It never feels good to set a manuscript aside when the writing’s going well. Sadly, because I’ve never mastered the art of working on two books at once, I’m putting my half-written YA novel on hold for the next few weeks while I attend to the editorial report on a historical fantasy for adults, Flame of Sevenwaters. This is a busy year. Did I mention that the YA novel has a submission date of April 30?
Before I talk about the challenges of the current task, let me put in a good word for editors. With two books going through the publication process in 2012, I’m currently working with three different editors from three of the major publishing houses, one in Australia, two in the US. They’re not junior staff; they are the influential people who negotiate with agents and who convince the publisher to take on a new manuscript or a new writer they believe in. My editors, on opposite sides of the world and working for different publishing houses, are prepared to work cooperatively in order to provide me with a single combined editorial report for each book. End result, the same text (apart from a few regional differences in spelling and word usage) appears in Australia and the US at around the same time, and for me the editorial process is significantly quicker and easier than it might be.
I mention this because, of recent times, social media sites and other forums have seen a rise in scathing comments about traditional publishing houses, mostly coupled with pro self-publishing arguments. People who make those derogatory comments generally disregard the huge amount of support a traditional publishing house offers a writer, and completely overlook the critical role an editor plays in helping that writer produce the best book she can.
Folks, whether you are self-published or mainstream published, please understand that producing that ‘best book’ includes having the manuscript professionally edited. Yes, there are some readers out there who won’t notice (or who will forgive) your clunky prose, your typos, your misuse of words, your flaws in continuity, your gaps in logic, your weirdly random choice of character names. Maybe errors in your work don’t bother you. They will bother the majority of your readers. Get your ms properly edited. A good editor is worth her weight in gold.
Even for an experienced writer, the editorial report can spring some surprises. What you expect often isn’t what you get. The report on Flame of Sevenwaters gave me a lot to think about.
I had been told in advance that this report was fairly light, and it is. The editors loved the ms. Many of their points are minor and easily addressed. But even when a ms has been past beta readers and critique buddies, even when the writer has polished it to a high shine, an editor will always pick up something that isn’t working.
While writing Flame of Sevenwaters, I tried hard to address weaknesses I’d identified in some of my earlier books. I wanted my first person narrator to give us her story in a natural way, but at the same time there was a fair amount of back-story the reader needed, as this is the sixth book in the Sevenwaters series. I worked hard to insert this as seamlessly as possible, to keep it to bare essentials and avoid infodump. In other words, I included only what was necessary to follow the plot, and limited the back-story to what the protagonist would plausibly be thinking about.
I also tried for a subtler approach to dramatic moments. As a reader, I prefer writers who adopt the ‘less is more’ approach to scenes of high emotion in particular (eg love scenes, death scenes, scenes in which a character is undergoing some kind of emotional torment.) I put a lot of thought into this.
So what did my editors ask for? Firstly, more back-story, either in a prologue – ‘previously at Sevenwaters’ – or built into the narrative. Secondly, they wanted to know more about what was going on in the characters’ heads and in particular, at my elegantly understated dramatic moments, they wanted things spelled out rather than implied.
That was frustrating. Experience has taught me that editors are usually right about what will work for the general reader, so if my new approach fell down for them, it can be expected to fall down for readers too. But I do like the way I’ve done it. I want my readers to think for themselves, work things out, leap over gaps, have that ‘Ah-ha!’ moment.
I don’t have long to revise the ms. How will I approach the task? First I’ll address the points I agree with. Then I’ll work out compromise solutions to as many of the other points as I can. I won’t write a prologue. I want the reader to be in the protagonist’s head from the very first sentence, and a prologue of the kind the editors suggested would have to be written in an authorial voice. Where no compromise seems possible I will have to convince the editors that my way works best. And hope to be vindicated when the book comes out in November.
Clearly there are challenges ahead. What I’m learning from this is that I’m not content to continue writing in exactly the same way. I want to keep developing as a craftswoman and storyteller, trying out different approaches, addressing my weaknesses and acquiring new strengths. I may not always agree with my editors, but I recognise their crucial role in supporting that development.