Help Me Help You (The Editorial Process Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about the editorial process and why it takes so long, and I promised that the next one would be suggestions and strategies writers can use to make that process go more smoothly and, hopefully, a little bit faster. In the interim, I have finished up edits on one big book, acquired two more manuscripts to edit, and written two difficult chapters in my own WIP. So, you know, the monster lurches on. But anyway, as promised ….

Stop Sending Me Your Ratsafrackin First Draft: And trust me, I can always tell. I’m starting with the harshest, most blame-the-writer-y directive because this is the one factor in the process that you, the writer, can absolutely control. I don’t care if you’re Stephen King, N.K. Jemisin, or Charles Dickens finishing Edwin Drood from beyond the grave, your first draft is NOT the draft you want me to see. Because it is not the draft you want the reader to see. Because the reader does not live inside your skin and will never, ever, ever understand it or engage with it or love it the way you do. You know that vitally important thing you figured out about your protagonist just as you were turning the corner on the second act? And that amazingly mind-blowing twist that came to you in the shower just when you thought you were stuck? And the way you kept going back and forth on how to spell the supernatural antagonist’s surname? All of that stuff needs to be revisited and worked through the manuscript as a whole (a hint of foreshadowing here, a corrected spelling there) before you submit it to an editor. And no, Grasshopper, running it through search and replace will NOT take care of it.

At the end of your first draft, you have the story, you have an arc. But you haven’t made it plain what’s important and what isn’t; you’re still just then at that moment figuring out which details the reader needs to notice and which details need to barely register and hang around in the back of their brain until you start setting off your bottle rockets and springing your traps. You probably have a few rockets and traps you haven’t even set up yet. And if you don’t go through your story again and refine your rhythms and shore up your foundations and fix your continuity snafus before you send the thing to me, I’m going to have to do it for you. And even if your first draft is really good and you and I have worked together really well for a really long time, I’m not ever going to be able to do it as well as you could because it’s not my story. I’m gonna screw it up. And that’s gonna piss you off. And we’re going to have to not only fix the problems, we’re going to have to get past the fact that I pissed you off and that you pissed ME off by sending me a first draft you weren’t really ready to see edited. And that’s going to slow our process down.

And btw, kittens, this goes double for anybody submitting for publication in the first place. Any time a writer tells me they’ve sent out a project to a dozen editors and gotten a dozen rejections and they’re ready to give up writing and join the circus, I ask them, “how many drafts did you write before you sent it out? How many other people read it and gave you feedback on it? How much rewriting did you do based on that feedback?” If they tell me several and lots, I sympathize and offer to help however I can. If they tell me they just finished it, got their mom to proofread it, and sent it out, I wish them luck with the elephants. Also, if you’re one of those super-artistic pantser types who writes your stories in a supernatural fever of inspiration from beginning to end, letting the muse and the characters tell you where your story needs to go until you collapse over your keyboard, spent and done with a story that’s a piece of your very soul still dripping tears and hearts’ blood, too precious to be imperfect . . . yeah, don’t send me that shit. Save us both a lot of heartache.** And on a related note . . .  

Don’t Send Me an Unfinished Draft: If you’ve still got one more piece of research to do or one more plot hole to fill or one more subplot to work out or one more name to choose or one more scene to write, you aren’t ready to show me your story, and I don’t want to see it. Nothing sends me into a rage frenzy faster than spending hours and hours editing a book, sending it to an author with my notes, and having them send me back a completely different, completely rewritten book that doesn’t so much address my concerns as render them moot. Because when that happens, I have to start all over again, and everything I did before was useless. And that makes me testy. If you’re not ready to submit, it’s okay; I’ll totally understand. Keep working until you’re ready to send me what you consider to be the finished form of your book.

But please note, this doesn’t mean I won’t make any changes or suggestions or comments. It means the changes, suggestions, and comments I do make will come only from stuff you couldn’t possibly have seen from the inside. That’s the whole point of editing. I work with so many writers who seem to take every critical note I give their story as some kind of commentary on their talent or intelligence—nothing could be further from the truth. Like I said in my last post, I already know you’re an amazing writer. If I tell you I don’t understand why Sally Jane killed the fly with her flipflop in Chapter 9, make it clear she didn’t have a fly swatter. Don’t feel like you have to rewrite the universe so flies don’t exist. You don’t have to be perfect; you can’t be perfect. I’m certainly not, and neither is any other writer. This is a process, not a test. I’m not grading you; we’re making a product together. So relax and work with me, okay?

