On December 7th, I sent my publisher the FINAL draft of a historical fiction novel based on my dad’s itinerary during World War II. It is the story of one soldier’s journey through the war, set against the historical realism of combat, and is also a love story between the soldier, his girlfriend back home, and his brother. It’s about 100,000 words and almost 200 pages of text.
Three weeks later, on December 31st, I met with two editors to discuss their comments and suggestions. One editor was there to give his input early in the effort and then assume an advisory role; the other, Barbara, is the manuscript editor for the rest of the process. They recommended significant changes to the storyline, and I spent the next week revising and rewriting, then sent them a new FINAL FINAL draft on January 6th. I later regretted some of my deletions, added some scenes back in, and sent another draft on the 12th.
We met again on January 18th. They had a handful of suggestions, only one of which was significant: I used a third-person, omnipotent perspective for a scene that extended over four chapters, but had the scene being described by a character (the wife) as if she was repeating words provided by her husband, who has died. Looking at it closely, the scene had information he could not have known, told in a voice that was not hers, so that needed to be revised.
The editors have been reading and noting problems at the level of plot, situation, characters, themes, point-of-view, structure, design, and other high-level concerns. Once those concerns were addressed, Barbara would begin a word-level edit of the draft. She will tweak words or sentences or paragraphs, and will work through the whole manuscript before I get it back. She may ask questions or want me to revise a passage along the way, but, otherwise, I will not be part of the process until she’s finished.
Keeping myself out of the word-by-word edit is important. Imagine that Barbara goes through one chapter, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, straightening out the grammar, the spelling, the sentence construction, and clarifying (by reorganizing or rewriting my words) to make my story better. If I then take that chapter and change the dialogue, change the context, mess around with the characters, move words around, replace words, or such, she has a right to stand up and holler at me. It would be the same if she were the author and I was the editor; I would resent having my work negated.
My objective in talking about this is to show that there are steps in writing a book where the work of writing requires more discipline than creativity. For me, after the meeting on the 18th, the next draft was expected to be the FINAL FINAL FINAL draft and I would no longer make changes until after Barbara had worked through the whole thing.
With that in mind, I immediately went home after the January 18th meeting and spent another fifty hours making several hundred minor changes to the manuscript, to the point of not only reworking the first sentence of the story, but also the last sentence. Note that I didn’t change any of the high-level concerns that had been discussed with the editors and already addressed.
It was a good thing to do, but embarrassing. I’ve been working on this story for a year, and have gone through a dozen distinct drafts, each one supposedly better than the previous one, so making that many changes at this point in the game probably reveals a fundamental character flaw in my personality, as well as my craft. But the threat of not being able to freely make changes caused me to panic and I ferociously attacked the entire book.
Most of my changes were deletions – taking out unnecessary words, tightening up the dialogue, simplifying words and sentences, removing paragraphs, removing unnecessary scenes, taking out passages of information that get me all excited but the reader probably doesn’t want to read, and making the story simpler, clearer, and more authentic. I also made the characters more distinct in their speech and actions. One character is now definitely a bad guy, whereas I had previously left it up to the reader to decide; It didn’t take many words and it now reads better.
After a ton of work, the result is better story-telling with better writing, so I sent the FINAL FINAL FINAL draft to the editors on January 25th.
I hope I’ve done everything that I wanted because it’s now out of my hands. Barbara has, indeed, begun a word-by-word edit, and I am sitting idly by until she and I meet sometime in the future to review what she’s done. She has a full-time job in addition to being a book editor, so it will probably take a couple of months.
The reward in the system is that I know she will improve the story and the writing. She’s been my editor on several of the Mogi Franklin mysteries and I’ve always appreciated her style and guidance. The products have always been better for it, which is the purpose of an editor.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.