The Revision Letter
Last week, guest blogger Camille Eide wrote about her first experience with a Revision Letter. Some of you may wonder, what exactly does that letter address? Simply put, it addresses whatever your particular book needs to make it the best it can be. But to be a little more specific, here is a rundown of SOME of the things your editor may look at.
Does the plot makes sense? Is there a strong narrative structure? (Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement… but there are numerous ways to describe dramatic structure). Is there an identifiable conflict and pressing story question? Is the reader engaged from the very first scene? Does the action flow naturally and does the pacing keep the reader turning the page? Are the setting and time period well-established? Is there a strong sense of place, culture or environment (suitable to the story)?
Does each character have a purpose for being in the story? Is character defined through dialogue and action (rather than narrative)? Are characters’ feelings shown rather than described? Are the characters explained on a need-to-know basis throughout the story rather than all at once at the beginning? Does the reader have strong rooting interest in the protagonist? Is the main character likable or at least sympathetic? If you have an ensemble cast, is each individual clearly delineated with unique mannerisms, speech patterns and traits? Does your protagonist have a goal and an arc – do they end up somehow different from when they started?
Is dialogue believable (which can be different from “realistic”) and does it seem to flow naturally? Does each character speak in their own unique voice? Is dialogue used to move the story forward and reveal character (as opposed to simply convey information to the reader)? Is there a comfortable balance between dialogue and narrative summary? Are speaker attributions used when needed, and only when needed? Is dialogue paragraphed appropriately?
Does each scene contain the three necessary elements – a location in time and space, action, and dialogue? Does every scene contain tension and drive the reader into the next scene? Is the point of view consistent and easily recognized by the reader? Do you have the right number of beats to maintain the pacing and steer the reader’s imagination?
General Fiction Crafting:
Is there appropriate narrative intimacy or distance? Do you resist the urge to explain too much to the reader, allowing the reader discoveries of their own throughout the book? Do you primarily “show” us your characters and their actions, rather than “telling” us about them? Are you keeping details proportionate to their importance in the story? Are you using an appropriate amount of interior monologue?
Of course, there can be other considerations besides these, but this gives you a pretty good overview. In the revision letter, we’re primarily looking at big-picture issues, although we may point out patterns and weaknesses in grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and similarly “micro” issues.
It’s important to understand that an editor is NOT asking themselves all these questions while reading your manuscript. Rather, they’re paying attention to whether they’re engaged in the story, whether they care about your characters, and whether they’re interested in finding out how your story ends. Wherever there’s a problem with engagement or interest, the editor then attempts to identify why. That’s when all the above questions become useful. They’re a means of identifying the root of the issue.
One more thing. Sometimes people ask how it could be that an agent or editor would believe in a project enough to take it on, yet request so many editorial changes. The answer is twofold. First, we specialize in seeing potential – reading between the lines, as it were. Second, we might love a manuscript, but we almost always know some ways to make it even better. It’s just what we do.
Any questions on how a Revision Letter works? Any stories of your own?
(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent