Wednesday, January 07, 2009

From Manuscript to Book

I have what can only be described as an idea hangover. Yesterday I was being a diligent little writer-type person, working on revisions on the NaNo book, and I realized there was a major problem with the book: it's too linear and obvious, with no big surprises. Our Heroes figure out what's going on early in the book, they know who the bad guy is and what he's up to, and then the book is mostly them trying to play cat-and-mouse games while staying one step ahead of the villain. That can work in some stories. For instance, there's never even the slightest doubt that Darth Vader is the bad guy, and that works. But I think this is a story that needs twists and surprises, and I may have been mainlining too much NCIS, thanks to my parents hooking me, where the first, most obvious suspect is never the bad guy. Even if he was overheard saying something that made it sound like he was talking about killing, was found covered in blood near where the body was found and had a motive to kill that person, if he's the first one Our Heroes focus on, he's not really the killer. So I realized that I had a first, most obvious suspect who shouldn't be the real bad guy. But who should be the real bad guy? So I went through my list of supporting characters and possible new supporting characters, and one came through clearly with motive, means and opportunity. And I hated the idea because it changes everything, but I also loved it because it will have a lot of impact, but just thinking about it made my head spin. I wasn't even willing to commit the idea to paper to re-outline the book. I spent the rest of the day staring into space, trying out how this would work with all the major turning points in the book, just getting used to the idea. And then I think I dreamed about it (though I can't remember it) and I woke up with a splitting headache.

But now it's time for the first "official" writing post of the new year. This is also available by e-mail by subscribing to the Write With Shanna Yahoo group, and I do one of these posts every other Wednesday.

Today, I'm addressing a question from a reader, who wonders what happens with the book after the author finishes it.

I'm going to assume that the book in question has already been sold because that's a totally separate process. So now the author is turning the book in to the editor. The process will vary by publisher, by editor and sometimes even by book and by author, depending on a lot of factors, including how much time is available. I'm going to go through each of these steps, but in reality, they may be combined or skipped.

One of the first things to happen is that you'll get editor feedback, often in the form of a revision letter (or e-mail). These are big-picture suggestions, the kind of comments where there's no one particular place to write them on the manuscript because they involve the story as a whole. A lot of these may be "more" or "less" suggestions -- more action, more humor, more romance, less introspection, less angst, whatever. The editor may mention a character who's really great and should be used more. These notes may also address tone and pacing.

Then, after the author has fixed these things to the editor's satisfaction, the editor will do a line edit. This is where the editor fine tunes the story. If she finds a grammar or spelling error, she'll correct it, but this edit is really more about the story itself. This is where the editor may cut entire scenes or paragraphs, rearrange things, suggest different wording, cut out excess adverbs and adjectives, clarify dialogue, etc. It's a lot like the kind of editing the author does after the first draft, but it's a fresh pair of eyes looking at it with a different perspective, since the editor does this for a lot of books by a variety of authors and is more objective. Sometimes the revision notes and the line edits may be combined, with the revision notes being sent as the cover letter with the line edits, as something to think about while making all those other changes. The author enters all the editors' suggested changes (or her own take on the changes -- often I can see what the problem is but disagree on how to fix it, so I find my own way to fix it) and sends the editor a clean copy of the manuscript (these days, that usually involves e-mailing an electronic copy). I've heard that some publishers are going to doing line edits electronically in track changes mode, but so far, I've received a big, marked-up stack of paper.

If the editor is satisfied with these changes, then the manuscript goes to a copy editor. The copy editor is usually a freelancer who doesn't work directly for any one publishing company, and she's essentially a professional nitpicker. The copy editor checks for grammar, spelling and punctuation, as well as word usage. If you're particularly fond of a word and use it a lot without really thinking about it, the copy editor will point that out. The copy editor also makes sure that when you've used proper names of real people and places, you've spelled them properly. And the copy editor (if you've got a good one) will notice continuity errors or even things that look like continuity errors ("You mentioned on page x that she was wearing a hat when she entered. Is she still wearing a hat here? If not, when did she take it off and what did she do with it?"). Even if you turned in an absolutely perfect manuscript, getting the copy edits can be a little intimidating because the manuscript will be covered in red pencil marks. That's because the copy editor also modifies the manuscript for house style. If there are multiple correct ways of doing something, the house style is the way that publisher has chosen to do it. That's things like whether or not to put a comma before the "and" in a list of things, whether to spell out numbers or leave them in numerals, etc. The house style also designates a particular dictionary that dictates spelling, so the first version of a word with multiple spellings as listed in that dictionary is the "correct" way to spell the word. The copy editor also inserts typesetting codes, that are kind of like HTML, for things like chapter headings, the way the first paragraph in a chapter starts, bold, italics, long dashes and so forth.

