When I was a wee lad reading The Caves of Steel by Asimov or Heinlein’s Number of the Beast, I used to think authors just sort of laid them like that—golden eggs of science fiction, perfectly formed and ready to be fondled by fanboys. I didn’t realize until much later how much work had gone into crafting them. Nobody writes a decent novel on their first draft. Those words—and the words in any published novel—were polished and revised many times before they hit the shelves. Only now do I realize how much is involved in the process, and how vitally necessary it is.
To help fans grok what goes on (I get Nerd Points for Heinlein verbs!), I thought I’d share what I just went through to get my fourth book, TRICKED, ready for publication with Del Rey—and as a Special Bonus, you’ll also get to hear what my editor, Tricia Narwani, went through.
I have an alpha reader who reads each chapter as I produce it, giving me immediate feedback as I go, so composing the first draft is somewhat of a recursive process; I’m already tweaking and adjusting things in response to his feedback before I complete the first draft. Some of his comments I set aside for a later, second-draft treatment, but I take care of most of them as I go, making immediate changes in the chapters before I continue. I’m not super-prolific, and I also have a day job, so it took me about seven months to write 72,000 words as a first draft, where a first draft is defined as a book with a beginning, middle, and end. Keep in mind that each chapter had been revised already at least once, but probably multiple times, before I got to the end—still, it wasn’t a “first draft” until I wrote the epilogue. It was a bit short, but I had a list of things to fix, notes from my alpha reader and notes to myself that I’d made during the process, and I addressed them all on my way to a second draft, which wound up being 81,666 words. This is what I sent, or “delivered” to my editor. To her, however, that was TRICKED Version One. No matter how many drafts and rounds of polishing you do before you deliver it, the counter always starts over when you send it to the editor.
And then gods help your fingernails, because you’ll chew ’em off. Writers are neurotic—I am no exception—and once they send off their work, they spend inordinate amounts of time worrying that what they’ve written is abominable. In this case, I was fairly confident that parts of the book were pretty good—but I was uncertain about large swaths of it and terrified of making Tricia work too hard. I didn’t have a choice, though; I’d written the best draft I could, and needed her input before I could make it better.
So what happens when Kevin sends his manuscript to me, his editor—after I’ve done a little Dance of Joy in my office, of course, because I’m so goshdarned excited to be reading a new Kevin Hearne?
I feel like my mission is pretty simple: help make Kevin’s work as good as it can be. I look for what’s working—what got me, both as an editor and a reader, so excited about his work when it first crossed my desk as a candidate for publication—and then think about how I can make the book harder, better, faster, stronger.
So it’s about more than correcting spelling and grammar mistakes—though thinking hard about how to make the prose more polished, beautiful, and effective is part of it. And it’s definitely not about radically reshaping the book according to some imaginary commercial imperatives—though I always try to edit with the reader in mind. Instead, it’s like being a coach training a talented athlete; it’s about taking the great and making it even better.
My work often starts a little bit before the manuscript arrives. For a long-running serial like the Iron Druid Chronicles, I’ll re-read previous books in the series, especially if it’s been a long time since I edited them. It helps me keep my mental database of all the details of the series’ unique world up to date. But it also gets the rhythm and sound of Kevin’s style in my head.
Then I run the manuscript through a few stages. I start by doing what I think of as my “fan read.” I read the manuscript straight through, trying to experience it as a reader and not just an editor, just as if I’d downloaded the manuscript to my e-reader or picked it up at the store. First of all, it’s hard not to do this with a new Kevin Hearne; even though Kevin usually submits a rough outline, I’m still totally compelled to find out what happens next…and there are always felicitous details and surprises—great one-liners, delightful phrases, big, emotional moments—that an outline just can’t communicate. But it also helps me get a gut feeling for what’s working and what isn’t, a feeling that’s hard to get when I’m too absorbed in the details. I’ll jot down my reactions afterward, which can help serve as a handy guide for the next couple of stages. I also share the manuscript with Assistant Mike, who’s a valuable second reader for Kevin’s books, and who contributes comments and insights at every stage; my conversations with him also help clarify my thinking before I ever get back to Kevin.
