Writing Excuses Episode 30: Talking Revision with Moshe Feder

Last week we talked to an editor, this week we talk to OUR editor: Brandon’s and Dan’s editor at Tor, Moshe Feder. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about how an author and editor work together to help make a book the best it can possibly be. We also talk a lot about revision in general, which is one of the least-liked but most important tasks in the writing process.


40 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 30: Talking Revision with Moshe Feder”

  1. So, Howard, what process do you go through to publish your graphic novels? Surely you don’t just plop your daily strips as is onto pages and send it to the printer…? Do you make any revisions from what we see on a daily basis?

  2. You know, it was actually one of Moshe’s comments that made me laugh out loud this time. You guys aren’t losing your touch, are you? ;)

    On the subject of revisions, just a thought, though this applies more to people who are still shopping or haven’t started shopping their manuscripts. Revising is important, but just as important, how do you know when to stop? There’s always room for improvement in anything you do, so at what point is it okay to say, “yes, I’m done” and throw it out there?

    Just thought I’d mention because in my experience, this is something a lot of new writers (myself included, to some extent) have problems with. But mostly because I can’t think of any response to the actual podcast which isn’t just “mhmm, yep”.

  3. I’ve heard Michael Stackpole suggest that when you reach a point where you’re changing less than 10% between revisions (prior to submission) you’re done, send it. I’ve heard another prolific professional author say that he does three drafts: first draft, rewrite, and spell check.

    The 10% number at first sounded high to me (surely you should get it to where you’re only changing a couple of percent between revisions?), but the argument goes that you write most of the life into your story on the first draft. If you start revising too much (once you have the whole story down) you’ll start polishing the life out of it. I think there’s some truth to that. It’s also true that novice writers might be better off (in terms of practising their craft) writing something new instead of trying to polish a turd, or overpolishing a gem. Let an editor decide.

    Just remember this is second-hand advice, I’m still working on getting my fiction published myself.
    – Alastair

  4. Whew. I had some trouble listening to the whole thing. First iTunes would only download only the first 7:56 of it. Then the builtin player here only got me to 9 min and change. It wasn’t until I clicked on the direct link to the mp3 here on the page that I was able to get and listen to the whole thing.

    Good stuff once I had though. And I must say that I agree with the final comment about not getting rid of the middle man. I’ve got a couple of serial stories that are self published on the Internet that I follow through RSS and while the storytelling and the voice of the author is excellent (and it’s why I follow the stories in the first place) there are times when a particular installment just drags for whatever reason and I find myself interupting my reading of the story to do other things constantly. In those instances having an editor to point that out to the author would probably help improve the quality of their writing.

  5. My iTunes only downloaded about 2 minutes of this episode the first time I tried it. I deleted it, unsubscribed, and then resubscribed to the podcast, and this time it downloaded the full episode. I don’t know what the problem is, but if anyone else is having trouble getting the podcast, that might be worth trying.

  6. I wonder about AJWM’s comment too.

    I am currently revising one story and realized my plots were…so full of holes. So I started to plug them and realized I had to revise the entire plot. Just changing the direction here and there.

    While I do think this is what this particular story needs, it also makes me wonder if I am not changing too much. The theme is the same, characters are the same (less but same…some merged) and even the events are more or less the same (but with slightly different focus).

    Am I wasting my time on this story? Cuz I am think it will take me probably 4~5 drafts to reach that 10%..hehe.

  7. Another great podcast. And again, I can add my datapoint confirming that at least another editor at Tor serves exactly the same function as Moshe does–seeing things to make the story better. The edits I made for Hartwell and Hauge-Hill have change the book, I think, for the better.

    It’s also nice to hear that there are other writers out there who are not Orson Cards or Gene Wolfes who get edits which barely change a thing. Which leads me to belive that the whole notion that editors don’t story edit anymore is simply inaccurate.

  8. On editing, I think there’s a difference between polishing and gaps. If you see huge gaps and leave them, then that’s like trying to sell a home with holes in the wall. Who is going to buy a home where you can see daylight through the bricks? Especially when you have 50 other houses without holes. Fix them.

    If, on the other hand, you’re tweaking how people say things, descriptions, etc.–fiddling with words. Then that might be more like worrying about whether the buyers really care if there’s a piece of ornamental bark lying on the driveway.

    Here’s the history on the book that I sold to Tor (and got a 3-book deal for). I wrote it. Had a friend author read it. Found out the holes were so huge that the only fix was to overhaul it. I ended up writing another story. So different that the villain became a hero. It was NOT the same story. Then I edited the beginning again. Got an agent. Edited the book again, including the beginning and ending. Sold the book. Edited the beginning yet another time. Now I’m going through another edit improving a few characters and seeding issues.

