I have no idea how other writers handle the process of final editing. Perhaps with a big publisher it is a very sterile, very formal enterprise. With my first publisher I received infrequent mark-ups in a Word file that I accepted or rejected then emailed back—all very civilized, but not very effective.
In order to improve the finished product, I have enlisted various beta readers, editors, and proof readers (many are fans who have graciously volunteered.) Beta readers are charged with finding problems with the story. Was I too subtle with that hint? Was that part interesting or just boring? Were the actions of that character believable? You can never use just one Beta Reader. Three or more are required, for as with all things, what is wonderful to one is awful to another. The input of one then can easily be misleading. Three or more can break ties and reveal trends. If three people all hate something you love, you might want to reevaluate.
Beta readers are employed early on in the final editing process. That is to say, long after, I as the author, have finished the final draft and gone through my own series of pathetic editing passes, but before the heavy sanding and polishing starts. This early beta reading/editing period I refer to as the Structural Phase when the system is tested to see if it can handle the weight of a cold, highly critical, reader. I tend to interrogate my beta readers with a list of prepared questions. Then ask for general feedback. Based off of this I find weak areas, logic holes, and places where my intent failed to register.
This results in Structural Reworking, in the form of moving paragraphs, cutting whole sections and rewriting. As with most jobs requiring massive reconstruction, it’s a very dangerous work environment—characters have been known to die. Others are sometimes miraculously saved, shoved out of the way of a swinging plot point at the last second.
A few of my beta readers are also my gross editors, which can be a problem as they become attached to their own involvement, adopting those characters or lines that they save. It then becomes hard to give them up. A veteran of watching my hard-won words gutted, I’ve become like one of those platoon members who refuses to make friends with new recruits because he doesn’t want to go through the pain when the newbie gets killed. I have discovered that a useful skill as a writer is learning to see my writing as someone with nothing invested sees it. This allows me to cut previously beloved lines when they just don’t fit anymore.
Another pitfall is familiarity. When a paragraph or sentence was written eons ago, you get used to it being that way. When it is changed, or removed, it is unsettling. I recognized this preference for “tradition” in my own decisions. A new line has to be great to replace a crappy line that’s been there since the first draft. Only recently have I spotted this behavior in my editors. Watching them freak when a first generation phrase or paragraph is cut or re-worded.
Speaking of cutting. After the structural phase ends the Editing starts and I am convinced now that “editing” is Latin for “cutting every other word.” Wintertide has gone from about 120,000 words to 92,000 words and still cutting. Aside from removing longwinded tangents and run-on sentences, there is the art of jettisoning excess words from each sentence. If someone “sat” you don’t need to remind the reader he “sat down.”
Aside from cutting there is also the rearranging. Moving sentences into more logical orders and moving the phrases in sentences into more intelligible language. And then of course there is grammar. I suppose there are writers who love grammar, and those who feel restricted by it. Actually I suspect a great number of creative writers are annoyed by the rules of English, just as any creative type tends to resent controls on their expression. There have been times I have insisted on breaking the rules for effect. There have also been times—far too many—that I’ve done this out of ignorance. I still growl when I write something and an editor tells me I can’t do that, because it isn’t grammatical correct despite being abundantly clear in its meaning. I can’t begrudge them too much as no one holds it against the author when they find grammar mistakes in a book. They always blame the editor.
The Coarse Editing is grueling as it requires the study and breakdown of every sentence in the book, often with an accompanying twenty minute debate as to whether or not it is better to remove an “and” and replace it with a comma. Also should a girl “say sweetly,” or “sweetly say?” “For this reason Amilia avoided eating?” or “Amilia avoided eating for this reason?” Discussions and arguments rage over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. It might sound awful, but as the author, the majority of the time, I don’t care. Unless the rewording affects the meaning or the cadence of a phrase, it doesn’t matter to me which way it goes. Editors however will draw swords and do battle, searching for authoritative reference to support them. These can often be hard to find when dealing with the truly finer points of grammar. Most websites and grammar books make the usually correct assumption that the average user is only vaguely familiar with the difference between a noun and a verb and so don’t get into the theoretical string theory physics of coordinating conjunction verses subordinate conjunctions.
Once this coarse editing is finished, the book undergoes a Polishing. This is where the professional or at least the more experienced language engineer makes a pass looking for mistakes in punctuation, word usage and such. Then the book is dropped into layout/galley form and the Proofing stage begins. Everyone reads it in final form to look for missing words, dropped periods, quotes pushed to the next line, duplicated sentences that failed to get trimmed out or passages that were supposed to have been cut weeks ago, but are still there because of a file glitch.
After this, the book goes to the printer for a handful of proofs and once more everyone reads the book. This time looking for any errors the printing process might have introduced. One time during the release of Nyphron Rising, the printer inexplicably shuffled eight pages in the middle of the novel. When Avempartha was printed the last ten pages were in Spanish! The result is that, with Wintertide set to be released in October, I will be reading the book enough times in short succession that I will hate it by the time the rest of the world gets to see it.
For those of you wondering where we are, Wintertide is in the final stage of Coarse Editing. Debates still rage, swords still ring and I’m thinking it might be a good time to take up smoking, or at least get one of those little red stress balls.