The Harriet Walsh series

Working with an Editor

This is the process my editor and I use for each Hal book, and I thought I'd share because it really is a great way to work. I'm not combative about my precious creations, and will happily throw out characters, scenes and whole chapters to make something better. My editor, on the other hand, is not being paid to read eighteen versions of the same manuscript, and therefore needs to rein in my wild brushcutting tendencies.

Oh, and if you're one of those writers who can't bear the thought of having a stranger go over your manuscript and come up with fourteen pages of notes and comments, perhaps you shouldn't read on.

Still here? Let's get on with it then.

I've worked with Janet Blagg on my past three four novels, and we've come up with a system which works very well for both of us. In each case the goal was to turn a finished draft into the best possible book prior to publication. Because I wrote the first three novels before I got a publishing contract we had to work with existing material, which is the situation most new writers will find themselves in. With the fourth book we almost started with a fresh slate.

During the first stage my editor reads the draft with a pencil in one hand and a notebook in the other. Small comments go straight onto the manuscript, while bigger queries go into the notebook. (Editors are good at this kind of multitasking, while some authors panic if they receive two emails while looking up their current Amazon ranking.)

When the editor has finished I drop by her office and we discuss the book. I'm really lucky - I'm only 20 minutes from my publisher's premises, but the phone will do just as well. We skim over the main problems she's come up with, and about eight hours later (kidding!) she hands me the marked up manuscript and a bundle of notes.

Driving home, I have 20 minutes to reflect on our discussion. My highly trained mind is already glossing over the worst bits and my finely tuned optimistic nature is working flat out to convince me the whole book isn't a total disaster. Usually I don't crash into anyone.

Once I get home my first job is to attack the comments, noting the changes I'm going to have to make to fix plot flaws, weak characters and so on. I prepare a precis of the whole book as it now stands, which is a base for me to work from. I use my own yWriter tool for this, because it allows me to add a short summary to every scene in the book, then print only the summaries.

Not every manuscript needs this much work!
Once I've made a precis I start altering it to encompass my editor's comments. This can involve major changes: dropping scenes, adding new ones, completely altering character motivations and changing the plot. Because I'm not physically cutting into my text it's easier to throw out material. (The hard bit comes later, when you really have to do it.) I don't look at the comments in the manuscript yet.

When the new precis is in order I have a plot which often bears little resemblance to the original. During the contruction of this outline I'll email my editor with queries and we'll often discuss plot points. When I'm done, I send the whole outline off to her.

At some publishing houses editors are under pressure to turn books around quickly, and novels are just given a light edit.
A few days later it comes back with more queries. I tackle those, and bit by bit we negotiate our way towards the new plot. I'm forced to justify my changes, and often have to add new scenes to flesh out my characters and explain why they're doing certain things.

When the outline is approved, I start on the book itself. This is where I watch an 80,000 word 'finished' manuscript become a 55,000 word half-a-book in one or two hours of savage cutting. All removed text is carefully backed up, because I've been known to slip bits in again when I thought the editor wasn't looking.

Just a reminder that my first three novels were already written when I got a contract - hence the large amount of editing work. My fourth novel should be less work since I've - hopefully - learnt a bit by now.
At this point I'm faced with writing almost a third of a novel from scratch. It's the toughest part of the whole process for me, because I've already written it once and then convinced myself the book was done. With two or three months in hand I usually procrastinate like crazy, and around this stage I start to decorate the house, invent new computer programs and try to break the record for hours spent browsing the web in one sitting. Eventually, though, the deadline looms closer. Suddenly I have six weeks, five weeks ... and then I start work in earnest.

I have my scenes in yWriter, graded by their state of completion (outline, draft, 1st edit, 2nd edit, done) Usually I have 30 scenes tagged as 'outline', 60 as 'drafts' and a smattering of '1st edits'. Every day I use yWriter to print an automatic worksheet based on the time left, and that might say I have to turn three outline scenes into draft scenes (per day) over the next three weeks, then 9 draft scenes into 1st edit scenes per day over the subsequent fortnight.

