How I Write a Novel (6): the editor’s edit

Every publisher has their own way of doing things, so don’t take this as necessarily the norm. This is just the way it’s done at my main publisher, with my particular editor and copy editor.

When I have decided (hopefully before the delivery deadline!) that I have finished the book to my satisfaction, I send it off to my editor at the publishing house. After what seems to be a long silence (she’s definitely overworked!) of four weeks or so, she gets back to me. And usually she wants some changes. Fortunately, none have ever been too drastic and on one memorable occasion there were none requested at all. It’s usually along the lines of, ‘Is that X scene really right where it is? I think it would be better moved to the end of the book.’ Or, ‘I find the account of Y’s journey to Altan as a child rather like a hiccup in the story – couldn’t you include it just by having him refer to it once he is grown? Or as a flashback later on perhaps?’ Or, ‘I think it needs a prologue to give more back story.’ Sometimes we talk on the phone about these changes.

There are usually 3 or 4 such suggestions. In the meantime, I have been going through the book yet again, correcting small mistakes. Once I have the editor’s input, I rewrite on the basis of her suggestions, which doesn’t usually take me more than another two weeks. And I send it back.

A couple of things for writers who have got to this stage to think about:

  • An editor is not always right. BUT this is their job and they are pretty good at it, believe me. When my editor tells me that something didn’t work for her, I sit up pretty straight and take notice. And I rework the section. I don’t think there has ever been a time when I didn’t make the change, and there has been only one time when I wished I hadn’t done a particular alteration.
  • However, I am the writer. It is my book. So I do what I think is right for the book. Sometimes I say to myself – ‘Geez, why didn’t I see that myself?’ and the changes just tumble off the end of my fingers into the MS. Sometimes I have to think about it some more. Sometimes I take the advice to the letter, because I know it is right; more usually I see the problem immediately but I can see a better solution than the one suggested – if indeed an actual solution was suggested. An editor’s strength is in seeing the problem; the writer’s job is to see how to correct it.
  • If you think your work is perfect and doesn’t need an editor’s input, then you ought to be self-publishing.
  • If you are an unpublished writer and are still submitting to agents/publishers, then your work has to be far more polished than mine is by the time my editor first gets to see it. That’s unjust, I know, but it’s the way things work, at least when I am operating to a deadline.

Let me explain that last. An unpublished writer’s work has to shine above all the others that land on an agent/editor’s desk. You have to impress. The agent/editor doesn’t know you or your work from the ravings of megalomaniac when she/he first turns the title page.

My editor, however, already knows the standard of my work; she knows I am professional; she knows she can rely on me to make changes, to deliver a good story (usually) on time. She knows that the odd silly mistake/repetition/not so polished paragraph is going to be weeded out – either by me or by the copy editor – before the book is printed. With your book, though, she needs to know that you do indeed know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. She needs to be impressed by the polish of your work.

With mine, she is (I hope) impressed by me being able to get a good MS onto her desk in six months. I didn’t have the luxury of time that an unpublished writer – who has no deadline – has. And we still have time – editor, copy editor and author – to bring this work to a final polished state. It is in fact better for us to have editorial input before the author has laboured over the final sheen, rather than to ask the author to do that final buffing up twice. It saves time.

So, after working on the alterations suggested by the editor, I send the book back to the publisher, the alterations are accepted (well, I’ve never had mine rejected, but I suppose it could happen) and so on to the copy editor.

And it looks as if I still haven’t got around to what happens at the copy edit! Next time.

Oh, and what was the alteration I regretted making? It was with my first published book, Havenstar. The editor thought I needed to tie the ending up neatly. I had – I thought – left enough hints along the way to show what was going to happen after the climax was done. The editor didn’t agree, and asked me to write an extra chapter to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. So I did.
But I wasn’t comfortable with it – it smelled a bit cutesy to me. I was, however, too new and untried and unsure of myself to protest. And perhaps too inexperienced to work out a way to please both of us.

The very first fanmail I got was from a lovely reader who had loved every inch of the book – until the last chapter. She was so maddened by it, that she dashed off an email.
Why did you do that? she asked. It wasn’t necessary and it was just too neat!

She was right, the editor was wrong and I should have stuck with my instincts.


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