Thursday, 31 January 2013


Happy Thursday, Dear Readers! RetroThursday, in fact, as I select and herd a mature post from its comfy resting place in the archives and force it to assume its game face again. Today's post shall be:

I realised over the weekend - much to my embarrassment, although not to my surprise - that I promised to do you a post about editing/working with editors last week, and then forgot all about it. Frankly, sometimes I'm amazed that I can tie my own shoelaces. But anyway, here that long-awaited post is, and if anyone has any questions about this or would like any points clarified or gone into in more detail, bring it up in the comments.

In my leisurely roaming of the writing-centric parts of the interwebz, I've noticed a lot of general assumptions and misconceptions about editing - that is, the work that writers do with the professional editors employed by their publisher. Often I see people talking as if its an editor's job merely to fix typos and spelling mistakes (and that this means the writer shouldn't bother about those things) or bemoaning this widespread idea that 'real editing' is dying out because of the heartless paper-pushers in charge of publishers (and this can be proved by all the typos in published books).

Both of those ideas are, in my experience, dead wrong.

I can't claim to be a huge expert on this topic. I'm a relative newbie compared to many authors, and all my books have been published by one publisher (and their international sister companies). But over the course of five YA books (one of which never ended up being published) I've worked with three different editors (two at my UK publisher, one with the US one) and at least four copy-editors, so maybe I do have a bit of insight about the editor/author relationship that could be useful.

First: Fixing grammar, spelling mistakes and typos is only one very small aspect of a huge array of responsibilities that fall under an editor's job description - those things are primarily the author's job. Editors act as a safety net to catch the mistakes which everyone, no matter how careful, makes from time to time. Land in that safety net too often though, and the people in the circus will rightly wonder why exactly you climbed up there on the high-wire in the first place if you didn't know how to do the walk. Any writer who thinks they don't need to worry about those things themselves is operating under a tragic misapprehension.

Second: Editing is not dead. Neither is it a 'lost art'. Editors are not a dying breed; they're not even feeling off-colour, as far as I can tell. All the editors I've worked with have been fiercely intelligent, intimidatingly well-read and PASSIONATE about making the books they've acquired the very, very best they can be. These guys are hardcore; without them, half the books on your shelves would not be on your shelves at all, and the other half would be much the worse. Blaming the editor for a handful of typos which were most likely introduced during typesetting is like blaming the head engineer of a ship for a handful of lose bolts rattling around in the hull of a giant ship. Yes, the rattling is annoying. However, if the head engineer weren't around the ship would probably have sunk by now.

So, bearing that stuff in mind, how does working with an

Generally, once you've managed to get your foot in the door with a publisher, the editing process breaks down into a few distinct steps. Reading author blogs, you can get the impression that these stages of editing are somehow set in stone, but I've found that it changes not only from editor to editor but from book to book. It's an organic thing. The steps I've listed below can blend into each other, be repeated multiple times, or sometimes be skipped altogether.

There's even rumour of a wondrous thing known as a 'clean' manuscript. This is a draft so perfect, so beautifully formed, so effulgent with divine beauty, that on being submitted by the author it needs no editorial work whatsoever before going off to the printers. Please note - If I ever manage to produce such a thing, you'll probably want to find a sharp implement (a shovel or a woodaxe perhaps) and remove my head immediately, as it will be a sign that I've been taken over by a malevolent alien intelligence and am plotting the end of human civilisation as we know it. *Shudder*

Basically what I'm saying is that this is just a guide, rather than a set of commandments.


Structural edit/edit letter: Mention edit letters to published authors and you get one of two reactions. Either they groan and hold their head in their hands, or they bounce up and down with feverish excitement. The first reaction probably means they've just received an edit letter. The second kind are still waiting for it to arrive.

The structural edit is the first stage of getting a book ready for publication. It's all about the big picture - characterisation, plot, pacing, setting. The things that hold the book together and make it what it is. This is the stage where an editor may request big changes, such as transforming your main character from an elf to a vampire, killing off the erstwhile heroine in chapter four with a poison dart, or moving the whole story from Medieval Florence to the purple rainforests of Gundi'iip Prime in the Taurus Nebula. It addresses issues the editor has with the book as a whole and offers suggestions on how to fix them. The edit letter pretty much tells you what the editor thought of the book (from 'I love it! Let's talk about a few issues...' to 'I'm so sorry, but in its current form...') which is why writers tend to get very excited and scared about them.

