In articles and blog posts about breaking into the world of publishing, the lion’s share of attention goes to the writing craft, getting an agent, and securing a book deal. But what happens after those hurdles have been jumped? What can writers expect from their editors once the deal is sealed? And what will editors expect from writers?
Because writer-editor relationships are endlessly varied, I don’t actually have the answers to these questions. In fact, as I started writing this post, I realized that the only thing I am really qualified to talk about are my experiences working with Andrew Karre, my editor at Carolrhoda Lab. Andrew bought my first two novels, What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly, in a two-book deal back in 2009, and now I am in the beginning stages of working with Andrew on a third novel. I can’t say what it’s like for other writers, although you can find some descriptions of authors’ experiences with editors, my favorite being the five perspectives offered up here.
For the editor’s perspective, check out this post from Scholastic imprint editor Cheryl Klein, who also has a book on editing YA. Andrew will stop by the blog on Thursday to toss in his two cents on editorial work; if you want to balance some of my gushing below with more objective reporting, you can read this feature on him in Publisher’s Weekly.
Enough preliminaries. Here’s the scoop I can offer on working with my editor.
What happens after you sign the contract with a publisher? Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. I remember expecting to hear from Andrew the day after the contract was signed, but often there’s a considerable lag (months, friends) between sealing the deal and getting the feedback that will guide the revision. Editors are working on dozens of projects—all in different stages—at any given point. The good ones are expert at juggling these demands and giving each project what it needs.
Isn’t it painful to be told how to revise? To start with, I have to say that Andrew is as close to my “ideal reader” as I expect ever to find. With all three novels, he has grasped the essential aspects of the projects as well as (or better than) I did myself. This fact secures my total confidence in his intuition and editorial recommendations; on top of that, I’ve benefitted from his ability to see subterranean connections that invited development as well as other missed opportunities. So even what might have been “pain” in the process invariably felt crucial to the mission of making the book what it was meant to be.
I should also say that the thought of revision is what gets me through the agony of drafting; revision is my happy zone, where things finally come together. I don’t mind cutting scenes or paragraphs or sentences that I love. I don’t mind writing new material. I don’t mind collapsing subplots, ditching characters, or even radically altering the point of view for 100,000 words of prose. I don’t mind because when Andrew tells me to do these things, I instantly see how much sense they make. For me, Andrew’s vision manages to expand the story’s possibilities while also clarifying what needs to be done to achieve those possibilities.
How, specifically, does the editing happen? I’ve often heard writer friends discuss the editorial letter, which I’m told is a fairly formal write-up of all the things that need to be done in revision for a manuscript to be acceptable to the editor. (More discussion of the editorial letter and an example here ) The editorial letter reflects the major first pass of editing and defines the focal areas for the main revision, after which (everyone hopes) it will be mostly scene- and sentence-level rewriting.
Unless I have suffered some serious memory loss—which is possible since I gave birth to my son during the early editorial process with What Can’t Wait—I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a formal editorial letter from Andrew. Instead, we tend to have several hour-longish phone calls where he tells me what his instincts are as far as what could or should change in the manuscript and why. Perhaps what is most important to me about how these things go is that the “why” is always intimately linked to the internal logic of the novel or its essential characteristics (as opposed, for example, to trends in the market or notions of what teens can “handle”). These conversations generally entail multiple epiphanies on my part and copious note-taking. The macro-level feedback from the phone calls comes along with scene-by-scene feedback via comments and edits in Word.
After responding to the major editorial feedback (over 2-5 months), I submit to Andrew my “final” manuscript. Once he reads and accepts it, I get the second half of the advance (the first half comes with signing the contract). There is still some back and forth and perhaps even some more substantive changes, but all the major pieces are in place. There will be at least one more full read-through with comments to address before the book goes to the next stage of copy-editing (line-by-line stuff and the standardization of things like “OK” for “okay” according to the publisher’s house style), which is done by wonderful people who work under Andrew.
What’s next? Then the book goes into production, and a while later (3-6 months) I get an email with galleys that give an idea of what the manuscript will look like as a “real” book. There will also be drafts of jacket copy, which I’m glad I don’t have to write, and cover designs. With What Can’t Wait, I wasn’t in on anything until after the final cover was chosen; with The Knife and the Butterfly, I saw about a dozen preliminary designs and got to weigh in on their relative merits. From contract to the printing of advance reader copies, the process has taken between a year and two.
Any words of advice for those on the road to publishing? The truth is that—at least for your first book—you will have little say in who your editor is. Your agent will submit the book where she or he thinks it’s a good fit, and if an editor bites and makes a reasonable offer, your agent will advise you to accept. There is no room in this process for mailing editors personality tests to check for compatibility.
What you can do is embrace the editorial process as an opportunity to discover more about your novel and your work as a writer. I find that the writer-editor dynamic—inevitably centered on the book—creates an amazing triangle of insight inside of which all kinds of possibilities for the story come into focus. I hope that’s the case for many other writers, too.