The Editorial Process: A Guide for the Friends and Family Members of Writers

I recently completed a round of revisions and resubmitted my debut novel to my editor.  A few days ago, I got the happy news from her that she is content with the revision.  Now we’ll move into the line-editing stage.

Lots of people in my life – people who are extremely supportive of my writing – have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention revision and line edits.  I’ve recently had several conversations like this:

Friend:  What’s the news on the book?
Me:       There isn’t any, really.  I’m revising.
Friend:  That’s great, you’re working on your next book?
Me:       Nope, still revising the first book.
Friend:  (Visibly confused) But I thought you said you already sold the first book.

If you are a friend or family member of a writer and aren’t sure why the writer in your life is still working on a book you thought they finished months ago, here’s how it works in traditional publishing (with novels, in any case – picture books involve art and that process includes additional stages).

1. Writing the book

This part can take years, particularly with a first book.  Lots of revising and editing happens during this time, but it’s all self motivated – the writer revises and edits in order to prepare the manuscript so that it is strong enough to sell.  Some writers do this all on their own, but most don’t: they ask friends to read the manuscript and give their opinions, they join writers’ groups, or they attend industry conferences to seek feedback from editors, agents, and other writers.

2. Selling the book

This is the stage where most authors seek the expertise of an agent, though some work without one.  Many agencies, including mine, often request a revision round of their own (this can happen before or after signing with the agent), before sending a manuscript out on submission.  When writers say their books are “out on sub” it means that their agent has sent the manuscript to a number of carefully selected editors whom they believe will like it, in order to generate interest (and even, potentially, a bidding war).

Ideally, one or more of these editors falls in love with the manuscript and wants to acquire it.  There may be another round of revisions at this stage, if an editor believes that a manuscript is more likely to make it through acquisitions if there are some changes to content first.  If all goes well in this phase, an editor/publisher makes an offer to the agent/author.

3. Book contract

After an offer is accepted, an author receives a contract.  A contract includes many things, one of which is a deadline by which the final manuscript must be delivered to and deemed acceptable by the publisher. It’s common for this deadline to fall about a year prior to the actual publication date.

4. Editorial letter and revisions

The editor who acquired the book now writes the author an editorial or revision letter, suggesting/requesting that changes be made to the manuscript.  Such a letter may be brief and ask for only a few changes, or it may be epic, requiring the author to engage in extensive revisions that are essentially complete rewrites of the book.  The author revises, then resubmits to the editor.  This stage often takes several months or more (and if you’d like to know why all of these steps take so long, from an editor’s point of view, read this excellent post written by my editor, Cheryl Klein).

Depending on what shape the manuscript is in when it emerges from revisions, it may go straight to the next stage, or it may be returned to the author with another letter detailing suggestions and concerns.  An author may be obliged to revise the work several times before it moves forward.

5. Line edits

This is when the editor suggests changes at the word and sentence level and asks for additional changes, clarification, or cuts wherever they may be needed.  The author changes, clarifies, and cuts, and sends the manuscript back to the editor for acceptance.

6. Copyedits

An accepted manuscript moves into the copyediting phase.  Copyeditors correct grammar, find continuity errors, and ask additional questions where needed (they do many other things as well, as Bill O’Sullivan explains far better than I can).  Authors make the necessary changes, consulting with the book’s editor along the way.

7. Home stretch

Here, the manuscript leaves the editorial process and goes into production.  At this point, as far as the author is concerned, the book is complete. A few tweaks may remain, but it’s pretty much out of the author’s hands.  Additional work continues – on the next book, the blog, the Twitter account, the professional conferences, and the various other things that writers need to do.

During this phase, the writer in your life will be all aflutter about ARCs. These are advanced reading copies of the book, which publishers provide to booksellers, reviewers, and known writers (or other celebrities) who might provide blurbs for the book cover.  They are bound and printed (in paperback) much like the actual book will be, cover design and all, and they are used as a final proofing stage.  Most authors get precious few of these, and may share them with friends and family as well as using them as marketing tools.

