The Joy of Revisions

Guest Blogger: Colleen Coble
(Bestselling author of over 40 books)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard you complaining about having to change your novel. I remember feeling the way you do once upon a time. But that was before I realized what a blessing it is to have another person devote such focus to my work. That was before I realized we authors are too close to our books to see them clearly.

I’ve come to enjoy the revision stage, and I wanted to share some thoughts on how you might enjoy it, too.

Revision letter arrives.

1. Dance! Shout out whoohoo! Do whatever it takes before you open it to have a great attitude. If you’re determined to make this a good experience, it will be much easier. Tell yourself there will be great things in there to make your book better.

2. Take down defenses. Realize that any criticism is meant to help not hurt.

3. Reinforcements have arrived! When I’m writing a book, I feel like a draft horse pulling a heavy wagon up a mountain by myself. When I get the revisions back, I’m suddenly assisted by another draft horse or two and we’re coasting down the mountain together toward a charming town in the distance. Allow yourself to brainstorm off the suggestions and see the possibilities.

Open the email and begin to read.

1. The Good. A little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down. Read the good things the editor had to say. Allow yourself to savor those, all the while knowing the medicine is coming. Linger over those passages.

2. The Bad: Now comes what didn’t work. Read through the entire list of things that need shoring up.

3. The Ugly: Often after reading a revision letter, you feel overwhelmed with all that needs to be done. But ugly as it looks, it’s possible to do this work in much less time than you imagined.

Gear up for the journey.

1. Read the letter again. Even a third time. I always miss some things. If you’re already excited about things, call your editor (or crit partner) and talk through some of the issues. If you’re not quite there yet, sleep on it. The next morning read it again and try to get excited. Try not to look at how much there is to do because it can be overwhelming.

2. Call your editor. Have the items up for discussion flagged. Then settle in for work.

Eat the elephant one bite at a time.

1. Print it out. Highlight important plot points that need changing and things the editor says don’t make sense.

2. Make the small changes. My editor usually has small inconsistencies marked by page number. I fix those little things because they are easier to find before I make major changes.

3. Tackle plot issues. I use Scrivener to write and I go back to my scene outline. Where can I drop in another scene or expand a current one that will allow me to fix those problems? Can I move a scene for more impact?

4. Layer in those character fixes: I get out 3 x 5 cards and write down character issues like Katie needs control: show. Or Hates glasses. Things that can be dropped into existing scenes easily. Also list scenes that need changing to more reflect who a character is.

5. Theme issues: Where can I layer in more thematic punch?

Finish what you started.

1. By now my print-out is a mishmash of highlights, checkmarks to indicate I took care of that problem and coffee stains. (Coffee is indispensable for editing!) Print it out again and read it with a fresh eye. Anything jump out at you that still needs fixing?

2. The editor has given you her best shot. But this is your chance to enhance your book even more. Often after we get those notes, we see the book in a whole new way. Love that about editing! So I always reread my character outlines. Has my character changed in my mind? If so, now is the time to enhance those changes with small tweaks in the inner and outer dialogue.

It’s over, right?

You pressed send and the job is done. Um, not so fast. Regardless of where you are in this process – if your revision memo was from your publisher or your agent – there will certainly be at least one more set of edits, the line edits, to come. This is where the editor actually changes things in your document. This is often the hardest spot for writers. It can make them feel like they were wrong to choose a certain word or a certain phrase. But this is where I often learn the most.

The revision process can be challenging, but I think it can be the most invigorating part of being a writer! If you like to learn, always becoming a better writer, then embrace the editing phase. No fear!

***

Best-selling author Colleen Coble’s newest book is The Lightkeeper’s Ball, just released from Thomas Nelson. Her novels have won or finaled in awards ranging from the Best Books of Indiana, the ACFW Carol Award, the Romance Writers of America RITA, the Holt Medallion, the Daphne du Maurier, National Readers’ Choice, and the Booksellers Best. She has nearly 2 million books in print and writes romantic mysteries because she loves to see justice prevail. Colleen is CEO of American Christian Fiction Writers and lives with her husband Dave in Indiana. She is represented by Karen Solem at Spencerhill Associates. Visit her website at http://www.colleencoble.com/.

