Like Tara in the last post, I am one of those writers who is terrible at making up an on-the-spot story. I think it probably has to do with seeing how our work grows and improves over time through our own efforts and with input from others. We don’t want to be judged by our hot-off-the-presses ideas until they’ve had time to cool and gel and be served up in nice pretty little dishes with chocolate shavings and a sprig of garnish on top. It’s hard to share a completely rough draft with anyone, even our own families, when we understand the power of editing and revision.
By the time my book sold last summer, I thought I understood those powers. After all, I’d been working on that manuscript, among others, for seven years. During that time I’d met regularly with my amazingly talented and generous critique group (who graciously read it dozens of times), swapped manuscripts with other EMLA clients, sought out professional critiques at conferences, and intentionally sought out an editorial agent (whose advice, by the way, has been spot-on every. single. time.). I knew that an editor would, of course, want certain changes made. So I wasn’t all that surprised when I received my manuscript with notes all over it along with the editorial letter. (Okay, I was surprised by how quickly I got those, but not by their contents.)
My editor had a few things to do ahead of my book, so she gave me a big, comfortable deadline for those revisions. No problem, I thought. Her notes made sense to me. I agreed with them. I wrote and re-wrote, read and re-read. I made sure I’d addressed every point. I sent it back feeling confident and successful… until I got the second-round letter and notes.
She was too diplomatic to say so, but my reading-between-the-lines-interpretation of her kind and encouraging words sounded more like, “Wow, you totally missed the boat here.” I was crushed. I was scared. If what I’d thought was good work was so far away from what she actually wanted, I didn’t have any confidence I could ever deliver something that would be satisfactory. And this time, the deadline was short. I was sure she was going to cancel my contract.
But, what could I do? I dug in again, and this time I dug deep. She was asking hard questions, questions I didn’t know the answers to (and since this is nonfiction, I couldn’t exactly make them up!). I was getting down to the wire and was still missing key facts. I was in a total panic. The day before the deadline, I finally got all of the information I needed. Could I turn it around in one day? It turns out I didn’t have to. Hurricane Sandy barreled into New York, and my manuscript was the least of their concerns. Prying myself away from news coverage and checking Facebook for word from my East Coast friends, I went back to work. I wrapped it up a few days later and hit send.
This time around, there was no sense of accomplishment, only dread. Had I done enough? Had I made it worse? Was this the end?
Not yet! I soon got another email from her. She apologized for asking me to do more work (to which I thought, “Yay! She wants me to do more work! I’m not fired!), and asked me to accept a few edits and to tweak the ending. Phew. I can do that… I think.
After one more relatively quick and painless round, you can imagine my delight when she told me yesterday that we are DONE, and the words–my words–are going off to copy editing.
But I am so thankful that I got to go through this process with her. I thought I’d worked long and hard on this manuscript, but my editor taught me how to work much, much harder. She taught me how to ask the tough questions that would push it to become a better book—and pushed me to become a better writer.
This manuscript was pretty awful when I wrote that first draft seven years ago, and I’m so glad you didn’t get to see it then. But I’m happy to say… I feel pretty darn good about it now.