8. Publication

When the writer in your life tells you “I sold my book!” get ready to be excited – for a long time.  Publication usually doesn’t happen until at least 18 months after a book contract is settled, and often publication dates are set two or three years into the future (it can be even longer for picture books).

So don’t plan that book-launch party just yet.  Stay excited for your writer, though, during the many months ahead, even if it seems to be taking forever.  I feel very lucky to have friends and family who are enthusiastic for the long haul, who are willing to be thrilled with me over and over again, and who will listen when I share my fears (like losing control of the book, or the eventual reviews and the nausea they cause even now). It’s the nicest thing that my community of loved ones can do for me at this point – wait with me for the big moment, and squeeze my hand while I see it through.

Many thanks to children’s author and genuinely nice person Laurie Thompson for her assistance with this post. 

Happy New Year

I’m posting because of the rule I made for myself that I’d post every two weeks, though I don’t have much to say. Things are coming along. I turned in my revision and have been at work on the second draft of book two. My son is still coming down from Christmas and insists on singing every song from Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas at least three times a day. So if anyone’s itching to hear “Riverbottom Nightmare Band”, complete with all the voices, I’m your girl. I will even sing the guitar solo. I can’t not. I’ve been conditioned.  I actually can’t stop singing the songs at all – my husband and I randomly break out into “Barbecue” and then cringe and curse ourselves for fools, because once we’ve sung two words, our son is on it.  ALL of the songs must be sung again.

See, I really don’t have anything to blog about.

I don’t get too serious about making New Year’s resolutions, because I always break them. They feel like party favors or something – flimsy and optional.  Still, I did make resolutions this year, not so much for 2014, but for the sake of relieving some stress.  I’ve resolved to be positive, and to accept that I can’t get everything accomplished that I want to, every day.  Nothing good was coming from worrying about everything all the time, so I’ll try not to do that.

No, I won’t try – Yoda wouldn’t approve.  I just won’t do it.

Happy New Year!

Wherein I Realize What a Two-Book Deal Really Means

Let me start by saying that this is a good thing. I’m not complaining about my super awesome book deal. I’m just panicking.

Hard.

I took all the time in the world to write GROUNDED (the first book in the Tyme series). I wrote it, rewrote it, revised it, rewrote it, replanned the entire universe and series with Ruth, and revised GROUNDED again. I sent it out to many people whom I thought might be willing to read it and give me honest feedback. I polished it like a rock in a tumbler, over the course of years.

For the second book, I get six months.

SIX. MONTHS.

Okay, so that’s not quite true. But here’s the real timeline, and it’s terrifying.

2004-2012: Wrote GROUNDED, planned series.
Spring 2013: GROUNDED, along with the second book in the series, was picked up by Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books.
Summer 2013: Wrote first draft of second book in series. Received GROUNDED revision letter.
Holiday 2013: Finished revision of GROUNDED. GROUNDED will now go through the line editing and copy editing processes, so I’m not done with it.
June 2014: Final manuscript of GROUNDED is due.

And at the SAME TIME

June 2014: Manuscript of book two is due.

Now, it’s true that, after June comes, there are two years before that second book actually gets released. Two whole years. Plenty of time for revision.  It’s also true that I am not particularly nervous about knocking out a second draft of book two by June.  I’m pretty darn fast, when I get going.  It’s even true that I pretty much have a draft of book two ready to go, and if I had to hand it in right now, I just about could.

But it’s not good enough.  It’s so not good enough.  Not after one draft.  And given the fact that between now and June I’ll also be a mom, a teacher, and responsible for doing line and copy edits for GROUNDED, I will barely have time for one revision of book two before I have to hand it over to my editor.  That’s uncomfortable for me.  I like things to be perfect. I like them to be right. I want the second book to be in the same highly polished state that GROUNDED was when it starts the process of metamorphosing from manuscript into Real Book…

What I have to accept is that it won’t be.  GROUNDED was a first child, and it got the laser-focus that a first child gets.  I can’t take years and years to write every book. I can’t hoard every manuscript for nigh on a decade, clutching it and cooing gently to it in the night. If I’m only willing to let go of my manuscripts once every eight years, then I can’t have a writing career. And I do want to build a writing career. So I’m going to have to get my head around this.

