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Change, Compromise, Dig Your Heels In: Dealing with the Editorial Report

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I’ve just this week finished revising the manuscript for my latest novel, DEN OF WOLVES, third book in the BLACKTHORN & GRIM series. I’ve already spent many months writing the book and doing my own in-depth revisions. The ms then went to my two publishers, one in the US and one in Australia, for a structural edit, and I was sent a detailed report compiled by my wonderful Australian editor from the two sets of notes. Along with this report came an annotated version of my manuscript. The process is similar with most publishing houses.

This time around the report ran to only six pages, which must make it the shortest I’ve had in 20 novels. That doesn’t mean the queries were all easy to address – editorial notes can make the most confident writer tear her hair out, invent new curses, overdose on caffeine, and generally wallow in self-doubt. But it does get easier the more you have to do it, and if you’re lucky enough to work with the same editor over several books, you learn how to communicate with both honesty and tact, and how to work together in the interests of making this the best book it can be.

Note, I’m not talking about a copy edit / line edit, where spelling, grammar, syntax and logic are checked – that is in most cases a separate operation that happens later, though my Australian editor now combines the two. The red pen and stack of manuscript pages are gone – it’s a digital process these days. The structural edit is the major edit, where weaknesses and inconsistencies in plot, setting, character or pacing are addressed. For DEN OF WOLVES, for instance, the editor picked up an apparent glitch in the passage of time. The novel has four point of view characters who take chapters in turn, and who are often separated for longish periods. I thought I had been so careful about what day it was, what time it was, and who was where, but I seem to have missed a day. Next time I’ll ditch the sticky notes and use a spreadsheet!

There are three ways you can go with an editorial suggestion: change, compromise, or refuse to budge. Note, your editor’s structural report is not the same thing as feedback from a Beta reader. You should listen to your Betas, especially if several are in agreement on a certain point. But it’s entirely your choice whether to follow their suggestions or not. With a professional editor, especially an editor who’s being paid by your publisher to do the job, refusing to do anything they suggest may just possibly lead to your book not being published, as there’s most likely a clause in your contract that says something about your delivering the manuscript in an acceptable form by a certain date. That clause gives the publisher the right to refuse publication if they consider the final revised ms not up to scratch, or if it’s not submitted on time. Usually it doesn’t get that far, as the various parties can work together to get a satisfactory manuscript ready on time. So let’s talk about how we do that, faced with a challenging editorial report.

Change: A editorial suggestion may make perfect sense to you – it may be obvious that it improves the flow, ratchets up the tension, makes a character’s decisions more consistent or corrects something misleading. There may be an implied meaning in what you have written that you haven’t realised is there; that implied meaning may be not at all what you intended (this has happened to me in the past, and I was deeply grateful to have it pointed out in time.) You’ll happily make those changes and feel grateful for your editor’s insight.

Compromise: Your editor may make suggestions you’re not sure about. Maybe you agree that there’s a problem, but you don’t like the solution she’s suggested. For me, these often have to do with the withholding of information. I tackled a mystery series because I knew it would be a particular challenge for me. One of the comments in this editorial report was that readers would guess the answer to a critical question far too early in the book. There was no way to fix this completely without weakening other critical elements of the story. I made some changes, but it probably only delayed the inevitable by 50 pages or so. It doesn’t bother me very much if readers guess the truth too early. I made a note for the editor: the mystery lies not in the WHAT but in the HOW.

Dig Your Heels In: Sometimes the editor makes a suggestion the author really hates. It feels quite wrong for the story, the character, or the world. That didn’t happen with DEN OF WOLVES but it has happened for me before, with the manuscript my then editor described to me by phone as ‘disappointing.’ That moment (labelled forever in my mind as ‘how not to give an author bad news’) has stayed with me through the later success of the book in question and of many others after it. In that instance, I refused to make many of the recommended changes, including some very major ones.  However, I accepted that there were some flaws, did a major rewrite and recognised that the book was stronger as a result. Proving, I think, that both writer and editor got some things wrong and some things right.

When you’re in the depths of the structural report, don’t lose sight of the fact that this is your book. Your plot. Your characters. Your story. Do listen to your editor’s wise advice, but if you know in your heart of hearts that a particular revision is just wrong, and that no compromise is possible, explain this to your editor. Don’t justify it with a gush of emotion, back it up with sound arguments.

My revised manuscript is back with the publisher now, being checked over yet again. Rather than sit around biting my nails and hoping it is OK, I’m doing what I always advise others to do, and getting on with the next project.

How do you feel about edits? Love them, loathe them, roll up your sleeves and get on with them? Best and worst experiences?

Image © Sue Harper | Dreamstime.com

About Juliet Marillier [2]

Juliet Marillier [3] has written twenty-one novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet is currently working on a new fantasy trilogy for adult readers, Warrior Bards, of which the first book, The Harp of Kings, will be published in September 2019. Her short novel Beautiful, based on the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, was released as an Audible Original in May 2019. When not writing, Juliet is kept busy by her small tribe of elderly rescue dogs.