Peat and Repeat


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Every book needs a good editor. And writing a book can be compared to building a house. I’ve posted on this before, but it bears repeating, maybe in a new way with a new emphasis.

Note: For those of you who may be new to the site, let me be clear right up front. If you have never written and *finished* a book, you are not ready to attempt to sell one. While one of the writers here at MW, David B Coe, did sell his first book unfinished, actually unwritten, that is not the usual way to find publication. Normally, an unpublished writer must have a finished novel for an agent to shop around. And that agent will have already suggested a rewrite that you have encorporated into the book he is trying to sell for you. Once published, a writer has proven he can do it (complete a novel to an editor’s satisfaction) and future novels may be sold on the basis of a proposal, outline, synopsis and a few pages (most often 30, though some editors want more).
End Note.

For most of November, I was deeply into the first rewrite of the WIP. I usually do a rewrite at this stage just for me, but this time the rewrite was nudged by the suggestions from my editor. I’ve worked in different ways with different editors, at Warner, Pocket, Mira, and ROC, in the US and a company in the UK. Some editors give a lot of leeway in the rough/first draft. Those editors’ textual rewrite letters tend to be more difficult, usually involving structural changes as well as changes in character development, pacing, etc.. My editor at ROC does a point-by-point, line-by-line rewrite of the synopsis/outline, which helps me to focus on things she perceives as important, and helps me to see any holes I’ve made in the manuscript early on. I don’t usually get the rewrite letter until I am a hundred pages in, which means I’ve already seen some things that aren’t working like I thought they would and I am ready to stop moving forward and take a look at the structure. Doing a rewrite at this stage slows progressive page count drastically, but output improves once the changes are made.

For me, working with editors who do not suggest changes in the synopsis phase makes writing a book a lot like constructing a house for spec. The blueprint/plan is the proposal, a concept on paper. Then the building begins. The foundation and plumbing go in first (outline/plot, concept conflict), then the outer walls (rough draft), wallboard (my rewrites along the way to clarify structure and form), plumbing fixtures, and hanging of light fixtures (the first rewrite I do when I done with the first draft).

Next I stand back and take and look at the whole product. I may move a wall, or widen a doorway, maybe close in a window or add on a deck ( polish, rearrange clues, add in a character). Then I paint and put in carpet, flooring, electrical plates for light switches (one more rewrite to polish it all up to my satisfaction ).

Finally, it goes on the market. And the new owners, (pub house / editor) take a look at the plans and suggest changes, do a walk through and see things that don’t work (really needed a window here. You know, the one I took out) and the paint in this room is too thin, I can see brush strokes and primer through it. And hey, where is the water heater? I like the inline kind. Let’s swap out and change it. (And the textual rewrite begins, which starts at the beginning and goes all the way through.)

Working with an editor who does make changes at this 100-page-in-point is very different. Not so much building a house for spec as building custom house, a product that has the new owner’s thoughts and hopes and dreams built right in. It can make things so much easier to have input form get-go.

Why share all this again? Two reasons. I just put downa book that needed an editor. Badly. Really really badly. And, I have a pal who thought every word, concept, thought, plot arc, character action, and development was all mine. When I explained the depth of an editor’s involvement, she was stunned. But I have learned over the years that an editor can take an okay or good book and transform it into something sooo much better. We’ve said it here often, but it bears saying again. I *need* an editor. And a writer who thinks his work is good enough without one, is making a mistake. In my most humble opinion.


27 comments to Peat and Repeat

  • Wow, Faith, you sound so organized and clear! I’m impressed. Building a house? My writing process is more like disposing of a body.

  • (looking around to see who else is here) ME??? Organized???
    Gee whiz, thank you!

  • A very thought-inducing post, Faith. Writers are incapable of writing a publishable book on their own. Oh, it might *get* published, sure, but it won’t be too good. Interesting.

  • I belive that you mis-read, Atsiko. I said —

    >>But I have learned over the years that an editor can take an okay or good book and transform it into something sooo much better. >>

    Not trying to condemn or cut at anyone, Atsiko. A book can be good, but would always be better with the poking and prodding of an editor. Always. And yes, I’ll stand by that.