Wish me luck.

The Conversation Continues


Post by Megan

Annotated by Ruth

~*~

After our month in Minneapolis wherein neither of us turned out to be serial killers, Ruth and I went back to pursuing our own theatre interests: her in the twin cities, forging ahead with her first theatre company, and me in Manhattan, hitting the audition circuit.  Our friendship had started online, and it snapped right back into place after I went home.  We had never been phone friends, and that didn’t change – at least, not at that point in our history.  E-mails, and especially AOL Instant Messenger, were our preferred methods of communication. 

Ah, the days when we had entry level admin jobs and could do that.   I don’t even feel guilty that I misused company time- the big bank I worked for back in the early aughts deserved it then and deserves it now.  I like to consider myself an early adopter of the “Occupy Cubicles” movement.


As it turned out, this was a good thing. It meant that as long as we cut and pasted our AIM chats into documents (this was before Google autosaved chats), we had a perfect record of every conversation, which became important as we turned from sharing fan fiction to building original stories.  Every brainstorm, every character backstory, every geographical feature or government structure we invented was saved and accessible. The Tyme series is actually our second round of massive world building – we did it once before, with another world that we may or may not come back to one day, and though it’s been many years and I’ve forgotten all but a few key elements of that series, it doesn’t matter. I could reread those brainstorms and plunge right back into that place.

I remember that I was always banging up against my hotmail storage limits.  That really dates these chats and emails!    

Brainstorming together came naturally for both of us. Sometimes we approached things differently, but equally often we achieved mind-meld. “Same brain!” we would type, after we both came up with the exact same idea just seconds apart. The whole process was comfortable and collaborative. There was no clamoring for the credit of this idea or that one.  We just wanted to make a world and play in it, making people and stories that entertained us.  I think that we both had vague ambitions of publishing something eventually, but we didn’t work with that in mind.  We just had fun. 

And it was SO much fun.  Making up magical rules and creatures feels like you’re really making magic.   

Our two-brained process may seem a bit alien. After all, as I’ve mentioned before, writing is usually described as lonely, and common wisdom alleges that writers are solitary creatures.  And maybe that’s true, on the whole.  

Theatre, however, is far from solitary.  Even a one-woman show requires more than one woman. Also involved are the writer and director, the designers and technicians, and of course the live audience.  It’s a community process and a group event – a whole company working together in the service of telling a story – and Ruth and I are theatre people first.  It’s my theory that the reason we fell so gracefully into our collaborative routine is that we grew up onstage, where large-scale collaboration is necessary and expected.  We’re both so used to working in company that there’s nothing unusual (or threatening) about having someone else inside the intimate creative process with us.

It’s great.  Because having a partner means having access to another way of thinking.  I don’t have to stay stuck, when I’m stuck.  I can reach out to someone who knows the story just as well as I do and cares about it just as much, and I can whine “This was happening, and then that started happening, and now I can’t figure out how to make this other thing happen.” And together, we will tackle it.  Conversations often sound like this: 

Me: “I don’t know what to do because X.”
Ruth: “Huh.  What about Y?”
Me: “I know, but we already said Y isn’t supposed to do that.”
Ruth: “Right… but if X did this, then wouldn’t Y have to do that?  And if Y isn’t supposed to do that, couldn’t that be the thing that drives Z, later on?”
Me: “YES.  Perfect. Gotta go.”

Another major benefit of having a partner is that there’s a built-in audience. I’m an ex-performer.  I could play aloof and pretend I don’t care about the audience, but I’d be lying. Knowing that Ruth will read what I write – and usually she reads it right away – keeps me going in the moments when I’m confused, anxious, and self-defeating.  Wanting to hear what she thinks about a scene can be a real motivating factor in writing it.