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  • Melissa K Norris

    >Thanks for sharing this, Colleen. I just had an editor reject my novel, but he gave me two points to work on. At first, I was crushed.
    Then, I went back and saw he told me to keep writing, I was close. Secondly, he told me the two things I needed to fix. Now it's up to me to fix it and make it the best possible.
    It really is all about our attitude and preception.

  • Melissa K Norris

    >Oops, forgot to tell you I really like your novels. I was able to get my mother-in-law to read your books, her first ever Christian reads. And, she loved them! She even went to the library to see if they carried more of your novels. Yea!

  • Keli Gwyn

    >What an uplifting post, Colleen. I'm learning to love revisions. I went though several self-initiated rounds before I received my offer of representation.

    My wise and wonderful agent pointed out a major weakness in my story, and I was back in Revision Land. Each round of revisions made the story better, though, which was a great reward for my hard work.

    My agent sold the book, and I'm eager to work on revisions with my editor and make the story even better. I've come up with a motto that works for me: I'm not a writer. I'm a re-writer. =)

  • Lee Thompson

    >Wow. Terrific post!

  • Anonymous

    >Thank you so much for all your advice.

  • Carol J. Garvin

    >Thanks for such a helpful post. Attitude is everything. Isn't that true in every aspect of life?

    I actually enjoy revisions because I understand my characters and the story's progression much better after the initial writing is complete. My problem is knowing when to stop revising… what's making the story better and what's just trivial tweaking. I think it must be wonderful having a knowledgeable professional as a partner in the process.

  • Andrew

    >Thanks so much for the information!

    I write quite a bit for technical journals, and find that many editors (usually volunteers from college faculty) seem to look for the opportunity to demand changes that show how much brighter and more knowledgeable they are than is the author.

    It's very tiresome – rather like the sort of questioner at a conference who spends the entire time of your talk thinking of a question you can't answer.

    Do you run into this sort of fiction editor?

  • Rosemary Gemmell

    >This is such a helpful, positive post – thank you, Colleen. I love the bit 'Reinforcements have arrived'. That sounds so reassuring and perhaps makes the whole thing a bit less daunting!

    Your novels sound wonderful – I love romantic mysteries. Off to check out your website!

  • Katie Ganshert

    >This is a very timely post! I'm going to get my first revision letter sometime in May. I'll be sure to come back here and reread! Thanks, Colleen!

  • Linda Jackson

    >Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sue Harrison

    >Colleen, Thank you so much for this great advice. I particularly love the "Eat the Elephant" portion. So often I leave the small things until the last and then can't find them. You think I would have figured out that I should been doing them first!

    I bought one of your first books (old but in good shape)just about year ago at a used book sale to benefit our local hospital. I've been hooked and buying your other books (new) since then! Thank you for your stories. They sweep me away.

  • Yvonne Blake

    >I"m learning to like critique (It's taken awhile, and my skin is getting thicker.)
    I like your advice about viewing it as "reinforcement." Everyone needs a friend and encouragement- why not for our writing, too?
    Thank you for the encouraging advice.

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >You’ve touched upon such a key aspect of grateful living in this post. Our attitudes influence so much about how we go about editing and every other thing in life.

    Love the analogy of the draft horse.

    Great tips, Colleen!
    ~ Wendy

  • M. R. Pursselley

    >Thanks so much for such an encouraging post. I'm still in the self-editing stage with my novel, but the editor's revisions stage isn't too far away (I hope). Thanks for the reminder that a good attitude covers a multitude of woes! : )

  • Kathleen

    >I always get nervous when people critique, particularly people who haven't seen it before and don't know me personally–but you're right, take down the defenses! I've never found any feedback that wasn't helpful in some way, and usually people are right on! And that's with critique partners…imagine the wealth a trained editor can offer!

