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  • [SWP: Behind the Book] Bad News/Good News from the Editor
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[SWP: Behind the Book] Bad News/Good News from the Editor
Written by
Sheila Grinell
February 2016
Written by
Sheila Grinell
February 2016

You finally finish your first draft, despite the obstacles life has thrown at you—medical problems in the family, a wedding two thousand miles away, one last demand from a demanding client—and then what? You send the naked manuscript to a “development editor” and pray she can help you clothe it without your feeling too much shame. (A development editor looks at the structure of the work, not the words per se.) This is the first real test of whether or not you have crafted a book rather than a collection of scenes.

            I sent my virgin draft to Carol Test, who read it and assigned me homework. Among other things, she asked me to describe my potential readers and articulate what the novel would mean to them in one or two sentences. (Hard to do!) Then she asked me to select the ten to twenty most important scenes, write a few descriptive words for each  on color-coded post-it notes, and lay out the notes on a presentation board in three “acts.” Then we met face-to-face, and I found out why Carol had asked for post-its.

            She gave me the bad news first. I had made the mistake of writing the backstory scenes in the same, limited-third-person voice as the rest of the novel. She told me they felt claustrophobic, as if the reader’s nose were pressed against the window glass. She said readers would expect, and deserve, something airier and more reflective in backstory. She pulled the backstory post-its off the board and re-positioned them in clusters, telling me to rewrite the scenes, condensing the content while backing away from it.

            And, of course, as soon as she explained, I realized she was right. First-time novelists make the darnedest mistakes!

            On lavender post-its, Carol jotted down ideas from our discussion about how to condense the backstory; she stuck them on the board. On small blue post-its, she noted gaps in plot or places where I could readily embellish themes; she stuck them on the board. Then she gave me the good news: she thought the novel had good bones and it would eventually cohere. When I left her place, Appetite looked like this: blue for scenes crucial to moving the plot, red for backstory, and yellow for principal themes—plus Carol’s lavender and mini-blue.

            I propped the post-it board up against the wall of my office and spent the next two months revising. With the guidance, and distance, Carol’s review had afforded, I was able to make the book clearer and richer. I cut a backstory scene at an art museum, on which I had lavished detail, because the museum would never reappear as either place or symbol, and its crux could be folded into two sentences elsewhere. Carol had said one of my central characters needed to be more present; I found a way to add the character’s “voice” without burdening existing scenes. I looked for opportunities to beef up what Carol calls “binaries”—a thought or theme presented in contrast to its opposite. By the end of the revision, I felt my MS wore good clothes. Appetite will be published by She Writes Press in May, and you can see if you agree.

            The act of revising made me remember the words of one of my former teachers, novelist Jim Sallis. Commenting on students’ stories that he had just line-edited and improved dramatically, Jim would say, “It’s all there.” He meant that the situation posited in the scene contained a complete slice of humanity, and it was up to the writer to take his or her sweet time to bring out its features. As I discovered, a development editor helps you find the way to do that work.

            You can find Carol at www.writingcycle.com.

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  • Irene Allison

    Sheila, I really enjoyed your post. It's so interesting to see different processes for pulling the best out of a story and I love the one you describe. No doubt, editors are our best friends! Looking forward to reading your book and wishing you good luck!

  • Michelle Cox

    Lovely post, Sheila!  Can't wait to read your book!

  • Paula Wagner

    hanks for sharing your process and explaining what developmental editors do. I could sure use one!  And who knew post-its could be so valuable? Congrats on your book coming out this spring!

  • Not only have you shared some very useful insights into revision, you've made it seem fun! Thank you.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience.  Inspiration to keep in mind while I'm writing my novel,.

  • Janice

    Thanks for sharing. Your experience demystify the process a bit and congrats on your book! 

  • Diane L. Fowlkes

    Sheila, thanks so much for going into such detail on development editing, a process I've wondered about. I've finished my draft and am beginning to edit. Your piece comes at a perfect time for me. Very helpful you are. Congratulations on Appetite.

  • Bette Houtchens

    Fascinating process notes. I also wish Jane Austen could tell us more about her process. :)