I thought I’d toss out some thoughts on the editing process – or rather my editing process because every writer has their own way of dealing with edits, and if it works, then it’s the right way. No two writers are like or follow the exact same process.
There are two phases of content/structural editing. The first is my own, done before sending the first draft of my manuscript to my editor at DAW. The second is the edit based on what my editor wants me to alter or add (more on that later).
At this stage I want to stop and tell you that a few days ago my lovely editor at DAW, Sheila E Gilbert, was awarded the Hugo award for Best Editor, Long Form. I am absolutely thrilled for her because she’s been in this business a long time and is vastly experienced and a terrific editor to have on your side. I value her input, knowing that it makes my books better, or rather, it makes me make my books better.
Where was I, oh yes, let’s start at the beginning of the edit phase. Imagine the first draft is finished. My science fiction books usually end up at around 170,000 words, my historical fantasies are closer to 130,000 words. In the past I’ve done edits that have been surgical strikes, i.e. cut, cut, cut, but now I tend to write a bit short of my expected word count because I know I’m likely to add during the editing phase. My publisher, DAW, likes long books, and it’s the fashion for science fiction and fantasy to be longer than romance or lit-fic. Once it was the established wisdom that the longer a first novel was, the less likely it was to be snapped up by a publisher, but the days of being advised to write a debut novel at a length of 80,000 words are long gone. Your book should be as long as it needs to be to carry the story.
So let’s take my historical fantasy, SILVERWOLF, the second book in my Rowankind series, as an example. It’s approximately 133,000 words, but when I finished the first draft it was 123,000 words. I am one of those people who likes to do rolling edits. Every day I read through what I’ve written the day before, sometimes tweaking here and there, before starting the new wordcount for the day. (Note: a lot of writing advice tells you to just keep ploughing forward, never to go back, but that doesn’t work for me.)
Once the first draft is finished, editing starts with a read-through to give me an idea of the general shape of the finished book.
This first edit is a structural edit. I need to know that I have the plot elements in the right order, that the world-building is dripfed into the mix sensibly and sensitively, and that the characters are developing logically. I need to know whether the pacing works, or whether it sags in places. At this point, I ask a few beta-readers to try it for size. In the case of SILVERWOLF a couple of beta-readers said they got a bit bored between chapters 8 and 13, so the pacing was off. I agreed with them, so I condensed six longer chapters into four shorter ones, trimming out everything that didn’t move the story forward. That felt a lot tighter. I trimmed a bit in other places, too, and added a few scenes where things seemed to be rushed.
Then I gave it another read through and sent it to Sheila for her input. I know some writers resent being told what to do and what not to do by an editor, but I’m not one of them. Sheila has much more experience than me, so when she makes a suggestion I listen. She’s not prescriptive. She doesn’t tell me what to write, but she tells me where she thinks I’m weakest, and then allows me to fix it in my own way. If I’m having problems I know I can call her up to chat about it.
Different editors work in different ways. Sheila doesn’t attack a manuscript with a blue pencil (to be honest I’m not sure anyone uses blue pencil these days, though some editors send written notes) she reads it through and then phones me for a long chat, during which I have a pen and paper and scribble copious notes. I’m only going to hear this once, so I’d better make sure I get it all.
During the editorial chat for SILVERWOLF I ended up with seven closely scribbled pages of notes which (condensed version) said I should:
- make Corwen’s mother stronger and more well-rounded
- make Freddie more sympathetic and less of a total asshole
- check out the genetics of how wolf shapechanging is passed on down family lines
- work on the relationship between Corwen and Freddie
- solidify the underlying reasons for Freddie’s problems
- put a bit more background into the goblin way of life. What are their aspirations?
- build up one of the antagonists (difficult because he doesn’t appear until 2/3 of the way through the book, although he’s mentioned earlier, so we know he’s a threat)
- show a bit more of the Mysterium organisation and set-up
- resolve what happens to Thatcher (a new character in this book)
- work out how Lily got to be so savvy about business in an England where young ladies were supposed to sip tea and attend dances to find a suitable husband.
In addition to that there were smaller specifics such as:
- Ross and Corwen should cotton to what’s happening sooner (at a specific point)
- What’s a hand-gallop?
- Why give [a specific character] his shirt back?
- Would Dad really throw Freddie in the lake to teach him to swim?
- How many magical creatures were released into the wild?
- How many Kingsmen are there?
It took me roughly two months to deal with all that and the edit added, pretty much as I thought it would, about twelve/fifteen thousand words. There were some new scenes and some sections needed complete rewrites. I interrogated the characters to discover whether they were doing something because it was in character and a logical next step, or whether they were doing it for my convenience as the author, i.e. for the sake of the plot. There was one place where it was the latter, so I had to rewrite about four scenes.
I went through it several more times, a scene at a time, polishing and refining, and then polishing and refining again.
When I thought I’d finished I spellchecked it and then read it through, aloud. (This stage is important because things that my eyes miss when I’m checking on screen, my mouth catches when I try to read it out loud. If I stumble over a sentence, I need to check it again.)
Then I did a final check for deadwood phrases. These are words that – if you remove them from a sentence – do not alter the meaning. You probably have your own deadwood words. My worst offender is ‘just’ closely followed by ‘back’ and ‘up’. Example: I’ll just go back and fill this can with water and bring it up to you. I’ll go and fill this can with water and bring it to you. Sometimes you might leave a deadwood word in place if removing it alters the rhythm of a sentence or changes the ‘mouthfeel’. When I’d cut my deadwood words I discovered that I’d trimmed 1200 words from the manuscript without altering the meaning of anything.
One more quick spellcheck and I sent it off to Sheila. With her blessing it went to a copy editor. It’s the copy editor’s job to change my British English to American, fix any clunky sentences, correct my punctuation (Americans seem to use more commas than we English are used to), and check my spelling. And that’s where the manuscript is right now.
The publisher produces an advance reader copy (or ARC) before the final galley-proof stage. Hopefully will gather some reviews by the time publication day arrives: 3rd January 2017.
In a week or two I’ll be doing the SILVERWOLF cover reveal. Watch this space.