Editing a novel: how it works

There’s a lot of talk about the editor’s role in creating works of fiction. That talk has tended to concentrate on:

  1. The declining importance of old-fashioned editing in modern publishing – simply because sales grew in importance and something had to give.
  2. How terrible Amazon is because the firm wants to kill publishers and that would murder the art of editing and thereby reduce literature to a wasteland.

Yet for all the sound and fury, it’s rare to see what good editors do to actual manuscripts. And, of course, there’s no single answer. Different editors work differently. Different books and authors need different treatment.

But, for what it’s worth, this post will talk about how I’ve worked with my editor, Bill Massey at Orion. Bill is a wonderful editor: shrewd on the big stuff, picky on the little stuff.

This is how we spoke about my fourth Fiona Griffiths novel, This Thing of Darkness, and how my editing process worked during this time.

1. I write and edit without input or interruption

I don’t seek to bounce early drafts, or partial drafts, off Bill. I’d certainly do that if I needed to, and he’d certainly welcome it (up to a point) if I did. I personally write one draft, editing a lot as I go. Then I’ll read and edit many more times yet. I don’t have an edit-o-meter that somehow keeps track of all my drafts. I just edit all the time: I probably never have a day ‘writing’ the book which isn’t also a day editing it, too.

Once I’m reasonably happy with what I have, I’ll send it to Bill. That’s not because I think the draft he’s seeing is perfect, but I do think that it isn’t rubbish and that any issues that need to be sorted will be sorted much more quickly if I get the benefit of a sharp, external eye.

2. I get anxious

It’s silly, because I’m a reasonably experienced writer, but I do still get anxious when I send my work out. Ideally, I’d like Bill to read the whole thing in 24 hours then pick up the phone and gush about how amazing the novel is. Alas, Bill has a life, and other authors, and things don’t often work like that. But the anxiety never goes – and, as for actors with stage-fright, that anxiety only improves the final work.

3. My editor and I chat about the big points

When we do speak – and our conversation will typically last 45 minutes or so – Bill will always start with the positives. And so he should. So any editor must. Remember that the author has been working alone for the best part of a year. Any competent editor just has to start with an upbeat message. Anything else is emotionally tactless and professionally disastrous.

And then, once the salve has been applied, I’ll ask, “So, Bill, what issues did you have?” And typically, he’ll find four or five biggish points. For example, on my most recent manuscript, Bill told me:

  • Whole book was a bit too long. Not much, just that it sometimes feels like a long book.
  • There was a moment where my protagonist (Fiona Griffiths) told her boss (DI Watkins) that she had been abducted and interrogated by the bad guys. In my text, Fiona didn’t want to play things by the book – that is, she didn’t want to make a formal report of the crime and undergo all the subsequent interviews, enquiries, etc. Bill thought that there should be more of a struggle between the two of them. Watkins should press Fiona harder to play straight.
  • There were two or three other similar issues as well. (Did DCI Jackson authorise Fiona’s final, rather entrepreneurial, approach to resolving the enquiry? One subplot was resolved in a way that felt a bit contrived or underprepared, etc.)

These things weren’t massively hard to solve, but they related to pivotal plot moments, where the balance had to be just so. Bill could have written these things into a set of line-edits, but the way I personally prefer to work is to get the bigger issues tucked away up front, so then Bill can perform a line-edit on a manuscript which is basically clean of all structural issues.

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4. I fix my editor’s points

I talked about how I’ve edited and shortened text. The other “big” comments probably only took a day or two to fix. That’s because this particular manuscript was pretty sound, structurally speaking. My previous manuscript, Strange Death – probably the pick of these Fiona Griffiths novels so far – had a remarkably baroque and extravagant ending that I still have a certain fondness for. Bill, rightly I suspect, didn’t like that and wanted something much more compact. So I rewrote the ending once – making it too compact – then rewrote it again on Bill’s advice, making it just about right.

Those edits took 2-3 weeks of work, which would represent the upper end of how much work is involved at this stage of the game. (But that’s me: other authors may do more work at this point.)