This is so very true.   And the immediacy of the audience response in theater is very addictive- this is definitely the biggest piece of the theatrical process that we took with us into collaboration. The response we can provide each other is as instant as it can be when you’re working with the written word.   Our engagement in each other’s work and brainstorms have slowed down nowadays, because we’re in different places in our careers and lives, but it’s still pretty immediate, and it’s more of a joy when we carve out time for it.  I’m also a person who needs constant fuel to keep a creative fire burning.   

None of this would work, of course, if we didn’t get along so well and have such similar ideas about what stories ought to be.  But we do. And on those occasions when we don’t share a vision and one of us challenges the other, it ultimately makes the story better, just like workshopping and listening to feedback makes a piece of theatre stronger. 

I rather like when that happens, actually.   Having to articulate your vision/motivation/logistics is never anything but a good thing, no matter what the final solution turns out to be. Inevitably, it will fix something else tangentially, or shed light on another problem, or find a home in another place.

These days, we’ve moved on from AIM.  Our careers and lifestyles have undergone many changes. Lots of our brainstorms now happen on the phone, and plenty of our conversations are about life events outside of the Tyme series.  

But one thing is definitely the same.  We’re still making a world together so that we can play in it.  And though publishing is no longer just a vague ambition, the first order of business is still having fun.  We’ve definitely got that covered.  

The Call (My first EMU’s Debuts post!)

I made my first contribution today to EMU’s Debuts, a group blog for debut authors represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.  I’m so proud and excited to be part of this group of intelligent, supportive, and talented new authors.  Here’s a bit of my first EMU’s post: 
~*~
When I got the call, I sent it to voicemail.
This is not because I am made of stone.  It’s because I was in the middle of teaching.  I had left my phone on – which I almost never do, but that day I made an exception – so I heard the call. I knew what it was. The first book in my series had gone to acquisitions that morning. The answer was imminent.
I had been working on the series for a few months shy of a decade.
I went to my phone, saw my agent’s name glowing there, and made what was possibly the most difficult finger-swipe motion of my life.  I put my phone away and turned back to my class.
“Ms. Morrison, are you okay?” asked one of my 7th graders. “You’re all white. Are you sick?”
Later, once the deal was public, I would tell my students what the call had been, and what it had meant.  At that moment, however, I had no idea whether my agent was calling to tell me “Sorry, let’s try again with someone else,” or…
Or something I couldn’t even let myself fully articulate yet.
I was FREAKING OUT.

Fail Better

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
-Samuel Beckett

If a student writes a paper that earns a failing grade, should that student get another chance?  What about two more chances?  What about twelve more? What if they ultimately pass, after twelve chances?  Should they still get full credit?

If you had asked me those questions ten – or even five – years ago, I would have said no.  No way.  Give a student multiple chances to pass?  Let them write their papers again and again, as many times as they want?  And give them full credit for it – are you insane?  Students should buckle down and get it right the first time. After all, if a student earns a failing grade, shouldn’t they have to live with it?

That approach ignores an important fact: Many students work hard and still fail, because they just don’t get it yet.  They haven’t mastered whatever the skill is that they’re supposed to be demonstrating.  Work ethic and skill are two very different things.  Work ethic leads to skill – but only if it’s given a chance.

I have made an enormous shift in my thinking and in my teaching, mostly over the course of the past few years, and in great part because of my own experiences with writing.  Today, my philosophy about student work looks like this:

1. Work hard. Listen. Build your skills.
2. Submit a product that is meant to demonstrate your skills.
3. Accept critical feedback on said product.
4. Work hard again.  Revise.  Resubmit.
5. Accept critical feedback on resubmission.
6. Work hard again. Revise. Resubmit.

And so on. Until you get it.  Until it is right.  Until it is the best it can be.

Writers will recognize that little list as the exact same one that got them published.  I’m in the middle of the revision process myself, and boy does it inform my teaching.

Before I handed back my students’ essays yesterday, I tried to prepare them.  They’re honors kids who have spent many years being told how smart they are, and their 7th-grade egos are fragile.  “This isn’t going to be easy,” I told them.  “Reading criticism of your work is difficult and personal. You have two choices: curl up and cry, or try again.”