There are a couple of basic types of editing. There’s structural editing, which is a big picture review of the story, characterization, pacing, plotting, and emotional beats. Here’s where I ask the heavy questions like: Does the story flow? Are the characters’ motivations authentic or believable? Is the worldbuilding logical, coherent, and clear? Is there enough exposition—or too much, or is it delivered smoothly and invisibly enough? Different authors have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, Kevin’s plotting, pacing, and structure are usually impeccable, so my comments rarely touch on these aspects apart from sharing some well-deserved praise.
If the structural edit is pretty light, I can also proceed immediately to a line edit, which is a meticulous, detail-obsessed, line-by-line reading of the manuscript. I’ll make spelling and grammar changes here as I spot them, but I’m looking for things that can’t be defined by a grammar book. I’m thinking about whether the author’s unique voice and tone is vivid in every line. I’m looking for overused or repeated words, phrases, and sentence structures. And I’m asking myself if every line communicates what it should—whether that be delivering exposition or making the reader laugh. Some editors mark these kinds of comments on a hard copy of the manuscript in colored pencil or ink. I prefer to use Word’s Reviewing and Track Changes features, which makes it easy for the author to accept or decline any comment or change I make.
But if the structural edit requires large-scale changes, I’ll write my first editorial letter before doing a line edit. An editorial letter outlines all of an editor’s comments on a manuscript. It contains more than a clear explication of what needs to be improved. I always begin with a detailed description of what the author is doing right, because it’s just as important to protect—and build on—the good as well as improving the flawed. I also do my best to explain why I feel something should be changed, and suggestions for how these changes can be made. That’s because the editorial letter isn’t a series of dictates, but the beginning of a conversation between the editor and a writer.
I’m not going to lie: Whenever an editorial letter arrives, it’s accompanied by that small, gnawing sense of dread that you used to get when your teacher handed back essays. (“Did I do okay? Will my parents ground me if I get a bad grade? What if I can’t go to Chuck’s party this weekend? OMG I am gonna die!”) But after I read Tricia’s letters, without exception, I am excited to get back to work. Remember the triumphant cry of victory Lancelot always gave in Monty Python and the Holy Grail before he slew some completely stationary and inept guards? “Ha-haah!” That’s what it felt like as I went back to attack my manuscript, because with Tricia’s help, I knew exactly what to do to make it a better book.
For TRICKED, as I mentioned above, there were parts of the book that I suspected needed work. I wasn’t confident about them and knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Tricia, however, could spot it very well, and once she spelled it out in her editorial letter, I was like, “OH! Duh! How did I miss that?” I went tappity-tappity on my keyboard many times because there were several bits that needed some extension, and I also inserted a completely new chapter. “Ha-haah!”
One of the things that was giving me trouble was my mindset for what this book would accomplish in the series: My focus had been entirely on wrapping up loose ends left dangling at the end of HAMMERED, and I considered it to be the end of a major story arc. Tricia made it clear that she saw it completely differently—this book was launching a new story arc, and I needed to do more to address that. An exchange via Twitter with my author buddy Nicole Peeler helped put it in perspective: I was writing a “bridge book,” a connection between the old arc and the new, and that helped me with my approach. My word count for Version Two was 90,369, and I sent it back to Tricia with my own letter, explaining how I’d addressed the issues she’d raised and thanking her for being so honkin’ brilliant, because I could feel the book improving.
Version Two was sort of a “two-thirds” version: I wanted Tricia’s approval on my revisions before I attempted to mess with the climax, because the climax would obviously depend on what came before. She gave me a thumbs-up, I basked in the glow of her approval, and then I tackled the last third of the book. I tried something funky. Maybe, um, too funky. And thank goodness, she let me know! That’s part of the dialogue Tricia was talking about. 🙂 Version Three, with the new, extended climax, was 99,505 words.