  • Rick Barry

    >Terrific perspective from one of our fellow Hoosier authors. A couple days ago I received back a critique on my current suspense novel, and to me this is like gold. A balanced, unbiased critique by a professional who wants to help a book to succeed is priceless. It takes an objective eye to assist a writer in spotting his own typical shortcomings, which in fundamental to learning and growing better in the craft.

  • Julie Jarnagin

    >This is a great post! I'm currently working on the content edit for my second Heartsong, and I'm going to put these tips to use.

  • MZMackay

    >This is such a timely post as I am going through revisions with a group of critique partners. I still have to remind myself of how to I must face this aspect of the writing process. Thank you.

  • Madeline Mora-Summonte

    >I think the attitude that it's all about making the book better, that the agent and editor are part of the team is such a wonderful way to look at things.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • immotusfactura

    >This was good to "hear". I learned this the hard way when I asked a friend, who is a retired school teacher to help me with editing my manuscript. I was able to swallow my pride and learned a lot about where and how I need to grow as an author. I hope that the second time around, once my book is accepted by an agent and has found a publishing home, will be as much a growing experience.

  • Colleen Coble

    >Andrew, most of the time I've had fabo editors. Ami McConnell and Erin Healy are my dream team. But in the copyediting phase, I once had a mostly non fiction editor and I about had a meltdown when I got my proofs back. She (GASP) put in ADVERBS. Like he said censoriously.

    I paced, shouted, and got generally hot under the collar. And horror of horrors, there were SEMICOLONS IN MY NOVEL!!!! LOL. To me, semicolons slow the pace and they don't belong in my books. :( I spent the entire weekend changing things back. Luckily, Ami knows how I love the editing process so if there was a problem, she KNEW it was real.

    I'm so glad the post was helpful, friends! I learn something new with every book. Really, I think I'd be disappointed if I didn't have lots to change. LOL

  • Leah Petersen

    >This post was spot on. The only thing I'd add from my experience is that a bit of distance helps. If your deadline allows for it, putting a bit of time between that first (third) reading of the letter and any major changes can not only help ease the sting of being told something you loved didn't work, but can give you a much better perspective on the whole. Which, ultimately leads to better changes.

  • Colleen Coble

    >Quite true, Leah! I always have a month to 6 weeks before the revision letter comes back and I don't even look at it or touch it in that time lapse while I'm waiting.

  • Cynthia Herron

    >When I initially began sending my work out, I tended to get lots of positive feedback, but the one clinging vine was usually "too much backstory…"

    Now, years later I'm better about this then I was. My crit partner/reader is a teacher by profession, and I love it when she uses her red pen! (Well…most of the time!)

    I have to admit, I am daunted (actually, frightened) by the mere word "revision." I know when my book sells, I'll have to pull up my "big girl pants" and work even harder.

    I'm nowhere near this point yet, since I've only knocked down one hurdle, but I'm wondering, Colleen…how did you take the sting out of that first revision letter? Did chocolate help? : )

  • Olivia Newport

    >Thanks for a good reminder of the time and place for this stage of writing. I am about one-third of the way through a contracted novel at the moment and find myself muddled in trying to second guess what would turn up in a revision letter—and make sure it doesn't. Taken to an extreme, that can be paralyzing. After a few days of this, I'm finally moving into the "Just write something" stage and remembering that editing will enrich the story and it's not a bad thing to get a revision letter.

  • Jillian Kent

    >Hi Colleen!
    Such perfect timing. My first book is making it's debut May 3rd. Yippee! I've found your guidance over the years so very helpful. Thank you!

    Now I'm just few days away from sending book 2 to my editor. I learned tons from my first revision letter but it was not easy.

