Tuesday, January 25, 2011

EDIT-TASTIC, the Musical!* All about editorial letters, editorial stages, editorial process

*(not actually a musical in any way)

I've gotten in a few conversations about editorial letters this week, plus I have Between the Sea and Sky copyedits, which I am taking a break from to write this post. This will be the all-I-can-tell-you-about-professional-editing post.

STAGE 1: First Draft

The first draft might not REALLY be your first draft, but it is the first version you show to your editor. Let's start here. Before you have an editor, you probably polished the living daylights out of your first book before it sold. And then you will get an editorial letter. (Note: Editorial letters can arrive anywhere from "almost instantly" to "over a year later" from the time your book sells.) It may be easy-peasy. Or it might make you throw up your last three meals. I was told the editorial letter for Magic Under Glass would be "light" so I was expecting almost nothing, and then when I got it, I was like "WHOA THIS IS MAJOR", but having since edited another book and talked to other writers about their editorial letters, I can tell you it actually was on the lighter side. So. Editorial revisions will probably shock you a bit, the first time.

If you have sold more than one book initially, or you sell another book on proposal, you will have a new experience. The deadline! Suddenly you will be expected to write a book faster than ever before, and you might be stressed out because you may find the manuscript you turn in is not as shiny and polished as the first manuscript your editor bought. Especially because you probably had some second-book-itis going on. Note: THIS IS OKAY. Editors expect this. Really, they do. It's okay to let it go, because if you spend too much time picking at it, your editor might then give you a letter that goes entirely above what you were working on. Case in point: I stressed over a theater subplot in Between the Sea and Sky for ages. I sent it to my editor, finally all shiny. My editor suggested I might want to cut that entire subplot. I instantly agreed and almost entirely rewrote the book in six weeks. With Magic Under Stone, I think I delivered a good story with a beginning, middle, and end, but I didn't stress excessively over the loose ends and messy bits.

STAGE 2: Editorial Letter

Your letter may be just a letter or it may include the marked-up manuscript. I've had both. And both times, I have tackled it the same way. I read the letter (with a mixture of excitement and trepidation). I usually think "OHMIGOD THAT IS BRILLIANT" about some of the comments, and "I agree! But how do I FIX THAT?" about others, and maybe a couple I think, "ehhh." All of them must be considered. I take the letter, and the manuscript, if I've got it (for Between the Sea and Sky, this process occurred in a New York City hotel room), and write down a response to all of my editors points so I can discuss it with her. Some of it will just be "I love this idea, and here's how I think I'll fix it, sound good?" and some of it will be asking her to clarify things, or me explaining what I was TRYING to say, and possibly a little brainstorming from there. I talk to her, and at this point I am usually quite excited. I know some writers cry and bemoan their revision letters, but unfortunately I have no advice for that, I actually love the revising part.

Editors, mind you, do not give advice like critique partners. Quite often they don't just say "here's what's wrong", but they actually help you, with brilliant points, shape your story so it's more like what you meant to say all along. I don't know how they do this. But, they do. Unless you have an unlucky match, which happens. I have heard quite a few editorial horror stories, but most writers get through them, and I hear many more editor love stories. Not worth stressing too much about.

Once I know my editor and I are on the same page, I go through the manuscript and break it down, chapter by chapter if necessary, marking on the ms or on notebook paper depending on how involved I need to be, creating a road map for myself of what I need to do. Some people handle line edits first and then major edits, some vice versa. I just work chronologically. It might look like this:

Ch. 5--Add extra description of the house.
Ch. 6-7--Bring chapter 8 forward. During the conversation with A and B, streamline to convey that A doesn't want B to know he is a were-chinchilla, but B actually already knows.

And so on, going into as much or as little detail as I need so I know everything that needs to be done as I go.

(At least, that's how it would look, if I wrote about were-chinchillas.)

When I'm done, usually in 4-6 weeks, I send it back and wait for the next round. So far my next rounds have been tiny. But it is totally normal to have one, or two, or even more rounds, getting more and more focused with each round. After that comes copy-edits.

STAGE 3: Copy-edits

Copy-edits can be a painful surprise to some authors. Some copy editors are very picky about details, and meanwhile some authors maybe wrote a book where the full moon happens every other day. The copy-editor fixes things like "Why is Mary age thirteen on page 1 and fifteen on page 12?" And grammar and style, and maybe some inaccuracies or research things. My copy editing hasn't been too painful. I'm not sure if my copy editor is just not a huge stickler, or if it's because I don't write crazy-complicated books and I am pretty good at keeping track of ages and timelines and such.

Line editing and copy-editing (which can occur in separate rounds or together; your editor does the line editing, but there is some overlap to what these two rounds accomplish) are more about details and word choices than the big exciting creative parts. As such, I find them quite easy, but also very headache inducing, and some writers actively despise them.

STAGE 4: It's almost a book!

At this point, you may get ARCs! Yay! And there is a final page pass where you are no longer supposed to make large changes, but are just supposed to make sure the grammar is right and things like that. it's pretty easy now, although I also kind of hate the final pass because at that point you're just kind of sick of the book, usually.

And then...you say goodbye. Your baby is almost ready to be born. This part is kind of sad, at least for me, because I will never work with that particular book again, and if you are saying goodbye to the entire cast of characters, you might feel downright weepy. But soon they will be shared, and that is very exciting.

DISCLAIMER: This is based on my own experience with Magic Under Glass and Between the Sea and Sky (which hasn't yet gone through all the stages) and discussion with other authors. Different publishing houses and editors do things differently, and there are no absolutes in publishing. I have tried to make this as general as possible, but you still may experience variations. If you have eight rounds of line edits and each one is delivered by an elephant, that might be totally normal for your publisher.

P. S. I almost forgot to mention I am going to a retreat in a couple of weeks with a ridiculous number of other YA author luminaries. We will be doing v-chats. You can ask us questions. Maggie Stiefvater is collecting the questions here. No obligation, as we already have a lot of awesome questions, but if you have more, now is your chance!


  1. Great post. Hopefully one day I will take part in the love-hate relationship of the editorial process!

  2. This is an awesome post. Thank you for taking the time to explain the process. I know it's different for everyone, but at least this gives me some idea what to expect should I ever be blessed enough to get to that point in my writing :)

  3. I think another difference between critiques and editorial er...edits is that you know that these are THE changes. They count. They will stand. Yes, getting multiple critiques is great because you see the places that are universally pulling people out of the story, you see what kind of impact your book is making on people in general, etc. But then there are always those areas where reaction is mixed, and you have to figure out if you're going to underplay it or beat the reader over the head. Or whatever. I try to trust my gut as best I can, but sometimes it would be nice to have someone with a wider vision than that of a peer to guide me on the gray areas.

  4. Yeah, that is a very good point, Rose. You no longer have to juggle five different opinions and the big "maybe" of publishing all together...