Question of the Month: Big Picture Edits

by Susan Henderson on August 5, 2013

How are you with feedback? Do edits on your writing leave you feeling crushed or excited? Defensive or freed up to look at something from new angles and with new life?


My agent is now the one and only person who has read my new manuscript, and while I was braced for criticism, I found, as I usually do, the whole process of feedback and big picture edits to be hugely fun and creative. Part of what I love best about getting his feedback is that he’s not a soft editor. He’s not afraid to kick the legs out from under the table and give me ideas that might require re-thinking the entire shape of the work.

But, bless him, he always begins with the strengths, or what creates the bedrock of the story for him—in this case, the world of the story (“It’s a spectacularly drawn landscape—physically and emotionally.”), the main character (“I love her and the way she interacts with dead bodies.”),  and two key characters (“Their relationship, their history, their rootedness to the town, each other, and the main character are perfect.”). This all helps build my confidence and my sense of what’s working.

But the important part for me is what comes next—What’s not working for him? Where and how can I make this book better? And so we spent a lot of time talking about the story’s villain (“His personality is too outsized for the story. He overwhelms the landscape. He’s not sympathetic.”) My villain, as he helped me to understand, is kind of like a Marvel Comic Book supervillain trying to fit into a Carson McCullers story. And so we talked about this character and why he doesn’t seem to fit, and how this problem creates other problems with my plot and my main character.


I have pages of notes from our talk—notes of what I can explore more deeply, where I should slow down, and all kinds of tangents and questions and challenges. This is all thrilling to me! My mind feels on fire, re-imagining my story with these new questions in mind and this new blast of energy.

And here’s the thing… I wouldn’t have thought of any of these things. If I took two more years to edit this book, I would peck away at the sentences and trail off into interesting quirks and backstories, but I wouldn’t have taken this turn. While I sensed there was something I couldn’t put my finger on that the book was lacking, I didn’t realize how much of it radiated from a villain who isn’t organic to this setting.


Getting feedback that inspires (rather than crushes or stunts or angers) takes having the right reader. And it takes trust. Trust that you and your early-reader can both take risks, be open to wild brainstorming, try out ideas that may fail spectacularly. I am grateful to have this kind of supportive but challenging feedback and psyched to get back to work. I can’t even slow down the new ideas, they’re coming in such a rush!

So talk to me. Tell me your experience with edits and editors, the good and the bad!

Let me close with some thank you’s: to June Sundet (The June Blog) and camillaho for kind words about UP FROM THE BLUE, to the chaperones on my sons’ AllStar tour for offering such love and care to the kids, and to the parents of MIT students who reached out to me to offer help and friendship for the journey that lies ahead.


P.S. I had posted this a month or two ago on FaceBook but I thought I’d post it here, as well. It’s that important to me. I know I’m a little unusual in the way I use FaceBook and email, but for me, private messages are solely for my family and people directly involved with publishing my work (i.e., my agent, editor, and publicist). Everything else, including congratulations, questions about the business, requests for help, condolences, small talk and deep talk, belong in the public domain (in comment threads on my FaceBook wall or here at LitPark). Otherwise, I can’t keep up with all these many ways for people to reach me, and it causes me more stress than you could possibly know.

Here is how I said it on FaceBook:

A note about how I use FaceBook: I don’t read or respond to private messages. I do, however, enjoy interacting with everyone in the comments sections on my page. If you need to contact me for any professional reasons (interviews, blurbs, etc.), please go through my literary agent at Writer’s House. Thanks!

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Tomlinson August 5, 2013 at 11:16 am

Oh, I’m much more mature about things like this in theory than I am in the real world, Sue. It normally takes several days for my boat to stop rocking and for me to regain some sort of objectivity. But I do admire anyone who gets there without wild curses, kicked pets and buckets of inner turmoil.


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 11:39 am

It doesn’t feel like maturity in my case. I just love when the process becomes more creative. As soon as I start thinking of things I couldn’t have thought before, I get excited because the story can become so much bigger and wider than I had first imagined it.

On the other hand, if someone hands me a big undoing when I’ve asked for line edits, or worse, someone sends you feedback on how you should have changed an already published story, THEN there is wild cursing.

How’s your WIP going, Jim?


Jim Tomlinson August 5, 2013 at 12:09 pm

It’s going slowly, thanks for asking, Sue, but I’m still hopeful and sort of excited by what it might be becoming. First draft still. Hope to have that draft finished and ready for revisions to begin by Christmas.


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Ooh, getting excited here!


Christopher Lincoln August 5, 2013 at 11:42 am

I’m for whatever it takes to make the story better. Usually that means incorporating the truth.


