Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Writer's Methods: My Editorial Process

Recently someone asked me online whether or not I edit my own books. When I responded that I do, which is the case inasmuch as I'm the final arbiter in what stays, what goes and what's changed in my books, I understood I was opening a door I didn't necessarily want to open. I also understood, however, that the time had come to explain the process whereby my manuscripts become publications of The Plaid Raccoon Press.

Many people have blogged about the pitfalls of self-publishing and the avalanche of poor writing that has flooded the market with the advent of self-publishing outlets such as Smashwords and Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. Tori Alexander, whose novels are published by The Permanent Press, pointed out in a 2010 blog post contrasting indie book publishing with indie music and film production that
The initial problem the Indie publishing industry has, as I see it, is the fact that books are written by individuals and are not the product of a concerted effort such as a film is or an album is. If a project requires a number of people (at least a handful), then the project is deemed a worthy one to at least those few people. But a lone, untalented scribbler can print a book for about $100.
Alexander's point is well-taken, if condescending, inasmuch as many creative people lack the skill sets to produce a finished product that displays a high level of quality and professionalism. It's true that many writers fall in love with their own work and fail to see its flaws. As a result, the importance of independent, third-party assistance in the production process taking a writer's creation from its embryonic state to an end product cannot be overstated.

Authors under contract to legacy publishers automatically have access to a support crew whose job it is to take care of this production process, but independent authors are less privileged. We don't have agents and editors, we don't sit in on cover conferences, we don't work with publicists, and often we don't have a budget sufficient to hire freelance editors and publicists to sit in these chairs for us. If we do have a budget, we face the challenge of finding freelancers who will work with independents as opposed to "real" authors and who are good enough to do the work at a level that compares to the "pros."

Having been a professional editor, I've observed that the quality of editing at the professional level can be mixed, to say the least. Let me give two quick examples and say no more about it. Recently I re-read The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler in a paperback edition reprinted by Ballantine Books. I found at least six typographic errors in the last hundred pages or so, glaring typos that you'd think should have been caught. I take this as proof that no one is perfect. In the second example, I give you Stieg Larsson, author of the "Millennium Series" of crime novels including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest and The Girl Who Played With Fire. Well over 2,200 pages in the editions I have here on my bookshelf, these novels begged for an editor who could reduce incredibly bloated manuscripts to polished final products. While I'm aware that Mr. Larsson passed away after handing in the manuscripts, did the editors really think I'd want to spend a page and a half, for example, learning which Ikea products Lisbeth Salander chose for her new apartment? Did I really have to plow through 250 pages in the second novel before the crimes occurred that would form the central action of the rest of the series? My entire novel is 250 pages. Well, there are standards and there are standards, I suppose.

As I've said, no one is perfect, least of all this author. That's why I've presumed upon a team of manuscript readers who generously donate their time to read my books before they're published and to provide detailed feedback during the revision phase.

When I complete the first draft of a book, I return to the beginning and go through it again about three times. Usually after finishing the story, I've taken enough to time to decide what passages or sections bother me, and I do a rewrite to take care of the problem areas. When I'm satisfied, I go through it another time to copy edit. I correct grammatical or spelling errors I might have missed and I tighten the copy by eliminating unnecessary information, chopping modifiers, tweaking sentence order, rebuilding paragraphs, and that sort of thing. When this revision is finished I go through it once again to proofread for anything that might embarrass me if my readers were to find it. Inevitably I miss stuff, however, and they find it. Trust me on this one.

I then send it out to my readers. Although I won't mention them by name here, I'll take a moment to describe them (I mention them by name in the Acknowledgements section of my books). One reader is a neighbor who lives down the road from me. She's a voracious consumer of fiction who takes books with her when she's driving her school bus so that she has something to read while she's waiting in the parking lot for the kids to come out at the end of the school day. She prefers thrillers and adventure stories and is a big Clive Cussler fan. She never hesitates to tell me when I digress from my story into something that doesn't interest her. She skips these parts, and always lets me know exactly where they were.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a former director's executive secretary who reads every word of my manuscripts and provides me with remarkably detailed feedback on each character and scene. She has an incredible eye for detail and is a much better copy editor than many I've seen in the profession. For example, after reading Marcie's Murder she included in her detailed feedback a half-page list of instances where she thought I needed to add or remove hyphens in order to remain consistent. How great is that?

Another reader likes to focus on my characters. She gives a great deal of thought to my characters as people and lets me know where I've provided too little background or could have developed them more. As a person she's very empathetic and sensitive, and I pay a great deal of attention to what she tells me because my characters are my particular strength and the focus of my stories. If readers are not reacting to them the way I think they should be, she tells me so I can "go fix it!"

Finally, I have another reader with a law enforcement background who not only gives me several pages of summarized feedback but also makes copious notes in the margin of the binder I print out for him. He covers all aspects of the manuscript very well and additionally lets me know when I make a mistake in terms of police procedures, firearms, or other technical aspects of my story.

Finally finally, my wife reads the manuscript. Also a former professional editor, she provides copy editing advice and guidance, catches typos, and tells me when characters or plot twists don't work. She listens patiently when I describe a change I'm considering and often tells me it's not necessary or that I'm just simply off track or over-complicating things.

