Murder on the Mekong

Getting Over the Shock of an Editorial Letter 101

A Session with Olivia Rupprecht

With An Office Visit from Dr. John Hart

Dear Author,

If you are reading this because. . .

  1. your head is spinning
  2. your stomach is on the floor
  3. your hands are shaking (if you have some nice old fashioned paper gripped in them),
  4. and/or your dog is lapping at the tears streaming down your face while you’re staring at an email from an editor. . .

then CONGRATULATIONS! You must be the proud recipient of a significant letter from an editor. If this is a revision letter, all the better, since it is most likely developmental in nature, represents a motherlode of work ahead you didn’t see coming, and probably feels painfully personal despite being a professional piece of correspondence. Those last few words are italicized because that is what you have to celebrate. After all, there are only two reasons in traditional publishing that you would receive an editorial letter of any magnitude, meaning you are either:

  1. under a publishing contract, or
  2. being very seriously considered for a contract

Now should you receive a letter due to hiring a professional freelance editor to critique your work, that’s a bit different; not to say in the quality of their editorial input, but in their ability to help you land a contract. While the feedback received can be just as unanticipated, in traditional publishing the stakes are substantially higher and so is the resulting anxiety when delivered from an editor in the position of acquiring your work, or not. For that reason we’re going to assume the latter is the situation you’re dealing with, but much of the same advice applies across the board. After all, when it comes to writing, it is awfully hard to be productive if you feel too wounded or angry or confused to drag yourself back to a keyboard, and if you actually paid someone to rip your prized brainchild to shreds, that just adds insult to injury. (WARNING: No matter the circumstances, do not, repeat DO NOT, get anywhere near that keyboard until you’ve had time to calm down and think things out.)

Okay, let’s consider the types of editorial letters that could not exactly make your day. The absolute worst is one that basically says the manuscript is so bad that it is unsalvageable in the editor’s opinion (opinion, hang on to that; we all have them and they can be wrong). In most cases this will be a relatively short letter with, hopefully, appropriate sentiments of support, regret, better luck next time, let’s move on. Just call it a rejection letter and no matter how many of those we accumulate over the years, they never get any easier to take. However, if the editorial letter is mostly all about how the book is not working, but offers objective, professionally considered ideas as to how to make it work, then all is not lost – not by a long shot.

In this situation, it is imperative to gain the proper perspective in order to deal effectively with the content of the letter, maintain good relations with the individual who sent it to you, and be able to handle yourself like a professional. Perspective is what we’re addressing here since that is your best ally in moving past all the negatives that a distressed response produces. Distinguishing good from bad advice, improving on an editorial suggestion, fostering a productive relationship with your editor, are extremely important components that fall under the editorial process umbrella. But it’s very hard, if not impossible, to have the clarity of emotion and mind to take the next step into those higher realms of professional interface and analysis if you are reeling from what feels like an emotional, mental, and perhaps even a physical blow from a letter regarding your work.

Now after taking several deep breaths, walking away, and getting yourself calmed down before reading that letter again, it can be very helpful to remind yourself that while you are the recipient, the sender of it is a very real person who has invested themselves in you and your work. The longer the editorial letter you receive, the longer it took that editor to write. An editorial letter of magnitude means that what you are trying to achieve is important enough to that editor to quite possibly give up his or her weekend to craft advice that will hopefully serve to your mutual benefit.

Listen, I have received editorial letters that left me weeping (along with the dog licking at my cheeks). And, I have probably written a few that elicited curses and tears I never heard or saw. Although I really, really hope not, there is the absolute possibility that John and I will receive an editorial letter that knocks the wind right out of us despite our best collective efforts with the manuscript we’re currently at work on. Mentally preparing for the potential land mines to our psyches is one way we can all better survive such blows, whether it be in publishing or any field we are driven to excel at, but particularly when it comes to our creative endeavors.

As a psychotherapist with a practice in L.A. for more than twenty years, John worked with many creative professionals who had to deal with critics, critiques, and crippling disappointments on a regular basis. I asked John to tell us a little about that and, for our benefit here, he went on to offer an exercise he’s previously used to good effect:

LA may be known as the City of Angels, but to those who go there with all kinds of aspirations of fame and fortune, in reality it is the City of Broken Dreams, Hearts, and Egos. From all the class valedictorians sitting in their first big-time math class at Cal Tech and suddenly finding that instead of being the sharpest tool in the box they just might be the dullest; to the hundred dazzling redheads looking around at an audition where 99 of the most beautiful people they have ever seen also sing and dance well; to standing up for the first time at the Comedy Club and, yep, that’s three of the most famous people in the business at that table and nobody is laughing….welcome to Hurt City.

