Personally, I love working with editors. I’ve learned more about myself as a writer–and more importantly, how to improve as a writer–through the editing of my two novels than in any other capacity. I’ve heard of writers bursting into tears, of feelings being hurt, and some writers up and quitting the whole shebang from frustrations regarding the editing process, and it leaves me baffled.
Listen to me: everyone needs an editor. Everyone. And if you’re smart, you’ll get to a point where editors want to work with you–and you’ll be eager to work with them. God knows I get excited each time I hear who I’ve nabbed as an editor on my books.
Here’s how it works (and YMMV, depending on your publishing company, etc, but this is pretty standard):
First things first: Finish the manuscript. (You’d be surprised…) Now, before I send my final doc to my editor, I usually have a friendly set of eyes go through my MS. Why? Because first off, I’ve been looking at the damn, er, the thing for ages, so I know what to expect. Meaning, my eyes are going to to skip over extra words and, unnecessary commas. Oh sure, I read everything out loud (you really, really should be doing this as a writer, especially for dialog. It’s how you catch overused words, clunky exposition dumps, etc.), but it’s helpful. For me, at least.
The other reason I do this is because if there are little things to catch, that’s less work for my story editor–I want her focused on things like characterization, continuity, flow. If she’s getting bogged down with gerund abuse and unclear pronouns, she’s not able to fall completely into my story, which is what I’m hoping she does. Which leads us to:
Step One: Story Edits. This is your first round, where you find out if you’ve written Ambien in book form or if you really have something compelling for your reader. You’re going to hear about your characters, about dropped plot lines (if any), about pacing, and if things aren’t clear to the reader. For Bitter Springs, this had a note about ramping up tension at the end and my abuse of dialog tags. Inside my doc were a few specific notes, very few, and because I’m a big girl, my job as a writer was to take that information, improve my MS, and send it back to Editor 1, Annie. She gave me an example in the first chapter, and it was up to me to go back through the whole thing and make changes.
“You are getting spoiled,” he said, walking He walked the perimeter as she followed him. ‘You are getting spoiled. Who will want to buy such a pampered caballo? Better watch it ,” he said, running. He ran his hand across her flank and down her thigh, feeling the solidness of her cannon bone down to the pastern and ending at her hoof, which she lifted for him to inspect. Or you’ll end up a present for some stuffy city girl back east, only ever walking over cobblestones to drag her carriage to shops instead of riding out in the open like you want.”
“Maybe the city girl will run away to join rebel forces in the south,” Calandaría said, hitching up her skirts and petticoats to climb up onto the fence and watch. If their mother caught her, she’d get her ear chewed off. “Maybe this girl won’t want to do like you and Eduardo and Papa expect all women to do: make babies and keep house.”
We had a tight turn-around on this novel, so I took two days and did nothing but pore over the manuscript, cutting out dialog tags. The reason behind cutting so many isn’t because you don’t need them–nothing is more aggravating to me as a reader than having to go back to figure out who the hell said what–but because the fewer (unnecessary) breaks in dialog you can have, the better. There are times when you want those breaks, to stand in as a pause, to reinforce the character struggling to find the right word. But my editor was right: I abuse that, so out they go.
Lesson one learned: Watch how often I break dialog.
The other note she’d given me was to ramp up the tension at the end (which for obvious reasons I can’t talk about yet!), and what was great about that note was that when writing those last two chapters, something felt off. I wasn’t sure if it was coming through, the intent I had for the reader. And that instinct was spot on. I needed to crank it up more.
Lesson two learned: If you feel it’s wrong (or just not right enough), it’s for a reason. Fix it.
Step Two: Copy edits. I requested the toughest editors I could get my hands on, and I was fortunate to get Linda and Nicki. These two women have edited some big-name books and are known for being some of the strictest, most demanding editors around. They’ve been at this a long time. This is when school begins. Linda and her red pen (well, track changes) marked me up and had some really helpful notes/comments. She’ll actually rewrite some passages if she feels it’s needed (and please know that this is all being kept in track changes, so if I’m insistent on a certain phrasing being kept, it’s a click of the mouse to put it back). She also makes sure things are clear for the reader.
With the barest flick of his forefinger on the half-breed rein to instruct her, she tucked her backside down, remaining light and loose up front, walked her front legs into a perfect sliding stop, then kept her head held low and eyes trained forward as she backed up a few paces.
LINDA: Consider deleting? I Googled this and discovered it is a type of rein, but it may be confusing to readers unfamiliar with the term, and it’s not really needed.
