aqua typwriter flowers writing shutterstock

“Don’t Panic!”: First Draft Revisions

So… now that we’ve talked a little bit about how I put my giant edit letters together, I thought we might take some time to talk about all the different types of edit notes that I write… along with a few other things. Sort of a “Stages of Editing” series, where I will write about each of the times that I touch a Swoon Reads manuscript, from pulling it off the site to finished book, and give some examples of the changes we make at each stage. So, let’s start at the beginning.

Every edit letter I’ve ever written starts the same way, with an opening note reminding the author of how much I love the book and talking about all the things that made me fall in love with it in the first place.

And then I immediately follow it with the words: Don’t Panic!

Which is really important, because I then spend many pages talking about all of the things that I think we need to work on. This is not to say that I don’t love the book (see the previous paragraph where I wrote down all the reasons why I fell in love with the book, and all the comments on the site that remind the author that other people have fallen in love with the book. WE LOVE THIS BOOK).

But, it can always be better, and helping an author make their book the best it can be is the point of having an editor. I’ve never worked on a book that didn’t need at least some edits to be ready for publication (Swoon Reads or otherwise). Thus, an edit letter. But edit letters can be a little bit overwhelming (especially mine, which tend to run long — I’m wordy and think in outlines).

Editing is a lengthy process (which you will see through this series) and we don’t expect a book to be perfect when we select it (that’s why I’m here!), and we don’t expect the author to get everything right immediately (that is why there are multiple drafts).

The first step is to focus on the big things. There is no point in perfecting the language and grammar in a scene that is going to have to be cut or rewritten anyway because it is slowing the book down.

For the first edit letter, we are looking at big picture issues like:

• Characters: How many main characters do you have? Are they consistent all the way through the novel? Do the relationships between characters work (not just the romance, but also between parents and siblings and best friends)? Most of my edit letters have a section that says “characters” where I list them and talk about each of them individually to make sure that the character I’m reading and envisioning is the character the author is trying to show me.

• Story structure: This is the shape of the story. Often I find that authors will have all the right scenes, but they are in the wrong order and the book will be stronger if we move them around to simplify things or highlight certain issues or emotional themes and growth.

• Setting and world building: If anything in the setting threw me off, I’ll mention it here. I look at feedback from the editorial board and the site to see if there are areas that need clarification or more research. If the book contains imaginary worlds or any sort of magical system and I am concerned about the rules that have been set up, I probably will mention it here (know your rules, and don’t break them).

• Pacing and timing: This is VERY important. It is also something that we will come back to in every stage of editing. We want to make sure that the timing makes sense, that you are sucked into the story and that we don’t lose the reader.

• The Ending: Am I happy with the ending? Does it bring the book full circle? Are enough of the emotional threads addressed and is it dramatic enough to give a reader a sense of emotional catharsis? Are there enough clues scattered throughout the book so that the grand gestures make sense? Etc. and so forth.

Basically, anything that is going to affect the overarching story needs to be addressed at this point before we get into finer details. We need to nail down the shape of the story, and the basic outline of this happens then this and then this.

Here are a few examples that I pulled directly from first draft edit letters for Swoon Reads novels to give you an idea of what this will look like:

A Little Something Different:

“The biggest issue, as you’ve already seen from some of our very astute Swoon Reads comments, is that there are so many different viewpoint characters (23 of them!), and it can be difficult to keep them all straight, especially since several of the voices are very similar.  What do you think about cutting down the number of different viewpoints a little bit, so that we can spend more time in each person’s head? I would also love to develop each of these viewpoint characters a bit more, so that they have their own tiny arc and/or sense of closure, making them into real, distinct characters instead of cameras for the audience.”

I then proceeded to go into each of the characters motivations so we could choose which we wanted to keep and which ones would need to be dropped.

Kiss Cam:

“The first half of the book is this great fun romp filled with hot kisses and funny scenes and readers just can’t turn the pages fast enough. You’ve done a great job building up the tension in June and Jasper’s relationship and completely selling everyone on the Jasiper ship. But then, after the really emotional climax on New Year’s Eve, things kind of slow down. Most of the fun kissing scenes are over and have been replaced with a lot of introspection and pining from June. While the emotional fallout and introspection is necessary, it also slows the reader down, and can start to feel repetitive, and that’s when we lose some of the tension that has been built up. What I would like to help you do in these notes is to:

a.) Shorten the timeframe

b.) Shift some stuff around so that the emotional fallout is a bit clearer

c.) And finally, trim down and tighten up the events after New Year’s so that it’s more like the last 3rd of the book instead of the second half.”

I then proceed to go into specific examples of how we might achieve this in one of my trademark outlines.

These Vicious Masks:

Mr. Kent – We all LOVE Mr. Kent, and we are dying to see more of him! He’s a delightful and snarky rogue who deserves more face time, both as a love interest for Evelyn (yay for adding more romance into the beginning!) and as a contrast and foil to Sebastian (who is much more dark and brooding and awkward). Replacing Robert with Mr. Kent throughout the book would really allow Mr. Kent to shine as a character. And it really wouldn’t be that difficult to insert him.

For example…”

And then we go into ALL of the places where Tarun and Kelly might add Mr. Kent to balance out the characters’ dynamics.

Now this can go on for three pages or twenty (I’m really really wordy. I’m sorry. And outlines take lots of space). While this might seem like a lot, I really want to explain what I’m seeing, why I’m suggesting certain changes, and give recommendations for how the author could possibly fix the issue. I’m making an effort to provide them with solutions to any problems I have outlined. And remember, none of these suggestions are set in stone. After I send out this edit letter, I give the author a couple of days to process and think, and then I set up a phone meeting to talk through it and make sure that we are both on the same page. After all, it is their book. I’m just trying to help them make it the best book it can be.

Maybe my perception of the character isn’t what they wanted it to be, but when they explain what they were trying to do, we can come up with alternate solutions that fix everything. And that is the fun part!

Together we always come up with the best ideas.

Check back next week to learn about the next step in the editorial process!

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

See More