes are higher, yes. Do I want higher stakes? Boosting the stakes makes the character’s goals—and the book—more serious. It deflates the humor I’ve worked to include.

I’m still thinking about whether or not to make that change, which surprises me somewhat. When somebody tells you there’s a problem, there’s a problem, even if you can’t see it at that moment. I accept that raising the stakes for my character would make her more appealing to some readers, who could identify with being fired and my character’s efforts to get her job back. I’m just not sure that higher stakes gets me the book I wanted, planned for, and worked toward—or that a different crowd of readers wouldn’t like just as much.

Have you ever ignored your editor’s advice? If you did, why did you? And how did that work out for you?

7 thoughts on “Kay: To Revise, or Not to Revise

  1. In my first book, my editor recommended that I dial one of my minor characters, Lilith, back quite a bit because she was watering down the romance plot line. I did that, removing one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever written. She also recommended that I get rid of the “plagues” that Lilith visits on the clinic, but I left them because in addition to being funny, they demonstrated how demons twist things to their own ends.They also gave a spine to the second half of the book.

    The good news is, your decision is pretty clear cut. Which is more important: tension or humor? I’d vote humor, but a lot of your fans may feel differently, so I guess it comes down to which is more important to you?

    • Good points, Jeanne, thank you. This is my first time working with a freelance editor, and I’ve enjoyed the experience and really appreciated her comments. When I was working, and either sent out an edit or received an edit on my own work, no choice was ever involved—as I think no choice was involved for that poor woman with the 17-page revision letter. If she wanted that book published, she was hitting every point on the 17 pages. So it feels like I’m stepping off a cliff when I reject some of the suggested edits. As you say, it’s all about the book I want to have.

  2. Another thing to consider is that in real-world terms, getting fired from the CIA might make it nearly impossible to be re-hired (if that’s part of her journey). And I think it would take a really long time to jump through all the hoops. If there is something provably wrong about her being fired, maybe she could get reinstated and it would be less onerous, but it would still probably be a bureaucratic nightmare. Of course, it’s your book and your story world, and your CIA could be run a little more like a normal business :-).

    Also, to Jeanne’s point, I’d worry that the change that deflates the humor would take away from your voice. And as we said in our McD classes, there are many roads to Oz. Maybe your road has middling stakes and lots of humor. Sleep on it, meditate on it, take a long drive with the windows down – whatever your process is for getting into a good thinking mode, and then follow your instincts.

    • I so appreciate your take on the CIA and getting reinstated there, Nancy! I hadn’t thought of this angle, but you have all that experience with the government in your day job(s), and that’s valuable information to have. I think my CIA is a lot different than the real CIA, but it’s always good to stick to realism as much as you can.

  3. My two closest critique partners know nothing about the Regency (well, they’re slowly learning with my instruction — had a long convo at lunch yesterday explaining forms of address…they literally thought I was talking about street addresses, haha!). There will often be suggestions they make that I have to veto.

    Same goes for my editor. She reviewed a portion of my MS and one suggestion she made would basically ruin a storyline trajectory that I have planned through all six books. So, yes, I ignored it.

    My sense with all things like this is to listen to your gut. Some changes are so clear-cut, it’s a no-brainer. But if your gut is telling you “erm, wait a minute,” I’d err on the side of not making the change and giving it time to settle out. Sometimes, too, working with the book more as you go through the rest of her suggestions will help you figure out which way to go on the earlier issue. Good luck! Can’t wait to read it!

    • That’s good advice. I think I will look at the other big-picture things she wanted me to change and see how they all tie together. It might be that some kind of alteration would be a good idea, but maybe to a lesser extent or in another direction. Will move forward!

  4. I haven’t moved into the editing part of things yet at all, but I will tell you, I’d allow myself to get in a lot of trouble for the sake of a gag. When I was much younger, I was often misunderstood when I was just expressing a weird sense of humor. (And also, people think I’m funny when I’m just stating the obvious, which is still something that happens.)

    At any rate, you’ll know you’ll need to take my advice with several grams of salt when I tell you, “Protec teh Gag! Protec at all costs!” That minor conflict running through the story provides a certain frisson that can lead to great comedic payoffs . . . .

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