Clare B. Dunkle

The Business of Novel Writing

Clare B. Dunkle's guide to the editorial process

Head in Oslo, Norway

Once an editor accepts a manuscript, what happens to it? This page describes the stages of the editorial process, from rough draft to published hardcover.


Call me old fashioned, but I like to sell complete drafts. I want those ideas to belong to me until they're written. That way, when my editor buys a project, it's already concrete, and we can discuss exactly what she and I want from it. We can be clearer on where we differ and how we're going to solve the conflicts. Creative control matters to me, and I don't like to share it until I can be sure we'll both be happy.

Once a new project comes up on my schedule, I take about four months to write it, although that four months can stretch into six or eight as the draft gets set aside for other projects that are further along, such as line edits or manuscripts coming back for revision. I usually write my draft with a pretty good idea of where the story will go and a strong sense of the mood I want and the major themes I'm working with. Nevertheless, the rough draft is far from perfect. At this point, I'm proud of a lot of the language in individual scenes; the problems have to do, usually, with how well those scenes fit together. Things may happen too quickly, or the emotional contrast between scenes may be too stark.

Before I email the draft off to my agent, I spend a few days rereading it to make sure that the story makes sense and that there are no jolting continuity flaws or obvious typos. Nevertheless, I don't take time to polish it to a high gloss. I'd much rather do that with my editor's help. She'll be able to see where I'm heading and put her finger on what still needs work. It's good to know I won't have to do this on my own.


Fast-forward a couple of months. My editor and agent have reached a verbal agreement on the terms of the sale, so we can start working on the book. My editor sends me an email giving me her preliminary impressions of the draft, the really big goods and bads: "It was gripping. I read it all in one sitting. But I never did get a clear idea of Character X's motivation, and by the way, what was the significance of the episode in Chapter 10, where the doll gets lost?"

I write back, giving some of the story's background, and agree that the motivation problem needs work. My editor tells me she will try to send me her revision comments by the end of next month. At this point, she may or may not share with me her tentative plans for when she would like to publish the book. That discussion may wait until we see how quickly the manuscript shapes up during revisions.


I receive the revision comments, several pages of dense discussions of what isn't quite shining in the manuscript. These range widely. One character may be stealing the show when she shouldn't be, for instance, or she may seem too flat and uninteresting. The world rules may be a bit too mysterious at times, confusing the reader. The middle of the story may drag, or the beginning, or even the end. Every kind of problem may come up in one way or another: plot, characterization, pacing, mood, description, or continuity. So the first revision is the Big One.

Writing a story is not unlike the act of carving an elephant out of a bar of soap. Author and editor have to spend some time whittling before the story takes its shape; nevertheless, that shape is already lurking below the surface, waiting to be found, just like the elephant inside the bar.

Each book goes through a different process as it takes shape. With The Hollow Kingdom, the plot was straightforward and the storytelling was fine. The first revision was largely a question of abridging a manuscript that was too long. With In the Coils of the Snake, the plot was pretty basic, but the problem was how to tell it. At the first revision, we took it from a straight chronological tale that spanned eighteen years to a story spanning only a few months, with frequent flashbacks to fill in the missing history.

By These Ten Bones presented interesting problems at the first revision. The rough draft version of the prologue was like a folktale:

They say that the last wolf to die in Scotland was killed by an old woman with an iron griddle. But they are wrong, entirely wrong. It was not so simple as that. Blood flowed and brave men went to their graves before the last wolf died in Scotland. And it wasn't an old woman who killed him at all. It was a young servant girl.

But that is how things are in an old land. The stories get lost. A ghostly piping is heard in the walls, but nobody knows why, and a headless woman walks in the night, and nobody knows who. People knew where the last wolf died: they called it the Place of the Screams. But only one person had the right way of it, and she didn't ever tell.

(Incidentally, if you're a scholar of Scottish folktales, you'll know where the piper plays and the headless woman walks. You'll even know about the wolf and the iron griddle.)

My editor told me the publisher thought the prologue needed to be scarier. So I rewrote it to be the werewolf's attack on Paul's family, with the wind blowing through the hut and blood dripping from the walls. Now it was scary, all right. It was too scary! I decided I wouldn't read a book that began that way—it was just too awful. So, after mulling over it for a few days, I rewrote it again to be the evening after the attack, with those deaths hinted at but not revealed. And that's what we used as the final prologue, which you can read here.

Another change that occurred to By These Ten Bones at this point had to do with the nature of Highland life. I had originally written the story with Ned locked up in a jail, but by the time I got to the first revision, I knew that was too far-fetched. Highland lords had jails, like the one-person hole where they keep Ned before his execution, but no one in those days would have locked up a troublemaker when he could be forced to do work instead. I had been reading about the difficulty of caring for the mentally ill in historic Scotland, and that gave me the idea for Mad Angus. So Ned's jail became a traveling pair of fetters.