    So is there anything you can recommend to those of us less experienced and getting ready to send our novels in to editors that might help make the revision letter a little less stressful? Something maybe that's not too hard but can make a big difference? I just thought of the senses and that's probably something I need to go back and look at so I'm answering my own question now. :) What's your thoughts Colleen?
    Gratefully,
    Jill Nutter/Jillian Kent

  • Casey

    >Great post, Colleen, thanks for sharing. I feel the same way when I get any kind of critique back from a partner or freelance editor. It's always hard on the first read and each time after that, it gets easier and easier to take in and helps make the fiction better. :)

    LOVE the cover of your latest book, btw. :)

  • Jill

    >I can't wait. This pack horse thing is getting tiresome. Someday. . .

  • Emily Graham

    >I LOVED reading this! I LOVe to write and am currently writing one. It helped me a lot thinking on my book. I shall go over it with fresh eyes and see if I can change anything. Thank you for putting this up.!

    Emily

  • Maril Hazlett

    >Loved this blog post (and not in the least, I really like your web writing style – I need to learn to use bold face, numbering, and shorter sentences, like you do.)

    Hopefully it is not too dorky to admit this, but I have found that a good way for me to keep track of content and plot edits is through an Excel spreadsheet. I only track major edits, but the spreadsheet definitely helps me keep sight of the editor's main points for the revision. Otherwise, I tend to go off on my own tangent.

  • Marcy

    >Seriously! I'd LOVE to be discouraged by a revision letter! HA! I think the silence of NO response is far more disheartening… especially since I really want my work to be the best it can be. I'd rather have edits than no comments at all! Thanks for the post!

  • Erica Vetsch

    >Colleen had posted something similar on the ACFW loop years ago, about being thrilled to get a revision letter, even rejoicing in the rewriting/revising process.

    I tucked that away, and when I received my first revision letter from my editor, I drew upon her experience. I even emailed her to say thank you for sharing her take on revision letters and mentoring me without even knowing it.

    Taking a page from her book (lol, not literally) I now look forward to receiving revision letters, and I love my editors. We're all on the same team with the same goal of making my books the best they can be.

    So, thank you again, Colleen, for helping writers along the journey.

  • Julie Nilson

    >First off, that book cover is GORGEOUS, Colleen!

    I kind of like getting the revision/critique notes too. I love reading the good stuff (who wouldn't?) and the criticisms, well, those are usually about spots that I knew weren't quite perfect, but didn't know how to fix. A helpful editor or critique partner will often make some suggestions that make me smack my head and wonder why I didn't think of that!

  • Edward Gordon

    >We write by putting our heart and soul into the work–and then we have to smile when the capitalists big-six publishers, or worse an agent, tells us to change it.

    Oh, I understand copyedits, but major revisions to suit the market? What happened to our soul?

  • Michelle DeRusha@Graceful

    >I so appreciate this post, Colleen. I love how you break what can be a daunting process down into manageable steps. And yes, I say always fix the easy things first — that gives me the feeling that I have accomplished something!

    When I had my manuscript professionally edited, I was completely overwhelmed by the work that faced me. I sure wish I'd had your advice at the time, but it turns out I did do a few things right. I printed it all out, laid out all the chapters on a large desk (I actually took the ms to my office — of my paying job! — over the weekend, so I would have adequate space and quiet to focus), and then I took a pencil and started scribbling notes and arrows and directions. It looked like a royal mess…but it worked!

  • Kristin Laughtin

    >This is a good list to have, and makes the project seem much more manageable! The most important thing is not to take the revision suggestions personally, and to take a night off after reading the letter if it makes you too upset or angry. A good night's sleep can bring about amazing new perspective, so add it to the list as needed.

  • Colleen Coble

    >Wow great comment! I'm on my way to the Outer Banks to research a new series. :)

    Cynthia, when I got that first revision letter, I cried. Lol. Then I realized (like Kristen said) that I couldn't take it personally. We are a TEAM. We aren't adversaries. We have the same goal–to produce the best work possible.

    Olivia, you need to brush that editor off your shoulder. :) trying to write the story to please them is paralyzingly. Write the story then see what she has to say

    Jill, so proud of you! One thing is to examine if you've brought your setting to life with those senses.

