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On Editing: Expect the Unexpected

I started the week with the story of my two novels: Gods Tomorrow and Ghost Targets: Expectation (in stores February 15th!). Specifically, I talked about the covershoots for both books, and the surprises they held for us.

Those little surprises are pretty troubling, especially when the book is so close to being published, but they’re not by any means the worst situations I’ve faced. I could tell you horror stories about my homemade publishing software, about the websites for my digital distributors, about problems with the digital standards themselves.

Still, at the end of the day, the biggest problem I’ve run into every time has been me.

Gods Tomorrow

I wrote Gods Tomorrow in November of 2008, and scheduled it for publication in October 2010. In the intervening years, I shared it with over a dozen beta readers (all of whom provided me extensive feedback), and dedicated myself to at least four major rewrites (not to mention the little changes I’d make every time someone pointed out a problem to me).

By the time I started prepping it for publication last summer, I really felt like the book was done. I hadn’t done a rewrite in eight or nine months, and I hadn’t heard any manner of critical feedback in at least as long. For my part, I was happy with it.

I enlisted the aid of our phenomenal Chief Editor, Jessie Sanders, because I knew better that to assume “ready for publication” was the same thing as “perfect.” I expected her to find some typos for me and help me fit a more consistent style, but I didn’t really plan to make any major changes.

When Jessie brought me her feedback sometime in September (with the book scheduled for publication at the first of October), she had indeed found tons of those little problems (for which I was grateful). She also brought me a couple paragraphs of feedback on the story: character development issues, pacing, and plot questions that the story had left unanswered for her.

She also mentioned that this book wasn’t really the type she usually reads (an issue I’ve been discussing for the last few weeks), and while I understood her complaints I didn’t really feel like they were critical problems, so with the publication date so close, I decided to leave the book as-is. If anything, I could save those changes for a second edition.

I spent the next couple weeks buried in the hard work of figuring out on-the-fly how to publish a novel, but Jessie’s feedback kept nagging at me. I was pretty sure I’d made the right choice, but at the same time…she had a point. And I did want my book to be the best book it could be.

On top of that…well, I kept trying to ignore it, but the things she’d said lined up really well with some quiet objections Becca had made when she read it. And Kris, too. And I realized I knew exactly what I needed to do, to resolve all of their objections and make my story work.

So I did. The week before the book was supposed to go to press, I opened it back up and did a complete rewrite. I made major character and plot changes in five chapters (out of sixteen), and significantly rewrote the story’s ending (for a fourth or fifth time). Then I frantically read through the whole thing one last time, and uploaded it to four major distributors.

Ghost Targets: Expectation

Of course I learned my lesson, right? Recognizing how hectic my fall schedule was going to be, I gave myself five months between the publication of Gods Tomorrow and its sequel, Ghost Targets: Expectation. I decided I’d do a complete rewrite on my own (even though this book was also already two years old, and much commented-upon), then hand it off to my editor with sufficient time to make plenty of changes.

I didn’t. I lost track of time, so when January rolled around I sent a copy of the story off to Jessie and then dove right in myself, trying to do a rewrite while she was working on it. I cleaned up a couple things that I’d felt were unclear, then after Jessie finished her review (a couple weeks ago now), I followed her advice and wrote a whole new ending for the story — not just reworking what was there, but tacking on a whole scene to serve as a badly-needed denouement. I went back through the whole book and made the changes she’d suggested.

Well…most of them. There was one little part she thought was under-explained — a bit of a deus ex machina right at the climax of the story — but I’d added some hints during my first rewrite, and I thought it was good enough. I certainly had enough on my plate. This was really no time to go making big changes to the story.

And then yesterday I finally broke down and did it. Yesterday. Less than a week to press, and I went in and muddled with major plot elements again, messing with three different chapters (out of fifteen), and significantly shifting around some of the suspicion related to the book’s mystery.

Honestly, I suspect that’s part of storytelling. It’s part of art. No expression is ever perfect, and there’s always something more that can be done. It doesn’t do any good to pretend otherwise — whether that means that you expect yourself to get it perfectly right before you share it with the world (you never will), or that you really believe you’ve spotted everything you need to do to make it “good enough.”

You haven’t. You can’t. And it’s not for any mysterious, magical reason, but for one that’s really easy to understand. In the end, it’s exactly what editors are for. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll talk all about it.

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