The edit letter I received (via email) for Shadows on the Moon mentioned that my editor felt two important characters were a little vague - they didn't come fully into focus throughout the book and their motivations were unclear. She also felt that the middle section of the book was too long and contained too many secondary/minor characters, and that the ending was too abrupt and left a major plot thread inadequately resolved. We eventually cut nearly 30,000 words from my first draft.

If that makes you gulp? Brace yourself. With FrostFire, I never got a formal edit letter. My editor felt that it would be best for us to have a phone conversation about the book and the extensive changes that would be required. We talked for over an hour, going over all the issues that prevented the story and characters from working, and tossing possible solutions at each other.

At the end of that conversation I went away and produced a new, detailed synopsis for what I called FrostFire #2 - an entirely different version of the book in which the plot was turned inside out and most of the characters swapped sex. This served as a kind of backwards edit letter. My editor read it, and came back to me with detailed notes. I amended the synopsis accordingly. She read the outline again and approved it, and then I revamped the book based on that. FrostFire #2 was around 15,000 words longer than the original version in its final draft.

Subsequent structural work: After you've done your first run at any major changes and re-writing, you send the manuscript back to the editor. She may love the changes you've made and be happy to accept the book as 'delivered' at this stage. Or she might feel that you've not gone far enough to address the issues she brought up in the edit letter. Or she might now have new concerns caused by the changes you made.

The book can go back and forth between the editor and the writer several times at this stage. With Shadows on the Moon, I think we did about four or five structural passes (one of which included notes from my US editor). I tried to beef up and clarify the motivations of some characters, but in the process I made their actions seem contradictory in some places, so I needed to dig deeper into them and make the reader understand why they acted as they did. I cut some characters from the middle portion of the book and compressed it, but it still felt overly long and crowded. I extended the ending, but one plot element still felt unresolved.

We worked on those issues until each one was fixed. Every pass that we did moved us closer to that Eureka moment when all the elements of the story clicked together and worked - but it took at least six months for that to happen.

With FrostFire, after I finished rewriting the (radically different version of the) story and sent it in, my editor loved it and we moved straight onto the next stage with no further structural work.

Line editing: This is probably my favourite part of the editing process. This is where love of language really comes into play, as the editor and author work together to make sure that every line of the book expresses the author's ideas in the best possible way. We want to make sure that the words on the page are acting as the reader's gateway into the world of the story, rather than a barrier.

Normally at this point, the writer will receive a copy of their manuscript (either as an computer document or printed out) which has been 'marked up'. That is, the editor has taken out their red pen and gone through the whole thing, literally line by line, noting problems with sentence construction, clumsy wording, repeated words, grammar, places where the author's meaning is unclear, where drafting has left inconsistencies in the fabric of the prose or where ideas could be better presented.

Because my first draft of Shadows on the Moon was exceptionally long for a YA novel - 130,000 words - we did a huge amount of trimming during this stage. My editor would take two or three pages of lovingly researched descriptions of clothing or food or nature, or two or more seperate scenes that served a similar purpose, and suggest changes that snipped away extraneous words, clauses, sentences and paragraphs, reducing three pages of description to half a page, or compressing two or three scenes down into one. She also made sure that in my efforts to create a convincing fantasy world and weave authentic details into the story I didn't lose track of the important themes I'd introduced early on.

In FrostFire (probably because the book had already undergone a massive overhaul) the line editing was far more focused on polishing the prose and hunting down and murdering any sections where all the cutting, pasting and re-writing I'd done had caused jerky transitions or repetitions, or where characterisation or plot didn't track quite smoothly.

