with guest Melanie Dickerson.
Before I was published, editors seemed to be these mysterious beings who held sacred knowledge about writing and story and revision. I could hardly wait until I had my very own editor to glean from, someone who would love my story as I did and would help make it even better.
Now that I’m published, I haven’t changed my beliefs about editors very much, because from my (albeit limited) experience, they truly do have amazing abilities when it comes to seeing a story as a whole—the forest AND the trees—and knowing what would help to make it better.
But lately I’ve had a few people tell me that they don’t intend to ever try to get traditionally published because they don’t want an editor telling them to make changes on their books. They stated that it would be too stressful, and others said they didn’t want to give up control over their book or any aspect of it. Once they finish it, they plan to self-publish. Period.
So, I thought I would explain what really happens at publishing house when it comes to edits, and why an author would actually WANT to submit to this process. I’ll be giving examples from the three types of edits we did on my new Medieval romance, The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest, in partnership with my wonderful editors at Thomas Nelson.
There are basically three types of edits.
1. Content edits, also known as macro, substantive, and developmental edits.
2. Line edits
3. Copy edits
Some might consider line edits and copy edits the same thing, but in my experience, the line edits were more in-depth, and copy editors proofread after the main edits were done.
The first edits an author receives are from the content editor, your main point of contact, with whom you also communicate about the cover, the back cover copy, and various issues that come up. This editor looks at the big picture of your novel and every aspect of plot and characters. They put their observations in the greatly anticipated “editorial letter.”
In this letter you may be asked to change characters, eliminate characters, to make changes to your plot, to eliminate a subplot, or to create one. But all these changes are usually stated as suggestions, not forced changes set in stone. Your editor will tell you what the problem is and allow you to decide how to fix it, while giving you some ideas about how you might do that. Ultimately, it’s up to you how to fix it, and even, in most cases, whether you even want to or not. You get to choose. It’s your book.
I will give an example from my editorial letter for The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest. This was my first time writing for Thomas Nelson, and also my first book geared toward an adult audience rather than a Young Adult audience. I really wanted this book to be as “clean” as my YA books, but at the same time be a little more appealing to adult readers.
In my editorial letter, my editor, Becky Monds, stated that The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest “reads too young.” This was one of her main concerns about the novel and the one I’ll give examples about. And since I didn’t want this story to “read too young,” I listened.
(BTW, Dina Sleiman just shared a great post earlier this month about what constitutes YA fiction.) [Link: http://seekerville.blogspot.com/2015/04/so-what-is-ya-fiction-anyway.html]
Becky made a few suggestions about how to “age up” the story, and especially the heroine, Odette. The controlling stepfather made Odette seem more like a child than a mature woman of twenty years old. She suggested I eliminate the overbearing stepfather, Rutger, and the heroine’s passive mother, and make Odette an adult orphan who is independent.
As Becky said in her letter, if I were to make this change: “Odette becomes a much more active heroine. She is the one setting the terms for her poaching. She isn’t being manipulated by anyone.”
I mulled it over and knew Becky was right about Odette seeming too young and needing to be more in control of her life. However, I didn’t think I could make her totally independent and living alone. It wouldn’t be authentic to the Medieval time period. So instead, after talking to Becky on the phone, I decided to make Odette an orphan, as Becky suggested, but I replaced the controlling stepfather with an easy-going uncle-guardian who would allow her to make her own life choices, and he would retain the name Rutger. This would help Odette seem older and more mature but still preserve the historical authenticity. I was very happy with this change.
But now I had to do the work. I would have to change Rutger’s role in the story, as he had been the evil villain. I had to figure out who would do the bad stuff that Rutger had done. I used a combination of people, including Rutger, but from different motives this time. It actually worked very well and didn’t take that long to figure out.
I had to change every single conversation the heroine had with Rutger, as his personality was now the very opposite from what it was before. Sometimes this was surprisingly easy, but other times . . . not so much. I also eliminated the mother, which wasn’t hard since she was so passive and actually served no real purpose.
But I liked the changes. It worked very well and achieved my goals for the story. Also, on Becky’s suggestion, I made changes to Odette’s best friend. From Becky’s letter:
“I love the role that Anna plays as a confidant for Odette and eventually the ultimate confidant when she tells Anna that she is poaching. But Anna acts very young herself. If Anna is married with perhaps a child or two, it will help Odette feel older, even if she has never married nor had children. As it is now, when Anna and Odette get together and talk about Peter and Jorgen, it feels like two giddy teenagers. Putting Anna in a more mature stage in her life will elevate their conversations to a more mature level.”
