Thursday, June 9, 2022

There but for the grace of the editor . . . by Catriona

Do you work with a professional editor? Why/why not? What would you look for if you hired a professional editor?

I do but that's because I'm traditionally published and there's no alternative but to submit to the process. Which shouldn't be taken to mean that I would swerve the structural edit, copy edit, line edit OR proofing if it was up to me. Oh my God no. I shudder to think what I might have put out into the world if my books had only ever had my eyes on them.

I'm doing a structural edit right now, as it happens. The notes came in the form of a long three-way Zoom call with my agent, her in-house editor and me, where we thrashed out what was wrong with draft 4 of the book I'd worked on for a year.

Here's the redacted follow-up list "Stuff to be done in order of importance":

1. Beef up XX and XXXXXX’s motivation for:

  • the big thing
  • Quite a big thing
  • The timing of a fairly big thing (+ why XXXXXXX cares)
  • Everything since then

2. Take a look at XXXXXXX’s episodes of frailty and competence to make sure there’s a coherent arc.

3. Bring XXXXX forward throughout and in particular beef up the motivation for a huge thing

4. Make XXXXX nastier

5. Fix the pacing and tone at the first big moment by cutting back-story and darkening the mood of the three characters.

6. Fix the question about who the protagonist is by:

  • Making this one pretty obvious tweak
  • Cutting chapter 2 and 3 a bit to balance them with chapter 1.

7. Add a family tree.

8. Maybe have more allusion to the big creepy secret

In other words, after I had written the book, left it to steep, read it, made a second draft and then done all of that twice more what I ended up with was a story with the following features:

1. The main crime, plus another crime, plus the timing of both, and the reaction of the villain made no sense

2. A major character went wanging about between being fine and cracking up for no reason whatsoever

3. A major character was so absent that making them responsible for something amounted to breaking the rules of crime fiction

4. The villainy of a major character came out of absolutely nowhere (which also breaks the rules of crime fiction)

5. The big huge early twist was invisible to the naked eye because three people reeling from a shocking event basically had a tea party and talked about the telly.

6. After three chapters it was impossible to say who this book was even about

7. And it was impossible to get the relationships between the characters to stick

8. And there was an elephant in a room full of zookeepers who were supposed to be searching for a lost elephant.

Once this book is with a publisher's editor it'll go through as much again if not more, I am sure. I'll be saying things like: 'Oh yeah. That got cut from an earlier draft and I forgot to put it back in somewhere else'; or 'Oh yeah. I've got all that in my head but I suppose it would make more sense to put it on the page rather than have every reader phone me to let me explain'; or 'What? I don't know what you mea- Oh yeah! Huh. That makes no sense at all, does it? How did I miss that? Thank you.' 

The documents with margin comments have all kinds of stuff from the editor, but my responses are usually one of the following:

  • Good save!
  • Phew!
  • Duh!
  • Thank you!
  • WTF is wrong with me?!
  • I give up!
  • Ohhhhhh yeah!

God bless editors, Cx



Leslie Karst said...

Thank God for editors. And beef.

Ann said...

I miss you. Xo

Josh Stallings said...

Thank you for letting us in on brutal edit notes, I feel less alone. As good as early drafts feel I also suspect/know they have huge error, and I love/hate having them pointed out. Wisdom is remembering to only say "Good save!" and not my defensive negative first thoughts.

Great post!

Catriona McPherson said...

Thank you, Leslie, Ann, Josh. And Josh - these are my comments, not my thoughts.

Susan C Shea said...

You're scaring me to death, Catriona, since I'm about to submit my draft to a new publisher - same one perhaps? - for the first time!