Last week, I got together with the awesome Meg McKinlay and Anna Branford to discuss what it was like to be reviewed. This week we’re doing the same thing – three of us posting on the same topic each on our blogs – except on a different topic. This week’s topic is what it’s like to be edited.
I’m going to say two things at the outset. One is that for many aspiring writers, the term editing is often confused/used interchangeably with proofreading or copy editing. Editing is not the same as either of these, especially proofreading. Editing has nothing (or almost nothing) to do with fixing up spelling mistakes, looking for punctuation errors or swapping the odd word with something better. Editing is taking a manuscript which is acceptable and making it sensational. It is the process of making a manuscript into a book. The finished book that you hold in your hands has been (or should have been) edited multiple times – by the author prior to being submitted and then again in consultation with an editor. Yes, spelling and punctuation will be fixed along the way, but more importantly the structure of the book, the layers of plot, the strength of the characterisation, the flow of the dialogue – and more -are worked on during the editing process.
The second thing I’ll say about editing is that it scares me. A lot. I rarely have any problems getting a story down in first draft form. But I struggle with myself over the editing process. I second guess myself over what to take out, what to leave in and what to develop. In the process I go through cycles of swinging between thinking my story is crap, to thinking its sheer genius, and back again. Editing my own work is tough – but necessary.
And then when, finally, I get the courage to submit,and if the story is miraculously accepted for publication, I have to do it all again. But first, there’s the good bit. I submit the story. I wait (and wait and wait and await – response times can be verrrrrrrry slow) and then,presuming its not a rejection (another very sad story), I get a phone call or email saying something like: “Dear Sally, We at Patty’s Publishing House (can you tell I made that bit up) are thrilled to be able to offer publication of your novel ‘Sally’s Super Story’ (and that?). This touching story of life and all its meanings is sure to touch the hearts of readers of all ages, and we look forward to publishing it”.
So I happy dance, and celebrate, and sign the contract and celebrate some more. After all, the publishers LOVE my book. The hard work is done. Right?
Wrong! Because then comes the phone call or email from THE EDITOR. The editor begins with the good stuff. “Hi Sally, This is Ethel the Editor here, and I’m just so delighted that I’m going to be working with you on ‘Sally’s Super Story’. I have to tell you it’s just one of the loveliest things I’ve read all year. We at Patty’s are so excited about this one.” Once I’m well buttered up and delighted that Ethel loves my book, she goes in for the kill. “Now, the manuscript doesn’t need too much work, just a bit of tidying up. I’ll send you a copy with some queries and suggestions. In the meantime, how do you feel about…” At this point Ethel will launch into a list of suggestions/problems/requests all of which she is sure “won’t be too much trouble for a talented writer such as yourself”. And, of course, because I am who I am, the only response I give is along the lines of “yes mam”, “sure” and “I’ll get right onto it.
But then I hang up the phone, open the email attachment, read it and weep. And self-doubt comes, not just knocking, but bashing at my door. How on earth am I going to do all these rewrites, make these changes and get it up to Ethel’s lofty standards? Doesn’t she know my limitations? Has she read my other books?The manuscript was as good as I could get it before I submitted . How does she expect me to make it better?
After that, I get cross. What does she mean, she doesn’t like my dialogue? So what if my German backpacker seems to speak like a leprechaun? Plot is weak? It’s not about the plot – this is a mood piece. Thinks my main character is insipid? She’s just gentle. And so it goes.
After cross, I go back to self doubt. And give up writing permanently.
Then, a day or two – or even a week – later, I remember that I’d actually like to see this book published, and there is a deadline to meet, and I have another peek at the notes Ethel has sent and I start to wonder if she’s right. I open up the manuscript and I poke and prod at it a bit. And I read Ethel’s notes again. And I poke and prod some more. After a while I forget my self-doubt and my anger and get quite excited. My story is starting to get better. And better.
When I think I’ve implemented all of Ethel’s suggestions, I send her the new version. She reads it and repeats the process. Usually there are less changes needed this time round. Then we do it again. Fewer still. The final round of edits is generally a copy edit. This is where we start picking at the spelling and the punctuation and boring stuff like that. But still each new round makes me doubt myself until I actually get into it.
Fast forward a few months/years. Finally the editing is finished, the illustration is finished, the proofreading is finished and the book has been produced. And I hold in my hands a finished copy of my book. Yes, it’s no longer a manuscript – it is now a book. And I sit down and read it and feel proud. But, at the same time, I’m always struck by a feeling of “hmmm – did I really write this?” I’m always surprised by the finished product, but it’s always a pleasant surprise. Because what has happened in all those weeks and months of editing is that my book has been transformed. Ethel the editor has held my hand and walked (read: pushed) me through the process, leaving me (US!) with something much more polished, readable – dare I say saleable – than I could ever have achieved on my own. She’s like a personal trainer but without the sweaty tracksuit.
And yes, when I hold that beautiful finished product in my hand, I forget about all that pain, and I give thanks to Ethel. And I swear that when my next manuscript is accepted I’ll be less fearful of the editing process. But I never am.