Sometimes there aren't big plot changes, as we had in By These Ten Bones, or complicated storytelling problems, as we had with In the Coils of the Snake. And yet everything in the story needs to change—just a little bit. Imagine that you've woven a blue rug. Your editor comes along and says, "I think we should try for blue-green." It's not much of a difference, but it's going to affect every single thread.

That's how things went with The Sky Inside. Everything was close, but the difference between close and perfect meant that little pieces of the book had to change throughout. By the time the revision was done, I felt as if the manuscript was a patchwork quilt: two lines of new dialogue, two paragraphs of old description, a paragraph of new description, two lines of old dialogue—and so on, from beginning to end.

I do quite a bit of experimentation in the first revision, but I know most of it will be successful because (thanks to my editor) I know exactly what we're trying to fix. This revision isn't a time to fix picky text problems unless I have a habit that's absolutely driving my editor crazy, like starting every other paragraph with "Um."

The first revision usually takes me one to two months of hard daily work, during which I obsess and walk into furniture and take hour-long showers and suddenly realize in the middle of the grocery store why all of yesterday's work has to go. I like to think that right now is when I'm earning my money. Anyone can write a story, but only a pro has the imagination and discipline to revise fiction under editorial direction.

Before I send it back, I print the whole thing out and read it aloud, lying in bed eating caramels with my trusty pencil by my side. One long read-aloud session allows me to adjust the pacing. If I get bored, something in the story goes away. I hate getting bored when I read. When I'm finished, I make the changes I've marked during my session and email the manuscript off to my editor. Then I sit back and wait for her to tell me I've done a brilliant job.


A week to a month later, my editor gets back to me with her preliminary thoughts on the first revision. "I think the heavy lifting is done," she emailed me after reading The Sky Inside at this stage, and that's exactly what I want to hear. With so many changes and so much experimentation, something is bound to not quite work, but we'd better be most of the way there. The second revision is all about fine-tuning.

Sometimes, this is when my editor and I have to face the fact that we have different agendas for the book. We may have to come to a compromise. For instance, in The Hollow Kingdom, my editor wanted Kate to fall in love with Marak earlier in the book because that's when all the readers were falling for him. But Kate and I objected. We weren't interested in romance, and I felt it seriously weakened Kate's character to base her rational, cold-blooded offer of marriage on suppressed girlish longing. "I see your point," my editor said. "Then you need to make Marak uglier. A lot uglier." And that's what he is now, ugly and old-looking, bowlegged, bristly-eyebrowed, with gnarly, arthritic-looking hands. Did it help? Yes, a little, but the readers still fall in love with him pretty quickly, and Kate still wonders why. She sometimes thinks they should have to face an orc over the breakfast table. Then they would understand.

I've done as few revisions as one and as many as three. Two revisions is my preference. It allows me to notice details and develop the characters further. This second revision catches the little things, such as a paragraph that should move half a page down or a better way to catch that opening scene. It's as if the story is almost there, just a little bit blurry, and this is when I bring it into focus.

This is when I noticed that my morbidly sensitive elf lord Nir had a habit of buying time by echoing a question before answering it. This is when I realized that Irina wasn't a shallow valley girl but a frustrated artist in love with the idea of beauty. This is when I developed Arianna's entirely alien magic and thought processes; of all my characters, she's the least human. This is when I invented the spiral of ash trees on the hill (before then, Miranda had just gotten lost in the woods). This is when Nir's hand started glowing and he accidentally changed a boulder into a delphinium patch. This is when Close Kin's rabbit found his way to Emily to be changed back into a farmer again, and when Ruby, with all her prejudices, found herself in love with the little twins.

Without all these details, my books would have been similar, but they would have lost an element of fun. I'm a big believer in letting a story mature. If it's treated with patience, it finds its own ideal form.

The second revision takes a month or so to complete. I try to savor it and not to hurry it along. Then, as before, I print the whole thing out and spend a day reading it aloud. By now, I should love every word.

At some point during the process of revision, I will have received and signed copies of the book contract. This is something else that can't be hurried. Even though the deal has been in place for months, it still has to wait its turn with the contract people, and then it may have to go back and forth between the publishing house and my agent a few times. Shortly after the signed contracts return, my signing money arrives. Advances are generally paid out in two or three shares, and this is the first of those lumps of money to come wandering home.


We've finished the plot and storytelling work. Now it's time to play with the words. The FedEx courier brings to my door a paper copy of the manuscript with lots of marks and scribbles all over it in red or violet or plain old gray pencil, depending on which color my editor happens to prefer.

