Let It Stand: Editing a Novel

Writers differ on what they like least about the process of turning an idea into a novel on bookstore shelves.

Editing a novelA fair number of my colleagues hate writing a synopsis because they don’t know ahead of time what’s going to happen. They want to be surprised and they don’t want to do the plotting up front.

In case you don’t know? A synopsis is the bare bones of the story, as if I were telling it to you over coffee. “So-and-So is a girl in her teens who discovers that she has the power to see into the future. She tells her mother, who insists she not tell anyone else because they will think she is crazy. So-and-So tries to obey, but at the grocery store she realizes that a man who has come into the store is actually. . .”

You get it, right? Just a straight-forward condensation of the story, with occasional paragraphs that move the action forward without explaining every detail. “And after she tries to find a way to tell the police about this crime and three others without success. . .”

I am not one of these writers. I love to write a synopsis. In fact I have just finished not one but three for my next book. A mini-synopsis, a short synopsis, and a convoluted one. The first is for my publisher, who wants only the bare bones. The second is for my editor, who will want to know more details about how I’ll handle the hard parts.  The last is for me with details and character sketches I’ll need when I start to write the novel. Three synopses is a definition of insanity, but hey, we are who we are.

The synopsis is often a novel’s starting point, but it’s the ending point I most dislike. This past weekend I labored over my personal ending point for long hours. That ending point is editing.

Editing a novel happens in several stages. I’m a compulsive editor along with a compulsive penner of synopses. I edit every sentence, graduate to paragraphs and chapters as I go, and then sections. Finally I do two separate edits of the entire manuscript before the line editor at my publisher sees the first word. I read the entire novel silently, only stopping long enough to jot a few notes about pacing or inconsistencies. After I’ve finished and made those changes, I read the whole book out loud and make a bunch more.

It’s fair to say that by the time I’m done, the book is pretty clean. Every editor I’ve ever worked with–and I’m counting eight, not including the ones who just filled in on a book here or there–says I’m a delight because they have to make so few changes.

Of course after saying this, they make a lot of changes anyway.

Not everyone is as picky as I am or cares whether their words go to print exactly as written. I know writers who send their first draft off without worrying that what they get back will be heavily revised. One told me “that’s what they pay her for, right?” In no way am I criticizing what works for them. They are primarily storytellers and as long as the story is well told, they’re happy.

Not me, unfortunately. This weekend I labored over every little editing change for When We Were Sisters. Luckily I can usually spot the changes that really needed to be made. What’s clear to me might not be clear to my reader. So I need to have that pointed out. Sometimes my editor’s word choice might trump mine. Or she might question a bit of research I did to be sure it’s accurate.

And sometimes, of course, my way is better. And that’s where STET comes in handy. Wikipedia tells me that Stet is a form of the verb sto, stare, steti, statum originally used by editors to instruct the typesetter or writer to disregard a change the editor or proofreader had previously marked. Basically it means “let it stand.”

I’m grateful to my editor, whose keen eye, wit and intelligence make my books so much better. But I’m also grateful to whoever came up STET as a way to make it clear that sometimes the author is right and nothing more needs to be said.

Beyond all that? Here’s the good news. Up close and personal with When We Were Sisters again, I feel pretty sure, positive, hopeful confident that you’ll be glad you read it, too.




  1. April on January 13, 2016 at 11:47 pm

    I have lived your books especially the shennendoha series. I am so looking forward to this book!

  2. Terry Guerra on January 17, 2016 at 5:59 am

    Hi Emilie,

    I enjoy learning about your writing process so much – has it just evolved over the years? Or have you done it this way from day one?

    Can’t wait to read it!

    • Emilie Richards on January 17, 2016 at 12:00 pm

      I’ll have to give that some thought, Terri. I think that might be a good idea for a blog. Thanks for asking.

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