5. My editor reads the revised manuscript and comes back to me with a set of line edits

Those line edits might read something like the following. (These edits refer to Love Story, my second Fi Griffiths novel.)

p 31: ‘… the killer distributed body-parts at least in part in order to confuse and deflect any criminal investigation.’ Isn’t it also true that the more body parts are found, the more likely the killer is to be caught?

p 35: ‘When you have a dead girl’s head in your hands …’ A bit more description of what it looks and feels like?

p 53: ‘… and my last bleed was completely normal.’ Already said that.

p 55: ‘If other freezers had been loaded with other such packages, they could have been easily mistaken for pork.’ But don’t most people know what’s in their freezer? It’s not like looking through a freezer cabinet in a supermarket.

p 61: Not sure I buy waiting until a thunderstorm causes a power cut. Firstly, there’s a degree of patient planning needed, and then how can you guarantee there’ll be a power cut?

p 67: I don’t believe Sophie Hinton would hand her kids over to Fi like that, even though she’s a policewoman and therefore presumably trustworthy. She’s a stranger.

p 68: And then I can’t believe Fi would ask the kids questions about their dead father, having unilaterally decided that this’ll be good for them. The intention is to make her seem caring, but the arrogance of her telling them how much their father loved them seems breath-taking to me. It made me not like her at all.

Those are only an extract, of course, but you’ll notice even in this short selection that there’s a combination of characterisation issues (p68), plot issues (p61), just copyediting type consistency and flow issues (p53), description issues (p35). And that’s typical. The job of an editor at this point is to pick up niggles, wherever and whatever they may be.

You’ll also notice that Bill doesn’t, for the most part, suggest ways of fixing these things. But that’s because he trusts me to fix them. But some editors do offer more handholding. Indeed, any writer who has used our own editorial services will know that we tend to give a fair bit more guidance, often because our clients are at an earlier stage in their publishing journey. That said, if I was perplexed by something, I’d phone Bill and we’d jointly figure out a solution.

It’s worth also noting that I don’t always agree with him – and that’s fine!

As a very rough guide, I’d say that a good author-editor relationship will see the author use an editor’s corrections about 60% of the time. In a further 20% of instances, the authors will accept the editor’s niggles, but will correct them in another way. In a further 20% or so of cases, the author mightn’t agree, and the editor won’t, in most cases, care enough to push further. Both sides accept there’s judgement at stake and the final word belongs to the person whose name appears on the cover.

6. I fix those line edits and we’re done

The kind of edits you’ve just seen don’t really take a lot of time at all. Perhaps a day or so for the whole book. But they do make a real difference. Indeed, the difference between the manuscript at the end of this whole process is that it’ll be a lot better than it was when it started out. That’s not because so much work remained to be done, but because an accumulation of little niggly things (and any surplus text) act as a drag on the entire book.

Indeed, so much do I value that expert outside eye that, if I were self-publishing my work, I’d pay to go through the something closely akin to the process I’ve just described. That would cost hundreds of pounds, but I know my work would get better. I’d have something I could be proud of, more likely to attract readers and establish a brand.

7. The next stage

In terms of regular editing input, that’s it for my work. The revised text then goes to a copy-editor who does her stuff.

3 takeaways:

1. You are your own main editor
You should always do most of the editorial work on the book yourself. Most writing is rewriting, and the most precious skill you can develop as an author is learning to hear what is and isn’t working in your text. Patience and commitment are your friends: you just need to keep at it.

2. External editing still matters.
It matters vastly to experienced, professional authors like J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephen King et al. I simply wouldn’t release a book without it. Anyone can be edited.

3. Editing deals with everything
Too often, writers assume editors do nothing but cut surplus text and tidy up commas. In fact, editors usually do neither of those things. (They’ll alert authors to issues of surplus text, but authors themselves will do the cutting, whilst copy-editors tidy up commas.) What editors do is share wise, insightful views, pointing out every structural niggle or deficiency that needs attention. That could be anything: is your plot sound? Are your characters compelling? Does your ending work? Is prose style working?

The list goes on. A novel is a living thing. But how about you? What’s your experience of editing, or being edited, and what has worked for you?

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