    I relate all that just to say that my experience is that even after you sell a book you’re going to edit it. And that it might require some revision even before the sale. In my experience, don’t worry about editing gaps. Worry about fiddling with words here and there. Worry about not spending enough time to finish the current project and coming back to it with a different mind and essentially starting a new story.

  9. Nice analogy, John. Having sold two houses in the last nine years or so, and currently trying to fill in the gaps in a novel (and make sure I find them all to fill them in), I can appreciate it.

    – Alastair

  10. I would love to be an editor one day. I love books and the creative process that goes into it but i just don’t have that skill to use words to paint a picture for the reader. My question is what must the editor study and learn to do so that they can help the author make their good book great?

  11. (I was posting as ‘frustrated’ on episode 29, but figured that wasn’t really fair)

    Still having issues getting this one to play. Tried the in-page player twice, no joy, trying to download it now.

    You guys all rock, keep ’em coming, but jeez, I wish it hadn’t stopped working for no apparent reason.

  12. I wish I could edit the above comment.

    I was able to download it on my second try, so that’s 1 for 4… I don’t know if I got it all, though, as I only had 14 minutes and 14 seconds, and it sounded like it simply cut off in the middle of someone speaking.

  13. Ben,

    Here’s my two cents. I’m a writer, not an editor, but us writers have got to learn some sensibility as well. :) I’ve found that the most helpful readers are those that (1) read for and report on their emotional response as opposed to those who read for compliance to a set of writing rules, and (2) understand how fiction works to create the experience.

    To understand what I mean by reading for emotional response, I suggest you look at:

    1. The bits in Orson Card’s CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINTS and HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION on the 3 grunts and wise readers


    To understand how fiction works, you can begin by asking yourself what successful stories do to you that unsuccessful ones don’t. Then try to figure out how they do it. Dwight Swain’s THE TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER is very good for this, as are many other books. You might also want to read up on how fiction engenders emotion in DEEPER THAN REASON by Jenefer Robinson and then emotion in general in the slim THE SCIENCE OF EMOTION by Cornelius.

    Of course, that’s all conceptual. If you want to edit, you need to edit. Start reading other’s works and accurately report your reader experience. Try to accurately note where you fell out of the story and what you think caused it. If you’re reading for someone soliciting a response, give an accurate response. Also, try to get on with some publications as a slush reader.

  14. Ben: John’s comments about getting ino something as a slush reader is pretty much on the money from what I’ve read (keeping in mind I have no actual experience, just done some research). Things like internships or a job as an editorial assistant or whatever are your best bet; I get the impression that education doesn’t matter all that much, at least not according to the professionals that I’ve seen answering this question.

    Skippy: You’re still missing the last couple of minutes, the episode clocks out at aboug 16:20.

  15. @Ben: In regards to John and Raethe’s comments about slush reading, I have not done this, but have seriously considered it. I can see there is much to learn from the process. As for finding an opportunity to slush read, look about at your favorite online ezines. I’ve haunted the forums of several over time, and they do look for slush readers. If you have a favorite ezine, send them an email or post on their forums and volunteer. You won’t get paid (most likely), but you’ll get to see that side of things.

    Great podcast guys! I learned mucho.

  16. oyyy… I froth at the mouth in generic, download-deprived rage, then. Thanks, Raethe. I’ll download it again. And again, and again, until I have it all!

    From what I did hear, though, I liked Moshe’s comments.

    Just to answer to the idea of ‘cutting out the middleman’… I think it’s important to differentiate which middlemen are worth cutting and which aren’t. Every middleman that contributes to the overall quality of the product is worth keeping.

    anyone else can get the ax. Publishers, per se, are not useful middlemen. Or perhaps even middlepeople. The editors, the copy editors, the proofreaders- these are useful people. Publishers often employ such useful people, but publishers aren’t the only source of such.

    Bear in mind that through this and the previous podcast, we’re hearing about books that have been pre-edited getting sent to publishers. The idea being that the book closest to being ‘done’ is the one that is going to be picked up.

    Clearly, the desire of the publisher is to get out the books needing the least work. Else they’d sign contracts at kindergartens on speculation. In the publisher’s ideal world, then, they don’t need to employ an editor. They just get the rights to a particular work that is perfect, and sell it.

    That’s the single step that can be bypassed. That step can be tossed without harming the work. The bit where the author is told, ‘thanks, now I’ll take over and you’ll get 5 cents per copy (or 50 cents, or $1.50, though I doubt that much)’.

    Most webcomics, and I think Howard as well, self-publish. Scanning Howard’s blog, I see talk of getting books straight from the printer. Whatever profit margin the publisher would see, Howard gets to keep. I think that’s what most people are referring to when they talk about cutting out the middleman.

