When I finished the very first draft of my first novel Cuckoo at the end of NaNoWriMo 2008, even I knew that I needed to do a lot of work to get it into a shape where I could show it to anyone else. After all, it had only taken me thirty days to produce. The pants to pearls ratio was pretty high.
So I worked on it for another ten months, until it was the best it could possibly be. Then I sent out my sample chapters and, while I was waiting, I worked on it some more, adjusting the few tiny final things that I thought merited my attention. By the end it was surely ready for publication. There was not a word out of place, not a bum note, not a single typo.
Then I had my first meeting with Agent Simon, and came away with a list of edits he would like me to consider before he sent it out on submission. Luckily, from my research before selecting him as the recipient of my agent-seeking attentions, I knew he knew what he was talking about – he has decades of experience and one of his DNA helixes is actually constructed from publishing nucleotides.
I did the edits. He was right on every count. It was a much, much, much, better book.
‘Now,’ I thought. ‘Now it is perfect. Now nothing more can be done. All it needs is to be typeset and published.’
When Headline bought the book, my editor Leah, who had said she loved it, still managed to come back with five pages of notes, some of which were massive and structural, requiring extensive re-thinking and re-writing.
But guess what? She was right on every count, too. My initial consternation was replaced by deep gratitude. And once more, the manuscript I had thought complete was ramped up a further few notches.
…And we only had to complete another round-and-a-half of edits until it was a perfectly structured and executed, totally clean manuscript with no errors whatsoever. At last it was perfect! Ready for…
…The line edit
After a couple of weeks of someone’s full-time attentions, the chunky great print-out came back to me with something that needed my attention on almost every single one of its 500 pages. These ranged from the odd rogue space (hadn’t I got rid of those with the spell check?) to the physical impossibility of someone suddenly putting their arm around someone who was, on the previous page, on the other side of a large table, to a minor character suffering a major name-change in one scene (a ‘ghost’ from an earlier edit).
At last – after six months of editing – it went to be typeset, perfect in every way.
When I finally got a printed proof in my hand, I eagerly read it through and realised I would have to keep my red pen in my hand, because my newly honed critical eyes were spotting yet more errors. At least they were mostly tiny, though. There were a few more to pick up in the bound proofs. Then…
At last the hardback was printed!
I only had three more typos to correct for the paperback edition.
And now, when I read the book at events, I only tend to add a couple more tiny edits on the fly.
What have I learned from all this?
I know now that a novel is a massive, unwieldy beast. Mine tend to come out around 120,000 words, and to get every single one right and in the right order (and who is to define what is right, anyway?) is a Sisyphean task. The experienced external eye of (to use hideous government jargon) stakeholders – people who have a professional investment in your novel – is essential to help you get as close as possible to perfection. You cannot do this alone – just as when you are in love with someone it’s hard to see their faults, so it is that there comes a point where it is impossible to view your novel objectively.
Yes, you can give it to friends and family to read, but they’re not going to be able to view it dispassionately either. And what are they going to say if they don’t like it? How much criticism will your best friend be able to give you until you start to take it personally? Give them a break.
But one thing scares me about this story:
If I hadn’t managed to get the agent and the publisher, I might have been tempted to self-publish a novel that I had no idea was not at all ready. If I ever self-publish in the future I know that I would never dream of doing so without investing in a proper edit from a proper, experienced, proven editor. The relationship would be slightly different, in that I would be paying them, instead of vice-versa, but an editor worth their socks shouldn’t take any nonsense on that score. And I hope I would have the wisdom and the humility to trust their word in the same way that I trust Leah’s view on everything I write.
Editors are important because readers deserve books that are better.