Tackling Publisher Edits by Emma Haughton
As chance would have it, my allotted post on revision tips has fallen on the eve of my first structural edit for book three. So, no better time to think through the process, and gird my loins for the ordeal to come.
Because publisher edits – particularly the first set – are something of an ordeal. And not just for me, it seems. Structural edits put the fear of God into most writers; I know cos I’ve been hanging out on social media long enough to see plenty of posts about the arrival of the ‘dreaded’ notes for a new book.
After all, it’s a big moment. You’ve slogged your way through your first draft, revised and polished till it shines, then you send it off and sit and wait. And wait. Chew off all your fingernails. Start on your toenails. Then your editor cheerily announces that the notes will be with you shortly, and suddenly you find that, actually, you rather enjoyed the waiting and wouldn’t mind doing it indefinitely. Because now you’re about to find out Everything That Is Wrong With Your New Love. That’s basically what your first set of publisher edits feels like. Someone pricking your balloon. Raining on your parade. Telling you the truth about Father Christmas.
I well remember the feeling of panic and flailing around that accompanied my first set of editorial notes. I had no clue how to tackle them. It felt like a dense forest of things that needed to be put right, with only the faintest trail of breadcrumbs to guide my way through. So I devised a way to handle the process, and keep The Fear at bay.
I hereby offer you my Ten Step Guide to Surviving Publisher Edits (and any subsequent ones – I had three sets for Better Left Buried. Four if you count the copy edit from hell *shudders* (I am still in therapy for the ensuing PTSD). Anyway, this process works for any kind of structural edit, so just rinse and repeat as necessary.
- Don’t open that email or package from your editor if you’re a) in a fragile state of mind, b) drunk enough to email your editor back immediately and tell her all the ways she’s WRONG, or c) at any point past 6pm if you want to actually sleep that night.
- When you are feeling relatively sane, sober and rested, read through the edit notes. Revel in the couple of paragraphs at the beginning that tell you how wonderful it all is, then cry your way through the next five pages of close-spaced A4, detailing all the ways you screwed up.
- Sulk. This is an essential part of the process, and I recommend you set aside at least a week to let it all settle. Do not attempt to respond to the notes at this stage; just quietly rant and rage, fester and ruminate, but keep it all in your head.
- When you’ve reeled yourself back from the brink of despair, reread the edit notes and any added to the manuscript. I can pretty much guarantee if you’ve fully indulged yourself in the raging-and-ranting stage, some of the stuff in those notes will start to make sense. The best editorial notes don’t just tell you what’s wrong – they point out exact places in the text where you might add or delete things, and make helpful suggestions for what or how you could tackle the problem. I love those, being essentially lazy; if someone else does the thinking for me, all to the good.
- Determine what’s a deal breaker. It’s a rare set of edits that doesn’t throw up one or two things you don’t agree with, even after the essential calming down period. Sometimes it’s a suggestion to take the plot or character in a direction you don’t feel matches your own vision for the book; other times you can see the disease, you just don’t agree with the cure. This step, for me, is where I pick up on these issues, and write an email to my editor, explaining why I don’t agree or offering an alternative solution to a problem. I’ve been lucky, so far – there has only been a few things that I feel strongly about with each book.
- Once you’ve ironed out those thorny issues, you’ll know the full extent of the task ahead. It’s time for the Snagging List. Basically just a numbered list of every significant suggestion for the edit ie. those where you can’t simply change a few words there and then. Things you actually have to think about.
- Once you’ve got your Snagging List, you basically have a plan of action. I usually tackle the big stuff first. If there are large structural issues – removing plot strands, killing off characters, adding or removing chapters – I’ll do those before I focus on any of the detail.
- Your new structure should now be in place, with all the chapters back in some semblance of order. You’ve crossed the big stuff off the Snagging List, so now it’s time to tackle the rest. I find it easiest to go through each item on the list, writing myself a short note about what to do at the top of all relevant chapters. So if I need to flesh out a character called Xavier, for instance, at the top of each chapter where Xavier makes an appearance, I’ll write a reminder to myself to, you know, flesh him out a bit.
- Once you’ve done that for every issue on your list, it’s just a question of going through the book chapter by chapter, and doing what it says at the top. Simples. (Okay, not exactly simple, but having edit notes broken down for each chapter does make the process much easier, I find.)
- With all the changes on the Snagging List implemented in the actual manuscript, all you need do now is make sure it the whole thing reads smoothly. Et voila! One finished edit, ready to wing its way back to your editor. And thus begins the whole waiting game again – at least by now you should have regrown a fresh set of finger nails.
Of course, this is just what works for me. I’m anal. I like to have a map to help me find my way through the forest. Others will have more spontaneous ways of hacking their way through, probably with more guts and gusto than I can muster, even after a large glass of wine. If so, I salute you. May the odds be ever in your favour.
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Emma Haughton worked as a journalist working for national newspapers and magazines before settling down to write young adult fiction. Her first book, YA thriller NOW YOU SEE ME, was published by Usborne in May 2014. Her second, BETTER LEFT BURIED, is out now.