Imagine that you’ve sent in a convincing synopsis that sounds like a good fit for our list and a sample of writing that’s assured and compelling enough for us to ask for a longer extract. Still impressed, we request the full manuscript. We love it. We’re excited and enthusiastic so we offer you a contract. Now we’re both committed to the publication of your book.
What happens next?
I know of publishers, now probably the majority, who offer no editing because good editing is very time-consuming and expensive so that’s bitten the dust. I know of publishers who edit superficially, more like copy-editing, picking up typos and grammatical mistakes. I know of publishers who send general guidelines like ‘you need to build in more tension in the first chapters’ or ‘cut 40,000 words’ (true example) but they don’t explain how. You, the writer, set off on your lonely path again.
I believe in slow, deep editing that changes a good book into a superb one. It’s a process that’s deeply satisfying to me. I am a writer who loves to edit. So how is it for the other side, for the author who has placed her manuscript in my hands? Here is a peak behind the curtains as author Karen Kao and I put the finishing touches to her novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, out in March this year.
LM: Karen, let’s start at the beginning. Tell the readers how we started
KK: Hi Lynn! First of all, thanks for inviting me to participate in this blog interview. Let me scare everyone by saying upfront: Lynn Michell and I have never met. All our contact – from query to contract to what will soon be the final manuscript – has all been via email and Skype. In fact, we won’t meet each other in person until the launch of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle in Amsterdam and London this spring.
That might sound off-putting but it wasn’t for me. In her very first email saying she wanted to publish my novel, Lynn gave me first all the reasons why she liked it and then a list of the types of changes she thought should be made. So I knew from the very start (a) what was expected of me and (b) that Lynn had the helicopter view.
Here’s my question to Lynn. Why, knowing where you wanted to go with this manuscript, did you choose to edit chapter by chapter?
LM: There are several interwoven reasons. I love your metaphor: the helicopter view. This is how it works. First, I read and absorb your novel as a complete creative work so that I have the structure and shape, the characters’ voices, the changes in pace and rhythm, the development of plot, and above all your idiosyncratic writing style all rolled up in one multi-faceted parcel. This is my refer-ence point that I return to again and again throughout the editing.
To do justice to a novel as complex and beautifully composed as yours, notes on the whole manu-script would be overwhelming. For me and for you. Look back at the number and variety of changes we made in any one chapter and imagine all of that multiplied by 30, in margin comments and tracked changes in the text. I like to apply the magnifying glass to one chapter at a time so that nothing escapes me and so that I can work in a concentrated way, bit by bit, imagining how this chunk of text works within my literary parcel. And as the editing proceeds, so does the way you bat back chapters to me. Our lucky number is seven, you said. That’s the average number of times a chapter was passed back and forth. Only by working on a small portion of the text can we achieve that level of concentration and accuracy.
LM: Karen, did you have different expectations? And what do you now conclude about the chapter-by-chapter approach. Sorry – that’s two questions.
KK: That’s par for the course!
You asked me loads of questions in the editing process, pointing out scenes that were too cryptic or emotional high points that were allowed to slip past the reader. Invaluable comments all but, if delivered to me for the entire novel in one massive document, I think I would have freaked out. I would definitely have been pissed. Eventually I might have believed you and gone to work. Or maybe I would have just given up. Lots of authors I know complain bitterly about the editing process. But for me (and I think for you) it was a lot of fun.
Despite the seven iterations, most chapters were done within a day. It was a ping pong game. Initially, you served up a mark-up of a chapter, which I would read, edit and fire back at you. It would always come down to the short strokes (to mix sports metaphors) involving a particularly poignant moment or a plot point that had always troubled me until you pointed out where the problem lay.
I’ll confess now to a certain level of timidity when we first started editing. If Lynn, the mighty publisher, thought the text was good enough, who was I to say otherwise? But sometimes there was a twist that had been changed in an earlier chapter (Kokoro the maid becomes Kokoro the trained assassin) that needed to be reflected throughout. It became more efficient for me to take the lead, serving up chapters to Lynn for her to read and edit and bat back. I felt confident enough to rewrite and Lynn let me do it, in a thoughtful and encouraging way.
So maybe our interaction wasn’t so much an Olympic style ping pong match full of grunts and squeals but a more ladylike game of lawn tennis, long white gowns fluttering over the grass, wide-brimmed hats flapping in the breeze.
What certainly helped me throughout the process were the little compliments Lynn would tuck in among the red-lined text. Lynn, do you do that for all your authors?
LM: Now there’s a loaded question.
In the olden days, when I edited with a pencil and paper, I would add little ticks in the margins but that can’t be done quickly on a screen using tracked changes so praise can get lost.
I try to include positive comments about parts which move me and where the prose is pitch perfect but my task is to look for the flaws and fault lines so chapters are returned littered with comments about why words, phrases and passages don’t work or could be improved. I put the needs of the text before the sensibilities of the writer and hope she can cope.
Given your background as a ‘high-powered corporate lawyer’ and from the speed with which you batted back redrafted chapters, I judged you to be steely and confident so did not spare you. You’ve taken everything I have thrown at you and returned prose that is more concise, more fulsome, more emotionally vivid.
You are a skilled, sensitive writer, and at the literary ping-pong table I feel we’ve been well matched. You say you hope it’s been fun. It has.