When Kevin turns in his revised manuscript, it’s very nearly as exciting as getting the first draft. That’s because even though I know exactly what points I asked him to reconsider and revise, Kevin’s solutions to the questions I raise are always so ingenious and surprising, it’s a big thrill to see just how he pulled it off. Indeed, if it can still strike me as fresh and exciting, even after I’ve been over the manuscript several times, I know that he’s done something that will also enthrall his readers.
For example, in TRICKED, there was a new secondary character that I just loved, but that I thought needed just a bit more development. Kevin subtly recast the character, taking him in a new and totally unexpected direction–and wrote some new scenes and a cool origin story that are now amongst my favorites in the book. Inevitably, too, he’s made other delightful little changes throughout the book that were not requested in my letter–fine-tuning jokes, polishing phrasing, adding an MST3k reference or two.
In addition to addressing my comments by making revisions, Kevin will often explain the thinking behind his changes in the margin notes. If he’s especially unsure about a particular change, he might ask specific questions for guidance; or he might have taken the scene in a different direction than I suggested, and is explaining his reason; or he might simply be alerting me to a small alteration that will have big consequences later in the story.
This process all works so well because Kevin trusts my judgment—but also because I very much trust his. For example, if Kevin disagrees with one of my comments, I always know that it’s with very good reason. Sometimes a particular plot point is significant because of something he has planned for the climax, or the next book, or even the book after that–or for the long arc of a character’s development. Sometimes I’ve simply looked at the scene in the wrong way, and a quick conversation with Kevin helps right my thinking. And sometimes it’s important to him to leave something untouched because it just feels right, goshdarnit. Knowing how I can help Kevin write a better book is important–but even more important is knowing when to step back and let him work his magic.
Kevin’s books usually go through 3 or 4 drafts. When the final draft is ready—when we both feel that every sentence in order and gleaming, every plot point shiny and fresh, every character beautifully dressed and ready to face the world—I tell Kevin it’s time to celebrate and lift aloft a goblet of his best mead…the manuscript has been formally approved!
Tricia wasn’t kidding. I completely trust her judgment. Her questions and prodding consistently inspire new ideas and creative solutions to problems of plotting and character development. And I should probably stress that her questions aren’t the leading sort; she doesn’t suggest things like, Hey, why don’t you have Atticus do this, or have Granuaile do that—it’s more pointing out my many blind spots, and once I see the problem, I can fix it. Sometimes the solution is really simple: for example, in HOUNDED, I’d gotten so involved in plot twists and backstabbing and what the witches were up to that I’d completely forgotten to include a description of Flidais. Tricia said, Hey, Kev, what does she look like? And that was that. Sometimes, however, it’s more involved, like this secondary character in TRICKED. Though she was much more eloquent about it, Tricia pointed out that we don’t know enough about him and why he can do what he does, and that inspired me to make the extensive changes between Versions One and Two that she mentioned above.
I have heard (vague) rumors about some authors having adversarial relationships with their editors, but methinks that this is the exception rather than the rule. (Or maybe I’m just fabulously lucky and living in a dream world?) The rumors usually go one of two ways: either A) the editor wanted to make wholesale changes and basically demanded a completely new book, or B) the author came down with an acute case of Golden Word Syndrome. GWS is a serious disease and I hope I never catch it. It tried to get me on Chapter 13 of TRICKED, when Tricia suggested the deletion of a sentence that I thought was really funny and on which, for one reason or another, I had spent a good twenty minutes writing. But I let it go. I highlighted that puppy and pressed Delete. And Tricia had been right, of course: the passage read much better without it. So, when she responded to Version Three and said it wasn’t working, maybe I should try a different approach, I didn’t hesitate. I cut eight thousand words, which represented a week’s work, and started over. And when I was finished with Version Four—now actually a bit shorter, at 97,631 words—I was much happier, and so was Tricia. I got Approval! Yay! Where’s my flagon?