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 11:46 am

Me, too. Whatever makes the story better. If someone says they got lost or they skimmed or they couldn’t connect, I can’t change it fast enough. That said, knowing what to change is a lot easier than knowing HOW to change it!

I really like your comment about incorporating truth.


billie hinton August 5, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Terrific question for this time of year – somehow I equate developmental editing with late summer and the shift to fall. Probably because that’s my best season and I think looking at work with this sharpness of eye (though I think what I mean is actually what the horsewoman Sally Swift calls “soft eye” – where you stop focusing on little things and take in the entire landscape) works best for me then.

My first agent was my best editor. I used to say he was like Maxwell Perkins. He never gave me notes – he shared the strengths and then he asked a few very precise questions. I would answer them and send him pages, and it went back and forth like that. It was pretty amazing to have the one person who loved my work, “got” it, and championed it be the person who was willing to look at it so carefully and seriously with me.

I’ve had writing groups that functioned in similar ways, but generally what I’ve found is that it takes several people reading several times to hit on all the aspects he could nail in one reading and one potent question. He never told me to change a thing – he asked the question that got me on the track of what needed addressing.

I love the first drafting of a book, but I think I love even more the answering of the questions when it’s time to take a bigger picture look at the whole thing. It’s very much like a puzzle, and even though I wrote it, I have found over the years that I was usually in an altered state (that creative flow one can get into when things are going great) and I have to find a way to get back into that altered state when doing the big edits. Many times for me this involves going someplace where I can immerse myself for at least a few days in a row so I don’t have to even come up for air if I don’t want to.

There’s a distinct feeling of having to get deep enough into the forest of the book while retaining that soft eye from above – and I’ve done it enough times now that I know I can do it – but it’s a waste of time for me to try and force it, or try to do this kind of editing when I’m not in that exact place.

The thing is, getting in that place is also getting into what is a really good place to be, for me, so I never get tired of finding it again when the time comes. 🙂

I’m getting ready to do this with my nonfiction book about living with horses – I think it’s going to be good timing, though possibly intense – like you, I have a firstborn heading off to college and the big wide world. I’m happy and I’m also trying hard to get that big picture sense of how to navigate this new place as his mom.

I’m looking forward to reading more of your journey with this book and with sending one off into the world!


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Yes, it’s the questions, the people who can help you explore what’s not yet on the page that offer such a gift. I love hearing all about the process between you and your agent.

I so agree with your thoughts that the first draft is like a puzzle, full of so much unconscious material and room to explore and re-imagine. It’s an exciting time. And, gah, I know, our firstborns going off to college and a million emotions about it all! I’m glad to have your company through it all!

Oh, by the way… Did you know there is supposedly a movie coming out about Maxwell Perkins’ work with Thomas Wolfe starring Colin Firth? It’s like someone created a movie just for me and decided to cast my biggest crush!


billie hinton August 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm

OH, wow, no – what a movie! That will be one to go see for sure!

We have resisted smart phones until a few weeks ago – wrt firstborns and college – and although I am still somewhat shocked that I am carrying this little box of contact around, I have to say it IS wonderful to have him messaging me (he’s on a trip right now, off on his own) and touching base as he wants/needs to do.

Today he is gone and my daughter is at driver’s ed and I’m sitting here thinking how bizarre it is to be here alone, starting my day without either of them. For years it has been how to fit the writing in WITH them here, and I see the day when the question will be how to fit the writing in WITHOUT them here. Just when I think I have it down, it changes. 🙂


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 1:22 pm

I don’t even know what it will feel like to have a house with no one playing the piano or soldering something in the next room. He’s not big on keeping in touch when he’s gone away before so I expect it’ll be like that in college, too. I’ll send handwritten letters and care packages and he’ll know he’s loved and thought about, and we’ll probably hear from him when he needs a ride home for Thanksgiving. Sigh. Oh, but so excited for him and how very ready he is to fly out of the nest!


Jessica Keener August 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm

The right reader trumps all. (The wrong reader trumps nothing.) The right reader tunes into the essence of my raw material, can feel and see where the rough-edged draft is meaning and wanting to go and become; and, because of this ability to tune in, can offer suggestions that truly help me get there. The right reader doesn’t get lost in details that aren’t working because she can see the larger story hovering above those details. I love your agent’s comments about your landscape. Sounds muscular, majestic and wonderful.


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm

I agree so much about having the right reader and not getting lost in the details. That’s for the line-editing stage, and it’s good when your reader doesn’t confuse the two!

