Ask Me Anything: Editing a Novel

Today I’m answering a couple of questions about editing novels.

Greg Lewolt asks:

“Editing, what condition is your manuscript in when you finally send it off to get edited? How much freedom do they have to make changes?, and what is the Capital of Washing D.C?, I can’t find the answer anywhere…”

When I deliver a manuscript to my publisher, it’s complete. It has “Chapter 1” and “The End” and everything in between. But it’s rough. By design, I pound out the first draft just to get the story down on paper.

My editor knows that what’s coming will be ugly. I submit a first draft so that she can see the gargoyle while it’s young. That way, she can offer editorial suggestions sooner rather than later.

As for the publisher’s freedom to make changes: they have plenty. But they’ve never, ever forced a change on me. That’s largely because, by the time I submit the first draft, my agent and editor have gone through months of brainstorming and development with me, listening to my ideas for the book, for the basic plot, for the characters. They offer suggestions and let me know if my ideas aren’t going to fly. By the time I actually write the novel, they’ve seen outlines and treatments and are confident that the book is going to work as a whole.

When I deliver a manuscript, my editor at Penguin Random House reads it and sends me an editorial letter. Every author gets one of these. It consists of many pages of comments and proposed edits. We authors generally spend a day or two standing over these letters with a blowtorch before deciding that yes, the editor knows what she’s talking about, and the changes she suggests will strengthen the novel. But, as the editor always tells me: the letter is the beginning of a conversation about the book. It’s not a decree.

After I rewrite, my editor will read the revised manuscript and offer additional notes. Once I revise again (and maybe again), she sends the book to a copyeditor. The copyeditor reads for continuity, grammar, spelling, usage, plot holes, and factual errors. When those edits come back, I have the freedom to accept or reject any changes.

I sit in my office all year, alone, typing. But publishing a book is a collaborative process. And all my novels are better for it.

DJ Paterson asks:

“I’ve got a two-parter for you, Meg O’Death:

a) If you compared that first dirty draft to the polished gem of a published novel, what percentage will have survived the rounds of editing (and I’m talking about physical words, sentences, paragraphs, and not story)?

b) In your writing process, how long does it take you to wrangle a first draft into shape compared to getting that original draft down on paper?

Actually, maybe this is only one question, asked in two different ways.”

I’d guess that half the words in the rough draft end up in the same position in the published novel. That’s because I deliberately write shitty first drafts, and because I’ve learned not to be precious about each and every word.

It takes me three or four months to write the first draft of a novel. (2,000 words a day, 5-7 days a week.) It takes around two months to do the first major rewrite. Honestly, I enjoy rewriting. Because, after I edit, the book is so much better. Every single time.

Your mileage may vary.

Washing D.C.? To do that, you’d need a firehose with enough water pressure to clean out the entire Capitol.

2 responses to “Ask Me Anything: Editing a Novel

  1. Thanks for the question, DJ.

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