Some Insight on the Editorial Process

THE RED became the first self-published novel nominated for the Nebula award. It will be re-published by Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press in June 2015.

(This post was originally published in April 2014 at the author’s personal blog Hahvi.net.)

For those of you who are writers, I’d thought I’d talk a little about the editorial process behind my newest books.

The process I use to get a novel ready for publication is the same now as when I was traditionally published. I write the entire manuscript with no outside input. When I have a solid draft, I send it to one or more beta readers and then process their comments. This step can be repeated, though I usually don’t, in large part because experienced beta readers are always in short supply. So once I’ve worked through beta-reader comments, the manuscript is ready to be seen by a professional editor.

What does an editor do? It depends what you hire her for and how much detail work you’re after (or you need). The more experience you’ve had with writing, the less supervision you’re likely to need. I’ve written quite a few novels at this point, so I get an overall edit that looks mostly at structure and internal logic.

Judith Tarr served as editor for both The Red: First Light and The Trials. What Judy provides is a letter giving a general assessment of the novel, covering both its strengths and its weaknesses, and then the nitty gritty of specific comments, using Word’s comment feature to annotate the manuscript from beginning to end.

For The Red there were over 700 editorial comments. The Trials had only half that—either because Judy despaired or else she really did feel that The Trials was initially better written. 😉

Some writers seem to enjoy the editorial process, but for me, processing editorial comments is like being locked up in a room and forced to read bad reviews of my work. I would never call it fun. On the other hand, both books have been significantly improved by the process—and that’s why I do it.

The first step in the process is to read the editorial letter. Only after that do I move on to the marked up manuscript. I do an initial, fast read-through of the comments to assess the specific issues. If there are very simple fixes—misspellings, incorrect homonyms, etc—those get fixed, and the comment gets deleted. It’s important to delete comments. How else will you know you’re making progress? It’s essential to see those 700+ criticisms decline toward zero.

After this first quick pass, I return to the beginning, and seriously consider each comment, before moving on to the next. At this stage, I don’t necessarily address each comment. Mostly I do the easy stuff. If it’s a matter of adding a few words or a line of explanation or description, then I do that, and delete the comment.

The third pass is where things start getting tough. The remaining comments address more difficult issues, either ones that are not easily fixed, or ones that I don’t necessarily regard as issues, or ones that I just don’t understand.

Part of the work of writing a story is defining the parameters of how the story world operates. Many of the queries I get go to the details of the story world, and it’s often the case that I will go back to an earlier point in the manuscript to provide a little more background, and not do anything at all at the point where the question was asked.

In a lot of science fiction the story turns on its internal logic. We are inherently dealing with things that do not yet exist and have not been defined in the real world—and I don’t mean magical things. Rather, things like the effect of a specific kind of brain manipulation, or the extent/limitations of a national surveillance network. These are defined within the story, and they need to be defined logically, plausibly—which I try to do. But sometimes it feels as if the editor has in mind a different story world than the one I’ve actually developed. Again, a good response is to go back and drop in a bit more detail about what is and isn’t possible, or likely.

That said, if you find yourself in this situation, don’t feel compelled to over explain. You don’t want to slow down your story with unneeded detail. Not every query needs to be addressed. It’s your story, so you, the writer, have to judge when to act, and when to move on. For example, Judy will sometimes comment that a character’s statement implies things, and while I’ll agree that it does, for me those things might be extraneous to the story, and I don’t want to go there. Not all the time, of course! I have to judge. Other writers employ a lot more background detail in their work, but for these two books I wanted to use a spare voice.

Sometimes I don’t “get” a comment. I don’t understand why it’s there, or why it matters, or what I’m being told. Other times I just blatantly disagree with it. In both instances, the first thing is to really think about it. Is there more to it than I’m seeing on first pass? Oftentimes (again) I will decide to retreat to an earlier point in the manuscript and add a few words of explanation, or take a few misleading words out. But if I still don’t understand the comment, I have two options—ignore it, or query the editor for more detail. What a writer is not allowed to do is argue with the editor about it. She has given you her best opinion and that is her opinion. It’s not your task to persuade her to think better of your book. If she doesn’t “get” what you were trying to say, you either need to try harder, or let it go. That’s all.

Be careful not to let your ego get in the way. Mine gets in the way all the time. For example, at one point I used the word “hypochondriac” at the end of a discussion about a certain character. Judy queried, “Is this the right word?” My instant reaction was “Yes. Absolutely.” But after reining in my ego, I went back over the conversation and discovered that I had not actually included the bit about this character being hypochondriac. Oops. A single sentence, added early in the discussion, solved the problem.

