Monday, March 5, 2012

Writing Help - content edits

We're about to receive our "edit letter" on our latest book. This is what some editors call the “first pass edits” and what others call the “style edits” or “content edits.” The basic concept of these edits is to do an overall look at the book.

When a lot of aspiring writers think of edits, they have in mind what are actually considered copy edits in the industry, (also called the "second pass" edits or sometimes the "line edits",) where grammar, composition, spelling and such come into play. Second pass edits are all about tense and word choice, adjectives and dangling participles. But in first pass edits, it’s all about the book as a whole. Character personalities, time lines of the world, and even the world itself (rules of the reality) are fair game. This is the kind of edits that make new authors bite their fingernails down to the quick while waiting for a reply. “Will s/he love my heroine?” “Was the ending surprising enough?” “Is the sex hot enough?” Etc., etc.

What’s a lot of fun is when the editor really likes the story and can think of all kinds of things to make it better! Ideas fly back and forth, either during a phone call, a meeting or through rapid-fire emails. Logic holes big enough to drive a truck through will make you slap your forehead with a pained, “D’oh!” and concerns about character flaws can make you either worry or defend your beloved ideas vigorously.

But what usually happens is that both the author and the editor think about the READER and what the reader wants to read, rather than what the author wants to write. This is where art meets business. Everybody tells an author “Write the best book possible.” But what does that really mean? Write it for WHO? What I, as an author, usually consider the best book is the one I sweated and struggled over for weeks, months or even years. I wrote it and I love it just as it is.

But is it the best book for the reader? How do you know? Ah, therein lies the path to madness.

Because readers are so very different, and all you have to judge on a debut book in a new series is what they’ve liked in the past. If it’s new and different, it might be that your best effort won’t meet the readers’ expectations. How many books have you picked up that’s a “wallbanger”— where you wonder what sort of drugs the author (and editor) were on to consider the book good enough to put on the shelf for money?

In fact, many aspiring authors I’ve coached have even mentioned that one of the main reasons they decided to write a book is because “I can write better than half of the stuff on the shelf.” That may or may not be true, of course, because what one reader considers utter dreck is the next person's favorite book of all time.

Authors tend to trust their editor on matters of business. After all, it’s their job to know what readers will buy, and craft their edits wisely so that the final book will appeal to the most number of readers possible. Ultimately, the "best book possible" is the one that sells the greatest number of books, rather than being a book that's desperately loved by a very few people.

I mention all of this because several of the edits I need to make are to the character’s background. “It’s too much for one person to bear,” was one comment on a heroine. “Can you remove a couple of these? The reader is going to be swimming before they’re halfway through the book.” She went on to list the burdens we’d heaped upon our poor character. There were eleven major crises in her present-day life and past that she had to deal with. Admittedly, that IS a lot to manage over the course of just a few days (the plot time line of the book.) So, Cie and I talked it over and said, yes, you’re probably right. We can probably remove #3 and #10, and oh, #11? That’ll be resolved by the end of book 3, so let’s leave it in book 1. Our editor sent a smiley face and thanked us for being willing to make the changes. She appreciated that we understood the business of . . . well, the business. We want the reader to have an enjoyable read, a fast and furious read that makes it a fun experience. So then I had to go in and actually REMOVE all mentions of #3 and #10, and restructure her responses to things that might be because of those issues. It will mean a few sleepless nights but I do agree with the editor that the book will be better for it.

What will the upcoming letter hold? Hard to say. It could be an expansion of the ending, or a change in subcharacters, or even removal of text. But again, it's all about the reader and what will make it fun for THEM!

How about the rest of you who are published (and those who aren’t.) Have you read books that you wish the author and editor had had more conversation about the plot and characters before it was released into the wild? Or do you like to read exactly what comes out of the author’s head, no matter whether it flows well? Everybody is different, after all, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts. :D


  1. I do wonder at times if authors become less and less likely to agree with their editors the more books they write and have published. I imagine a writer would become more egotistical and not likely give credit where due.

    Or is it the opposite? Do writers tend to give up more to the editor once they realize they were right about what readers want?

    When I create software, I always get feedback from those who will be using the software. Usually, they come up with suggestions I didn't think about. If they have to use it, they really should have input. Likewise, the readers know what they like.

    As a reader, I don't want to read everything that comes from the author's head, because when that happens (I've seen it in many self-published books) I feel the presence of the author when I should be experiencing the story.

  2. I like it when things flow and seem natural. Whether that's straight from the author's keyboard to my brain or from the editor's letter to the author's keyboard to my brain, I have no idea :)

    I've found a lot of times, when reading a book/author I really enjoy, I can't tell you why I love it so much or why I think it works so wonderfully. It just does. (I think it goes along with the 'good writing is not self-aware' adage. To me, good reading isn't self-aware either. it's a engulfing/entrancing experience.)

    But I usually notice right away when something clangs around unnecessarily.

  3. I always have great admiration for your writing. This is always a great exciting and interesting to read your post. Keep doing such good work. Thanks a ton for sharing.

  4. Diane, I've found that I give more credit to the editor than demand my way. Once I trust an editor, I know the comments they make are for the betterment of the book.

    Lee, I think some of the best writers are that way because they've learned so much from the various editors they've had. Every editor for every publisher has taught me something new. Writing is a continual learning and growing process.

    Thanks, Kevin! Glad you enjoy my posts. I hope they're of help to you (or at least interesting!)