The editing process: interview with Abigail Dean and Phoebe Morgan
Abigail Dean is the author of Girl A, which will be published by HarperFiction in 2021. I am Abby’s editor at HarperCollins and the author of three psychological thrillers, published by HQ. Abby and I have been discussing the idea of doing a blog post that talks you through the editing process for a little while, and this is what we’ve come up with together. This also incorporates some questions we had on Twitter, and if you have any others, feel free to post them in the comments and we can do our best to answer!
What is the first thing that happens after an author secures a book deal?
AD: The strangest thing: for a short time, everything goes back to normal. People had told me that publishing works at either breakneck or sloth-like speed, and after GIRL A was sold – after the phone calls, and the insomnia, and the sheer, giddy joy of sharing the news – I was back on the branch, waiting. For a while, at least. I couldn’t quite shake the old habit of refreshing my inbox numerous times a day, or checking my phone, thinking that I might have missed a vibration. The embarrassment’s even more acute when you no longer know what you’re hoping for.
PM: Once we’ve done the deal, the first thing to do is make sure everyone in the business knows, so the acquiring editor will usually send round an excited email to the rest of the team to tell them we’ve secured the book. Then, the editor will start the paperwork progressing – so ensuring the managing director or executive publisher has the confirmed profit and loss report with the final agreed advance on it, and the deal terms agreed with the agent, which will then be signed off and given to the contracts department for them to begin drawing up the actual agreement. As an editor I also always ask to be put in touch directly with the author (via the agent) so that I can speak to them in person and tell them how thrilled I am that we’ll be publishing their book! It’s a really exciting moment.
I remember the night we found out that we had won the auction for GIRL A – it was absolutely pouring down with rain but when I got the news I was SO excited and immediately began texting and messaging everyone involved. My phone got quite wet, actually.
Often, after this all happens there is a bit of a pause before edits come, and I think this period can feel really weird for an author! But my advice is to try to relax and enjoy the moment – as soon all the hard work will ramp up again, and just because your inbox isn’t pinging every second, doesn’t mean everyone at your publisher has forgotten you – this will not be the case!
How does an author receive their first round of edits?
AD: Phoebe sent me her first round of edits by email in a seven-page note, around five weeks after the book deal. This was a consolidated set of edits with Laura Tisdel, my US editor. She and Phoebe had spent time discussing and agreeing the changes they would propose, and shared a single note with me. If there were heated discussions, I was oblivious to them!
These were the structural edits, focusing on pace and characters. Phoebe’s note included a list of big ticket items upfront, followed by a “Smaller Things” section, focusing on inconsistencies, clarifications, and my propensity for giving two characters inconveniently similar names. Fabulously, she finished with a “My Favourite Lines” section, which really made me smile. If I had been crushed, I like to think that this would have scraped me up off the floor, and back to the laptop.
I found it helpful to save my own version of Phoebe’s note, and add comments to it about how I had incorporated her changes – and, if I hadn’t, why I’d made that decision. I sent this back to Phoebe with the updated manuscript, so she could see the workings behind the draft.
PM: For the first round of edits, I use my Kindle to read the entire manuscript again and make handwritten notes as I go, which I then type up into a big editorial letter to send to the author. If a US editor is involved, I will show them my notes and discuss by phone or email, incorporating any of theirs as well so that the author doesn’t receive too many confusing or different documents. I think primarily about the bigger picture parts of the manuscript – e.g. does a character need to change or even come out altogether, does the sequence of events need moving around, does a sub-plot perhaps need honing or developing? I try to think about the market, and put myself in the position of a reader seeing the book for the first time. I focus a lot on the opening – is it engaging enough, is everything clear – and then jot down some smaller notes as they come to me, too, which I put at the end of my editorial letter. I always try to add positive comments too because there’s always so much that I already love about the book – otherwise we wouldn’t have acquired it already!
Sometimes my structural editorial notes might only be 1-2 pages, other times they will be longer – it just completely depends on our vision for the book and how we want to develop it alongside the author. I will always take an author’s views into account, too. Sometimes, there will be more than one round – so 2-3 structural edits, and this isn’t something to worry about, it’s just that some novels need a little more work than others, for a variety of reasons, and that’s fine.
As an author, how did you feel receiving the edits?
AD: Until the querying process, I had always kept my writing squirreled to my chest. I had an instinctive hand-over-page reaction when my partner walked through the room, like the kid in the classroom who thinks – a little misguidedly – that everybody wants to copy their work. I was adverse to writing workshops and editing services. I was adverse to the buts lurking at the end of my family’s praise. Mostly: I was a coward.