The author is supposed to go through the copy-edited manuscript, reviewing all the suggested changes. If you think a change is wrong and will change the meaning, you can "stet" it, meaning that it should be the way it was originally written. You're supposed to address all the copy editor's questions or queries, and this is your last chance to make your own major changes. Any changes are to be written on this copy of the manuscript, in a different color pencil from what the copy editor used. If the changes are extensive, you type them onto a clean page as an insert, label the place where the insert goes, and then stick the insert into the manuscript. Then the whole mess goes back to the editor. I think at least one publisher is starting to do this step electronically, as well. I like to put all the changes made in the copy editing process into an electronic copy of the manuscript, using the track changes function, so I'll have a copy that matches what the publisher is working with. Depending on how extensive the line edits are and the time that's available, the editor may send the copy editor the line-edited manuscript, so the author then sees changes from the editor and the copy editor all at once.

Then the manuscript is typeset, with all the copy edit changes inserted. At this point, it starts to look like the way the inside of the finished book will look. The author gets sent a set of galley pages, which are the typeset version printed on regular paper (though at least one publisher does this as a computer print-out that just includes the typesetting codes). This is the last chance to look at the book before it gets printed. The most important thing here is to make sure nothing got screwed up while the copy edits were being entered -- things like accidentally deleting a paragraph instead of a line when inserting something, or the typesetter misreading the correction. That's another reason I enter copy edits into my own copy. I can then sit down with the galleys and check them against the copy-edited manuscript. The author isn't supposed to do any real rewriting at this point, just fixing any outright errors. Some contracts even say that you'll get charged for excessive changes that aren't correcting publisher errors at this point. If you get an advance copy of a book, like a review copy or bound galley, you're getting the same content the author gets to review, so it's not necessarily the finished book. At times, I've found entire paragraphs missing. So bid for it on e-Bay if you want a collector's item or a sneak peek (though it's not really legal or ethical to sell advance copies like that), but know that you're not getting the finished book. Then those changes are entered, along with anything noticed by the proofreader, and the book goes to the printer.

How long the process takes depends on how much time is available. I usually get a bit more time because I tend to turn my books in early, which I understand isn't exactly common (on my last visit to my publisher, my editor invited other editors to come meet the author who turned books in early, like I was an oddity in a carnival sideshow). It's usually nine months to a year (or more, if they change the publication date on me, like with my last book) between the time I turn a book in and the release date. For hugely bestselling authors, the process may be severely truncated, not so much because those authors become divas who have the clout to demand that not so much as a word of their precious prose be touched (though that does sometimes happen). It's more a case of time being money. Those books are usually bought with huge, multi-million dollar advances, and the publisher doesn't get a return on that massive investment until the book goes on sale, so they're not too keen on delaying the sale. With authors who have huge followings, the publishers know that fine tuning the book won't increase sales enough to justify delaying the release. The big, bestselling author type books are often turned in rather late, as well, which makes the publisher even more frantic to get the book out there. In fact, one of the reasons for the publishing woes in the fall was that several big bestselling authors who had books scheduled for release in the fall hadn't turned their books in, which meant that cash flow projections that had been based on income from those books fell short. Theoretically, that's a breach of contract, but no publisher is going to tell its cash cow author to take that book somewhere else because it's late. But you know when those books do get turned in, they're probably not going to spend a year revising, editing and copy editing them.

So, there you go. More than you probably wanted to know about what happens after an author finishes a book. Any other writing-related questions?

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