Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Ham Sandwiches and Revisions

So what do you do when you get revisions in? I've seen a lot of different strategies, from different writers. Erica is a big fan of "being with" revisions for a while. You know, do nothing hasty. Let it percolate, see if it's wise. Overall, that's probably a good strategy. So very Buddhist of her.

Still other writers enjoy the defensive letter. As in, "I can see you didn't understand my book at all, you dope, so here are 100 reasons you're wrong, and you're probably from an inbred family to boot."

Then there's the hopeless types ... "I'll NEVER be able to do that. I should just quit. The whole thing sucks. I knew it all along."

And the personalized, hurt types. "You never supported me! I knew it! Why do you hate me so much! I should just save you the trouble and throw my whole manuscript off a bridge! You'd probably like that!"

Me? I'd like to think I was a "be with it" kind of guy. I mean, I am pretty open to revisions. I'm a fiend for improvement, and I'm not afraid to work hard. And since I'm already a professional writer, I stopped thinking that every word that drops from my fingertips is like dew from angel's wings a long time ago. In my world, words are a commodity like corn, and I'm the fertile field in which they grow (think on that for a second).

In reality, though, I'm more a neurotic type. "Should I? Shouldn't I? What the hell? And what does that mean anyway? I'm not going to do anything about it for a week. Except I'm going to rewrite the whole book tonight, when I can't sleep. Except that I'm not, because that would be rushing it and I want to get it right. And be honest now, does this manuscript make me look fat?"

So how do you sort out which comments are valuable and which are useless distractions? I can always tell if a proposed revision is good if this tiny voice inside my head says, "Yeeesssss." Or, better yet, if new scenes and implications start to flood my head. If I think, "Man! How come I didn't think of that before!" I know I'm in good territory.

But if I just smile and nod, and take no notes, think about nothing except ham sandwiches and dappled sunlight, then it ain't gonna happen.


Melanie Avila said...

You sound so much like me, except I'm not a professional writer. I received feedback from several readers a month or so ago, and most of it sat pretty well with me. One reader, however, brought up several points that I couldn't decide on -- I wanted to make sure I didn't disregard him purely because I disagreed (I often get that "yesss" right away), so I sat on it for a month. Now I know which advice I'm going to follow, and which I'll disregard.

I'm also very neurotic and I KNOW my ms makes me look fat, lol.

spyscribbler said...

I love that you brought this up, Jon! No one talks about this much. Or responding to readers... no one talks about how to do that, either. I'm as much in the dark as anyone, but here's what I do:

I generally write back the editor thanking them and expressing enthusiasm for one or two things they suggested. Then I ask them, on a scale of one to ten, about how much change they're hoping for. I'm pretty sure they hate this question, but it's useful to me.

It helps me see whether they're looking for a total overhaul or tweaks. Sometimes the email will sound to me like a 10 overhaul, and they'll write back and say 2, LOL.

In my experience, big changes can be made with a tweak here and there. And I always fear I'll make it into something worse, LOL!

Editing is their "art," you know? It's a skill that feels like a creative process. Sometimes it's exhilarating, and sometimes it's hard, just like we feel about writing. So I hope to encourage it and them, because they are complementary arts, LOL. I try to remember that they worry about looking fat and stupid just as much as we do. :-)

LurkerMonkey said...


That does sound exactly like me ... I'm always double-checking myself to make sure I'm not disregarding good input just because I'm annoyed. Sometimes I'm more paranoid about the revisions I disregard than the ones I accept.

LurkerMonkey said...


You're gutsier than me. I'm always afraid to write editors back and ask how much revision they're looking for. RIght or wrong, I'm always concerned it'll look like, you know, I don't just automatically know exactly how much work is needed. Then, of course, when I get it wrong and more revisions are needed, I kick myself.

Jude Hardin said...

I usually take my cues from what Stephen King says in On Writing.

I figure if two or more people bring up the same issue, then Houston we have a problem.

If it's just one person, and I like the part(s) s/he is criticizing, it's a tie. In baseball, a tie goes to the runner. In writing, a tie goes to the writer.

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah. I do that, too, especially with my regular crit partners and readers. If two or three of them have the same problem, then it's a done deal. And after a while, you get to know a particular reader's strengths, so if so-and-so says something is off, they're probably right.

Melanie Avila said...

Jude, I try to follow King's advice too. In my case, I only had one reader not like certain parts, but he was so adamant about it that I gave his opinion more weight.

Jon, this really struck me: I'm more paranoid about the revisions I disregard than the ones I accept. I'm exactly the same way. To a fault.

spyscribbler said...

Gee, Jon, I didn't think of that. Great. Something else to be neurotic about. (Kidding! Mostly!)


Mark Terry said...

I'm probably like Erica in this. I read it, think about, decide what I'm going to do, let it percolate a while, then do it. The key for me, in fiction, anyway, is to try and figure out what the editor is getting at, because sometimes it doesn't make sense. Sometimes it does and in my experience it's helped the books.

LurkerMonkey said...


Sorry! I try not to add to other people's neuroses. Usually.

LurkerMonkey said...


I do that too, try to figure out what the editor is really saying, and then writing with that in mind rather than the specifics of their letter. Fat lot of good it's done me so far.

Melanie Avila said...

Spy, I had the same reaction -- ANOTHER thing to freak out about. :)