My agent, Juliet Mushens, had changed that. After my own edits, I had edited the manuscript with Juliet, twice, and I knew the satisfaction of letting some light in. We had dragged characters from the shadows and put others into storage. We had rearranged the room. The novel was brighter and better for it. And when I read through Phoebe’s note, I understood that it could be brighter still.
Phoebe’s note was honest, and kind, and collaborative. “The main thing I want to emphasise here,” she wrote, right at the beginning, “is that I would like this editorial process to be very much a conversation rather than my giving you orders – this is, of course, your book and it’s crucial that you feel happy with the finished version.” And that’s exactly how it went. The old PowerPoint cliche tells you that you’re meant to bring solutions, not problems. Editing was the opposite. Phoebe identified the novel’s problems, but she only speculated about their solutions. That was back with me.
As an editor, how did you feel sending the edits?
PM: I’m always a bit nervous when waiting to hear back from an author about their edits – once I’ve sent my editorial note, I do worry that perhaps they won’t like what I’ve said and if there’s an especially long delay before the author replies I will usually convince myself that it’s bad news! But I always add in that I am happy to chat things through in person or on the phone, so I hope that authors feel they can always talk to me if they are feeling overwhelmed. I also always make clear that the suggestions are suggestions, not orders. It’s not my book, after all – nor do I want it to be. My main priority is ensuring the author feels that their book is better for the process, and that the internal teams here feel excited about the novel and gearing up to sell it into the shops and push it into readers’ hands.
How long does the editing process take?
AD: I had two months to complete the first round of structural edits. After that, Phoebe had a list of ten or so follow-up points, which she asked me to complete within a week (PM – this was only because we were creating proofs in time for the London Book Fair, otherwise I’d have given more time!).
Some changes came easily, like they had been expecting to be included all along. Others took the duration. When I sent the updated draft to Phoebe, I was still mulling over how to expose one character’s vulnerabilities. Phoebe felt that he was too removed, too unsympathetic, and suggested assigning him a therapist, or a diary. I wrote them both. The character seemed false, diminished. (He would lie to his therapist; he would abandon the diary after a day.) Instead, in the final few days, we settled on the exposure of a single moment:
‘The sunshine snatched a little of Ethan’s dignity. His skin was a shade thinner than white, and the lines of his cynicism – on the forehead, and between the eyes – no longer retreated when he smiled, but stayed, poised, on his face.’
Two months! For that.
PM: It varies depending on when our publication date is and how long we have between acquisition and publication. Sometimes, we might need to move more quickly, e.g. if a book taps into a particular trend or zeitgeist or season, and other times we might give the book a longer lead time. It’s always about what’s best for the book. Depending on the schedule, I will usually give an author one to two months to work on their structural changes, and perhaps 2-4 weeks to work on line edits if the book needs them. Then the copy editor will have the novel for two weeks, after which it goes back to the author again and they might have ten days to two weeks to take in the changes, sometimes longer and sometimes shorter depending on timings. Once the book is typeset the author will then have a week or two to look through the page proofs at the same time as the proofreader, before it all comes back in house. So all in all the process usually takes a couple of months, give or take.
Authors are always free to email me at any stage of the process with specific questions which might arise as they are going through – this is always fine and it’s nice when my views are taken into account.
What are the best and worst parts?
AD: Writing is such an isolated activity. You spend years in the dark, with characters who exist only to you. For me, to have somebody share their love (and exasperation, and suspicion, and loathing!) for those characters is one of the best feelings in the world. Phoebe described one of GIRL A’s characters as “endlessly fascinating”; of another, she said, “his story really is an incredibly sad one – the saddest”. On the slow Sunday afternoons, with all of twelve words written, I returned to those sections of the note, which still made me glow.
For me, the worst part is the self-doubt, snapping at your heels. Am I making this better – or worse? With every tweak, you’re moving the novel further away from the novel which – unbelievably, gloriously – actually sold. What a fluke, comes the howl. You’ve lost it. For what it’s worth, you probably haven’t.
Who has the final say if you really can’t agree on something, or otherwise, how you find a way in the middle?
AD: This didn’t come up with Girl A, but there’s still the copy-edits…!
PM: I would usually give the author the final say, unless there is something that is particularly problematic in which case I would do my utmost to convince them! We will usually try to find a good compromise – sometimes I might identify a problem in the manuscript and offer a suggestion, but the author might then come up with their own solution that wasn’t my idea but which sorts out the original issue. If things feel really tricky I will meet up with authors and brainstorm ideas or do this over the phone – but happily I’ve never had anything reach breaking point (yet…!)
How much editing is ‘normal’ at that stage of the process – presuming the publisher liked the story enough to offer a deal already, is it just minor stuff?