It's typical to whine about line edits, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of them. At no other time will I get word-by-word feedback on this story. And if lots of sentences are marked, many more of them aren't. That means they're what my editor thinks they should be, and from a perfectionist like her, that's quite a compliment.

I keep a document called Line Edit Notes open as I'm working and add to it as I go along. In particular, I try to explain my thinking whenever I reject one of my editor's changes. This keeps me from rejecting something without thinking it through. It puts the burden on me to justify my decision. Sometimes, to be honest, my explanation sounds pretty weak, and I've thought better of it and made the change.

Because I put so many comments in my notes file, I feel that the line edit is a two-way conversation, and maybe that's one reason why I enjoy it so much. No one likes to feel that the talk all flows one way: my editor writes justifications for her changes, so why shouldn't I do the same? I also include jokes, puns, and background information to the story. Once I included most of the verses of Thomas Hood's "Faithless Nelly Gray" (but only because I had a good reason—or at least a good excuse).

Here are a couple of comments taken at random out of the By These Ten Bones notes file:

"p. 110. ...his arms clasped tightly around himself. This is the change you propose—from him—but I was always taught that the use of the reflexive himself was limited to cases where he is the subject of the sentence or clause: He clasped his arms tightly around himself, but his arms were clasped tightly around him. This would be a similar construction to something like "His looks betrayed him." Which one of us is right? My grammar books are too simplistic to guide me, although they do stress that reflexives should be used only where they are absolutely necessary."

"p. 113. "I'll come back to you." You suggest that Paul say more, but this is more than he already wants to say. Maddie has suggested a course of action: that Paul go get his knives and come back when he has them. When Paul rejects this, she throws in his face all the evils she has done to save him. This makes him realize two things: first, that he has wanted to go away and not come back so that she will have a happy, normal life, but her life has already changed beyond that possibility; and second, that he owes her something, and she has the right to demand something in return. In saying he'll come back, he means he'll do what she suggested in the first place. It's sheer agreement, probably for agreement's sake, and not a plan he's really set on himself.

"Is Paul likely to be more voluble at this point? Probably not—he's not known for his volubility. Maddie understands his reluctance to return and doesn't even believe him when he speaks. If he speaks further ("I'll come back in a week") she doesn't have such a strong reason to disbelieve him and demand a vow out of him. And then we have to retitle the book!"

Of course, as I'm writing these notes, I'm also making the corrections to the manuscript. I usually have the chance to make my changes to the Word document rather than to the paper. Then, when the Word document goes back to my editor, it gets printed out and becomes the master document used for all further changes.

One time I made the fatal mistake of letting my editor put the document through the first round of copyediting before sending it to me for the line edit. This meant I had to make all my changes in pencil to the document itself, which already had three colors of pencil on it before it came to me (my editor, the copyeditor, and my editor's replies to the copyeditor). That was a horrible experience! I'm left-handed, and my writing is not for the faint of heart. Laboriously printing out all my changes on the paper took me three times longer than normal. It's the only time I went past the deadline on a line edit.

Again, before I send back my corrected file and the notes file, I print out the manuscript and read it aloud. I make the final changes that I've caught in this read-through. Then—because this is the LAST TIME I'll have complete control over the manuscript and can correct it at will—I print it out and read it aloud ONE MORE TIME. At this point, on this very last read-through, the whole document should sound like music.

People ask me how it feels to be published and how it feels to hold my book in my hand. It's always fun to take a look at the book when it arrives, but this final read-through is my real moment of triumph. I will never again feel as proud and happy about this story as I do right now, listening to these characters talk to one another, crying over their sorrows with them, and laughing at my own silly jokes. I don't care how good things are for the book after it's published, there's not another day that can compare with this one.

(Addendum: my Simon & Schuster editor and I did our last line edit electronically, using Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature. It may sound crazy to track changes in a book-length manuscript, but I liked the process for several reasons. First, I could imbed my comments rather than typing them in a separate file. I like to comment! And so does my editor. We commented at great length because we had the freedom to do so, but this can be good or bad; reading through all the comments added a day or two to the line edit process. Second, in some cases, I was able to put photos into my comments to clarify elements of description with which my editor wasn't familiar. Third, I didn't have to worry about editorial marks. The only problem I had was hitting Word's upper limit for changes that it could track. We wound up having to split the manuscript into two files.)


As a general rule, we try to have our editorial work finished at least a year before the book's scheduled release. That gives the art department and book designers time to do their thing, as well as giving sales and marketing a chance to drum up support for the book before it hits the shelves. At some point around this time, my editor may mention the look they're thinking of for the book and send me to some websites to see work by the artists they're considering. I'm pleased to be asked what I think, but I know my limitations here. I'm definitely not an artist. A few weeks after my editor accepts the line edit, the second share of money for this book shows up—and very glad I am to see it.

