Guest post: Ed McDonald on Working with Editors

Image result for blackwing ed mcdonaldTo conclude this mini-series of posts on Ed McDonald’s debut Blackwing, I invited Ed to talk about any topic that he felt was relevant but more importantly, something that he was passionate about. I have to say, I really appreciate the fact he chose something that both readers and aspiring authors might be interested in. That of ‘working with editors’ and how the process shaped Blackwing‘s release.

Before I introduce Ed for the last time in this mini-series, I’d like to thank him for his time and efforts in participating in both the interview and submitting this guest post. I’d also like to thank the guys and gals over at Gollancz for sending me an ARC of Blackwing. And lastly, I’d like to thank you, whoever ends up reading these posts, for taking an interest in them – I hope you have enjoyed them as much as I.

Working With Editors: Blackwing’s Journey From Agent To Print

Recently, I was contacted by an aspiring author who was interested in learning more about the process of working with editors, and how it affects your novel as an overall product: “If you don’t mind me asking–how involved were your editors in crafting the finished product? I noticed you made a joke about them turning a pile of words into something else, and I’m curious about how much time editors spend with manuscripts these days.”

I think that before you get a publishing deal, the whole editorial process can be a bit of a mystery, so for whatever it’s worth, I thought that I’d share my experience. Everything that I’m about to write is purely from my own experience, as just one person, working with two publishers. It may well be that other writers have had very different experiences, and so you can’t assume that what I say here is ‘The Truth.’ It’s just one example in a widely-varied industry.

A note about hiring your own editor:

I see an awful lot of people on forums discussing hiring editors even prior to putting their book out on submission. This might be the right decision for you. I’m not shooting it down if you do. I can say with confidence however, that this isn’t something that I ever did, or ever would consider doing. If you can’t edit your own manuscript to the point that it’s ready to go out for queries, then really you need to learn how – not employ someone else to do it! Learning to edit effectively is a skill any aspirant needs. Of course, if you’re self-publishing, that’s a different kettle of fish entirely (and one on which I have no qualification to speak whatsoever!).

A note about timings:

BLACKWING is an oddity, in that its journey has been incredibly quick, and that does not reflect most other authors’ experience (not any that I’ve spoken to, anyway). From the day I met my agent, we had 4 deals within 3 weeks. Usually that’s 6 months. Editing will usually take maybe 6 months and it’s common to expect 18 month to 2 years between a deal and publication day (again, I base this on what other authors have told me). But Blackwing was picked up in October 2016, edited by March 2017 (aside from steps 6 and 7) and will be hitting shelves on 27th July 2017. Whenever I tell industry people this, they are usually a bit astonished!

The Stages that BLACKWING went through on its way to a final form:

  • 1) Agent Edit

When my agent, Ian Drury, first picked it up he had some minor changes that he wanted me to make – change some names, the character’s main profession, and add a short 1k word chapter late in the book to tie something up. But it was all pretty minor. That’s not always the case – I know of agents who have both asked for 50k more words, and asked to cut 50k words. Ian told me that one of the reasons he wanted to pick Blackwing up was that it didn’t need very much editing (bare that in mind as you read on!). Apart from a few minor suggestions, he showed me what he was sending another client – several pages of detailed revisions. I got off lightly, and was able to make the correction over a single weekend.

One of the things that did change at this stage was the name; what was originally The Howling of the Sky became Blackwing. It was undoubtedly a change for the better.

  • 2) Deals acquired; editors get involved

A few weeks after that, Ian had got me deals in several territories. It was decided that I would have three editors. Gillian Redfearn and Craig Leyenaar at Gollancz in the UK, and Jessica Wade at Ace in the US.

I received two sets of notes, one from the UK, one from the US. I worked on those changes. One set were detailed comments alongside the text, saying things like “I’m not sure who is saying this” or “Could we be told what this word means now? It’s confusing not to know,” but also suggestions for continuity issues or pacing problems. The second set was a 3 page document describing various positives that could be played up, and points where some further thought was needed, where pace was lacking and so on. There was also a suggestion for “It would be cool if…” that I loved, so I wrote an extra paragraph to accommodate it.

