In the second of two pieces about editors and editing, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog is once again pleased to welcome novelist Maddie Dawson as guest author of our latest post.
By Maddie Dawson
I thought I knew all about editing.
After all, I’d worked at a newspaper, The New Haven Register, for thirty years, handing in copy and then answering subsequent questions about the stories I wrote. The most memorable editing question came at two in the morning after I’d filed a story about a tragedy, the starving deaths of dozens of horses at a local farm that no one realized was going under. The complaint my editor had: “You didn’t explain why death is bad. Can you get someone to comment on that?”
Um, sure. But don’t we already know why death is bad? Could we just go with our gut feeling on this one?
As a freelancer for women’s magazines, I also was familiar with magazine editing. Those edits came from a different perspective: “Can you please interview a couple more sources? We’d like you to find a woman in her thirties who lives in the Midwest and who has breastfed twins and works preferably in a small office. It would also be good if she had brown hair and a mole on her nose. Oh, and also, find someone who has hired a wet nurse at one time or another and lives in a split-level ranch in Idaho and will probably divorce her husband by the end of the year.”
OK, so maybe they didn’t say precisely that, but trust me, it was close. I was always having to explain to editors that such people didn’t exist in the real world—or if they did, they weren’t in my Rolodex, and how would it be if I simply interviewed the sources I knew would have interesting things to say? “Well, if that’s the best you can do. . .” the editor would say.
Then I started writing books, and the real fun began.
I was sure I was ready for editing, ready for the teams of editors and copy-editors who would help me sharpen my prose, get to the true meat of my stories—and support my most confused and confusing efforts. At last I would have my own personal Maxwell Perkins! We would talk on the phone about plot points and adjectives! We would move commas around as though it were a team sport!
I signed with Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Crown Publishing, which is a division of Random House, and I wrote three novels with them before the imprint was shut down in a belt-tightening move by Random House. After that, I wrote two more novels for Crown.
Let me just say: I loved (and still love) my editors there! They are lovely, talented, smart women who were interested in my books and interested in me and my career, and we have had lots of great conversations over the years. Their job—and they were busy, busy, busy—was to discover authors, nurture their careers along by presenting their work and defending it to the very shadowy and scary Marketing Department, and then help to launch the book out in the world.
Although these editors sometimes needed me to shorten a scene or to tighten a chapter, we didn’t take the book apart scene by scene. Was it that there was no time for that, or that the books seemed good enough when they purchased them? Clearly they had a lot of authors they were working with—and although they were always willing to stop and take a phone call and discuss a character’s motivations, the edits they sent me were mostly suggestions about ending a scene with a cliff-hanging sentence (good advice!) or describing the character’s physical details sooner in the book (also very helpful!)
They hired copy editors to go over the nuts and bolts and semi-colons and commas of the books. These were the ones who tracked down discrepancies (thank you!) and made sure my characters kept their same names and hair color throughout the book and that they didn’t put on their coat and then three paragraphs later put on their sweater.
Then I signed my latest book with Lake Union, a division of Amazon Publishing, and found myself in a whole different world. There, not only did I have an acquisitions editor (the one who bought the book and deals with all the nuts and bolts with marketing and publishing—sort of like a general contractor who keeps tabs on my book as it moves through the system), but I also was given a developmental editor. She was a professional freelance editor who edits manuscripts full-time and doesn’t have anything to do with other aspects of the book’s publication.
She worked on the book for about a month. The manuscript, when I received it back with all its Track Changes, seemed to me to be ablaze with red lines connected to bubbles with questions in them. No page had seemingly escaped her careful scrutiny.
I have mercifully forgotten the precise number of changes and suggestions and comments she made (a number Microsoft Word so cheerfully pointed out to me). . .but trust me on this: it was in the thousands! Thousands, I tell you.
I had to take to my bed.
There was everything from formatting changes for me to accept or reject—to huge questions like, “Hmm, would she REALLY say that?” after a line of dialogue. Or, “I think this character caves too quickly in this scene. What if you don’t have her so eager to be friends right here? Maybe move to p. 156.”
In the letter that accompanied these massive changes and suggestions was high praise for the book. What?? She actually liked it, and yet she needed to see approximately 56,587 changes? There was also the assurance that this was MY book, and that I didn’t have to do anything. I could simply press a button that said REJECT CHANGES, and go back to my life.
But of course I didn’t do that. After gnashing my teeth and informing my friends and family that I couldn’t ever see them again, I set to work. Day after day for three weeks, I sat at my dining room table in my bathrobe, going over the manuscript, weighing my editor’s suggestions, rewriting scenes, rethinking characters.
I probably took 98 percent of her suggestions, because when I thought about them, they made sense to me. She had a distance and a perspective on the book that I simply couldn’t have, being so close to it. She had studied the arc of my story—an arc I’d been constructing but not ever sure was working correctly—and she knew when it faltered and when it needed oomph, and when the reader needed some sparky scene to keep her from turning off the light and going to sleep.
I found myself living for those moments when I’d come across one of her comments that would say: “Oh my God! I love this scene!” or even “I’m weeping here!” When she told me she actually loved this book, I wanted to send her roses and caviar and perhaps ask her to come live with me in my house.
By the time the book went to its next stop—copyediting—it was in mostly good shape. The copyeditor did all the fact-checking that was needed, and when I went over those edits, I learned a few more things I was grateful hadn’t slipped through the cracks.
And then—voila! The Advanced Reading Copies (known as ARCs, or galleys) were printed up, right before the final proofreading took place. Although the ARCs are close to what the final book is like, in my case, there were still a couple of things that changed—nothing big, but things I added and took out as I went through the final proofreading stage.
Having my book be so thoroughly edited has been nothing short of amazing. It’s like having a partner, someone who is so much on your side, who cares enough about what you’re doing to argue with you, make hard suggestions, listen to your concerns—and ultimately help you figure out the best answer.
The other day, when the first copies of The Survivor’s Guide To Family Happiness landed in my driveway by way of the Fed Ex guy, I opened the box with excitement—and sat immediately down and started re-reading it. With pleasure.
Editor’s Note: The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson (Lake UnionPublishing, 384 pp.) will be published on October 25, 2016.