I take version control very seriously. That’s a fancy way of saying that, not only do I keep every draft of everything I’ve ever written, but I number them in very geeky ways. This allows me the freedom to rip a draft to shreds, because I know, if ever I’ve deleted something, and if I change my mind, I can always go back and recover it.
The first draft of anything is labelled “Title 1.0”. If I want to do a light brush-up on that draft, I’ll start by saving a fresh copy as 1.1, and edit away, saving the changes as I go. If I know there’s about to be some major, structural changes – or, more likely, I’m about to rewrite the whole story – I’ll “save as” draft 2.0. If I freshen that draft up with a few line edits, then I’ll start by saving it as draft 2.1.
You get the idea.
So now, take Helix: Plague of Ghouls. This is a book that should be coming out in the summer of 2016. The current draft I’m working on is labelled “02 Plague of Ghouls SR edit 1 5.2.”
02 Plague of Ghouls indicates that this is the second book of the trilogy.
SR edit 1 refers to the fact that my current editor, SR, went through this draft and added his commentary, and that this is his first communication back to me with the results. What it doesn’t say is that he edited the whole book in 2-3 passes before mailing it back to me. That means he read the same 360+ page book three times, adding comments and corrections along the way. To put this into perspective: an audiobook version of the same story is about 8-9 hours long.
5.2 means that the draft I had submitted to Tyche Books was the fifth full rewrite of the story. That means, I’d written this story four times before. What it doesn’t show is how many times I went over version 1 (twice), version 2 (twice), version 3 (once), or version 4 (three times).
5.2 also means that I’ve since gone over the latest draft twice, adding major sections, filling gigantic plot holes, and – as I’ve discovered – creating even more consistency errors by moving whole blocks of text.
Preliminary editing on any given draft happens on computer. This allows me to move scenes, or even chapters, to some earlier place in the book. It also allows me to do quick searches, flipping back and forth between scenes to ensure consistency of detail. Working on computer also allows me to quickly check spelling of obscure medical terms, confirm word usage, and…unfortunately…check Facebook a lot.
I wish I could say I edit from start to finish, but that’s not how it happens. A change in chapter four may require a similar change in chapter one, and I have to do it now, or I’ll forget what’s needed. One minor change in chapter twenty-eight means I have to go back to chapters one, four, seven, eight, ten, etc., and then skip forward to make sure it lines up with what I’ve said toward the ending.
Once the big blocks are done and I’m satisfied, then I print the whole thing off, single-sided, double-spaced, and I use a comb bind to keep the pages together. This results in a doorstop that I’ll carry with me for days and weeks, everywhere I go. As soon as I have an opportunity, I crack open the book and edit. This month alone, I’ve edited longhand at the doctor’s office, two coffee shops, the kitchen table, my desk, my bean bag chair (bad idea – I’ve a crick in my ribs now), and in my bed (also a bad idea, because that’s how you get insomnia). But, reviewing a hard copy, line by line, is where I catch the last of the inconsistencies I mentioned above.
These comb-bound tomes also result in dozens of forty-pound boxes full of previous drafts of other books – an absolute burden when you move as often as I have. Upside, great biceps. Downside, sore back, and no room left in the truck for furniture.
When editing longhand, I also carry a notebook with me, so I can capture notes on unanswered questions, dangling subplots, missed puns, character motivation problems, and a list of words to kill off – in this book, Sweat, Wet, and Fidget are the most grossly overused.
After the paper version is edited, I then go back and transfer the edits from paper to electronic copy. This is where I’m at now with version 5.2. Unfortunately, on the hard copy, I put comments like, “This is weak” or “Do we want to say this?” instead of actually changing anything, which is a gigantic pain in my butt, because I still have to figure out how to make each passage sound better.
Before I finalize version 5.2, I look at the last page of every chapter. If there are only 2-6 lines on the last page, then I’ll look for ways to shorten the chapter. In other words, I kill my widows and orphans. And, because I’m assuming I don’t need to write massive notes to myself on a facing page, I can now print double-sided, and my back is happy.
During this next pass, being the third since receiving my corrections back from my editor, I’ll be editing right down to the way the sentence sounds. I’d mentioned on Twitter a couple of days ago that the weirdest part about having one of my books produced in audio format is that I now have to edit out loud. I was only half-joking. Because I want Plague of Ghouls to be an audio book, I have to move from “book” mode to “script” mode. I need to eliminate any word that might be mistaken for its homonym; shorten any phrase that will make the reader gasp for air; and re-architect any sentence that’s too tongue-twisty or hard to pronounce. Call this the Mairzy Doats phase of editing.
Since I can’t sent back a hard copy of the manuscript, that means I’ll be working on version 5.3 when that pass is complete.
As is probably standard across all publishing houses, edits are tracked through Microsoft Word, using “Track Changes” and “Final: Show Markup”. This shows every single change that has been made to the original file, including spaces added or removed, rewording, reformatting, and passages cut from one location and pasted to another. My editor’s recommended changes are visible as well. At the moment, version 5.1 is more red (showing a change) than black (showing that the original has been untouched) and I haven’t even begun transferring my latest changes into version 5.2. Imagine how many more changes there will be by version 5.3.
At least my editor will see how diligent I’ve been…
Version 5.3 then goes back to SR, who makes even more recommendations, and the new version is called “02 Plague of Ghouls SR Edit 2 5.3”. I start (and finish) version 5.4, which we then send to the publisher for final review. If there are any changes required (sigh), then we’re on to version 5.5.
And then, assuming all goes well, we are finally ready to put text into a book-like format, or galley. And…once more into the breech.
At that point, I stop counting revisions and begin to examine my life’s priorities.
The worst part about all this is not the amount of hours I’ve spent editing (when I could have been playing Fallout 4 instead). It’s not about the disparity between hours worked and profits gained. It’s not even about how, despite everyone’s hard work, we still have a dastardly time getting the book onto the shelf of a large or independent bookseller, because the publishing house “isn’t well-known enough.”
No, what gets me is the irony of editing. The only way to know you’ve done it well is if nobody notices! A well-edited book is one that reads like it was written perfectly the first time. Tell me the last time you ever finished a book and said, “Wow, this was well edited!”
What stands out in the reader’s mind are those teensy errors that slipped through our fine-mesh screens. Like, discreet, when we should have used discrete; characters checking the whether forecast; or that time “he most have had time to shave” instead of when he “must have had”. These are the tiny errors that knock us down from a 5-star review to 4.
But would I give up these last hundred hours of editing? No, not really. When you think about it, it works out to be only about three full work weeks out of 52. Do I miss a lot of social engagements because of it? During editing season, yes; afterwards, no.
Do I end up making the same mistakes from one draft to the other? No, because every time I edit a draft, I learn a new skill, which I can then apply to my writing, so that when I write a completely new book, I’m bringing in thousands of hours of editing experience, which allows me to avoid errors I made last time, and sensitizes me to new errors I might be making now.
Would I prefer to write it perfectly the first time? Absolutely! I miss my first person shooter games. Will it ever happen? Not a chance.
This I have to remember when writing my next book: go, have fun, and write audaciously, because no matter how good the first draft is, there will be many, many revisions before it’s great.