Copy editing: This is where, quite often, someone else will get involved in your work on the book. At my publisher they have dedicated copy editors who provide a fresh pair of eyes to double check everything in the manuscript, since by this point both the editor and the writer will have read it many times (in fact, it's normally at this point that I become convinced the book is utter dreck and start begging my editor to reassure me that they're not just publishing it out of pity). I'm told some publishers contract this stuff out to freelancers, which I think is a shame, as there's enormous potential to develop a friendship with your copy editor. One of mine used to make little pictures in the margins, which always made me smile.

If you thought that your editor was tough, be prepared for your copy-editor to bring tears to your eyes. Every little tic in your writing (words or phrases that you've taken a liking to and reused several times, the tendency to start sentences with But or And, incorrect use of semi colons, overly long sentences, overly short sentence fragments, repetition) is going to be mercilessly highlighted. Every mistake you made (changing a minor character's eyes from brown to hazel without realising it, making the moon gibbous in chapter two when it was cresent in chapter one, having the heroine scratch her head without first showing her letting go of the war-axe she was holding five pages ago) will be noticed.

No matter how much work you've put in up until this point - in fact, sometimes because of all the work you've done - this stage will usually drench the manuscript in red. By the mid-point, you will feel like a talentless, careless, moronic hack. You will swear that if you ever have to meet your copy editor, you will grovel at her feet for having forced her to wade through this awful soup of errors, although secretly you will be tempted to tip itching powder into her underwear for pointing out every single flaw your book has.

But sometimes copy editing can yield delightful surprises. During the US copy-edit of Shadows on the Moon, it turned out that the copy-editing manager at Candlewick Press was a haiku scholar and a Japanophile. So along with Americanising the spelling and grammar, we ended up re-writing most of the haiku in the book to reflect a more traditionally Japanese aesthetic, which made the whole process unexpectedly fun.

Pass pages/proof reading: This is the final stage of editing before the book goes off to be printed, and sometimes it sort of blends into the previous one, depending on how long the preceeding steps have dragged on. Basically, this when you get a massive envelope in the post which contains the typeset/formatted manuscript or pass pages. For the first time, you see your book laid out as an actual book, with chapter headings, section pages, page numbers and the correct font. This is when you will see the internal design and any extras that the designers have decided to surprise you with, like artwork or a special font for your chapter headers. Usually it arrives on very large pieces of paper which show two pages on each side.

This is your very last chance to make changes to the book - to catch any typos or errors that have been introduced at any point along the way, or which have been caused by the typesetting (or even, perhaps, overly enthusiastic copy editing). It's very much NOT the time to make radical changes to anything, since cutting a paragraph on page one of a chapter is going to have a knock-on effect on the typesetting of every other page in that chapter and cost the publisher money. But you should still mark anything that you notice, and approve or stet (that is, withhold approval of) any changes which have been made since the last time you saw the manuscript.

Seeing the pass pages for Shadows on the Moon actually made me tear up a little bit, as I realised the book had been decorated beautifully throughout with the same sakura that illustrated the cover, and that the final product really would be gorgeous. I remember reading a certain line in an early chapter about the low, wavering moan of the wind as it swept over the deck of a ship, and just being struck by it in exactly the same way that I would have been if I was reading anyone else's work. This sort of thing is what makes pass pages special.

And anyone who has seen the sublime swirling frost designs on the inside of FrostFire can probably imagine my reaction to that :)

Okay guys, this post is already mega long so I'm going to stop here for now. I think we'll come back to this topic on Wednesday, and I'll talk about how writers tend to feel during editing, how you work out disagreements with your editor, and how you ensure your book is the best it can be.


Anonymous said...

Zoe this is fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to write in such detail about the editing process.

Unknown said...

Loved this post! Thank you :D

Kaylie x

Zoë Marriott said...

RM: Thank you. When I came across this in the archives I was actually really surprised - I'd forgotten I'd written it, and how LONG it was :)

Kaylie: I'm glad - thanks!

Rachel Daven Skinner said...

As an editor myself, I love finding blog posts and articles like this! Excellent explanation of the process, thank you.

Zoë Marriott said...

Rach: Thank YOU! Glad to know that an editor recognises the process from my ramblings!

~ Mari said...

I do freelance copy editing to bring in some spare money here and there. One of my clients is a small press, and I enjoy getting things from them so much! It's definitely an interesting process.

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