In this series, 'The Path', I'll discuss my journey, as it's happening, in going from manuscript to commercial publication for the first time.
In the last post, I talked about the process of pitching my book to publishers and inking deals for its publication in the US and the UK.
As always, keep in mind that experiences will vary; this is just what my path looked like.
In November of 2019, I sold DARK THINGS I ADORE, my thriller debut, to Sourcebooks in the US. In January 2020, I sold the UK rights to Titan Books.
So what happened next? Well, I’ll tell ya!
A couple of days after the “handshake deal,” my agent sent out an email to me and my editor, MJ, “introducing” us again and providing contact information for each of the three of us. Then there was a lull as we rolled into the holidays. Over the course of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year, the official contract was being worked out and MJ was backed up with a few other projects at Sourcebooks. I got my first-round developmental edit from MJ in late February.
At the time, there had been a very optimistic hope from some quarters that the book could or might be ready to go into the “production” phase (more about this in the next post) by May. Meaning I’d handle the revisions MJ talked about in her February editorial letter and be done in one round. It turned out this was a little too optimistic. As with the preceding phases of my journey, this phase too would turn out to be rather painstakingly long (but worth the wait).
The February editorial package (an email) from MJ included two things: a two-page single-spaced editorial letter and the manuscript with track changes editorial suggestions and comment boxes.
The letter reminded me a lot of the feedback structure you see in fiction workshops. The first bit was overall impressions, the second bit was specific praise, and the final (most important) bit was critique and suggestions for revision. And whereas the editorial letter felt like a summation of reactions to the book, the manuscript with track changes was like reading someone else’s reactions in real time as they read. It was helpful to have both side by side to see how some conclusions were arrived at in the editorial letter by seeing the pattern of feedback over the course of the book in track changes.
It turned out that I would have a lot of work to do. The overall thrust of the story did not change, the same outcomes would eventually be achieved, etc., but there was one big suggestion (among other medium-sized suggestions) that MJ had asked me to consider: write and add in an entirely new first-person POV and character in a book that was already being told from three *other” first-person POVs.
That’s like a 20,000-new-words editorial suggestion! On top of adjusting and amending the rest of the book’s ecosystem to work around this new POV. The other kicker was that this POV should exist in a separate timeline from the other primary POVs. A background reference I'd made to an arts camp from many years ago had really struck MJ as interesting, and now she wanted the reader to be able to *go* there.
It turns out that MJ was completely right about all of this (about everything, really -- she is a gifted editor). I think it turned out rather well, but you’ll be able to tell me in September 2021 when DARK THINGS I ADORE comes out!
At the time, however, I was daunted.
So I took a few weeks to just read and reread all the editorial feedback and let it marinate. This is always the first step in my personal process. I have to let it all sink in for a few weeks before I feel I understand what is even being asked of me, my brain serving as a passive translation system humming along in the background. Then I got to work.
I sent the manuscript back to MJ on May 4, 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was kicking into high gear.
I received round two edits from MJ in June with a due date in August. This emailed editorial packet from MJ included three items: the editorial letter, the track changes manuscript, and a character & plot study MJ had written up for me (which was SO helpful and must have been a lot of work). It was a nine-page document distilling the complex interrelationships of the characters and when each major plot point occurs for each character. It was a great framework. (I should note at this point that a second editor had been brought on to assist MJ -- Jenna -- and she and MJ worked as a team on this round and the future rounds in tandem. They were both great!)
This second round was less daunting, with fewer major rewrites (or new writing) needing to happen, but now we were getting into the (for me) far scarier realm of tightening, aligning, fleshing out points that had been a little weak all along.
The best way I can describe the feeling the process gave me, in going from major hunks to deal with to smaller but more interconnected threads, is moving. For instance: is lifting and moving the couch and bed and dining room table from the moving truck to the house arduous? Yes. But you also basically know where to put it in hour one of the move. You carry it in, you put it down, you’re done. You can sit on the couch, even. But what about the small boxes and bags filled with miscellany you hurriedly threw together in the 11th hour? What about the dozens of bubble-wrapped glass tumblers and plates and bowls? These things are smaller and easier to handle, but you look out across a sea of that stuff and it feels overwhelming. And tedious.
That’s what working down each level of revision felt like to me haha. It always made the book better! But it was a lot of work fine-tuning, double-checking, re-reading, adjusting, adjusting, adjusting, etc.
I somehow, miraculously, was able to get round two done in about a week. She sent me the round two editorial packet on August 4, and I sent back the next draft on August 11. I had busted my *ass* in that week. I also sent them the spreadsheet “database” I had created to keep track of the various POVs and dates in play.
This bitch had 89 rows.
Truth time: I had really hoped that I would only need to do two rounds of edits. I think two rounds is what MJ and Jenna had envisioned for me initially, and I just didn’t quite make it. So, on September 1, 2020, MJ and Jenna sent me the third round of developmental edits. This packet included a more informal editorial letter (about 1.5 pages) and the track changes manuscript. When this came in to me, and I saw there were still yet more glass tumblers to unwrap and put away, junk drawer miscellany to find a home (really stretching this metaphor here), I kind of lost it. Because there was still a fair bit to do on this tedious (but important) level that I felt I did not have the mental energy or inventiveness for.
How do I flesh this person out MORE? I’ve fleshed and fleshed!
How do I make THIS clearer without giving it all away?
What if I don’t know how to push this thing over the finish line?
What if I’m not good enough?
On top of this, the email the third round developmental edit materials came with also indicated that to be safe, Sourcebooks was going to send my book out to a sensitivity reader to make sure the delicate topics the book deals with are being handled appropriately. This added to my anxiety, of course.
What if I’ve been insensitive in my handling of these topics I take very seriously?
What if the sensitivity reader doesn’t like the book?
What if the sensitivity reader comes back with a lot more to fix?
I think it was Terrible 2020 Fatigue + Working Full Time + Editing Book All Year + Crisis of Confidence at Needing Round 3 and a Sensitivity Read = Meltdown
I just sort of cried and wallowed for a day or two, which was cathartic. Then I did my usual letting the feedback settle in my brain. Then I got to work.
In the midst of that work, on September 21, the sensitivity reader got back to MJ with his read. It turned out he was very complimentary of the book and felt I had handled things well; I felt like I could breathe again. With a few minor tweaks, he felt it was good to go. This was a HUGE relief.
On October 1, 2020, I sent the round three manuscript back to MJ and Jenna. They made a few very brief notes via email and within a week I had the fourth round developmental edit back to them on October 15.
And then -- drum roll -- the developmental edit of the book was done! The book could be moved on to the production phase!
Had it taken me nearly a year to get the book into its final shape? Yes.
Is that weirdly long? Maybe a little? I'm sure some people go longer, and some people go shorter. But that’s what it took me.
Are you happy with where the book is now? YES! The book is lightyears better than the book Sarah The Agent signed on to rep in November 2018. And much better than the book MJ and Sourcebooks bought in November of 2019. It’s an incredibly collaborative and gratifying -- if difficult -- process, I’ve found. I’ve learned a lot as a writer, and I wouldn’t trade that.
So what happened after the book was finally accepted for publication after four rounds of developmental edits? I’ll talk about that next time. (I’ll also have more info by then -- for the first time, this blog is catching up with the process in real time!).
Until next time...
Wear a mask.
Black lives matter.
And happy reading,