Thursday, 14 February 2013


Hello, delightful duckies! On this Thursday I bring you a RetroPost - the second part of my piece on all the intricacies of working with an editor (see Part I here). Which is appropriate and timely because I had a mega-editorial meeting with my editor yesterday in which we talked about Book #2 of The Name of the Blade. We met for lunch - and then just stayed in the restaurant making notes and mentally re-writing things for four hours, freaking out the waiting staff by talking about [spoilers] and death and monsters. IT WAS AWESOME.

Less awesome was the inevitable effect of my travel jinx. Some of you may remember that wonderful author Diana Wynne Jones, who I talked about a little here, was famously affected with a travel jinx. You might wonder if I am exaggerating my difficulties a bit, perhaps in tribute? Well, judge for yourself:

This is what happened to the railway line that I was supposed to be travelling on to get to my meeting. This is a landslip, apparently. Looks like an angry hibernating dragon tried to escape from under the line to me, but what do I know? So I couldn't get on the train that I was scheduled to go on. But apparently trains were running from another town about an hour's drive away. So I gave in and asked my dad to give me a lift there. So far, so good. In your face, travel jinx!

Ha ha. Yeah, no. When it was time to go home I got on the train. And the train got as far as Sheffield before being delayed because, apparently, the driver had disappeared. The Tannoy stated that they were trying to find a replacement driver, but had 'no timescale'. So we waited. And waited. Finally another announcement that THIS train was cancelled, but that another service was now on platform 3B waiting. Please go there.

So I did. But it turned out this was some kind of unnatural train. There were no lights on inside it, the engine was off, the seats were a frightening and grungy green, and there was no sign of a driver there either, or any other passengers. I'm fairly sure that it was some kind of highly adapted demon that lured travellers in, in order to slowly digest them via those damp green seats. It had even fooled the station authorities.

I very quickly got off again and went in search of a station official. He told me there was ANOTHER service on a different platform. I trotted off across the slushy platform, trying not to aquaplane into anyone. And waited. And waited. After about fifteen minutes it was announced that this service was delayed too, which, by that point, I had already figured out.

Finally (just when I was starting to worry about frostbite in the extremeties) someone howled 'Doncaster! Anyone here for Doncaster?' Doncaster is the town about an hour's drive away from where I live. That was close enough for me! I set off in another direction as part of tide of desperate travellers, all of us skidding, sliding and banging into each other in the snow. By some strange stroke of luck I actually managed to get a seat. It was in the Quiet Coach, where you're not supposed to use your mobile phone, but by this point I didn't care and perhaps my demeanor telegraphed this as no one challenged me when I phoned my father to please, please come and collect me from the station.

He did, bless him. Our drive home through a snow blizzard on pitch black motorways with other drivers skidding all over the roads around around us was certainly invigorating! But when we finally got to my hometown we stopped and I bought us fish and chips to celebrate our survival, and we ate them in the car. So it might all have been worse.

And that is the story of my travel jinx.

A couple of links before we go on to the post! Firstly, this piece on Sex and Girls in YA, which is really good, and despite the writer's modesty, has definitely given me some food for thought.

The other link is to this cover reveal for Across A Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund. I love this so much, and have already tried to pre-order it through The Book Depo (it wouldn't let me, darn it). It's a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernell, guys. This is one of the stories that I was brought up with and which I love with an unholy passion. It even had an influence on Shadows on the Moon. Cannot. Wait.

Now (at last) onward to today's post!

RetroThursday: HOW EDITING WORKS, Part II

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 to 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.



Jessica said...

That sounds like when I was trying to get back from my parents' house a couple of months ago when we had sudden and severe flooding.

I had been all efficient and booked myself seats for my journey, which involved one change in Birmingham. Then I got to the station and discovered that the train I was booked on to Birmingham was cancelled. But there was another train in half an hour going to Derby and I could get a train their to Birmingham.

But then that train just sat at the platform for ages. Apparently the driver we were supposed to have was on another train that was delayed by flooding. Eventually, we got moving but had to go extremely slowly in places because of flood waters on the tracks.

When I got to Derby, half the trains to Birmingham were cancelled and the other half were severely delayed and packed full of twice as many people as usual because of all the cancelled ones.

After standing on a freezing cold platform for ages, I got on a train that was crammed with people and going slowly.

Eventually, I made it to Birmingham and managed to find a train home. There was a toddler on the platform at Birmingham screaming his head off and I really, really wanted to join in at that point.


Zoë Marriott said...

Jessica: Wow, that does sound familiar! What's odd is that up until the last couple of years I used to think train travel was one of the most peaceful and relaxing ways to get about. But since this travel jinx kicked in, I never know where I will end up or how or when I will get home. In both our cases the extreme weather didn't help...

Erin Johnson said...

Hi Zoe,

This post is so helpful! I'm just about to dive into a set of novel revisions suggested by my critique group and was feeling really lost and not sure how to proceed. It's nice to hear yet again that change is possible but that it might take time.

Zoë Marriott said...

Erin: When you're eating an elephant, start with the tail. That is, just focus on one thing at a time and keep going. You'll get there :)

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