Tuesday 11 December 2018

The nitty-gritty in turning a manuscript into a book by Eldes Tran

Eldes Tran is an associate editor at Epigram, an independent publisher in Singapore. She has worked with non-fiction and literary fiction authors, and has helped developed children’s books, from picture books to middle grade. She here explains how a manuscript becomes a book.

I often get asked what happens to a manuscript once a publisher accepts it. Is it run through a spell check, then typeset and sent to the printers? Not so easy!

For writers unfamiliar with the book trade, I’ll go through the stages of editing fiction and what you can expect from your editor, as well as what your editor expects from you. The editing process is where the author-editor relationship is truly tested. It’s where the author can see the finish line, and the editor can help him or her cross it. It’s a long road, but one filled with robust discussions and lovely discoveries on both sides. When done right, the journey is fulfilling for both and the book is pushed to be the best it can be.

First, let’s clear something up. As an author, if your manuscript is accepted by a publisher, you do not have to pay for editing. There are cases, however, in which an author opts to pay for editing: say, if no publishers have picked up their manuscript or if they have chosen the contract/vanity publishing route. So, authors, take advantage of the fact that you have this person solely dedicated to making your work better! Ask them anything! I’ve found that working on an author’s manuscript sometimes also means helping them with their confidence when it comes to writing, whether it’s giving it a boost when it’s low, or letting the air out when it’s stratospherically high. Editors: keeping it real since the beginning of time.

The first thing an editor will do with your manuscript (a.k.a. your baby) is read it multiple times: the first time was to evaluate it, the second to note the emotional resonance and what works for the reader. On the third reading, an editor will be deconstructing your work to figure out what can be improved. Special attention might be paid to structure, characters, plot, pacing, point of view, clarity, themes.

At this stage, called structural or developmental editing, the editor will write an editorial letter detailing those big-picture issues; these are only suggestions and authors have the final say on the manuscript. This can include chapter-by-chapter notes and questions to help authors think about their stories and characters differently (note that some questions may be rhetorical). It can be helpful for the author and editor to meet in person so both parties are on the same page when it comes to intention and vision. For authors, it’s good to be open to suggestions and to ask questions if the reasoning for a change is not clear. And an editor should justify why they think something does or doesn’t work. This is usually the first step of an ongoing conversation in which the author should feel confident, capable and up for the challenge of making their novel better.

After the editor and author are happy with the structural edits (which can pass back and forth a few times), the manuscript moves on to line editing. This is where paragraphs and sentences and consistency are given scrutiny. The editor may look at the flow and question word choices, or pay attention to whether the protagonist was using chopsticks, or was it a fork? This is usually the last chance an author has to make any major changes to the manuscript; once the process moves to copy editing, any substantial changes will cause a disruption.

In some publishing houses, copy editing is done by a different editor. This is where a work is edited for style, grammar and syntax: the smaller but still important fixes. Be aware that publishers usually have their own house styles that can override an author’s preference (but not always). The goal is to maintain consistency for ease of reading.

After the copy editing stage, the manuscript is typeset, or layed out into book form. The editor and designer will work out any design elements and the author receives the typeset copy for proofreading. The editor will also arrange for yet another set of eyes to proofread the layed-out draft. Once all the fixes are inputted, the work is all ready to send to the printer.

That was a very linear trajectory, and at times, there can be a lot more back and forth if, say, illustrations or photos are involved. The whole process can take as long as a year or more. Amid all that, a cover will be designed for your book and a marketing/publicity plan will be prepared. The editor will have also consulted the production manager, marketing and sales to decide on the format, print run, size, paper and other physical details of the book. The cover and title are marketing tools, so for authors with very clear ideas of what those should be, be ready to be challenged if the publisher has a different opinion.

Sure, there will be disagreements; they are unavoidable in an industry that survives on passion, but the author and editor can be honest in their communications and realistic in their expectations. While it’s true that an editor is in service to the author (as well as the reader), there is no place for egos in this line of work. We all want the book to succeed.

Postscript: The editing process is only one small part that can determine a book’s success, because it’s all about...the marketing! The more an author helps promote a book, the more likely it will do well. But that’s for another post..