Enough people made vaguely interested noises in the editing process that I thought I’d talk about it a bit. It’s definitely the tedious, grim, discouraging bit of the process, but it occurs to me that you, O Prospective Author, may find it even more traumatic if nobody tells you what to expect!
First, two caveats. I’ve had…I think…twelve books edited at this point, and that’s awesome, but the vast screaming majority were Dragonbreath books, and as editing goes, that’s a walk in the park with singing and dancing and happy bunnies frolicking in the grass. Only two or three required actual serious story-construction editing, where I had to grab whole scenes and shove them somewhere else, and my editor said things like “I don’t know–this bit just isn’t working here.” In 15K, you have to get everything done RIGHT NOW, and there is not much time for subtlety. This makes them tougher to write, in some regards, but it also means that I can edit most of them in an evening. (I believe I once edited one in an hour, at about 3 AM when I couldn’t sleep.)
This is not what happens with novels. It is not what happened with Nurk, although that was certainly a very short book, and not what happened with Black Dogs and not what is happening with Bread Wizard, which is the book that lies before me, quivering, with its delicate little organ meats splayed out on the slab. (Seriously, this is kinda what it feels like. Editing is like major surgery. On both you AND the book.)
Second caveat—I would love to hear from some other authors on their experience. This is JUST what’s happened to me, and may not be universal by any stretch. You’re talking to someone who’s first book sale (Black Dogs) was less than a decade ago, and I’ve only ever been with three presses, one small, two large. I simply haven’t been around long enough to say “This, here, is universal.” So take everything with a grain of salt.
The process starts when I get a note from my editor saying “Here’s the edits!” Generally there are two documents attached, or one document and the body of the e-mail, or one document and a long phone call, or whatever. This is gonna vary from house to house and from editor to editor. One is the Broad Overview and one is your manuscript covered in red ink (although in this day and age, it is most likely a Word .doc with little comments attached to the sidebar.)
The Broad Overview usually starts out with praise. I don’t know if I’m just lucky and have very nice editors, or if they all do this so that when you open the attachment, with your heart in your mouth, going “Did they LIKE it?!” you don’t immediately burst into tears. I’ve had three different editors—four if you count the tag-team of Sofawolf on Black Dogs—and they all started by saying something nice. Bread Wizard’s praise is sufficiently effusive that I would be embarrassed to recreate it here.
Then…we get to the important bits. (I’m just going to quote this bit, and hope my editor won’t mind. She does a sterling job, and I don’t think that this is vital proprietary information.) “So, I think this is an incredible first draft, and from here I’d love to see you really dig back in and build upon this world you’ve created, to raise the stakes by helping the reader understand them better, add more emotion and heart and kids, and pick up the pace of the middle section.”
This is, you might agree, a tall order. Deciphering exactly what some of that means would be difficult in and of itself, (“heart?” What is “heart“?!) but if you have a good editor, they are absolutely clear and will talk until you both know exactly what’s expected, which is why the Broad Overview in this case goes on for six densely typed pages, and addresses each specific issue, and by the end of it, I know exactly what she’s talking about, and have been grudgingly forced to agree.
While I don’t want to add spoilers for the book, some of the issues include:
1) Needs more world-building. It’s not clear how many wizards there are, why our heroine is suddenly the last one, how rare they actually are, and what sort of consequences there are for various actions. Since it’s a fantasy world, more needs to be done so that the readers can get their bearings.
2) The villain’s motives are unclear. We need more about the relationship between villain and the ruler of the city, which ties back into the world-building. There isn’t a clear enough sense of what’s at stake.
3) The heroine is likeable, but could stand to be a little warmer—she comes off as unintentionally aloof.
4) We’re getting on the high-side of a middle-grade novel, edging into YA, and it would be nice to add more kids to the mix, insomuch as it’s possible, to help yank it back.