Then I showed them my revision letter.  I didn’t let them read it, but I told them what it was, and I laid it down page by page in front of them, all 18 single-spaced pages.  They were shocked by how much feedback there was.  I told them that receiving critical feedback and using it to improve work and gain skill is not a negative thing at all.  It’s a wonderful, important thing – and grown ups do it too.  On purpose, even.

Of course, learning to accept criticism and bounce back is another skill altogether, and my students will need some time (most of them, anyway) to develop that one.  They were still hurt and defeated when they saw that they were going to need to revise their papers. That’s fine. They’ll build resilience. Especially when they see that, through revision, they do improve.

The Grand Illusion

Two nights ago, I was sitting on the couch in front of the fire, happy and secure.  My son was tucked into bed, sleeping soundly, and I was laughing with my best friend from college (who was visiting town) and my husband.

Out of nowhere, the scene changed.

I had a sudden pain.  Then I went into shock.  My husband took me to the ER.  I’m okay now, but at the time I wasn’t.  I could not control what was happening.  It all came on so fast.  I had to reckon – briefly, but in a way that shook me – with mortality.

This morning, things took a different turn.

There was a power outage at my school, and the building is closed.  I have a day off.  It’s a magic day – a day to dig into the revision, a day to take my son to preschool and see his first show-and-tell, a day to have lunch with my sister.

A day I could not have predicted.

The lesson of this week is clear to me.  Today might be the last day.  Today might be a magic day.  I have my goals and my schedule, and I think I know what’s coming next, but I never do.  The illusion of normalcy is always only that.  It provides comfort, but no guarantees.  Anything can happen at any time.

Carpe diem.

Trick or Post

Somehow, I let two weeks vanish. I just realized that I haven’t posted in that long. And though I didn’t plan a post, here one is.

It’s Halloween.  My son wore his red jammies, devil horns, and a tail, and we took him to five houses (one of which was my parents’) so that he could collect his bounty of candy.

This was his second Halloween costume in as many days.  Yesterday, his preschool had a little costume carnival, and I knew that if I sent him in devil horns and a tail, he’d rip them off in a hurry.  So I put him in a costume he wouldn’t suspect – some jeans and a plaid shirt – and I attacked him with eyeshadow to give him a tiny beard and mustache. I thought, hey, this counts – he’s a lumberjack, right?  And then I put a winter hat on him, and what he actually looked like was Jayne, from Firefly, which made me wish I’d thought to dress him up like Jayne in the first place.  Ah well.  Next year.

Now, as you know if you read this blog, I’ve been worried about finding a balance between writing, teaching, and mothering.  On Tuesday afternoon, I received two e-mails in quick succession: the first was from a now-former colleague who is out on maternity leave and has decided not to return to work because she wants to stay home with her son; the second was from my son’s preschool inviting the parents to the class Halloween party on Wednesday morning.

Together, these two e-mails left me feeling miserable.  I love my son so much.  And there is no way – just no way – that I can quit my job to be with him.  It’s great that some moms have that option, but I don’t, which means I have to miss things in my son’s life.  Lots of things.  Like Halloween parties on Wednesday mornings.

But I don’t have to miss everything.  After reading those e-mails and feeling miserable for a little while, I reminded myself that this year is about balance.  And if I wanted to find balance, I was going to have to steal it.  So I found a willing substitute, and I called in sick to work.

Honestly, I think it counts. If I’d gone to work, I would have been sick all day, regretting the choice.

For the record, the Halloween carnival was adorable.  The best part – the best part – was when I walked into preschool and my son, who was not expecting me to show up there again, lit up with joy and ran for me, shouting, “TRICK OR TREATING AT PRESCHOOL!” and then grabbed my hand and tugged me along the hallway for some – you guessed it – trick-or-treating at preschool.

It was worth it.

Happy Halloween.

The Conversation Begins

Post by Ruth
Annotated by Megan

~*~

The first time I met Megan, she was stepping off the plane to live with me for a month. The plan was for her to get a temp job here in Minneapolis, and to act in a play I co-wrote.

