We’ve already looked at our superheroes’ writing process in much detail. Writing can be difficult. It can be easy. At times it feels horrible and other times it feels great. This week we’ll be looking at the editing process from our professionals’ points of view!
There seem to be a few fears every writer has when it comes to editing:
- It will take time!
- I’ll never be able to put together this puzzle/How could I ever fix this mess?
- I don’t know how to edit!
- I’ll have to edit so much the whole story will be different!
- The editor (if I can even get one) will force me to change everything! It won’t be my story anymore!
A lot of us are downright scared of the edit… but do we have to be?
This week we’ve asked the superheroes: How did you decide how much and what to edit in your novel/trilogy? What’s your editing process like?
SUE: [A very] useful thing I’ve learned is the “zero draft.” That is, the initial draft of the story is sort of an experiment, and it’s okay if you make mistakes. No matter how carefully you’ve planned, the initial draft will have errors, problems, shifts in tone, failed scenes, etc., anyway.
The first (next) draft and subsequent drafts attempt to improve the story, and that might mean adding or combining characters, shifting events from one chapter to another, or approaching a scene from a different direction. I try to be patient with the process.
I usually edit until I don’t know how to make the piece better, then I submit it to critiquers and editors to get their suggestions. No story will ever be perfect, though, and if you find yourself in your edits changing “red” to “scarlet” and then back to “red,” you’re tinkering with the story, not improving it.
ADRIAN: When things work as intended I don’t edit much before submission. However there have been a few projects that have needed a more thorough go-over. Sometimes there’s a major change I’ve made during the writing that means earlier sections need to be brought into line with it. Sometimes it’s something mechanical, such as deciding that some sections need a different tense or a 1st/3rd person shift in the telling, which is frankly the most tedious and time-consuming sort of change but if it needs doing, it needs doing.
YOON: Some of the plot points changed in the course of the entire trilogy because I wanted it to work as a whole. I’d initially conceived of Ninefox Gambit as a standalone, but then came up with ideas for two sequels, and ended up changing things in the first and second books to accommodate ideas I had for the third. My agent also had a number of suggestions that improved Ninefox Gambit before we went out on submission, mostly to tighten up the action.
I lucked out with my then-editor, Jon Oliver. I was basically not asked for substantive edits to the trilogy.
CAITLIN: I’ve mostly covered this already, but obviously most of the edits were determined by how The Luminous Dead was purchased – That whole second half rewrite [I discussed in previous questions] was part of the process. Before that, though, I did go through some various approaches. For a while, it was a YA book. I realized once I finished that revision that it didn’t feel honest of me to say I wanted to write YA, so I undid some of that revision, but other bits stuck around. Em being Isolde’s daughter, for instance. Originally, Em and Isolde were the same character, which changed the dynamic between Em and Gyre quite a bit.
THORAIYA: Luckily, I had a Hugo Award-shortlisted professional, Diana Pho, to help me! But there were no drastic changes. Nobody lived who would have died. On the too-many-people front, there were a few minor characters who were cut or combined.
ANNA: Because the journey from first draft to publication was so long for Godblind, editing became a very organic process. In the five or six years prior to getting my agent, I’d read it and edit the bits I thought were weak, then send it out on submission and have it rejected. Then I’d stash it for a few months, reread it and invariably see something I didn’t like, so I’d edit it again and send it out again. It became an annual tradition, but each time how I edited and what I edited would be informed by my changing worldview and the books I was reading.
Over the years, my characters went from traditional high fantasy tropes to much more morally ambiguous,’real’ people who made mistakes and got angry and wanted revenge and were consumed with jealousy, alongside being good people. Because we’re all of us a mix of every emotion. I started writing about women who were resourceful and capable in a variety of ways and men who weren’t afraid to be vulnerable in front of those they loved. I wrote about trauma and survival and did my best not to fetishize either.
I can safely say that the first version of Godblind was unpublishable garbage, and although much of the skeleton of the story remains the same, absolutely everything else on top of it is different. It’s no longer a story of noble warriors rescuing damsels in distress from evil villains, much to everyone’s relief. But despite all the work I’d done, I still got a set of editorial notes from my agent, and then we went through two more rounds of editing with the publishers.
We removed a lot of plot points at that stage, things that simply weren’t important or didn’t really make sense within the wider narrative, and we tightened up a lot of smaller things that seem insignificant until you get to the third book. And it was all vital work.