Meet Your Deadlines: Which I know sounds like a complete contradiction to everything I’ve written so far. But here’s the deal with deadlines. We set them, usually in a collaboration between the writer, me, and the publisher, not just so we have one but so we can plan ahead for all the other steps that have to happen to make the great story you made up into an actual book for publication and for the glorious moment when that book is finally released into the world. If shit happens and for whatever reason you can’t make that deadline, we are not going to be mad at you or fuss at you; we’re going to totally understand and give you whatever time you need. But we’re not going to bring the big machine that is the publishing house to a grinding stop to wait for you to finish; we’re going to move on. Your book loses its place in line; the next finished book behind you moves up into your slot. So when you do turn your book in and ask me “so when’s this going to come out?” I’m going to tell you, “I don’t know, but probably no time soon.” Not because I’m mad you missed your deadline, not because I’m not still wildly excited about your book; I’m not and I am. But just like at the doctor’s office, I gotta work you in. So if your book was due on December 1, 2020, for a release on May 1, 2021, that doesn’t mean if you turn it in on February 1, 2021, it’s going to come out July 1, 2021. Other people’s books are already taking up that space. It means it’s going to come out just as soon as we can get it through the editorial pipeline and find a spot on the roster for it. So it might just come out May 1, 2022. (I say this with authority—the dates I used in the previous example were my own when I missed my original deadline for Stella 4. It was meant to be a ConCarolinas release, but it wasn’t ready for ConCarolinas 2021. So we held it until ConCarolinas 2022.) Again, it’s not that anybody blames you or doesn’t understand why you couldn’t make your deadline. It means your missing your deadline threw off the schedule, and we’ve gotta find a way to make it work.

Be Flexible and Let Go: Like the deadline thing, this is not something you have to do or even that you always should do or even can do. But the more you can do it, the less time it’s going to take to get your book through the editorial pipeline and out into the world. I’m talking about stuff like editorial suggestions, copy edits, and cover art. Your book is your book; that is never in question. And it’s only natural that you should have a vision for it as a story and as an object and that you should care deeply about that vision. But if you don’t trust a publisher to know what they’re doing in polishing and packaging your book, don’t sign with that publisher. Don’t roll over and play dead; if you have an idea or a problem, speak up, that’s part of your job as a writer. The trick is realizing which details really matter and which you can give up.

As far as editing, my own process as a writer is simple. I get my edits, and I read them, and every nice thing slides through my brain so fast I barely see it and every criticism digs in like a rusty fishhook and makes me scream. And scream I do, and cuss, and disparage the ungodly entity that brought me to this pain (my editor) in every possible way for anywhere from ten minutes to two days. And then I read them again and realize not everything is quite so egregious as I thought it was. At that point, I’m able to start the process of making decisions as to what the editor is dead right about and what they might be right about and what they’re so wrong about I can’t stand it and what I can let go. And that’s the version of my response that my editor actually sees, and usually, we work it through very well and come up with a version that pleases us both.

Cover art might be trickier because I have a weird outlook on it. I got so battle-scarred with my first big publisher regarding cover art, anything that doesn’t make me cry seems glorious to me now. Other authors are very much not the same. Again, you gotta be you, but for your own sake, I’m going to say this. The people choosing and/or creating your cover art know a lot more about that process than you do, including what’s selling and what isn’t, and you couldn’t be objective enough to be smart about it even if they didn’t. This is your story; it’s been living in your  head and your heart for a long, long time before you ever start thinking about cover art. So nothing anybody else can think of, find, or create will ever match the vision in your head in a way that feels adequate to you. But the less you’re willing to compromise, the more tightly you clutch that Platonic ideal of a cover in your head, the longer it’s going to take for your book to come out. And sadly, the less likely it is that you’re going to get another contract with that publisher—again, cover artists are busy people, too, and usually quite expensive. So don’t let us make your book ugly. But don’t die on that hill.

Sorry this is so long, but I hope it helps. Bottom line, I want your book to be the best it can possibly be and to come out into the world as fast as it possibly can. You know, just like you do. So let’s do it together.

**PLEASE NOTE: I do not mean to suggest pantsers don’t write great books; of course they do. But the good ones take that first exploratory draft and craft it into something leaner and more focused that speaks to the reader as clearly as it spoke to them. No, I’m being hateful about the pantsers who feel that once they’ve typed “The End,” they’re done, that any change will mar the chaotic perfection of their art. And yeah, I got no time for that.

Protect Your Through Line. Be Batman.

My fiction writing teacher in college told us there are only two kinds of stories: character stories and situation stories. In a character story, the protagonist evolves over the course of the action from one thing into another—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rocky, and “The Ugly Duckling” are all character stories. In situation stories, the protagonist(s) is/are dropped into a negative situation, and the action of the story is how she or he or they deals/deal with it—Moby Dick, Twelve Years a Slave, and Night of the Living Dead are all situation stories. Most stories have some crossover back and forth—the hero of a character story evolves by dealing with a series of situations; the poor saps in a situation story might well be changed forever by their harrowing experience. But the spine of the story is one or the other; the reason the story exists is to demonstrate either how this person evolves or how this person or these people get out of the mess they’re in.

My fiction writing teacher in college was wrong about a lot of stuff, but I think in this case, he was right on the money because what he’s actually talking about is a through line, and every good story has one. The greatest hook, the most interesting characters, the most mind-blowing world-building fiction has ever known won’t save a story that wanders all over the place and takes forever to figure out what it’s trying to say or, worse, never seems to figure it out at all. Yes, you need to grab the reader’s attention; yes, you need to show them something they haven’t seen before or haven’t seen in quite that way before. But more important than all of that, you have to give them something to hold on to at the very beginning that they can keep clutched in their fist all the way to the end. They have to know what or whom to root for and why. Otherwise, they are just not going to care.