We’d never even spoken on the phone.

Kids, don’t try this at home.

I knew I was supposed to be scared she was a serial killer or something, but I just couldn’t be. Between our email and AIM correspondence, millions of words had passed between us already. If you printed them all out, double sided in 10 pt font, we’d still probably end up de-foresting Guam.

Heh. It’s true – we knew each other’s written voices intimately. Also, it would have been hard to fake that level of commitment to Harry Potter for that length of time. I did have a moment, right before I got off the airplane in Minneapolis, when I thought “I’m insane. You don’t fly to another state to live with a person you’ve never met. My life will soon boil down to a cautionary tale.” But my guts knew better.

Months before, sitting at my desk at Wells Fargo “Corporate Development” aka “The Land Pirates,”  I surfed Fanfiction.net for decent Harry Potter stories. This was before the days of specialized or curated archives, so it was sort of like dumpster diving, or panning for gold. I clicked on one called “Sine Qua Non”, which was already promising in a list of titles like “Harrys New Girlfriend” and “Hermy loves Harry”. It seemed to have been written for me. I loved it. I sent feedback to the writer, which I rarely ever did. She replied immediately.

As I recall, Ruth’s feedback ended with something like: “If you ever want me to beta read anything for you, let me know.” Luckily for me, she really meant it. Like, tens of thousands of pages over the course of twelve years, meant it.

That was all it took. We were insta-friends: just add Internet. No, better: kindred spirits. (And only kindred spirits immediately get that reference.) I was in Minneapolis, she was in New York, but our lives were running on parallel paths. I was building a small theatre company with my friends and she was auditioning and producing her own cabaret show. We were both redheads, in our twenties, both raised Catholic. Obviously we both loved Harry Potter. We both had day jobs that allowed us to spend a lot of time on our writing.

We never ran out of things to talk about. Our imaginations piled on top of each other. We talked out stories and annotated each other’s work.

Rather like this.

When my theatre company got into the annual Fringe Festival here, I invited her to be in the show.

I might have kind of invited myself.  And then Ruth was cool about it. 

Why not? If we were finally going to meet in person, a weekend could never be enough to talk it all out. Let’s make it count! Have an adventure!

Ruth’s play was called “Attack of the Atomic Trash Monster’s Bride”. Adventure was guaranteed.

So when I stood in the terminal with the sign, waiting to see her bright hair appear in the crowd, I tried to work up some last minute trepidation about sharing my apartment with a stranger for almost a month, but I couldn’t. Because she wasn’t a stranger. She hadn’t been before she even replied to that note on Fanfiction.net. We were predestined, in the Green Gables Calvinism of friendship we both practiced.

Nice. 

And then we immediately got trapped in an airport elevator until the fire department showed up, which was oddly perfect.

🙂

The 12-Year Conversation

A while back, I promised to introduce you to Ruth Virkus, the co-creator of Tyme (the series I’m writing).  It’s hard to be brief; there’s a lot to say.  So we’ve decided to break this introduction up into a series of short posts, mostly to give ourselves the pleasure of digging back into our friendship and writing about it.

I’ve often heard writing described as a lonely process, but it hasn’t been for me.  I met Ruth in 2001, and we struck up an endless AIM-chat conversation about stories.  Harry Potter fanfiction stories – at first.

The fanfic conversation spilled over. We started dreaming up stories of our own.  One day, Ruth asked me to write a fairy tale.  The result of that request is my debut novel.

Our debut novel, actually. 

Ruth and I have talked about this story, and this series, for more hours and days and weeks than I can count.  If I stacked up the time, I’d probably have whole months.  Our collaborative process is simple.  We talk, I go away and write, she reads, we talk, repeat.  The conversation has been rolling for years. We often have a shared vision, but often enough we debate and see things from different perspectives.  It’s good.

Ruth and I have rarely met in person.  The first time we did is a story worth telling.  So Ruth – whose storytelling I love – will tell it in the next post.

Facebook Twitter Goodreads