    Julie I love that cover too!! Marit, I know other authors who use spreadsheets. Whatever tool works, use it!

    Edward, do you believe excellence is a cop out? Im afraid if you think every word you write is perfect, you are going to be shocked by reality. We can all improve. I try to improve my storytelling with every book– to immerse the reader more fully into my story world. That's going to be a lifelong job!

    Love all your comments!

  • Krista Phillips

    >LOVE this Colleen!!! I recently downloaded Scrivener for Windows (the beta version…) and am working on a new book in it, and OH MY GOODNESS I love it! I've always groaned at the editing process because it is SUCH a chore, but I can totally see how this program would make it much more enjoyable and maybe not easier to dive in and tackle!

    No experience with "editor" revision letters, but even with critiques and judges comments in contests, personally, I give myself a day to rant and complain about how irritating the feedback is (load up on a lot of chocolate…), then suck it up and realize how right they are and go and change it. AT this point, anything I really have a problem with, I send to a couple other writer friends and get alternate feedback to see if it's just me being full-of-myself or if it's really an invalid point.

  • Colleen Coble

    >Isn't Scrivener the bomb? Oh my gosh, I just love it!

  • Krista Phillips

    >See, this is why I need to edit!

    "maybe not easier to dive in and tackle…"

    That is NOT what I meant! I was trying to say it WILL be easier to dive in and tackle editing.

    *slinking away in comment-editing shame…*

  • Beth K. Vogt

    >I heard you talk about this in 2010 at a local workshop in Colorado Springs. So, when my agent sent me a revision letter, I printed it out and danced around my office. (Not sure I shouted, "Whoo hoo!" but I did dance.)
    I appreciated your encouragement to embrace the revision letter. My agent's insights improved my manuscript–and a completely new character showed up before the revisions were done!

  • Marleen Gagnon

    >What a wonderful post to give me an idea of how to break the revisions down to a doable process. It sounds daunting, but I can do this. Thanks.

  • Shelly Goodman Wright

    >I love your voice.

    I must be an odd duck. Every time I get a critique back from my writing group (all marked up), I feel I've grown by something. It's a learning opportunity to improve your writing, your characters, your plot. I look forward to the day when I have an editor who will be honest with me and NOT want me to put out a substandard novel. Someone who will treat me as a student and help me develop my writing to the best it can be.

    I'd still be swimming in passive voice and 'telling' passages if it wasn't for my writing group. <> I love you guys. :-)

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Great advice Colleen. Thanks.

  • Lisa Jordan

    >Great post, C!! I rejoiced when I received my revision letter because it meant I really did have a contracted novel! Also, I had 8 minor, minor revisions to make. I know I won't be blessed with so few edits for future books. I truly appreciate my editor and her advice to make my writing stronger! Thanks for sharing your insights.

    By the way, I love your new pic. Beautiful.

  • Melissa

    >Colleen,

    Awesome guest blog! I’m one of those creepy-weird writers who love revisions and edits! But, to be fair, I’ve been freelancing for more than 20 years, so I’ve come to embrace the philosophy of “more heads is better than one” a hundred times over. There are a lot of flaws in my writing that I cannot see because I’m simply too close to the issue – for me, it’s very helpful to have that set of second (or third or fourth) eyes. ☺

  • Jami Gold

    >I love this post! Such a great attitude to have. I've learned to appreciate revisions because I recognize how much better they make my work. But you're right, they're even better than that. Thanks!

  • Jeanne T

    >Colleen, I so appreciated your post! I'm not anywhere close to receiving a revision letter yet, but I hope to be, one day. :) Thanks for helping me see what a teachable spirit looks like when I do receive one (one day! :)).

    I loved the mindset of having more minds working on the story. I am already thankful for the people who help me improve in writing my story. :)

    By the way, I would add chocolate to go with that coffee when you get to work. :)
    Thanks again for a great post!

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