As I do each task I update the completion status for those scenes, which automatically updates the following day's worksheet. If I skip a day, doing nothing, the scenes I should have worked on are spread out over the remaining days. It's a fantastic tool, first because it keeps the work to a manageable daily load, and second because you can tell long in advance whether it's physically possible to complete the book in time. (With Hal 3 I needed an extra fortnight, but I knew that 3 weeks out from the deadline. With Hal 4 I needed another month, and told my publisher so six weeks before the actual deadline.)

Does the finished book always fit the carefully prepared outline? No way! I use the outline as a guide, but will sometimes call my editor and explain why something just won't work. Often I'll discover I was too ambitious in the outline stage, and during the actual writing I'll pare it back to something approaching the original plot. I know this, of course, which is why I allow myself to go wild during the outlining process.

Next I grab the original manuscript my editor marked up, and apply all the fixes that still pertain to the new manuscript. Remember that one third of the book just disappeared, so there was no point doing this earlier.

In a similar vein, none of the editing so far has had anything to do with grammar, spelling or punctuation. We're shaping the book with a chainsaw, not applying coats of fine varnish.

When all the scenes have been written and/or updated to '1st edit' status (ie they're near-finished, and don't contain any notes or comments to myself about fixes I still have to apply), I print out a hard copy. This is where I stop working on the PC and switch to my trusty red pen. I'll print and edit 8-10 complete drafts like this, 350-400 pages at a time, updating yWriter with all the changes after each pass. With each draft the changes are more and more trivial, until I end up with an entire draft which I can read without a red pen in my hand. (I leave the pen on the sofa/bed/desk and steel myself not to pick it up unless I really, really have to change something.)

Now it's ready for my editor. I have a finished manuscript which more-or-less matches the outline I gave her months earlier, apart from two new characters, a completely different plot, and a bunch of aliens arriving in chapter 12 (subtle Miss Snark reference, there).

I send this final draft to my editor as a Word Doc so she can print it out and write on it. When she's done I go to see her, and we have a carbon copy of the earlier meeting but with lesser problems. Hopefully.

I drive home, load the doc file, set 'track changes' to ON and go to work, evaluating each new suggestion. I'll either change my version to clarify things, or add a comment explaining why I left it alone. When I'm completely done I email the file back - and from now on, we only work electronically. (My editor and I use the comments feature in Word to joke back and forth about changes, the book, and anything else which comes up during the process. It's a bit like an IRC session via manuscript, but it all adds to the fun.)

Once my editor has checked all my changes, skipping from one to the next rather than reading the whole book again, she applies them or not, commenting on the ones she didn't think were so hot. (Or, best case, adding a comment that she really liked something I've done.) She'll often tweak the wording in the new bits with tracked changes switched on, and when she's done she sends me the file back. (Usually after 2-3 days) There are usually a few more comments at this stage, perhaps little things in the book which aren't quite right, or could be improved just a touch. Any grammar and punctuation issues are also addressed now. (See why there's no point typing your first draft with grammar and spell checker enabled?)

I go through and chuck all these new changes out, just to show who's boss ... no wait, this is real life. Actually, I generally agree with 99% of the suggestions, and I apply them and add my own little flourishes. For example, she might suggest a slight rewording on one particular sentence, and I'll take the suggestion to mean there was something wrong with it, rather than 'this is what it should be'. Then I address the comments, one by one, which usually means rewriting a couple of bits and sticking in more text.

That usually takes me a day or less, and I send back this final version with my last tweaks in. We go back and forth quickly, over the course of twenty-thirty minutes, and then we speak on the phone to congratulate ourselves.

And yippee, we're done. Each Hal Spacejock book underwent 5-6 months of work AFTER I handed in the original draft, which is why I laugh out loud when people say they don't want an editor messing with their text. A first draft is just a lump of clay, and it's what you fashion out of it that defines the finished novel.

Incidentally, yWriter is available as a free download from my software site. It runs on all Windows PCs, and it's very very good at helping you create and revise a novel.

Please remember that none of my articles are meant to discourage. In fact, they're all written for the me of ten years ago, the writer who was ready to take the next step but didn't know what that step was.

About the author: Simon Haynes is the author of over 25 novels. He also designed and created yWriter.

Stay in touch!

Follow me on
Facebook or Twitter