By now, of course, we know when the book will be coming out. Its calendar slot has a certain amount to do with the editing/printing process and even more to do with marketing. A fair amount of strategy goes into picking the right release time because books can get upstaged or ignored if they come out at the wrong time of year. One of my editor's authors had the misfortune to see his first book come out right when September 11 occurred. This was a ghastly, life-changing time for those who were directly affected, of course. It was a disaster for this poor author's book as well: in all the excitement, no one gave it a second glance.


At Holt, my manuscripts went through three copyedits each, I think: one before page proofs and two afterwards. It's hard to remember exactly because the copyedit questions always interrupted other manuscripts in progress, appearing on my radar for a couple of days and then disappearing again. With my first manuscript, I allowed the copyeditor to make changes, knowing that I would see those changes on the page proofs and could approve or disapprove them there. Being a typical egotistical author, I wound up rooting out almost all of them, and I disallowed copyedit changes to the wording after that.

The next time around, I allowed the copyeditor to change punctuation without my approval, only to be appalled at the page proofs stage to discover that she had put commas in front of all my dependent clauses. I called this the Attack of the ,Because Beast and spent the duration of the page proofs review finding and evicting them. After that, I asked that all copyeditor suggestions come to me for approval before they went into the manuscript. Copyeditor suggestions usually came to me via an email from my editor. Once again, I tried to explain my thinking if I rejected them.

At Simon & Schuster, the first copyedit got mailed out to me like a line edit. The manuscript arrived decorated with little yellow sticky notes. I loved Simon & Schuster's copyeditor. She was unbelievably thorough and precise. I went through the pages and checked her work, and I answered the questions on the flags either by altering the text or by commenting on a sticky note of my own. The process usually took about a week.

Now that I'm back at Holt, I'll be interested to see how we handle the copyedit of my next book. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.


Eight months or so before the release of the book, the FedEx courier rings my doorbell again with a copy of the page proofs. The page proofs allow us to see exactly how the words will fall on the page: in the middle of each standard-sized sheet of paper is an exact full-size mockup of a book page, with line numbers running down the side. My editor and I drop everything we're doing to study the page proofs. This is our last chance to fix typos (some of which have been introduced during the process of composition) and other minor errors. It will come as no surprise by now that I do my page proof work out loud. This helps me slow down enough to find typos.

I have been horrified by some of the things that have almost slipped by us in the page proofs. For instance, in By These Ten Bones, for some bizarre reason, I had used "doorsill" for "lintel" several times in the text and didn't notice till this stage. The image of Maddie ducking under the doorsill would have been remarkable indeed. And the old curmudgeon Ruby showed up in In the Coils of the Snake as "Love-master Ruby" instead of "Lore-master Ruby." I swear that one wasn't my fault!

While I'm looking for typos, my editor is looking for stacks. A stack is a series of three or more lines that end in punctuation. If possible, we play with the wording to break these up so they'll look better on the page.

Normally, advance release copies (ARC's) or giveaway galleys are created from the page proofs. This can occasionally have unfortunate consequences. For instance, I revised By These Ten Bones and Close Kin under the same contract: By These Ten Bones was due first, with the second book due six months later. But about thirteen months out from release, the publisher decided to run Close Kin first. This meant I no longer had seven months to finish it—I had one!

I love that book, but the scars of its traumatic birthing can still be seen in the text. Among other things, we still hadn't resolved the ending during the line edit. Shortly after page proofs, I talked to my editor about the last chapter and how much I didn't like it. She agreed, and I wrote a new one that became the ending to the book. The galleys contain the old ending, and every now and then, I get questions about it.


The editorial process is almost over. I still get some copyediting questions, but changes are minimal. We're sliding into the last half-year before the book comes out. Lots of things are happening at the publishing house, but I've moved on to new projects.

A month or so before the book ships, my editor sends me a few advance copies. And, strangely enough, right about now is when I start to lose interest in the book. As excited as I've been for readers to get a chance to see it, I can feel my enthusiasm for it dropping by the day. I'll always love it, of course, just as I love them all, but it doesn't need me anymore. I'm sure this is a defense mechanism to protect me from the upcoming review cycle and all the attention that will pour into what has up to now been part of my private life.

So, for those of you who wonder how it feels to hold your book in your hands for the first time, this is what goes through my mind: It's nice, but it feels as if my words don't belong to me anymore. I don't mind, though. I've had them all to myself for a good long time. Now it's someone else's turn to enjoy them.

"Guide to the Editorial Process" copyright 2006 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.

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