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THE EDITORIAL PROCESS!
The Ants Do Their Thing
You’ve written a book. You’ve even finished it! (Congratulations! Many don’t.). Or you think you’ve finished it. Or you hope….
You’ve done your best to edit the monster yourself. (You may well be thinking of it as “the monster” by now.) You’ve run it through Spell Check, which has caught some of the typos but not all, and has sometimes lied to you or got confused, as it does. You may even have tried a grammar program, which may have spotted the obvious, such as tenses and singular/plural incompatibilities, but you have probably arm-wrestled with it over punctuation, especially if you’ve been getting experimental with the colons. The colons! Always a flashpoint!
Maybe you’ve shown your monster shadow self to a discerning friend or two, or to a writing group member – I’m told there are such things as writing groups now. (Makes anti-hex sign, not having been a Joiner.) You’ve asked these folks to be honest, but odds are they will have been more positive than a professional editor unknown to you would have been. They don’t want to wound you, since they guess – no doubt accurately – that your ego right now resembles a peeled grape.
Cartoon I drew for my posse o’editors (The Ants) while editing The Testaments. Of course, one of them immediately located a real Shit Creek. They’re thorough!
Let’s close our eyes very, very tight, and pretend you’ve acquired an agent and a publishing deal and an editor. Light a candle, offer a prayer of thanks! What happens next? You think it’s all going to be lunches with champagne at which you are flattered unmercifully, followed by respectful interviews with good-looking television hosts, plus lovely glam pics of you in the arts pages (remember the arts pages? Maybe not), and literary festivals and book tour events at which you stay in Executive Suites, sign endless copies of your book and pose for endless selfies, and your every whim is catered to? Or most of your every whims. If your whim is to get stinking drunk before giving a public reading, that will not be catered to so much. Nor will chasing the publisher’s rep around the hotel room with lecherous intentions, which, say my spies, used to happen frequently, though I never did it myself. That’s not a thing anymore, so don’t even try.
But by all means, make a list of acceptable whims. They may be catered to, one day. Not just yet, however, and maybe not ever. First there is…. THE EDITORIAL PROCESS.
Hide under the bed! Don’t answer the phone! But you can’t avoid it.
This is the part where the rubber meets the road. What’s the goal of The Editorial Process? To make your monster the very best monster that it can be! Also, in the mind of the publishing house, to turn out something that will be brilliantly reviewed and that will sell a bundle o’copies. The second does not necessarily follow the first. (Just remember: a good review is the result of a team effort: all involved will rejoice. A bad review is yours to cherish alone. Thumb-sucking can help with the latter, but not solve it. Karma might, eventually, however. Sticking pins in wax dolls of hostile reviewers is discouraged.)
First will come the main editors from the publishing companies. (I’m gifting you with a several-country book deal. You’re welcome.) They will make overall big-picture notes –“story editing” – and also incidentals. (“There are no likeable characters!” “I don’t get the motivation here.” “Was this even a word in 1857?” “This person is dead on Page 52 but alive again on Page 105. Did I miss something?“ “Is this supposed to be funny?”
Some of the suggestions will be valid and helpful, others will be bonkers. Just remember: it’s your name on the book. It’s your head on the block as the reviewing guillotine cranks up. If you object to a suggestion, stand firm!
True story: the U.S. editor who inherited Surfacing from the acquiring editor – who was on sabbatical – said I should take all the characters out of it but one. We changed publishers.
Then at the new publisher, the copy-editor – who’d only ever done non-fiction –revised all my run-on sentences by replacing the commas and semi-colons with periods. I had to go over the galleys with a magnifying glass, putting the original punctuation back. (Hint: this was way before computers.)
Sometimes this process will involve meetings. For a period in the late 80s and the 90s, the editors and the agents used to come over to Toronto and stay in slightly falling-apart hotels. We would all gather for breakfast and I would present them with the manuscripts, gift-wrapped in individual colours to match their personalities. They would go off to read, then stagger out a day or two later. At afternoon tea they would present their notes, and exchange hotel experiences. (“My sink fell off the wall.”)
At one of these gatherings, we were having celebration cake in the room, but first, said my Los Angeles agent, we should light a candle of gratitude. She did so and it set off the fire alarm system. This too is part of The Editorial Process.
Rewriting will follow the big-picture notes. Finally will come The Copy Editor. This is the person who will save you from yourself. A good copy editor (with whom you will fight over the colons, that’s a given) will catch not only grammatical errors but factual bloopers. My go-to copy editor – let’s call her Heather Sangster, which is in fact her name) said, famously of Oryx and Crake, “You give him five Joltbars. He eats one here, one here, one here, one here, one here, and one here. You have to either give him one more or have him eat one fewer.”
We edit side by side, turning pages, exchanging corrections, with a digital copy onscreen for quick searches. When we were scheduled to edit The Testaments in this way, Heather appeared at the door, a little late.
“I’ve just been hit by a truck,” she said. “I was wheeling my bike across the street. Green light. Two old guys, they didn’t see me.”
“Heather! OMG! You should be at the hospital!”
“It’s OK, the paramedics came, nothing broken.”
“Just give me a couple of Tylenols, a shot of Scotch, and an ice pack. We’re going to do this!”
And we did.
Now … THAT’S EDITING!!
Heather Sangster, editor supreme, can be found at the link. Click on her name.