Skip to main content

Working with the editor: a case study

Editing has been on my mind lately, as I’ve been preparing Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eye for publishing. As a happy coincidence, Delilah S. Dawson had a lengthy tweet chain about the topic too, prompted by her annoyance with aspiring authors unwilling to make changes that editors suggest to their books. Her response, in short, was that no author escapes the changes, so you’d better get used to them from the start. Her notes are useful to read in full.

She was speaking from the point of view of a traditionally published author who has more than one set of editors making suggestions and demands, all of which strive to make the book as good as possible. She doesnt claim its easy to let other people to have their say, but that its necessary.

Listening to one’s editor is even more crucial for self-publishing authors, as we lack the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. If you’re lucky, you find one who understands your writing, and who isn’t afraid to tell you how you can improve it. If not, you have the annoying task of finding a new one.

I’ve been working with the same editor, Lee Burton from Ocean’s Edge Editing, since 2012. We pretty much know what to expect of each other by now, but that doesn’t mean the process of fixing the manuscript is a shoe-in. There are different layers to the edits, all of which demand careful attention.

Mostly in my case, it’s about the correct use of language. I use incorrect grammar and words, in this case British English words instead of American, which there were more than usually. In my defence, I’d been writing another book right before this one in British English. He also suggests words that might fit the style better, but these are always suggestions. The final decision is mine. However, I always think them through carefully. Sometimes he has misunderstood my meaning and made suggestions based on that, which in itself is a reason to make changes to my writing. Clarity is the key.

It’s also about sentence structure. Lee likes tighter sentences than I do, hears a different rhythm than I, so he makes quite a few changes there. Sometimes I agree with his changes, sometimes I don’t. Being my own publisher, I can make my own decisions about them. That doesn’t mean I make the right choices, but I have to own them.

Then there are the larger issues of plot, characters and pacing. The greatest fear the new authors seem to have is that the editor forces them to make changes they don’t want to one or all of these. We’ve all read about authors who have been told to add a romance plot to a thriller, or change the point of view from the first person to third, all to make the book sell better. Delilah S. Dawson has good comments about that in her twitter rant too. Mostly it’s about what’s comfortable to you. Everything is negotiable, if you can make a good case for yourself.

Usually, though, editor’s suggestions spring from the manuscript itself, to make it better. Editor doesn’t tell you exactly how to fix the pace or the plot, and then expect you to follow their suggestion to the letter. They challenge you to read your text with different eyes. This time I’d managed to pace the book well, but if needed, Lee points out where the pace lags, or if a scene isn’t quite in the right place. I’ve only ignored his suggestion once. He found the ending of one of my books abrupt, but I didn’t change it, and the first reader to review the book made a scathing comment about it. In my defence, a year later, I still don’t know how I should fix it.

And then there’s a lot of fine tuning. This time round, it concentrated on the first paragraph of the book. Every author knows that the opening sentence and paragraph are crucial, so I’d really put some thought into them. I thought I’d nailed them too. Imagine my dismay, then, when the first thing I see opening the edits were two lengthy comments about the opening paragraph. In short, Lee didn’t think it worked at all.

This is the original opening:

I was trying to keep a tray-full of champagne flutes from gliding to the floor when the thief struck. Not me, or Mrs. Snobby-as-fuck I was serving would’ve got her jewel-adorned cleavage doused with champagne -- or the sparkling white wine the glasses actually contained, and about which she’d been complaining to me for the past five minutes.
I was sorely tempted to soak her anyway.

Lee didn’t like the transition between two different kinds of ‘struck’, figurative and literal. He didn’t like the pacing of the paragraph either, with one short and one long sentence. I thought he was wrong, so I moped a little. Then I rewrote the paragraph to this:

I was trying to keep a tray-full of champagne flutes from gliding to the floor when things went south. Not the tray, or Mrs. Snobby-as-fuck I was serving would’ve got her jewel-adorned cleavage doused with champagne -- or the sparkling white wine the glasses actually contained, and about which she’d been complaining to me for the past five minutes.
I was sorely tempted to soak her anyway.

