Don’t Follow that Revision Letter: Here’s Why

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Go to the Heart of the Revision Issues

This weekend, I attended the MO SCBWI retreat with Randi Rivers of Charlesbridge Publishers as the main speaker. The retreat was set up to give use feedback on a specific manuscript and the opportunity to revise and get feedback on that revision.

Mss were sent in a month early; at the retreat, Rivers gave us a revision letter, typical of what she would normally send. Then, we had about 3-6 hours of writing time to revise, plan a revision, explore options, etc.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/riebschlager/1073070041/Rivers emphasized that she didn’t expect a complete revision during the weekend. Rather, she expected writers to bring questions, concerns, comments or exploration writing to the second session.

One of the nicest things was the opportunity to interact on a casual basis. We found out where she’s traveled lately, what foods she likes, books she’s read lately, and just those everyday things that are the beginnings of a friendship. Because Rivers says she “publishes authors,” not “just manuscripts,” it was a great time to get to know her on a more personal basis.

One conversation we had was about revision letters. Rivers did a presentation on how to approach it, but I wanted to ask something slightly different from what she covered. I often find that when writers do EXACTLY what a revision letter details, they are rejected. I usually advise that writers read the letter with an eye toward understanding the heart of the issues raised. Then, make revisions based on that.

It’s the difference between mechanically following a set of directions and understanding why those directions were given. Rivers confirmed that she wants and expects writers to think deeply about the issues raised and search for their own solutions. (BTW, her most common issue with fiction or nonfiction texts is organization; she often suggests a different organization structure, or at least wants the writer to explain why a particular structure is the best option.) The revisions still need to address her concerns, of course, but she realizes there are many ways to accomplish that and is hoping that working with her will create “the best book possible.”

I appreciated this opportunity to talk about my manuscript, of course; but I appreciated more the opportunity to meet an interesting person; and the opportunity to discuss the craft of writing–and the craft of editing–with a skilled professional.

Attitudes for Conferences

Meet an interesting person. I don’t go to “sell” a manuscript. I always go to a conference with the idea that I’ll meet interesting people. I want to visit, chat, watch, interact — with writers and editors. Sometimes the editor is the most interesting person, but sometimes someone else is equally interesting. In other words, in our passion to be published, we must not forget that sometimes we need writer friends, critique partners, etc. as much as we need an editor.

Take advantage of open discussions. Be ready to ask and answer questions about the craft of writing. Engaging in a discussion with other professional is one of the most valuable things at a retreat or conference.

OK. You DO get to think about your manuscript and your career. Otherwise, why go? Be ready to describe your story or your novel and what problems you are encountering. Be ready to be your own advocate. Take business cards to pass out. Be ready to accept and act on criticisms. But be gentle about your self-centered activities: give as good as you get.

2 Comments
  • Michelle Brown
    April 26, 2010

    Great post! I had the privilege of having Randi as my mentor at Chautauqua a couple of years ago. She is definitely a fun person to chat with, and I imagine a wonderful editor to work with. Her suggestions helped me not only with that particular manuscript, but with my writing in general.

  • Jason Black
    April 27, 2010

    That’s so true.

    The most common thing I do for my clients (I’m a book doctor) amounts to extensive revision letters on their manuscripts. I always start off these reports with an admonition that my advice, while based on training and experience, is not gospel. It’s still the author’s story, not mine, and only the author can determine what changes are really right for the story.

    That said, I’m often helping clients who are still learning their craft, and so a large part of the reports I do for them involves helping them understand the deeper issues behind the flaws in their novels. I’ve found that it’s not enough to say, for example, “hey, in this spot here you’re telling, not showing.” I also have to explain the difference, and what that whole “Show, don’t Tell” rule is about.

    All of which gets at an attitude that I think separates the writers who will ultimately succeed from those who won’t.

    The ones who will succeed are the ones who treat revision letters, book doctor reports, or critiques of any kind as an _opportunity to learn_. They treat feedback as an opportunity to improve their craft.

    The ones who won’t succeed are the ones who think that a revision letter is a recipe for making their manuscript perfect so they can get it published. It’s not. At its best, this kind of feedback is informed guidance. Nothing more. It’s not a shortcut to the holy land of published authordom. You still have to do the work, which as Darcy says, means understanding the deeper issues in your writing.