Case Report: Editing for a Traditional Publisher

As many of my followers already know, I signed a contract with a traditional publisher last year for the first few books of my young adult steampunk series. The months that followed were a lengthy, agonizing wait for my edit letter and notes for revision on the first book, which was supposed to be due November 1st. Apparently dates in contracts don’t really matter all that much. Who knew?

November came and went, and still no editing notes, and I’m sure that I annoyed the bejeezus out of my editor with my weekly “where are my editing notes?” emails. Finally, I received my notes on December 19th, with a January 21st deadline. I basically had a month to edit the book, with the inconvenience of the holidays and visiting family for a week of that. So really, when it was all said and done, I had about three-and-a-half weeks to edit.

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The notes from my editor weren’t terribly extensive. The whole edit letter was only three pages, which I understand to be relatively short. But this was also a book I had extensively edited before self-publishing, not a first draft.

A few characters needed to be adjusted—one, so drastically different that I had to rewrite several scenes; another needed to be more present in the narrative because he is the main character of the companion novella due to come out after this book, so I added a few extra scenes with him; and the third character merely needed a few lines of dialogue rewritten. The plot was mostly sound, apart from a few unexplained details throughout that I needed to wrap up. Really, beyond rewriting the one character, most of my edit notes were little things that were easily fixed with a little bit of added description, or a line of dialogue.

So I thought.

With my deadline a month away, I knew I needed to elaborately schedule out the next few weeks with the bare minimum amount of work I needed to do each day. This equated to about one chapter edited and typed per day, during the week, and on the weekends, two chapters edited and typed per day. At that pace, I’d have a little bit of time between finishing the first pass to go over everything again, making sure that the story and characters remained consistent and that I didn’t introduce any horrid errors in my edits.

Now, I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have a desk job to tend to during the day, but I am a stay-at-home mom, which has its own bundle of challenges when you’re trying to edit a book to a deadline. The only time I had available to edit was naptime—which is thankfully twice a day for about three to four hours of total nappage—and after bedtime. This led to me working extremely weird hours. Most nights, I stayed up until after 1:00 am. Sometimes after 2:00 am. And then I’d turn around and get up again at 8:00 with my daughter and begin working again once she went down for her first nap. This was my life for the last month. I survived on a toxic level of coffee, tea, and headache medicine.

Unfortunately, I fell immediately behind schedule and spent the rest of the month catching up.

schedule

Stressed Brooke was stressed.

Now, while my editing notes were pretty simple and straightforward, the changes that I had to make ended up sweeping through the entire novel. I couldn’t just pull up one chapter, fix a scene, and then move on to the next item on the editing letter. I wish it had been so simple.

No, because I had to completely change the nature of one of the minor characters—who actually has a big impact on the plot—I had to change several scenes throughout the book, then having to change several follow up scenes because the main character reacted differently. Rinse. Repeat.

Also, because I am ambitious and wanted to make sure that this book wasn’t just improved, but the absolute best book that it could possibly be, I worked to improve the writing as I edited, which was a book-length ordeal. It was originally very simply written, with stark, utilitarian sentences. But my style has grown in the years since I originally wrote the book, and I wanted to amp up the writing to my present style so that when I write the sequel, they’ll both have a similar feel to them.

I had my work cut out for me.


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I worked on this book roughly six to eight hours every day from the beginning of the month until my deadline. Every single day. I honestly don’t know how I did it.

It was definitely a learning experience, and I sent the book off to my editor knowing that I did my very best to make the book the absolute best it could be in the time allotted. I am very proud of the end result. And there’s this odd satisfaction for knowing that the book is now out of my hands. I did my part, now the publisher steps in and does theirs. Very different from self-publishing, where everything is on the author. Now, I get to sit back and not worry about it until it’s time to promote, which won’t be until about six weeks before the publication date.

The thing about editing for a traditional publisher that struck me most was how much work I still had to do to ensure that the book was publishable. My editor basically gave me an idea of the direction that she thought the book should go, with little nitpicky details that needed to be ironed out for clarification, and then left the rest up to me. I agreed with her on most of the things she addressed, so that made things simple. I probably could have involved her a bit more in the actual editing process as I went, but I didn’t want to bother her with every little thought that crossed my mind. She trusted me to edit the book to my artistic vision, so that’s what I did. I only emailed her about one change I wanted to make that wasn’t addressed in her edit letter—which, if I went through with it, would end up excising half a chapter and an entire subplot—and she agreed that it would improve the story and gave me the go ahead. I think that having an editor who understood the story and what I was trying to accomplish with it was absolutely invaluable to the whole process. She trusted in me to make the changes that I thought best, and that trust gave me the confidence I needed to really put the story through the grinder and come out with a better book at the end.

I’m still waiting to hear her thoughts on the full revision, but at this point, we don’t have time to do another revision without pushing the release date back again (it’s already been delayed by two months from the original release date because of the editing delays), so it’s going to go straight the copy editor once my editor reads through and does a line edit. And after the copy editor is finished, it’ll come back to me for one more pass, and then that’ll be that.

I started the month with a 70,000 word novel, originally written in 2011—almost four years ago!—and I ended with a 82,000 word novel and 20,000 words worth of deleted material by the time I turned the manuscript in. I rewrote several scenes from top to bottom, deleted a few, added some more. It was an exhaustive process that probably took five years off my life, but I am absolutely certain that it is a much better book than it was before, and I’m excited to see it published.

If anyone is at all curious about any details of the editing process, ask in the comments, and I’ll answer the best I can!

Brooke Johnson

Brooke Johnson

Brooke is a stay-at-home mom, amateur seamstress, RPG enthusiast, and art hobbyist, in addition to all that book writing. She's the author of The Brass Giant, a YA steampunk novel from Harper Voyager Impulse, and Dark Lord in Training, a middle-grade fantasy, as well as several other projects in the works.
Brooke Johnson

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7 Comments

  1. I’m tired just from reading about all the work you did! I bet it’s going to be a wonderful book. I can’t wait to read it.

    Reply
  2. Wow! That’s quite the marathon. Good work. How burned out are you? ; ) Ready to start something new or more editing?
    Rob

    Reply
    • quite burned out! I’m trying to take the week off from any serious work before I dive into plotting the next book. But I know I’ll have to dig in again eventually. Just trying to enjoy the time off while I have it!

      Reply
      • Brooke,
        Yes, take a break. I just sent out a novella to beta readers and need to dive back into a novel I had hoped to release in March, but it’s looking more like June! Hoping to have a break in there sometime! ; )

        Kudos for actually responding to an offensive post elsewhere.
        Rob

        Reply
  3. I have to say, this is a real good example of what not to do. Look how poor-quality that print book is. I’ve never seen that many marks in a printed book. Why did you not catch that stuff yourself, or why did your editor not catch that?

    Your calendar leaves much to be desired. Is that 3 weeks for the whole book? Please don’t tell me it’s just a few chapters. Either way, you’re wasting time. You can get that done in days, a week at most.

    5 years, boy…I’m sorry.

    Reply
    • 1) The printed book was an old proof of mine from when I self published. 2) Most of the changes made to the book were stylistic, not correction of errors, which is why there are so many. My style has grown since the book was originally written. 3) Yes, 3.5 weeks to edit the entire book. 4) It was 20 chapters and 70,000 words. 5) A proofread might take a mere week, but a full blown content edit takes time.

      Thanks for your douchetastic comment.

      Reply

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