RICH: I didn’t decide – my editor did. And thank heavens for that. Book one started off at 159,000 words, and the final draft was around 151,000. It was all the better for it, though I don’t remember any radical plot changes other than two of the characters started the book knowing one another where in the original draft they had been strangers. Book two was much the same, though after a suggestion from my editor an important non-POV character was killed off. For book three I pretty much had free reign, but by then my original editor was gone, and I was basically left to my own devices.
EOWYN: I often think a work is finished well before it is. I revise and edit and revise and edit until my agent and editor tell me it’s done. It’s a long, at times arduous and at times exciting process, and I know I’m finally done when I’m sick to death of the book and can’t wait to get it out of my sight.
JOHN: By the time I turned it in to my agent, I had been working on the book so long there wasn’t much in the way of edits necessary–chiefly some grammatical stuff. I had edited as I went–sometimes, if it had been a while since I’d worked on the manuscript, I would begin by looking over what I’d written and tinker with it–so it was in pretty decent shape by the time I sent it out.
MARTHA: I’m not sure we mean the same thing when by “editing.” There’s revising, which takes place when the writer is working on the first through the last draft of the story. Some writers finish a draft before going back to revise, others revise as they go along. I revise constantly while I’m working on a first draft, and because of that sometimes my first drafts are actually very close to my final drafts. Editing is usually what takes place after the book has been acquired by a publisher. The editor will go over the manuscript and make suggestions to add or change things, and a good editor will help you make it a better story. The first draft of All Systems Red was close to a finished draft and didn’t need much editing or revising. The others all needed tons of revising, but the editing stages were pretty easy. The editor suggested I make the climax scene of Exit Strategy longer, and that made it a better story.
TIM: I’m a putter-inner, not a taker-outer. My first drafts are often a little sketchy. I always have to go back and add texture, details, little character beats, sometimes extra conflicts if I made things too easy on my protagonists. My books tend to swell by about 10% in revision. I did cut a lot of Ganymede facts from The Dreaming Stars. Ganymede is really interesting! But perhaps not that interesting.
KAT: Writing [and editing as a writer] is really hard. I understand that. Writers need to have thick skin and take criticism daily from every angle. Whether you are just starting out or you are Stephen King. And yes, it is my job to give them that criticism.
I have been lucky enough to work with writers who all were welcome to constructive criticism and were comfortable enough with me to have a discussion when they disagreed with my opinions.
True. Anthologies are different. You get authors from ever level of talent and maturity when you issue an open call. I’ve received some letters from authors who didn’t take rejection well. On the other hand, I also received letters from authors who had the courage to ask me why it was rejected so they knew what not to do next time. I don’t get too many of those. This shows guts and a willingness to want to improve. Not every anthology will respond to this question, but I encourage authors to do this.
The only time I have worked with a writer who didn’t handle criticism well, I was doing a favor for a friend. It was a free review and easy to walk away from. I think he thought I would tell him that his idea was awesome… because everybody else had. When I told him how much work was needed to bring it up to speed, he got defensive. Used another cliché I hate which is “this has never been done before” and we never spoke of this book again.
Doesn’t editing sound a lot less scary when reading the above answers?
It seems like:
- You don’t have to edit 99% of your manuscript. The edit doesn’t have to be lengthy at all.
- You don’t have to edit at all unless someone who pays you or who will make sure you get paid later on tells you so.
- And if you’re worried about not knowing what to edit… well, an editor will tell you!
Kat (an editor herself) too has a wonderful point when she advises writers to send in the big ‘why’ question after rejections. A lot of the time this practice is labelled as ‘taboo’ on various writing advice websites. The deed is done. The editor/agent does not want to work with you. Don’t waste their time by sending even a ‘thank you’ and never even mind a ‘why not?’.
It’s useful to nonetheless do this. If the editor or agent in question doesn’t answer… well nothing is lost by asking. And if they do answer then the writer only has to gain. A lot.
I hope this clears up some of the editing fears! Don’t be afraid. If you’re stuck, then let someone else read it. If you have an editor then they’re the person to go to. If you don’t then ask someone else you can trust to be honest (not your mother or friends usually). I can assure you even a novice at critique will have something useful to say if ever they get bored in your manuscript or something doesn’t make sense!
This post marks the penultimate entry of the #PenPower project. Next week’s question will be our last and I promise it’ll be a fun surprise! So stay tuned!