So that’s what I did. It was also a more believable scenario for the time period, to have a 21-year-old woman married with children.
All of these changes had lots of repercussions. I had to do a LOT of work. But I believe it was worth it, and it all paid off. I think it’s a much stronger story, and the changes I made to Rutger’s character made him much more complex and set the story up for a really big plot twist near the end that I thought was much better than the way I originally ended the story. Yay! I love surprise plot twists, and even more when they surprise me!
Now on to line edits.
The second stage of editing is the line edits. My line editor for The Huntress was Julee Schwarzburg. She helped me with all kinds of things, like smoothing out awkward sentences, eliminating unnecessary and repetitious words, and lots of other things that editors are known for.
As an example, on the first page of Chapter Two of The Huntress, Julee deleted two unnecessary commas in the first sentence. She deleted an unnecessary speaker attribution. (These were all optional deletions, made in Track Changes, so that I could accept or reject the changes as I wished. But I usually accept, as I usually like the changes.) She also made this comment in the margin: “Somewhere in this chapter can you describe what Odette’s dress is like? For example, is she wearing a kirtle with a scooped neckline? Or whatever is appropriate for this time period and Germany.”
Since I know I am too sparse in my descriptions in my first draft, it was a good suggestion. I always find myself adding descriptions of dress and setting at this stage, and a good line editor will remind me to do that.
On the second and third pages of Chapter Two, Julee highlighted a large portion and said, “This is great information, but I think we need to move this to ch. 1 so we know what the stakes are when Odette is first seen poaching.”
Another great suggestion, which I complied with. We went through the entire manuscript together three times, making changes on practically every page, fixing our inevitable mistakes on the second and third passes from when we copied and pasted or deleted, and also catching other mistakes and awkward wordings, etc.
And I think that gives you a good idea of what a line editor does and how much work it is for both the editor and the author, but also how much it improves the writing.
Lastly, I believe I had at least a couple of copy editors on The Huntress who looked over the entire manuscript and made minimal changes and suggestions, including a couple of grammar issues. Mainly, copy editors fix the things the other editors and author miss.
For instance, there was a sentence that read: They were going about their normal daily chores and shopping, not knowing that just above them a young girl’s life was hanging uncertainly, doomed to a sordid, ugly life.
The copy editor said: As written, the clause "doomed to a sordid, ugly life" modifies "young girl's life," but it is Kathryn, not her life, that is doomed. Can it be reworked?
Of course. I reworked it.
And there you have it, examples from the three types of editing from The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest. This is why I appreciate my editors so very much. Editing a book is a ton of work, for the editor as well as the author, but it’s worth it. I believe the book is much better for the editors who worked on it and all their suggestions—and all the HARD WORK I DID! (Haha! I had to add that!)
So, questions for you. What do you think of having an editor suggest changes to your work? Do my examples help you see how helpful editors can be? And/or, What are some of the most major changes you ever did to one of your books? Come on, make it good, so I won’t feel like I’m the only one who ever had to make major changes! And I’ll put you in a drawing to win a copy of The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest. (Winner announced in the Weekend Edition)
Melanie Dickerson is the author of fairy tale retellings set in Medieval Europe, including two Christy Award finalists and a Carol Award winner. She lives in north Alabama with her two teenage daughters and all their angst, and her husband, who is the sole male in a house where even their two guinea pigs are females. She enjoys watching movies based on Jane Austen’s books, and she literally has no other hobbies, as she’s always writing. Or editing. Or a combination of the two.
The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest
A beautiful maiden who poaches to feed the poor. A handsome forester on a mission to catch her. Danger and love are about to unite in Thornbeck Forest.
The margrave owns the finest hunting grounds for miles around—and Odette Menkels spends her nights poaching his deer to feed the hungry orphans of Thornbeck. By day, Odette is a simple maiden who teaches children to read, but by night this young beauty has become the secret lifeline to the poorest of the poor.
For Jorgen Hartman, the margrave’s forester, tracking down a poacher is a duty he is all too willing to perform. Jorgen inherited his post from the man who raised him, a man who was murdered at the hands of a poacher.
When Jorgen and Odette meet at the Midsummer festival and share a connection during a dance, neither has any idea that they are already adversaries.
The one man she wants is bound by duty to capture her; the one woman he loves is his cunning target. What becomes of a forester who protects a notorious poacher? What becomes of a poacher when she is finally discovered?