There is plenty of well-deserved celebration at this point on both sides, often involving marshmallows and liquor, but in truth the work isn’t finished. Tricia now sends the manuscript to an entirely different editor called The Managing Editor. And heck yes, I think you should capitalize “The” in this case. Nancy is The Managing Editor. Her job is scary but oh, so important. I will let Tricia explain.
So once we’ve had our marshmallow n’ mead party, Assistant Mike preps the manuscript for the production department. He types up the title page, copyright page, the list of “books by Kevin Hearne,” and generally arranges all the pieces into a neat and organized lil’ package. The manuscript then passes into the capable hands of Nancy Delia, the Managing Editor, a.k.a the Oracle of Grammar and the Duchess of Fact-Checking. Nancy rules over a staff of master freelance copy editors and proofreaders whose hardcore grammar geekery and extreme pedantry ensure that the final manuscript is just about perfect.
As much as possible, Nancy will hire the same copy editor to read all of the books in the series. That’s because the copy editor is not only checking the manuscript thoroughly for spelling and grammatical errors and making suggestions to improve clarity and readability; she’s also reading for series style and story inconsistencies–so that if, say, Leif pulls up to Third Eye in a teal limousine in book 1, it’s still teal and not chartreuse in book 3. She also makes sure that Kevin’s preferred spellings for words for which there’s some official variation–for example, the names of gods and goddesses that are transliterated from another alphabet–are consistent. To aid her in this task, she prepares a “style sheet” listing all of the terms and phrases that make Kevin’s books unique and updates it with every new book and short story.
These days, copy editing can be done the old-fashioned way, on paper with the ol’ red pencil, or electronically, using MS Word’s “Track Changes” feature. Either way, when the manuscript comes back from Nancy and the copy editor, I give it a quick readthrough to see if there are any issues I need to alert Kevin to right away before passing it back to him.
My ego always takes a hit when the copy edits arrive all marked up. I’m supposed to be an English teacher! But there are some esoterica about house style I simply do not know, and I do have a few peccadilloes when I’m writing fiction that need to be corrected. Tricia reassured me that my manuscripts are fairly clean, and so with that salve for my conscience I can approach the marks with equanimity and a bracing pint of Guinness.
I do not have to accept all the suggested changes; if I disagree with a correction, I can just write STET in the margin and it will get printed “as is.” I do accept most of the suggestions, however, because they’re darn good ones. The copy editor approaches the text differently than everyone else, and so tends to spot problems everyone else misses.
Some of the problems are not related to language at all, but rather continuity, and I’ll have to make some significant changes. That’s still okay at this stage: I can insert or remove whatever I like with no problem. It’s my last chance to make big changes, though. Usually I’m given two weeks to get the copy edits approved & revised, and then it’s sent back to New York.
When the copy edits come back from Kevin, I return them once again to the estimable Nancy Delia, who works with the production department to get the final manuscript set in type by a designer. Not long after I’m given two copies of the complete typeset pages–what we call “first pass.” One copy goes to a freelance proofreader, who not only reads the pages carefully to catch any last-minute errors the copy editor might have missed–she also compares the text, line by line, with the original copy edited manuscript, to make sure that not a single line or word of Kevin’s awesome prose has been dropped or transposed. In the meantime, Kevin is also checking the manuscript so that he can make his own final changes. Even though the manuscript has been read perhaps dozens of times by this stage, there’s still always another comma to lovingly fuss over or a line or two of dialogue to perfect.
Once Kevin has approved first pass, our work on the manuscript is largely done, and the eminently capable hands in the production department guide the book on its way to the printing press. There are a few more quality control steps–the manuscript often receives one more “cold read” by a freelancer to make sure every last error has been corrected, and Kevin may have to answer a wee question or two about accent marks on Celtic names and the like–but until then, Kevin and I begin waiting, just like his fans, to finally get that beautiful copy of the book in our hands!