As authors, selling our work to a publisher is the Dream — capital D. But that dream is often tinged with fear, because selling a book means giving up control. Suddenly, your voice is not the only one that matters, and never does that become more apparent than when you get your first edit letter.
For those not familiar with the term, an edit letter is what your editor will send you once they’ve acquired your book. It may come in the form of a list of suggested changes, or a mark-up on your manuscript, or a combination of both. It might be ten pages long, or one, a hundred notes, or twenty, and those notes could be small niggly things, or big overarching ones. Either way, receiving an edit letter is always a daunting prospect.
Which is why I wanted to share my own experience with edits and why I believe they’re to be embraced rather than feared.
So here’s a list of some of the changes I was asked to make on my duology:
– Rethink the lore
– Gender swap a character
– Remove a main character's death (which meant rethinking their arc, sigh)
– Add entirely new sub plots
– Rework scenes and plot points
I think we can all agree this list is terrifying. Hell, I've already made these changes and it still scares me. But what you have to remember is that these notes didn't just appear one day under the heading: Change This Or We Will Drop You! [Evil Laugh]
Edits are a conversation. Your editor will make suggestions and give you reasons for why they think those changes are necessary. If you agree, great! If not, then you discuss the plot point in question until you find a solution you’re both happy with.
The trick is to look for the underlying problem your editor has diagnosed. So long as you address that, you’re under no obligation to change it in the exact way they have suggested.
But Kate, what if it those edits clash with my original vision? I hear you ask. And the answer to that is: they very well might.
So let’s talk about this original vision for a second.
Ever heard the theory that there are an infinite number of universes out there, and infinite versions of each of us? Well, it’s handy to think about books that way too. There are an infinite number of ways a story can be told, and how it ends up depends entirely on the people working on it.
Your original vision is just the first version of the story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best version.
Example: when I was laying the foundations for Book 2 of my duology, the synopsis was moving between my editor, my agent, and myself. My editor looked at that framework and said: this is great but I think we should add a second leg to the MC’s journey, give the reader a new part of the world to explore.
And I loved that idea, so I re-jigged the outline and ran it by my agent. She looked at my plan for this new leg and said: this is cool, but what if we gave the MC more than one reason for going there? Maybe a magic based reason?
And I loved that idea too, so I wrote in a new mini sub-plot that revolved around a new magical element, and that element then went on to inform a part of the main climax at the end.
Fast forward to my structural edits, and my editor sees that magical element and says: this is interesting, but what if we approach it in a slightly different way and tie it back to a recurring theme in Book 1?
And (you guessed it), I loved that idea as well. So I re-wrote a few scenes, changed some lore — oh, and came up with a whole new arm for the magic system which allowed this change to happen.
The result was a much better developed sub-plot, a deeper magic system, and as an added bonus, it all feels connected to something I first introduced in Book 1 (so you guys will all think I’m really smart).
Notice how I probably wouldn’t have gotten to this version of the story on my own. It took a suggestion from my editor, which was built on by my agent, written by me, then further refined by my editor.
None of which is to say that my original vision wasn’t important — these suggestions wouldn’t have even mattered had I not laid the foundations for the book in the first place. But as authors, our job is to take edit notes and turn them into something that makes sense for the story.
So let's take arguably the biggest change from that list of edits I received: the character death. Pretty major thing, huh? Are you feeling a little uncomfortable right now? Like maybe you’re totally okay with working with an editor and changing your original vision, just not this much?
Well, what if I told you that by the time this change was suggested, I was relieved to hear it? Would you believe me?
See, the arc for this character was originally conceived way before I'd ever sent Book 1 out to agents. Then in edits, that character’s role grew a fair bit. The book changed a fair bit. And yet, I still thought it was the right thing for the story because it was my original vision.
But then I started drafting Book 2. And I started sending chapters to my betas. And I started to realise they weren't going to be pleased when this character died. In fact, though I still believed it was the right thing for the story, I was dreading their reaction to this plot point. Real dread. Not that gleeful, I’m-going-to-emotionally-destroy-my-readers feeling we writers love so much.
So I workshopped the synopsis some more with my editor, and she (very gently) suggested that maybe killing off that character was a mistake. That I had a potential throw-the-book-into-a-wall-and-never-pick-it-up-again moment.
And as soon as she said it, I realised I was just waiting for someone to tell me that. I agreed, instantly, even though I had no idea how I was going to resolve that character's arc now.
Do I think I could have made that character death work? Absolutely. Thematically, it fit my original vision for the book. But I no longer believe it was the right thing for it. It hadn't been since I refined that character’s role in Book 1; my brain was just too afraid of the change to see that.
But changing it actually allowed me to explore all the main characters better, and opened up possibilities for new themes and conflicts. Now, extrapolate that to the rest of the edits on that list, and the result is two much better books.
That's why I firmly believe that whether you're planning to trade or self-publish, you need a good editor. You need that professional voice to really put your original vision to the test. Because your first idea isn't always going to be your best idea. If it was, this would be easy. And we all know it's not.
So make sure you’re open to change. Don’t let the work scare you. Commit to trying these ideas out before dismissing them out of hand. Because until you do, you’ll never know for sure if you’re presenting the reader with the best version of the story.
P.S. For those of you still wondering exactly how much a book might change during editorial, the image at the top of this piece shows every change I made to my novel between sending the first draft to my agent, and having the manuscript accepted by my publisher.
It looks painful, I know (trust me, I know). But every single line of red in that image made my book better.
Kate grew up in a sleepy English town where there was little to do but read, watch movies, and bake. After graduating university, she turned her love for storytelling and the visual arts into a full time job, embarking on a career as a video editor. But it wasn't long before she realised that telling other people's stories wasn't quite enough; she wanted to tell her own. Her passion for writing YA novels is (unofficially) sponsored by Smarties and Nespresso, and supported by her long-suffering boyfriend and their two cats, Sir Dixon Bainbridge and Gypsy Danger.