LAURA: I used this as it’s a sign of progression in the training, where Paloma is. If that’s too esoteric, I’m cool with deletion. I just like accuracy
These are highlighted notes where we can hash out any issues like this. For the record, I kept the half-breed rein. A big part of the story (for me, at least) is the very specific training Renaldo and his family adhere to with horses. People in the know are going to cotton to this immediately, and people not in the know just got a little extra to their vocabulary. It’s kind of a thing for me and how I write.
Notice that I get final say? Which also means that rise or fall, it’s on me if I bork the whole thing up.
But these are easy ones. Here’s one that had the potential to leave me grinding my teeth’s enamel to dust, and only because I’m both a Texas Master Gardener and a Native Plant specialist. But after all, it’s her job to make sure things are correct.
He stared off into the night, the sound of the bullfrogs a mile off at the riverbank and the cicadas in the haas mesquite and pecan trees the only sound save their breathing. “This will kill Mama.”
LINDA: I was unable to verify spelling or capitalization for this term.
Laura: Baboquivari Mountain Plants: Identification, Ecology, and Ethnobotany
By Daniel F. Austin, p. 146. Mexicans and Seri people called them haas (me: think of the avocado that shares the same common name, Haas, but it isn’t capitalized
The key take away: her job is to make this as accurate, precise, and correct as can be. Why be irritated with that? Especially when a few paragraphs later she left me a note telling me how much her heart was breaking for one particular character. And yes I did do a fist pump when I read that.
Lesson three learned: If you’re going to be precise, you better be accurate. And always keep a bibliography. 🙂
So you go through all of these notes, make changes as needs be, then send it back to your main editor, who then reads through Editor 2’s notes, your changes, and then sends it on to Editor 3: Nicki. She’s the boss-level editor. There’s no emotional connection, there’s no hand-holding. Her job is to make my book as good as can be, and that may include notes like:
Nicki: Edited to correct passive voice. Again.
Welp. She’s not wrong. Come on, me. [hangs head] Right now, if you have a manuscript you’re working on, I want you to CTRL F “was ” with a space. I want you to find every “was going” and “was jumping” or whatever and knock that out. They went. They jumped. They freaking careened, whatever, they did it. Make your characters act and not comment on action (unless they’re commenting on actions), because that is passive voice and it’s weak. Not that the character is weak, the writing is weak.
Lesson four learned: Seriously, Laura. You were going to stop. (heeee) I AM STOPPING. (See the difference?)
And then there gets a point where you’re just slap-happy from all the notes.
before Hank and Tsa¡-cho, blinking at the dawning light…
Nicki: DELETED. He can’t know that yet.
Laura: YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD. (Nicki, you are my favorite.)
Or when asked to change “solidness” to “solidity” in context of potential sexy-times (as in, being held against a man’s chest, its solidness), I was asked why I refused to make that change.
Laura: because solidity sounds incredibly weird and unsexy to me?
You can practically hear her eye roll. BUT! She made her point, I made mine, and that’s how it works. She didn’t call me a jerk or anything or spit in my drink. Why get mad?
Lesson five learned: It’s okay to stand by word choice. …you might stand alone, though, so be prepared.
You’ll find out what words you overuse–and on my first book, Nicki pointed out that ‘heart’ was overused, to the tune of appearing 135 times in the original MS, and I refrained from telling her that her mom was overused because I’m an ADULT (I would never, omg). You’ll see patterns in adverb abuse, gerund abuse, and hopefully you’ll figure out why you insist on littering the page with commas like it’s glitter on a 10-year-old’s desk.
You’ll learn patterns of behavior in a way you won’t from your best friend telling you how funny or clever you are. You’ll learn how to be a better writer.
It’s not emotional for an editor. It’s not them trying to boss you or control you or manage your artistic vision. It’s their job–their responsibility–to make your book the best it can be. I mean, there is no downside there, folks.
Everyone needs an editor. And if you approach it with the goal of coming away with a new set of tools in your bag of tricks, you just might learn to love it, too. It’s work. It’s hard work. And if you want to be good at it, get better at it, you need tough, no-nonsense craftsmen (women? people?) to help you get there. I want people to be tough on me, because I want to improve. I want to grow as a writer, and it’s not a sign of your art being misunderstood or anything like that. If you can tighten your prose, make your characters leap off the page, get that emotion just right so your reader clutches their chest as they frantically read on, you’re improving your art.
I am a better writer because of editors like Annie, Linda, and Nicki. And yeah, Nicki, I kept that Oxford comma, just like I always do. But you can absolutely keep pointing them out–seriously, you’re my favorite.