Wednesday, 14 December 2011


Hello, my lovelies! Happy Wednesday to all. Today I'm continuing with the theme of Monday's post - How Editing Works. Which all sounds terribly grand and grown-up, so I'll just add a quick reminder that I'm a relative newbie to working with editors, and that your mileage will of course vary when it comes to this stuff.

Last time I talked about how editing generally falls into a few distinct stages, with each part of the process relating to the improvement of an aspect of the manuscript (major structural edits = big picture issues, line edits = prose, copy edits = everything else, pass pages = final polishing/error catching).

What I'd like to discuss today is the way that authors react to edits, and how you can manage that reaction to help ensure a good working relationship with your editor, not to mention getting the best possible result for your book. Because that's what you need to always, always bear in mind when you're editing. This process isn't about you as a writer, or your feelings or your ego. It's about what is best for the book you've created, and how to make the characters and story shine.

Generally I find that my reaction to the comments my editor makes in her editorial letter and line edit falls into three distinct categories:

The Blinding Epiphany: Saint Paul on a pogo-stick how did I miss this? Argh, this is so embarrassing! But of course she's right - and now that she's put her finger on it I can see just where I went wrong and what to do to sort it out! *Rolls up sleeves*

Guilty Avoidance: Oh hell, she noticed. I was so hoping it was a minor issue and no one would pick up on it. But I have no idea how to fix it! That's why I sort of handwaved around it in the first place! Maybe I can get away with ignoring this? Or fudge some stuff around it to make it work? *Hides under duvet*

Frustrated Anger: What? WHAT? Just...what??? That makes no sense! There's no problem there! I can't change that - I won't change that - it's fine as it is! Having to mess around with this bit would ruin EVERYTHING! If she hates the damn book so much why are they publishing it in the first place? *Kicks wall*

What do all these reactions have in common? They're knee-jerk and not entirely reasonable. If you act on any of them right away you will regret it. Dive straight into the manuscript to 'fix' an issue by slapping on the first idea you have like a sticking plaster, and you may mess things up worse than they were. Try to fudge an issue so that you won't have to deal with it, and you definitely will mess things up. And writing an angry email or making an angry phonecall to your editor to tell them how very wrong they are and ask why they're publishing the book in the first place if they hate it so much is such a d*ck move that I shouldn't even have to explain why you'll regret it.

The best - probably the only - way to deal with each of these is time.

When I get an edit letter or my line edits, I read through them once, carefully but quickly. And then I walk away. Literally. No matter what my reaction is, how eager I am to get to work or how much I want to curl into the fetal position and commence with soft, pained moans, I force myself to get my dog, put on some waterproof boots and go for a nice long tramp through the fields. Rain or shine, sun or snow, I walk. I'll let everything I've just read marinade in my brain as stomp and mutter, throw biscuits for my dog, and occasionally wave my hands around emphatically. When I finally get home an hour later, shivering or sweating or sodden wet, I will generally feel much calmer and more rational.

But having had my therapeutic stomp, do I THEN dive straight into the manuscript or writing a snotty letter? No, no, and no, Dear Readers. I leave it at least another day before I look at the letter or notes again. I know some authors who leave it a week. You have to give your brain enough time to get over any initial knee-jerk reaction that you had so that when you read those notes or that letter a second time, you see what the editor actually wrote, rather than what your offended ego or eager-to-please nature is telling you is there.

Trust me. When you return and look at your editor's words twenty-four hours (or more) later, you will be stunned to find that somehow they've changed. They're not calling you a talentless hack after all. They're not saying the book is terrible. And many of the quick fixes that sprang into your head on the first read will now feel a bit hasty, as if they rather missed the point. Whatever your initial reaction was, you will be profoundly glad you waited before you acted on it.

I'm not saying that walking away from the edits will make it easy to deal with them when you come back. It won't, necessarily. When we worked on Shadows on the Moon my editor had a problem with the way a certain plot thread was resolved. She felt that it was unsatisfying for the reader, and in the back of my head I agreed with her. But unfortunately I was completely stumped as to how to weave that thread back in without tangling up five others that were vital to the end of the story. And what was more, leaving that part of the plot like that had been in my original plans, from when I very first started the story, and my stubborn back-brain was convinced that it should work like that, dammit.

I avoided and fudged around the issue every way that I knew how, but my editor (thank heavens!) didn't let it go. Every time she came back to me she prodded me about it more and more insistently. In response, I got more and more frustrated because I thought she should be able to see how impossible it was to do anything about it and just accept that this was the best I could do.  

But of course, it wasn't impossible.

Nothing is impossible. A book is words on a page. If you change the words the right way, you can fix anything. And so, on one of my bad-tempered stomping walks by the river, I got a glimmer of an idea. I worked it out as I tramped, and went over it again and again in my head, checking for problems and flaws, and realised that it was the perfect way to fix things. Yes, it would mean doing away with a few things that I liked, but the result would be worth it. I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. I got home, scribbled it all down, and within a few days I'd sorted out the issue which had been holding the edit in limbo for weeks.

This was a defining moment for me as a writer. It made me realise that I had the ability fix pretty much any mess I'd made, given the time and space to work it out, and the confidence to accept that sometimes things needed to be changed. I had to let myself believe that needing to change things, even things I'd planned from the beginning, even things that my editor had spotted rather than me, didn't reflect on the book or on my skills, or mean that I was admitting I was a talentless hack.

The object of the edit is to get things right. This grace period, this time spent working on a book with a dedicated, passionate professional editor who won't let you get away with fudging, is a judgement free space. It's a blessing. A gift. A chance to go back and fix your mistakes - a rare thing in life. How to fix them might not always be obvious or simple or easy, but it's always possible, so long as you believe it's possible.