    Howard hasn’t really had a whole lot to say on these past two podcasts, I imagine partly because it sounds like he’s battling Venusian Lung Fever back there, but also… because many of these are steps that are meaningless to him. What can the man with the flying car tell the folks discussing the best way to hitch a horse to a cart? Probably not much. I’d love to hear what his versions of these steps are, and how things change when you do what he does.

    I rather hope that we start seeing more work from editing teams, or more recognition of them rather than just the seemingly monolithic publisher. I can’t help but think of Baen Books, there. They published (and still do) some of my favorite authors. At the same time, I’ve seen some real travesties come out of there. And the definition of ‘travesty’ changes on a sliding scale… Letting David Drake’s books come out with typos is a travesty. The man can WRITE. Not running Drake’s work past a copy editor ’til it gleams is an embarrassment- a damn shame that is easily corrected, but we don’t see anything about who works on the books except the authors.

    On the opposite scale, Ringo? His early books were so poorly edited AND copy edited (A single guy carrying around a footlocker that weighs half a ton- without a powersuit. Or random diatribes about contemporary politics or science that throw you out of the scene and, presumably MORE embarrassing, are proven wrong by world events, months, years, or even WEEKS after the book finally hits the shelves) that even though I’m sure he’s improved as a writer, I can’t STAND to read him. If there was some way of saying, woah, hold on, send this man to a good editing team… well, actually, I hear he’s a dick, so maybe nothing would’ve changed. But the potential was there ;)

    At some point a few years before his death, Baen’s editing slipped into a horrible black hole. As a consumer, I want to be able to give useful feedback on that, but I really can’t. If I want the next sci-fi story from Drake, I’m only getting it from one place. I don’t know who the editors are, to complain about. And I can’t very well ‘vote with my dollar’ because there are no other sources of David Drake science fiction.

    This dissolved into a long rant. Clearly, *I* need a good editor ;)

    For tl;dr:

    Editing good! Distinction between editing and publishing. Want to see editing split off of publishing, to avoid the problem of poorly edited work being locked into production and shoveled onto the shelves.

  17. @Ben: I’m currently in the process of becoming an editor as well, and I can only echo what others have said. Slush reading is really important. If you get on a slush crew that doesn’t give back many personlized responses, think of what you’d say anyway. Think about *why* a story falls flat on its face, *why* that icky paragraph in the middle lost your interest, *why* the beginning and the end seem to have nothing to do with each other, etc. Look for the why.

    Also, I’ve found my writing group infinitely helpful. They want the feedback, I want to give it. I get to practice helping them see character issues, they get to work on character development, etc. It’s a win-win situation all around. Any weaknesses or strengths I can see and describe become useful tools for them and invaluable practice for me.

    Lastly, I’m an English major and an editing minor at my university. In the English major I learn about the craft of writing: just because you can’t do it doesn’t mean you don’t need to know about it. The more you know, the more you can comment. I also learn a lot about what makes literature good, and what makes it work. You can accomplish the same thing by following the advice of the others who have commented. Read, think, read, and think some more. In the editing minor, which I am not very far along in at all, I’ve learned conventions of language and a love for clarity (as opposed to strict correctness). Learning the rules and why they exist helps you know when to keep them and when they don’t matter. It also helps you understand what’s going on when things break down. This goes for actual storytelling as much as it does for language.

    Hope that helps a bit! ^_^

  18. The thing is, though (and anyone who actually knows about this stuff, please do correct me where I err) that publishers DO do things that self-publishers don’t, necessarily. They don’t just print your book; they market it, they do the PR, they get your book actually into bookstores, and so forth. For some people more than others, it’s true; but it’s something that they have to put some effort into if they want your book to sell.

    Howard and other webcomic artists can sell their stuff because they’ve already got a fanbase online. People know what they’re doing when they pick up a copy of Shlock Mercenary, because they’ve already been exposed to it online. When it comes to Joe Blow’s new book that you can order from Barnes and Noble, however (because I don’t think most self publishers -actually- get your book into the stores, they just make it available for order) the story’s a little different. Editors are wonderful, but they’re not necessarily the people who will actually make your book *sell* to the wider world.

    Alright, you experienced professionals out there… how much of that diatribe was flat-out wrong?

  19. Um. The above comment was directed at Skippy. Which would’ve been fairly obvious if someone else hadn’t been faster to hit the submit button than I was.

  20. Silly Raethe, I took my dear sweet time hitting that button. You had more than a fair chance. :D

  21. Yeah, I had a bad cough that day. We recorded four? No, FIVE episodes, too.

    Most of the reason I was quiet, though, was because I realized that I had little to add, and I was busy running the sound gear.