Know when you are tired. I delete and/or ignore more comments when I’m tired. Here’s the thing: while you don’t want to work endlessly on a novel or story, you want it to be good. So when you feel your reaction becoming “Oh, I just don’t want to deal with this”—then skip the comment instead of immediately striking it. Come back to it the next day. Consider again if the suggested revision is worth taking on. It might not be. But if it is, take your shot.

Comment: “Passive/synopsis. Write out as scene.”
I find this editorial comment so annoying. (This would be my ego, getting in the way.) Usually, when I’ve written a synopsis, it’s because I need to convey a bit of information or accomplish a transition, but I don’t want to write a scene, either because I want to limit the implied importance of the passage, or because I want to move swiftly to the next piece. But when I see this comment, I always take a second and then a third look at the passage in question. Honestly, “Write out as scene” can be one of the most difficult comments for me to address, because by this point in the story’s development the flow is fixed in my head, and in nearly every case, it doesn’t feel at first as if there’s room for a scene. And if I do add the scene? Then it can feel as if that new scene is sending out waves of disruption that will require more work to address. That said, there have been a few times when I’ve been pleasantly astonished at the result of expanding a synopsis into a scene. So take the shot. You can always back out if it’s not working.

In the end, the thing to remember in any editorial revision is that there is no such thing as a perfect book. Revise. Polish your work. Make it the best you can within a reasonable period of time and then finish it, and move on.

And don’t forget to pay your editor promptly, and to thank her in the acknowledgments, no matter how hard she made you work. 😉

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Some Insight on the Editorial Process — 9 Comments

  1. As a reader, I love these “making of” posts. This one’s also a great jumping-off point for something I was curious about when I read that First Light was going to be published by Saga: did it go through a second editorial process, or will the new edition be the same as the first?

    I’m looking forward to Trials and am thrilled that the series has found a bigger platform, even though that meant a delay in being able to read it!

  2. Hi Beth. That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot! I’m going to write a post on it at some point, but the short answer is, yes there was another round of edits, but the requested changes were minor.

    Apologies for the delay in The Trials, but we’re getting there. It’s due out in August. And thank you!

  3. I do it almost exactly the way you do — fix the easy stuff first, let the big stuff wait. The first thing I do is turn editorial letters into bulleted lists. Then I strikethrough each item as I deal with it, rather than deleting them, but my editorial letters are shorter than yours. Grammar and typos are completely separate for me and I don’t want beta readers to look at grammar unless they see something really outrageous. Later I do want someone to make me think about every comma splice so I can decide if I want to leave it or change it.

    I get questions about motivation and requests to “put us more in the character’s head,” which is something I always have to work on, and not usually suggestions to blow up a bit of exposition into a scene. More often a suggestion to delete, combine, or rearrange scenes. I always feel fairly overwhelmed when I first think about dealing with those comments, but usually I kinda-sorta like doing the actual work when I get into it. (Not always, though!)

    And yes, my books are always much better for going through a thorough editorial process! Much better!

  4. “Some writers seem to enjoy the editorial process, but for me, processing editorial comments is like being locked up in a room and forced to read bad reviews of my work.”

    Yep. Same here. But as you say, it’s worth doing.

    Great article, Linda!

  5. This is a nifty article. Had to read it several times and think about it.

    One thing I’ve been mulling is the “this should be a scene” note. I think the easiest way to explain that is when the reader feels that the narrative voice is passing judgment, or telling the reader what to think.

    Hmmm. Yet again, I found myself typing up lots of crap. I think maybe this is one to take to my own blog, where being boringly prolix is a given.

  6. One thing I’ve been mulling is the “this should be a scene” note. I think the easiest way to explain that is when the reader feels that the narrative voice is passing judgment, or telling the reader what to think.

    I think it more often indicates that I’m leaving potential emotional engagement on the table, putting the characters’ emotions at a distance for the sake of expediency, rather than immersing in those emotions. I should add that many of these directives are for very short additions “two or three lines of dialogue.”

    The first thing I do is turn editorial letters into bulleted lists. Then I strikethrough each item as I deal with it, rather than deleting them, but my editorial letters are shorter than yours.

    Heh. Judy is a very strict editor. 😉
    But as mentioned above, these are Word comments, not comments in a separate document, so deleting each comment as I address it is the only practical way to handle them. Of course I keep an original copy of the marked-up manuscript, in case I need to refer to something I’ve deleted.

    • Yeah, this is my secondary thing, shorted emotional development, in re ‘should be a scene.’

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