But Lee liked this version even less. It removed the hook of the thief, and he found ‘went south’ to be a cliché. In his words: The issue as I see it now is that by removing the connection between the second and the third line (the struck pun), we have to find a new way to get from the good hook to the lady. The issue is made difficult as we're introduced to the idea of there being a thief and a robbery, but then we're taken back in time thirty seconds to the conversation with the Snobby-as-fuck lady, and then walked forward in time until the fire alarm goes off, so it would probably be useful to – in place of the pun – acknowledge the time gap, and then switch up the circumstances around how Tracy comes to the idea that she could use a good dousing with champagne. Something like...

And then he gave me a number of suggestions of how I could fix the issue.

I spent an hour or so going through his suggestions, trying to fit them into the paragraph and into what I wanted to say. I consulted my sisters who didn’t like my earlier versions, so I kept working on it. Eventually, it turned out like this:

I was trying to keep a tray-full of champagne flutes from gliding to the floor when the thief struck. I was serving Mrs. Snobby-as-fuck at the time, and contemplating her impressive, jewel-adorned cleavage with fascinated horror. I was kind of hoping one of the milling guests at the upscale party would nudge me from behind, so that I could “accidentally” douse her with champagne -- or the sparkling white wine the glasses actually contained, about which she’d been complaining to me for the past five minutes. But no one bumped into me.
I was sorely tempted to soak her anyway.

This, finally, found everyone’s approval, though Lee would’ve wanted to remove the last sentence of the first paragraph too. That one I kept though, as it serves as a bridge to the punch-line.

All of this took more than a day – though mostly because Lee and I live in different time-zones. It wasn’t an easy process, but it was a necessary one. I think the opening paragraph is stronger because of the changes, but I would never have thought to make them. So, an editor is definitely necessary – and nothing to fear. It’s not always easy to let go of words you’ve carefully chosen, but if you do, you can get something better in return.

What do you think, did the first paragraph improve or not?

Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eyes comes out later this week. Until then, the first book in the series, Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I., is only $0.99. Don’t miss!


Popular posts from this blog

My #worldcon75 experience

Here’s the long overdue report from my day at the WorldCon 75, my first ever time attending. The event was held on August 9-13 in my home country, Finland, so it was a once in a life-time chance to experience it with a minimum trouble. I originally thought to attend the entire five days, but life intervened in the form of work, and so I could only attend on Saturday. I tried to make the most of it by planning a full day.

I arrived at the conference centre about fifteen minutes after the doors opened at nine in the morning, and the queue was already at least fifty metres long. It caused me a few palpitations until I figured it was the line for people who hadn’t purchased their day passes in advance. I had, so I just walked past, trying not to look gleeful. Half an hour later I felt bad for all those people when it was announced that the day was sold out, which left most of them outside. The queue for pre-purchased passes was three persons long, the shortest line for me the entire day. I…

Reading recap: August

August was my worst reading month so far and I only managed to finish two books. I have no excuses other than that I was busy working. I did start two more books, but I didn’t manage to finish them in August. And even though I read eight books in July, I’m now two books behind the schedule in my reading challenge of fifty-five books. I’ll have to step up. As has been my habit throughout the year, one book was from my reading list and the other wasn’t.
First book was Ride the Storm by Karen Chance, the long-awaited next chapter in her Cassandra Palmer urban fantasy series of time-travelling Pythia and her entourage of vampires, demons and mages. One vampire and one mage in particular. As always, it was a wild romp through space and time – at times a bit too wild. The first part of the book was constant tumbling from crisis to battle and back with no breathers or plot development in between, as if the author was afraid that the reader will get bored if something earth-shattering isn’t co…

Reading recap: April and May

It’s already June and I realise I’ve completely forgotten to update you on my reading in April, so this is a double feature for May too. April and May weren’t particularly good reading months in terms of numbers read, partly because I read a couple of longer books that took longer to finish, partly because other engagements kept me from reading – I know, right – and partly because I started and then discarded a number of books that I just couldn’t get into. But those books that I ended up reading and finishing, five in all, were all absolutely brilliant. Four of the books were from my reading list, and the last one was an absolutely necessary addition.
First up was one of my favourite series, Black Dagger Brotherhood by J.R. Ward. Book number fifteen, The Chosen, was as good as any in the series, which hasn’t had a weak book yet. I really like Ms Ward’s style of edgy writing, and especially how she introduces characters and their backstories throughout the series, and follows them afte…