    I’m a good writer. At times an excellent writer. But I *always* need an editor to pull that last bit of excellence and darkness and poetry of language and plot out of me. Self published books — if that is what you are talking about — seldom have the benefit of an experienced, NYC publishing house editor. The novels would *always* be better for it.

  • Emily

    So the trick is writing a book that is good enough that an agent can sell it to an editor who believes that it is worth the work he or she will put in with the author to take it from “good enough” to really really good (maybe even great.)

    That makes sense to me. I mean, I found that writing a dissertation and writing everything I’ve written, articles, essays, proposals, whatever… they are always better after someone (dissertation director, advisor, colleague, etc…) have looked at it. It is especially true when they are already experts in their fields.

  • Exactly, Emily. I’ve worked with unpublished writers all my professional life, and several have gone on to be commercially published. But no matter how great I thought the book / short story / whatever was after my suggestions and the suggestions of others (as in the writing group I was part of for years) the work was exponentially better by pub date, after a professional editor got through with it. Any book, any writer, any written anything is better for the help of an expert.

  • I’ve worked with unpublished writers all my professional life, and several have gone on to be commercially published.

    *raises hand* 😀

  • (laughing) Thanks, Misty.

  • Without my editor, I wouldn’t be half the writer I am. I has taught me so much over the years and continues to teach me to this day. Yes, I need less editing now. But I ALWAYS need some editing. Are my books publishable when I finish them? Yeah, maybe. But I’m not aiming for publishable; I’m aiming for the best book I’m capable of producing, and that requires the help and input of an editor, a copy editor, a proofer, not to mention beta readers. As I’ve said before, none of us is perfect. We all need a second or third set of eyes. Great post, Faith.

  • >>the help and input of an editor, a copy editor, a proofer, not to mention beta readers

    (slaps own head) I left out half the crew! You are so right, David. Um… it takes a village…
    (laughing) Sorry….

  • I’m not mis-reading, nor am I attamepting to reference self-publishing.

    And if I ever get published, I have no plans to resist the editor on principle or in practice.

    I’m just rainsing a few questions. I understand that editors in general improve books, at least to an extent. Any outside eye can do so, really, though editors have more experience with it. [insert lecture on golden word syndrome, and mary sues, being too close to the work and writer’s darlings, etc]. Nathan Bradsford had an interesting post on his experience with an editor that agrees muchly with this post.

    I’m curious, though, as to what qualifies an editor to be an expert. There are editors who are writers, and writers who are editors, and there are editors and writers who are *only* editors and writers. So where do editors gain this talent for improving on the work of writers? Is it just practice critiquing?

  • If only my beta readers/proof readers would get back to me soon…

  • Faith, I love your house analogy. Every house sells, but some sell fast because of location (genre), amenities (name), and construction (quality), and some sell slow because of the same. I am a card-carrying believer that the right editor can take a good book and make it tons better. That is their JOB. They study the trends like we study our characters, and they live and breathe this stuff. I’ve talked to you before about confusing editing and how frustrating it is. I need an editor too, and when I don’t get good editing, my work suffers. (Disclaimer: I love my editor at EOS. We are a very good fit.)

    Oh, and I have to disagree with means If a book isn’t publishable as is, an editor won’t touch it to begin with. They only work with the ones that are, right there, that instant. One the spot. What makes it even more frustrating is that sailable means they can make money on it, not that it’s necessarly a fantastic story. Location, amenities, and quality.

  • Er, some of my post fell out because I used hml tags. That last paragraph should be:

    Oh, and I have to disagree with –take an okay or good book and transform it into something sooo much better– means –that writers are incapable of writing a publishable book on their own– If a book isn’t publishable as is, an editor won’t touch it to begin with. They only work with the ones that are, right there, that instant. One the spot. And you have to remember that sailable does not always equal good. Sailable means they can make money on it. Location, amenities, and quality.

