My First Novel: If at First You Do Succeed, Revise, Revise Again

Most freshly-sold first novels, as I understand it, don’t need a lot of revision. If they did need serious fixing, their editors wouldn’t have bought them. This doesn’t mean no revision happens, though, especially in cases like mine, when there’s going to be a sequel and you’re tweaking things to set that up.

Doppelganger went through approximately three rounds of revision (why I say “approximate” will become clear later). I was working on Warrior and Witch during much of that time, which was nice; if it served my purposes in the sequel to change some detail of the first novel, I could. In fact, I may at some point write another set of essays, this time on My Second Novel, which is something of a different beast. But that’s neither here nor there.

The first round of revision was kind of informal. After the decision to buy Doppelganger had been made, but before the actual contracts had reached me (so, in early December), my editor asked me to make two structural changes to the novel. This gave me my first taste of an author’s knee-jerk desire to protect her darlings from outside meddling. Frankly, I didn’t want to make either change. But I had the good sense, fortunately, to make agreeable noises and go away to think about it, and after I’d sat on it for a bit, I had a much better perspective on both issues.

The first of the suggested changes was to rearrange the initial twelve chapters, which alternated in a particular pattern between two different points of view. Although I was very deeply accustomed to the arrangement I had, I saw some merit in changing that pattern, and in fact when I did so, I found that the timeline of the novel (in terms of how well the two separate pov strands matched up) actually flowed more smoothly now. So that worked well. Yay!

The second of the suggested changes, though, went the other way. After several days of serious consideration, I was all the more sure that I did not want to do it. (I can’t really describe it without giving spoilers, but it had to do with the way the novel ended, with relevance for what was going to happen in the sequel.) Now, I was deeply leery of beginning my career as a professional novelist by disagreeing with my editor, but here’s what my days of consideration had given me: reasons. It wasn’t just me being an authorial prima donna; it wasn’t just that I was so used to the novel in its current form that I couldn’t conceive of changing it; I had clear structural and thematic reasons for wanting to have it as written, and those reasons applied both to Doppelganger and to what I had in mind for Warrior and Witch. So, armed with these reasons, I screwed up my courage and sent a carefully-worded e-mail explaining my logic to my editor.

Who, after all my trepidation and worry, cheerfully agreed that I should leave it unchanged.

Moral of the story: your editor isn’t an ogre, and this is a cooperative process.

Deflated of my fears, I did make one other change at that point (one major change; I made any number of minor ones, including replacing names and rewriting scenes that just weren’t packing enough punch for my taste). That change was to alter how a particular character exited the narrative. I had written Doppelganger as a stand-alone novel; now, with a sequel in the wings, I thought it best to use that moment to create trouble later on. That one was my idea entirely, but my editor thought it made sense.

All of that, thought, was just her off-the-cuff editorial suggestions, not the full-blown “revision” stage of the process. That came in May. I’d turned in the new draft of Doppelganger electronically at the beginning of February; now I got a printout returned to me, with comments scribbled in the margins and an accompanying “editorial letter,” pointing out various awkwardnesses, inconsistencies, and bits where I was being unclear. Six pages of editorial letter, in fact, which was rather discouraging. As of writing this essay, I’m still inexperienced enough that I have to take my editor’s word for it when she tells me that six pages is very short and Doppelganger was a beautifully clean manuscript needing hardly any changes at all. Perspective, I’m afraid, will have to come with time.

By this point, I should note, I was getting rather sick of working on the novel. I’d written it nearly five years before, then revised it, then started submitting it, then rewrote the beginning, then submitted it some more — polishing at various points along the way, mind you — then given it a good hard scrub, then sent it to Warner, and now here I was in Revision Round Two Or Maybe One Point Five. Combine that with a return of writerly bullheadedness — with the best of intentions, I’m afraid that I still had to fight the unwillingness to take suggestions — and it took me longer to get through this stage than I wanted to. (First time and all; I was trying to be as punctual as humanly possible.) But by this point, I was also at work on Warrior and Witch, so I arranged with my editor that I should turn Doppelganger in during early-to-mid July, thus allowing the maximum time possible for making any sequel-related changes.

Once again I e-mailed in a file. The next I saw of my novel was a month later, in mid-August, when we entered a stage that I should maybe count as part of production rather than revision, but I’ll go ahead and include it here. On August 16th, my copy-edits arrived.

“Rather sick” at this point became “heartily sick.” Here I was, going over the same bloody novel yet AGAIN, and I couldn’t even comfort myself that this would be the last time; the pages had yet to be typeset and proofed. And though I happily re-read novels that I like, and I do in fact like my own novel, this kind of work isn’t re-reading. It requires work that gets very, very tiresome, especially when you’re operating on the fine-grained scale of copy-editing and proofing. But, prodding myself with frequent reminders that this book was going to be on the shelf with my name on the cover, I made myself buckle down to it.

Had I been more organized — which is to say, had I been going to fewer weddings and other events at the same time, or had I been more disciplined despite those events — I would have gotten it done faster. As it was, I used the entirety of the two weeks allotted to me, and had to overnight the manuscript back — no e-mailing this time, and I took to heart the exhortation, in my little pamphlet from Warner, that being late at this stage can really screw up the rest of the publication machinery that’s operating out of my sight. Green pencil in hand (as the copy-editor had already used red), I set out to discover that I really don’t know when to use “that” or “which” and that, while it’s true I overuse semi-colons, my copy-editor and I disagree on when and how to get rid of them.

(On the other hand, to be fair, said copy-editor also caught a number of mistakes and made some very good suggestions.)

Copy-editing was basically my last chance to fix stuff. After that, the manuscript went off to be typeset, and once that’s happened, changes should be kept to a minimum. (Re-setting a page costs money, and if you do it too much, they make you pay for part of it.) Copy-edits aren’t the stage to be making serious changes if you can avoid it, either, but I did catch a few final tweaks, rephrase some awkward sentences, and (the biggest one) rewrite part of a scene to have it take a different and hopefully more effective tack.

No doubt, when the novel hits shelves, there will be things I’ll see and wonder despairingly why I didn’t fix them when I had the chance. But that’s life in this business, and I’m going to have to live with it.


Next: The Production Process