Looking back, I'm so glad that I had this revelation working on Shadows. If I hadn't, I don't think I would have had the determination and confidence to deal with the work that I needed to do on FrostFire. In fact, I know I wouldn't. So that's something else to bear in mind: when you work with your editor on making a book the best it can be, you're also learning. You're learning craftsmanship, and confidence, and you're learning how to make the next book even better.

However, from time to time you'll get a note from your editor which you actually disagree with. Not a note that makes you guilty or frustrated or angry but a note that, on reflection, you truly believe just isn't right. You can't do what they're asking you to do. Not because it would be difficult or mean admitting you'd made a mistake, but simply because it would be wrong for these characters or this book.

When this happens, you'll find that the relationship you've built up with your editor to this point pays dividends. If you've always been polite and professional, and if you've always been willing to admit that changes need to be made and work through them (even if it took a while!) then when you come back to your editor here with a problem, they'll be more than willing to listen to what you have to say and you'll be able to work out why there's an issue.

For example, while I was working on The Swan Kingdom with my U.S. editor, she gave me a note in which she said she felt a certain confrontation in the middle section of the book should be radically changed to play out a different way. At first I felt devastated; it was the first time that I flat out 100% knew I couldn't make a requested change. I just couldn't do it. What was more, the fact that the editor had asked for that change made me feel as if the book as a whole couldn't be working, because if it had been, the editor would have seen that changing the outcome of that confrontation would completely go against every bit of characterisation up to that point.

Heart in my throat, I politely emailed my U.S. editor and explained that I couldn't do what she'd asked me to do, and why. I braced myself, not sure what the reaction would be. I'd heard so many things about awkward authors who thought their words were golden, and I didn't want to be like that, so the minute I sent the email I wanted to call it back, but no matter how I looked at it, I just knew I couldn't change the story that way.

The editor got back to me within an hour - with an apology. She completely saw my point and she realised the note had been wrong. It was fine, and I should ignore it and keep working. Oh, the relief!

I've since learned that this is normally how true disagreements play out between writers and editors. Sometimes you go backwards and forwards about things, and sometimes the author changes their mind and sometimes the editor does, but you can nearly always work it out. As a writer, if you've demonstrated the willingness to work hard to produce the best possible end result, and if you've got the courage to argue your case both intelligently and with passion, you will get a lot of respect from your editor when it comes to the changes you're willing to make.

Sometimes these disagreements are an opportunity to improve things in unexpected ways. Going back to Shadows on the Moon, after the initial edit letter, it was clear from my editor's comments that she and I perceived a particular character in very different ways. She pushed me to make changes to his behaviour to make him more vivid and understandable to the reader. But I felt that this would change him so profoundly that he wouldn't work at all. We debated it over the course of several emails and through a couple of edits. Being forced to defend this character's actions and choices against my editor's extremely perceptive and insightful comments brought him into such sharp focus for me that although I didn't make the changes my editor wanted, I did make several other changes to the way I showed the reader who this person was - and my editor loved them.

It wasn't that she necessarily wanted me to change the character to fit her vision. She had just seen that there was something missing in the way he was characterised, and in prodding me about it, she allowed me to fix it in a way that worked for the story.

Again, I've gone mega long here, so I'll finish by saying this. Editing can be fun. It can also be stressful. And frustrating. Even a little painful. And that's just within one page! But I honestly would not want to be published if I had to share my work in its unedited state. Working with an editor is a chance to learn wonderful things about the craft of writing in general and your own strengths and weaknesses in particular. Having a great editor allows you to take risks, try out crazy stuff that might not work because you know you've got someone in your corner who will lay it on the line for you and tell you if you messed up and how.

It not only makes for vastly improved books. It produces vastly improved writers.



Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

Wow, another brilliant post! It's interesting to read what you say about walking away and then coming back, I think that's really valuable advice.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Thanks! Actually, I think walking away instead of reacting straight away is the answer to a lot of thorny problems.

Elizabeth May said...

Beta readers and critique partners are good practice for this. Sometimes, you have to step away and really consider their suggestions.

Zoë Marriott said...

Elizabeth: You've got me there - I've never had any kind of a beta reader or critique partner, so for me it's straight from drafting to my agent/editor.

Cat Winters said...

Thanks so much for the advice, Zoë! My very first editorial letter will be arriving in the coming months, and your tips about waiting before diving into changes are invaluable. Like Elizabeth said, working with critique partners is good practice for handling the daunting feedback, but I enjoyed hearing how the author-editor relationship can work if it's done right.

Zoë Marriott said...

Cat: You are very welcome. Just bear in mind that walking away isn't as easy as it sounds. The temptation n is always to jump in and go with that very personal, initial reaction. I'm tempted to break my own rules every time. So be strong!

Megha said...

That's wonderful advice! I love seeing into a writer's life, every time :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Thanks - I love sharing this stuff with you :)

Isabel said...

This is really valuable advice. Thanks, Zoe!

I'm leaving on Friday to spend Christmas with family in Brazil, so I might not be on the blog for a couple weeks. Happy holidays to everyone in advance! Hopefully 2012 will be a fabulous year. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: You've welcome, hun. Have a lovely holiday!

Emma Pass said...

Sorry for the late comment - I'm a bit behind with my blog reading this week. Such a great post. I was nodding in agreement with every single point you made. I'm working on my first ever edits right now; I managed to leave them a few days before diving in, and I'm really glad I did. And although I did feel a bit oh-my-God-how-am-I-ever-going-to-do-all-this about them at first, now, I'm really excited as I can see just how much they're going to improve my book (and my writing!).

Zoë Marriott said...

Emma: It's hard to describe that feeling - that combination of fear and excitement that an edit gives you. I still feel like that every time, and hope I always will.

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