This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
In the third installment of our series, author Sophia Tobin and Senior Commissioning Editor at Simon & Schuster, Clare Hey, tell us about going through the first stage of the editing process.
Sophia: Getting a book deal had been a surreal journey, but things were about to get real. It was time for editing to begin. I received Clare’s notes on a Friday evening and, to keep the mood light, read them whilst twirling round and round on an office chair (go with me on this). Having already worked on the novel with my agent, I was used to receiving criticism, but that didn’t stop me from being nervous. After all, it was possible that Clare and I would disagree. On everything.
The first document I saw was my novel, with tracked changes and highlighted line edits on words and phrasing. The other document, the structural edit, offered Clare’s overview on the whole thing – and it was a diplomatic masterpiece. Still though, I did give the occasional wail when reading it – I’ll explain why in a moment.
Line edits are like doing a crossword puzzle. The structural edit is like Mastermind with an added assault course. The beginning and the end of The Silversmith’s Wife needed re-shaping, and even comments which seemed straightforward (‘Could we lose this character?’) impacted the whole book. You have no idea how many times that character was mentioned.
I was happy with most of the changes I was asked to make, except one: removing the Prologue. Pages and pages have been written about Prologues. Let’s just say, my book had one, and I loved it. I loved it so much I could remember every detail about the evening I wrote it, down to the shadows in the room.
I drank endless cups of tea and gazed out of my window. But every time I approached Prologue Destruction bad things would happen, mainly to my writing ability. So I emailed Clare and explained my worries. She sent a very kind email back, and her argument made sense: what was the book about, really? Did the Prologue add to it, or obscure it?
I removed the Prologue and re-wrote the beginning of the book. Then I asked my husband to read it, beckoning him in from the distant corner of the flat where he’d been avoiding me. There was no doubt, to him: the second version was better. And what I learned was: sometimes, you really are too close to something to be the best judge. My book is still mine, but it has benefited from Clare’s detachment, judgement and experience.
I think (hope), this is the same for everyone who writes: no matter how meticulous we think we’ve been, quite often there are things we don’t admit, even to ourselves, until the moment an editor shines their torchlight into every dark corner. Fuzzy motivation? Inconsistent character? You’re not getting away with it – and thank goodness, because the next people who see it won’t be so kind. Some of the changes are difficult. Everything you thought was solid about your novel will shift and creak. It might even crack – but the cracks let the light in.
Clare: From an editor’s perspective the structural edit on a debut novel is almost always a jump into the unknown. You don’t really know the author, apart from having had a celebratory drink to toast the deal you have done, and so you have no idea how they work and how they will react to your notes. In general, tears and tantrums are best avoided – on both sides of the editorial fence!
It sounds obvious but it’s important to remember that the novel is not the editor’s – it has been written by the author and the editor’s job is to understand the author’s intention and to help them realise it in the best possible way. So my suggestions are always just that – suggestions. I can flag up the places where I think the plot is flagging, or where a character needs more depth, for example, but it is up to the author to find a solution – or to disagree with me if they want…
When I do a structural edit I am looking at the big picture things – structure, pace, narrative tension, character, motivation and so on. If I find myself flagging when I am reading I ask myself why – is the pace slow? Is a certain section too confusing? Is there an issue with a particular character? I make myself ask the difficult questions, which I know the author won’t always thanks me for, as Sophia outlines above! And I don’t mind looking like an idiot – if I am confused or not sure about something, the chances are a reader might feel the same way.
With The Silversmith’s Wife I had a pretty clear sense of where the structural edit would focus right from the first time I read it. Even if I don’t know whether I’ll be working on a novel or not, I tend to have a first gut instinct on that precious first read. It’s the only time you really have the chance to read purely – as a normal reader would – and on every re-read it gets harder and harder to be objective. And if I feel like that I know the author must feel it even more.
I always try to remember to tread carefully, for I tread on an author’s dreams… I am aware of all the work that has gone into the novel to get to this point. And I am also very cognisant of the fact that, in the end, it’s the author who is the expert. It is their novel and their creative vision, and I am one of the lucky first readers.
I always think that a good editor is two things: firstly they should always be there for the author, with honest and constructive feedback. And secondly they should be invisible for the reader so they have the pleasure of sitting back and enjoying the novel. And when I get to read the MS for the final time, after all the work on the structural edit has been completed and before sending it off to the copyeditor, I always feel a stab of envy for those readers whose pleasure in reading the novel is still to come.
Next time: page proofs, seeing the novel looking a bit like a book for the first time. And sending it out for quotes and early reviews…