After this phase has been completed, I go through the entire manuscript again to rewrite or correct based on this feedback. Not everyone agrees on everything, surprisingly (!), and so I'm the final judge of what gets rewritten. I'm not stubborn, though. Why collect all this feedback if you don't pay attention to it?

After this revision process, I read the manuscript again to make sure I'm satisfied with it in its current revised form. Then I go through it again to copy edit, a process identical to the copy-editing step described earlier. Then I format the file to conform to Lightning Source's requirements for a 5.5" by 8.5" trade paperback book.

When it's formatted, I proofread the entire thing again, beginning to end, looking for any stray formatting errors and searching for typos or what have you that may have been introduced in the revision or formatting processes.

By this time I'm thoroughly, thoroughly sick of this book and never want to see it again.

Now you have an idea of the rigorous process my books endure before the Raccoon's name goes on the title page and it gets printed. You also have an idea of the range of skills and abilities my readers bring to the table. However, as I said at the outset, I'm the final arbiter in what stays, what goes and what's changed in my books. As an independent, I wouldn't have it any other way. But process aside, what book production skills do I bring to the table? After all, Alexander's accusation remains that any lone scribbler can print a bad book these days.

To begin with, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in English at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, and a Master of Arts at Queen's University in Kingston. I took seven years to complete these two degrees and was fortunate to have worked with some very fussy, mean-spirited and difficult-to-please professors who seemed to delight in pointing out my many shortcomings. My fondest memory of the professor who served as second reader on my M.A. thesis (365 pages in length) was his tendency to write "fatuous" in the margins of my thesis manuscript. Again and again. God, I hated that blue pencil of his. And yet when it was all done, in my last conversation ever with him, he pointed to the glass cabinet in the graduate student lounge where all the completed theses were displayed and told me that mine was by far the best one in there.

I took my love of language into the publishing business, where I was hired by Carswell Legal Publications in Calgary as a proofreader. I still remember the test I took when applying for the job. I failed to correct a spelling mistake in the word "accommodated," which the managing editor delighted to inform me when she hired me. Apparently I'd overlooked the missing medial "m," a common error. I daresay I've never misspelled the word since.

In those days we proofread typeset galleys in pairs. One of us would read aloud while the other followed silently. We'd chirp out whenever we spotted an error, each correct it on our own copy, and continue. It was great fun. Reading this way made the work more enjoyable than it was otherwise. I remember a few laughing fits when neither of us could take over reading aloud. But our galleys were always clean and the production editors almost never found omissions when they read their page proofs.

I was soon promoted to the position of production editor and assigned my own publication, Criminal Reports (Third Series). As production editor I was responsible for copy editing, sending the marked copy to the typesetter, receiving it back and having the galleys proofread by the goofballs in the coffee room who seemed to do more laughing than reading, sending the galleys back to the typesetter, reading the page proofs (at this point I could only make what are known as accidental, as opposed to substantive, corrections to the proofs), sending the final, corrected proofs for hard cover and soft cover printing, and everything else in between these steps.

I worked with a legal editor and judges across the country who were responsible for our legal content because, in fact, what we published is what's known as common law, or case law: the reasons for judgment in Canadian court proceedings. It was, in fact, my distinct honour to serve as production editor in 1982 when we published the brand new Constitution Act and its attached Charter of Rights and Freedoms, along with several analytical papers by some of the most important legal minds in Canada. It was an issue I'll never forget.

I'm proud of these accomplishments but as I said before, I understand that no one is perfect, particularly this author. I learned as a student and an editor to work with a safety net. My safety net begins with the best resources I can have on my bookshelf next to this desk. I used to tell students as a teaching assistant, and newly-hired proofreaders as an editor, that they should never hesitate to look up a word in the dictionary if they weren't sure how to spell it. There's no place for foolish pride in writing or publishing. I keep several dictionaries within easy reach, including the big two-volume Oxford English Dictionary (complete with magnifying glass) and a copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language that I swiped from my dad when I moved out. I have several editions of Fowler's Modern English Usage, because things have changed in there, a copy of Longman's Guide to English Usage and The Oxford Companion to the English Language. In addition to these reference works I have the Simon & Schuster Handbook for Writers, Editing Canadian English by the Freelance Editors' Association of Canada, Caps and Spelling by the Canadian Press, Words Into Type, the MLA Style Manual and, of course, that bellwether of good writing, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. There are others in my collection, but I won't go on. My only regret is that I recently passed up on a hardcover edition of The Chicago Manual of Style because I thought it was too expensive. Next time....

I'm proud of my writing skills and equally proud of my editing skills, but not so foolishly proud that I don't constantly refer to these volumes on a regular basis to answer any doubts or confusion in my mind.

As a result, I bring to the table a lifetime of editing and proofing skills that are well-developed but could always improve. Blood Passage has two errors of which I'm currently aware, a missing space between a closing quotation mark and the next word, and an extra word in the "About the Author" blurb that inexplicably didn't get deleted. If you find any other errors, I'd love to hear about them.

My focus now is to make sure Marcie's Murder comes to you, the reader, as that elusive creature: the perfect book.

Tori Alexander and the many other naysayers notwithstanding -- I can always try!

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