Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Horror of Revision Letters

"Revision letter." Those words are my idea of nonfiction horror. A revision letter is the sobering dose of reality that comes after the sparkles-joy-unicorns glory that is a book contract. I wrote novels for years. Trunked many of them. Wrote draft after draft of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER to make the book work. The revision letter was a reminder that, even though I was under a legal contract the likes of which I had never signed before, the book still didn't quite work.

This was terrifying.

The deadline dangled overhead like a guillotine. This was a whoooooole lot more pressure than my usual Write1Sub1 goals. I wanted a book worthy of my contract and the advance money, but most of all, I wanted to create a book lots of people would enjoy.

I had seen on writer blogs before that "the shorter the revision letter, the worse it is." I can see the logic behind that; it doesn't take many words to say, "This book is deeply flawed, so start over from scratch." However, my letter was three solid pages and asked for major changes. Huge cuts through the book. Several subplots fleshed out. A minor character with a bigger role. A major adjustment to my protagonist, one that involved rewriting her entire point-of-view.

It's a punch in the gut to get a letter like that. Time slows. Self doubt hits like a tidal wave. Even so, I nodded as I read my editor's notes. I didn't disagree with a single point. As daunting as the task would be, I had to admit that my editor had pretty much nailed flaws that I'd struggled to work around since draft 1.

I confess, I don't remember a lot of details about the following weeks. I lived in the world of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER. I woke up at 4:30am most every morning so I could start work before I had to get my son ready for school. I barely left the house, and when I did, the mental work continued in the back of my brain.

The end result was a cut of 10,000 words, even as I added some 2,000-3,000. I submitted it about three weeks early. I waited in terror for approval from my editor. It took a month, but she accepted all of my revisions. I'd done it.

This wasn't the end of revisions, but nothing else was on such a massive scale. Later on I was sent copyedits, where an independent editor corrected technical issues and inconsistencies, and page proofs, where the manuscript is printed out as if for the final book.

The editing on DAGGER was done, but I had a two-book deal.

The revision letter for my sequel recently arrived. After my experience with the first one, I decided it was best to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised. Well, the surprise was pleasant indeed. Remember that quoted advice earlier about shorter revision letters being better? The letter for CROWN was two and a half pages, but is a very different beast. No big cuts, no rewrites of POV. No 4:30am wake-ups required. It called for minor tweaks to a number of subplots and specific tightening in a few scenes. I have a different editor this time around, and she was just as spot-on with her analysis. I couldn't quibble with a single one of her points.

That's the thing with these revision letters. They are scary and intimidating, but the full intent is to make a better book--not simply torment the author. My editors have made it clear that it's still my book and all changes are ultimately my decision.

Revision letters may be nonfiction horror, but the most important thing is the result: a happy ending for me as the author, for my readers, and just maybe for my characters, too.

Beth Cato is a long time member of Write1Sub1. THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER, a steampunk fantasy novel, was released from Harper Voyager on September 16th. The first chapter of the book can be read on


  1. This is exciting, Beth. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. This. Is so. Awesome. I LOVE seeing someone from W1S1 move through the hierarchy of smaller press to pro publications to published novel--it's a validation of all of our ambitions. Hopefully, it's like glancing into our futures.

    1. That's my hope too, Devin!