Reader Mailbag: the writer/editor relationship

Posted on June 3, 2013

A very thoughtful reader sent an interesting email asking about the writer/editor relationship, and about the drafts you send in while writing a series. I suspected other aspiring writers would be interested in the answer too, so I’m answering it here. (I, uh, failed to ask permission first, so that’s why I am keeping the reader anonymous for now; however, if you are willing to be known, oh ingenious reader, say the word and I’ll edit this post to credit you!)


The letter:

Hopefully a quick question here: How polished does your first draft
have to be for a second book in a series, or the third, etc.?

Let me clarify: I am well aware that when you're in the query process,
you should be presenting your best first impression--and nothing helps
but a carefully edited manuscript! 

However, once you get an agent and said agent sells your first story
and a potential sequel (or a second standalone novel) to a publisher
*insert shiny contract here*, does your publisher/editor expect a
similarly, well-edited manuscript for the potential sequel (or a
second standalone novel)?

For instance, when you submit (or did you already? xD haha) in
Spellcaster #2: Steadfast, will your editor want the same level of
high edits s/he received for Spellcaster book 1? Or is there a leeway,
especially if you turnaround your manuscript earlier than a deadline?
Or if you have a close relationship with your editor (as in you worked
with him/her on previous manuscripts)?

I'm nowhere near submission to agents for my WIP, but this is a
question that's been bothering me... I figure I might as well learn as
much as I can from the industry. And who better to ask! :) #kissingup


P.S. 'Evernight' is still the only series I devoured back-to-back.

First of all, thanks for the awesome email, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the EVERNIGHT series. Now, onto your questions.


The answer isn’t either/or, I think. As you work forward in a series, you get more leeway AND you try to hand in the best possible version of your book. Your editor is your partner in the process; you want her feedback and her input, which means you expect to make some amendments based on her insights into the manuscript. OTOH, your editor is not yours alone. Even if you are her top priority, you are almost certainly not her only author. She’s got dozens of manuscripts begging for her attention, whereas you just have the one. You need to polish the hell out of your draft to make sure that your editor’s attention can be reserved for the big-picture stuff you won’t catch, instead of the problems in the story you could have dealt with on your own.

(And yes, there are ALWAYS going to be flaws in the story that the author can’t see. When you’ve lived with a book for months and months, you lose sight of certain things — believing you explained something that seems obvious to you but is never actually spelled out for readers who’ll need it, the fact that you’ve telegraphed a coming plot twist so boldly that you might as well have put it on a 50-foot blinking neon sign, or even a character’s eye color undergoing a mysterious, non-paranormal change.)

So where does the leeway come in? Well, most authors take their time writing their first book — you might have edited and polished that baby for three years. Now you’ve got 11 months for the sequel … and during those 11 months you’re also expected to build a Twitter/blogging platform, go over copyedits, and keep living your life. It’s harder! I don’t think there’s an editor in the world who doesn’t understand second-book jitters.

Also, as you say, you build a relationship with an editor as you work forward in a series, and this allows for a little collaboration earlier in the process. (Depending on the relationship you’ve got — some editors are very close with their writers, others less so, and neither approach is necessarily better or worse.) This doesn’t mean handing in a less-polished draft, at least for me; however, I have occasionally been able to reach out to an editor during the writing process to get her thoughts about something that’s bedeviling me. For example, when I was writing STEADFAST, I thought I knew what the ending of the book would be. I’d pitched it to HarperTeen when I originally pitched the series. So they knew what they were getting, I knew what I was writing, and everybody was happy …

…until I wrote the book and realized it ended a different way entirely.

Within a day of that realization, I emailed my wonderful editor, Sarah Landis, and simply told her what I was thinking. If she was deeply committed to the original ending, or simply thought my new ending sounded deranged, she would’ve spoken up then so we could discuss it. I didn’t want to write an ending my editor wouldn’t appreciate — and if we disagreed, better to have the discussion right away. That way I could either see the error of my ways or get her to see the error of hers BEFORE I took the book down that path. Instead, happily, Sarah loved the new ending as much as I did. That gave me the confidence to plunge in and finish STEADFAST the way I knew I needed to.

There are other ways in which writers sometimes get a little leeway that wouldn’t be given when you’re presenting that first book. People get sick. Family members have crises. Sadly, getting published doesn’t provide lifetime protection from bad stuff happening. Editors understand that you might not be 100% at the top of your game when the rest of your life is falling apart. In a case like that, maybe you seriously miss a deadline, or hand in a draft rougher than you ever thought possible.

But you save it for a case like that, you know? You take that leeway only when you absolutely can’t do anything else. Your best bet is always to take charge of your own manuscript and polish it as much as possible before it goes in.

Do you guys have any other big publishing/writing questions you’d like to ask? Hit me in the comments —


4 Responses to “Reader Mailbag: the writer/editor relationship”

  1. Muna

    Late reply–*feels awful*
    THANK YOU, thank you, thank you! That reply rocked my polka dot socks, and I wasn’t expecting the level of detail. (I especially appreciated the story with your editor.) I think my fear, in the future, is not agreeing with an editor over a major (or minor) detail in the story. I was reading an interview with Becca Fitzpatrick a month ago and she was telling the story behind Crescendo’s first edits and how her editor told her to completely rewrite something like 400 pages (or basically the whole manuscript)! Crazy, right? But the editor had good reasons as the rest of Becca’s story and success assures us. Lesson learned: sometimes the editor knows better, and sometimes the writer does.

    Ahhh, and thanks for the cloak of anonymity, but it’s warm and I don’t mind going without. ;D

    I was hoping other fans/aspiring writers would pipe in with their own questions, but alas…they must all be shy.

    • claudia

      So glad that was useful for you! And yes, I hope more people will start commenting on the blog, but I guess these things take time —

  2. Stephanie Garber

    I just came across this, and this was so helpful! I’ve been wondering about this very thing–but I never knew who to ask. This was awesome!