Sunday, September 27, 2015

Good enough (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

With every phase of the writing life, there’s a different definition for “good enough.”

There’s an idea good enough to support a whole story. Then there’s a story good enough for myself. A story good enough to show other people. A story good enough to try to publish.

That’s where my own assessment of “good enough” runs into other people’s judgments. An agent has to find a query good enough to request the manuscript, and then has to find the manuscript good enough to make an offer on. After that, an editor weighs in on the “good enough,” and then whole teams of people at the publisher determine whether it’s good enough to acquire.

After clearing so many hurdles, an author might be forgiven for thinking there are no more. At that point, the story in question has been rewritten dozens of times, polished to a high gloss. But when I think of “getting schooled,” our topic for the month here at YAOTL, I think of what comes next in this process: the editorial letter.

The typical editorial letter consists of two paragraphs of compliments about the manuscript, with one or more (usually more) pages of recommendations about what to fix. I.e., what is not good enough yet, or could be better.

A shorthand version of the editorial letter might be, “Love your writing! You’re so talented. Now how about if we get rid of the first four chapters because the story really starts in chapter 5, rewrite it from the best friend’s point of view, see more of the father and less of the romance, drop the subplot about the Martians, and redo the crisis because it falls flat right now. Also, the main character needs to be more believable and the second half needs more energy. OK, get to work—it’s a great story and I’m thrilled to be editing it!”

At first, the editorial letter can be overwhelming, especially on a manuscript that the author thought was pretty much done. I’ve found that tackling one problem at a time, one piece at a time, cut the mountain of changes down to manageable size.

The best part about the editorial letter is how much it teaches. It can be exciting to see how a smart editor takes apart a story, analyzes a scene, zeroes in on problems. It’s exciting to have a champion at the publisher who’s invested in the story and the characters. Every editor with whom I’ve worked has taught me lasting lessons, and raised my personal bar for “good enough.”

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