In working with my patients, sometimes the best way to help them “get” what they were dealing with was to have them do something stupid or silly – like have them just fall to their knees and down to the ground. This was Hollywood with actors, but it worked the same with professional athletes, Broadway dancers, Olympic hopefuls, and more. Everybody falls. Everybody FAILS. I use the word fail on purpose here because that is how it feels – you expected to get it and lost. Even Emmy or Oscar winners lose auditions; even the most famous amongst us can feel like a failure. And now here you are feeling something similar – a punch to your gut while you read an editorial letter saying your manuscript is flawed but salvageable, when you were expecting something more along the lines of, “WOW, WHAT GREAT WRITING!” 

I want you to visualize a young child transitioning from crawling and scooting to walking. The child falls and falls and falls and gets up and gets up and gets up. That baby was born to walk. You, you were born to write. Verbalizing this truth after you have both physically and emotionally fallen to your knees can provide a powerful reinforcement for your belief in yourself and your abilities, so here is what I want you to do. First of all, just say it out loud: “I was born to write.”

Good. Now go stand in front of the tool that you use to write – typewriter, laptop, pen and paper, whatever – and just look at that thing and tell it, “I was born to write.” Then again, with feeling and conviction: “I WAS BORN TO WRITE.” 

Did you take a punch in the gut? Yes. Can you now take a punch and keep writing? Yes. Say that out loud: “I can take a punch and I can keep writing.” And YES, you can because… say it out loud once more: “I was born to write!” 

Tennis legend John McEnroe probably hated losing as much as anyone who has ever played the sport but he has spoken frankly in interviews about how many tens of thousands of times he has missed and hit the ball into the net and just kept trying to hit one more back over.  Getting over that gut-punching editorial letter is a lot like that. It’s okay to fall down and it’s okay to feel like a failure. But to ultimately succeed, you have to pick yourself up just like that baby and never stop hitting one more rewrite back over the net. And you can do it, because…just go ahead and say it. “I was born to write!”

Thanks, John; we appreciate the coaching, and it is reassuring to know that even those with their names in lights aren’t immune to the psychological repercussions of figuratively getting an editorial bat to the knees.

As for those editors who have dispensed that one-two knuckle sandwich, I’d like to boomerang back to them and the necessity for perspective. Specifically, the editor’s perspective. I have a secret and I want to share it with you: Editors, really good editors, the kind who will spend hours crafting the very letter you want to burn, can angst as much over their letter writing and your response to it as you will upon reading what you do not want to hear.

This truly came as a shock to me after years of presuming the extensive editorial letters I had received were always written with certainty, without a lot of second-guessing or concern about how I might take it. And then, well into my career, I received without doubt the most brilliant, thoughtful, LONG editorial revision letter I’d ever seen. The manuscript was problematic, I already knew that, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it, so I was more grateful than horrified by this editor’s own writing marathon to help get this book slapped into shape. The perspective that comes with time in the trenches no doubt played into my reaction, while the co-author I was working with, who was successful in the entertainment industry yet new to publishing, had more of an apoplectic response. But, once he recovered from the shock and we rewrote/restructured a substantial amount of the manuscript based on that letter, we ended up with a book that was well received by Publisher’s Weekly and embraced by the target audience.

The editor who wrote that game-changing letter and I became not only long-term colleagues, but also friends. At some point along the way I told her how in awe I had been of that letter, that I had even shared it with a New York Times bestselling colleague who also declared it the most brilliant editorial letter she had ever read. The editor’s response? “Really? Oh my god, you have no idea how nervous I was sending that, how you would take it. I spent days writing and revising that letter, so afraid you’d be upset, that I wasn’t explaining myself well enough, that I hadn’t gotten it quite right despite how hard I was trying to make everything work. By the time I sent it, I felt like a wreck!”

Hmm. Seems some of those editorial letters and the way we feel when we launch our manuscripts onto an editor’s desk just might have a lot in common.

Perspective is key to staying in the hard game of publishing, particularly traditional publishing where contracts and agents and editors and publishers all gather together into the professional ecosystem of what it often takes to effectively bring a book into public consciousness.

And you know what? No matter how hard an editorial letter might be to digest, and no matter its foibles, simply to be the recipient thereof is testimony to the fact your work has merit. Take that knowledge, along with a deep breath, some self-affirmation, perhaps a night with the beverage of your choice, some sympathetic ears, and a day or three off to get it all into perspective. After that?

Back to work. Oh, and congratulations on that letter, no matter what it says. You’re still in the game.