When publishing a book, one of the most consequential relationships is the one between author and editor. The editing process is not always easy; sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating, always important. The sooner you realize you and your editor(s) have the exact same goal – making your book the best it can be – the better. Suddenly the striked-out words (or, gulp, entire sections), corrections, notations, questions, suggestions, are nuggets of gold instead of boulders against which you might think of smashing your head. You don’t need to agree on everything, just stay open to the opportunity for conversation and improvement.
In my mind, there are two kinds of editing. The first, copy editing, where the technical issues are addressed – punctuation, spelling, creation of a style sheet (are we saying 10 o’clock or ten o’clock?), consistency checks. The second, is substantive editing, where actual content can change. That’s the tough one. With my first book, Amuse Bouche, the entire ending changed. Thank goodness my editor questioned it. Thank goodness I listened and created an alternative. For some reason I gave the ending a weird science-fiction-y spin, which, I think, would have been a disaster and perhaps the end of my writing career.
Editors and their processes are as different as Bridge Mixture chocolates. Case in point, for one of my earliest books, I flew to Toronto to meet with my editor in person in order to literally re-enact a fight scene she was uncertain about as I’d written it. (She was under 5’ and still whooped me!). Other editors prefer a (non-whooping) process whereby all changes are made, tracked, commented upon and updated electronically.
The editors of Going to Beautiful prefer working with hard copies. Old school, but I kind of like it too. The package arrived by courier with an encouraging note attached. Nice touch. Note to editors: we artsy types like encouragement. We also really love notations like this one:
With experience, I have come up with a process for dealing with editing notes that works for me.
Step One: Read through any notes, observe the level of red ink on the pages, deep breath, then put it away. I sleep on it. Sometimes for several days. I use the time to soak in the ideas, comments and requests for changes. Instead of reacting, I carefully consider, remembering our shared goal (see above), and begin formulating a response.
Step Two: Tackle the easy stuff. I make my way through the manuscript addressing the easy changes, mostly copy editing stuff. I like this part because, I am the first to admit, punctuation and grammar are not my strong suit. It also gives me an opportunity to dive back into the book (which is some cases I may not have worked on for several months) and refamiliarize myself with the content.
Step Three: Tackle the hard stuff, one by one. Actually, I like this part too. If an editor is questioning something, a reader might too. And if you ultimately decide you don’t agree on a change, you really have to prove to yourself and your editor why that part of the story should stay as is or stay in the book at all. I can’t overstate how important this is. In the end, every change I’ve ever made to any book, was a good decision and made the book better. Might be painful, but always worth it.
My goal is to never submit a manuscript to an editor until it is as clean as I can possibly get it. I used to dream that I would get so good at this, one day the manuscript would be returned with nothing but a big check mark. Never happened. Never will. But still, a worthwhile goal.
I’m fortunate with Going to Beautiful that the editing notes are very short. There are a couple of Step Three items however that I’m just beginning to work out. Without revealing any spoilers, in brief the ‘hard stuff’ includes:
- A suggestion to add more dimension to a character in terms with how he would be dealing with grief. The scene takes place several months after the event which caused the grief. The challenge is to find a balance within the character. His actions, his demeanor should communicate someone who carries a grief which although not fresh, still affects him. Too little and he will appear hard-hearted or unrealistic. Too much and the scene will be overwhelmed.
- A suggestion to re-think a reveal. Towards the end of the book, a small (secondary/sideline) mystery which threads throughout the book is solved. The reader is gently lead to believe one thing, when another is true. Both editors had the same reaction: disappointment. Not at all what I was going for!
- A suggestion to amend the use of an accent. This is an especially challenging one. In past books, and this one too, I have liberally used a heavy Ukrainian accent in dialogue for certain characters where its use makes sense and tells us something about that character. As a Ukrainian person myself, and knowing many people who speak in similar accents, I felt confident in using this technique. Is it okay? Is it only okay because I’m Ukrainian? What if my character is a Chinese shopkeeper? Is it inappropriate for me to write in an accent then? What about cultural appropriation? These are difficult and complex issues, more now than ever. That’s not a bad thing. Important conversations and decisions and change arise from complexity and times of uncertainty.
I think I need to sleep on it a bit more.
If you would like to become a member of The Beautiful Bunch and receive notice of my truly irregular, somewhat entertaining (hopefully) blogs about the process of getting Going to Beautiful from my head and onto bookshelves, just send me a quick email telling me your name and where you’re from (and whatever else you might want to share) by clicking the link below:
C’mon, do it. 🙂