5) We don’t get a good sense of how the heroine’s magical powers develop as the story goes on–for all we know, she’s just as powerful at the beginning as she is at the end–and she doesn’t spend enough time on-screen experimenting with her powers. There’s room for some really spectacular failures. Let’s see ‘em!
6) The middle is slow.
7) And a couple more things that are so specific that I can’t get into them without spoilers.
Let me state unequivocally that every single one of these points is both accurate and justified and if I fix them, it will make a better book. The simple fact is that if your editor doesn’t get something, the odds are good that your reader won’t get it either, and you will be left looking like either an idiot or a bad writer. I believe with every fiber of my being that my editor is right on every single point she mentions, and also the notion of how much work this is going to entail kinda makes me want to slit my wrists. I close the file for the night and go drink heavily.
But the human brain is a marvelous organ, even when slightly pickled, and by the time I open the e-mail again in the morning, I am full of ideas about how to Make This Happen. That one scullery maid can become a named character, that’s another kid in the mix, and we can shore up the saggy middle with some wild and hopefully hilarious magical experiments to make it feel like the heroine’s powers have been earned. Sort of a training montage with croissants. Yes. I can do this. I dash off a note to my editor thanking her for the edits, telling her that I think it’s doable, possibly seeking clarification on an issue or two (as needed) and mentioning a couple of my ideas to see if she agrees with them before I pour twenty man hours into fleshing out a character she wanted to cut entirely, or something equally tragic.
Then I go down to the coffee shop—”Hey, Ursula? The usual?” “You’re so good to me.” “Well, you keep funneling money through here like a Colombian drug lord…”—and settle in to my dark corner with the painting of Titania and Bottom staring over my shoulder, plug my laptop in next to the toaster oven, and call up my manuscript with edits. The screen fills up with text, and on the right-hand side, little multi-colored word bubbles indicating word changes, rogue comma executions, and comments.
There are a great many word bubbles on the first page. My heart sinks again.
This is not, I hasten to add, copy-editing. Copy-editing happens much later. There’s no point in copy-editing a manuscript if you’re going to change large swaths of it—it’ll only have to be done over again. My editor may catch the occasional typo, or swap out a word or two to help the flow (and it’s only ever a word or two—major edits on the sentence level are generally proposed on a sidebar, rather than being unilaterally applied) but major fine-toothed comb copy-edits are the last stage in the process.
(It is worth taking a moment here to say that the manuscript I hand in is not crammed with typos and punctuation errors. I write with the spell-check on, and it’s at least up to the level you’re seeing in this blog post here. I play fast and loose with grammar for effect—you may note that I’m writing in the vernacular, as ’twere—but if you can’t write at least this accurately,* without really trying, you need to practice and get that DOWN before you submit anything anywhere. The occasional typo is entirely forgivable and not that big a deal, but if the first page of your manuscript is littered with solitary lower-case i’s and there, they’re, and their have had a throw-down in the middle of the page, the slush-pile reader will be reaching for a form rejection. There are people on the internet who will carelessly proclaim that the story is more important than the grammar and only industry Nazis care about spelling. You may listen to them or not, as you like, but if I open a sample page and see that, I, like the Keeper of the Slush Pile, will not turn the page)
I crack my knuckles, take a swig of my coffee, and begin to write.
Sidebar comments fall into three basic camps. One is straightforward and concerned with word-choice and small details: “This feels too modern.” “This seems like an odd word choice here.” “It seems weird to mention this here.” "Logistically, how would this actually work?" One is concerned with broader details: “You say this, but then there’s never any follow up.” “How does Character X know this here?” “I love this, but I’m worried kids won’t get it–can you explain the difference?” “Shouldn’t we know this sooner?” “Please expand this more, it’s a great detail!” “Can we hear more about this?” (On Black Dogs, many moons ago, the comments often included “You said this before,” and a running tally of how often the character’s eye-color changed. It is due entirely to the heroic efforts of the book’s editor, Dale, that I repeat myself much less these days, and don’t bother nearly so much with eye-color. Even so, I found the villain’s robes changed color without me. Sigh.)
