Sarah Rees Brennan (sarahtales) wrote,
Sarah Rees Brennan

Dear Author

So yesterday my mother rang me.

MOTHER: You are a bad daughter!
SARAH: Why am I a particularly bad daughter today?
MOTHER: Why didn't you tell me you were going to be in the paper?
SARAH: I'm not in the paper!
MOTHER: Yes you are.
SARAH: You're having one of your funny turns again, aren't you, Mother? Listen, there are no vampires being interviewed on television, and I am not in the paper. I'd know if I was in the paper. Surely they tell you. Unless you've suddenly become involved in some kind of... terrible scandal.
SARAH: ... Maybe I'd better go buy a paper and call you back.
SARAH (some time later): Hey mom! Guess what, I'm in the paper!
MOTHER: I'm shocked.

I'm totally in the paper, you guys! And not involved in any sort of terrible scandal, which is a relief.

But this post isn't about newspapers. It's about letters.

So after you wrote a book, rewrote, secured an agent, rewrote some more and went on submission (more about the submission process another day), your book's been accepted for publication! Score! You have a publishing house, and an editor, and cheques even arrive, and everything in the world is wonderful.

But then your editor sends you a great big package. You open it slowly. You start to read...

Dear Author

I have just had the amazing experience of reading your breathtakingly wonderful novel again. All other work stopped in the office as I read out pages of your glittering golden prose. Assistant editors wept. The entire marketing division swooned as one. It would absolutely be a crime to change a single word of this glorious

Wait Muriel, is that Sarah Rees Brennan's letter? Ahem. New line. Take dictation, Muriel!

Excuse me, Sarah. I meant to send that letter off to someone else. Okay. So I re-read your novel, and I remembered that we were having a Mardi Gras party in the office when we bought it. So many things seem like a good idea at Mardi Gras... Well, we'll have to do the best we can with it! First off, I'm sure that you've already considered the fact that making the hero a talking rabbit would improve the book a hundredfold! I see this as a sort of Watership Down meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer...

Rabbits are hot right now. Very hot.

Okay, so perhaps my editorial letter didn't read exactly like that. (It certainly didn't read like the first bit!)

What's an editorial letter? Well, the length of an editorial letter can vary from two to twelve pages, but mine was a four-page letter and then my manuscript, marked-up with about a hundred yellow and green post-its. Sometimes I shake it. The colours make me think of autumn!

Yes, but what is an editorial letter? A letter that tells you what's wrong with your book. It goes over structural problems, suggests cutting scenes or chapters, suggests adding scenes or chapters, asks you to explain some stuff and to stop explaining other stuff because everyone gets it already, examines your language and your characters. It tells you what doesn't work, and suggests ways to make it work.

So that your book can be a beautiful shining finished work of art! Or that's the idea.

Of course, when the editorial letter first arrives - oh God, it's a great big huge pile of work and she obviously hated your book after all and you are off to the garden. To eat worms.

Then, as your coping mechanism kicks in and you're sulkily munching on your worms, it occurs to you that she may have had a point about that one thing. And maybe you have an idea to fix it.

At this point the floodgates open and you realise how stupid you've been about so many things, oh so many things, and you rush back into the house and try to assassinate yourself with a teapot for the honour of your family.

Lying on your floor a little concussed, sanity returns. This isn't helping you edit your book. And you kind of need that teapot.

In the end, the great dilemma of an editorial letter boils down to these two facts: It's Your Book, It's Your Call, and Your Editor Is Usually Right, All The Same.

I have some examples of some things editorial letters say, and some of the ways to deal with them! They are all real editorial comments. Some of them happened to me, and some of them happened to other people I know. I shall of course reveal it when it's me.

1. Cutting, or Sometimes Editors Tell You Things You Knew Already

So I took a Creative Writing MA last year, and for my first term I had a workshop leader who just hated fantasy. After (approximately 245235) a few fits of rage about how my beloved genre was being looked down on, I tried to ignore this and take his advice about structure and language and other things he was very good at.

The chief advice he gave to me was that I had to introduce my readers slowly to all this bizarre stuff. Write a new first chapter, he said.