From my reading, I would say the biggest and most common problem talented and hardworking new and indie writers have is their through line–either not knowing what their through line is or not making it plain to the reader early enough to do them any good or not following it through to the end. This is the single most common reason why they aren’t getting paid for the stuff they’ve worked so hard to write, why they aren’t getting accepted by publishers, why the stuff they publish themselves isn’t selling. (Untalented and lazy new and indie writers don’t sell because they suck.) And it feels really complicated; it feels like a hard fix—I actually had to look up the definition of through line before I started this because it’s such a vague and floofy concept. But you can train yourself to recognize the through line in other stories pretty easily, and once you’ve done that, it becomes easier to find your own.

So how do you find it? Step one: is it a character story or a situation story? Step two for a character story: how does the character evolve? Who are they in the beginning? Who are they in the end? How do the different things that happen in the story change them from that first thing into that second thing? Step two for a situation story: what’s the problem? How do they fix it? At first glance, the situation story looks simplest, and it can be—there’s a reason why murder mysteries and Godzilla movies never go out of style. But a good situation story can be incredibly artful and complex, and a good character story can be packed front to back with action. Every origin story about every superhero ever written is a character story—mayhem does indeed ensue, but only so Superhero can deal with it and thereby become the Superhero she or he is meant to be.

Actually, the best example I can think of to demonstrate what I’m talking about is the trilogy of Batman movies written by Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Because they are action movies about a superhero, they might all three seem like situation stories. But in fact, both Batman Begins and  The Dark Knight Rises are very much character stories that exist primarily to show the evolution of the character of their protagonist. In Batman Begins, every incident that occurs leads Bruce Wayne further down the path to becoming Batman. It’s not a single situation to be managed but a series: Escape the audience of an opera about bats; survive the mugging; try and fail to make a new life as an orphan; try and fail to get revenge on his parents’ killer; go off to Asia to feeeeeeel something; take the blue flower to the top of the mountain; etc., etc., etc.—this is why haters like me think this movie takes foreeeeeeeeeever to get started, but in fact, it’s a very carefully and deliberately crafted character story that begins with Bruce Wayne as a child and ends when Batman saves the day and becomes a superhero in the imagination of Gotham City.  The Dark Knight Rises is almost the same story in reverse. Batman begins the story as a feared and hated public figure and through a series of incidents that thwart his efforts to be a superhero at every turn evolves back into private citizen Bruce Wayne. Only The Dark Knight is a situation story—it’s Godzilla, and the Joker is the monster. It’s complex, beautifully crafted, and has amazing character work throughout, but the point, the spine, the through line is, the Joker appears, and Batman has to deal with him.

But what’s all this fannish movie commentary got to do with the writing we’re doing now? Picking the spine out of a story that’s already grossed a couple of billion dollars is easy because that story already exists; how do we apply this mind trick to our own stuff? By doing it in the second draft. Every how-to book on fiction writing in the universe will tell you every story starts with a “what if?” Your first draft is for exploring that, following it down all the dark alleys and squiggly forest paths, spending half a chapter inside the head of the villain “remembering” childhood abuse, getting to know the characters, finding out shocking secrets you never dreamed they had when you started, letting them lead you along, letting the incidents lead you along, cause and effect. Your first draft is an organic, growing, evolving, mutating monster, and it’s your precious baby, and you love it, and you should, every little morsel of it. But in the second draft, after you’ve put that baby away long enough to forget just how hard it was to make, that’s when you find that spine, that through line. That’s when you look for evolution in your main character and look at the situations they survive and decide which one is more important for your story—what does your story spend more time and energy pursuing? Where do you start? Where do you end? What exactly are you trying to say? Are you all about your character, or is it all about the situation? Define that through line. (And by the way, if this story is part of a series, you have to do this for every single installment. Telling yourself it will all make sense by Volume 3 is the primrose path to disaster.)

Then comes the REALLY hard part. You have to jettison every single freakin’ thing that does not serve that through line. ALL OF IT. If you start out with an aaaaaaa-maaaaaaa-zing action hook about two kickass characters who create the MacGuffin then disappear for the rest of the story, guess what? They’re outta here! And if you finally figured out in Chapter 9 that the protagonist is really a werewolf trying to find a cure, guess what? Chapter 9 just became Chapter 1 – or at least some elements of it have got to be moved to the front. Again, if I had to pick one problem that I see over and over again, that would be it—stories that start in the wrong place or wander off across cool but pointless pastures of narrative in the middle. And it’s all because the writer skipped that second draft. Before you start worrying about typos or commas or markets, you have got to deal with that. Find your through line. Polish it up, make it so shiny your reader can’t help but grab it and hold on to the end. Be Batman.