I worked on those edits for about 4 weeks. This did involve inserting a certain amount of exposition that I wasn’t really happy with, but on which both editors had so far commented. I decided to take the approach that if the editors were in agreement, then I had better listen! It’s so easy to be blind to things in your own work.

It’s worth mentioning however, that there’s a difference between being told to change something, and being coaxed towards understanding why there’s an issue with the manuscript that could be improved upon. It was always stressed that I didn’t have to accept any of the suggestions, but when you’re working with editors who’re responsible for editing some of your favourite books (Gillian edited all of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books, for example) then it’s time to prick up your ears and listen.

  • 3) Second round, third editor

I made those changes, and then it went to editor number 3. Editor three did another round of editing, combining the two previous approaches, and probably identified the single biggest issue in the manuscript, which was a problem of motivation and continuity. Over the many drafts that had happened before it even got to an agent, some things had got muddled, and I hadn’t spotted them.

I couldn’t sleep for three nights at that point, one night rising at 3:30am to go and work on it for another couple of hours, as I struggled to resolve the issue that I’d made for myself. Every solution I came up didn’t work with at least one other scene or idea in the book. But eventually, an epiphany moment came, and I realised how much better the book would be for it.

  • 4) Wait, more? Line edit.

From there, it goes to a line edit; changing individual words or lines. All before that is structural and story based – the line edit takes place once everyone’s happy with that. This is time consuming, but not very hard. Lots of “This word appears in the previous line. Change?” and so on.

  • 5) And more? Copy edit!

From there, Ace put the book through a copy edit. A copy editor (4th editor) is paid to be a technical grammar expert. I disagreed with quite a lot of her suggestions because I deliberately break grammar rules a lot to create Galharrow’s particular character voice. But, it’s her job to point them out (and she didn’t mention most of the ones where it was obviously intentional). She also pointed out a ton of stuff that I’d missed, including the fact that I wasn’t using any hyphens for compound adjectives…

  • 6) Back to me for proof reading

From there, I was asked to proof read (which was optional) alongside a professional proof-reader. You get asked to look at all the proof-reader’s changes before any change is made – in fact, before anything gets changed in the manuscript, you get asked whether you approve of it.

I thought it was all done here!

  • 7) Wait… more? Cold reader!

Just when I thought the door was closed, I got another round of suggestions emailed – about 20 things that a cold reader had picked up. These were largely things like ensuring that tense was always consistent, but it was surprising that with this many rounds of editing we’d still missed a few things!


But finally. It was there.


…And that’s the lot.

Sounds scary, right? It is a bit. But it’s also important, and it makes everything better. Seven rounds of edits is a lot, but I put a lot of my life into Blackwing, and I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t as polished as it could be. The care and attention put into getting everything right is kind of flattering, and speaks volumes for the amount that both Ace and Gollancz care about ensuring that the book they’re putting out is going to be one that people love.

I know some writers feel like their book is their baby, their ‘pure art.’ But I view it more like a movie. You’ve got a writer, but there’s also a director, and a producer, and all these other people working to make something brilliant together. The author does a lot of the work, but without editors, it would be all the poorer.

The most important thing that I’d like to stress, however, is that while the publishing industry is hard to break into, and can feel like there are impenetrable, invisible barriers holding you back, they aren’t your enemy. It’s more like there’s an awesome, exclusive club, and you have to guess what the dress code is before turning up. And it takes a year or more to make the outfit, and you have to either be bloody good at tailoring, or just happen to hit the trend just right. Once inside, I’ve been treated amazingly well. Gollancz even welcomed me to their office with a champagne lunch, and all of my interactions with all the staff there have been fantastic.

So… hopefully we’re all done now…. at least, we better be, it’s out in the UK on 27th July!

2017_01_07_ed-mcdonald_185Ed McDonald has spent many years dancing between different professions, cities and countries, but the only thing any of them share in common is that they have allowed him enough free time to write. He currently lives with his wife in London, a city that provides him with constant inspiration, where he works as a university lecturer. When he’s not grading essays or wrangling with misbehaving plot lines he can usually be found fencing with longswords, rapiers and pollaxes.

His debut Blackwing is scheduled to be released in the UK on July 20th 2017 by Gollancz, in the US on October 30th 2017; and available in German, Spanish, French, Hungarian and Russian (so far!) translations from 2018.

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