Excited that your new book is about to launch! Are you ready for all the book tour and publicity run again? Did you learn anything the last time around that you’re going to apply to this one?


Jessica Keener August 5, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Am I ready? No, I am not! I’ve been in my writer head all summer, which, as you know, is a totally different place than promoting. More on that subject soon, though. It’s a big question and one I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’ll be posting something about that subject next week.

I’m happy you are so energized about your draft.


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Really looking forward to that post because, you’re right, it’s nothing at all like our world or our lives as writers, and I want to learn to do it better and not feel so exhausted and ashamed by the whole process when it comes time to do it again.


Susan Henderson August 7, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Jessica’s piece about gearing up for another book tour is here. Please don’t miss it:

Jessica Keener August 7, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Thanks for linking it here, Susan!

GC Smith August 5, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I’m no Prima Donna and look forward to editorial feedback. Currently my third novel IN GOOD FAITH is with a friend, a retired editor from Little-Brown and he’s doing a gratis edit. He’s near finished and so far his suggestions are excellent.

I had interesting, if eventually fruitless, interaction with agents concerning THE CARBON STEEL CARESS and WHITE LIGHTNING. An agent encouraged two major revisions of THE CARBON STEEL CARESS and then put it out to another reader. In the end he said there was something lacking that he was unable to put hid finger on. Somewhere along the line I mentioned I was considering a murder mystery set in the world of stock car racing (NASCAR). The agent encouraged me and I wrote the book. After finishing the ms. he declined saying it couldn’t be marketed. Several other agents told me the same, citing NY bias against NASCAR and supposedly illiterate fans. One agent sent it to an editor at a major house but she passed. So, I self published the novels and have had some small success.

I’m hoping IN GOOD FAITH does better and I can snag an agent and publisher. Fingers crossed. Maybe my friend will help, but I’ll cross that bridge when he completes the edit.


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Sounds like your editor is quite a find! And good for you to separate the editing process from the much more fickle and random publishing process. A good editor is never going to tell you that NASCAR fans don’t read books; they’re going to see if your story is engaging and well-told. It’s the publishers that often give you the wackiest feedback–no one reads poetry, you should add a vampire or a dog to your story, and other ideas that are better off ignored.


Patty Wonderly August 5, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Much of my first novel was shaped by my critique group, but it was my developmental edit that boosted it to the level I was hoping for. Jen Violi’s extensive track changes and many pages of notes were like a magnifying glass focusing strong light on every detail of my story. I was not offended, surprised or defeated, but invigorated and thankful. My desire to fix was fanned to an excited flame.


Susan Schreiber August 5, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I actually love the getting my ms back from my editor. It feels like Christmas. “Back in the day” I used to be a paralegal for a busy criminal defense firm. I remember asking the attorney I worked with if he minded if I made corrections to his writings. He said that the work put out by his office was a product of and a reflection on everyone who had worked on it. Team effort all the way. So early on I became comfortable messing about with other people’s work and having them do the same to mine. I think we are at our most creative when surrounded by other creative people.


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Yes… surrounding ourselves with creative people! It’s an amazing feeling when someone “gets you” or “gets your work,” but I think it’s even more invigorating when someone helps you go where you haven’t dared or see what you couldn’t imagine. Suddenly, you can see your story in ways that make the earlier draft seem small (or a more positive way to phrase it… a ball of potential).

Also: Welcome!


Susan Henderson August 5, 2013 at 3:51 pm

That’s the best, when feedback is invigorating. And how lucky this is the experience you have in your workshop. Must be amazing chemistry you all share!


Kate Gray August 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm

I welcome and enjoy feedback…as long as it’s clear and specific enough for me to make alterations. That has come along a few times, and I really appreciated it.
Editing has been a challenge in the past…I think I’ve mentioned that I see it now as more like upkeep, cleaning house. I like seeing how everyone else here seems to feel the same way (roughly speaking).
For what I’ve gone and done, editing is a little tricky, though. I’m on my own, and can’t get a pro to help me (yet), so the biggest job is to set aside what I’ve finished, and then go back and look at it with a reader’s eye. It’s not going to be a perfect thing in the end, I admit, but I’m trying to get a coherent story – as well as something that I would want to read.
And yes, it’s not literature in the true sense. I decided to write more in the popular vein, while trying to keep a sense of the artistic aspect of writing that drew me into the process to begin with.
The first time I ever had somebody tell me I was good at this was back 20 or so years ago in an AP English class – I turned a research paper into an absurdist play. Through the years, I’ve realized it’s the thing that has been consistent and made sense through all the changes and maturation. Writing always helps to make sense of things that seem incomprehensible at first.
I can only hope that, if I keep working and have an open heart, my audience will gradually (or exponentially) expand!
Looking forward to your next book, and to finding more by some of the other writers who visit here as well….