AD: For GIRL A, there were definitely some substantive changes. There were shifts of sympathy, away from some characters and towards others. We halved a subplot which had slowed the narrative down. We gave one character a clear, unambiguous ending, which had previously been speculative, timid.
But there was also a lot of work to test each sentence, and to make each sentence better. On one of my favourite essays about editing, George Saunders puts this simply and beautifully: it’s the pleasure of being “on the page, less of a dope than usual”. A lot has been said about murdering darlings, but this part of the process wasn’t nearly that exciting. A series of petty assaults, rather than a massacre.
There were brilliant practicalities, too. A good example of this was a backstory which I had told in my head, but never actually recorded. “Where does the abbreviation of Lex actually come from?” Phoebe asked. “It’s an unusual choice for Alexandra.” I knew exactly why my protagonist was Lex. I’d known it so much that it had never even made it into the manuscript.
PM: It again completely depends. Sometimes my notes will be quite extensive – I often feel novels have too many characters or slightly too much going on that actually distracts from the brilliance of the main plot so that might be quite a big change for an author to think about, and other times the notes will be more focused on developing what’s already there and asking the author just to dig a little deeper and get even further under the skin of their characters. I wouldn’t say it’s always ‘minor’ stuff – often it will be much more than that, but we will have bought the book because we believe in the idea or the writing (ideally both!) and it’s very normal for all books to be thoroughly edited in the divisions I work for. This isn’t the same for every publisher though, and every editor will work in a different way, but hopefully it is a useful guideline.
Do you generally find that, assuming the MS has previously been edited/revised following feedback from beta readers and the editorial expertise of the literary agent, that the process involves more copy editing than structural editing?
PM: No, I would say there is usually some structural editing involved, even if an agent has already given feedback. I do think sometimes you can tell whether a manuscript has already had agent input (i.e. it’s stronger and more polished) but even then I will usually do a round of structural edits. Every book will be copy-edited too by an out-of-house editor, but that is more to check factual things e.g. timelines, inconsistencies, place names, irregularities in the manuscript and by that point I will have usually have done 1-3 edits on the book already too. Beta readers are really interesting – I think it depends on the individual author in terms of whether they want to use beta readers or not, as they can be brilliant but they won’t always know the market or know the process in the same way that an editor or agent might.
How does an editor give their comments on a draft to an author?
PM: I write an initial editorial letter for round one, and following that I will either list smaller points in an email or separate note, or go through using tracked changes if the manuscript is in need of more detailed work. If the author writes very cleanly, this isn’t necessary, but very often it is, especially if the structural edits have been quite extensive.
How do you get a book deal?
PM: Finishing your book is definitely the first step if you’re writing fiction! Make sure you’re happy with it and then if you want a traditional deal, begin the process of researching literary agents. There is so much brilliant information online, and in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook too, which is updating every year. Different agents are searching for different things, so make sure your manuscript fits with their list and what they specialise in. I would advise sending out your script to multiple agents at once as it can take a while to hear back, and this is very normal. If you sign with an agent, they may ask for more editorial work before sending your novel out on submission to editors. Once it’s good to go, the agent will pitch your book out to a list of editors and then you have to wait to hear back…this is a nerve-wracking part of the process, but remember, you only need one yes! The main things you need to have as a writer are, I think, persistence and positivity – there will be rejection along the way, and you might not sell your first book, but if you want to be a writer and have had encouragement then definitely keep going!
What will a publishing company do to take on marketing efforts?
PM: This varies book to book but each novel will be assigned a marketing budget by the central marketing team, and marketing plans should be conveyed to authors and agents in advance of publication – or updated as you go along. Some of the various options are: social media support, Facebook advertising, outdoor advertising, book proofs that are sent out to authors and the press for early endorsements, creative mailers, blog tours, partnerships and competitions to incentivize people to pre-order the author’s book, and sometimes more specific things to the novel too. Marketing is a separate department to publicity, and the essence of marketing is that it’s paid for, whereas publicity is usually free and slightly harder to control (e.g. our publicity team will always send and pitch books to festivals and publications for review but we cannot control whether the journalists actually do or not). Some authors choose to support their marketing plans with their own activity, e.g. social media, advertising, events – which is always much appreciated and does usually help the book overall.
Girl A by Abigail Dean is published in January 2021 and you can pre-order now.
The Babysitter by Phoebe Morgan is published in May 2020 and you can pre-order now.
Thank you for reading, and we hope this is helpful. Thanks too to those who sent in questions for us on social media – we hope we’ve done them justice. If you’re an aspiring writer, keep going! And good luck.
Phoebe and Abby x