  • Thanks, Kim. We’ve had lots of chats about the importance of an editor, her being the *right* editor, building a relationship with that editor, with that editor being interested in and *behind* a book. When the fit isn’t good, the book suffers. For the rest of you, over tea, Kim and I have broken editor relationship problems down (though she may add some) thusly:

    Sometimes a relationship can’t be built. Just like in RL, when: 1)methods of communication fail to impart emotional overtones, 2) you say one thing and the other person hears something else, 3) you feel like you are banging your head against a wall when you talk to him / her, 4) when emails fail to elicit a response, and phone calls are no better 5) he / she does not respond to your attempts at communication 6) he /she has just been moved from one part of a pub house to another and he / she has never edited a book in your genre and keeps trying to remake it into something else {a romance, mystery, soap opera, whatever}. There are other problems, but these seem to be the most common.

    My first editor at Warner Books and I *did not* communicate well at all. We were speaking different languages. Most unpleasant. My editor at MIRA was totally wonderful. It was like talking to my next door neighbor. No problem building a relationship there. I am still building a relationship with my new editor at ROC but she is *very* knowledgeable and charming and I really like her.

    Atsiko, I think your question is worthy of an entire blog and I will respond next week. (Putting on thinking cap)

  • AJ made me snort.

    From reading agent’s blogs there seem to be a fair number of people querying unfinished novels, stories that needs critiquing, and stuff that lacks polish. More people need to understand the amount of work required before a book will get serious consideration. As long as they don’t understand, it sure helps the rest of us who do.

  • NGDave — you hit it on the head. A well crafted query, offering a finished novel, in the agent’s / editor’s genre is a delight to them.

  • Beatriz

    AJ– Pssss…. I’m from Jersey and I know how to hide a body. Just part of the services we provide here at MW. Just sayin’.

    David writes: “Without my editor, I wouldn’t be half the writer I am. I has taught me so much over the years. . .”

    Thank you for proving the editor’s value in such a concrete manner, David– and for making me laugh so hard my cubemates thought I’d gotten a hyena.

    *ducks and runs before she gets schmacked*

  • Beatriz, since I work slowly I’ll send it up in three separate trunks and a hat box. Skulls are a swine, aren’t they?

  • AJ, darlin, be sure to double or triple bag in ziplocks. Hatboxes are not waterproof as a rule…

  • Hmmm. I should have signed that Faith — who has actually packaged limbs for shipping…

  • Ah, Beatriz, my darlin’. I’m from NY, and I know a little about disposing of bodies, too. Beware. 😉

    Yeah, I probably should have caught that one….

  • Some publishers prefer unagented writers. Our mentor and many others in the SF genre do not have agents even though they have published more than 10 books. Does having an agent matter if it irks the publisher? I think our mentor’s publisher is expecting us to send her our book when we finish it. If the publisher takes new writers’ primarily without agents, and she takes our book, does the lack of an agent hurt us in any way? The publisher says you need an agent once you get enough book sales to worry about foreign publishing rights, movie rights and game rights. Any thoughts from the published on here about this?

  • Angela, there are lots of pubs and small presses who will work without an agent. MIRA Books was one, and it is a pretty large pub. But I’d never sell without an agent. The problems with working unagented (to name a very few of the very many) are:
    1) contract negotiations. the pub *always* has the upper hand. the writer has no one to push for rights
    2) subsidiary rights
    3) rights in perpetuity. many pubs now try to get this and hide it in legal speak
    4) no one to read and approve the contract. you can pay a lawyer, but you’ll end up with less money in your pocket anyway. and there are *very* few good lawyers with that speciality
    5) no one to take *you* to the next level, pull a book from a pub when it needs to go to a better one.
    6) no one to help you hone your work to take *it* to the next level.

    Tamar Myers was offered a contract by a pub and then contacted an agent and said, “I’m sold, will you negotiate the contract?” The agent took one look and said, “You are giving away *everything* NO! I’ll submit your book to XYZ Pub and GHJ Pub. Tamar got a *much* better contract. Just one of many stories like this.

    Of course if you are talking about a self pub or vanity press, or even a *very* small electronic press, there is no money to worry about anyway, unless you are talking erotica, which is making lots of money in the e-market.

    Go to one of the sites that lists scams and make sure your chosen pub isn’t one of them.

  • Thanks for that info Faith.
    Some of the guys on here may have an idea which publisher it is (because they know me from conventions) but I’m not going to say. I think we will send her the book when it is finished and see what happens, but read any contract with care.

  • You are welcome, Angela. Good luck!