The final type of side-bar is “Ha!” or a smiley-face or “Love this!” or “Awwwww.” Judicious sprinkling of these through the manuscript is what keeps your humble author from tipping a bottle of whiskey over into the cup of coffee.
Okay, so that being said—how do you FIX matters?
Well, that’s kinda up to you. I am a one-evolving-draft writer. I would no more start writing with a blank page than I would jump off the roof with a javelina parachute. Not gonna happen. Instead, I go through the existing manuscript, start fixing all the small stuff in the sidebars, and set up a second document that’s nothing but my own notes about how to solve some of the bigger systemic issues. “Name the scullery maid. Have a homing pigeon arrive here, addressed to the heroine. Include hilarious magical experimentation in middle. Make it clear that when the army leaves town, they’re going to fight these guys here.” I also leave my editor’s Broad Overview document open in the background, so that I can go through and hit it like a checklist.
After fixing or vowing to fix each of these points, I go into the little side comment and write under it—”Fixed!” or “Will try to do that later,” or “addressed this in the previous paragraph” or “Will this work?” That way I know that I’ve dealt with the comment, and the editor knows I’ve seen it and am trying to deal with it.
I do not, it must be said, do every single thing the editor says. Ninety-five percent, yes. She’s usually right, and we’ve worked together long enough at this point that she can slice a rambling statement in half and chop out stray verbiage without having to say things like “Maybe this line is a little long.” But it takes awhile to get there with an editor. Now and again, in Dragonbreath, I will go to bat for a word choice. Sometimes I will say “No, I really really love this line.” (Not often. After a point, lines are no longer precious. There are always more of them. If you love your lines too much, become a poet.) Sometimes I will say “I think the kids are smart enough to get this.” Once I had to explain what an end-boss was. And she’s not omnipotent—she occasionally misses places where I explained something, or something was mentioned before, or whatever. But in general, her comments are spot on, and I pay attention.
There are many more word-choice comments towards the beginning of Bread Wizard. By the middle, she is apparently caught up in the story, or I’ve gotten into the groove, or something, because the only comments are broad details and occasional “HA!”
As I go through, I occasional find spots where I can wedge something. She wants the secondary character to talk about his dead sister. Okay, here’s a good spot for an extra paragraph—nothing major, we don’t want to wallow, but a quick anecdote. Okay, this is a good spot for a little of that world-building about numbers of wizards. Okay, here I can talk about the heroine’s parents. Okay, this section has some flab. I can dice out some paragraphs and replace most of a page with “The blacksmiths had the oven ready.” (Chopping is hard for everybody. As another dear editor friend once said “You always take the longest possible route to get anywhere. Fortunately, it’s usually an entertaining trip.”)
When all of this is done (and it isn’t done yet!) I slap it into an e-mail with a note that says “Tried to fix everything. Let me know if this works!” and pray that it all hangs together. The problem with skipping madly through a manuscript like this is that I cease to have any sense of how it is all connected. It becomes a dissected body, not a living organism. I trust to the editor to be able to make sense of it as a cohesive whole, because by the end of edits, I can barely remember what I did where, who I am, whether I am writing about humans or sentient chickens, etc.
After this—assuming that you have made the manuscript better and not worse—you get to do this entire thing over again, except hopefully with fewer comments, and more “Great, that works now!”
Possibly even a third time.
Then there is copy-editing. This is annoying, sometimes obnoxious, and the first time I got a paper page that had actual proof-reading marks, I freaked out and tried to hide under the bed (thankfully, Penguin does it all with Word) but it is a simple mechanical process and you are allowed to override the copy-editor when you think they’re being deliberately obtuse.
Then you are done. More or less.
And if you’re me, you go to the art director, but that’s another kettle of fish entirely, and a post for another day.
*I say nothing of well. It is possible to write very bad prose in words that are all spelled correctly and have their tenses lined up properly. I have done so myself many times.