  22. Raethe-
    True, publishers can provide a lot of marketing help and hype. The flip side of that is that as a consumer, most of that doesn’t matter to me. In podcast 29, the editor’s comment was that the cover art is meant to appeal to the buyer for Barnes & Noble.

    I want what *I* want, which may or may not have anything to do with what some guy in an office half a world away from me decides to try to sell me. The publisher, marketing to that guy, isn’t really achieving anything better than random chance in terms of getting that book where I can see it. That’s probably an exaggeration overall, but if you could see the Waldenbooks around here you’d feel my pain.

    Thing is, online publishing at least has the *potential* of letting me find books I like faster and easier than a physical bookstore. I browse comics online all the time. I read webcomics voraciously. Some of them have even gotten money from me (more would, but I’m perenially broke. I buy books at the same rate, sadly).

    Any publisher or author that offers up free samples online, I love. I can check out their offerings and know if I like them or not. If only there was a way for me to get the book from them! Getting it shipped in two weeks from a third-party seller isn’t really what I’m after. If I need to go to two places to accomplish something online, eliminating one will improve my experience.

    If publishers sold their books directly, online, then they could undercut the retailers by NOT passing along the associated costs of every step that book goes through to get to a shelf. The retailers are busy driving themselves out of business anyway, so let ’em croak.

    Sorry, I should have worded that better. What I meant was that I’d like to know more about the process you go through to turn out your own books. I’ve been a fan for years, so I consider yours to be a quality product :)

  23. “What can the man with the flying car tell the folks discussing the best way to hitch a horse to a cart?”

    Skippy, Howard ALREADY KNOWS his business model kicks us in the pants. Comments like that only make him harder to live with.

  24. Oh dear. And we wouldn’t want that now, would we?

    Conyngham: Pffffft.

    (Yes, that really was the most intelligent response I could come up with. What can I say? It’s morning!)

  25. In regards to the 10% rule with editing your manuscript… Part of this idea is that if/when you sell your manuscript to an editor, they are going to have editorial suggestions for you. There are a lot of things that you won’t see in your own manuscript because you are too close. If you keep doing revisions beyond the point where you’re changing less than 10% of the manuscript, you’re probably “beating a dead horse” at that point.

    Regarding the “cutting out the middleman” discussion, I do think it is possible that publishers will be only one of many options in the future. However, we will ALWAYS need editors. We just may see more editors working for themselves (or as part of a guild perhaps) as opposed to working for particular publishers.

    There are some obvious possible benefits to writers in these new possibilities, and I think there are benefits to editors too. It will take time for a new system to emerge, and people will still need a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Just my $0.02.

  26. While all this maybe true, I think many may forget that to do it without a publishing house, you need to come up with your own capital. If you are struggling and want to publish on your own, well it is then all on you. You now have to pay all these people that were before seen as “just middle-men”, if your work needs all that, it might not but in most cases it probably does.

  27. @John: Perhaps it’s a trackback? Your site uses WordSmith (some great content btw, I’m going through your writing stuff. Mucho thanks). I don’t know how trackback works, but perhaps you triggered it by your post over there?

  28. Awww, Poor Dan. You needn’t fear or envy Howard, he is doing things different than you guys, but you are becoming great too. I’m one of your three fans who bought you bacon and when I have another chance I’ll buy you some more. After all, EVERYTHING is better with bacon.
    Oh and by the way Dan, CONGRATS!

    On another note, related to my comments from last cast, I am even more enthused about eventually giving it a go as a writer. Hearing about the interactions between you guys and your editor have dialed back the fear knob several notches. Now I just need to learn more about finding an agent.
    Once I do finally give it a whirl, I will send you all a copy of my first rejection letter. ;>

  29. Dan- I’m sorry, I really worded that poorly. If it’s any consolation, hearing you talk about it has made me want to read your book…

    …not that I know where I can get it :s

  30. Skippy: Dan’s book isn’t out yet, won’t be until 2010 I believe.



    A couple tips on how to search for an agent without getting scammed to death. I had a post earlier with a bunch more links on agent-searching, but the post seems to have been deleted so I’m guessing it saw all the links and decided it was spam, so I’ll just keep it to a couple for now.

  31. Holy crap, I had no idea Brandons editor was Gene Wolfes editor, this is amazing news! I was so excited when I found out Harriet McDougal worked on Enders Game, and now to find out my favorite author Mr. Wolfe is submitting his stuff to the same person my third (or 2nd, 4th or 5th – depending on my mood) favorite author does is great, it makes me ridiculously happy for some reason =]

  32. I’ve been listening to this series for several episodes. All I can say is that I wish I had this kind of professional guidance and help when I was younger. I ruined my first book’s chances of getting picked up traditionally because I got impatient and self-published it. Who knows what the future will bring.

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