I fretted and paced and played despairing country music and after several weeks, I produced a new first chapter. Everyone said it was good! I wasn't comfortable with it, but I decided they knew best.

One of the very first things my editorial letter said was to just cut the whole first chapter.

2. Changing, or Sometimes An Editor Will Tell You to Do Something That Alters The Whole Damn Book

This is very, very depressing, mostly because it is so much work. But because it is so much work, the editor will have really thought about it and be sure it's the right decision before she asks you to do it.

Not me, thankfully, but a girl I know had to change the point of view of her entire book from first person to third person. That's not search and replacing 'I' with 'she'. That's changing feeling, views of the world, views of other people. That's a whole hell of a lot of work.

She did it. The book's better for it. I respect this more than I can say.

... I would definitely have put my whole head in the teapot and not come out for days, just the same.

3. Study Your Language, or Reaching A Compromise

So I'm an Irish girl with an American editor writing from the point of view of an English boy. As you can imagine, this gets complicated. I must, must, must not use Irish phrases. I must be comprehensible to an American audience. But there's also the fact that the boy should sound legitimately English.

So words like 'titchy' (means very small) were cut.

Other words I fought for. 'No, he cannot call the boot of a car the 'trunk,' I said. 'He's English. And he works in a garage!' But I promised that I would put the words in context, so people stow things in the boot of the car, they pop the bonnet (hood) of the car, and they eat out of packets of crisps (chips). To which my Fabulous Editor replied, okay. Cheerio. God Save the Queen!

4. Mutilate Your Darlings

Sometimes you read your letter and you wince and you say 'Oh God, no! Not that scene! That's my favourite scene! What are you doing to it?' And you storm and say 'No, this I will fight for! Death before dishonour! We never never shall be slaves!'

Think about it, though. Sometimes people are self-indulgent. If they really love a phrase they will use it over and over and over and over (and over and over...) If they really love an idea, they will stick it in regardless of how it fits.

If you love something and you think you love it for a really good reason, I'm not saying cut it. But think about it, and think about whether it's appropriate, and even if you decide it is, think about modifying it.

Example: I had this one bit in my book where the hero remembers how his older brother used to carry him around. Until the hero was six and big for his age, and his brother was nine, and he had to stop trying to carry him around because it always ended in this top-heavy tumble to the ground, and people give their baby brothers concussion that way.

I had to cut that bit. It in no way fits in with the rest of that scene, which goes: Run! Lock up your daughters! Lock up your sons! The demons are coming! I still think it's really cute, though, and don't tell me if you think it's lame, because it is already gone! And for a good reason. Even if I still love it.

5. Content

Especially for a book for teenagers or people younger than teenagers, but really for all books. Editors keep an eye on that: sex, violence, have you gone too far, are readers going to be totally put off, will the book lead little Julia to OD on cough syrup, is the author putting in something that's too obviously A Private Thing of the Author's. That's one thing that really weirds me out in a book, when I find myself staring past the story at the author and going 'You like this a little too much, don't you...'

A girl I know had to remove underage drinking and underage ladies' underwear from her book. And well, I'm not sure about the ladies' underwear (most people know about underwear) but her book is intended for a younger than teen audience, and I really don't want little Julia ODing on the cough syrup, so... up to the author if she wants to keep it in or not! Fortunately this issue never came up for me, since I write for an older audience and anyway, my hero is too preoccupied for boozing and uh - doesn't wear ladies' underwear.

But the content questions do happen.

These are by no means all the things editorial letters address, but by using a cross-section of subjects they might touch on (and looking at different editors, letters and books) I hope I gave you some idea of what they are like.

Basically: your book, your name on the spine, you and only you know what's important to you and what you're trying to say.

But your editor knows why books succeed or fail, knows about marketing, has approximately 3656 billion tons of experience more than you and is an objective, experienced, knowledgeable observer with a stake in helping you improve the book. You'd be an idiot not to listen to her very, very carefully.

And in the end, you'll be glad you did.

In the middle... well, excuse me. I need to get back to frantic typing, flicking through post-its and looking at the teapot with desperate, speculative eyes...

I hope this was an interesting publication post! Any questions about editorial letters or requests for me to hush up with my ill-informed babbling welcome.

Tags: stumbling towards publication

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