Susan Henderson August 6, 2013 at 2:27 pm

As far as getting editing help, I always recommend the writer workshops over at Zoetrope and Backspace. The help is free, and some of the help you can do without, but over time, you’ll find readers who get your work and who offer insights that are better than what you can give to yourself. I know a few LitPark folks who offer editorial services–Ellen Meister and Jordan Rosenfeld. And if you want to pay an arm and a leg, there’s Alan Rinzler, who has edited for folks like Toni Morrison and Hunter Thompson. Let me know if you need links or contact info for anyone.


Kate Gray August 6, 2013 at 2:44 pm

I can’t really pay for that kind of help at the moment…I’ve been on Zoetrope before, and some other sites…I have found that it’s mostly generic feedback. So I don’t know if people aren’t really reading, or just don’t want to take enough time…and with some of them, I don’t have any time at the moment to be reading and critiquing, though I have done in the past.
I have read books that I realized I didn’t like, but kept reading – to figure out what it was that didn’t work, or that I wasn’t crazy about – that’s an interesting thing at times.
It’s funny, though. I got an honest review from someone who liked the first one I published – and even though I’d writted for women my own age, this was from someone who is a 40-something male. But my brother, who also falls into that age group, apparently couldn’t get through it. And I can’t get through the book he wrote. It really is so subjective…and it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t like it. I don’t mind at all. Maybe that’s what comes of staring down midlife…you realize how much “stuff” doesn’t matter.


Susan Henderson August 6, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Hmm, I found a lot of the feedback I got to be extraordinary… you have to find your people there first… and all of them went on to get published and many became quite well known. It is there if and when you want it, but I understand completely about the time cost of returning critiques. I had room for that in my life once and I just don’t now. If I did have the time, there are other things I’d fill it with.


Kate Gray August 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm

Maybe that’s the problem…I never found “the” or “my” people? I tried to be pretty generous when I critiqued (honest, but positive) as well as detailed…but it never came back in kind. It got frustrating to put in so much time and not hear anything in return. I was on Zoetrope…oh, 15 years ago, and various other ones along the way. Hmm. Didn’t realize how much time had passed!

Kate Gray August 6, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Just so I’m clear – I’d love to get input (even though it’s also a little scary) – it was purely the time/frustration factor – and that’s why I haven’t revisited. I wish I could go to conferences and workshops too…but I just can’t, for a few big reasons.


Susan Henderson August 6, 2013 at 6:34 pm

The trick with Zoetrope is to read and critique work by those you hope will read and critique you. They may not return the favor, they may not like your work, they may have an impenetrable writer’s clique, they may be better writers than editors. But slowly you find them, and then I think it can be invaluable.

But, yes, at the beginning when the process is blind, when your story is either posted there to no response, or you get cutting critiques from people who would never like the themes you’re working with, or you look at their writing to return the favor and find it unreadable… all of that is a long and exhausting process.

I tend to trust my gut even when I don’t know what it’s trying to tell me, so if your gut says ‘not now’ or ‘not there,’ there is probably a good reason. Maybe there’s an entirely different process or door you’re meant to go through.


Cathrine August 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm

🙂 love this post
and veru much looking forward to getting to know this villian 😉


Susan Henderson August 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Thank you, Cathrine! I am really just getting to know this villain, too. I’m learning to love him. I’m connecting him more deeply to this little town. I’m finding out his vulnerabilities and more tender reasons for doing what he’s doing. It’s such a fun process and I’m so happy I was given a push!


cathrine August 14, 2013 at 8:15 pm

this is going to be a beautiful book
love you 🙂


Susan Henderson August 15, 2013 at 2:38 am



Despina Yeargin August 26, 2013 at 2:48 pm

What I’ve realized is that an editor can be the best gift for a writer. Correction–a really good editor can be a magical and essential gift for a writer.

When someone who:
–knows your market
–knows your (potential) publishers
–knows you
–knows your style
–really cares about your success (many layers here)
can give you feedback for refining your story without diluting the flavor, then that’s an ingredient in your book writing & selling recipe that you cannot do without. This person is the rare truffle in your risotto of words. Yum, yum, yummmmm!

Can I get an “Amen!”, sister Sue? 🙂


Susan Henderson August 30, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Amen! There’s nothing like someone whose opinion you trust seeing the story from a different perspective and sparking thoughts you wouldn’t have had otherwise.


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